Meet author and professor, M.L. Liebler
Both at home and abroad, M.L. Liebler is a name familiar to many lovers of poetry. The author of 15 books and chapbooks, Professor Liebler has performed readings in most of the 50 states, as well as countries as far-flung as Afghanistan, China, and Finland. He’s been active in the Detroit literary scene for decades, teaching creative writing classes at Wayne State, and supporting the arts through such local projects as the Detroit Writers’ Guild and the Midtown Detroit Literary Walk. Recently, in addition to receiving Library of Michigan Notable Book Awards in 2016 for his books “I Want to Be Once” and “Heaven Was Detroit: From Jazz to Hip-Hop and Beyond,” Professor Liebler was the 2017-18 recipient of Wayne State’s Murray E. Jackson Creative Scholar in the Arts Award. What follows is a transcript of a conversation with Professor Liebler, lightly edited for clarity and concision.
What first sparked your interest in poetry?
It was more like poetry found me, than poetry struck my interest. When I was pretty young, I started scribbling my feelings down. I was about 7, in the second grade. I come from a working-class background, so poetry wasn’t really a thing in my family. I was raised by my grandparents, and my grandma didn’t read poetry. I really didn’t know what it was until fifth grade, when I saw a teacher calling a piece of paper with a lot of white space a “poem.” Then I realized, oh, I’m writing poetry.
Once I knew that, I couldn’t stop putting my feelings down. Now I had a name for it. That’s how I came to poetry, versus being exposed to it and thinking, “Hey, I want to try that,” which is still good. That’s where a lot of writers I meet, and where a lot of writers I work within classes, discover it. I’d say your average poet usually starts writing poetry, or comes to poetry, in their early college years.
It just found me though- I have no idea why. I can’t not do it. Someone just asked a poet who’s been a long-time hero of mine, “Why do you write?” And he said, “I don’t have a choice, I have to.” That’s how it is with me too. It’s the best answer.
Why poetry though? What makes it unique?
I think all literature does this, but poetry is kind of a concentrated form of writing that more zeroes in on emotion and images, letting the reader create for themselves. In doing that, it can often go further below the surface than a narrative or story can. Stories do this too, but poetry has a small space to make it happen or not happen. If it’s going to, then the poet has to be pretty precise with the feeling they’re trying to get across.
How long have you been active in poetry circles?
Once I got to college, and took a creative writing class, I started meeting other like-minded people. We banded together and created an artist collective in St. Clair Shores, where I’m from and still live. That had various artists from the area: filmmakers, photographers, poets, and painters. We just started having readings, art happenings, events, and films--that would have been ‘73 or ‘74. I don’t know how well-known I was when I came to Wayne State in 1980, but I’d been published, and done little chapbooks and readings. But when I came here, [the creative writing scene] wasn’t really happening like it is now. In fact, I don’t think there was any more than one creative writing class at that time. Nonetheless, we did decide to form a little poetry group here at Wayne.
By the mid-80s, I was directing the Wayne Literary Review. We also started this thing called the Wayne Writers Forum back in ‘84 or ‘85, which is still active. Back then, we published little student chapbooks, and that helped the program grow, too. Eventually, I think around ‘86 or something, there was a long-time poetry/literary organization in Detroit called the Poetry Resource Center of Michigan, I became a board member first, and then I got suckered into being the president of it. Then I was really involved with the literary scene, running this organization, hosting readings, and sponsoring events.
How do you think the poetry scene has changed since you first started?
I think there’s a lot more opportunities now, and it’s also more inclusive. It’s not that hard to find places where you can get up and read your stuff. There’s also more publications available, and the internet can be a lot of help. For example, in the Detroit Writers’ Guild, we have a program called Duotrope. It’s an online catalog, listing places where to publish fiction, creative nonfiction, and whatever. It has thousands of listings, and they update it all the time. Something like that didn’t exist back in those early days.
And then there’s Inside Out on the second floor of State Hall, where they’ve got poets in Detroit public schools, all levels, doing creative writing classes. It’s like with computers- You couldn’t even imagine this kind of stuff back when I started. It all leads to a more lively and nurtured community of writers.
You’ve done readings in a lot of countries over the years. Out of all those trips, do you have a favorite?
I don’t know how many countries, but I’ve done poetry stuff in places like England, Germany, Spain, the Czech Republic, Russia, China, Israel, Palestine, Afghanistan, and Mexico. I got hooked into doing programs for the cultural wing of the State Department in different countries. People say, “How do you get those gigs?” I don’t really know. I did stuff for them, they really liked it, and they would keep bringing me back.
