e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


Reading Locally

I found myself in St. Louis last month, wandering downtown streets with locals, NCAA basketball fans, and fellow attendees of a conference for college writing teachers. Never one to pass an indie bookstore, I stopped at Left Bank Books where I noticed a sign proclaiming “Buy locally, read globally.”

It’s not bad advice.

And yet I tend to advocate for reading locally too. I like local writers. I also like writers who write about the physical spaces and places I know. Those who write about my hometown and adopted hometowns, map the geographies where I too have walked, and imagine what the place is and how it means. They do the crucial, intellectual, and affective work of making the familiar unfamiliar. They write their own versions of a place and invite me to do the same.

At 17, in love with Kerouac, my favorite sequence in On The Road was Sal’s bus ride through my home state: “[W]e got on the plain of Ohio and really rolled, up by Ashtabula and straight across.” Ashtabula, just an hour north of Youngstown, my hometown. Sal doesn’t even get off the bus in Northeast Ohio, but this mention of the local suggested transcendence to the young me.

Somehow this affinity for Kerouac’s Ohio allusion led me to an anthology called Youngstown Poetry put out by the great Pig Iron Press, a local institution, a legendary small (and thoroughly local) press. Talk about buying and reading locally. The Pig Iron volume contained “local” writers, which was great and all, but what I loved was the text itself: the poetry of steel mills, the poetry of Italian neighborhoods and sausage sandwiches and Catholicism, the poetry of Mill Creek Park. The poems themselves, some by locals and some by transplants, put this familiar place in a whole new context.

At 19, I took a community-based poetry-writing workshop at the Pig Iron facilities. Other participants were a generation or two older than me, but I felt at home at that local place: part Kinko’s, part lending library, part artist’s studio. The press called downtown Youngstown home, sitting a block or two from Cedar’s, my favorite bar in town. Pig Iron welcomed anyone committed to reading (and writing) locally.

Kerouac and the Youngstown poets started my lifelong affair with book and poems and songs about the idiosyncratic places I loved due to circumstance and quirk. The text need not name the place. Youngstown’s own Stiv Bators never mentioned, in my recollection anyway, Youngstown, but when I listened to his most notorious band the Dead Boys I knew that he too was a product of the Catholic Schools of my diocese. When the Dead Boys repeated the line “ain’t no loser” in their punk classic “Sonic Reducer,” the words wrote their own story about the place—a transgressive and loud narrative, the narrative I needed to hear.

But the literature of place, the work that I’m calling “local,” isn’t really about places. Those poems, songs, and novels are about me and my relationship, as a reader and a human being, to that place. Stiv’s not singing about Youngstown. Kerouac’s not writing about northeast Ohio. Though it’s called “Youngstown,” even Bruce Springsteen’s ode to the city of my birth has less to do with the events the song narrates and more to do with audience members, like me, who have a reference point. About the time Springsteen was writing the words “I’m sinking down, here darlin’ in Youngstown,” I was trying to scrape together the money to put down the deposit on the starter kit for new door-to-door knife salesmen, and, yes, working at a fast food joint in Youngstown. Surely you see that Springsteen was writing about me.

My affective relationship with places led me to great local work (and great local work stoked my affective relationship with places) even as my geographies changed. A few years later, when Detroit felt like home, the poet Jim Daniels and his verse about assembly lines and working-class auto workers in and around the Motor City held great appeal. I loved spotting names of streets I cruised and the narrators—especially in Punching Out, Daniels’ great cycle of poems about the reluctant young auto worker Digger—whose voices sounded like people I knew.

And I loved that poetry especially when I moved away from Detroit for the first and only time I’ve ever done that, in the mid-1990s. Homesick, I was missing Detroit and Detroiters and, yes, Daniels was writing for me. And I was still reading locally, even though I was miles from Michigan.

From Jim Daniels to Philip Levine, currently our nation’s Poet Laureate but I’ll always think of him as a local guy. Eventually the pulpy procedurals by the great Detroit crime novelist Elmore Leonard. Later still, the ultraviolent blaxploitation of Donald Goines, whose Detroit novels Whoreson and Dopefiend proved as influential in the hip hop world as Scarface and George Clinton. Reading locally.

I took temporary leave of Detroit last year, spending a year teaching and writing in Beirut, Lebanon. Another adopted hometown, another place I love. There, I read in translation the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote in exile in Beirut for many years and was concerned with place for so many important reasons. In his poems of Palestinian liberation, Darwish imagined a place whose very existence is often denied. Whose work could possibly underscore any better the need to imagine locales and speak to readers who share a complex affinity and connection to a place? His work wasn’t about Palestine. It was about his readers. I can’t claim to understand how it feels to be Palestinian, but I know how it feels to read one’s way into a new relationship with a place.

I just finished Annia Ciezadlo’s fantastic memoir Day of Honey, her story of being a war correspondent first in Iraq and then in Lebanon. More specifically, in Beirut. More specifically, in Ras Beirut, living at one point around the corner from the building where I lived in the Hamra neighborhood during my year abroad. Late in her memoir, she recalls a period of intense sectarian violence in Summer, 2008, and recalls the streetfights that took place on my block, even mentioning my building, where she visited the residents taking shelter in the basement.

These passages were riveting to me, not due to the subject matter, but because of that familiarity, albeit a familiarity that was challenged and recast as I imagined and remembered the place anew.

Reading globally? Maybe. As much as I love the steel mill poetry of Youngstown and the dirty crime fiction of Detroit, I’m increasingly drawn to non-fiction about the Arab world. A space on the other side of the globe, my most distant homeplace. My goodreads.com booklist suggests an eclectic, broad array of reading material. But so many of those books, so many of my own idiosyncratic obsessions (punk rock, working-class poetry, the Beats, the Middle East) have much to do with my shifting localness. Of all the things for which I’m thankful, some of the most profound blessings have been calling multiple places home and discovering writers who create place-based work that’s just for me.

Buy locally, read locally. Because it's all about you.