Last month, I gave you a personal narrative that ended in Austin, TX, with a look at some of the things that that city has to offer for writers. This month, I’m taking you 1,380 miles back to the great state of Michigan, the place I first called home. I’m dropping us in Detroit to talk with Toby Barlow, a novelist and one of the co-founders (with Sarah F Cox) of Write A House, and the poet Casey Rocheteau, one of the first winners of a Write A House residency. But what is Write A House exactly? A program or organization of some kind? Just a group of genuinely good people, who just so happen to have some houses to give away? A possible model for real community impact? A brilliant idea that is just now taking on what kind of reality? A shadowy network of real-estate agents, who want to legitimize a new predatory genre called subprime fiction? Ostensibly, Write A House seeks to renovate houses in the Detroit area and then give those houses to writers for keeps (like forever ever for keeps), but what’s going on at the ground level and how is everything actually playing out with this initiative so far? Let’s see what some of those people most closely involved with this project have to say about it.
Hi Toby. How did Write A House all start coming together? Was it a slow difficult process, or did things really click from the very beginning? What were some early challenges, some breakthroughs?
TB: We took our time getting started, it actually took about two years between our first board meeting and our public launch. The delays were mostly legal. We wanted to be a non-profit and the lawyers we spoke with about it were very confused by the concept of giving away homes. They would say things like “What if the homes gain in value?” And we’d say (a) that’s probably going to take awhile, this is Detroit after all, and (b) non-profits who give cash grants to writers never say “Please take this money but make sure you’re not successful with it?” They want the writer to succeed and so do we. Anyway, all that took some time. But it helped because when we launched we were pretty rock solid. And now we’re a non-profit.
Can you share with us any moments that could be called a real “team effort,” where working together played a vital part in making Write A House a reality?
TB: It’s tough to identify one single thing because the whole thing has been a team effort. We are blessed with a very active cross-discipline board. We have someone who knows the city, someone who knows law, someone who knows real estate, someone who knows press, someone who knows about the neighborhood and quite a few people who know writers and publishers. Our email chains belong in doctoral theses about how to start a non-profit. This has been nothing individualistic about this process.
Why Detroit? What’s your connection to this city, and what is your vision for Write A House as a real presence/part of Detroit?
TB: I moved here eight years ago for work. I fell in love with the city very quickly. I’ve lived a lot of places, D.C., Brooklyn, Oakland, San Francisco, Chicago, Philly. This city is very, very different. Its traumas are profound, but so is its opportunity. I think I got here at a time when the collective memory of all the truly traumatic stuff that happened here in the second half of the twentieth century was beginning to shift and mix and allow room in for what could be here now.
As for our vision, while we try to keep it small and modest, we also believe that the impact of this small, modest idea – restoring homes and giving them to writers – could be enormous. It’s early to tell. The world is full of great ideas that never get actualized to their full potential. And maybe that’s what happens here. Maybe we just give a few homes away and some people who work on those homes get some job skills and the neighborhood is a little better off for it. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
On the other hand, maybe people see this model and are inspired by it. Maybe we use this model to attract teachers to the city, or to bring in doctors. Let’s say we went super large and wound up doing 1,000 homes. That would cost something crazy like 70 million dollars. Nuts, right? But at the end of it, you’d have a well-trained labor force, you’d have a bunch of people who are engaged and want to live and work in the community, and you’d have more stable and activated neighborhoods. And when you put that against the 170 million dollars that the city paid out just to lawyers and accountants for the city’s bankruptcy, suddenly that 70 million dollars doesn’t look so crazy.
The answer is probably somewhere in the middle. We are definitely creating a model for how you can do things differently.
In terms of a vision or aim for Write A House, you write on the website that, “The Detroit writers and urban activists who founded the organization in 2012 did so with one goal: use vocational training to renovate vacant homes and then give these homes to writers.” Later you note, “Our idea supports literary arts, vocational education, neighborhood stabilization, and the creation of more vibrant cities.” How has this vision and these ideas played out so far? Has the city of Detroit itself or the reality of Write A House surprised you, made you rethink or question your original aims and ideas, or met your goals/expectations in any unforeseen ways?
TB: The main lesson, and one we’ve embraced, is that every simply idea comes imbued with a lot of complexity. You can’t be about one house and one writer without getting involved in something larger. We’ve been dealing with everything from neighborhood security to water rights to the ethics of squatting and Bangladeshi immigrant issues. And when I say “dealing with” I don’t mean solving or even fully comprehending (the Detroit Water Department remains mighty enigmatic, but we’re working it out.) We like this aspect of the project, as a friend of mine in City Hall said, “you guys are running toward the problems everyone else is running away from.”
