The Remembrance of Places and Lives Past

The Remembrance of Places and Lives Past

In Detroit, you don’t have to go looking for devastation. It’s around, and chances are, you’ll probably come across it during a walk down the street, or a drive around the city - the abandoned buildings, the boarded up houses, the empty lots where the houses used to be, the cars that look normal until you notice that two of our four tires are deflated, melting endlessly into the concrete they’ve been left on for what you can only guess is a very long time.

The Past, Present and Paczki Day

The Past, Present and Paczki Day

“How much for a dozen,” a woman asked, poking her head through the door. “I don’t know, I’m just security!” a man yelled back. Around 30 people had crammed themselves inside a small bakery, responsible for sending the smell of sweet dough down the street as a sort of invisible, olfactory siren call.  Spindles of white strung hung across the ceiling, used to tie pastry boxes full of a once-a-year- delicacy that felt holy in more ways than one. The more people were served, the more came in. “I feel like I’m parting the Red Sea,” said a man who had just collected his order from the counter and was now trying to get through the shop to the snow awaiting him outside.

Coming to America's Comeback City

Coming to America's Comeback City

On Oct. 3, I landed in Detroit for a three day out-of-body experience. I walked down the escalator, staring at a banner that welcomed me to “America’s great comeback city,” out through baggage claim and met the founders of Write A House, a unique non-profit aimed at giving writers permanent residencies through rehabbed houses in Detroit to keep forever. Three hours later, I welcomed close to 100 people to my new home - a phrase that still feels strange to write, or even say. The night began and ended in a blur, in beaming smiles and hellos, in a news crew ambush, in the smooth countertops I brushed my hands against, the new wooden floors I walked on carefully in heels, in handshakes and speeches, introductions, congratulations, in conversation and community.

Liana Aghajanian Writes Her Way To Free Home in Detroit

Liana Aghajanian Writes Her Way To Free Home in Detroit

DETROIT, MI—Write A House is thrilled to name journalist Liana Aghajanian as the winner of its second permanent residency in Detroit. Aghajanian will receive a newly renovated home that is hers to keep, forever. She and her partner, the graphic designer and artist Keegam Shamlian, expect to move from Los Angeles to Detroit in January.

Trangressor is Magic

Trangressor is Magic

One of the most magical nights of my summer was attending Tunde Olaniran’s album release for Transgressor. The word magical is overused to describe things. What I mean specifically is that it felt like an act of magic—the supernatural ineffable that occurs when witnessing someone harness all of their energy with precision and intention. I’ve attended a fair amount of live shows over the course of my life, but rare has been the occasion where a musician has shook me so hard it lingered for weeks afterward. I can count those moments on one hand: Lauryn Hill performing a surprise show with a large band in late 2010; the haunting wail that is Mal Devisa in the basement of the Whitehaus, where I used to live, in Boston earlier this year; watching Erykah Badu play with the Brooklyn Symphony Orchestra on my birthday two years ago. Add to that number the Transgressor album release.

Meet the 10 New Write A House Finalists

Meet the 10 New Write A House Finalists

August 17, 2015 Write A House is delighted to announce ten finalists for the second round our groundbreaking writing residency, in which we renovate a formerly vacant home in Detroit and give it to one talented writer—for keeps. We will celebrate the winner on October 2 at a showcase event featuring the celebrated author Matt Bell, whose new novel, Scrapper, is draws inspiration from Detroit. We will welcome the winning writer into their new house soon afterward.

Homeward Bound

Homeward Bound

I left Detroit for a few weeks to go back to Massachusetts. It’s the third time I’ve been outside of Detroit since moving, and in many ways it was the strangest journey, because I was gone longer than before, and I was returning “home” home to where I grew up. For most of the time I was away I was on Cape Cod, and while I was there in part to see family, I was also attending a week-long workshop at the Fine Art Works Center in Provincetown. The workshop leader also happened to be Matthew Olzmann, who is from Detroit, and has lived in Hamtramck for many years.

What Train?

What Train?

