There’s a perfectly positioned tree stump near the Potter Park Zoo, equipped with an accidental backrest, where you can watch the river flow, the grass sway and deer quietly graze. There’s a lady with a front yard garden on Lansing’s north side, who will hand you a pair of shears and order you take some flowers if you walk by. There’s a stately palisade of juneberry trees, bursting with tasty berries, in plain sight downtown, if you don’t mind gorging on them in public like a grizzly bear.
“My Secret Lansing,” a writing contest launched last month by the city’s arts council and the Lansing Poetry Club, promises to unroll a treasure map to a place you thought you knew.
The contest calls for contributors age 17 or over in Ingham, Lansing or Eaton counties to portray “one specific and real place, person or object” in the Lansing area with a poem of 50 lines or fewer or a prose piece of 100 to 400 words. There is a limit of three poems of two nonfiction pieces per entrant. Prizes range from $25 to $150.
The project is funded by the City of Lansing Arts Project Grant program and administered by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing. The winning entries will be performed live at Urban Beat Sunday, Sept. 24.
The contest judge is no less a literary luminary than Milford-based undertaker, poet, essayist and National Book Award finalist Thomas Lynch. Lynch is author of “The Undertaking,” the nationally acclaimed memoir of the “dismal trade” that inspired an Emmy-winning 2007 PBS documentary, along with several other award-winning essay collections.
Two of Lansing’s hidden treasures, former Poet Laureate Laura Apol and poet Ruelaine Stokes, are among the contest organizers.
“We have this image of Lansing being ordinary, unexciting, full of average people living our average, ordinary lives,” Stokes said. “But there’s so much below the surface, so much cultural vitality. There are urban gardens, community theater, folk music, so many things.”
Stokes could have added the rich Lansing poetry scene she helped to nurture over the past few decades.
In that spirit, Stokes is leading “My Secret Lansing” writing workshops all over town, with the goal of helping people “jumpstart their thinking, draw on vivid memories about people or places in the area.”
“The hardest thing about writing, for me, is starting, getting some ideas,” Stokes said. “Once you’ve got something, you can work with it, get some feedback and move forward.”
The early entries are already knocking her out. One essay, “Nip ‘N Sip and the Summer of Love,” describes the scene at a beloved local eatery where Detroit Tigers games blared from speakers to “rescue” the tense summer of 1967. Another story, set during World War II, describes a special place where a local family with a member stationed overseas took respite from the daily dread of bad news. Another entrant wrote about going to the top of the parking ramp at Sparrow Hospital and admiring the city lights.
An Iraq war veteran described what it was like to return to his old neighborhood with a fresh appreciation of home after the horrors of war.
Similarly, Stokes hopes all of the entries, taken together, will help Lansing residents look at their home with fresh eyes. Many of them will be gathered book planned for release this fall.
The concept for the contest was seeded about a dozen years ago, when Stokes was hanging out with some “co-conspirators” to plan an event for the Old Town poetry series. Former Lansing Poet Laureate Dennis Hinrichsen told her he’d long thought about writing a book called “My Secret Lansing.”
“He was thinking about different places he knew that were really unique, or had a little known history,” Stokes said.
The magic three words put a hook into her. She thought immediately of making it a contest, to draw out the widest possible variety of places, stories and people. Hinrichsen told her to run with it.
“It’s a chance to see what makes this region special through many people’s eyes,” she said.
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