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0000017c-60f7-de77-ad7e-f3f739cf0000Arts & More airs Fridays at 7:50 a.m. and 4:20 p.m.Theme music: "Like A Beginner Again" by Dan Barry of Seas of Jupiter

Poet Cal Freeman Brings His Personal Detroit Stories to Kalamazoo

Courtesy Cal Freeman

Writer Cal Freeman is from Detroit, and his poems are about very Detroit things. Municipal debt. Foreclosures. The UAW. Freeman will be coming to Bookbug in Kalamazoo April 7th to bring that unique perspective as he reads from his first published book of poetry, called “Brother of Leaving.”  

"If you’re around West Detroit or my neighborhood in Dearborn, you would just walk by and see these bank-owned homes in every block," he says.

The subject of "Brother of Leaving" is Detroit, but it’s more personal. It's about his childhood neighborhood of Warrendale. Once thriving with city workers, he says, Warrendale is now run-down and vacant after many fled to the suburbs decades ago.

“Well, you know, I had taken my wife past my old childhood home about five years ago," Freeman says. "And I wasn’t really emotionally prepared for what the neighborhood that I remembered so fondly looked like now. Houses really bombed down. It began to haunt me."

"You start to wonder why something like that happens," Freeman adds. "You start to wonder about the disjunctions about your memory of a place and how the place actually is…and so really that image of my childhood home in such disrepair was what kind of triggered a series of poems that dealt with that neighborhood specifically.”

The cover of Freeman's collection of poems "Brother of Leaving"

  “Brother of Leaving” deals with that contrast, between the fond memories of yesterday and the harsh reality of today. Freeman says he created an image of Detroit that isn’t necessarily rosy, but it’s also not the worn-down, depressed city that many imagine.

"You’ve got to acknowledge that there are still people living there doing good things, and you have to find the joy in areas that are coming back without idealizing things," he says "I think part of the problem is we need to think critically about this area. We don’t want to suggest that it’s just scary and empty and vacant."

"But we also don’t want to ignore structural problems, in particular problems with institutional racism and classism, which I think drive many of the problems in Detroit right now," Freeman explains.

Striking that balance between hopeful and depressing is difficult. Some of Freeman’s poems can be negative. But then you stumble across a poem like "The Structuralist’s Guide to Sink Maintenance," about a kind neighbor who’s helped Freeman more than a few times, and you see the goodness.

But it’s in Freeman’s songs, with his roots-folk band The Codgers, where you really hear about Detroit’s positives and its history.

"We’re recording a song right now about Jim Sullivan, who was this big UAW labor leader through the mid thirties and mid forties. I’ve written about him in poems, and I’ve got a song that’s sort of a ballad about him" Freeman says. "So he's always fascinated me. So I guess labor history comes up a lot in both genres for me."

A lightly edited version of our interview with Cal Freeman

Freeman started both poetry and music at around the same time in high school. It’s not the musicality that he likes, he says, but the stories he can tell.

"You can just kind of hammer out two chords and almost do this incantatory chant and you’ve got a song," Freeman says. "I’ve always had a theory that good songwriters listen to great songwriters, and great songwriter read poetry. And I’m sure there are exceptions to that, but I think when you look at Lou Reed or Bob Dylan or even Towns Van Zandt or Guy Clark, it holds some water."

Freeman won’t be performing music, but you can hear his poems from his book “Brother of Leaving” April 7th at 7 p.m. at Bookbug. He'll be performing with poet Michael Lauchlan, who'll be reading from his own collection Trumbull Ave. 

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