Illustration by: Ann Mikolowski

On Poetry in Detroit

An excerpt from the introduction to Abandon Automobile: Detroit City Poetry 2001, edited by Melba Joyce Boyd and M. L. Liebler (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), pages 23-28.

The unique contribution of Detroit poetry to American literature is as distinct as the city's historical contribution to the Industrial Revolution. Before Henry Ford induced thousands to work in his factories for five dollars a day, Detroit was largely regarded as a port city set on the border between the United States and Canada. This geographical factor made the city one of the last stops on the Underground Railroad for runaways from southern slavery. Today, African Americans make up 83% of a population also comprised of Western Europeans, Greeks, Italians, Slavs, Latinos, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, and Native Americans. The city's economic decline in the last decades of the twentieth century, due to a shift from an industrial-based economy to a technological one, has drastically altered the circumstances of the working class. These past and present socioeconomic configurations have affected the development of Detroit's literary community and are reflected in the imagery of its poetry.

In the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, when Detroit was the "Arsenal of Democracy" and the "Automobile Capital of the World," industrial wealth embellished the city's industrial identity. In tandem with the city's educational institutions, poets emerged from a myriad of ethnicities. Literary relationships of historic note, such as the friendship between Dudley Randall (1914-2000) and Robert Hayden (1913-1980), demonstrated how the automobile industry and the labor struggle stimulated artistic expression and aesthetic exchange in the working-class and the African American community.

During the Great Depression in 1937, Randall and Hayden met and provided aesthetic sustenance for each other and their artistic pursuits. By day, Randall labored in the Ford foundry, while Hayden worked for the WPA. By night, Randall and Hayden met at the YMCA to discuss literary techniques and their own writings. In fact, Randall typed Hayden's first manuscript, Heart-Shape in the Dust, for submission to a poetry contest. Although it did not win the prize, Falcon Press, founded by a group of union organizers, published the manuscript. Randall and Hayden struggled to be published in national magazines because of the limited outlets and opportunities for black poets.

The poetry community grew as emerging educational programs provided intellectual and creative space for these new artists. Wayne State University played a major role in this evolving literary movement. Many of the writers included in this anthology have either studied, worked, taught, or read poetry at this university. Wayne State is located in the heart of the city's cultural center, alongside the main branch of the Detroit Public Library, the Detroit Institute of Arts, the Detroit Science Center, Your Heritage House, the Children's Museum, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, and the College for Creative Studies.

The more senior poets, Philip Levine, Henrietta Epstein, Dudley Randall, and Murray Jackson, were students at Wayne in the post World War II era. Some were students in the Department of English and were members of the newly formed Miles Modern Poetry Workshop, directed by Professor Chester Cable. Some of their earliest poems were analyzed on campus and published in issues of Milestones. The Miles Poetry Series hosted poetry readings by local and nationally renowned poets. The Department of English at Wayne provided the formal training for many Detroit poets, many of whom were factory workers or the sons and daughters of factory workers. They crafted images and institutions that became instrumental to the cultural industry of the city.

Wayne State University also became a catalyst for poetry activity in convergent and progressive ways. When Rosie E. Poole, the Dutch scholar, was a visiting professor at Wayne, she took a particular interest in Detroit poetry. In 1962 she published Beyond the Blues, an anthology of black poetry, in the Netherlands because she could not find an American publishing house that would accept a poetry manuscript by black writers. That same year, Margaret Danner, a Chicago writer and poet-in-residence at Wayne, founded Boone House. Boone House held poetry gatherings and readings for black poets in Detroit such as Naomi Long Madgett, Oliver LaGrone (1906-1995), and Dudley Randall. In 1968 five black and five white writers formed a workshop, and published an anthology titled Ten: An Anthology of Detroit Poets.

Dudley Randall was a member of Boone House when he composed "Ballad of Birmingham," following the 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, for Correspondence Magazine in Detroit. In 1965 folksinger Jerry Moore asked for permission to record the poem as a song. In order to protect his rights as the author, Randall printed the poem as a broadside, a single sheet of paper, and founded the Broadside Press. Shortly thereafter, he began the Broadside Series and published poems by such prominent black poets as Robert Hayden, Margaret Walker, Naomi Long Madgett, Gwendolyn Books, LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka), Melvin Tolson, Jean Toomer, and Langston Hughes. He called the first set of poems "Poems of the Negro Revolt." As the press grew, it began to publish books by these same broadside authors, and it also introduced new black voices of the 1960s, including Don L. Lee (Haki Madhubuti), Etheridge Knight, James Emanuel, Nikki Giovanni, Sonia Sanchez, and Audre Lord. According to poet and scholar Eugene Redmond, Broadside Press became "the hub of black poetry publishing."

