Ann Arbor's burgeoning literary scene

BY MAUREEN SULLIVAN
Daily Arts Writer
Published February 18, 2009

In the freezing temperatures of a January evening, about 50 Ann Arborites crowded in a small nook in State Street’s Shaman Drum to listen to Michael Shilling read the first chapter of his novel. His book, titled “Rock Bottom,” is a sharp and biting mock-autobiography about a touring rock band. Sipping a bottle of beer as he read and performed the voices of his grungy jaded rocker protagonist, Shilling — a recent Master of Fine Arts graduate and now Sweetland lecturer — performed with the gusto of a seasoned frontman.

Chanel Von Hasburg-Lothringen/Daily

Events like this are not uncommon in Ann Arbor. While the city is known for sports venues like Michigan Stadium and music venues like Hill Auditorium, there is still another very overlooked culture that pervades the town — a writing culture.

The literary scene that exists in Ann Arbor is vibrant. More than just a scene, individual writers living and working in Ann Arbor have formed a community. While the modern concept of social networking conjures the image of Facebook’s home page, concerts, plays and book readings exist as a form of social networking where people can physically come together over common interests. These communities encourage individuals to collaborate and share their art and their ideas.

“By definition, community is a collective,” said English Prof. Nicholas Delbanco, director of the Hopwood Awards. “It’s true in this community of individuals. Readings, workshops and bookstores like Shaman Drum are places where people congregate. However, community is a multi-pronged instrument that doesn’t exist in only one place.”

Fueled by the abundance of talent attracted to the University’s writing program, Ann Arbor is a haven for writers. As a result, they have formed a network that is visible and accessible. This network is made up of writers and readers, students and professors. From social chatter at Hopwood tea gatherings on Thursday afternoons in Angell Hall to experimental readings at Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room on Main Street, it's evident that this community is thriving.

Delbanco compared teaching at the University of Michigan to his experience working as a professor in New York City at Columbia University. He stressed the role that physical distance plays in community — rather than commuting via public transit in New York City, writers in Ann Arbor live within close proximity of the campus. This factors into the fact that writers in Ann Arbor simply see each other more often.

Book readings in particular are one way that new and seasoned writers connect not only with one another but also with their audience. While reading and writing are often individual practices, these events spur thoughts about them being living physical processes and invite the students and Ann Arbor citizens to be a part of an active community.

The Zell Visiting Writers Series, sponsored by the University’s English Department and the Office of the Provost, brings writers from the national literary scene to the small stage at campus venues including Rackham Amphitheatre and the Residential College Auditorium. This past year brought celebrated writers including British poet Simon Armitage, short-story writer Deborah Eisenberg and short-story writer Amy Hempel.

The readings are plentiful and ongoing: Today Israeli poet Hamutal Bar Yosef will read at the Thayer Building. This past week two writers were scheduled to read at Shaman Drum. This past Tuesday, Josie Kearns read from a recently published volume of poetry titled "The Theory of Everything." Four separate book readings are scheduled at the independent shop for the first week of March alone. These events are ever-present and provide an opportunity for readers and listeners to experience writing in another dimension through oral storytelling.

Outside the world of published writing, the University’s MFA program sponsors three separate series: the Zell Visiting Writers Series, the Mark Webster Reading Series and the J. Edgar Edwards Reading Series. These readings allow members of the University to showcase their writing to their peers and Ann Arbor citizens. For many writers, this is one of their first opportunities to read in front of a large audience.

“It forces you to feel like something’s complete. It stops feeling like it’s something in progress,” MFA student Elizabeth Gramm said, describing the feeling of reading her poetry aloud. “It’s something more separate. It’s so freeing to just appreciate it by listening. Getting to hear our peers just read, it’s a gift and we can just enjoy it rather than thinking about tweaking it or changing it.”

Gramm explained that the MFA program is a cohesive group. Brian Short, MFA student and Gramm’s counterpart, explained the rush of a reading as an audience member, comparing it to seeing a theater performance.

“There’s something about seeing it happen. This amazing energy that will never happen in the same way,” Short said.

Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room runs the Work-in-Progress Reading Series, allowing writers to experiment with their incomplete and developing works by reading selections to an audience.

“We're all project-driven but once something reaches publication, in a way, the fun's over. You look for the next project,” said Deanne Lundin, Work-in-Progress co-director, in an e-mail interview.

“So Work-in-Progress is about keeping that play-space open while making the attempt a public one — which means at least a performance, a product of sorts, but one that's dynamic and live while not trying to be performance art," Lundin said.

But beyond the University and writing events, Ann Arbor’s subdued nature makes it a rich bastion for creating narratives. Without the distractions of city life, many authors find the atmosphere quite accommodating for writing.

Dean Bakopoulos, a University graduate and the author of the novel “Please Don’t Come Back From the Moon,” read before faculty in late January from his then-upcoming book. Currently residing in Wisconsin, Bakopoulos hopes to obtain a yearlong fellowship at the University to teach and write.

"(The) people I write about are here and my subject is here (in the Midwest). I feel comfortable here," Bakopoulos said. "I’ve connected to the landscape the openness of he people, the mental space and the physical space you can get into quickly where I live now there’s plenty of space to live and work.”

Michigan-based, award-winning writer Thomas Lynch is the author of “The Undertaking,” a non-fiction book based on his experience as a Milford, Mich. undertaker. Lynch is a regular guest professor at the University and a consistent Ann Arbor presence. He explained why the environment of Ann Arbor, in particular, is attractive to writers.

“Most writers who teach appreciate the University as much for its regular stipend and dental benefits as they do for the 'life of the mind' and instructive conversations that are a feature of such places," Lynch said. "For me, the invitation to come and teach at Ann Arbor had less to do with the dosh (money) than it did with the community of writers there — poets and storytellers I much admired and whose company I found helpful to my own writing. And students, especially good ones, challenge all one's aptitudes, in the way that exercise keeps the body fit.”

The writing community in Ann Arbor doesn’t seem to exist for the purpose of fame or recognition. There is passion and talent that is apparent through attending these events and hearing the voices and personalities of writers from all levels of experience. While a book reading may never fill the seats of the Big House, the literary scene in Ann Arbor is still very much worth noticing.

“Writing is like any creation you have to do it for the love of the game,” Shilling said. “There are far easier ways to make lots of money.”