Sunday, July 14, 2013

Top ten U.P. writings of all-time

Ron Riekki has an M.F.A. in Theater Arts from Brandeis, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Virginia, and a Ph.D. in Literature & Creative Writing from Western Michigan.

He is the author of U.P.: A Novel, several poetry chapbooks, and numerous plays, including Dandelion Cottage, A Play.

Riekki's latest book is The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works.

His July 2013 list of the top ten Upper Peninsula (of Michigan) writings of all-time:
Bamewawagezhikaquay's writing in The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky--

Robert Dale Parker, in the introduction to the book, calls her "the first known American Indian literary writer, the first known Indian woman writer, by some measures the first known Indian poet"; hopefully people will realize that Native American literature, in many ways, begins in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.

Catie Rosemurgy's The Stranger Manual--

Catie Rosemurgy's work is stunning; she writes books slowly. There was an eight-year gap between her first poetry book and her second. And she seems on pace for another eight years until the next, but the payoff is worth it. She whispers her poems to you and the intimate voice is sheer beauty, even when it's ugly.

Austin Hummell's Poppy--

Hummell, like Rosemurgy, just simply understands poetry, like his brain has shifted to think poetically, in ways others of us can't. There's something ineffable in what Rosemurgy and Hummell do line-by-line, but the result is consistently interesting. Also, like Rosemurgy, he seems to write rarely, having a seven-year gap between his first and second book. And now he's going into a decade-long gap since Poppy. Hummell fans are anticipating the next book, myself included.

Catie Rosemurgy's My Favorite Apocalypse--

Rosemurgy herself sees her later collection The Stranger Manual as superior to My Favorite Apocalypse, but Rosemurgy's worst poems are better than many authors' best poems. You can turn to any page in this collection and find a truly unique American voice.

Robert Traver's Laughing Whitefish--

As can be seen from the top four writers on this list, the Upper Peninsula is making significant contributions to poetry. Fiction, though, has been problematic. The voices that seem to get widely accepted the most tend to be outsider representations/misrepresentations of the Upper Peninsula in which the cliches of its geography make the page and the characters never truly feel authentically Yooper. Traver is that rare (and desperately needed) U.P. fiction writer who was born, raised, and lived in the U.P., so his characters feel wonderfully real. I'm from Negaunee and his description of the city in its opening felt so dead-on that I was amazed at the detail, especially in contrast to some of the hollow town descriptions I've seen in other books. (I will add this--it will be a breakthrough for the history of U.P. literature the moment that Michigan Tech, Northern Michigan University, or Lake Superior State actually hires a born and raised Yooper for its creative writing faculty who has a major publisher book deal. That simple act would be powerful for U.P. literature, as we could have a writer dedicated to that area able to survive financially and continue to write about the area and have a broad audience to tell those stories. It will be a very happy day for me the day that happens. Maybe they can try to seduce Tom Bissell or Ander Monson to take a position there.)

Jonathan Johnson's Mastodon, 80% Complete--

Johnson's love of the U.P. shows in his poetry. He lacks pretentiousness, instead replacing that with a wonderful embracing of the beauty and flaws of U.P. life.

Ander Monson's Other Electricities--

Monson is one of the strangest writers ever to come from the area. He's the only writer on this list that I would consider post-modern. The results are mixed. Monson has some writing that makes me feel completely neutral, as if it was written by a scientist instead of a creative writer. On the other hand, Monson can come with a surprise left-hook that can make one of his stories or poems so impressive that you walk away thinking he just might be the best writer ever to come from the region. In fact, Monson is probably the author I would choose as the most possible to end up with a Pulitzer Prize. He's hit-and-miss, but when he hits he's absolutely flawless. Or, perhaps, rather, the flaws are so elegant that you wish you could learn how to control those Leonard-Cohen-esque cracks.

Wendell Mayes' Anatomy of a Murder--

Of course, I'm just trying to be controversial here with the name of the writer. I've never read Anatomy of a Murder. I've seen it. As a kid, I read the first page and it just felt a hundred years from where I was at in my life. I've never picked it up again, but I'll get to it eventually. Laughing Whitefish I read much later in life when I was literarily ready for it, I suppose. The first time I saw the film I thought it was OK. Again, it didn't have the immediate connection of a Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson for me. But the second and third viewings, again, when I was older, made me realize that a lot of that screenplay is genius. Mayes evaporates the U.P. authenticity turning the area into a sort of nameless Hollywood version, which is a major problem, but the writing is so good, especially considering what could be written in the 1950s and actually make it to the screen, that I have to include it in the top ten. (By the way, the screenplay is so good, of course, I'm sure, largely because of Traver.)

Rebecca Tavernini's and Grace Chaillier's Voice on the Water: Great Lakes Native America Now--

I wish this book was 200 pages instead of 250+. There are some clunkers included that lower the quality of the overall experience of the book, but eliminate those roughly 50 pages of weaker writings and the remaining 200 pages are an enjoyable, important read. The writing of Echoe Deibert and Clara Corbett immediately come to mind, two writers whose voice is so unique and true that you feel you want to meet them and talk to them for hours at a bonfire after reading their poems.

Carroll Watson Rankin's Dandelion Cottage--

Rankin is problematic. Some of the language in regards to Native Americans can make you wince, but jump over those issues of 1904 authorship and there is some wonderful humor and a softly inspirational story of dealing with issues of poverty to create a beautiful little life in a cottage. The book is charming and its roots in very early U.P. literature make it a YA must-read.
Visit Ron Riekki's website and follow him on Twitter.

Learn more about The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works.

--Marshal Zeringue