Paige Pfleger: Detroit's immense, underpublicized lit-scene

By Paige Pfleger, Detroit Arts Columnist
Published January 27, 2015

“If you ask me in a week, I may have a different five … but let’s say ‘The Dollmaker’ by Harriette Simpson Arnow, ‘Collected Poems’ by Robert Hayden, ‘Them’ by Joyce Carol Oates … let me think …” Anna Clark paused for a long time, searching for two more books to complete her top five Detroit-centric reads. The list, she insisted, is just for now — likely to change imminently. She thought about her last two spots, taking a few minutes to mull it over.

It took her a while, not because there aren’t many authors to choose from, but because there are too many.

Much like Detroit’s art and music scenes, the city’s literary culture is immense. Detroit’s literary history for litbuffs is as rich as the legacy of Motown for the rest of the country. The city’s neighborhoods and buildings serve as backdrops for Pulitzer Prize-winning books, Poet Laureates were born and raised inside the city’s arms and major historical events that shaped the city’s history also shaped the story arcs of nationally recognized literature.

Unlike the art and music scene, however, the literary scene passes under most people’s radar.

“I think part of it is with visual art and with music — those are things that a person can encounter without trying,” Clark said. “You turn on the radio and there’s Detroit music on. You drive down the road and you see a lot of Detroit art. It’s right there. And I think with literature, it’s very present, but it’s not always visible in the same way. The people that find it tend to be looking for it.”

And those who are looking need not look much further than Literary Detroit, an organization that UM graduate Anna Clark founded with the goal of cultivating a literary scene in Detroit. Founded in 2012, Clark and other volunteers noticed that Detroit was being passed over by book tour authors, even if their works were set in Detroit and even if they themselves were from the city. Literary Detroit’s mission is to put Detroit on the country’s lit-scene map.

Literary Detroit organizes interactive literary events around the city that are free and open to the public, including readings by authors, book swaps and reading series. In February, they’ll kick off their Motor City Signal Series at Signal-Return, a letterpress company in Eastern Market. The series features themes like sex, identities, journeys and belonging. The events feature performances from writers, singers and painters, including Write-A-House winner Casey Rocheteau, and hip-hop duo Passalacqua.

Organizing events isn’t the only way that Clark helps to boost Detroit’s literary culture — in fact, she recently helped compile and edit stories from literary greats in “A Detroit Anthology,” which was published last year.

“It’s very diverse — the youngest contributor is 18 years old, the oldest contributor is in her 90s — because the city has changed so much within living memory, a lot of the stories people tell capture different moments in time,” Clark said. “ ‘The Anthology’ is as diverse as the city is.”

“The Anthology” steps away from the usual explanations that surround the city in mainstream press and instead explores the conversational aspects of what Clark calls everyday “lived experiences.” Some of the authors featured in the book include Grace Lee Boggs, Desiree Cooper, Dream Hampton and Shaka Senghor.

Despite this recent publication, however, Clark believes there are a plethora of stories yet to be told about present-day Detroit.

“A lot of Detroit fiction that is out there is midcentury, and there’s not a lot that has come out of the last 15 years,” Clark said. “There’s more to be said. The city is such a powerful home for stories.”