Since its founding in 1996, Western Michigan University’s literary press has published dozens and dozens of poets from the state and across the nation. This month New Issues Poetry & Prose will celebrate Michigan poetry with the release of an anthology titled Poetry in Michigan / Michigan in Poetry.
The hardcover, full-color book, which also features Michigan artwork, does not involve a compilation of poems previously published by New Issues. In fact, more than half of the 90 poets featured in the book have not been published before by the WMU press.
The idea for the anthology came from New Issues Editor William Olsen. “Larry Bell (owner of Kalamazoo-based Bell’s Brewery) was interested in helping to underwrite a project,” Olsen says, “so I proposed an anthology and came up with the idea of an anthology of Michigan poets or poets whose poets speak to Michigan in one way or another. I don’t think there’s another state that has quite as cohesive a sense of poetry as Michigan does.”
Olsen enlisted retired Hope College professor Jack Ridl, whom he describes as “a much beloved figure in Michigan poetry and a terrific poet,” to help solicit work and make final selections.
“We decided to throw out a wide net and do what we could to represent as many points on Michigan’s mitten as possible,” Olsen says, “and to represent as many styles as possible, for the sake of diversity but also for the sake of interest.”
Some of the poets in the anthology — such as Stuart Dybek, Dan Gerber, Jim Harrison, Rhoda Janzen, Laura Kasischke, Philip Levine and Thomas Lynch — have attained literary acclaim that goes far beyond Michigan. And many of the writers, like Dybek, are either from Kalamazoo or have strong Kalamazoo connections, including Nancy Eimers, Robert Haight, Conrad Hilberry, Elizabeth Kerlikowske, Kimberley Kolbe, David Dodd Lee, Gail Martin, Kathleen McGookey, Amy Newday, William Olsen, Susan Blackwell Ramsey, John Rybicki, Diane Seuss, Alison Swan, Daneen Wardrop and the late Julie Moulds, Herb Scott and John Woods.
Olsen says he and Ridl weren’t looking for commonalities in the poems submitted; they were simply looking for good poems. But in the final product, common themes do emerge that reflect the geographical and spiritual character of the state.
Poet and Detroit native Jim Daniels, who wrote the anthology’s introduction, observes in the poems a strong sense of place, an intense interest in seasonal changes, an attraction to water, and a sense of humility in the face of economic hardships and extreme weather.
“The groundedness of these poems is reassuring,” Daniels writes. “The Michigan in them is a place with no room for idle word-play — snow has to be shoveled, leaves have to be raked, and somebody has to bring home a paycheck.”
Olsen makes similar observations. “I think there’s a kind of fidelity to experience and the life lived, an emphasis that art speaks for life rather than life existing for art,” he says. “They’re not rarefied poems. They’re not word-play poems. They’re poems that take life with humor, humility and a recognition that we live in a gorgeous state that has dramatic changes of seasons and intense weather. There’s an honesty in the work that life can be tough and why hide that?”
The new book also presents works by 22 Michigan artists, including the Kalamazoo area’s Mary Brodbeck, Ladislav Hanka, Katie Platte and Mary Whalen. The art was solicited and selected by Olsen, Eimers and Kolbe, the managing editor of New Issues.
“We wanted to have a good representation of what Michigan looks like, what the people are like,” Kolbe says. “But in the same way that we would pick poetry by poets whose work we admire, it was the same thing for the artists. There is some abstract art in the book that could be anyplace (not just Michigan).”
Nevertheless, Olsen noticed that “there does seem to be the same sort of allegiance to place in Michigan painting as there is in poetry.” For both writers and painters, place becomes a muse, and “happily so,” he says.
New Issues is planning to print at least 1,000 copies of the anthology, maybe 2,000. “That’s a lot for poetry,” Olsen says, “but this is a book that will have mainstream appeal.” Proceeds will go toward keeping New Issues Poetry & Prose alive and thriving.