I didn’t want to do this again, because writing about my issues with being in the media falls into a category of things I qualify as “problems that are not real problems”. Before I begin, I would also like to clarify something: last week I said I was a reluctant ambassador to Detroit. What I said has nothing to do with how I feel about Detroit, and everything to do with my being a non-native Detroiter. I haven’t lived here long enough to adequately represent the city, and I make no bones about that being the case. The problems I have with certain articles I have been interviewed for are not the problems of Detroiters, and they wouldn’t make it on to a list of my top fifty biggest problems as a human. However, this feels unavoidable, so here goes… Last week, a piece came out in the New York Times style section entitled “Last Stop on the L Train: Detroit”. I was interviewed for the piece by Jennifer Conlin months ago, and she made a big deal of ensuring me that it would not be another “Detroit is the New Brooklyn” piece, and she had told her editor as much. I first saw the article because it was linked in my Twitter mentions, and the first thing that hit me was a feeling of betrayal upon reading the title. As I said last week, regarding the article in The Telegraph, I know that journalists have little to no control over titling. Overall, the piece highlighted the arts in Detroit in contrast to Brooklyn’s rapid gentrification and subsequently unaffordable nature. I’m not upset at the article itself, but I do have some pointed follow up questions for some of the people Conlin interviewed.

My favorite quote in the article came from Dream Hampton, when she said “If you look around and find yourself in an all white space, you should know you are having a racially curated experience, like a Kenyan safari”. It perfectly captured the way I have felt in Detroit when I find myself as one of a handful, or the only person of color. I look around and think: what city am I in right now, because it’s not Detroit. While I could write a 5,000 word essay on the insidious violence of what it means to create white enclaves in a predominantly black city, but instead I will screen cap Conlin’s tweet about the article, get on my Zebra Katz, and then get to the point.

image1
image1

While Conlin disavows the notion that Detroit is the new Brooklyn, the phrase “urban pioneers” is perpetually problematic especially in this city. Let’s all just take a moment to remember the original “pioneers” who came through Detroit.

Buffalo-Skulls-1870-e1370476943363
Buffalo-Skulls-1870-e1370476943363

That’s the Mt. Mckinley of buffalo skulls waiting to be turned to fertilizer, and that is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the genocide of Native Americans. The issue with the idea of pioneers is that historically they are treated as if they discovered something. Detroit has been here. People live here, have lived here, have raised generations of their families in Detroit proper. No amount of cheap studio space is going to allow artists or anyone else to move in and act as if they found something new. And to be very clear, it’s not brave or bold, it’s strategic opportunism. That’s how I got here, too. I saw the opportunity that Write A House offered, and I went for it, and I don’t regret it one bit. However, I’m not going to treat my blessings like I’m out here playing Oregon Trail with reality.

image2.jpg

I had intended to write this week’s post about Kresge’s 2015 fellowship awards ceremony, not this, and then Rick Rogers, president of the College for Creative Studies, referenced the article in his opening remarks. My friend Sarah Rose Sharp, one of this year’s fellows, invited me to the ceremony as one of her guests. I met Rosie at a reading we did together as a fundraiser for one of the tracks at the Allied Media Conference. She came up to me afterwards and invited me to coffee, and when we met at Café 1923, I realized she was just my kind of weird—witty and insightful and having thought a great deal about zombies. I intended to go into the ceremony, meet some new people and convince people to let me interview them for a project I’m working on. It took less than ten minutes in that room for me to feel fully liminal, between two worlds that exist on top of one another in Detroit.

As I was standing in line for the bar, I turned to see my friend Randal entering the room. Like Rosie, I met Randal through a reading we did together earlier this year for the Motor Signal series. I liked Randal immediately because upon meeting him, it felt as if he was saying “Hi, nice to meet you, this is what I’m really like”. When I saw him at the Kresge Awards, he looked phenomenal as he always does. He came up and said hello, and then said that he had been thinking of me earlier that day, although he couldn’t quite remember why. After a minute, he recalled that he had been writing earlier that morning. He then further explained that the previous night, he had watched a teenage boy get shot on Trumbull Ave, not far from where he lives. He said four or five cars passed by before he did, and he stopped. He took the boy, his sister and his friend to the Emergency Room. The police did not question him as a witness, even though he had seen what happened. They instead searched his car as if he was somehow involved in the shooting. That last detail made me angry enough to want to lob my wine glass against a wall. He wasn’t sure if they boy had survived.

We sat with one another during the ceremony, and when Rick Rogers made reference to Conlin’s NYT article, Airea D. Matthews (another 2015 Kresge fellow and close friend) turned around to look at me. She knew the article had gotten under my skin. I, in turn, gave Randal the side-eye and sipped my glass of wine while he suppressed a laugh. Rogers pulled out a few quotes from the article, beginning with something I had said, which was that Detroit was about collaboration. It hit me like gravity. In the past eleven months, the people who are paying attention to what I say have continuously surprised me, and the moment was humbling. Rogers also quoted artist Ben Wolf when he said “I came here thinking I might help save Detroit, and instead it has saved me,” and Marsha Music announced to the room that Wolf had gotten that quote from her. While we all laughed, I’m of the opinion that Marsha Music is the truth, and I am certain it was not an exaggeration. And isn’t that really what the issue is? One version of Detroit on top of another, and who is really being saved?