Now I did like being in Israel, and the West Bank. I liked the work, I liked the people, and I liked the kind of programs I was able to do in both places. And I’ve felt pretty comfortable there. I’ve been there when a war was happening, and when there was no war. I just talked to folks over there, and I told them I’d be back.
I’ve heard you’re working on an autobiographical project. Will this be a work of prose?
It’s entirely prose, and I’d call it a creative nonfiction memoir. It’s a set of chapters that will chronicle different sections of my life, and interactions I’ve had with people. In a lot of ways, it’s connected heavily to music and musicians. In each chapter title, there’s some kind of connection to an artist. In many cases, it’s a personal connection, but not always. For example, early in my life, I had a connection with Elvis because of my grandmother. So the first chapter is Elvis, and then the Beatles, and Bob Dylan, and so on.
It’s all in an essay form, but each chapter could be a separate personal narrative essay. So you could read a chapter of it, and have a few laughs or tears, but it isn’t dependent on reading the other chapters. There’ll be continuity and connection, but I’m shooting for each part to stand
In 2016, you edited two anthologies (Heaven Was Detroit and Bob Seger’s House), and you published a book of poems (I Want to Be Once)?
Yeah, that was a big year. It just happened to work out that way. The poetry book was in the works, more-or-less. I had to do some tightening at that point, but it was planned to go into production at the beginning of 2016. I was also working on an anthology of essays about Detroit music (Heaven Was Detroit), which was slated to come out during the fall of that year.
In the middle of all that, Wayne wanted to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Made in Michigan series, where I’m a co-editor. I had to sidetrack a little bit, on the essay book and music book, to edit these stories by well-known Michigan writers. So that’s how it turned out that all three of them came out in the same year. I was lucky, really lucky, to win Michigan Notables for my poetry book- which means a great deal- and for the Heaven Was Detroit book. And some of the people on that committee said, which would have been really crazy, that Bob Seger’s Housecame within inches of winning a Notable too. First off, nobody gets two. That doesn’t happen. And secondly, nobody would get three. But I guess I came close to it.
Yeah, I was really surprised to see that you published three books, and all of them well-acclaimed, in a single year. I mean, you’re also a professor, and you do a lot of community arts activism. How do you keep multiple projects like that moving forward?
I work best when I’m doing a lot of things. Right now, I’m working on the memoir, and I’m working on this anthology of poems about Detroit music, by writers and musicians all across the country, that Michigan State is going to do. And then, the plan is, I’ll take the rest of the time to seriously focus on putting the chapters that I’ve written together for the memoir. And I’m still writing poetry too. So it might work out now, that this new anthology comes out in 2019, the memoir in 2020, and then a new poetry book in 2021. Or it may work out that the memoir and poetry book come out together, like these other ones.
As somebody with so much experience in the poetry scene, what advice would you give to young poets?
One, make use of all these new opportunities we have because of 21st-century technology. There’s like-minded people you can meet, and many, many open-mics you can participate in. We have the Wayne Literary Review, and my organization, The Detroit Writers’ Guild, down at the Jazz Cafe.. Once a month, we have an open-mic there, and that’s a great little room and stage to get up on and read. It’s really nice. There are so many opportunities like that around. Two, you have to stay focused on your work. Sending something out and getting rejected is very common. They say if you get 10% of the things you send out published, then you’re doing well. So that means, if you send out 100 things, 90 of them will get rejected.
That’s where young poets and other people fall away. It’s hard to be told, “We’re not publishing this.” I don’t think they usually say “It’s not good enough for us,” but that’s the feeling. And that starts to wear on people. But I would just say, don’t focus on that part. Learn to isolate those rejections. Get mad, hit the wall, and tell yourself to get those poems out. Don’t give up.
One last question: What’s your favorite Beatles song and why?
My favorite Beatles song? I’d probably say it’s In My Life. I do a Beatles show in libraries related to a story I wrote called Growing Up with The Beatles. I bring a band in, and we play songs that relate to the parts of the story. And the story, I have to say, is pretty funny. It’s going to be a part of the memoir. We have a big projection on a screen behind us, showing Beatles movies and cartoons. In the show, I don’t sing all the songs, but In My Life is one I do towards the end of the story. It just fits perfectly.
By Tristan Shaw