Other than that, everything is working the way we hoped it would. Writers are interested in coming here, we got 350 applications for the first house. The finalists our judges picked were incredibly impressive; I was floored by their stature and the high caliber of their work. And its worked to help bring focus and energy to the literary arts in Detroit. We hosted a great Poetry Pallooza event at MOCAD and have just launched an ongoing writers series.
Reading over the Write A House website, it seems like this initiative seeks to incorporate a strong element of community. The website makes it pretty clear that all kinds of writers will interpret and implement their own understanding of community engagement in their own unique ways, but that some kind of community involvement is at the heart of what Write A House is really all about. Can you maybe talk a little bit about what community means to you as a writer, what kind of an impact a writer can have on a city like Detroit, and how Write A House fits into the mix?
TB: One of the things I love about Detroit is the community here. Coming from places like San Francisco and Brooklyn, which have really seen their communities disrupted by all the money and massive change, it’s great to be in a collaborative place where a lot of people are working as much to make things better for everyone than just for their own success. I don’t want to sound too idealistic about it, it’s still the real world, but all the collaboration is definitely one of the things I love about this place.
As a writer, I think the great thing about this particular community is how cross-cultural and cross-disciplined it is. In New York, I generally found myself around a lot of people who were a lot like me. I don’t know if that’s ultimately great for a writer. I think it’s good to touch a lot of different parts of the world. For me, at least, Detroit has connected me to a much wider experience than I think I would have gotten elsewhere. I don’t know if it’s made me a better writer, maybe a better person? I dunno. It’s definitely left me more impatient with the monoculture I see spreading like kudzu everywhere else. I mean, it’s hard for me to be inspired at a Panera. Other writers can do that, me, I have a hard time.
As a writer yourself, what would you say are some things that make for a good writer or good writing? Are any of these characteristics, outlooks, or approaches particularly suitable for some kind of positive or effective presence in a community? Do any of these tendencies cause difficulty or become especially problematic in the context of community? Is there some kind of balance here that a writer should be conscious of or seek to maintain when it comes to their life as a writer and their role in a community?
TB: I think if you read The Paris Review’s interviews with authors – which everyone interested in writing should do, the same way other people read People and Us (not that there is anything wrong with People or Us, read those too if you want) – you realize that every writer has a unique path and discipline. A lot of it can’t be taught. Most all of it can’t be taught. The only advice I ever have is “just write” “don’t be intimidated” and “then rewrite.” That’s it. The rest is up to you and what’s going on inside you.
What do you think Detroit needs most from writers right now? What does this city have to offer to writers and their work that other locations maybe can’t?
TB: Detroit is a very unique place on the planet right now. There is no space like it. I would think some writers would want to experience that. The Write A House project invites a lot of different kinds of writers in, we’re not about just one discipline, because we think there are a lot of different kinds of inspiration that would extract something from this town. For non-fiction, though, our need is pretty pronounced. There are a lot of issues going on in this city that could use some fresh eyes. Stuff that is happening here should be seen and recorded. It’s just a very, very interesting time. I don’t know a journalist who has not come away from this scene absolutely fascinated.
Maybe you could talk a little bit about the response to this project so far. What kind of feedback have you been getting from writers, the people involved in this project, the people involved in these communities, and people in general?
TB: Well, the biggest lesson is “If you want to have writers write something nice about you, do something nice for writers.” Our press has been phenomenal. Partly because our project is unique, partly because there is a universal interest in what is happening in Detroit, and partly because writers everywhere all over the world are struggling, the internet has commoditized and devalued our offering while real estate everywhere just makes it harder and harder. So it was nice that little old bankrupt Detroit reached out and said “We love you! Come here! We’ve got a place for you!”
When will the next round of applications open for a Write A House residency?
TB: We plan to open up the next round of applications sometime around April or May.
What struck you most about the writers who have already been awarded residencies? Was there something you saw in them, their work, or their application/proposal that just made you say, wow, I need her/him here in Detroit right now?
TB: We just want nice, smart, hardworking people here. We’ve only awarded the first house. We’re working on the second house now and the third house is all lined up and ready to go.
Casey Rocheteau, our first writer, is just a very lovely woman with a good sense of humor and a great consciousness about the world around her. We picked her because of her writing, first and foremost, we’re not looking for anyone to a booster for the city or organize the neighborhood. If that happens, fantastic, but if they just hole up and write, well, that’s what writers do sometimes.
The process is pretty self-selecting though. I mean, there are a lot of writers who have no interest in this, they like it just fine where they are.
On the website, you write, “Due the high levels of vacancy in Detroit, the biggest challenge we face is not purchasing homes, but finding the funds to renovate and restore them.” Is there anything else that Write A House is in particular need of right now? How else can those interested in helping get involved with this great cause?
