Friday, December 28, 2007

Observation #2: Writing Programs

The Beaner's event included some fairly good readers, notably featured poets Vievee Francis and Matt Olzmann, as well as a humorous character who read from his site, and an attractively quirky blonde woman named Laura. Olzmann in particular had a good voice and strong material.

Yet, this kind of reading is light years behind what we were doing in Philly. (Especially the ULA's two "Underground" shows early in 2007.) At Beaner's I put some dramatics and voice behind two short pieces and unsettled the audience.

Writing programs help poets like Francis and Olzmann gain connections and publication, but they also put their talents into a box, so that everything they write and read is predictable and orderly-- even when it tries not to be. Academy-inspired readings have built-in limitations, lacking creativity and innovation, BECAUSE of the way the poets have been trained. I sit at such readings, even the better ones, and SEE the boundaries around the performers, around the entire presentation. Such boundaries are what the Underground Literary Alliance destroyed.

Art-- real art-- is about shattering limitations. If any city should be belching forth crazed artists and performers crazy with the joyful mania of art it's Detroit.

(Next: Observation #3.)

Friday, December 21, 2007

Poetry Reading

Thursday, December 13, I attended a poetry reading at Beaner's Coffee on Woodward Avenue, just south of 13 Mile Road. Three related observations:

Sprawl is the death of the Detroit area unless quickly corrected. There isn't the population or money to support such a widespread metro area. (It's generated through reasons of class and race, which means there's not necessarily any logic to it.)

Metro Detroit is a thin veneer of life spread over a vast area. Businesses on corridors like Woodward are barely surviving. I walked from 9 Mile to the coffee shop, and was able to gauge the amount of customers present during what is supposed to be the busiest shopping season. In a deeper economic downturn, all that will remain is scattered clusters-- islands of activity such as downtown shopping districts or malls. The rest will be a sea of darkness.

With gas prices climbing; with the need for energy independence as well as less pollution, why has the definition of Metro Detroit been expanding? Even "alternative" papers now consider Ann Arbor part of Detroit. This is insanity-- economic and environmental insanity. One can see boozhie liberals shooting all across the area to attend this event or that one; while lunching in Royal Oak no doubt complaining about global warming..

And why Royal Oak? How has that morphed into the trendy area? It's too far from downtown for there to be real economic and social synergy between the two locations.

Philadelphia has trendy parts of town like Manyunk which are IN the city; indeed, within sight of the core shopping and cultural district. From Manyunk one can see downtown Philly's looming skyscrapers. There are reasons Philadelphia remains a successful city.

Next: Observation #2: Writing Programs.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Plight of a Hot Dog Vendor

THE DAY AFTER Thanksgiving a hot dog stand appeared on the streets of downtown Detroit, the first I'd seen since my return. It was situated on Woodward across from Campus Martius Park at the heart of the city; a perfect location, one would figure. Alone, as if on an island, there it sat; downtown's scantly-occupied towers as backdrop.

It was an enclosed kind of stand; a white box with a trailer hitch on front, and a small window which slid open. In truth I thought it was closed, abandoned from the day before. In the time I hung out in the area no one approached it. The person inside made not one sale. I glanced at the price list. Hot dogs were two dollars, more than I wanted to pay.

I noticed the stand again several days later, in exactly the same spot, as if it'd never left. This time there was a mark of occupancy. A hand lettered sign taped below the window announced, "HOT DOGS ONE DOLLAR." On sale.

I bought a couple. The window slid open, allowing in the cold. A heavily-dressed heavy-set woman who spoke with a Slavic accent worked furiously. A customer! Can't let this one go.

As I waited, a short black woman who'd been walking down the street glanced at me and the stand and decided to buy something also. A line. A rush! Things were looking up.

The next time I passed things were back to normal. No line. No customers at all.

An image flashed in my head of the hot dog vendors in downtown Philadelphia-- where I recently lived-- whose hands were filled with cash and who worked fast to keep up with the never-ceasing flow of business. Hot dogs! Cheesesteaks! Kielbasa! Meatball sandwich! Pretzels! With mustard! Soda!

In Detroit there was one hot dog stand and no one ever went up to it.

The next day, a larger sign; a plea; a cry for help: "OPEN."

Maybe with ice skating now at Campus Martius people will stop to buy hot dogs and keep the city's only outside hot dog stand afloat. One can hope.


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Detroit Punk City

Detroit has an awesome reputation in many musical genres, but the feeling absorbed when walking its streets, especially in the lower part of the Cass Corridor-- especially after a couple beers-- is the raw edge of punk.

Or maybe I felt that way last week because I stopped at an infamous punk bar near downtown called the 2500 Club. Small tough place; punk band in black setting up; tough-looking attractive punk girl behind the bar; tough-looking manager telling her how he'd got the scar on his chin in some rumble or other.

