Why you should care
Everyone loves a good comeback story. This one is about how literature is playing a role in reviving Detroit.
The future of Detroit hasn’t been written yet, but as the city turns the page on its economic troubles, it might just get a lovely surprise ending.
In the next few days we’ll find out whether Detroit can declare Chapter 9. But in the midst of so much municipal misery, a phoenix is rising as an influx of young entrepreneurs, musicians, visual artists and, of course, hipsters have begun to transform the city.
The general perception is that nobody here reads.
From award-winning poets and writers to readings, arts programs and books swaps, a vibrant scene is emerging, driven not just by a lower cost of living but by a deep-seated pride in its working-class roots and an appetite to be a part of something new and vital. This scene is helped by organizations such as Write-A-House, which provide houses for writers, or Kresge Arts, which gives $25,000 fellowships to visual and literary artists in Detroit.
Speak to people involved in the Detroit literary scene, and you’ll be struck by their eagerness to heap praise on their colleagues and ensure that the recognition is shared.
”I’ve witnessed a revolution in the last six years or so with what Detroit writers have been doing,” says Jamaal May, a Detroit native who recently won an award for his poetry book Hum. He rattles off a list of Detroit poets, including Vievee Francis, winner of the Cave Canem second book prize, and Francine J. Harris, whose book reached the Number One spot on the national poetry best-seller’s list.
May says a lot of artists who moved away are now returning, often because they see Detroit as an ideal place to work. It’s not just the lower cost of living, although that doesn’t hurt. Housing in Detroit costs 256.5 percent less than New York City, reports AreaVibes. According to the Detroit Regional Chamber, the cost of living there is 3 percent below the national average, while San Francisco is 59 percent more.
The low prices help, but if you’re composing art in Motown, chances are you’re driven by more than just cheap rent.
In Detroit, says May, “People make art out of feeling this necessity to connect with other people.”
”This is a city of stories,” says Anna Clark, a journalist who moved to Detroit six years ago. ”If I want to be a creator, then living in a city that is literally re-creating itself is amazing. I feel like the stories that are unfolding here, that we are participants in, are urgent, that they matter. They are gorgeous and haunting and strange.”
Clark founded Literary Detroit last December, when she realized that there was a remarkable network of talented writers but the literary culture felt diffused and spread out across the city. She was interviewing Middlesex author Jeffrey Eugenides about his book The Marriage Plot and asked him why Detroit wasn’t a stop on his national tour, considering he was born in Detroit and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book was set there.
Remember when the flight attendant had us prepare for landing in “Honolu…oops, Detroit” and the whole plane laughed?
“For national authors pulling together book tours, we are very often skipped over because publishers had nowhere to go,” Clark says, explaining the reason Eugenides gave her.“The general perception is that nobody here reads,” she says, “or that we aren’t a community of readers that people care about cultivating.”
So she created Literary Detroit as a way to both develop a cohesive intercity network and connect the city’s literary fans with national and international communities. The volunteer organization oversees book swaps and author visits — but with a spin. A reading with poet Matthew Olzmann combined poetry with improv comedy, while a visit by Samuel Freedman mixed up football games and civil rights trivia contests. Next up is a “ghost library” with performers dressed as Mark Twain or Virginia Woolf reading in a homemade, old-style library, perhaps on the site of one of Detroit’s abandoned branch libraries.
If I want to be a creator, then living in a city that is literally re-creating itself is amazing.
— Anna Clark, journalist
Clark is quick to acknowledge that she’s not inventing literary culture in Detroit. The city’s literary history includes multiple U.S. poet laureates, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners. Robert Hayden was the first African-American to be appointed Consultant in Poetry in 1976. The “father of the black poetry movement” Dudley Randall founded Broadside Press, a publishing company that published many leading African-American writers. Beyond native Detroiters, the city also works as a backdrop for critically acclaimed books as well. Joyce Carol Oates set her novel them in Detroit, after working there for a few years, and it won the National Book Award in 1970.
”This is a deep legacy,” says Terry Blackhawk, a creative writing teacher and writer who moved to Detroit in the 1960s. “Detroit’s always had this really vibrant literary and cultural life. I feel like we are building on that.”
She points to U.S. poet laurete Philip Levine, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Detroiter whose poems are infused with the industrial life that coarses through the city. “I think it’s been inspirational for a long time.” Blackhawk’s own book was given a glowing review by U.S. poet laureate Natasha Trethewey.
Men lived within these foundries, hour by hour; Nothing they forged outlived the rusted gears Which might have served to grind their eulogy.
Blackhawk is also the founder of InsideOut, a literary arts program that brings professional writers into Detroit schools for workshops and classrooms. “Reaching them through poetry develops critical thinking and self-confidence,” she says. The program has visited the White House twice and was featured on PBS.
Teens aren’t the only one using Detroit as a muse.
“I find inspiration from our culture,” says writer Deonte Osayande, a slam poet who was raised in Detroit. ”To me it’s still really blue collar … It isn’t moving as fast as your New York or Chicago. You see multiple decades co-existing at the same time.”
May agrees that the working-class roots inform the literary culture of Detroit. ”A place with that kind of work ethic, it hones you. You feel prepared as a Detroit artist.”
For Olzmann, who received stellar reviews for his book Mezzanines, even when he’s not writing directly about Detroit it informs his sense of identity and place.
What if the chassis left clicking and buzzing in a Detroit scrap yard is still brimming with circuit and hum?
“I think it’s constantly emerging and developing things,” says Olzmann. ”There are so many people moving out of Detroit and moving into Detroit. It’s a literary scene that is constantly evolving. Particularly recently, there’s an influx of new ideas and an energy coming together in different ways.”
In a poem about her cherished city, Blackhawk writes that Detroit is “tough enough to love.” And we’ll repeat her here: ”’The D’ — dear ‘D’ — must have some magic in it.”