Photo by Travis Wright
Interview by Jennifer Vande Zande
"I have the myth of fins in me. So do you. All of us who live here in the broken puzzle pieces of the city north and south and east and west of the assembly plant live with the myth of fins inside us." – Ken Meisel, "The Myth of Fins"
More than four decades have passed since the smoldering racial tensions and urban unrest of Detroit finally sparked and touched off a riot that set the Northwest and Eastside ablaze—and forever changed the Motor City. Writer Ken Meisel, poet and psychotherapist, was born and raised in Detroit and has embraced this broken city, finding beauty in its ruins. In his latest book Beautiful Rust, Meisel not only gives readers his vision of Detroit, but his words also act as a conduit to memory, invoking from this reader, at least, her own recollections of family stories and myths related to the fallen city. Meisel will read from his work on Thursday, March 24th at 7 p.m. in the Roberta Allen Reading Room on the fourth floor of the Melvin J. Zahnow Library on the campus of Saginaw Valley State University.
Jennifer Vande Zande: Tell us about the evolution of your most recent book, Beautiful Rust.
Ken Meisel: The book evolved, over the course of 7 years writing it, into its present form. The oldest poem in the book is "Concrete Art," which was written in 2002. I knew that I wanted to write a book about my experience of growing up and living in Detroit, and by 2006, which was the year that most of the poems came, I knew I had a potential book. The rest of the composing activity—done between 2007-2009—consisted of completing the form, structure and architecture of the book, i.e. the rounding out of the themes in each section of the book.….I probably wrote as much as 60 poems in all, before paring the book down to what poems actually made the final cut.
The book is really best read as being the voice of Detroit talking through me. Most of the poems, if you read them carefully, are expressions of Detroit as a voice, telling its story. My job was to listen, transcribe, express it. It’s weird, but out of some twisted, loyal kind of love for this place and some yearning to own a piece of it for myself and one day give it away to someone else, I decided to allow myself to write the book. You can love a place, just like a person, and still want to leave it. That's my feeling about Detroit right now. I could leave it. I've already grieved it.
I was born in Detroit, on the west side, and educated through the public school system.Then, after high school, I actually lived in one particular section of the city—the Cass Corridor, which is now affectionately re-named Midtown—from 1980 to 1986. At that time, the Corridor was still in the post-Apocalypse of the '67 riots...it was full of junkies, prostitutes, small time criminals, blighted structures beyond repair, crooked landlords and cast off street people. It wasn’t romantic. It was pretty desolate and depressing. Break-ins were an expected part of the sociological scene. You were always a potential victim to someone or something. Secrecy crimes such as night break-ins, car window bust-ins and the like were expected and happened enough to create a sense of dread and negative expectancy. One always had to keep an eye out for the next opportunity crime. And there weren’t any clever coffee shops or wine bars. None of that. There were some rather renegade punk bars, which were primitive and fun.
Basically some of the poems are really remembrances for me. For instance, the poem "Elegy for the Residents of the Niagara Apartments." That poem was easy for me to write. I remember that place well. Same with "At the Rinaldo Arms Manor, an Obituary." I lived in the Rinaldo Arms Manor, on Willis Street. I remember the plumber who died in that poem, because I was one of the residents—his neighbor—who discovered that he had died. So I was part of the narrative of his pathos, his isolation and his acute aloneness, and his ultimate slippage away. Stuff like that really infected me…and I mean to say it that way….I was infected with the pathos of Detroit as a culture….enough so that I couldn’t really escape it for a long, long time….it actually injured my sense of dignity….So that poem, and the others that are situated in the Cass Corridor, are easy for me. They are really energetic expressions of an aspect of Detroit that is and always will be, for me, alive and mythological, as well as ruined, injured, desolate, tragic. They are part of the heart of Detroit. The heavy beating rust of it…and in that poem, "At the Rinaldo Arms Manor, an Obituary," I write of the six ways that Detroit tells me of its dying…for Detroit is dying, and I was compelled to write of it in this book. I wanted to be another witness for Detroit at its trial. It’s civil unrest. It’s undoing.
