U-M Zell visiting prof Sumita Chakraborty’s "Arrow" displays the poet's exploration of words' contradictory meanings

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Sumita Chakraborty and her book Arrow

Going into reading Sumita Chakraborty’s debut poetry collection, Arrow, it’s not a secret that the book follows traumatic experiences. As she describes in “Sumita Chakraborty on writing Arrow,” which was shared with me by the publisher, Alice James Books:

Much of this book resides in a range of aftermaths: in the aftermath of the severe and prolonged domestic violence I experienced as a child and adolescent; in the aftermath of sexual violence; in the aftermath of my sister’s death; in the aftermath of breakups; in the griefs and anxieties that follow in the aftermaths of unending sociopolitical events; in the aftermath of unending ecological devastations.

Knowing this informs but does not explain the poems in Arrow, but it sets the stage for the intense emotions and scenes depicted in them. 

Taking the Hit: Ann Arbor singer-songwriter Lily Talmers explores big questions through small details on her excellent album debut

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Lily Talmers

Lily Talmers photo by Alex Gallitano.

When Lily Talmers sings "Is there anybody listening to me? / From the middle of America you scream out to the ocean, it gets lost" it's not just a plea by a 23-year-old Ann Arbor singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist who wants to be heard.

"Middle of America" also addresses a potential lie to "people at the border," a father's decimated pension fund, and a lost Lady Liberty.

The song is neither didactic nor overly sentimental, though it is pointed and nostalgic. It's both specific in its details and nebulous in its meaning, a feeling that runs throughout Talmers' debut album, Remember Me as Holy, one of the finest debut singer-songwriter albums I've heard since Phoebe Bridgers' Stranger in the Alps.

EMU professor Christine Hume's "Saturation Project" offers a lyric memoir composed of three essays

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Christine Hume and her book Saturation Project

Three essays fill Saturation Project, a new book by Christine Hume, a professor at Eastern Michigan University. Described as a lyric memoir, the text obliquely depicts various moments, ranging from Hume’s childhood to interactions with her daughter.  

In the first essay, “Atalanta,” first-person accounts about personal thoughts, family, and a daughter intermingle with Greek mythology and examinations of feral kids raised by bears. Wanderings in the woods and through memories merge with ancient stories and animals in such a way that the distinctions between them blur, as Hume elaborates: 

I read the story of Atalanta as if I were swallowing it, but it swallows me. Then I tell it to my daughter because I don’t have a childhood I can tell her about yet. I steal Atalanta’s, which is like mine in that the most longed for moments are inaudible.

It’s as if the essays are a way of remembering, but recollections are transposed, taking inspiration from other places. 

Afa S. Dworkin on the Sphinx Virtuosi and their UMS concert "This Is America"

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Afa Dworkin and Sphinx Virtuosi

Afa S. Dworkin photo by Kevin Kennedy. Sphinx Virtuosi photo by Brian Hatton.

Classical music has had a long history of lacking diversity, which is why Aaron P. Dworkin founded the Sphinx Organization in 1997 to encourage and support minorities in this art form. The name was inspired by the iconic Great Sphinx of Giza statue in Egypt, which “reflects the power, wisdom and persistence that characterize Sphinx’s participants," according to the Detroit-based organization's website.

Today, the Sphinx Organization’s programs reach more than 100,000 artists and students, while performances by the orchestras and ensembles are viewed and attended by more than two million people each year.

UMS recorded a special performance by the Sphinx Virtuosi, an orchestra of the Sphinx Organization, for its 2021 season of virtual programming, and the concert is streaming for free on ums.org through February 8. The program is titled This Is America and includes works by Michael Abels, Jessie Montgomery, and Xavier Foley. On the final day of the stream, there will also be a special conversation with three Sphinx artists: Gabriel Cabezas, Bill Neri, and Melissa White. Each musician will discuss the performance as well as talk about their musical careers. You can download a PDF for the This Is America concert notes here.