TB: Email us and say hi. Like us on the Facebooks. Tell your friends about us. Argue about us and invent controversies so we’ll be on every front page. Send us housewarming gifts we can pass on to the authors. Read up on our finalists (http://writeahouse.com/meet-our-10-finalists-for-the-inaugural-residency/) and read Casey’s work.
I wish the big publishing houses would get involved. I love the idea of a “Random House House.” It’s a very simple and direct way for them to show their support for writers.
If you had to pick one thing you’d like to see happen or made possible through Write A House, what would that one thing be?
TB: I’d just like to see us keep turning on empty houses and filling them with intelligent life.
What’s in store for the future of Write A House? Any news, updates, things to look forward to that readers should be aware of?
TB: The next application process is the main thing people should keep their eyes and ears open for. Again, if you like us on Facebook we’ll work hard to make sure everyone hears when we’re accepting applications. And check out our website. You can donate money for the restoration of one of our houses there. That’d be nice!
Hi Casey. How did you hear about Write A House? What made you decide to apply?
CR: I first heard about it through Facebook, and did not think it was something I would ever apply to. I think I was actually a little shocked by the very idea of it, but then a few weeks later, a friend of mine who happens to be a poet and a black Detroiter posted about it. She said that she completely trusted the people running it and that she wanted people to apply, so I figured I’d give it a shot, never really expecting anything to come of it.
Can you tell us a little bit about the writing sample and the proposal/statement of purpose you decided to submit?
CR: Looking back on it, the writing sample was strange. I could not say there was a clear narrative or anything of that sort. It included persona poems in the voices of Nicki Minaj and Sun Ra, a two voice piece where the first half is just excerpts of a slave owner’s diary, a love poem, a poem about race play and contempt, a poem about being in a psych ward, and two poems about uncles—one who’s a neo-nazi, and one who killed himself. I’m generalizing, but that’s the overview—free verse about sex, anti-psychotic drugs and hip hop, just the typical stuff I thought Billy Collins would enjoy. Then the proposal…it was really two 150-word short answer essay questions where I think I basically said that I had so much loan debt I’d never be able to own a house, but I’d really like to garden and take root somewhere and build a family. I don’t know how anyone looked at that range of things and thought “that’s the one”, but as luck would have it…
What was it like winning this residency? Walk us through that moment when you first got the news or sum it up in some essential way.
CR: In honesty, I’m not particularly giddy. Not an easy squealer. Also I think I was still waking up when I got the news. I was in bed, anyway, and I got a phone call from a Michigan number I didn’t recognize. I figured it was probably Write A House, and that they had follow up questions. When it was Toby and he said he was calling to tell me I won, I was confused. I believe I said “wait, what? really?”. Even though I had made it to the top ten finalists, when I looked at the lineup and saw the credentials everyone else had, I was absolutely certain I was not going to be their choice. After I got off the phone, I did absolutely squeal and do a lap around the apartment…just ran around like Muhammad Ali in Zaire.
It looks like you’ve moved around a lot in your life already and do quite a bit of touring/travel. You grew up in Cape Cod, but have lived in Brooklyn for the last few years, is that right? Do you see yourself as someone who is always in transit, is that something you try to embrace, or do you find that some sense of belonging or attachment to a particular locale is important to you and your work? Is there someplace or places that really feel like home for you, and what makes that home, home? How is any of this an influence on or reflected in your work as a writer?
CR: This is a funny question to me, and not the first time I’ve been asked some variation on it. I grew up on Cape Cod, went to school in Western Mass, lived in Boston for four years, lived in Providence for a year. I never lived more than a three hour drive from my hometown for the first 26 years of my life, and I’m only 29. I had decided that Boston was going to be my home base in 2010. I’d already lived there for a few years, but I committed to it mentally, and less than a year after that my entire life was upended and I had to go back to the drawing board. I moved to Brooklyn because I got into grad school and graduated in May 2014. Almost as soon as I was done, I went back to Western Mass for the summer. I move around a lot in the country, sure. Occasionally I am afforded opportunities to travel internationally, which is always amazing, and I like to travel, but typically I’m working in some capacity if I’m traveling. I’m on tour, or at a writing retreat or an academic conference. My mom always says I have wings on my feet. I think I feel most myself in a lot of ways when I’m on the move, but only as long as I know that there’s a familiar place to come back to eventually. And where I grew up certainly shaped me as a person. I feel most at home staring out at the ocean. I’ve been doing it my whole life, so there’s something really intrinsic about that landscape for me. I think the question of what makes home home is impossible to answer in a lot of ways. It’s an indescribable feeling. For me, there has to be a space which I have control over, which I design to my liking and can wantonly clutter up without it bothering anyone else. In terms of how any of this influences my writing—I think what effects me most is the temporality, atmosphere and the people who I interact with. Maybe that sounds ambiguous, but I think there’s probably a strong connection between my immediate surroundings and the aesthetic or urgency with which I’m writing.