I decided, in the end, that I couldn't write the book without giving back to the city in some way. Therefore, I’m donating the profits I make from the book to the InsideOut Literary Arts Project, which is a project in Detroit that helps school kids express themselves through the written word.
JV: Through your writing we become privy to an intimacy you share with Detroit. You take the reader to areas within the city that many fear. How often do you visit these places, and what is this experience like for you?
KM: I do visit some of the places that I write about in the book often. Particularly the neighborhoods off of the Eastern Market…Russell Street, St. Aubin Street, Gratiot Avenue, Mt. Elliott, Grand Boulevard, Cass Avenue, Woodward Avenue, Piquette Avenue, Hastings Street…they are, for me, the beautiful rust. They are places where the city owns itself without apology. One of my favorite poems in the book, a poem called "Our Common Souls," takes place in that neighborhood on St. Aubin Street…which is part of the old black neighborhood called Black Bottom or Paradise Valley. It's the section of Detroit where the largest concentration of black southern immigrants collected themselves and made a place, a community, to live in. They came here to find work in the auto factories. John Lee Hooker lived there. I also write about that neighborhood in the poem "John Lee Hooker’s Boogie Chillun." That's a favorite neighborhood to visit because it is old, empty, antique, and haunted with "the cornucopias of littered trash…" I can't say it any other way. This neighborhood, as I see it, was the artistic heartbeat of Detroit. It birthed the multi-layered styles of music that the city is famous for. I uplift this in my book; Detroit’s fantastic artistic history is worthy of honoring. It's worthy of celebration. I feel a funny pathos and pride when I wander those neighborhoods….they are the roots of Detroit. They haunt me and make me notice them. They have character and identity in them. They are still alive with energy. They're nothing like the suburbs, which tend to bore me.
The city government, in colossal ignorance, decided to tear that whole neighborhood [Black Bottom] out for the I-375 freeway…which is the least used freeway in the city to this day….so we lost that whole vibrant section of the city….I couldn't write a book about Detroit without paying homage to Black Bottom. So many of the poems in the book, as I re-read them, are elegies and lamentations about the prejudice and indignation suffered by African-American people in the city—for decades.
JV: You've said, "Those of us who live here, spend our lives in the elegant shadow of past glories — all of the triumphs such as Motown and the world renowned auto industry — while at the same time, we live in the…great wound and defeat of the city…" Do you understand why so many are overwhelmed by sadness over this and as a result have little tolerance and even anger for the city?
KM: Yes, I do understand this issue, this dilemma. And I, myself, as a citizen, can't escape that I am also created by and blemished by this triumph and ruin of the city that I was born and raised in. The socio-economics of the city and the region are demoralizing and bewildering. They render us powerless and hopeless. The socio-political and financial governmental policies have created a shame-based psycho-social ecology here. That's what some of the '67 riots were expressing. You can't mis-shape and shame a region, a people, a society, without a devastating, longlasting consequence. Detroit is severely identified by and injured by a legacy of prejudice, lies, isolation, success, mismanagement and greed. Detroit is the suffering consequence of a greed and profit based governance—at the micro and the macro level. It is the expression of greed gone bad. Detroit feels to me like what Toni Morrison called Beloved…it is the story that shouldn’t be told and yet must be told…of something beloved that is being swallowed up by a kind of haunted chewing laughter…it’s a tragic laughter. That's why people lose tolerance for it and decide to quit it. To leave it and not look back. Detroit is like a forgetting that can't be forgotten.
And I hold no grand illusions about any of it. The city is a cinéma vérité for what it decides through its leaders and its citizenry to hold up as worthy and valuable—in any given era of its existence. Plain and simple. And the rest of the nation gets to watch and see what Detroit actually upholds and defends as valuable. What is it, anyway? It isn't feminine beauty, that's for sure. Detroit isn't a gracious city. It isn't a place where soft contemplation and reverie—trying to create something better—could take a safe walk together. It is a place where we have a fist downtown. It's a place characterized by prejudice, poverty, and racial intolerance. It's a place, to be clever about it, where might and fight make blight and flight. It's hard to be innocent and live in Detroit. It's hard to be a kid here. You have to stay suspicious to live here. I don't like this idea and I don't like that I'm saying it, but I certainly didn’t invent it either. I'm deeply saddened by it. I write of my own sadness about it in the poem, "Grand River Avenue, Detroit Riots, 1967."
