"Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire" chronicles 826's mission to empower school-age writers

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book, Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd., McSweeny's and 826's Amanda Uhle and Kitania Folk

Top: Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire book and Ann Arbor's Robot Supply Company on Liberty Rd. Bottom: McSweeney's and 826's Kitania Folk and Amanda Uhle.

A time travel mart. An apothecary for the magical. An alien supermarket. A mid-continent oceanographic institute. A secret agent supply. A place for pirates.

These places are just a few of the many storefronts -- complete with their own imaginative products -- that serve as portals to literary writing spaces for youth around the world.

The one in Ann Arbor is known as the Liberty Street Robot Supply & Repair, and the one in Detroit is called the Detroit Robot Factory.

The inspiration for these quirky businesses and equally creative writing centers comes from the brainchild of Dave Eggers and Nínive Clements Calegari, who together started the first 826 Valencia location -- the pirate supply shop -- in San Francisco, though not with that intent at the beginning. When renting a building in 2002, they’d planned for offices for the nonprofit publishing company, McSweeney’s, along with an area for tutoring local youth.

But the building’s zoning was for retail, and consequently, the pirate supply shop was born to fulfill the criteria.

This requirement turned out to be fortuitous for engaging youth, as these writing centers create space for young people to exercise their imagination and writing. Now there are not only two more locations in San Francisco but also many more around the globe that have been motivated by this distinctive arrangement, including nine that are part of 826 National, which was later founded in 2008. One of the chapters is 826michigan with its two locations in Ann Arbor and Detroit, both of which rely on volunteers.

These 826 chapters and other like-minded writing centers are featured in a new book, Unnecessarily Beautiful Spaces for Young Minds on Fire: How 826 Valencia, and Dozens of Centers Like It, Got Built -- and Why, edited by the International Alliance of Youth Writing Centers. This extensive volume showcases these individual centers through myriad photographs -- including many full-page spreads -- and Q&A-style descriptions of the themes and designs of the individual centers, including who designed them, what the spaces and stores are like, and what one-of-a-kind themed products they sell. Not all of the centers are affiliated with 826 National – some are simply inspired by 826, and they are located around the United States and world, including in the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, England, and Canada.

High on Books: Shelly Smith's "Reads & Weeds" podcast cultivates the best sentences and strains

WRITTEN WORD INTERVIEW

Shelly Smith

Photo by Moni Jones/Her & HIm Studio.

A love of the written word, cultivated cannabis, and the buzziest broadcast medium inspired Ypsilanti-based comedian Shelly Smith to start the podcast Reads & Weeds.

Smith had appeared on other comedians’ podcasts as a guest but, she says, “I wanted to do more than sit around and talk -- I wanted to do something more intentional. Some friends talked about doing a book club and it dawned on me that a podcast, revolving around cannabis and books, was the perfect cross-section of my interests.”

The upbeat, irreverent Reads & Weeds is a delightful listen. There is fun banter about topics ranging from Ryan Seacrest to self-publishing books to women in prison to back tattoos. The show features a variety of co-hosts plus fellow readers who stop by, which makes for a riotous atmosphere. Smith’s childhood friend, Kris Walton, handles the technical aspect of the show in addition to occasionally co-hosting. Walton joined Smith on an October episode discussing Rebecca Solnit's Hope in the Dark, which joined an impressive list of eclectic books that have been discussed on the podcast. 

“One of the books we read, Smoke Signals, is all about the socio-political history of cannabis,” Smith says. But all the reads aren't about weed. Other books include My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante, I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi, and The Illusion of Money by Kyle Cease.

Ann Arbor author Harry Dolan leads readers on a high-speed chase across the United States in his new thriller, "The Good Killer" 

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Harry Dolan, The Good Killer

Author Harry Dolan’s latest novel is different from his earlier novels. 

The Good Killer is more of a thriller than a traditional murder mystery.

And that’s not a bad thing. 

According to the 53-year-old Ann Arbor author, it was the best thing about writing this book. 

“The central character is not a detective who’s trying to get at the truth,” explained Dolan. “There are crimes that take place, and there are secrets that are revealed at different points in the book, but it’s not structured as a mystery. It was interesting to see if I could write a different kind of story. I hope that the novel works as pure entertainment. But if you dig a little deeper, it’s a book about love and loyalty. It’s about characters searching for redemption.”

