A Review of
A Detroit Anthology, edited by Anna Clark
Edited by Anna Clark
Cleveland, OH: Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014.
240 pages. $15.00. (paperback)
I have a fondness for Detroit, a place I’ve never yet been but hope to someday see, because of the magnificent artists I’ve met who have lived in that place. Brilliant poets (and Waxwing contributors) Matthew Olzmann and Vievee Francis are from there, and I got to spend a summer with them as neighbors in Appalachia, got to hear them talk about what it was like to live in a new place; poet Jamaal May — whom I met in grad school, and whose work, every time I read it and every time I hear him read it, blows me away — is from there; and journalist, fiction writer, and Contributing Editor for Waxwing, Anna Clark, lives there now. And now Anna has introduced me to many more Detroit artists through an anthology she edited, aptly named A Detroit Anthology.
This book doesn’t claim to be the anthology of Detroit, but one of many that could be made. Detroit has plenty of art to offer, plenty to say about itself. In her introduction, Anna writes that there might be some “sharp edges and woozy gaps between the pieces” included, and that the “book is not intended to be a comprehensive anthology of the city” and “shouldn’t be used as an excuse to cease listening for more” (9-10). While the anthology doesn’t seek to be complete, I find it thorough. There are essays about sports and food and music, poems about school and fear and language. We get the perspectives of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish Detroiters, Greek and black and biracial, hardworking and unemployed and activist Detroiters, LGBT and blind and young and old, those who have left, those who have stayed, those who have returned. We get anger and love, frustration and celebration.
A resounding theme throughout the anthology — what I think of as the subtitle of the book — is People Still Live Here. Shrinking is not the same as disappearing, leaving is not the same as abandoning. Authors in this anthology write of ruin, and they write of renewal. They say, “Everything is going to be alright. Nothing is going to be alright” (96). These stories are public, and they are personal. They assert the uniqueness of Detroit, and they assert that Detroit is a lot like a lot of other places.
For example, Aaron Foley writes, “I see a bunch or regular-ass people doing regular-ass shit because Detroit is a regular-ass city with regular-ass problems just like everyone else” (15). Detroit is bankrupt, sure, but Foley asks, “You know who else has that problem? Chicago.” (15)
Shaun S. Nethercott tells us, “There is no monoculture — just the bumptious biodiversity of a vibrant ecosystem. […] Everywhere else seems pale and innocuous and inhospitable in comparison […] to [this] exasperating, endearing, delightful wreck of a city” (217).
Marsha Music says in the last words in the book, “It is true some say that they have come to save Detroit, but I say, they come to Detroit to BE saved” (231).
Anna Clark writes in her introduction, “There is no place I would rather be” (10). She also says that this “is a collection of Detroit stories for Detroiters. These are the stories we tell each other over late nights at the pub and long afternoons on the porch. We share them in coffee shops, at church social hours, in living rooms, and while waiting for the bus. These are stories full of nodding asides and knowing laughs. There are stories addressed to the rhetorical ‘you’—with the ratcheted-up language that comes with it” (9). This “you” is a dominant feature and connecting thread throughout this book, but the “you” is not homogenous — sometimes it is Detroiters, but some authors address outsiders.
Aaron Foley talks to people who don’t live in Detroit:
“I could go on and on about how the car you’re driving was possibly designed here and how we’re the home of Motown and stuff like that but fuck it. You know that already. Or at least you should. […] I’m just going to say that for as much shit as you talk about Detroit, where you live is probably just as fucked up somehow. […] Despite all of its fucked-uppedness, I still love Detroit. And there are a lot of people here who love the city and want to reduce that fucked-uppedness to a minimum. You love your fucked-up city, too. […] When it’s love, you know it’s real. And love conquers all, even the stigma of Chapter 9 bankruptcy and the national headshaking that comes with it. So yeah, Detroit will be just fine. Even if you don’t think so” (16-17).
Tracey Morris’s “you” is universal when she asks, “Remember your first day of school? How your outfit had to be just right? Or how the crusts had to be cut off your sandwich and carefully placed in the lunchbox with your favorite cartoon character on it?” (176). But then she shifts to her particular experiences when she tells us, “You see, every school I attended — from Head Start to twelfth grade — has closed. Every. Single. School” (177).
After a paragraph explaining that Detroit only has 14 percent of the nation’s jobs and that a third of the residents are unemployed and without a car and 36 percent of the residents and over half the children live below the poverty line and some classrooms have between forty and fifty students, Ingrid Norton then shifts to saying, “You’ve doubtless read stories about Detroit’s burgeoning art scene”(44). Yes, I have. She goes on to list details about that good news, but she ends the next paragraph with the first-person: “I have doubts about the city’s oft-vaunted creative scene, which I was a part of in 2010 and 2011: to what extent were we dancing to electro-pop while Detroit burned?” (44-45).
