The Vibrancy of Ann Arbor’s Literary Arts Culture

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Ann Arbor has always been a place where creativity thrives. Colorful murals, graffiti art, and whimsical fairy doors grace downtown building exteriors. Filmmakers, musicians, architects, poets, painters, publishers—artists and writers from all over the world are drawn to Ann Arbor for its diverse community, educated population, and vibrant campus atmosphere. What’s more, there are exceptional arts programs, museums, publishers, journals, book clubs, and cultural events for those who live here to enjoy. With Thanksgiving coming up, there’s no better time than now to acknowledge, celebrate, and give thanks for this community we love.

Bookstores:

In 2009, The Michigan Daily reported on “Ann Arbor’s burgeoning literary scene,” and soon after, one by one, the beloved downtown bookstores Shaman Drum, Borders, and Michigan Book & Supply closed their doors. Some thought it was a sign of the analog-long-gone times and the imminent demise of book culture altogether. Yet now, years later, the literary arts scene in Ann Arbor is vibrant and growing again (even big names like the Poetry Foundation and Tin House have taken notice). It might in part have to do with the rising popularity of MFA programs like the top-ranked ones Michigan offers in Creative Writing and Art & Design or perhaps the seemingly increasing public interest in writing and the arts in general. Yet when it comes to pinpointing one moment in the city’s recent history, it was the opening of Literati Bookstore in 2013 that changed the game for Ann Arbor and helped revitalize its literary arts scene.

In 2012, Hilary Lowe and Michael Gustafson began renovating their three-story corner lot on Washington and Fourth Avenue with the idea to create a bookstore that could also function as a cozy, lively gathering space. On April 5, 2013, Literati’s opening night event featured local poet and creative writing professor Keith Taylor, and since then the bookstore has hosted a packed schedule of events, including storytimes and typing bees with harlequin creature as well as poetry and fiction readings (some of which, like when poets Anne Carson and Anne Waldman came to read back in May, maxed out capacity and puzzled passersby outside enough to stop mid-stride, gaze into Literati’s windows at the crowd, and ask, What is this? A poetry reading?!).

Today—thanks to its dreamy design and social media presence, to its dedicated customers who love great literature, and to the passion of all who work there—Literati (and The Espresso Bar upstairs) has become a destination spot for tourists and a sanctuary for locals. As if typewritten, a row of bricks on Literati’s exterior reads, “This is my favorite corner in Ann Arbor”—a sentiment many book-lovers share.

Like Literati, Crazy Wisdom Books and Tea Room, Bookbound, and Nicola’s Books also host readings and literary events for the community. Other local bookstores, including Aunt Agatha’s, Dawn Treader, and West Side Book Shop, have great selections of used books, and you can find rare and antique books for sale, as well. Fun fact: Ann Arbor ranks first among U.S. cities in the number of antiquarian booksellers and books sold per capita.

Libraries:

Ann Arbor, with the University at its heart, is home to one of the top ten largest libraries in the United States. Founded in 1838, the University of Michigan Library contains more than 12.44 million volumes and houses many unique collections on campus. The University Library as a whole is made up of over 20 libraries, including the Law Library (want a chart of all the stained glass windows in the Reading Room?), the Hatcher Graduate Library (where Special Collections, which holds “some of the most historically significant treasures” at U-M, is housed, with over 250 medieval and Renaissance volumes, 25,000 published volumes of children’s literature, and a collection devoted to theater, radio, television, and film; Hatcher also hosts public events, including readings, lectures, and forums, in the first-floor Gallery), the Shapiro Undergraduate Library (which houses the AskWith Media Library on the second floor; the “UGLi” also hosts the annual Café Shapiro readings for undergraduate poets and writers), the Art, Architecture & Engineering Library (which keeps the impressive Computer & Video Game Archive, Materials Collection, and Special Collections, as well as the “Artists’ Books” digital collection) on North Campus, the Clements Library (featuring the rare book and manuscript repository), the Music Library (one of the world’s major music collections), and the Taubman Health Sciences Library (which recently underwent a substantial renovation). 