What does community mean to you and what are its ties to place? Maybe with things like the internet, social networking, and skype we can continue to stay connected with those people we might otherwise lose track of do to distance, but maybe we’re missing out on something if we solely look to technology for ways to really get in touch with each other. Any thoughts here?
CR: Plenty, but I don’t want to write you a novel about it. What I will say is this: I have plenty of friends that I keep in touch with through social networking, but I still call people on the phone. My brother is the only person who I normally FaceTime with—I watched his wedding this way, because he told me about it about nine hours before the ceremony took place. I find a lot of technology alienating, even though I utilize it frequently. It’s a psychological sleight of hand. A nurse explained the science to me once. It’s like if you press your thumb to another person’s thumb and then run the thumb and index finger of your other hand up and down the two thumbs, it feels like one thumb, or like you can feel what the other person feels because suddenly you’re connected. This happens with touch screen phones, where we emotionally attach to the phone because of whoever is on the other end of it. But really we spend a lot of time just pressing glass and plastic all day. I make a point of staying in touch with the people I care about, but I would not say that they are my community. The way people use the word community can be so nebulous and slippery. I define community as people who share common interests and goals, who work together and support each other. I know I’ve found community when people who I can laugh and cook with, problem-solve and grieve alongside in real time with frequency and enthusiasm surround me. There are exceptions to this, like in the slam poetry world, for example, where people come together from around the country and internationally at least three times a year. And overall, it’s not as if I consider everyone in the slam poetry “community” to be in my community. I don’t know everyone. And there are plenty of folks who slam who I know but have no interest in embracing.
What’s your own experience been like when it comes to community and other writers? Have you sought out or been pulled into a group of writers in the past? Is there a group of people or single person who are/is somehow essential, supportive, or important to who you are as a writer, or are you more of a lone wolf?
CR: Again, I have to talk about slam poets, because that’s really how I got started writing regularly and it was always a kind of group activity—workshops, readings, slams and so on. I send poems and manuscripts to other poet friends of mine as a test audience, always, and I have plenty of friends who send me their work as well. When I first started getting serious about poetry I was dating, and then engaged to another writer. We bounced everything off each other, pushed each other to develop. The relationship ended in an awful way, just after I turned 20 and we stayed close friends up until last year, I think in part because we had this artistic connection that had been really essential to both of us as writers. Over the last year or so I think I’ve become a bit more solitary. I read more of poetry as a field now, and I think that’s really the most essential thing.
As a writer, do you feel obligated/called to some kind of social impact/engagement?
CR: I feel that way as a human being. My work reflects who I am. I don’t write because I feel called to social impact, I write because I have to. It’s survival for me, it helps me make sense of the world, it’s cathartic. I often choose to write about social issues because I as a human have experienced great pain, and have witnessed the suffering of so many others, and I feel compelled to name these wounds.
Are there any writers/thinkers/figures you’ve looked to as a model for a writer’s place within a community?
CR: Audre Lorde. Zora Neale Hurston. Eduardo Galeano. Angela Davis. Frederick Douglass. Arundhati Roy. Joan Didion. James Baldwin. Sun Ra.
What would your ideal writers’ community look like?
CR: It would be diverse in style, supportive, challenging, hard-working, generous, open and active in a broader community. We would also play spades every Sunday.
Write A House itself seems to place a strong emphasis on community. The hope here seems to be that the recipients of these residencies will really stay involved with the city of Detroit somehow. Can you give us a sense of how you’re planning on fostering some sense of community or what your experience of the city has been like so far?
CR: I’ll start by saying that so far a good deal of my experience has involved literacy education. I work with InsideOut Literary Arts, I’ve done a workshop with 826 Michigan, I’m starting to work with LitWorld in Detroit—so a lot of my time is focused around getting young people interested in creative writing and reading in some capacity. I’m really invested in education, creativity and critical thinking anywhere I am, but I think there is a way in which all of these things are essential to Detroit in the present moment. I have loftier goals—things like publications or a reading series, but that is all in a very germinal stage. I also want to start building more in my own neighborhood. I’ve met some people, but I think there’s a lot of potential for cross-pollination in an organic way creatively here, and plenty that’s already started to grow.
