'Friday Night's Alright For Reading' to showcase writing of RC faculty

Wednesday, November 11, 2015 - 12:54pm

“Those who cannot do, teach.” Whoever is guilty of construing this inaccurate condescension evidently never encountered a faculty member of the University’s Residential College.

The talent and experience offered by members of the Residential College faculty often goes unnoticed by the large student body that rests outside of its doors. Authors, poets and artists all lie within the college, and to small classes of lucky students, they impart their talent and wisdom. Among these maestros of art are author Robert James Russell, author and poet Laura Kasischke and Ken Mikolowski, a poet and retired professor of 38 years — all of whom will be performing in the RC’s second annual “Friday Night’s Alright for Reading” this Friday.

Offering selections from their past and present work, these writers and other members of the star-studded faculty will perform their award-winning poems and short stories. Russell and faculty member Laura Thomas devised the event last winter during Russell’s first year working at the University to display the talent and dedication overflowing from the RC.

Russell, author of two novellas and a collection of short stories, is an avid traveler who addresses multifarious places and ideas. From settings of eerie Japanese forests to the 19th century West, Russell’s repertoire reflects his craftful ability to explore subjects he is not directly familiar with, but can construct nonetheless.

“I like relationships; I like space; I like landscape and I really like writing about how those things intersect; how our relationships are formed based on the space around us, how it informs who we are … how every place has its unique stories and mythologies to tell and how that makes us who we are based on where we grew up.”

Poetry for Kasischke, on the other hand, reflects her personal experiences. Though she incorporates tales of treachery, mystery and murder into her novels, Kasischke focuses on roots of a more intimate nature in her poetry. Gifted with the ability to write both fiction and poetry, she elaborated on the inverse processes for writing both.

“I write poetry and I write fiction and it’s two totally different processes. When I write fiction, it’s pretty much discipline … When I write poetry, it’s because I’ve had an idea for a while and finally found time to just be alone. I can work on a novel for about a half hour and then put it away; it could take years but I can handle that. With a poem, nothing is going to interrupt it or I’m not even going to try.”

However, after 38 years at the University and a lifetime of writing poetry, Mikolowski has the most experience to impart on young aspiring poets. Though he kept his writing and teaching separate during his time at the University, his abstract process for finding ideas and meditating on them before expressing them is reflected in his previous student Kasischke’s process.

“I walk around and I try to not ignore things. I try to pay attention. When something speaks to me, I listen. When something sounds right, I listen, and I go home and write it down. I try to convey thoughts about my own life and my own impending death. Everybody hates talking about that, but that’s what I try to connect in my poetry, and I find them pretty funny.”

A witness and partaker in the artistic revolution that occurred in Detroit in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikolowski is aligned with contemporary poets of that age including Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and Alice Notley. As a reaction to the insurgencies and riots that occurred in the urban center, the Artist’s Workshop, a run down apartment space dedicated to presenting art from individuals around the city, and Mikolowski’s Alternative Press were formed.

Run out of their basement, Mikolowski and his wife Ann published contemporary poetry from artists around Detroit on a printing press run and kept by the couple. To this day, Mikolowski finds himself channeling the innovative spirit that existed in reactionary Detroit by writing unconventional poetry. In his new collection “That That,” for instance, the longest poem is a mere two lines long.

One common theme remains between these acclaimed writers: Michigan. Although it may not have been the driving influence for most of their works, and could even exist entirely separately of what they write, these writers have had the University as the backdrop to their lives for as long as they have been in Ann Arbor.

Though Russell, Kasischke and Maslowski all admit the themes invoked into their writing were kept separate from their teaching, they are still inspired by the trial and errors their fledgling writers endure in class. Being exposed to the work of young hopefuls admittedly pushes Russell to strive to be a better writer, and Kasischke, who participates in free writes with her students, immerses herself in the experience. It was in this classroom setting, in fact, that she began her first full-length novel.

Perhaps Mikolowski presents the most curious intersection of teaching and writing. Rather than let the lines between his University and writing life overlap, he kept them distinctly separate, and never let his poetic success define what writing meant for his students.

“I did not teach people how to write. How to write poetry is something I don’t even know, how do you write poetry? I taught them to want to write poetry.”

To have acclaimed writers and poets as teachers is humanizing, especially in a community of liberal arts students all striving to one day be recognized for a creative work. Dreams do not appear presumptuous or implausible or even irrational when encouraged by individuals who were once in the same exact position of hoping, wishing and wanting as a young adult.