With five different locations in the area, the Ann Arbor District Library’s mission is to assure “public ownership of print collections, digital resources, and gathering spaces for the citizens of the library district.” AADL also has a new online publication called PULP devoted to arts culture in Ann Arbor, and on the main floor of the Downtown Library are selections of fine art prints that can be checked out like any book with a library card. There’s also a great map of all the Little Free Libraries in Ann Arbor. The “take a book, leave a book” philosophy of the Little Free Library encourages community-building, and it’s easy for anyone to start her or his own Little Free Library and charm up the block.

Publishers & Literary Arts Journals:

Michigan Publishing is the hub of scholarly publishing at U-M and part of the University Library. Home to the University of Michigan Press (founded in 1930), Publishing Services (including the innovative Journals Program), and Deep Blue (a preserved archive of U-M faculty and student research), Michigan Publishing provides publishing services to the U-M community and beyond, publishes scholarly and educational materials in a range of formats for wide dissemination and permanent preservation, and advocates for the broadest possible access to scholarship everywhere.

Housed on South Campus alongside Michigan Publishing is Wolverine Press, a letterpress studio directed by U-M lecturer Fritz Swanson in partnership with the Helen Zell Writers Program. Students in the program (and occasional groups by appointment) get to work in the shop as “Devils,” doing everything from coming up with original designs to setting and distributing lead type to printing individual pages by hand-cranking a letterpress that’s over a hundred years old.

The independent publisher Dzanc Books (founded by Steven Gillis and Dan Wickett) also calls Ann Arbor home, as does their literary journal, The Collagist (edited by Matthew Olzmann and Gabriel Blackwell). Other literary arts journals in the area include Michigan Quarterly Review (of course), Midwestern Gothic (founded by Jeff Pfallers and Robert James Russell), Fiction Writers Review (edited by Jeremiah Chamberlin, assistant director of the U-M English Department Writing Program), Hobart (founded by U-M lecturer Aaron Burch), and the Bear River Review (publishing new work written annually at the Bear River Writers’ Conference).

U-M’s student publications are also doing excellent work. To name a few: Xylem Literary Magazine, Fortnight Literary Press, the Oleander Review, the RC Review, Hel[icon], and The Michigan Daily, an undergrad-run campus newspaper with a rich, 125-year history.

Education, Programs & Projects:

With a Robot Supply & Repair shop as their Liberty Street storefront, 826michigan is a non-profit organization committed “to supporting students (ages 6-18) with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” Part of 826national, 826michigan offers volunteer opportunities for community members to work with students in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, and Detroit. The organization also publishes its own high-quality collections of student writing, including the newly released OMNIBUS VII.

Local teen center the Neutral Zone, a leader in Ann Arbor’s performance poetry scene, holds an annual competition to send a team of six youth poets to the national youth competition Brave New Voices, a series that’s made its way to HBO. Jeff Kass, poet and literary arts director at the Neutral Zone, hosts the annual Poetry Night in Ann Arbor, which drew a crowd of all ages to Rackham Auditorium for an event featuring BreakBeat Poets Nate Marshall and Mahogany Brown alongside student poets on November 13. 

The U-M Helen Zell Writers Program is well-known for its ranking among the top MFA Creative Writing programs in the country. With a guaranteed third year of fellowship support, Michigan has distinguished itself among other programs for its generous funding and active literary arts community. Students can do hands-on letterpress work at Wolverine Press, teach weekly writing programs in Detroit public schools through InsideOut Literary Detroit, read submissions and edit copy for Michigan Quarterly Review, or volunteer with 826michigan.

The Penny Stamps School of Art & Design on North Campus attracts talented artists from all over the world to its highly selective MFA program. Michigan also offers great programs and artistic communities for undergraduates, including the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, the Residential College, the Creative Writing Subconcentration, Arts Engine, and Arts at Michigan, which hosts events and offers programs, funding, and resources for U-M undergraduates to help integrate arts and culture into their academic experiences.

