Adventures in Midwestern Literature

I returned home yesterday from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature Symposium at Michigan State in East Lansing. I grew up about 50 miles south of Fargo, ND and I’ve always felt a strong pull to the work of writers from the Red River Valley and North Dakota / Minnesota. Thomas McGrath. Louise Erdrich. Kathleen Norris. James Wright. Robert Bly. David Martinson. (Chuck Klosterman is supposed to be great, too, but I haven’t read much of his work.) Like most writers and scholars, the more I learn about the world, the more I realize how rich my childhood was. It’s not that it’s important that everyone in the world know something about coming of age in the Valley. It’s just that I’m beginning to see the importance of better understanding the culture from which I emerged.

This was my second year, and I can only say that I expect it to get better every year. Last year I met several really great people, and this year I saw most of them again and met several new people. Ron Primeau (Michigan State University) was really the person who got me interested initially. I queried a call for Midwestern films, and he invited me to show my digital story, “Question for Lydia,” about trying to explain to a newborn what an amazing friend she will have in her father, Daniel. That went over well. So I came back again this year to show another digital story, “Ironing,” about coming to terms with the death of my mother by inhabiting one of the rituals she depended on after my father’s death. I’ve also had the pleasure of sharing some of my creative non-fiction. Last year I read “Something about the Horizon. The Future. Words. Magic.” It’s an essay about how a relatively isolated kid from the Midwest comes to understand the potential magic of language. This year I read “Resurrection Man,” an essay about the difficulty of accepting my father’s death as a suicide, despite my mother’s story-efforts to the contrary. It’s a shorter version of the essay that will be published in the North Dakota Quarterly this fall, “Colorless, Odorless Gas.”

One of the highlights of the trip was that I stumbled into the Curious Book Shop across from campus on East Grand Avenue. Tiny little place, but a great set of books. The clerk looked mildy (and understandably) annoyed when I asked him if he knew his inventory well. I asked for anything on historical anatomy. Middle row. Top middle shelf. Biological history section. Um… thanks. Impressive. Not only that he knew exactly where they were, but that they had any at all. Unfortunately, there were only a few that fit my interests (social history of anatomical practices, especially pre-nineteenth century) and I already had them at home. So… sheepishly back to the clerk. Any books on the history of the circus, clowns, carnivals, or sideshows? Upstairs. Right of the glass case. Two shelves worth in the Entertainment section. I was in awe. Both reasons again. Also that he wasn’t in the least bit arrogant or annoyed with my obscurity and pickiness. So upstairs. What a collection! At least a dozen books I wished I could own. An historical bibliography. Pulp novels about romance and murder under the big top. Kids books. Biographies of famous clowns. Jaw-dropping. I settled on Here Come the Clowns by Lowell Swortzell. I paid a bit much too much, but the line drawings (about 30) in the book had all been beautifully hand-finished with colored pencil.

Here are some other notes in shotgun-form. Just in case you’re planning a trip there next year, or I want to come back to this a year from now to remember the cool things to do in East Lansing.

Stephen Adams (Westfield State) read what I think is the most beautiful essay I’ve heard in a long, long time. Having to reckon with his parents’ dementia. Sad and beautiful and honest and necessarily (but respectfully) funny. I hope he’s able to place that one somewhere. Too many people out in the world need to read it. Same sort of atmosphere as the The Savages.

Also really liked Patrick S. McGinnity’s essay, “The Brotherhood of Idiots.” Dead cow. Dead calf. Post-mortem removal, burial, and resurrection. Authentic and hilarious. Lunch with Patrick and his wife, Larissa, was great, too.

Although I didn’t get to hear their work, it was great to meet Jeffrey Hotz (East Stroudsburg), John Davidson (Central Michigan University), Signe Jorgenson (University of Alaska, Anchorage), and Susan Schiller (Central Michigan University).

It was really nice to hear David Schock (Grand Haven, MI) talk about the progress of his (with Ron Primeau) latest documentary about Herbert W. Martin. The discussion focused on what makes a good documentary about a writer. I found it especially interesting to hear him and Ron speak about how the research for one documentary ends up spinning off several more ideas.

Glenn Sheldon (University of Toledo) also gave a nice presentation on what he’s been finding about about Thomas McGrath as he researches the unofficial grand poet of the Red River Valley. Some great stories about Sheldon, ND.

Peanut Barrel: Great little pub on East Grand Avenue across from campus. Affordable. Standard pub food. Standard beers. Safe bet. Great place to bring a group of conference-goers.

Harper’s Brew Pub: Another nice little place. My Reuben was average, but my friend Stephen had a burger with pickled hops. We all tried some. Very weird flavor. I think either Patrick or Stephen suggested a cross between cinnamon and cabbage. That was right on. Pungent, though. Still could taste ’em an hour later.

Hotel: Residence Inn, East Lansing. The nicest place I’ve ever stayed. Two bedrooms, two baths. Complete kitchen. Office. Fifteen minute walk from campus. Wow. My friend Melissa Kelley helped get me a discount. She’s a dear. Thanks, Mel!

Drive: Louisville to East Lansing, mild weather/mild traffic: 5.5 hours. Same on return.

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