The reason I had wanted to write about the Kresge fellows is because I am a firm believer in art as a vehicle for change, and because I appreciate the work of so many of the people honored this year, but it would be disingenuous of me to write this any other way. In the two days that have passed since the ceremony, I have spent far more time thinking about the boy, how he could be one of my students, my brothers, or myself than I have about art “revitalizing“ the city.

Randal has said to me more than once that he doesn’t consider himself to be radical. I have countered that the way he looks and exists in the world is in and of itself radical, but I understand what he means: he’s not an activist in any traditional sense. As we said goodbye, he said something that stuck with me, which was: “People talk about Black Lives Matter, and this was a physical representation of that”. He talked about what it meant to find purpose in Detroit, and how he had almost been in New York the night before the awards. Then we reflected upon the fact that we were standing just feet away from some of the most important figures in the Detroit arts community and forever closer to the boy.

Casey L. Rocheteau

Detroit on the Fourth

Detroit on the Fourth

There are ways in which being granted the first Write A House also pushed me to become a reluctant ambassador. I’ve done what feels like an unseemly amount of interviews regarding both the organization and the city in which I reside. For the most part, I tend to agree to interviews because I think WaH is a worthwhile project, and the publicity is good for the organization. Nothing is altruistic, particularly when it comes to having attention focused on you. While I was excited at first, as the past ten months have gone by, answering the same questions becomes far less exhilarating.

Interview with Toi Derricotte pt. 2

Interview with Toi Derricotte pt. 2

 TD: I can’t wait till I get (to Detroit) again. I want to see your house. Where is it?

CR: Just south of Davison, near Conant.

TD: Over on the east side. Oh yeah, because that’s where Conant Gardens is. That’s where I grew up.

Interview with Toi Derricotte pt. 1

Interview with Toi Derricotte pt. 1

Last week, I had the honor of attending Cave Canem Retreat as a second-year fellow. Cave Canem is an organization built for poets of African descent, founded twenty years ago by Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. It has been called “the major watering hole and air pocket for black poetry” by Nikky Finney. While fellows and faculty run a three year course before graduating from Cave Canem, its two cornerstones have always been Toi and Cornelius. This year also marked Toi’s last year as faculty of the retreat. For those readers unfamiliar with Toi Derricotte, she was born in Hamtramck and lived in and around Detroit through her mid 20’s. Her work, much like her, is simultaneously vulnerable and unabashed, often saying that which would otherwise go unspoken in American literature or elsewhere. Toi has long encouraged Cave Canem fellows to “write the hard poem”, as she has done time and time again. It is thanks to Cave Canem that I now feel re-invigorated to do just that, over and over again. I had a chance to speak with her on the last day of the retreat, an in the interest of brevity, I have broken the interview into two parts. Enjoy!

It's My Party...

It's My Party...

It’s taken quite some time for me to write this. There have been many obstacles to my writing: an egregious scheduling conflict that forced me to choose between going to the Cave Canem Poetry Retreat and the Allied Media Conference. Then, after the decision was made, contending with it, asking myself why I had chosen not to stay in Detroit despite the fact I have wanted to attend the AMC for many years now. What did it say about my priorities? Who was I going to have to apologize to? And of course there were a host of other issues concerning the fact that I had promised people a place to stay in Detroit and also had my workshop proposal accepted and now needed to find a replacement for myself. In one way, all of the chaos involved in rearranging did, in fact take up a great deal of time that could have been spent writing. The broader reality is that depression seized me.

Stop Worrying

Stop Worrying

It’s raining for the first time since I planted seedlings.

I woke up at eight this morning, and before having a cup of coffee, cleaned all the dishes, the literbox, the back room, watered the garden some and potted seeds. I ran water through the coffee maker, because it jammed up yesterday and I was too lazy to fix it.

