Editor M.E. Silverman converses with Michigan poets Carol Smallwood (CS); Elinor Benedict (EB); Foster Neill (FN); and Robert Fanning (RF).
In a grandiose style, how would someone introduce you to a crowded room?
(CS): Carol Smallwood’s great grandparents homesteaded in Michigan; she has lived in Michigan all her life, and her children are Michiganders. While a school librarian, she edited the 3rd Edition of Michigan Authors. Carol took classes in creative writing and began composing poetry after retiring; a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee and judge, her latest full collection of poetry is Divining the Prime Meridian (WordTech Editions, 2014). Bringing the Arts into the Library: An Outreach Handbook (2014) is her 6th anthology for the American Library Association; Writing After Retirement: Tips by Successful Retired Writers (Scarecrow Press, forthcoming) is her 47th book. Carol appears in Who’s Who in America, and several other directories.
(EB): Grandiose? Not me. Elinor Benedict is a former Appalachian hillbilly, well-educated and well-traveled, who has lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for 36 years. She is a quick study, so she qualifies as a Yooper by now, and her poetry and fiction qualifies as “regional” twice over.
Yooper? Oh, you are referring to the people who live in the Upper Peninsula–or the U.P.–verses the Lower Peninsula, which is connected together by the Mackinac Bridge. Robert and Foster, how would you describe Michigan to someone who has never been?
(RF): To me, Michigan is an incredible treasure and the less tourists the better, so I would tell them: “Michigan is terribly overrated. There’s nothing to see here. Carry on.”
(FN): It’s a two season state, largely industrial in the south and rural/wild in the north. Water abounds. It gets cold here regularly. Outdoors people love it for the hunting, fishing, etc.
Thank you. Elinor, how does this region affect one’s writing?
(EB): There’s a lot of water around Michigan, especially around tiny Rapid River, and lots of trees. Trees and water make good poetry, and for me a touch of old homesickness helps me understand and relate to where I am. (Right now, I am in Florida.)
Florida does have its perks though but I’m beginning to picture the beauty of Michigan! What is the literary life like in Michigan?
(CS): It is formed by its people, who, as that great Midwest story teller, Garrison Keillor noted, are unassuming and self-effacing.
(EB): The “literary life” is often about individuals and small groups of writers getting together in places like local libraries or email, with occasional trips to larger venues such as events at universities, arts centers, festivals and other such places–wherever they may be. That includes inside regional books such as New Issues of Western Michigan University’s current anthology, Poetry in Michigan in Poetry, and a future one from Michigan State University planned for 2015. I’m in them both.
(RF): The literary life in Michigan is thriving. There are so many fantastic poets and writers in this state. I run a monthly reading series in Mount Pleasant known as the Wellspring Literary Series that features Michigan’s emerging and prominent writers, and after 5 years I’ve only scratched the surface of the great list of writers here.
(FN): The literary life in Michigan is largely centered on institutions of higher education that host reading series, publish journals, and employ many of the best poets in the state. There are also some non-profits like InsideOut in the Detroit area and Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters in Grand Rapids that move and shake. Though our state doesn’t have a Laurette, Grand Rapids does. I see and hear them do great things in the city and even for the state.
Thank you, Foster, for mentioning journals. Dunes Literary Review comes to mind and New Issues Poetry & Prose, Michigan Quarterly Review, and Border Crossing. I almost forgot two of my favorites, Passages North and Third Coast. Considering poetry in particular, what is Michigan poetry doing?
(CS): The Michigan Poet, a new website founded and run by Foster Neill, is a great resource, an encouraging focal point for the poets of Michigan. Foster has done a great deal of sharing poetry with his local schools.
(FN): Thank you, Carol. While I haven’t managed to discover any one thing that makes a poem a Michigan poem, I think, like poetry everywhere, it takes some poetry world survival skills to make it in Michigan. And it gets cold here. So it takes some normal survival skills, too. And as Michiganders, we take some pride in our ability to fend for ourselves, both in the wild and in the wild of poetry.
Elinor mentioned anthologies. Robert, could you tell us more about some of these that readers can get for a taste of Michigan poetry?
(RF): After reading the recently published anthology Poetry in Michigan / Michigan in Poetry, the words that come to mind are honest and authentic. Michigan poets, no matter what their subject or style, are authentic—and that’s not true of everywhere. Michigan poetry is solid; I read much of the work of my Michigan peers and I hear real voices speaking; I believe their words.
How do each of you feel about the Midwest and how has it shaped your own writing?
(CS): One’s sense of place is never far from any writer. The Midwest, between the east and west coasts, is the center of our country. As D. H. Lawrence in Studies on Classic American Literature, 1923 noted: “Every people is polarized in some locality, which is home, the homeland. Different places on the face of the earth have different vital influence, different vibration, different chemical exhalation, different polarity with different stars: call it what you like. But the spirit of place is a great reality.”
(EB): When I hear the word “Midwest,” I don’t usually think of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. I think of driving past vast wheat or cornfields, or flying over Chicago or Detroit. The UP seems like “North” to me, including people and dreams. Wherever I come from, and wherever I go, I am watching, listening and trying to put it into words.
(FN): There are a lot of kind, brilliant people living everywhere. I’ve met a lot in the Midwest. It’s been good to me. There’s a lot of flat land, so I’ve spent a good bit of time looking at the sky. I’ve thought for a long time now that people must look at mountains and oceans as the dominating form of a landscape (in places that have those things). Since I don’t live on a great lake, the sky is the one constantly looming thing. It’s much bigger than mountains and oceans; what that means, I’m not sure.
