When Bonnie Jo Campbell was studying for a Ph.D. in math at Western Michigan University in 1995, one of her math professors noticed that she loved writing and suggested she take a creative writing class. That spring Campbell enrolled in a class taught by novelist Jaimy Gordon that changed the direction of her life.
She gave up her plans to teach math, went on to earn a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing, and in 2009 her short-story collection American Salvage was named a finalist for a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. A year later, her novel Once Upon a River became a best seller.
That same year, Gordon won the National Book Award for Fiction for her novel Lord of Misrule. And while it’s impressive enough that two Kalamazoo-area writers received that kind of national recognition, they weren’t the only ones. The Caldecott-winning illustrator David Small, of Mendon, was a finalist for a 2009 National Book Award for his graphic novel Stitches.
Those three may be the best-known local literary writers, but the area is also home to many other novelists, poets and story writers, some of them highly recognized for their endeavors, others toiling in obscurity and hoping for that first published book. (That’s not to mention all of the playwrights, children’s writers, romance novelists and other genre writers in the area, but those are stories for another day.)
Whether acclaimed or not, many of these folks see Southwest Michigan as a very good place to be a writer, a place where a generous and diverse literary community supports their art. “There’s just a sense here that writing matters,” says local poet Diane Seuss, the 2009 winner of the prestigious Juniper Prize in Poetry.
The area’s keen interest in writing might be surprising to anyone unfamiliar with its literary scene. After all, Kalamazoo is 700 miles from New York City, that bastion of culture. Yet its small-town atmosphere, political demographics and even its resemblance to some aspects of New York contribute to making Kalamazoo a seedbed where creative writing can flourish, say local writers.
“One of the reasons I think it’s so rich and varied is there is no one influence,” says Kalamazoo poet Elizabeth Kerlikowske, who teaches at Kellogg Community College, in Battle Creek. “There are so many people doing so many things that one school of thought can’t predominate. In our town, nobody is the boss of me. I like that. It’s great. It’s freeing.”
“As far as the political landscape, we’re like this little oasis,” says Seuss. “There are a lot of conservative people in Michigan, but Kalamazoo supports difference. I lived in New York City, and anything went. I was seen as this Midwestern innocent. But Kalamazoo is like this mini-New York. You just don’t feel embattled as a writer.”
Seuss has lived in Kalamazoo for many years but grew up in Niles. “When I go back to Niles, I feel the difference. When I go into the grocery story, it’s like, ‘Who’s that and why does she look that way?’” says Seuss, who stands out with her long, jet-black hair and cleavage-baring clothes. “When you don’t feel embattled, that’s a setting for a feeling of creative safety. It’s like, ‘We want you.’ In Kalamazoo, you’re not marginalized unless you want to be.”
Gordon voices a similar perspective, describing Kalamazoo as “an old hippie town, sort of like (New York’s) Greenwich Village,” whose liberal atmosphere is conducive to writing. But Kalamazoo also has a blue-collar dimension that makes it interesting, says the retired professor. Because it’s a relatively cheap place to live, it suits writers who want to preserve their time for writing rather than taking a 40-hour-a-week job.
Gordon also believes that Kalamazoo’s underdog status relative to the literary capitals of the world breeds writers “who really appreciate what they’ve got and are not too inclined to complain. They’re not riled by a sense of obscurity.” That characteristic lets them continue to hone their craft without expecting quick recognition, she says. She even confesses that for most of her career she felt she deserved her obscurity. “I felt that way till I won the National Book Award because I wasn’t as prolific as I thought I should be.”
Campbell, who has traveled the country regularly in recent years, notes that Kalamazoo is not alone in its interest in all things literary. “There are just plain more writers everywhere than there have been,” she says. But she’s also noticed that the urge to write and be read seems particularly powerful in Kalamazoo, and she attributes this phenomenon in part to Michigan’s economic circumstances.
“A lot of writing comes out of social and economic struggling,” she says. “Michigan has been struggling with social and economic change for longer than most parts of the country. We feel that change and want to say something about it.”
Motives for writing, of course, are as varied as writers. But to hone their craft, nearly all writers look to teachers and mentors, and many say the area’s colleges and university have been key to making Kalamazoo fertile ground for literary growth.
WMU was the first university in the state to offer a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing and now offers a Ph.D. in creative writing. It publishes a literary journal, Third Coast, and has a literary press.
Kalamazoo College offers a B.A. in English with an emphasis in creative writing, and Kalamazoo Valley Community College offers two creative writing classes and a creative nonfiction class.
