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Artist in Residence Spotlight: The Contrary at Michigan

qiana townsThis post is a part of a series of posts from UMS Artists in Residence

Qiana Towns’s work has appeared in Harvard Review Online, Crab Orchard Review, and Reverie. A Cave Canem graduate, Towns received the 2014 Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize from the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature. She is a resident of Flint, where she serves as Community Outreach Coordinator for Bottles for the Babies, a grassroots organization created to support and educate the residents of Flint during the water crisis.

…there was one time when the Chair of the English department forbade me from showing Salvador Dali’s Un Chien Andalou in class. Guess what happened next?

I have always been what my grandmother called mouthy. The ‘yes, I heard you say no more questions, but I have another question’ type, one with a strong will and strong mind. I am like my mother—the woman who introduced me to the arts even before I exited her womb. She told me to make something of myself, so I did.

I made myself a force to be reckoned with: Woman. Bad ass. Academic. Poet. Advocate. Friend. Mother. Good girl. Artist.


I am drawn to art that reflects the dissimilarities in my personality, and art that exposes the oddity in every living thing. And the dead things, too.

Like macadam, all of the pieces of me fit together and are simultaneously broken. I am split into pieces and these pieces make the road that led me here, to UMS’s Renegade Artist-in-Residence program.

I first thought to myself, Renegade? At the University of Michigan? How contrary.

Just like me.

As I perused the list of shows I thought about how RENEGADE might inspire new roads and offer fresh wombs to birth work in mediums I’ve not yet explored.

I am interested in the ways humans function in different spaces as well as how personal identities contribute to individual and collective successes and failures.

Truthfully, I have a lot of questions. Each morning, I awake with a head full of questions. Poetry provides the space to consider all of the possible answers, which is not to say I am interested in the “answers.” My greatest joy is the pursuit.

Most significantly, my work is influenced by and dedicated to the marginalized and the disenfranchised. It explores the quiet corners where voiceless citizens gather to forge unbreakable bonds. I hear them. I am—on some level—them. My poems are often concerned with environments and how environs speak to the conditions of our lives and society at large. Langston Hughes’ “Mother to Son” was the first poem I ever committed to memory. I was three years old; my mother would recite the poem daily as she rehearsed for a localhttp://artists in residence stage production. Five years after she passed on, it became my mantra and the thread that bound me to her and to poetry.

Follow this blog for more from our artists in residence as they attend Renegade performances this season.

UMS Artist in Residence Update: Tanya Tagaq and the Poetry of Ecojustice

Editor’s note: Russell Brakefield is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Russell attended UMS Night School: Constructing Identity, featuring Taylor Mac and Tanya Tagaq, as well as Tanya Tagaq’s performance with Nanook of the North. Below is his response to the class and performance:

In her conversation as part of the UMS Night School’s series Constructing Identity it became apparent to me that Tanya Tagaq, in addition to being a well-renowned Inuk throat singer, is also a poet. Her work, she said, is interested in better representing the intense relationship her people share with the land. “The land eats us the way the city eats you,” she said. “Even our thread comes from sinew. We have a diet of souls.” What language, I thought. What voice! What purpose!

UMS Night School Session 3

Pictured from Left to Right: Clare Croft, Taylor Mac, Tanya Tagaq, Jim Leija at UMS Night School.

The first issue of Poetry Magazine in 2016 carries with it the enigmatic theme of Ecojustice. In the introduction to the issue Melissa Tuckey writes that Ecojustice poetry “lives at the intersection of culture, social justice, and the environment. Aligned with environmental justice activism and thought, Ecojustice poetry defines environment as the place in which we work, live, play, and worship.  It is poetry born of deep cultural attachment to the land and poetry born of crisis. It is poetry of interconnection.” This then—it seems to me—is the poetry of now, art that is essential, art that is necessary. Or perhaps this is the poetry of the perpetual now, evoked over and again in the ever-changing rush of violations against the environment, against marginalized peoples, the coupled plague there.

No matter the exact definition or the flourish of devastations that necessitates a genre such as Ecojustice, I’d like to place Tanya Tagaq and her breathtaking Nanook of the North performance squarely under this distinction. And her performance clarifies something else that I believe is crucial for art using this term—this performance was not only important but also transformative. It asked of its audience to feel as much as it asked of its audience to know. During her conversation for the UMS Night School Tagaq discussed her interest in inviting her audience to breathe, to leave the theater breathing in the experience of her people. She discussed her hope that this bodily reaction to her work would juxtapose with what the audience saw on the screen and disrupt what they knew already about the film Nanook of the North.