The first poem in the anthology, by Matthew Olzmann, uses the “you” as well: “Dusk. A quick stop you think, five bucks of gas / then onward into the rest of your life. / But as you stand by the pump and look for your card, / a stranger grabs your shoulder. […] It works like this, fear” (36). This is a poem to and for Detroiters, but can be understood by all of us who haven’t been to that city.
J.M. Leija uses “you” in two ways as she talks to outsiders, then insiders: “It’s a place that is two parts post-apocalypse and three parts stubborn as hell. A city that keeps running on idealism mixed up with cynicism, covered over by pragmatism and sprinkled with the long-lasting poison of racism. But we still build your cars. We still make your music. [… Detroit] takes you in if you let it, and it’s impossible for me to explain because I’m of it” (190).
People who live or lived in Detroit are not identical, and this book emphasizes the multiplicity of the citizens of that city. The essays explore a variety of experiences of race: a half-white-half-Hispanic woman speaks of sitting in the bleachers at a Tigers games with black men and Italian men and it all feeling “communal” (190); a woman writes of her playmate, a white child, peeing on her lawn because his parents made him decide black people weren’t welcome in that neighborhood (31-35); a Jewish man writes of being taught to be suspicious of black people (62); a woman writes of her family being welcomed, even though they were the first black family on the street (70); and a woman writes of having “friends, black, brown, and white” in her childhood, until all the white families moved away (225). Each essay in this anthology explains the experiences of Detroiters without explaining it all away, without simplifying. One author mourns how little live music can be found in the city and how many musicians have been forced to leave, while just a few pages away another author discusses the thriving hip-hop scene in Detroit; other essays discuss flourishing spoken-word venues, and how Detroit has become a “mecca for Germans who revere the city’s innovative techno music scene” (164, 170, 46, 19).
The photos interspersed with the writing emphasize what the language is saying — this is a city with beautiful buildings and empty lots, lights and fire, people playing, dancing, marching, singing, and just being. People Still Live Here.
I had the good fortune to ask Anna Clark some questions about this wild and wonderful anthology.
Erin Stalcup: I find it interesting that the anthology is almost entirely poetry and nonfiction. (Or entirely? I do read “Stand” by Steve Hughes — an account of a disabled man and his girlfriend considering burning down their house since they can’t afford rent anymore — as fiction, but I’m not entirely sure why I do, or if I should …) Was it a conscious choice to not include fiction in the book, to only tell a variety of “truths” about Detroit?
Anna Clark: Good ear on “Stand!” Steve Hughes is known around here for his zine “Stupor”, which is premised on him listening to people tell stories about their lives, usually while drinking beer in bars. Then he writes those stories up for his lovely handmade print issues. So, “Stand” is a true story, but it is an “as told to” project — which inevitably brings Hughes’ vibrant imagination into the mix.
I’m a great lover of fiction, but it was a choice to not include it in this book. We almost didn’t have poetry either. The hope was that readers, even those that don’t see themselves as “literary” people, would feel welcomed in by the anthology. Unfortunately, a lot of people feel intimidated by books with lots of poems, and our fear was that if we included poetry, we wouldn’t reach a lot of the readers we wanted. But so many extraordinary poets clamored into our submission period, offering combustible poems brimming with potent truths, I just had to put them in. And I do think the heated language they bring reflects an important part of this city’s personality: poetry is sometimes the only way to express the experience of living in Detroit.
Of course, fiction writers also bring a unique narrative voice to a city that is hungry for more chroniclers. But, first of all, there are fewer people writing Detroit fiction to choose from (which I can’t understand), so I didn’t see the same number expressing interest in contributing to the anthology. And also, I wanted to be careful to not make the reading experience of the book too jarring. I hope that reading this book is immersive. It is such an eclectic collage of voice, story, style, tone, text, and image — the nonfiction itself is a mix of reportage, memoir, manifesto, prose poem, anecdote, even philosophy. To push it further and jump among three full literary genres would be just one leap too far. Though, in the case of “Stand,” which is sort of multiple genres at once — the piece was so good, I couldn’t resist it.
ES: I know you’re a great lover of fiction, because you’re an excellent fiction writer yourself. That completely makes sense, but I now hope that the anthology makes at least one person write some fiction about Detroit (and maybe submit it to Waxwing!). Can you tell me what the response to the anthology has been in Detroit? You had a great review in The Millions and this great interview in a local paper, but can you tell me more about the local response? I see that you had an event in July that was “part book club, part salon, and part celebration” where contributors read from the anthology and photographs were shown, and the audience was invited to discuss the book, specifically, “What stories resonate with you? Provoke you? What is untold about this city and the people who live here?” I would have loved to be at that event! What did people say?
AC: This part of the book’s life — in reader’s hands — is scary and powerful. Before, it seemed like there were endless things I could do to shape the experience of the book: editing, tweaking, moving things about. Now, I have to let go and leave it to readers to “complete” the book by bringing their own imaginations to it. Most often, I hear people sharing their own stories of Detroit — everything from a family home being firebombed to a remembrances of boulevards so thickly curtained by elm trees that walking beneath them made noon feel like dusk. Even people who haven’t been here have interesting stories they seem excited to share — echoes they see between Detroit and their cities. (Hearing your thoughtful and unique take on the book just wows me.) I love so much listening to these stories. It is the greatest gift that’s come out of editing this book.