A 2005 MacArthur Fellow, Aaron P. Dworkin was dean of the University of Michigan’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance and is now a tenured professor of arts leadership and entrepreneurship at SMTD who also hosts the weekly videocast Arts Engines; he currently serves as a strategic advisor for Sphinx. Afa S. Dworkin, his wife, is a celebrated violinist and educator who now leads the Sphinx Organization.

Afa S. Dworkin, who has been honored with the Kennedy Center’s Human Spirit Award and was named one of Detroit Crain’s 40 Under 40, has expanded Sphinx's outreach and range enormously during her tenure as president and artistic director.

I spoke to the Ann Arbor-based Afa S. Dworkin about the Sphinx Organization and the Virtuosi concert recorded for UMS.

The Ark's Ann Arbor Folk Festival goes virtual for its 44th edition

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

The Ark by Dwight Burdette, Creative Commons

Photo by Dwight Burdette.

Like any town, Ann Arbor has annual events that help define the place: Art Fair, University of Michigan's first home football game, the summer closings of nearly every road in downtown due to construction.

The Ark's annual Folk Festival is an important part of that list, too, but with the Covid-19 pandemic wreaking havoc on traditions big and small, the venue was forced to take the fest virtual for the 44th edition. This year's Folk Festival happens on January 29 and 30, along with a bonus show on the 31st featuring several of the previous days' performers to celebrate the life and music of the late John Prine, an Ark regular.

Friday's lineup includes Raul Malo, Colin Hay (Men at Work), Alan Doyle, The War and Treaty, Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him), Joe Pug, Glen Phillps, Amythyst Kiah, Gina Chavez, Willie Watson, Ron Pope. All these acts' performances will be remote other than Michigan's The Accidentals with special guest Kim Richey who will play The Ark's stage.

Saturday's concert offers Bruce Cockburn, Dar Williams, David Bromberg, Todd Snider, George Winston, Vance Gilbert. Dom Flemons, Matt Andersen, Crys Matthews. Sierra Ferrell. and Andrea von Kampen performing remotely, with Ann Arbor's The RFD Boys playing at The Ark.

Jeff Daniels will be the MC both nights.

Sunday's Prine tribute will feature The Accidentals, Al Bettis, Annie and Rod Capps, Chris Buhalis, Dave Boutette and Kristi Lynn Davis, Dick Siegel, Erin Zindle, Jill Jack, Joshua Davis, Matt Watroba and Robert Jones, May Erlewine, Michigan Rattlers, The RFD Boys, Seth Bernard, and The War & Treaty.

"Remote performances have all been prerecorded by the artists," says The Ark's marketing director, Barb Chaffer Authier, "but specifically for the festival—no 'recycled' material—so only the opening set each night will be live in real time."

All performances will be viewable through February 7.

We talked with Authier about what it's been like for this historic music operation since the pandemic started and what it was like to book a virtual Folk Festival, the nonprofit's most important concert event every year.

Aw, Yeah: Ypsi-filmed YouTube show "Renting and Raving" offers silly humor and strong characters

FILM & VIDEO INTERVIEW

Renting and Raving

Bret (Eric Pullins), Basement Guy (Cameron Greig), and Evan (Evan Grieg) are the core characters of the Ypsi-filmed comedy series Renting and Raving.

The first time Basement Guy ate real cat food was the last time.

"Next few instances he was eating chili in a cat-food can," says Evan Greig, the director, co-writer, and co-star of Renting and Raving, a YouTube comedy show shot in Ypsilanti. "The fact that a lot of people find the cat-food scene to be gross is great. To me, it means we made it feel real—because it was."

"I remember we were shooting that night and the plan was to empty the can out and fill it with tuna," says Eric Pullins who co-stars as Bret and is a co-writer, prop master, and production designer for the show. "[B]efore we could do that Cameron just dove right in. Cameron is our star and he really commits. I would not have committed that hard."

The committable Basement Guy is played by the committed Cameron Greig, who is also a co-writer and key grip on the show.

This trio of characters comprises the core of Renting and Raving, which makes up with oodles of charm and smart-to-low-brow humor what it's missing in a budget and the occasional incongruity.

