I'm pleased to welcome Alison Swan to Michigander Monday!
Debbie: Alison, please tell us a little about yourself.
Alison: Almost everything gets me thinking, imagining . . . I think I had to become a writer so that I could make that habit useful.
I've been writing poems and essays almost as long as I've been reading books, which I started when I was four years old. I wrote my first (and last!) play when I was nine, ill, home from school, and very bored.
I love books. Compelling words, printed or handwritten, on paper, are among my favorite humanmade things on earth. Images hand-drawn are too. I can't imagine a world without art.
At the same time, I love being outside away from the built world. I'm especially fond of hikes through forests and mountains, and on beaches. I think if I were really honest with myself, I'd admit that the main reason I moved to Saugatuck, Michigan, in 1997, is that there are dune and forest trails here, and I can actually climb up and down, if not necessarily up and up. I love walking in cities, too; Marquette and Ann Arbor are two of my favorites. I like to walk through my grandparents' 1960s and 70s Detroit neighborhood in my memory. It was lovely.
My very first home was in Detroit (where my dad's from), my very first summer vacation was to the U.P. (were my mom's from), and those two places have quite a lot to do with the person I've become. Although I've lived in Michigan most of my life, in the 1980s I lived in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Seattle, Washington—not at the same time!--and I do find myself returning to Florida and Washington often. I lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the 1990s. That was perhaps not the best fit, but I did love the trees and the bookstores. I still remember the huge old copper beech I went out of my way to walk by and the black-and-white warbler I added to my life list while living on Maple Ave.
I flat out adore the Olympic Mountains and London. I try not to be greedy for more travel, but I am.
I'm also an environmental activist and I teach writing and literature in the Environmental Studies Program at Western Michigan University. These things feed my writing less directly than you might think. In fact, it's probably more accurate to say that my reading and writing feed those roles directly and daily.
Debbie: And, of course, we want to know all about your books.
Alison: Most recently, Alice Greene & Co., published my first chapbook of poems Dog Heart. This thrills me because poems were my first love and poem-making has been the one continuous thread in my creative life since I was very young. The literal dog of the title is our late golden retriever Keweenaw (named for the beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula) who died in 2010 at 13. She and I roamed all over Michigan's woods and fields together. For a woman who likes to be alone in the woods, the company of a protective dog is priceless. Kewee was also special because she didn't chase deer. She sat silently while we listened to owls.
In 2006, Michigan State University Press published my book Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes. It's a collection of true stories about the lakes by women writers, some of whom didn't get to know a Great Lake until they were well into adulthood. For most of the contributors, however, the lakes have been a centerpiece of their lives. I am very grateful to everyone who participated in the project because it was definitely a labor of love. The Library of Michigan named it a Michigan Notable Book and so I got to tour Michigan libraries and talk to people about the book and the lakes. We had some memorable conversations. I write in Fresh Water about trying to break into an old family cabin and steal a tea kettle that I couldn't bear to lose. On the Notable Book tour, a woman told me about her sister who had succeeded in breaking into an old family cabin and stealing a chair. That chair now has a place of honor at all family gatherings.
I also had a hand in making the coffee-table book, The Saugatuck Dunes: Artists Respond to a Freshwater Landscape, happen. The talented Saugatuck painter Anne Corlett and my husband David Swan were my co-editors on that project. All of the artwork was donated.
In the highly technological, largely indoors life we live in the twenty-first century, storytelling, especially about sacred places, might be one of the most important things we do together.
Debbie: Other books or projects on the horizon?
Alison: I've a got a few different book manuscripts in progress, including a new collection of poems and a book I'm going to keep quiet about for now, except to say that it has to do with the sort of wildness Gary Snyder writes about in The Practice of the Wild.
I've just re-launched my newly redesigned blog, Forage, where I'll be writing about books, art, wild nature, and other provisions. Last week I wrote about a display of poems by seventh graders that I stumbled upon in Gobles, Michigan. http://alisonswan.net/blog-page/
Debbie: Upcoming appearances?
Alison: I'll be reading with the poet Patricia Clark on Wednesday, April 24, at 7:30, 758 Wealthy Street (the old Literary Life Bookstore space), Grand Rapids. She'll be celebrating her new book Sunday Rising and I'll be celebrating my new poetry chapbook Dog Heart. The event marks the launch of a new literary nonprofit, the Great Lakes Commonwealth of Letters. Then on Saturday, May 18, I'll be teaching a poetry-writing intensive, at The Box Factory in St. Joseph, Michigan (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.).