In the poem "Fist," I write of a young girl who tells me that her fist is holding beauty. I'd wish that for Detroit right now. I believe much of the 'sadness' we all feel, here in Detroit, has to do with the fact that we have nothing left of a decent pride. We have nothing we are proud enough of to protect, fight for, uplift and defend. We are in a cycle of humiliation and defeat. And so the city tells all of this to me; and she is telling me the truth. Her truth. We are a humiliated, defeated people here. And we won't get better through a counter-reactive machismo. We'll get a better chance if we decide what is worthy of protection. A government that outsources plain honest jobs for the sake of Wall Street is a power body that cares nothing for sustainability. We have nothing sustainable here in Detroit, and that is part of the crux of the heartbreak. Even Berry Gordy packed his things and moved Motown to L.A. Maybe I can't blame him for it either. Maybe he sensed the ruin brewing between all of us here. The volatility. The violence that holds nothing back. The lack of mercy. The mayhem. The cannon balls in the city's burning eyes.
I do hold hope for the greening of Detroit. In the poem, "Green," I speak of the woman body of Detroit growing fresh produce for her children. You see, I don't think Detroit will ever get better until it becomes identified by and through what it protects. Detroit has a long, inglorious history of not protecting anything within its borders and boundaries. Detroit wrecks rather than protects. And that is, for me, a central crux piece of its masculine-destructive narrative. Detroit—it's fragility and beauty, it's children and women, it's elegance and prosperity; all if it, are under the wrecking ball. I write of this in the poem, "Marvin Gaye & the Wrecking Ball." To get well, the policies of Detroit will serve to protect, not wreck. And that hasn't happened in any real, healing way. Look at Kwame Kilpatrick and you will see what I mean here. Nothing protected. So much wrecked. The greening, though, is a hopeful sign. It's growing something, from the earth up. My fingers are crossed that Dave Bing, the new mayor, can start a building and protecting trend.
JV: Photographer Sean Hemmerle created a photo essay of Detroit for Time. While taking pictures of iconic locations like Michigan Central Station and the Fisher Body Plant, he said that he occasionally had the feeling of working in a post apocalyptic environment. Do you ever feel this way?
KM: Always. Detroit always feels post-apocalyptic. Having wandered through the Fisher Plant #21 and the Packard Plant, as well as some of the other lost, abandoned structures, I can’t help but feel that we are within the membership of an American Ruin. We are the inhabitants of the ruin. We stand in the roaming streams of sunlight coming down through these open structures like post-apocalyptic refugees. We are its prisoners. Its detainees. We quarrel within ourselves—with a psychology of detention versus escape. Will we decide to fight or flee this time? We get entangled in it, again and again. Fight or flee? We are shamed, humiliated, prideful, macho. We fight. We flee. The stress of this dialectic—this conflict about continued residence in Detroit—is what's known as "being in the 313. The D." It makes for a chest thumping false pride. A meanness. A refusal to feel. This 313 syndrome—this conflict about staying or going—is prevalent in both the white and black cultures.
Detroit is a most unusual city in that it created a product—cars—that rendered its citizens the unfettered ability and capacity to leave it. Detroit created its own success and undoing. I write of this paradox in the poem, "The Myth of Fins." In that poem I write that we all have "the driving urge to roar away like cars."
JV: Would you talk about your father and his influence on you?
KM: My father was a Big Band jazz musician. He played with Sam Donahue's Orchestra, in Black Bottom in Detroit in the 1930s and then later on went to New York to play with Charley Barnett and then Les Brown’s Band of Renown. My father was the lead trombonist on their big 1945 hit "Sentimental Journey." He shared bus seats with Doris Day. He also played drums. Piano. A little bit of sax. And guitar.
I grew up with the stories of my father's musical legacy. I especially learned to love his stories of playing with the jazz musicians in Detroit's Black Bottom. All night jazz improv' fests.
My father always defended the right of the artist to walk his own journey, his own path. He held a quiet, resolute passion about the right of the artist to create for creativity's sake. He was self educated and empathic. Non-Elitist. This, along with his kindness, has been the biggest influence on me. I carry my father's quiet defiance and his compassion in me on my own journey.
