If you live near Lansing, you’ve seen the state Capitol. But have you seen it through someone else’s tears? Maybe you’ve been to Cooley Gardens, a leafy, floral oasis in the concrete fastness of the city’s near south side. But have you fallen in love there? Surely, you’ve been to Curious Books in East Lansing. But why did you go and what did you find?
“My Secret Lansing,” a summer-long writing contest and wellspring of a newly published book of poems and prose with the same title, offers the rare gift of seeing familiar places and obscure corners of greater Lansing through the eyes of others.
In the following pages, City Pulse is proud to publish the five poems and five short prose pieces that were recognized as most outstanding by a blue-ribbon panel of literary lions.
The awardees will read their winning work at a reception at UrbanBeat Sunday (Sept. 24). Many of the 86 poems and 55 prose entries have been thoughtfully assembled into an absorbing new book that will be available at the reception (and, subsequently, in local stores).
Local poet extraordinaire Ruelaine Stokes and former Lansing poet laureate Laura Apol wanted the project to draw out hidden lives, hidden writers, and hidden local gems — places, people, things. The results surpassed their expectations.
The Lansing Poetry Club organized the project, with the support of the City of Lansing Arts Project Grant Program, funded by the city and administered by the Arts Council of Greater Lansing.
“I’m fascinated by the mixture of the ordinary and the extraordinary,” Stokes said. “The extraordinary is woven into our ordinary experience in so many ways. I guess what the book is trying to do is hold a mirror up to Lansing and say, ‘Aren’t we fascinating?’”
Stokes cast a wide net to attract as many entries as possible. She organized 16 writing workshops in diverse corners of the Lansing area to prime the pump for over 100 aspiring local writers. She put leaflets in hundreds of shop and restaurant windows and established a strong social media buzz.
Winnowing 141 pieces of writing to 10 winners was a formidable task.
The first stage of judging was handled by two of the area’s most respected poets, former Lansing poet laureate Dennis Hinrichsen and Anita Skeen, a veteran writer and former director of the Center for Poetry at MSU’s Residential College for the Arts and Humanities.
The final judge was no less a literary lion than internationally known essayist and Milford-based undertaker Thomas Lynch, winner of the American Book Award, a finalist for the National Book Award, and subject of a PBS “Frontline” program that won an Emmy in 2008.
Stokes and Apol were charged with an even bigger job: co-editing the resulting book. They marveled at the skill, insight and talent of the writers and quickly realized the project would require a lot more than throwing them into alphabetical order and choosing a font.
“We got so invested in how the pieces were speaking to each other, how they overlapped and filled in blanks with each other,” she said. It ended up being a much bigger job than they imagined.
After a lot of thought and several false starts, they arranged the pieces into several carefully considered, creatively conceived themes that pull the reader through dozens of varied physical and interior landscapes like an expert tour guide.
Photographs by Lansing artist Roxanne Frith help to weave the book’s grand tapestry together. Her photo on the cover of this week’s paper is also the book’s cover photo. It’s a reflection in the window of her kitchen that she captured in 2020.
The roster of contributors to the book includes many names that are familiar to followers of the local poetry and literary scene, but Apol was amazed at how many contributors described themselves as non-writers, or lacked confidence about their work, despite the obvious quality of their entries.
“There are a lot of writers in the Lansing area who are very quiet about their writing,” Apol said. “This really tapped into something.”
Stokes and Apol hope the book will delight Lansing-area readers by mixing the comfort of recognition with the shock of a fresh perspective.
“We know about the famous places, MSU, the Capitol,” Stokes said. “But what is our personal experience with other people here, with the places where we live and work? It’s a very intimate relationship, when you think about it. We live here. We spend a lot of time, not only engaging with people, but with the places we love.”
After reading the entries and working for months on putting the book together, Apol has a different view of her own town.
“As I’m driving through Lansing and East Lansing, I see things completely differently,” Apol said. “I’m looking at places people wrote about and it just feels like I have a different connection. It’s kind of uncanny.”
Stokes and Apol also hope the book will give people from other places, or those who are new to the area, a sense of what it’s like to live in Lansing.
“As writers, we’re writing from our own personal experience,” Stokes said. “But if the writing really works, it touches universal qualities of what it is to be human, living on planet Earth.”
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