Debbie: Do you have a favorite Michigan bookstore? And/or a favorite Michigan library?
Alison: My favorite Michigan bookstores no longer exist, but my memories of them continue to inspire me: Jocundry's Books (East Lansing) and Shaman Drum Bookshop (Ann Arbor). I try to do as much book shopping as I possibly can at independent bookstores because browsing for books that aren't necessarily bestsellers, actually holding them in my hands and flipping through them while rubbing shoulders with others who are doing the same, is one of my favorite things to do. I love Brilliant Books' (Traverse City) tagline: "Quality facts and literary fiction for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Exactly. Hats off, too, to Singapore Bank Bookstore in my hometown of Saugatuck, to Book Beat in Oak Park, Nicola's Books and Crazy Wisdom in Ann Arbor, and Snowbound Books in Marquette. Literati Bookstore just opened in downtown Ann Arbor (and they've already launched their children's story hour). Literati plans to complement the selections of nearby Aunt Agatha's (mystery) and Crazy Wisdom (spirituality and living mindfully). I'd say that trio is worth a road trip. But really? Any bookstore that's invested in offering up quality facts and literary fiction for life is a priceless treasure to a community—and in my experience that's most independent bookstores.
As for libraries, the graduate library on the University of Michigan's campus feels like a treasure trove to me. I think my heart rate actually increases when I walk up the marble staircases from the lobby. And I still feel completely at home in the library at Michigan State University.
Debbie: How about a favorite place in Michigan?
Alison: My favorite place in Michigan is anyplace where wild nature seems to be in charge, for example, on the beach, off season, at Saugatuck Dunes State Park, and in some secret family spots in the U.P.; or in front of a painting at the DIA or GRAM or KIA. I still get a lump in my throat when I cross the Mackinac Bridge after at least a hundred and fifty crossings, but I admit I wish I could travel back in time to see what the straits looked like without it.
Debbie: Do you have a Michigan event or happening that you love to attend?
Alison: Well, I do look forward to the cardinals beginning to sing their hearts out from the tops of trees again each February, and I've always adored the first day of school. But music concerts in Detroit will always be some of my favorite Michigan events. The audiences really are better there. I could tell you about the INXS concert I went to in a certain large West Coast city. (This was when Michael Hutchence was still alive.) We had ninth-row seats and the large group behind us kept telling us to sit down. I also love: Penny Stamps lectures at the Michigan Theater and UICA, and poetry readings—whenever, wherever. Most recently I heard Patricia Clark read from her new book of poems at Schuler Books in Grand Rapids. Fine poet. Fine bookstore.
Debbie: A few fun Michigan people we should all know about?
Alison: One of the fun-est was certainly Mary Beth Doyle, the whippersnapper environmental activist from Ann Arbor who was killed in a car accident when she was far too young. I know and love so many people in Michigan, and I keep meeting cool ones all the time. . . I just wrote a blog post about a talented public school teacher in Gobles, Michigan, Loriann Harbaugh.
Debbie: Something you'd like a non-Michigander to know about Michigan?
Alison: Michigan is probably much larger and more ecologically diverse than you realize, and surrounded by bodies of water that are also probably much larger than any lake you've ever seen (unless you've been to Lake Baikal or Lake Victoria). People from all walks of life here love the Great Lakes and don't just say they do. We get that everything's connected because the water that feeds those lakes literally flows around us and under our feet all the time.
Also, generally speaking, Michiganders really do like people. We don't just pretend to.
Debbie: Last question. Some folks in Michigan refer to themselves as Michiganders; others Michiganians. For our ongoing vote tally: are you a Michigander or a Michiganian?
Alison: What's a Michiganian? I grew up in Michigan with parents and grandparents who'd grown up in Michigan, and I didn't encounter the term, "Michiganian," until I was well into adulthood. I think that maybe someone with overly refined aesthetics tried to resurrect it. (I did a little research into Michiganian and learned that for a time in the 1800s it was used.) One of the authors you interviewed raised the question of "Michigoose"—love that. I'd be a Michigoose because I'm certainly not a male! I'm fine with that. If you look up "gander" in the dictionary you'll see that one of the definitions of gander is "ninny." That's funny! People from Michigan aren't ninnies, but most of us do have a sense of humor.
Debbie: Michigoose it is! Alison, thank you so much for joining us today for Michigander/Michigoose Monday!