All 10 episodes of the first season, filmed before the pandemic, are now available on YouTube, and it's a labor of love for Greig, Pullins, and Greig, along with cinematographer Johannes Pardi, production manager Emily Weir, script supervisor Brent Bergeron, who also plays Evan's shady pal Tito on the show. Also, the brief but ear-worm-worthy theme song by Jeremiah Heiss will get stuck in your head and have you mumbling "Aw, yeah!" to no one in particular.

Together in Electric Dreams: Same Eyes keep feeling fascination with '80s synth-pop on their debut album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Same Eyes duo, Chad Pratt and Alex Hughes

There is a well-documented history of painters making music, from Miles Davis and Jean-Michel Basquiat (Gray) to Patti Smith and John Lurie (Lounge Lizards).

Less well-known is the history of house painters who make music, but Same Eyes is ready to join the story.

"Chad was painting my parent’s house right when I was graduating high school," says Alex Hughes of Chad Pratt, his partner in the Ann Arbor synth-pop duo. "He hired me and I have worked for him painting in the summers and on breaks since."

They started making music together as Same Eyes in summer 2019, with both members playing synths, Hughes on vocals and guitar, and Pratt programming the drums. The first fruits of the duo's efforts was the two-song single featuring "Cry for Us" and "Hawk," which came out March 20, 2020, a week after the world shut down for the pandemic. Those two songs plus six more are on Same Eyes' debut album, Parties to End

Phil Christman traverses time, politics, and culture in his nonfiction essay collection "Midwest Futures"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Phil Christman, Midwest Futures

This story was originally published on February 6, 2020.

What words come to mind when you think of the Midwest?

You may think about its geography, the middleness, or its position and moniker as the heartland with farming and small towns.

You might look at a map to see the 12 Midwestern states (from east to west): Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, Missouri, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

Perhaps you reflect on its seeming representativeness of American life. Or you study its history containing the displacement of indigenous peoples, manufacturing, and struggling economies.

Myriad ways, even contradictory ones, coincide to describe and understand the Midwest. Writer Phil Christman navigates them in his new book, Midwest Futures, a wide-ranging set of 36 brief essays organized in six sections. Part criticism and part descriptive essay, this nonfiction collection likewise exists as many things at once and navigates assorted perceptions, politics, history, literature, cultures, and pop culture of the Midwest.

Molly Spencer covers chronic illness, domestic life, and nature in her second poetry book, "Hinge"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Molly Spencer and her book Hinge

Hinge by Molly Spencer shows a world in which the poet seeks to find footing in a constantly shifting landscape and body. Views, possessions, relationships, and physical capacity change and merge and vanish at various points. The multipart poem “Objects of Faith” reveals these different angles by looking at things like a window or a berry and distilling them to what they do: “To hold in place / once piece of the world” or “To be that ache / in someone’s mouth,” respectively. This instability and the feeling of being on the cusp of something appears through the changing seasons, motherhood, and domestic life. 

This collection of poetry particularly examines chronic illness, its progression, and its effects. At times, the poet’s observations are stark: 

In this family 
of illness,
the doctor says, 
the body
attacks itself.

The poet seems to consequently no longer trust the world to stay how it’s meant or desired to be. It’s as if everything has become more fragile and uncertain—the poem “Patient Years” tells us “safe is the shell of an egg.” The poet also asks the question “if the one you love / most will follow you down.” 

Despite dark winter days, even darker dreams, and physical limitations in these poems, persistence is visible. The poem “Vernal” suggests hopefully that: 

Food, immigration, and female experience intertwine in poet Jihyun Yun's book "Some Are Always Hungry"

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun

Some Are Always Hungry by Jihyun Yun concentrates not only on cuisine but also on the ways the world views, consumes, and treats womanhood—how women are made to push through and past very physical, personal challenges, and to try again. The attention to these topics is inseparable from history, trauma, and family, whether it’s on memories of immigration, the shame carried in female bodies, or the comfort of a meal made from bodies of animals. 

These poems tie together generational and physical pain, recipes, and urges—the urges to survive, to procreate, to eat, to seek fullness. They read in the way that you may listen to someone talking with the leaps between thoughts that are colored in by context and word choice. One poem looks back on a moment: