Crafting the elements of Michigan writing

From staff reports

Wayne State University Press just published a dynamic collection of creative nonfiction essays and stories by Michigan writers called ELEMENTAL, part of its Made in Michigan writers series. The collection is edited by Anne-Marie Oomen, an author, poet and teacher who lives in Empire. Elemental will celebrate its launch at the Glen Arbor Arts Center on Thursday, Nov. 15, with readings by many of the authors published in the collection. The Glen Arbor Sun caught up with Anne-Marie to ask about ELEMENTAL and what it means for Michigan writing.

Glen Arbor Sun: What inspired the ELEMENTAL project? How was it born?

Anne-Marie Oomen: The question that started it: Is there a Michigan literature, a kind of writing that just screams Michigan? Annie Martin, Editor-in-Chief at Wayne State University Press put the question to me when she asked me if I would consider editing a new creative nonfiction anthology of Michigan writers. I’ve always loved the anthology concept, a “gathering” of many writers, many voices, of reading a community inside a book. So I jumped at the chance. But Annie’s question was a pickle. Was there a Michigan literature, like Southern Gothic or Western literature. Are there trends and characteristics that mark our writing? What makes a Michigan story or essay? Or are we just too complicated—we might be—to assign a set of elements. But when I gathered pieces for the anthology, I looked deeply for patterns of meaning and common characteristics among those writers. I was seeking ideas for a throughline, connections among the writers. It’s like solving a mystery, but in this case even more is at stake: how do writers write Michigan? So I really wanted to explore that idea and if I couldn’t answer the question directly, maybe I could begin to shape an answer through the process of selection. Maybe this could be representative. And maybe readers could help answer the question by what they observe of this broad collection.

Sun: And the name? Why “elemental”?

Oomen: The title, ELEMENTAL, is actually part of the answer to the How-Do-We-Write-Michigan question. Michigan is complex and diverse, from our urban and industrial areas to agricultural regions, from coastal cultures to the mining history in the UP—what could possibly unify all that? But as I explain in the Introduction, if I looked at that complexity through that old Greek lens of the four ancient elements: air, earth, water, fire—those ancient elements opened an answer. We seem to be a people who live close to and in connection with those elements. Especially to water. We are a Peninsula, and so we are marked by water, isolated by it, and unified (I hope) in our appreciation of it. Also, whose work or life isn’t connected to at least one of those elements in some way particular to Michigan? So does that elemental connection show up in the literature? Turns out, it does. Or at least it does in these essays. The writing fell so organically into the four categories that it structured the book—four sections, each related to the elements in unique ways, which makes them even more interesting. The strongest element of course, was water, but the industrial or urban pieces reflected a connection to, for example, fire. You’ll be delighted with the air pieces—utterly fresh.

Sun: Tell us about the breadth of these Michigan writers who contributed? How are they similar? How are they different?

Oomen: This is such an amazing collection of voices; perfect holiday reading. You can read a couple essays, put down the book, go back after you’ve skied and read more. You’ll find an incredible range here, from familiar Michigan names like Jerry Dennis, Mardi jo Link and Ben Busch to amazing new names like Ari Mokdad and Jaimie Delp. There’s a broad representation from Detroit and Ann Arbor (Alison Swan and Keith Taylor), but of course, strong representation from the North too. There’s Jacob Wheeler with the key baseball essay! The collection is not comprehensive—way too many writers in Michigan to include everyone—so I tried to represent Michigan’s complexity, the range of Michigan voices—and what a gift it’s been! I chose intimate pieces about growing up Lebanese American in Detroit (Ari Mokdad), and pieces about our First Nations in this troubling time (W.S. Penn), and quest pieces about exploring the U.P.s Niagara Escarpment, cradling our entire region (Robert Root). There are important legacy writers in the world of literary nonfiction (Michael Stienberg), and household names—Rochelle Riley and Davy Rothbart. I chose people who hate winter (Jess Mesman) and people who love the fields (Teresa Scollon). All the writers reflect that complex range that is Michigan: some are funny, some serious, but they all love this place, even as they complain about the cold. But the collection as a whole makes a statement, and is so much fun to read and to pass on—makes a great ambassador gift too.

Sun: What can a book like this tell us about our common Michigan experience?

Oomen: There’s a fifth spirit in those old Greek elements, called ether, or spirit, which was the stuff that connected everything. I didn’t use that to categorize the essays because it ran through all of them, that energy. It made me grateful to read them. I think it’s a Michigan thing, a spirit related first to water which connects all of us, and to that quality of being peninsula. It’s an energy of both isolation and pride. I once heard a writer call Michigan the Texas of the North—for our independence. As I write in the Introduction, we take a perverse pride in knowing we are of this water place, but it is not easy, and so perhaps we borrow survival themes from Canadian literature—but in our case, survival is always transforming—like the elements, almost spiritual, so that transformation may be elemental, primary to our spirit.

Sun: Beyond the Glen Arbor reading on Nov. 15, are any other events planned?

Oomen: I’m thrilled to launch at Glen Arbor Arts Center on Nov. 15, at 7 p.m. You won’t hear this collection of writers together in one place often, if ever! A dozen writers have committed to showing up for that reading so it’s going to be momentous, and people who are fans of one writer get to learn about the others. The book also makes a great holiday gift. Beyond that, in Detroit we launch at the Public Pool on Nov. 29, and we’ll be launching at Horizon in Traverse City on Dec. 2. I’ll be hanging out at the book fair in TC on Dec. 2, too.


Excerpt from ELEMENTAL by Teresa Scollon, from her essay “Earth.”

To live among fields does something to a person. To live along a river, or on the Great Lakes, does something to a person. People from the other parts of the country don’t believe the size of the Great Lakes until they arrive, and then they exclaim: It is like the ocean. We know, we think. We told you.

More than once a friend from elsewhere told me my hometown was in the middle of nowhere—an idea I could not understand. It was a blind thing to say, when all around us the earth lay open and alive, dwarfing us. Even under snow, the curves of the world were voluptuous and riveting. It would be like saying, as you lie touching the body of your lover, that you are nowhere. You are at the center.

Look out over an expanse—the prairies, or the canyons, or the lakes, or the curve along M-81—and feel a low, slow stirring, like timpani. Felt, rather than heard, at the edges of perception, and then a swelling, an ache. Isn’t this feeling a cousin to desire, the feeling that it is impossible to take it all in, that the senses are at last fully employed, stretching to contain an otherness, a reaching for what can never be yours. We never speak of it. I don’t know if anyone else feels this way, but I think they do. It is the love of ground, which is like love everywhere: molecular and unbidden.