First Party at Brave New Home

First Party at Brave New Home

June 1st marked seven months for me here in Detroit. I never officially had a house warming party. I’ve hosted musicians and poets who needed to crash for a night. I’ve had conversations with a bevy of reporters, but never have I had a full blown event. This Monday rectified all of that. A good friend of mine, Corina, who’s been a solid fixture in my life since moving here, wanted to throw a fundraiser in order to get to a writing retreat in Portugal, where her family is from. Initially, she had thought to do the event in her apartment, but after a while I suggested doing it at the Brave New Home because then there would also be a yard and the ability to grill.

On Gardening

On Gardening

Gardening isn’t easy, I’ve discovered. I weed one day and two days later it seems that all the weeds have come back. Some of them are kind of lovely, like the purple deadnettle, and the endless dandelions, even the tall fluffy grass I have yet to identify that I cannot seem to completely rid my yard of with my push mower. I’ve planted some seed so far, and plan to plant more in the upcoming week. It turns out you need soil in order to make things grow. Some people use raised beds. I think with my very limited skill set, the wood in my shed and access to the internet, I could probably build a few. I’m probably wrong about this, but it will not stop me from trying. I’ve promised myself many things once the school year ends—that I will spend more time writing for myself, that I will finish the tarot deck I’ve been working on, that I will finally actually quit smoking cigarettes and that I will spend more time outdoors.

"What Are You Doing?"

On Tuesday this week while I was teaching, I received a torrent of texts from a neighborhood text chain. The text chain is typically used for neighborhood safety, letting people know if your house was broken into, or if something suspicious is happening, or if you hear gunfire on your block. I find it useful even though I don’t know everyone on it, and I think having it is important. I have certain questions about who is on the chain and who is not, and what that might mean, but I will put that aside for a moment. The texts that were coming through detailed a robbery on Tuesday afternoon. Most of the folks on the chain seem to be highly aware of who is responsible for most theft in the neighborhood, so the question was asked: why can’t the police catch these guys? They’ve stolen thousands of dollars worth of items from my neighbors, including (insanely) someone’s entire security system.

Interview with Liza Bielby about the Porous Borders Festival

Interview with Liza Bielby about the Porous Borders Festival

I sat down this week to chat with my neighbor Liza Bielby about the Porous Borders Festival happening next weekend around the Detroit and Hamtramck border. Liza is part of The Hinterlands, the group responsible for organizing the festival. Read what she has to say, visit the website, and come out to the festival. [Shameless plug] I'm hosting an event called The Breakdown on Saturday May 16th at 8 pm, where anyone with a story to tell, talent to showcase, song to sing, fruit to juggle is invited to perform when the spirit moves them. 

Advice for Applicants

Advice for Applicants

This week I want to try to be of some use to all those of you considering applying to Write A House. Applications open today, and I have no real idea how that process works. Check out the WAH Facebook page, where they have been posting application tips every Monday for the past few weeks. Being as I won the first house and was given the task of writing for the blog because Toby didn’t want to, I thought I’d give some additional tips culled from my personal experiences. 2-6 also double as advice for anyone who wants to move to Detroit in general—also, dear strangers and acquaintances, please stop asking me if it’s a good idea for you to move here. From now on, anyone who asks me and doesn't already have my phone number is just getting a link to this post. All of this is to say: feel free to take these tips with a grain of salt because unless you know me, I’m just another person giving unsolicited advice on the internet.

Working with InsideOut Literary Arts

I started teaching in 2007 with City Year, Americorps largest program which primarily focuses on literacy in public school classrooms across the country. It is an organization which is often criticized for putting untrained young people into classrooms. I was certainly that, working in 8th grade civics classrooms twice a week and also running programming at a teen center on the border between Jamaica Plain and Roxbury in Boston. While I had never formally done any teaching before, most of my work was relegated to classroom assistance and also helping students conceive of and execute civic engagement projects in their school and broader community. While the work was taxing, over-taxing at times, overall the experience steered me on a path towards working with youth. At the present time, I teach poetry two days a week at two high schools in Detroit. I am fortunate to have gained a position as a Writer in Residence for insideOut Literary Arts, a Detroit-based writing and literacy organization founded by Terry Blackhawk nearly two decades ago. (Eddie Stewart is a student at Marcus Garvey. He works with iO's Peter Markus at his school.)

A Journey to AWP

A Journey to AWP

Last week I attended the Association of Writers and Poets annual conference, commonly referred to as AWP. On the road to Minneapolis I was reminded how remarkable dull early April’s color palette can be. Indiana was a bed of fog cascading from South Bend to Gary. My friend and I talked about alien sightings, and I divulged that I had seen one too many television specials and Youtube videos on the subject.