I feel like a lot of people have a warped or one-dimensional sense of what Detroit is really like. Everything they know about the city is fed by a few redundant talking points. I’m sure you were savvy enough not to buy into the kind of narrative that can barely be held together by newspaper clippings, but I’m curious if the city has surprised you or challenged your expectations in any other ways. What has it been like living in Detroit so far, what has struck you about the city, and what are you looking forward to?
CR: The media is so reductive about so much, that I have a hard time believing that I’m ever getting a clear picture about anything. I barely trusted what I heard from musicians I know about passing through Detroit. I think what’s surprised me most was how friendly I’ve found most Detroiters to be. And I don’t just mean returning a smile, but stopping and having a very real and blunt interaction with somebody on the street that’s genuine. In some sense it’s maybe a Northeast vs. Midwest standard I’m going by, but I think Detroit in particular has this black Southern influence to it, where it’s totally normal to strike up conversation with strangers, but that’s not limited to black Detroiters exclusively. In New York, there are pockets like that, at least for me—parts of Bed Stuy and Harlem. What the media narratives about blight and bankruptcy miss is the influence the realities of living in this city have on people’s interior lives. It’s incredibly complex. The feeling of neglect is palpable, there are places where an entire block is just decimated aside from one house, and yet there is a deep human connectivity in a way that I can’t quite describe. Also, I have to say that my experience of living in Detroit is really unique because of the circumstances that brought me here. I don’t think that means I have a completely skewed perspective, but that I engage with a really wide swath of people and connect in ways I wouldn’t necessarily have been able to had I just decided to pack up and move here independently. I’m really looking forward to the spring, to seeing more people out and about. I’ve gotten out plenty so far this winter, but I’m excited to see what Detroit is like when it’s warmer. Also, I’m looking forward to learning to drive.
It looks like you’ve only been in the city a few months so far. Has living in Detroit already had any noticeable effects on your work or your approach to what you’re writing? Has it challenged or inspired you creatively in some new or interesting way? Is there something about this city, this experience that you’d like to (or can only) get at through your writing?
CR: So people have been asking me if Detroit would change my writing since the day it was announced that I had been awarded the residency. While I know my voice and my work well enough, I have to say—it doesn’t work like this. I won’t have any insight into what the effect is until further down the road looking back. As far as my approach—I’m not sure. I think what’s difficult about trying to answer this question right now is that I’m asked often to write about Detroit, to answer questions about it, to tie my creative interior to a place that I have been for only a short time. There is a large investment on the part of other people to understand my connection to my new surroundings, and I’m still absorbing and listening. I do know two things for sure, which is that there is this constant voice in my head telling me to pick up a novel I started working on when I was 17, and that I want to put together another album of music and poetry, but again, those ideas are in their very early stages. And I mean, I know how to express myself best through writing, so yes, there is a great deal about the city and about my experience here that I cannot sort out anywhere else other than when I sit down to write.
What would you like to make of this opportunity, or what’s the one thing you’d really like to do with your time here in the city of Detroit and in this house?
CR: I want to use the house as a gathering space—for intimate readings, barbeques, organizing, whatever I can. I have this space because people believed in the project, and the people spearheading the project believe in me, and I think it only makes sense to share what I have beyond myself. It’s not a huge space, so I couldn’t host town hall meetings or anything, but still. On a more personal level, I want to allow myself the space to be a writer first. I have always focused more on something else, be it working as a counselor, or a teacher, or getting a degree in history and writing on the side. I want to push my craft harder than ever, now that I’m being afforded the opportunity to do so. I’d really like to try and make inroads into making Detroit a sustainable place to live for the poor and working class residents in whatever ways I can. I’m not sure what form that will take. I’d also like to help build a broader infrastructure for writers. There are pockets, and certainly Write A House is one of them, but beyond that. I want the city to be a place where people go out of their way to stop on book tours and the like. Currently, there’s not a single creative writing MFA program in Detroit proper. I don’t know that I have any power to change that, or if that’s even the most essential component, but I would certainly advocate for one’s existence. I think it’s really important to send a message to the young people and college students who live here that they live in a place that values literacy in all forms, that values reading about their experiences and fostering their creativity on the page.
What’s it like just having a house, a yard, some kind of larger space to truly call your own right out of the blue like this? That’s a weird slice of stability that I feel like most writers aren’t accustomed too, and it’s a stability you earned by way of your writing. Does that kind of stability scare you, psych you out a little, excite you with its possibilities?
