Monday, February 27, 2017

An Afternoon of Poetry in Detroit

Three new collections of poetry by Michiganders
“Publishing a book of poetry is like dropping a rose petal down the Grand Canyon and waiting for the echo.” ―Don Marquis

On Saturday afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend a poetry reading in Detroit presented by Lynch and Sons Fund for the Arts and Wayne State University Press. The event featured three poets, Keith Taylor, Cindy Morgan Hunter, and Jim Daniels, reading from their newest collections of poetry. Each collection was published through Wayne State's Made in Michigan Writers Series, which publishes poetry, essays, creative nonfiction, and short fiction by Michigan writers.

Keith Taylor

Keith Taylor
Keith Taylor has published several poetry collections and teaches creative writing at the University of Michigan. He read from his newest collection of poetry, The Bird-While. Before reading his poems, he explained that he borrowed the title of his collection from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Emerson described a "bird-while" as "the space most of the wild birds will allow you to make your observations on them when they alight near you in the woods." 

Each of the poems Taylor read is a brief, but thorough, view of both human nature and actual nature. He read about his daughter's narcolepsy, a hummingbird that stops its work to watch a jet fly overhead, young scientists talking about life as information, and the day the trees in his yard were uprooted by a storm. 

Cindy Hunter Morgan

Cindy Hunter Morgan
Cindy Hunter Morgan is a native Michigander who teaches creative writing at Michigan State University and has authored two award-winning chapbooks. Hunter Morgan read from Harborless, her collection of poems about Great Lakes shipwrecks. The Great Lakes are the resting grounds for more than 6,000 shipwrecks and 30,000 mariners, and Hunter Morgan gives a humanizing glimpse into what might have been the final moments of more than thirty of these wrecks.

Before reading each poem, Hunter Morgan gave a brief history of the shipwreck itself. One ship caught fire carrying a cargo of peaches, and Hunter Morgan captures the smells, sights, and sounds of a ship full of peaches going up in flames. Another ship carried Christmas trees from the Upper Peninsula to Chicago, where families waited at the docks to purchase trees that never arrived. Hunter Morgan used the pantoum poetic form for this Christmas tree ship poem, Rouse Simmons, 1912. A pantoum consists of four-line stanzas in which the second and fourth lines of each stanza serve as the first and third lines of the next stanza. In this case, it gives the poem the wave-like effect intended by Hunter Morgan, as if the debris from the ship were bobbing up and down in the rolling waves.

Jim Daniels

Jim Daniels
Jim Daniels is a Detroit native and professor of creative writing at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Daniels explained that, despite living in Pittsburgh for more than thirty years, he always returns inland to Detroit. So he titled his latest collection of poems Rowing Inland. The poems he read gave glimpses of the Metro Detroit of Daniels's youth and his relationships with his family then and today.

When he read about driving the gridded streets of Detroit and ending up in Canada, Daniels's personal words felt personal to me, for I know these streets and drove them aimlessly as a teenager. His poem Hard Candy is about a family secret and the hard candy his grandmother kept in a metal dish. I remembered how both my grandmothers kept dishes of hard candy, and I wondered what sorrows and secrets they kept locked away.

The Venue

The former Kresge estate
The reading was hosted at the former Kresge estate in Detroit's Arden Park neighborhood. Paddy Lynch, of the Lynch and Sons Fund for the Arts family, purchased the house in 2011 and has brought it back to its original glory. Besides the Kresges, who founded K-Mart, the house's street once was populated with famous Detroit families like the Dodges and Fishers. 

Despite the grandeur of the home, the event was intimate. My wife, Allison, and I were able to speak to all three poets, and we found each of them to be friendly and unpretentious, normal people with extraordinary voices. The reading itself was in a basement room adorned with artwork along the walls. The poets and speakers stood in front of a mural that Paddy said reminds him of Ezra Pound's poem The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter. Paddy read Pound's poem at the end of the night in honor of his parents, who will be celebrating their fortieth wedding anniversary this year.

Thomas Lynch, Paddy's uncle and a renowned writer in his own right, spoke before the readers. He depicted the struggle for poets to find audiences (and recited the Don Marquis quote above), and discussed the importance of poetry and the arts in our fractured society. His sense of humor shone as he joked that the poetry reading was a success because the attendees outnumbered the poets. 

The reading was a reminder of Michigan's natural beauty and the humanity of its residents. I look forward to seeing what other writers Lynch and Sons Fund for the Arts and the Made in Michigan Writers Series will uncover. 

At the end of the night, I walked out of the reading with a signed copy of each poetry collection, beautiful broadsides of the poets' works by three letterpress studios, and the echoes of rose petals.

The broadsides