Tanya Tagaq 5 by Pedro UsabiagaPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

The 1922 documentary is a spectacular work of art on its own, but it is also deeply afflicted with the stereotypes of its time. The film follows an Inuk man through his daily life in the Canadian Arctic. Often thought of as the first full-length documentary, the film was the source of an influx of dramatic ethnographic documentaries in the twentieth century. A New York Times review of the film from the year of its release praises filmmaker Robert J. Flaherty’s skill and innovation, which allows Nanook’s life to be “filled out, humanized, touched with the humor and other high points of a recognizably human existence. Thus there is body, as well as dramatic vitality, to Nanook’s story.”

But despite these groundbreaking cinematic achievements, this film also serves as a lasting reminder of the sneaky hand of history, the way people and places were routinely misrepresented or exploited in the name of art and entertainment by a dominating class of public artists. As a lasting and widely disseminated piece of art, the film perpetuates cultural insensitivity in the way that much popular culture of certain time periods does. Even as an effort of recording the practices of a people on the edge of displacement, the film raises questions for the artist and the archivist that harken back to the earliest conflicts with anthropological involvement.

Tanya Tagaq’s performance responds to both the positive impressions of the film and the negative. She embrace’s Nanook of the North for its representation of the hardships of life for her people. She draws connections between the landscape that is depicted so vividly in the film and the rich heritage and power of her people. But she also calls attention to the way the movie wrongly depicts Inuit culture, the stereotypes represented there, the omissions made out on the ice.

Her Nanook of the North performance combines traditional throat singing with other vocal textures, breath work, and movement. Tagaq’s performance is visceral, athletic, and jarring. And the performance does something the film cannot do by itself. She is not simply saying, look at this thing that is both beautiful and deeply flawed. She provides, in her accompaniment, a filter that accounts for cultural context. She provides a filter for our renewed sense of duty towards people, landscapes, and the relationships between the two. She makes art that ruptures the intellectual response to colonial fallout and instead invites audiences to re-read and re-feel the film. She invites us to breathe.

tanya tagaqPhoto: Tanya Tagaq. Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’m drawn to the idea of Ecojustice in part because it attempts to collapse the gulf between intellectual and emotional response. It also attempts to collapse the gap between social issues and issues of ecology. It is about connectivity. Somewhere amidst the heartbeat of Tagaq’s performance— drummer Jean Martin and violinist Jesse Zubot add a wild soundscape to the piece—I found my attention divided between the music and the film. I was drawn back and forth between the film and Tagaq’s winding, dramatic performance. I felt myself giving over to her incredible vocal work and at times needed to close my eyes. Tagaq was representing everything at once— the beauty and hardship of her people, the injustices there, the wreck of the land, her own place in the history of all this.

This performance made me thankful for the poets I read in my youth, poets like Wendell Berry and, more recently, poets like C.D. Wright. These poets, like Tagaq, showed me the potential of art to speak to the mistakes of history and the troubles of now. This type of work offers artists an opportunity to reclaim the past and unwind it, unfold it.

All art is a form of translation and all translation is a form of theft. And yet here Tanya Tagaq translates the miswritten story of the past and reaches into future, into the violent landscape of possibility we call innovation.

Interested in more? Follow the adventures and process of other UMS Artists in Residence.

Watching L-E-V and Chucho Valdés: Hypnotized

Editor’s note: Helena Mesa is a poet and one of our 2015-2016 artists in residence. As part of this program, artists in residence attend UMS performances to inspire new thinking and creative work within their own art forms. Helena saw LEV, the dance company led by former Batcheva dancer and choreographer Sharon Eyal, and Chucho Valdés, the legendary Cuban pianist. Below is her response to the performance.


October arrived with techno beats and L-E-V, the dancers like liquid as they pulsed across the Power Center stage. Dressed in black body suits resembling latex, the dancers slid through space, but before I knew it, Sara, the 13-minute dance, ended, the lights stunned the auditorium, and our voices rose in response—each murmuring to the next. I’d come to the performance as part of the UMS artist in residence program, and suddenly, I wasn’t sure how I was going to write in response to dance.

It was later, during Killer Pig, the longer second performance, the dancers dressed in earthy tones, that my mind shifted, and instead of thinking about how to think about what I watched, I gave myself over to the music, to the conversation between body and sound. The dancers were hypnotic, shifting from ballet to modern dance, the forms blending, so I couldn’t tell what was what—what was classical, what was modern, what was the beauty of a body, and what was the beauty of the choreography. Their movements felt raw, one body’s motions echoing another’s, at times coming together, at times breaking apart, until one of the dancers broke off into her own, and the music, too, broke, into sharp sounds that almost hurt in its emotional cacophony.