In The Good Killer, published by Mysterious Press, former soldier Sean Tennant and his significant other Molly Winter are a couple living under the radar in Texas. One day while Molly is at a yoga retreat in Montana that allows no communication with the outside world (cell phones are confiscated), Sean is a shopping mall when Henry Alan Keen snaps and shoots everybody in sight. Before the body count can rise, Sean stops Keen and helps the shooting victims. 

Ann Arbor-raised Adam Falkner returns with his new poetry collection, "The Willies," and a better sense of his authentic self

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Adam Falkner, The Willies

Adam Falkner probes the paradox of how hard it is to be yourself sometimes in his new poetry collection, The Willies. One of the poems, “Let’s Get One Thing Halfway Straight,” exposes this emotional labor in the following lines:

                        The not-so-funny thing about spending a 

life proving you aren’t something is that any story that isn’t

the story is survival or more like a brick for laying until the

wall is high enough that you’re safe inside and you wake up

and say whoops whose house is this who did I hurt to get

here and is it too late to call for help.

The real risk lies not in being yourself but rather in suppressing yourself based on people’s opinions or your perceptions of how you’re supposed to be. Falkner finds this identity issue to be a common experience to which many readers relate and also one that is very personal to his life.

“There’s something deeply universal about the idea of being closeted and longing for something bigger than this version of yourself," Falkner said. "That fear associated with who we might become if we don’t ask ourselves who we want to become is a very real thing for everyone.”

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

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Phil Christman, Midwest Futures

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.

Writer, poet, and funeral director Thomas Lynch examines life and death in "The Depositions," a collection of new and selected essays

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Thomas Lynch, The Depositions

Author photo by Joe Vaughn.

Essayist and funeral director Thomas Lynch writes, “By getting the dead where they need to go, the living get where they need to be.”

That quote forms the first sentence of “The Done Thing,” the last essay in his recent collection, The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be.

For years, Lynch has been in the business of the former and has reflected on the latter, as well as the former, through writing. He stands clear on many things about death, including that funerals serve the living and that the dead don’t care. 

The Depositions: New and Selected Essays on Being and Ceasing to Be sifts through these subjects with pieces from his earlier four books of essays, plus new ones that consider the author’s state of affairs. 

Lynch’s philosophical insights and candid facts about death all orbit around a universal truth appearing in the last sentence of the same paragraph containing the earlier quote:

Ann Arbor author Alexander Weinstein explores the human experience in the Computer Age with speculative fiction collection "Universal Love"

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Alexander Weinstein and his book Universal Love

Author photo by Francesca Albert.

People spend too much time on phones. Kids are addicted to their screens. Technology is ruining how we communicate. 

But what if tech also forces us to figure out how to find connections even in the age of emoji-only text messages?

Some of these issues are at the heart of Alexander Weinstein’s Universal Love, a collection of short speculative-fiction stories about an eclectic group of characters, including a woman who becomes closely acquainted with a hologram version of her deceased mother and a man with depression who seeks electronic surgery to erase his troubled past. 

Weinstein, an Ann Arbor resident and professor at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan, says that he can see the addiction to the constant stream of information that our technology affords.

As wonderful as technology can be in connecting people with friends, or in supporting human justice, or in accessing information readily, I can see that my students are becoming increasingly addicted to technology. And it's not just them -- it's all of us. Right now, we’re in a kind of binge-drinking stage of technological addiction. There are emails to check, Facebook posts to like, Instagram photos to upload, Tinder/Grinder profiles to swipe, emojis to send, and endless text messages. At stoplights, I see other drivers, sending off one more message before the light turns green. Next to us in the restaurant is a family eating dinner in silence as they individually play with their smartphones. And at bus stops around the world, grown men and women are playing tiny games on their screens like children.

Women of color in Washtenaw pen poetry anthology, "Love & Other Futures," as part of the Untold Stories of Liberation & Love project

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Love and Other Futures book cover

A writing space created for and led by women of color in Washtenaw County.

That’s what the five organizers of the Untold Stories of Liberation & Love project sought to build and have been creating with the help of an Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation grant. They held three Ypsilanti-based workshops with local women of color and produced a poetry anthology, Love & Other Futuresby those women in 2019. 