While all three institutions bring in nationally known writers to give readings or craft talks, it is the longtime faculty members who seem to have made the greatest impression on local writers.
“I came to WMU in the 1980s to go to graduate school in creative writing,” says poet and KVCC English faculty member Robert Haight, whose third book of poetry will be published next month. “Western had such a strong, strong faculty: John Woods, Herb Scott, Stu Dybek, Jaimy Gordon, Arnie Johnston.”
Campbell considers WMU “the main anchor” of the local writing world. She cites Gordon and Dybek, another fiction writer who taught for many years at WMU, as her key influences.
Campbell says Dybek taught her how story elements come together.
“Plus, he was sort of shrouded in the coolness of the national literary community,” she says, noting that he was well known as a Chicago writer because of his roots in that city and his focus on Chicago in his writing. (He teaches there now, at Northwestern University, though he keeps a home in Kalamazoo.)
But Gordon was Campbell’s greatest influence. “Jaimy is such a powerful teacher of writers,” says Campbell. “I feel I owe most of what I do to Jaimy. She’s a ferocious intelligence, and to have her mind attending to my stories was very enlightening every time. I learned so much from her comments about the use of language that I still feel them echoing in my head sometimes.”
When Campbell was encouraged by Gordon to join the M.F.A. program, she didn’t even know what an M.F.A. was. “I thought you just had to be brilliant and then you can write,” Campbell says, laughing.
“These writing programs really speed up our learning.”
Gordon credits Shirley Scott, chair of the WMU English department from 1989 to 1997, with expanding the department’s creative-writing component. “Under her tutelage, WMU’s creative-writing program really got going and added a doctoral program,” says Gordon.
Another advantage of WMU’s graduate program is that it brings “new blood” to town, says Seuss. Traci Brimhall, for example, who is in her third year of study for a Ph.D. in literature and creative writing, has taught poetry at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center and teaches creative writing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts. She also started an online calendar of poetry events.
“I really love being part of not just the university but the community too,” says Brimhall, author of two award-winning poetry collections. “There are so many warm and encouraging people here, people who are proactive in maintaining a writing community.”
This sense of community with other writers and with an active audience of readers comes through clearly when you ask local writers what makes Kalamazoo a good place to be a writer.
They mention the numerous writing groups and community workshops that give poets and fiction writers feedback on their work. They cite printed and online literary journals like The Smoking Poet, Asylum Lake and Hear Here that showcase local writers. And they take note that dozens or even hundreds of people show up for literary readings.
They credit poet Denise Miller, who teaches at KVCC and co-owns Fire Historical and Cultural Arts Collaborative, for bringing together writers of diverse ethnic backgrounds and providing a place for poetry readings and spoken-word, or slam, poetry.
They talk about the poetry murals on downtown buildings, the annual Poems That Ate Our Ears contest for young writers, and the annual Artifactory event at the Kalamazoo Valley Museum that combines local history with poetry reading. They praise the Friends of Poetry organization for making these murals, contests and readings happen, and they laud the group’s longtime president, Kerlikowske, for being a fierce advocate for poetry. “She’s one in that Mount Rushmore of writers who think of writing as a community thing,” says Seuss.
Local writers are also grateful to the Kalamazoo Public Library, Portage District Library, Kalamazoo Book Arts Center, Kazoo Books and Michigan News Agency for providing space for readings and workshops and promoting books by local authors.
One place they miss, though, is the Athena Book Shop, which offered Saturday readings before it closed in 2006. “I always thought the Athena bookstore, with Susan Ramsey (working) there and the programs and readings they used to have, added an element to the literary quality of the city,” says Haight. “It’s really a shame that that’s gone.”
Looking back on how Kalamazoo’s writing community developed into what it is now, Seuss says, “Maybe a big reason Kalamazoo is so juicy for writers is the generosity and egolessness of the founders of the writing community here.”
She and Gordon and others who have lived here for decades point especially to the late WMU professor Herb Scott and late Kalamazoo College professor Conrad Hilberry as the early builders of the community. Those two poets, they say, set a tone of generosity toward other writers that extended beyond their campuses.
Scott, who taught at WMU from 1968 to 2004 and died in 2006, had a tremendous influence on local writers after he took over the university press, now named New Issues Poetry & Prose. “He found himself in a potentially vibrant but not nationally visible poetry scene,” says Gordon, “and he tried to find the interface between that and the national scene. The press had been at WMU for years, but he reinvented it.” By publishing gifted local poets along with other poets from around the nation, he was able to inspire the local writers and lift their reputations, she says.