Book Clubs:

The Michigan Library Publishing Club is a new collaboration between Michigan Publishing and the Library Staff Forum Board at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Open to the public, the “Pub Club” will meet quarterly to discuss new books published by the University of Michigan Press. At the upcoming inaugural meeting (Thursday, February 4, 2016, 3:30-5:00 PM at the Hatcher Graduate Library Gallery), the Pub Club will discuss American Homes by Ryan Ridge, published by the University of Michigan Press in 2014 as an Open Access (OA) book available to read for free online. A mixture of poetry, prose, art, architecture, and aphorisms, American Homes is sure to interest many academic groups on campus, including English, Creative Writing, Art & Design, Communications, Architecture, American Studies, Art History, the Residential College, the Lloyd Hall Scholars Program, and Museums, as well as local libraries, bookstores, and anyone interested in OA publishing.

At Literati Bookstore, in addition to the Literati Book Club (which will meet December 1 to discuss Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell), several specialty book clubs have emerged, including the Eco Book Club, the Feminist Book Club (meeting December 2 to discuss Birth of the Pill by Jonathan Eig), and the Cookbook Club (meeting December 7 to discuss Sea and Smoke by James Beard). Literati Cultura, the bookstore’s signed first editions collector’s club, is a newly-launched subscription service for readers that includes with each shipment exclusive art made by Wolverine Press.

Museums & Art Resources:

The Ann Arbor Observer is a great resource for finding the local events as well as a list of museums, including the U-M Museum of Art (UMMA) (featuring current exhibitions “Come As You Are: Art of the 1990s” and “The Art of Tyree Guyton: A Thirty-Year Journey”), the U-M Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, the U-M Museum of Natural History, and the Hands-On Museum for kids. With a history, Ann Arbor Art Center hosts events and exhibitions and offers classes for all ages as well as teaching opportunities for local artists. AnnArbor.com also provides an excellent list of local museums and gallery exhibits.

Because U-M has a vast array of public art on display, the President’s Advisory Committee on Public Art has archived both “permanently installed and temporary artworks that span across a range of media.” The U-M School of Art & Design’s website features a thorough news and events section dedicated to all the artistic happenings through the school, and Play Gallery highlights work by and about the Art & Design creative community. Also, for over 50 years, Ann Arbor Art Fairs have attracted more than half a million fair-goers annually.

Festivals, Readings, Events & More:

Of all the literary entertainment Ann Arbor offers, the readings often draw in some of the biggest crowds: the Zell Visiting Writers’ Series (bringing in great contemporary poets for readings, book signings, and Q&As in the Hopwood Room), the Webster Series (featuring second-year poets and fiction writers in the MFA program), the Edwards Series (featuring first-year poets and fiction writers in the MFA program), the Skazat! Poetry Series at Sweetwaters, Ann Arbor Poetry & Slam (first and third Sundays at Espresso Royale on South State Street), the Hopwood Program, English Department events, and Literati events.

Great readings and workshops also take place at the Ann Arbor Book Festival and Writers’ Conference, the Kerrytown Book Festival, the Women Writers of Ann Arbor & Ypsilanti, the Bear River Writer’s Conference, and elsewhere. In addition, the Penny Stamps Speaker Series hosts fantastic, free events for the public at the Michigan Theater (home of the Ann Arbor Film Festival).

And with music, comedy, and theater venues like Hill Auditorium, The Ark, the Blind Pig, the Kerrytown Concert House, the Ann Arbor Comedy Showcase, the Performance Network Theater, the Ann Arbor Civic Theater, and the Arthur Miller Theater, Ann Arbor has something for everyone any night of the week. Likewise, the University Musical Society (UMS) continually offers a line-up of performances and events (free tickets of which can occasionally be snagged on the MQR Blog).

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So although it’s nearly winter, we won’t let that stop us from venturing out in the cold to see shows, go to readings, book-browse, and hopefully warm up with cups of hot coffee in our favorite little niches within this city. Ann Arbor feels infused with a unique creative energy. With life, love, with art. With a genuineness and a spark. Like there’s something magic alive here.


Lead image: “Ann Arbor in November,” by VasenkaPhotography.

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