CR: It is awesome in the truest sense of the word, but hell yeah it freaks me out! I would be hard pressed to find a time in my life that I’ve really known stability, and every time I catch a whiff of it, I don’t believe it’s real. So this is totally surreal and uncharted territory for me. I honestly did not believe this was real until Toby handed me the keys to my house, even after I had come out for the announcement party and seen it. I kept thinking that I’d say something stupid in an interview and Toby and Sarah would be like “alright, just kidding, please stay in Brooklyn”. I didn’t even really feel settled in the house until this past week when I finished painting the interior. You have to understand that it’s not just that I’ve been granted something most writers don’t have, but something that I’ve never known. Not to get super personal about it, but both of my biological parents are likely going to face foreclosure in the near future, and I used to think that as long as I worked really hard, I’d somehow be able to stop this from happening. I can’t. Not yet, anyway. I grew up with a Dad who wasn’t my biological father, and he worked as a produce man in grocery stores. He often worked multiple jobs. He was diagnosed with kidney disease when I was 11, the same year my parents bought their first house, where my mom lives now. Throughout my teenage years, he got sicker, and when I was 17 he finally made it to the top of the donor list and got a transplant. That was the first time in years things seemed hopeful, like it would all turn out fine. It lasted about a month. He died in his sleep of a heart attack very suddenly the first week of my senior year of high school. Stability seems like a cruel joke to me because I know very well that life is filled with such terrible ironies and twists. And again, I’ve only been here a little under three months, so who knows what will happen. For now, I am taking things gradually and just enjoying the space I have physically and mentally. I can only see as far as planting in the back yard when it gets warmer, and I can only hope that everything will grow.
Could you maybe leave us with a little something you’ve been working on lately? Or maybe something you’ve read recently that you’d like to share? A whole piece, an excerpt or a few line from a poem …
CR: This is an excerpt of a recent poem titled “Aiyana Stanley-Jones Reported as ‘Disposition: Criminal’”:
Somewhere in the catacombs of precedence
it is stated that if a strike incurs casualties
beyond the intended target they are to be listed
as enemy combatants, on principle.
But who aids and abets the trigger-happy?
Who blindfolded the executioner?
Who beholds a child’s corpse and lists
her loss of life as the fine print
of her neighbor’s arrest warrant?
Toby Barlow’s last novel “Babayaga” was a pick of the year for 2015 from Amazing and, more importantly, a staff pick at City Light’s. His first book “Sharp Teeth” was a winner of the 2009 Alex Award. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, N+1, and The Paris Review Daily.
Casey Rocheteau was the recipient of the inaugural Write A House permanent residency in Detroit in September, 2014. She has attended Callaloo Writer’s Workshop, Cave Canem, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Sicily. She has performed throughout the United States from Portland, ME to Portland, OR, and has led writing and performance workshops for youth and adults alike. For over a decade, Casey has been involved with spoken word and slam poetry and was a member of the 2012 Providence Slam Team. She’s released two albums on the Whitehaus Family Record. Her first collection of poetry, Knocked Up On Yes, was released on Sargent Press in 2012. Her second collection of poetry will be published on Sibling Rivalry Press in early 2016.
Jim Redmond is a Michigan man, who now lives in Austin, TX. He conducted these interviews and will continue to curate a monthly blog series on literary communities for Drunken Boat. Some of his writing can be found or is forthcoming in PANK, ReDIVIDer, Juked, Columbia Poetry Review, and Word Riot, among others. His chapbook, Shirts or Skins, won one of Heavy Feather Review’s chapbook prizes a while ago.
The Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree Burning Riots were literally sparked by 105-time grammy award winning artist Mariah Carey after her legendary December 4, 2014 performance at Rockefeller Plaza in NYC. Following a performance of holiday classic, “All I Want For Christmas is You,” Carey sauntered over to the 85ft tall Norwood Spruce & sd, “Y’all ready to light this tree?”
Suddenly, Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Da Brat, & Angie Martinez pulled up to Rockefeller Center on speedboats, not unlike the beginning of the music video for Lil Kim’s 1997 masterpiece “Ladies Night.” Several people were so excited they passed out instantly. Not even the mayor of New York City minded that Missy Elliott’s speedboat alone had caused over sixty five thousand dollars in property damage from her using it on the streets of new york city instead of in the water. He was like no way that was cool.
Missy Elliott, Lil Kim, Da Brat, & Angie Martinez joined Mariah on the stage, each producing a torch from her back pocket. “Wait!” came a cry from the audience. Mariah looked over her shoulder & saw Venezuelan poet Miyo Vestrini and country music icon Shania Twain leading Agathite High Priestesses Lisa Left Eye Lopes and Aaliyah, newly resurrected from the underworld, to the stage. At this point nearly every member of the audience had fainted.
To revive the audience the team performed a song and dance number entitled, “Torch the Tree” written by Cecilia Vicuña, Miyo Vestrini, Lil Kim, Bhanu Kapil, Alice Notley, Trisha Low, Trisha Low’s libertarian mom, & Missy Elliott. The song touched eloquently & forcefully on the topics of police brutality & systemic racism. The remaining conscious members of the audience screeched so loudly w desire to smash the imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy that it woke those who had grown unconscious.