Seuss was among those writers. “He published my first book, and to get your first book is so hard,” she says, but, as an editor, Scott was not as gentle as Hilberry. “He’d go through your poems — ‘No, no, yes, maybe,’” she says, gesturing as if she’s shuffling papers into piles. “‘I hate that line. Cut it.
He was tougher, but he was generous in his way. He was a really great poet, and willing to devote a good portion of his energy to up-and-coming writers.”
Both Scott and Hilberry saw it as essential to nurture other writers, says Seuss. “Con was all about welcoming everybody to the table. His attitude was that writing isn’t for the genius or the select few. Everybody can do it. Everybody plays.”
Hilberry, who taught full time at “K” from 1962 to 1996 and then part time until around 2000, also would go into local schools to teach poetry. “He believed any kid in any classroom could get something from hearing a poem or writing one,” says Seuss. And with that big, expressive smile of his that would glow after you read, “you felt this beam on you like you could do it,” she says.
When Seuss was just 15, Hilberry visited her high school in Niles. “He had read one of my poems I had dumbly submitted to an adult contest. He came and found me and said, ‘You got any more of these?’ Then he started sending me books, and he invited my mom and me up here (to Kalamazoo College) for lunch. He got me money to come to ‘K.’ Until then, I hated school. He said, ‘You can come to “K,” but you gotta get better grades.’ I got all A’s then.”
Seuss not only graduated from “K,” but she began teaching there in 1988. Hilberry has been her writing and teaching mentor ever since, and she has been passing on his legacy of generosity. “She doesn’t just teach at K-College, she also teaches for the community,” says Kerlikowske. “She’s just been tremendously influential and helpful.”
Passing it on
Examples abound of local writers who’ve helped others, but Seuss’ name is one that comes up repeatedly when local writers are asked to name their influential teachers.
Quilt maker Elaine Seaman took her first poetry workshop from Seuss in 1995. ”It was all so exciting and new,” says Seaman. “It was an epiphany. I had been making quilts that took forever to make. Through this class I found I could do art in a much abbreviated fashion, and it was still acknowledged as art and I liked that.”
Seaman went on to publish a chapbook of poetry in 2004 and a full-length book in 2010. “Di actually helped me organize the poems (for the book), a lot of which were written in her workshops,” says Seaman.
Susan Ramsey first took a poetry workshop from Seuss in 1991. That “non-threatening” environment led Ramsey to take many more poetry classes, and she went on to get an M.F.A. in creative writing from Notre Dame in 2008. Three years later, she won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry for her first book, A Mind Like This.
Like Seuss, Ramsey has been passing on the advice and encouragement she received. When Ramsey was still working at Athena Book Shop, she persuaded Campbell to try writing poetry.
“I wrote and wrote a lot of stories and found some things weren’t fitting into stories,” says Campbell. “… I think I was having a little midlife crisis. I was 48. … Before (American Salvage), my agent had dumped me. Susan Ramsey insisted I could write poems.”
“She’s a powerful force for a lot of us,” says Campbell.
Ramsey’s longtime student David “Bo” Rather would agree. Rather, a former football player who won a Super Bowl ring in the 1970s as a rookie with the Miami Dolphins, has taken about half a dozen creative-writing classes from Ramsey. “I love Susan,” he says. “She’s like family to me. I always kind of wanted to write but never sat down and wrote. The first two or three classes were really rough, but about the middle of the third session it kind of clicked.”
Rather also has taken classes from local writer Danna Ephland and is grateful for all the encouragement he’s received. “If you ask a question, you’ll get an answer, and not a condescending answer,” he says.
“They’ll tell you what it takes to be a good writer.”
But even National Book Award nominees and accomplished poets need feedback on their work. “With writing, every time I start something new I feel like a knucklehead,” says Campbell.
She attends both a fiction-writing group and a poetry critique group called Poetry Dawgs, formed by students of John Rybicki. The group took its name from Rybicki’s greeting to his students: “Yo, dawgs.” After 15 years or so, the group is still going strong, meeting at least once or twice a month and adding new members.
Hilberry, who’s 85 now and working on a manuscript he hopes to get published before he dies, meets with six other poets Sunday afternoons at K-College’s Humphrey House. “Many were students of mine,” he says. “It’s a big, big help to have an occasion every two weeks where you’re supposed to have something written. It’s also a big help to have smart readers.”
And so the best and brightest continue to give and receive, as do so many others who venture into the local writing world.
“I think of the writing community as a circle,” says Seuss, “and what we pour into the middle of the circle is something we all can draw from. … I’ve poured stuff into that, and I’ve drawn out more than I’ve poured.”