For several years, one of the most exciting parts of Ann Arbor’s literary culture has been the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers Series. Named after University alum Helen Zell, who donated $50 million to fund the program with her family’s foundation, the series consists of numerous visiting writers and poets from around the world coming to read and discuss their work. Throughout the course of this academic year, the series has already hosted the writer and poet Colm Tóibín, poet Bob Hicok and writer China Miéville, among others. But on Thursday, the series will present an event with an artist far closer to home — the University’s own poet and writer Laura Kasischke.
“I’ve been writing all my life,” Kasischke said in an interview. “Even when I was a kid, I enjoyed writing. When I read things I appreciated them, but I also had a feeling I don’t think everyone had where I would feel jealous of good writing, and I wanted to do that myself.”
As she grew into young adulthood, the desire to write led Kasischke — a native of Grand Rapids — to study creative writing at the University of Michigan, where she also received her MFA. Today, she teaches at the University as the Allan Seager Collegiate Professor of English Language and Literature in the Residential College. Writing, once a dream for Kasischke, is now a central element of her life.
“After writing long enough, now it’s just a habit,” Kasischke said. “It’s something that I do because it’s just become a practice in my life, and I don’t really know how else I would process my life and do with the spare time I have.”
Kasischke, an author and a poet, has achieved fame in both areas. She’s received recognition for her work in the form of numerous prizes, grants and fellowships, like the National Book Critics Circle Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her process when approaching the two sides of her work, however, differs.
“With poetry, usually I don’t sit down thinking to myself ‘I’m going to write a poem now.’ I have a line in my head, or an image, or an idea that I was thinking about for a few days, and I will write in a journal and eventually come up with some sort of form for it,” Kasischke said. “With novels it’s different… I usually start more with a setting and an atmosphere, and I just start writing and I keep writing until I find a plot, I figure out who these characters are and what their problems are and what their conflicts are and I just keep writing and writing. There were a couple of novels that I’ve written where I knew from the beginning exactly what the plot was or I had sketched out a plot, but usually I’m figuring out what the novel’s about in the process of writing it.”
Kasischke explores many themes throughout her work. Often, her poetry revolves around aspects and stages of her life, such as her marriage, children and aging parents.
“If I had to sum up what my fiction is about it’s often … the concerns of domestic life,” Kasischke said. “But then there’s also some gruesome aspect, usually a murder. Somebody gets killed, or there’s a body hidden somewhere. I don’t usually start out thinking there will be, but that’s just where I go, where I tend to work (in) crime and horror. I only have one novel with anything supernatural in it, but I like that sort of atmosphere. One of my favorite writers is Shirley Jackson, and my kind of ideal is subdued terror.”
During Thursday’s event, Kasischke will be discussing her work with the director of the MFA Program, Doug Trevor, in a free-flowing conversational interview.
“The director of the MFA program, Doug Trevor, and the MFA program have initiated this idea of having him interview writers on the faculty,” Kasischke said. “I know that this year he’s going to interview me in December, and in the Spring he’s going to interview Michael Byers, who’s a fiction writer on the faculty … it’s part of the Helen Zell Writers Series, which often brings writers from far and wide, and his idea was to have a discussion with a writer from campus. And there are a lot of us.”
While the Zell Creative Writers Series, in general, is a wonderful opportunity for Ann Arbor residents to learn more about authors and poets from around the world, Kasischke said that Thursday’s event specifically is special because it brings local artists and the community closer together.
“I think that the reading series … brings in great writers and listeners and readers, but I think (Doug Trevor’s) idea was that the reading series has always brought in writers from the outside, that maybe there’s less opportunity, strangely enough, to hear from the writers who are on the faculty and living in Ann Arbor,” Kasischke said.
What she hopes to pass on, at least in part, Kasischke said, are thoughts on the part a writer plays in the world, the role an author takes in society.
“I’d like to say that it’s to give a voice to the concerns of our time and our place, to add to a conversation about the experiences of being a human being on Earth, in any particular time,” Kasischke said. “I like the quote by Jack Kerouac; he says that ‘literature is the way we dead men talk to each other.’ Of course now we’d include women with that, but I think he meant that, in general. I do think that we all only live for a short period of time, and whatever one does with that time — taking photographs, writing articles, doing journalism, writing poetry — is a little bit of a way to hopefully, perhaps (leave) some sort of message to those come after us. It would be nice to think that it’s really central and important to the daily lives of the people who are living and reading contemporary writing, but I’m not sure that the role of the writer is as important in his or her own time as (the work) which hopefully lasts will be after we’re gone.”