JV: Have you considered leaving Detroit?
KM: Absolutely. Detroit is a hard place to live. It is not a place that is feminine and soft. It is harsh and unyielding, most of the time. It's not a place I'd aspire to being retired in. It's a place where the trending masculine influence is punitive, secretive and greedy, and the feminine collapse here is vengeful, volatile and humiliated…and the vacancy here, the emptiness, is the only current, present means by which our cultural identity can grow and take shape….in other words, our cultural identity is formed within the beautiful rust, the ruin, the lost glory that wrecks and does not protect….yech. Man, that offers very few longterm options….very few….we are in a culture that is made up of vacancies, sorrow, defeat and emptiness…and a humiliated agitation. Despite all the talk of renaissance and rebirth, Detroit continues—with its anemic tax base and its multiplicity of failures—to poorly take care of its citizens….That's just not attractive to me…and that's why all the young people are leaving us….for Chicago, Houston, South Carolina, et cetera….the opportunity to grow up and be in a happy, thriving milieu is just too attractive for them to ignore. So they leave. In droves. Nothing invites them here. Nothing preserves their chances.
Much of the subtext meaning in my book, Beautiful Rust is about the imbalance-schism between the masculine and feminine energies at play in Detroit. Detroit is hyper masculine. It ain't feminine at all. I speak of this imbalance in several poems in the book, such as "The Wind Blowing Down Gratiot Avenue" and "The City is a Woman." What I'm getting at in those poems is that the ability to create a place of beauty requires a cultural caring about beauty; Detroit seems to lack this value at its core. It doesn't (and never has) protected and defended its sense of beauty. I find that very, very unattractive. It doesn't give me anything to hope for or trust. Nothing. And there's something menacing about a place where children aren't safe and women are made to be toughened up, just to get a foot-up, ledge-wise, to survive. Too much machismo going on here in the D for me. I don't like it. I never will. I long to live in a place where beauty doesn't necessarily have to evolve and grow out of a darkened garden of shame and blight. Sadly, I think that this is what’s going on in Detroit right now.
Frankly, I believe that Detroit is in a serious and essential loss cycle right now. And Detroit must yield to the necessary gains that are governed through the laws of loss. All of that is valid, by the way. It's valid to grow through loss…and Detroit is having to go through that kind of loss cycle…This is Detroit's central ordeal right now. You see it in the failing auto companies, the grid-locked socio-politics, the failed walking neighborhoods, the failure of shopping malls, the despicable school system, everything, all of it. Detroit is at a standstill, looking at itself in the mirror. We'll see what happens next…
I'm just not so excited anymore to spend all of my vibrant life in a place that is in a losing cycle. It creates a hopeless weariness in me…like I'm always searching for the tide to turn and it never really does…I'd like to stroll through a walking neighborhood that is safe and vibrant for a change! A place where "fountains sing praise." A place that gives back, out of its own personal investment and preservation of beauty.
JV: What are you currently working on?
KM: Love poems. Short ones. About my wife, my child, my life. You know—about the beauty in the rust. All the stuff that challenges us to love. The stuff we come to live for. Because it matters on a lonely and rainy Motor City night.
Ken Meisel's poetry has appeared in more than 60 journals, with publication credits that include Spillway, Cream City Review, Concho River Review, Free Lunch, Sulphur River Literary Review, Rattle, River Oak Review, Byrant Literary Review, Soundings East, and Lake Effect. Rattle magazine chose one of his poems for their 'best of' collection, published in 2006. River Oak Review poetry editor Lance Wilcox wrote a comprehensive review of Ken Meisel's first three books of poetry. It was published in their summer 2007 issue. Ken Meisel is the author of three poetry collections. They are Sometimes the Wind (March Street Press, 2002), Before Exiting (Pure Heart Press, 2006) and Just Listening (Pure Heart Press, 2007). The chapbook version of Just Listening won the 2005 Swan Duckling chapbook contest. Bottom Dog Press published his most recent book, Beautiful Rust, in September, 2009.
© Jennifer Vande Zande, 2010