And then, November arrived, and on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I walked through downtown to the Michigan Theater. The streets bustled. Folks strolled, enjoying the unexpected mild fall. Entering the theater to see Chucho Valdés: Irakere 40, I was surrounded by Spanish, the Cuban kind, the accent familiar, the words turning my ear in ways that carry me home. I settled into my seat, chatted with the woman beside me, fingered my program, and when the show finally began, the piano and bass and drums cracked the crowd’s murmurs. The notes spoke to one another. And the horns talked back.

chucho valdes and afro cuban messengers

And with time, so did we. We raised our hands and clapped to the beat, we stood and swayed our hips at our seats, and when the singer asked us to sing, we sang back, pio pio pio, and later ella, and suddenly, I found myself again hypnotized, giving myself over to the performers, but also, giving myself over to a familiar story: My father sitting on the couch reading the paper, my mother pulling him up from the couch, and the two giving themselves over to the piano and bass and horns of a Cuban big band, and dancing the way Cubans dance—with a joy to be alive.

That evening, I walked out into the twilight and felt the eerie feeling of being pulled out of myself. The music was still with me, and I felt that familiar feeling we often experience when we’re young—the desire to stay with the crowd for as long as we can, to feel part of something larger, and a strange sadness to walk off alone, the music still lingering. A horn to the chill in the air. A beating drum to each step toward the parking garage. The step back and half-turn up the stairs. My own humming.


When I was first learning to write, I wrote thick lyric poems that never made sense, and instead of thinking about how to write a clear narrative that a reader might understand, I focused on the poems’ music. At the time, I’d never studied meter or rhyme; I’d never thought about the structure of the line, but I wanted my poems to mimic Arturo Sandoval, an early member of Irakere. I’d listen to “A Mis Abuelos” (“To My Grandparents”) again and again, and then I’d color-code my poems, trying to find a way to mimic not only the rhythm, but the shift in tone between a solitary trumpet that suddenly breaks into a congregation of big band sounds—horns, piano, guitars, and conga drums.

Thankfully, I’ve lost all those badly written poems, but now I realize that I was trying to find a way to break open a poem, to evoke an emotion I didn’t know how to express, to say something unexpected and meaningful, much like James Wright captures at the end of “A Blessing”: “Suddenly I realize / That if I stepped out of my body I would break / Into blossom.” I often, jokingly, tell my students that if I were ever to bear a needle long enough to get a tattoo, I’d print Wright’s lines along the inside of my forearm, as a reminder. Those transformative moments happen so rarely. You can’t force them—they just happen. Nonetheless, I want a poem to transform me as a reader, much like L-E-V and Chucho Valdés transformed me as a viewer.

I do not yet know how L-E-V and Chucho Valdés will shape my poetry. I can picture how the lines of a poem might begin to move through the white stage of a page, and I can imagine how I can play with both traditional rhythms and modern speech. And I know I want to find a way to layer different sounds and voices, like Chucho Valdés weaved tango, funk, and Afro-Cuban rhythms. But right now? I’m hung up on hypnotism, how the music compelled and enthralled me. How I couldn’t turn away from the elastic muscles and mirrored movements; I couldn’t turn away from instruments stretching and teasing until it seemed the song might break. In the dark, I leaned forward, wanting to memorize every movement and sound.

Photos are courtesy of the artists.

UMS Artists in Residence: Meet Helena Mesa

Editor’s note: UMS is in the second season of its Artists in “Residence” program. Five residents from across disciplines take residence at our performances throughout our season. We’ll profile each resident here on UMS Lobby. 

Helena Mesa is the author of Horse Dance Underwater and a co-editor for Mentor & Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets. Her poems have appeared in various literary journals, including Indiana Review, Pleiades, Third Coast, and Puerto del Sol. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences, and Writers in the Heartland. She lives in Ann Arbor and teaches at Albion College.

UMS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.

Mesa UMSHelena Mesa: When I was a senior in High School, I secretly wrote poems on my sister’s computer, but I didn’t know they were poems until I took my first creative writing class in college. One of the assignments was to go to the local bookstore, choose a poetry collection, and write a response. I read Yusef Komunyakaa’s Dien Cai Dau and fell in love. Since then, I’ve been reading and writing poetry, thinking about the power of compressed language, a restrained narrative, and image. At first, my poetic study was unfocused, but eventually, I attended graduate school in Maryland and Texas, which focused my way of thinking about poetry.

UMS: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where can we find you working on your art?

HM: Most often, I begin with an image—I don’t always know what shape the image will take, or what significance the image possesses, but the image guides me toward the poem. Sometimes, the image comes from looking at art, listening to a podcast, talking with friends, or observing something in the world around me. Sometimes, the image comes from a writing prompt that a friend sends me. I do my best writing at home, in a quiet space, but wherever I am, I’m always taking notes, with the hope that the notes will help me find a new image, a new idea.

UMS: What inspires your art? Can you tell us about something you came across lately (writing, video, article, piece of art) that we should check out too?

HM: My poetry arises from so many places—books, a painting, a trip to Cuba, something a student says, something I hear on the radio….I tend to write personal, lyrical poems, so I’m always looking for metaphors and allusions that will allow me to address the personal indirectly. When I recently read Ross Gay’s Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, I was blown away, by his humanity, sorrow, jubilance, and sincerity—the poems left me feeling a range of emotions without irony or melodrama. I highly recommend it!

