January 28, 2013

O Kalamazoo

I just woke up from two hours of deep sleep, which took place while curled up in a chair in the middle of Western Michigan University's library. Luckily no one stole my laptop or wrote on my face while I was out. I've hit the travel wall--every Kleenex used in my purse, lymph nodes swollen, craving peanut butter for the sheer energy--and soon, after a visit to a WMU class on "food and culture" that has read Don't Kill the Birthday Girl, I'll be on my way back to North Carolina. But what a wonderful time I have had while here. So I give you: three days in photographs.

Kalamazoo is an ace town for coffeeshops. Here is a glimpse of the 24-hour-open Fourth Coast (which refers to the coast of Lake Michigan, in case you're wondering). After a welcome-to-town lunch with my host, the poet Traci Brimhall, I spent my Friday afternoon here--and got 1,000 words written of an essay I've been mulling over for months. Creativity upon arrival is always a good omen. 

Afterwards my other host, Jon, picked me up for dinner and a trek to Louie's Trophy Grill, which features very large game animals on the walls. We saw three guys and their bartender do a shotski--four shot glasses mounted in a ski for simultaneous drinking. I could have gotten in on the action had there not been sour mix in the shots. Foiled! Afterward a slight mis-Google-directioning landed us in, um,  Galesburg. I got back to Traci's at 1 AM; the poor, brave poet had to stand outside in her socks so I could find their apartment amidst the identical rows of snow-covered buildings.

The next morning Traci, her husband Robert, Jill Osier (the other KBAC reader), and I headed out to South Haven, a beach town about an hour away. On the drive out we saw Christmas tree farms, fields of bare blueberry bushes with bright red branches against the snow, a 20-foot-tall compound bow advertising an archery shop, and the place that sells "The World's Greatest Hamburger," which as you can imagine was quite the temptation. But we pushed on to the Thirsty Perch, which had good hot french fries and this Make-Your-Own Bloody Mary bar. Celery salt, two different varieties of hot sauce, horseradish, thick crisp bacon: we were in heaven. But what followed was even better.

This is what happens at the icy edge of a Great Lake...

...where one watches each splash of a wave freeze as it meets the shore. 

I asked Jill, who lives in Alaska, if this made her feel at home. But she lives in an area that is fairly dry, without a lot of snow fall. Traci and Robert had never been to South Haven in winter before. In other words, we were all agog at the beauty of it. 

By the time we got back to Kalamazoo, we had only an hour to warm up and change for our reading at the Kalamazoo Center for Book Arts. Great crowd--almost 40 people--including some folks I had written to over the years, or known as fellow New Issues poets, or published in Folio, but had never met in person.

Jill read first. Her work is quiet and stunning, offering double-takes of language as a signifier of emotional indeterminacy. This is the lead-off poem to her chapbook Bedful of Nebraskas from sunnyoutside press; it first appeared in a 2005 issue of Poetry:

I did not walk down to the lake today.
Maybe I should have, though if you leave
a pail of rainwater sitting in the yard,
it gives an answer to most things. Emptied,
it's metal asking questions. Your face appears
undisturbed if you approach it carefully.
No one at the lake would have known me.
I don't think you can approach a lake carefully,
or I don't think we ever approach what we mean
to a lake.

During an intermission, copies of our books and broadsides were raffled off to the crowd.  I was anxious to see which poem of mine they had chosen for a broadside. Turned out they had picked "Mercy," the poem that currently closes my third collection. 

I talked about my gratitude to have had New Issues Poetry & Prose take a chance on my first collection--it was great to have both Marianne Swierenga, who was my editor, and current managing editor Kimberly Kolbe in the house. I shared a mix of poems from Theories of Falling, I Was the Jukebox, and new work.  I read "The Hotel Devotion" because Kim, the lovely intern who introduced me, said it was her favorite. 

Afterwards we went to Food Dance, where I ate an amazing Moroccan dish: roasted butternut squash piled high withIsraeli couscous, olives, chickpeas, and almonds. Conversations ran late and included this guess at someone's age: "I figure, between 25 and 65." We marveled at the music mix, which somehow covered the guilty-pleasure spectrum from Verve Pipe to Guns 'N Roses to Tom Petty to Jay-Z.

The next morning we went by the downtown Water Street Coffee en route to dropping Jill off at the train station. I stayed to get work done, enjoying one of the most delicate cups of coffee I have ever savored--a gently ground pour-over whose surface swirled--while reading through a batch of submissions for a sestina contest. Then I couldn't resist the allure of returning to Food Dance, across the street. 

The music was still addictive; this time, an even peppier mix that included Stevie Wonder and Culture Club. I sat at the bar, ordered a Bloody Mary with Absolut Peppar, house-made vegetable juice and a pickled asparagus garnish, and settled in to read. Not that a searing account of contemporary war isn't a good way to spend a Sunday morning, but after the first 100 pages I decided to change it up. 

I convinced the waitress to let me try all three of the Sandra-friendly housemade breads--sourdough, multigrain, and a stellar hot-from-oven rosemary and potato bread, all of which I slathered with thick blueberry-blackberry jam. My neighbors at the bar, overhearing me introduce myself as an out-of-towner, struck up conversation. The guy to my right was on his way out of town, moving to Cincinatti to serve a one-year fellowship as a team doctor to the Reds. He said of the guy to my left, "You've come to the right place; he's the mayor of Kalamazoo." It took several jokes and 20 minutes of conversation later to figure out he was, in fact, the actual mayor.

Me and Mayor Bobby Hopewell. An incredibly nice guy who, in addition to his civic service, works in hospital administration. On his way out, he told the Food Dance folks he wanted to pick up my check. Kalamazoo, you rock. 

Bobby said my mission of coffeeshop surveyance would not be complete without a visit to the Black Owl, so that is where I went to finish Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds. This is a small but very cool new venue, with a steampunk aesthetic and six different methods of making their coffee. There are plans to add a bar angle; I bet it flourishes.

To walk off all the calories from my morning's indulgences I headed down to the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts, which offers quite a bargain of entertainment for $5 admission. An exhibit of Ansel Adams photography had just opened over the weekend. An unexpected highlight was "Stoked: Five Artists of Fire and Clay," which focuses on the legacy of the Saint John's University Pottery studio, now in its thirtieth year, anchored by the influence of artist in residence Richard Bresnahan. My favorite work was by his youngest apprentice (and the only woman) Anne Meyer.

No Kalamazoo experience is complete without a round at the Eccentric Cafe of Bell's Brewery, for which Jon met up with me. Bell's has quite a friendly, boisterous scene; I bet it's a great place for live music. I ordered a flight of six samplers and decided my favorite was Harvest Ale, a pale ale brewed with Michigan-sourced barley and hops. My dinner was the veritable bucket o'peanuts they scooped me for $1.60.

By the time we left Bell's the snow was coming down. We made a quick pit stop at the aptly named Beer and Skittles; I picked up one last Michigan beer, New Holland's "The Poet" Oatmeal Stout. Jon dropped me off at Water Street's Oakland location--where chairs are luxurious and KBAC broadsides are on display--to head home with Marianne, where we spent a few hours talking before deep sleep (part one; "deep sleep, part two" took place at the aforementioned library, where Marianne now works). 

I met Marianne on my first night of my first visit to Virginia Center for Creative Arts, way back in 2005. We had no way of knowing that she'd be my editor at New Issues, much less that eight years later we'd be in her living room. One thing I've learned about traveling is that everyone has their favorite cities and towns; places where you'll take any excuse to go back for a visit. Kalamazoo, welcome to my list. I'll see you again.

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