(RF): I love the landscape of the Midwest, the long skyline, the cities and towns. The emptiness. There is a lot of seeking in my work, a lot of yearning. I think this sense of longing might be Midwestern. When I visit New York and other so called “destination” places, I begin to quickly lose touch with that sense of longing, which I miss. It’s really hard to explain.
Michigan has been home to two of my favorite poets, Philip Levine and Jane Kenyon. Obviously there are so many others like Hayden, Piercy, Forché and Roethke. Beside your own work, are there other writers our readers should pick up?
(CS): John Galsworthy known mostly for his fiction and drama, is a writer I am always learning from. Poetry hovers even in his essays.
(EB): Muskegon’s poet Judith Minty’s lifetime collection Walking with the Bear, published a few years ago by Michigan State Press, is an instructive lifetime of work. Escanaban Catie Rosemurgy’s emerging books from Graywolf Press are young, inventive and startling. Of course, Jim Harrison is the grizzled star of the north and everywhere else. I think the new “regional ” writers will be less pinned to their local trees, computers and transportation as they explore the world of the imagination.
(FN): Anything from Cindy Hunter Morgan, Don Cellini, Kathleen McGookey, Jamie Thomas, Patricia Clark, and Phillip Sterling.
(RF): I recommend the great work of so many writers who are in, or who were made–in Detroit: Peter Markus, John Rybicki, Vievee Francis, Terry Blackhawk, Matthew Olzmann, Jamaal May, and dozens of others. Detroit is an engine churning out great poets right now.
For the final question, let me throw a bit of a curveball here—Charles Bernstein wrote in The Argotist: “Within our culture we need, desperately need, small, difficult, rebarbative art forms. Poetry can do many things with language that can’t be done with conventional story-telling. And, as William Carlos Williams says, people die, every day, for the lack of what is found there.” How does contemporary poetry within the region of Michigan explore this?
(CS): Poetry can hone in on aspects of our society that are hard to recognize much less pin down. As Stanley Kunitz noted in Passing Through: the Later Poems New and Selected (W.W. Norton & Company, 1995): “If we want to know what it felt like to be alive at any given moment in the long odyssey of the race, it is to poetry we must turn.”
(FN): I think the economy is still bad everywhere. Michigan has been struggling with cash for over a decade. The arts have been slashed and slashed and then hacked into little bits. But poetry is cheap – cheap to produce (in terms of materials) and versatile, too. We’re not the great poetry state, but there’s a real value to the art here – a disparate, desperate determination. A few years ago, I read that the ukulele has been seeing a sharp rise in popularity, which the author speculated as a result of its cheery nature and cheap cost. Poetry is a similar instrument, one we might play in the dark under our covers, albeit less intrinsically cheery. I might venture to say poetry is generally good medicine against apathy and depression, two debilitating effects of economic and culturally stifled communities.
(RF): I agree with Bernstein and Williams; I’ve always thought of poetry as utterly necessary, and this is palpable in Michigan. I’ve given readings in Detroit, Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Alpena, Lansing, and many cities in between, and there are always seriously committed audience members at these events. Regulars. People who go to readings for the same reason people go to church or out to eat. For Michiganders who love poetry, this art is part of the fiber of their being. It is nourishment. It is not frivolous or decorative—but necessary, utterly—and a deep source of joy.
I want to thank you for taking the time to address these questions and issues with museum of americana and our readers. Is there a question you wished an interviewer would ask you? Of course, I am hoping you will also answer it now…
(CS): The question would be: what advice would you give a beginning poet?
The answer: Stop, Look, Listen: words appearing on one of my children’s bulletin boards with an illustration of a train puffing up a hill.
So true. How about you, Elinor?
(EB): A good question might be, “What excites you most about writing?” I like to discover new things in the process of working with words and tracking down pains and joys and fears that linger in both the dark and the light. Thanks for asking.
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Carol Smallwood‘s books include Women on Poetry: Writing, Revising, Publishing and Teaching, on Poets & Writers Magazine list of Best Books for Writers. Her most recent poetry collection, Water, Earth, Air, Fire, and Picket Fences is forthcoming from Lamar University Press. Carol has founded, supports humane societies.
Elinor Benedict has published five poetry chapbooks and two collections, All That Divides Us, Utah State University Press, winner of the May Swenson Award in 2000; and Late News from the Wilderness, Main Street Rag Press, 2009. She is founder of Passages North literary magazine and served for ten years as its editor, as well as of Passages North Anthology, Milkweed Editions, 1990. She has also published short stories, book reviews and essays in journals such as Iowa Review, Prairie Schooner and Mid-American Review.
I, Foster Neill, have decided third person bios are silly. I refuse to talk about myself like I’m not in the room. I grew up in Michigan, graduated from Antioch College in 2007, and have a one-eyed dog. I like playing disc golf and volunteering in the arts. Occasionally, my poems get accepted as some decent journals. I’m always very happy about that.
Robert Fanning is the author of American Prophet (Marick Press), The Seed Thieves (Marick Press) and Old Bright Wheel (Ledge Press Poetry Award). His poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, The Atlanta Review, and other journals. A graduate of the University of Michigan and Sarah Lawrence College, he is an Associate Professor of Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. He is also the founder and facilitator of the Wellspring Literary Series in Mt. Pleasant, MI., where he lives with his wife, sculptor Denise Whitebread Fanning, and their two children. To read more of his work, visit http://www.robertfanning.wordpress.com.