Under Randall's auspices, Broadside also published emerging Detroit-based poets: Jill Witherspoon Boyer, who was also the editor of the Broadside Annual; Melba Joyce Boyd, who was Randall's assistant editor (1972-77); Aneb Kgositsile, who served as an editor for the press (1977-80); John Sinclair; and Michelle Gibbs. Broadside Press was the most successful small poetry press at the time. More than five hundred thousand books were distributed between 1965-77. It served as inspiration for other aspiring, small presses.

Randall's colleague Naomi Long Madgett founded Lotus Press in 1972. Its first publication was Madgett's Pink Ladies in the Afternoon. Like Randall, Madgett realized that only through independent presses could black poets ensure that their works would be made public. She extended her resources and skills to other poets and published the works of noted Detroit poets Toi Derricotte, Paulette Childress, and Bill Harris. Since 1972 the press has grown significantly, claiming 76 titles.

The racial dynamics of the times influenced and characterized the city's ever-growing poetry community. Broadside Press was an outgrowth of the Civil Rights Movement and was energized by the Black Arts Movement. Likewise, the antiwar movement and women's movement radicalized other sectors of the literary world. Many Detroit organizations and venues surrounding the Wayne State University campus became addresses for historic poetry readings and workshops advancing a counterculture that articulated a working-class perspective and an activist vocabulary.

In 1964 poets and musicians founded the legendary Artists Workshop (1964-67) on Forest Avenue near Wayne State University. Poets Robin Eicheles, John Semark, John Sinclair, George Tysh, and Jerry Younkins and musicians John Dana, Charles Moore, Ron English, and Lyman Woodard created a vortex for a unique mix of avant-garde poetry and experimental music, which captured the cultural scene. Like the names of their poetry publications, Change and Work, this new workshop believed that consciousness of one's art was as provocative as jazz/poetry readings and performances. The Workshop recorded music, published city poets, and brought in national names for the billboard such as Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, and Robert Creeley.

The Artists Workshop was the stimulus for starting the Alternative Press in 1969. Editors Ken and Ann Mikolowski created a press that gave national opportunity for Detroit-based poets Jim Gustafson, Mick Vranich, John Sinclair, Donna Brooks, Faye Kicknosway, Chris Tysh, and George Tysh. Like Broadside Press, the Alternative Press extended its identity beyond city borders by publishing noted national poets Robert Creeley, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Gary Snyder, and others. Their publishing format was as varied as Randall's press, which included broadsides, postcards, and bumper stickers. The goal of the Alternative Press was to create an eclectic, accessible, and inclusive mix of writing for audiences, and an alternative community for artists.

During this plethora of activity, there was limited interaction between the racially segregated literary communities, even though there was some collaboration between individuals. Poet and publisher Dan Georgakas explains in "Young Detroit Radical, 1955-1965" how the cross-fertilization of radical politics and culture in Detroit resulted in collaborative publishing projects during the 1960s:

There was a strong self-publishing movement among Black writers in the city, as Black writers were then virtually excluded from literary anthologies of major publishing houses. Dudley Randall began the influential Broadside Press in the 1960s. His press and mine had one joint venture, a wall poster by M. B. Tolson. This kind of interaction between the Black artistic community and radicals was considerable but totally unstructured (URGENT Tasks 12 [summer 1981]).

It was during the 1970s, as the city began its dramatic economic decline, that small presses and reading series began to showcase a more diverse roster and encourage more cross-cultural activity within the broader poetry community. The number of independent presses also increased: Wayne State professor and poet Steven Tudor founded the One Hundred Pound Press; Glenn Mannisto, Dennis Teichman, Chris Tysh, George Tysh, and Jim Wanless founded the Detroit River Press, and Mannisto edited the newsletter Straits; and in 1973 Carl Aniel, Greg Hallock, Jeffrey Ensroth, Larry Wilson, Sharon Vanden Brock and M. L. Liebler started the Ridgeway Press and Ridgeway Artist Collective, which was influenced by surrealism, Dada and the Fluxus Movement.

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