Poetry in Kalamazoo

Di Seuss at the closing event of the 2014 Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

Di Seuss at the closing event of the 2014 Kalamazoo Poetry Festival

Poetry in Kalamazoo: A Mini-Series Made of Similes

 By Diane Seuss

Read at the Kalamazoo Poetry Festival Finale Event, April 5, 2014

Let me try to get at a description of the poetry community in Kalamazoo via one of the tried and true tools of the trade, the lowly simile. I say “lowly” because the metaphor’s I am not like a chandelier, I am a chandelier, is considered the more audacious figurative leap in our lexicon. But we here in Kalamazoo think that’s a little crazy. We know we are not chandeliers. Yes, we’ve got our feet planted firmly on the ground composed of river mud, heavy crude oil spill, deer prints and dirty snow.

The Kalamazoo poetry community: It’s like … it’s like a map of Michigan inland lakes, many of them unnamed and thus defined only by the glowworms in the cattails. It’s like a dot to dot of unmarked graves completed by a woozy three-year old. It’s like a weedy bouquet of home births picked by a thousand midwives. It’s like a pancake supper at a firehouse. Neruda’s there, stirring the syrup with his finger, because Susan Ramsey invited him, and the butcher from Herb Scott’s Groceries poems is drowning the maggots out of a ham. Herb’s chair is empty but he’s there in the way he appears in all of us. It’s like the gluey smell of books at New Issues Press and freezing your ass off listening to Roger and Tarfia at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center because the heater doesn’t work. It’s like colliding with Traci Brimhall at Michigan News and Nancy Eimers at Bookbug and Gail Griffin at Kazoo Books, Glen Shaheen at WMU, Julie Stotz-Ghosh at KVCC, Elizabeth Kerlikowske at Kellogg Community College, Denise Miller at FIRE. It’s like Marie Bahlke, who started writing poetry in her 70s and published her book in her 80s and in her 90s is still writing, and like Avi Stotz-Ghosh, who read yesterday at the venerable age of 6. It’s like the firehouse was turned into a venue for spoken word and hip hop and renamed “Fire.” It’s like the voices have been shaped by the wind and rain of the voiceless, and the ghosts of firefighters still slide down the pole, and that too is music. It’s like Danna Ephland, whose beautiful bare scalp is all we need know of poetry, is leading us all in a dance about surviving winter. It’s like stealing celery grown on stolen land, and feeding it to Bonnie Jo Campbell’s donkeys. It’s like—you know what it’s like? It’s like a church whose preacher as a boy used to leap from roof to roof under the constellations in Detroit, and his sermon is called “Write with your Monster.” It’s like writing a sonnet about the paper mill that poisoned the river on paper from the mill that poisoned the river.

If the Kalamazoo poetry community is like a map, then its epicenter is like a stucco house on Grand Avenue, on West Main Hill. Enter through the back door, onto a porch full of old tools, a basket of apples, and some stacks of back issues of literary magazines for the taking. Pull up a chair at the little table in the kitchen. A pot of tea waits for you, steaming with ghosts. The tall, thin, red-haired owner isn’t here yet, but he’s on his way, riding that green bike up Academy Street, listening for the metrics of the click-thump as the rubber tire runs over the bricks. If the community is like the pancake supper at the firehouse, then there he is again, probably back in the kitchen stirring the batter, watching Martha dance as the cakes sizzle on the griddle. If we’re like a church and Johnny Rybicki is preaching poetry from the pulpit, then Conrad Hilberry— that tall, thin, red-haired, humble, generous, calm presence—well, the obvious simile for Con, in the Kalamazoo United Church of the Brethren and Sisteren of the Holy Word, is God.

But Con ain’t havin it. He simply tips back in his chair, which is always on the verge of falling backwards, and that too is like the Kalamazoo Poetry Community. He’ll open his mouth in astonishment at the notion that he’s the pretty much the one who lit the match for this bonfire, that he’s the guy who set the Big Bang in motion. He’s who fed baby formula to the thing that grew into the many-headed word monster that is this writing community. He won’t even buy that he’s our poetry dad. He’ll wave us off, and then offer a bowl of pistachios, a clementine.

And here I must rescind the simile, for Con’s influence isn’t figurative at all. Many of us learned to write and teach and workshop poems at his side—not because of any pedagogical or aesthetic canon but simply by watching him. A quiet apprenticeship. He handed over his own poems to his students, not as a teaching strategy but because he respected us, and really wanted our opinion. Here’s Con, from an interview, on the value of a writing community: “You write something, and you don’t really know what works and what doesn’t or whether any of it is worth thinking about any more. But if you’ve got a group that is going to meet in four days or nine days, you can take it there with copies for everybody and read it and they’ll look at it sort of skeptically and shake their heads and say, ‘Well, come on.’ Or they might like it. But if you didn’t have a group like that, you’d have to send the thing off to some journal or something and get it back nine months later with just a little rejection slip. What the heck does that teach you? You really need a group of readers if you’re going to be a writer.” Maybe that’s the ticket; he needed a group of readers and he built one. He trusted us, and therefore we learned to trust ourselves enough to face the page, woven as it is of wood pulp and poison. Not God, not father, Con would likely prefer to be the man in the attic, catching rain in a cake pan so that it wouldn’t drain through the ceiling onto our beds, a man so unassuming, some of us might not even know he’s there at all. How about a compromise? Let’s call him the unofficial poet laureate of our town, the elder statesman of our word church. And let us pray, brothers and sisters, that his generosity of spirit continues to define us and our poems for generations to come.