Planning is underway for this year, the second of two years of funding. Carrying out this vision has been a means to engage in community and leadership that is deliberately disruptive to writing here.

“We’re disrupting the idea that poetry is an elite thing," said poet and organizer Julie Quiroz. "We’re disrupting the way that our society turns art into a competitive, individualistic process, rather than a way to build community. We’re challenging our county to recognize the powerful creative leadership that already exists among women of color here."

Curiosity Cured the Cat: Dr. Howard Markel encourages readers to explore in "Literatim: Essays at the Intersections of Medicine and Culture"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Dr. Howard Markel and his book Literatim

When you've been a medical journalist for decades and have written hundreds of essays and articles, it might be difficult to determine which writings to include in a collection. But Dr. Howard Markel says it wasn’t as hard as one might think to assemble Literatim: Essays at the Intersections of Medicine and Culture.

“I’ve written for a variety of places, but a lot of that has been reportage and not essays. Some articles about patients really didn’t fit either,” says Markel, who is the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine and the director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan. “I wanted the book to be about medicine and how it intersects with culture, so after talking with the editor at Oxford University Press, I went and got my articles out of my file cabinet and literally put them on the floor in front of me. After I wrote the introduction, the rest came together nicely.”

Former U-M professor Carmen Bugan's new poetry collection, "Lilies From America," relates nature and the human experience

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Carmen Bugan and her book Lilies From America

Poet Carmen Bugan has gone through many transitions, from her tumultuous childhood in Romania to moving to the United States. Still, she writes, “The road to a better life has not yet been planned, / Everyone is waiting for an architect.” Both uncertainty and possibility hover in those lines, which appear in a recent poem called “New Life.” That poem is among a new selection in Lilies From America: New & Selected Poems 2004-2019.

Lilies From America starts with a poem of the same title and then covers Bugan’s three collections -- 2004’s Crossing the Carpathians, 2014’s The House of Straw, and 2016’s Releasing the Porcelain Birds -- plus new poems dating from 2016 to 2019. Calling these poems autobiographical would be an understatement; they comment on family, nature, time, love, and language (the last of which Bugan discusses in-depth on episode 18 of The RC Podcast, “Carmen Bugan ’96 and the Language of Freedom”). This new collection discloses a snapshot of the trajectory of Bugan’s life, going from early days to current sentiments, through the well-selected and illustrative poems.

Bugan’s poetry is inspired by her childhood containing the political imprisonment of her father and exile of her family, and then by her experiences in the U.S. Her writing musters perseverance and suggests ways to keep going despite change and parting and borders. Looking to nature as a parallel, the poems draw on the landscape and flora of the places significant to Bugan. In “Long Island Sound,” dated January 23, 2018, cycles of starting and ending relate to human experience, as the poet reflects:

To see again that which I knew and cherished:

The translucent lift of water and algae,

Clam shells and egg-like rosy stones,

Fluent ending in a new beginning.

Nature becomes a way of understanding what is happening to the people in the poems. The “Moon" is set on an autumn night in a room aglow with moonlight and offers this last stanza: “I felt not too far from being translated, / The same way sunlight was interpreted / By the moon face we could see.” These feelings of being seen and of also making one’s own observations permeate Bugan’s poetry, both explicitly in describing the political protests written on a typewriter in Romania by her parents, as well as in sharing transcriptions of her family’s surveillance tapes, and subtly through the surrounding environment.

Yet even as time gives way to transformations, moments emerge to hold dear, moments in which to linger. On a visit to aging parents, the poet expresses a wish to accurately capture the instant: “While the glasses empty slowly and we are grateful / That we still can have that one drink, together, / Standing in the sunshine, with the song of birds.” Identifying these memories as important, and observing them, stand alongside the history of political protest and anguish in these poems.

Bugan is based in Long Island, New York, and she was the 2018 Helen DeRoy Professor in Honors at the University of Michigan and the 2018 Dow Visiting Scholar at Saginaw Valley State University.

Bugan reads with David Cope, who is Bugan’s former teacher from Grand Rapids Community College prior to her transfer to the University of Michigan, at Literati Bookstore on January 16, 7 pm. Ahead of her visit, I interviewed her for Pulp.