The team again went to light the tree but realized their torches had gone out & even the big jug of lighter fluid that Trisha’s mom brought was empty. Even more suddenly than the sudden thing that happened before, a police helicopter appeared in the sky, rushing toward the scene. The crowd, fresh w realization abt the evils of our nations police system began to panic. The helicopter’s movements grew increasingly erratic until a body leapt from the plane, opening a parachute on its way down.
“That unmanned helicopter is headed straight for wall street!” yelled Juliana Spahr, sucking the meat off of a cop bone. & even though this was not actually geographically possible, it was true. The unpiloted copter soon exploded on Wall Street destroying all of the banks in the United States.
“Thought you might need a light,” sd Kathy Acker dropping in from the sky via parachute, chuckling. Acker pulled an ember of the flames of hell from her pocket & handed it to Mariah. WNBA superstars Ticha Penicheiro & Sue Bird hoisted Mariah up to light the tree. A single tear dropped from Mariah Carey’s beautiful perfect sweet angel princess eye as the tree went up in flames. She then gave a terse yet extremely educational talk on the way media frames news stories as a means of creating & maintaining structures of oppression.
The crowd took a moment of silence to reflect on just how amazing Mariah’s 25-year career had been. 18 #1 singles, 79 weeks as #1 on the charts, the longest running #1 single of all time, over 200 million albums sold–Mariah was truly the greatest musician of all time, as if her 5 octave vocal range & beautiful spirit cld ever suggest otherwise. Everything she said had to be true! When the silence broke, the crowd began calling for further action. “If Mariah Carey can overcome Glitter,” yelled Stephanie Young, “we can overthrow the government.”
Giving the people what they want, Sappho walked onstage wearing a Playboy snapback hat & holding a flamethrower ready to join Kathy Acker in a vital reconnaissance mission that they had just texted each other abt during the moment of silence. “We are going to take over NBC,” sd Sappho into Mariah’s mic. Shania & T-Boz rode up on white horses & Sappho & Acker hopped on. Then the horses boarded Missy Elliott’s speedboat. Missy’s speedboat traveled at a slow, sultry 5mph blasting TLC’s “What About Your Friends” & leading a group of protestors to NBC headquarters. Once there, the team rushed the front doors with an army of about 1000, launching a full-scale occupation of the network. After riding a horse up 200 flights of stairs, Kathy Acker dismounted & walked over to the control room where she inserted a pristine VHS tape entitled “A Kathy Acker Christmas” into the broadcast player.
Meanwhile, millions flooded the streets of New York City, educating people on the ills of the police state & the promises of St. Agatha. Shockingly, all it took for people to realize that their ignorance was being manufactured by the media, was an equal force of influence–Mariah Carey–revealing just how this was happening.
Though the original tape was lost in the ensuing destruction of NBC headquarters by Lisa Left Eye Lopes, “A Kathy Acker Christmas” is widely regarded as the greatest film of all time, even by those who have not seen it. Clocking in at just under fifteen hours, the special was watched by 4 billion people worldwide, many of whom immediately became Agathites.
The Mariah Carey Institute for the Coming Insurrection has remained a powerful force in The New Order of St. Agatha, producing cultural propaganda that slowly but surely dismantles the hundreds of years of rlly bad media society has endured. May the messages of St. Agatha fill the billboards & Billboard Top 100s of this shit earth until La Ocupación del Purgatorio brings us to a better place.
Cassandra Gillig is a poet archivist who is traveling around the country helping out with big lucks books, boosthouse, tender buttons press, jacket2’s reissues, & an oral history of chicago’s experimental poetry scene. she established the new order of st agatha, a feminist religion, with anne boyer in the earliest part of october 2014 & loves hannah weiner, the poetry project, side-stapled magazines, alice notley, & PDFs.
In my recent reading, I’ve taken a train into the nineteenth century worldview.
Helen Keller, The World I Live In: You may think you’re ready, but it’s hard to anticipate the vertigo that Helen Keller’s descriptions of touching the world through darkness and silence inspire. The infinite is always near. The terror and thrill of the capacity to feel and know anything is sustained continuously for her, where it is intermittent for most people. “Physics tells me that I am well-off in a world, which, I am told, knows neither color nor sound, but is made in terms of size, shape, and inherent qualities.” Keller’s descriptions of the world’s “inherent qualities” are catholic: “Eloquence to the touch resides not in straight lines, but in unstraight lines, or in many curved and straight lines together.” Stay tuned to apply her thinking to hills, tree bark, the ocean’s “quick yielding of the waves that crisp and curl and ripple about my body,” and everything else.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself: Why isn’t everyone talking about this book all the time? On the subject of coming into language, Douglass’s description of teaching himself to read and write communicates its genuinely mystical nature. His prose style has a quality that is at once mysterious and precise, and completely captivating.