UMS: Are you engaged with the local arts community? Tell us about groups or events that we should know about.

HM: I’m always looking for new ways to engage with our local arts community. Both Literati Bookstore and Nicola’s Books schedule fantastic readings. The University of Michigan graduate students perform throughout the fall and spring as part of their graduation requirements. It’s a great way to listen to young and upcoming composers and musicians!

UMS: Which performances are you most excited about this season and why?

HM: I’m looking forward to so many of the UMS performances! I’m excited for Tenebrae and Chucho Valdés. I’m curious to see how layered choral voices and Afro-Cuban jazz might influence my poems, especially because I’m interested in pushing my poems’ musicality. I’m also excited to see L-E-V and Camille A. Brown & Dancers, and to consider how modern dance might challenge the movements and turns within my poems.

UMS: Anything else you’d like to say?

HM: I’m excited for the opportunity to see the performances, and to discover how they will inform my writing. I’m grateful for a chance to step away from my ordinary, busy life, and look at the arts in a new way. Thank you!

Interested in more? Watch for more artist profiles on UMS Lobby throughout this week.


UMS Artists in Residence: Meet Russell Brakefield

Editor’s note: UMS is in the second season of its Artists in “Residence” program. Five residents from across disciplines take residence at our performances throughout our season. We’ll profile each resident here on UMS Lobby.

Russell Brakefield received his MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan’s Helen Zell Writers’ Program. He lives in Ann Arbor where he teaches writing at the University of Michigan and works as a bookseller and as the managing editor for Canarium Books. His most recent work appears in The Southern Indiana Review, Hobart, and Language Lessons: An Anthology by Third Man Records.

UMS: Tell us a little about yourself and your background in the arts.

IMG_2108Russell Brakefield: I grew up in Michigan, near Grand Rapids. I studied World Literature and Creative Writing at Central Michigan University. I got my MFA in poetry from the University of Michigan in 2011. Since then I’ve been writing and teaching here in Ann Arbor. I write poetry, primarily, but I’m also interested in creative nonfiction, music, and a range performance arts. My passion for poetry is highly motivated and influenced by my background and interests in music. I teach writing at the University of Michigan and during the summers at Interlochen Center for the Arts.

UMS: Can you tell us a little about your creative process? Where can we find you working on your art?

RB: I really enjoy writing at home at my desk. There is a dog that sits with me sometimes. I’m usually at my best after doing something physically demanding or after an occasion for inspiration such as a reading or concert, traveling, or outdoor adventures. I write very slowly and often spend hours reading for every hour I’m composing, a balance I’m happy with most of the time. I like being locked into a project, doing research, and writing through questions and conflicts from my own life. Writing serves me best when the process is teaching me something.

UMS: What inspires your art? Can you tell us about something you came across lately (writing, video, article, piece of art) that we should check out too?

RB: I suppose I’m moved most often by images, images from the world around me or images drawn for me by writers and other artists. I’m also often inspired by questions or conflicts related to our daily lives–communication, relationships, etc. I enjoy works of art that confront those questions and conflicts. I’m currently working on a book that draws inspiration from American folk music and uses it as a backdrop to explore issues related to family, geography, and time. A musician named Jayme Stone put together a fabulous recording and tour called The Lomax Project that happened to coincide with some research and writing that I was doing about the American folk archivist Alan Lomax.

Here is a great video from that project:

Other major inspirations this year included a book by Brandon Som called The Tribute Horse and, most recently, the new poems of Michigan’s own Linda Gregerson.

UMS: Are you engaged with the local arts community? Tell us about groups or events that we should know about.

RB: I feel very lucky to be involved with the local arts community here in Ann Arbor and with the local music scene in Michigan. I work part time at Literati Bookstore. Between Literati and the Zell Visiting Writers Series, the amount of readings I have to choose from in a given week is incredible. I’m really excited about the work One Pause Poetry is doing as well, bringing some amazing writers to read in really interesting and dynamic spaces in Ann Arbor. And this doesn’t even begin to mention all the great concerts and performances that happen in Ann Arbor. I love UMS. I love the Ark. And I love some of the great homespun music forces in this state too–Earthwork Music, Double Phelix, so many others.

UMS: Which performances are you most excited about this season and why?

RB: I’m really looking forward to the Tanya Tagaq performance. Nanook of the North haunted me as a child. And, of course, I’m extremely excited for Anne Carson’s Antigone.

UMS: Anything else you’d like to say?

RB: I’m just very honored to be doing a residency with UMS! I’m looking forward to all the performances and am excited for the chance to expand my artistic community.

Interested in more? Watch for more artist profiles on UMS Lobby throughout this week.