One of our photographers has described that July event as feeling like a family reunion, and she’s right. “Digging into A Detroit Anthology” was set up as an interactive event: each of the readers picked a piece in the book that was not their own to read. They talked about why the work of someone else resonated with them — and, in turn, this inspired guests to share their own Detroit stories. We heard from long-timers about watching their childhood neighborhood radically change during the 20th-century exodus, and we heard from newcomers seeking out a way to find a home here. People disagreed about what is most important to focus on in reviving the city.
‘Course, not all responses are positive. We have an online review that calls the book “breathtakingly bad” because, the author writes, the anthology misunderstands the fact that residential segregation was actually a good thing. (!!!). So, there’s that.
ES: Yep, there’s that. Wow. I really appreciated the range of voices included in the anthology, and that the stories told weren’t all the same, and I’m glad that has continued after publication. I’m also curious if some great writers weren’t included because they’re from Detroit but don’t write about Detroit. I don’t at all want to imply that Detroit is a thing that must be written about — no one asks me, “Why don’t you write about your hometown of Flagstaff, Arizona?” I was obviously shaped by being from here, but it’s also true that Flag isn’t as interesting as Detroit! Are there some people you had to leave out, or other writers from your communities that you want to draw attention to?
AC: There was a wide net cast on what counted as a “Detroiter” for this book — the contest for authenticity here is awfully tricky terrain, and in this book, it’s left to the authors themselves to define their relationship to the city. No one was excluded because they moved away, because they live in the ’burbs, because they lived here a short time, or because they don’t often write about the city. If big names with Detroit roots came calling — hello, Joyce Carol Oates! — I would’ve loved to have included them. The only key is that the piece for the book hinges on the lived experience of Detroit. Whether the pieces turned on the strange way history is memorialized (“The Fauxtopias of Detroit’s Suburbs”), or the provoking intersection of sports and urban planning (“Lost in Hockeytown”), or a first encounter with Run-DMC’s music (“Awakening”), the hope is that readers will find resonances among the pieces.
Other Detroit writers worth attention: I have an endless list. You mentioned Vievee Francis earlier: she’s one of the most extraordinary poets I’ve ever read, anywhere. Bill Harris, a playwright and poet, is inventive and brilliant. Toby Barlow, the author of Sharp Teeth and Babayaga, does incredibly imaginative work. I dig the journalism of Courtney Balestier and the arts writing of Mark Stryker. Airea D. Matthews brings an entrancing mix of playfulness and ferocity to everything she writes. Bridgett M. Davis is a Detroit native living in Brooklyn whose new novel, Into the Go-Slow, is set in 1986 in both Detroit and Lagos, Nigeria. Amy Elliott Bragg does fascinating writing about the strange and heart-opening history of Detroit. Rachel Harkai’s poems are intelligent and gutsy things. David Small no longer lives in the city, but his account of growing up here in the graphic memoir Stitches is a must-read. And David Blair was an immeasurably talented poet who was beloved here. Blair wrote the book of poems Moonwalking about Michael Jackson and can be seen on video in electrifying performances of, for example, “Detroit (While I Was Away)”.
ES: I’m so glad you mentioned the Fauxtopias essay — that was one of my favorites, because of how it investigates something that seems surreal but is fully real, that simulacrum. And thank you for mentioning all these other writers and artists to check out! You’re absolutely right when you say in your Introduction, “We begin with abundance.” My last questions is, what do you wish people would ask you about the anthology? What does it not occur to interviewers to ask?
AC: This question is something I wish more people would ask! I haven’t talked much about gender. The spate of books about Detroit, both fiction and nonfiction, are nearly entirely written by men. (Count ‘em: Charlie LeDuff, Mark Binelli, Scott Martelle, Thomas J. Sugrue, Dan Austin, John Gallagher, Paul Clemens, Bill Morris, Scott Lasser…). Now, there’s nothing wrong with these guys’ books: I love many of them dearly and consider them essential reading. But as Detroit’s story is unfolding, it is bizarre how absent female voices are. Is it because of the cars? Politics? Violence? I really don’t get what it is about this place, but it is as if publishers — or readers? — assume Detroit’s story is a masculine one.
But of course it is more than that. With a female editor, female publisher, and a terrific array of female essayists, poets, and photographers, this anthology, I hope, is a fuller picture of the diversity of storytellers in this city.
ES: I definitely noticed the strong female presence in this anthology, and was delighted to read about baseball from the perspective of a woman fan! (The Tigers have basically become who I root for when the Red Sox are out of it, since I have so many friends who love the Tigers.) Thank you so much for your time, Anna. I truly hope I get to see your city soon.about the author