Henry David Thoreau’s essay, “Wild Apples”: Thoreau’s pastoral wandering catalogues a landscape of apple trees and their allure to animals. It’s pleasurable and evocative to imagine the tableaus Thoreau sets, but it’s also pleasurable to imagine Thoreau imagining them and imparting this important information to us.
Grimm’s Fairy Tales, from, “The Water Nixie”: ‘After a while the children were so out of patience that they waited until the nixie was in church one Sunday, and ran away. When church let out, the nixie saw that the birds had flown and pursued them with great leaps. But the children saw her coming in the distance and the little girl threw a brush behind her, which grew into a mountain with thousands and thousands of bristles, and the nixie had a hard time climbing over it.’
Four Screenplays by Ingmar Bergman: Bergman is always on my mind. After spending many hours transcribing the subtitles from The Magician, this book has saved me a lot of time.
If you’re in a hurry, today’s vintage pick is the perfect quick indulgence. Miguel Rivera’s “Early Hours” is a translation of Guatemalan poet Humberto Ak’abal’s five-line poem, “Altas Horas.” Appearing in DB 13, Winter 2012-2011, this work is one of many in the issue with a cultural connection and was originally written in the Mayan language Mayaquiché, its intricacies beautifully converted and preserved in English by musician Miguel Rivera.
Humberto Ak’abal is an active and well-decorated poet whose works have been widely translated into French, English, German Arabic, and more. He resides in Momostenango, Totonicapán, Guatemala. For more information and to read more of his work, visit akabal.com.
Miguel Rivera is a musician and drummer whose translation and dissemination of Ak’abal’s work has helped draw more attention to the writer and his cultural heritage. He resides in California and teaches throughout the U.S. Check out his page on Ak’abal’s website here.
This post is the second in a series from Drunken Boat‘s 2014 Pushcart Prize nominees.
I wrote “I, Let” toward the end of a seven-year sonnet writing spree, which culminated in my collection The Glass Age: Sonnets, which is currently making the rounds of contests and publishers. When I was drafting “I, Let,” I’d recently written hundreds of sonnets, invoking the form both strictly and loosely, and so with “I, Let” and other poems I wrote during this period, I was consciously trying to break the form, imposing other structures upon it and using over-rhyme and funky typography, indentation, and spacing to enhance a sense of things being blown open and apart.
One of the things that drew me to the sonnet is the English form’s drive toward finality with things taking surprising turns along the way before hitting the hard couplet, and this movement appears often in The Glass Age along with apocalyptic motifs: speeding faster and faster toward self-immolation, falling out of the bounds of constraint, which are both comforting and infuriating. Some of the other poems in the collection address our current moment in the exciting and terrifying 21st century, as we spin and spin in our industrious circles, the ever-widening gyre.
In retrospect, I think “I, Let” embraces the feeling of falling, the thrill and loneliness of just letting go, though I wasn’t conscious of those themes when I was composing the poem. In this writing and others, I tend to get at content sideways, letting the poem or story that wants to be born that day have its say.
Many of the poems in The Glass Age allude to old stories: myths, fairy tales, fables, and more recent characters like Alice in Wonderland who decided to make an appearance in this poem. Most of these tale-inspired poems focus on the female characters, imagining their thoughts and resources. Some poems like “A Parable” and “A Fable” evoke the structure and tenor of folk stories with their emphasis on cautionary lessons and tough irony.
“I, Let” is also part of a series within the collection in which every poem begins with, “I, _______” with each poem exploring the lyric as a vehicle for self—a self that turns out to be highly unstable, roving, multitudinous, and sometimes collective. The “we” often usurps the “I” in these poems and others in The Glass Age, the we’s concerns occupying a more urgent space than those of the I at the moment.
Anna Maria Hong is the Visiting Creative Writer at Ursinus College and was a Bunting Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. The recipient of Poetry magazine’s 2013 Frederick Bock Prize, she has stories and poems appearing in POOL, Boston Review, The Iowa Review, The Nation, Verse Daily, Bone Bouquet, The Volta, Green Mountains Review, Harvard Review, Unsplendid, Fence, Conduit, Best New Poets, and The Best American Poetry. She is the winner of the 2014 Clarissa Dalloway Prize from the A Room of Her Own Foundation for her novella H & G, which is forthcoming from Red Hen Press.