Afterward with steam coming from manhole covers and abandoned buildings looming everywhere-- interspersed with occasional open party store or inhabited dark-brick urban hotel; punk music still echoing through my ears-- I felt, as deep as I ever have, the stark aura of punk, its characteristic edge.

I walked through dropping temperature to Lafayette Coney Island for a couple carryout coney dogs, a brief warm moment of populated life, then back to the surreal blackness of urban nightworld, passing a nightclub which a few weeks prior had police department "crime scene" tape across its doors and two chalk body outlines on the sidewalk in front. Now it was open for business with a phalanx of bouncers standing in front of the doors-- all wearing hats and all of them black except one tough-looking white dude. In Detroit people look tougher than in other cities. Everyone looks tough. Maybe because everyone here IS tough. It's a unique aesthetic; real; fascinating; artistically stimulating: what keeps Detroit from the complacent genteel phoniness of so much of America and what it ultimately has to sell.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Detroit Arts

I received a flurry of outraged response a couple months ago on another blog when I suggested that New York City was dead as an arts city. The famed New York blog "Gawker" reprinted my words and invited attacks. The response was all outrage and no argument, because what I had said was true. Their literary and arts scene is stagnant. The great city has priced any true bohemia out of existence. They've destroyed their artistic roots. Breeding grounds there for original art are gone.

In August I had walked the New York streets-- which were filled with the usual grim-faced office people-- and for the first time in that metropolis felt no excitement; no vibe. Not until later did I realize the cause: no surprises. There was no longer anything in New York City which surprised me-- only the same recycled postures and regurgitated ideas; simulations of independence sold with conglomerate packaging. No "new." No shocks. No innovation.

Artistic energy now resides in of all places Detroit. Amid the broken-down wasteland grittiness, the sense of shattered-glass dog-eat-dog fight to survive, there's a lurking spirit in the ruined place that for the artist and writer is fascinating and invigorating.

For all the stark tragedy of Detroit's streets, it's a great place to write. Maybe because of the tragedy; the city's everpresent SOUL. One tastes something of what the life of Francois Villon must've been like!

Monday, November 19, 2007

Revamping the ULA

One reason I'm here, before moving on to other locales, is to help revamp the ULA's look, which needs to be more "Detroit," more dangerous, in step with the rep and reality of the Underground Literary Alliance itself.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Promotional Services Available

WHILE I'm here I'm hanging out my shingle, for Detroit-area writers who wish to be promoted and are worth promoting. Few are better at making noise and getting attention than myself. Please e-mail me for more information if you're interested. (E-mail on my profile.)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Why Talent Leaves Detroit

I was reminded of that last night at a reading I attended at a Detroit art gallery. The readers were lukewarm at best, the crowd lethargic while the event was going on, yet after it was over there was a pronounced air of self-congratulation. A complacency unneeded in this city, which across the board is not competing well with other cities.

Present were some of the usual suspects, the creme de la creme of Detroit's lit scene, like George and Chris Tysh. When I was co-editing Pop Literary Gazette in 1998, George Tysh mocked our use of ballyhoo in a review he wrote for the local alternative weekly rag. So I went to the east coast and did 100 times the ballyhoo and shook the established literary world there to its foundations.

The ULA has engaged in ballyhoo, yes-- but we've always backed it up. Our writers, like Wred Fright, James Nowlan, and others ARE very good. We DO put on the most exciting lit shows around, which has been remarked upon time and again. After our CBGB's press conference; after our Medusa show; after our "Howl" reading crash; earlier this year at The Underground in Philadelphia, the remarks are the same: "Wow! That was an exciting event." It's not hype if you can back it up.

What's my course in Detroit now? If I use the King Wenclas persona, my voice and my ballyhoo, done here it would be like dropping a jet among a squadron of biplanes. I'd be sure to piss off the locals, and I've already done enough of that time and again, usually with people of higher standing.

If I had sense I'd take the next bus back to Philly, but I don't have bus fare. . . .

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Uptick in a Down Trend

Great local news about a financial company intending to locate in Detroit. Still, much more needs to be done. It's debatable whether or not the city has hit bottom. When I arrived back here recently I experienced culture shock. There is less business activity, less car and foot traffic, downtown now than there was ten years ago, so one can hardly yet call anything a revival.

Will the new employees become simply more captive hostages-- have that attitude-- as they show for their jobs and park in the attached parking garage then flee as soon as worked has ended? This seems to be the pattern now.

What's needed is to change the perception of the name itself. This can be done best through a cultural revival-- one that gives Detroit cachet beyond the local area.

The city has tremendous problems but great potential also.

Monday, November 12, 2007


Stay tuned for news, fiction, and poetry about Detroit's literary scene.

As with all my blogs, all my zeens, all my writing, no punches will be pulled.