Blog: Jeff Kass

Jeff Kass directs the creative writing program at Ann Arbor’s teen center, The Neutral Zone, where he founded and continues to direct The VOLUME Youth Poetry Project; The VOLUME Summer Institute; The Ann Arbor Youth Poetry Slam; Poetry Night in Ann Arbor; Red Beard Press; and the performance poetry troupe Ann Arbor Wordworks. He recently received his MFA in creative writing through the Stonecoast program at the University of Southern Maine.
Jeff's poems, stories and essays have been published in several literary reviews, newspapers, magazines, and anthologies, including The Ann Arbor News, The Ann Arbor Chronicle, The Ann Arbor Observer, The Georgetown Review, The Wayne Literary Review, Anderbo, Hobart, Blood Lotus, Defenestration, Barnwood, Stone’s Throw, The Smoking Poet, Amarillo Bay, Bull Men’s Fiction, Writecorner Nebo, Third Wednesdays, and The Spoken Word Revolution Redux.

He has performed his work all over the country and has delivered keynote addresses at numerous conventions and conferences. He has taught poetry workshops to thousands of young people in schools, juvenile detention centers, and synagogues.

He was the winner of the 2005 and 2007 Current Fiction Contests, a runner-up in the 2006 Georgetown Review Fiction Contest, and a finalist for both the 2008 E.M. Koeppel Short Fiction Award and 2007 Teacher’s & Writer’s Collaborative Bechtel Prize in creative non-fiction. He also earned both 2nd and 3rd place in the 2008 Current Poetry Contest and was selected by readers as the runner-up for 2006 Best Poet of Washtenaw County. Ann Arbor News readers chose him as the runner-up for Best Poet of Ann Arbor for 2006.

Jeff was the poetry director in the acclaimed theatrical production Lay Your Comfort Down and co-edited the anthology Unsquared: Ann Arbor Writers Unleash Their Edgiest Stories and Poems. His one-man performance poetry show, Wrestle the Great Fear, debuted in 2009. Invisible Staircase, a chapbook of poems, was published by Winged City Press in 2010.

A collection of essays and poems from his blog From the Front of the Room recently won first place in the Teacher’s Voice chapbook contest and was published this spring, and his short story collection Knuckleheads was just released by Dzanc Books.

Jeff Kass - Most Recent Posts:

Post 3: One of the Big Problems I have with School

For my final entry here, I thought I'd share a poem I wrote last spring. Our country is having a lot of conversations right now about so-called education reform. Most of those conversations seem to focus on teacher unions, benefits, merit pay based on student test-scores, and the tenure system. I don't really have a problem talking about any of those issues, but, honestly, I'm not sure any of them have much bearing on what needs to happen in order for education to improve in this country.

As a full-time high school teacher, I feel like most people currently designing educational policy have very little idea about what school is actually like right now. There are days, no doubt, where I adore what I do. Other days, I trudge home so emotionally and physically drained, I can barely trudge through my front door before collapsing. Keep in mind, I teach in Ann Arbor, a place where most people enjoy a pretty good standard of living and most of my students generally feel pretty safe. Still…

One of the Big Problems I have with School

Brian writes in his portfolio, is I dread waking up in the morning
so early to go to something that makes me so unhappy. I'm not
a morning person so I literally need some motivation to get out
of bed. I need to know when I wake up I'm looking forward
to something that’s going to make me happy and not miserable.
My girlfriend, of course, is motivation for me because I want
to see her, but sometimes even she isn't enough and I need a little
something extra. Well, your class was that little extra. I knew it was
always going to be fun….Thank you!

During February break, I was driving to Chicago with Aimee Le
so we could help out at the Chicago Youth Poetry Slam where 400
students read original poems, many of them about classmates who
shoot each other or about the one bludgeoned to death with a two-by-
four, and she asked me what I try to accomplish every day when I walk
into class. Aimee's a sophomore at Dartmouth and one of the most
powerful writers, of any age, I've ever had the privilege to encounter,
and one of her best friends tried to kill himself a few months ago
and then called for help but it ended up being too late to save him,
and it's a long drive to Chicago and I've got my own kids and won't
see them for three days so there's no way I'm going to B.S. Aimee
and I tell her, sometimes, I feel like the best thing I can do is concoct an hour
that makes most of my students feel happier walking out than they were
when they walked in. Aimee's one of the smartest people I know and not
afraid to wear enormous owl glasses to prove it and she looks at me
and puts a hand to her chin and says, that would be a pretty great teacher.

This winter, two of my students gave birth, and both eventually
brought their babies to class on days when they had no child-
care options, and both handed in their portfolios late and I've
got a boy named Daniel who often misses weeks at a time
to survive a body that's failing and only accepts food through
a tube and Aaron gets migraines on a regular basis which he
describes as leathery bastards that climb through your ear
with twelve suction cups on each tentacle and his portfolio's
late too – he has to take care of his three brothers
every afternoon and there's no privacy in his house at all,
no place where he can be alone with his thoughts even
when his head feels like its been latched on with fish hooks
with two sets of teeth and all this lurches into my classroom
and I take it home in the bookbag of my own head and Benji
got mugged and a black eye in the parking lot and Melissa
writes how her mother taught her to hide behind the washing
machine in the basement so she won't have to see her father
pound her bloody in the kitchen and Jonas describes his backyard
as the place where he's from, where his father pitched him batting
practice and caught his fledgling fastball and threw him touchdowns
but he hasn't seen him in four years even though he lives less than
two miles away and Angie's got a four-year-old brother and when
their father erupts fire because the boy stuffed too much bread
in his mouth, she feels guilty when he runs to his room terrified
and crying – she could have said something snarky to arrow
their father's seething in her direction but she didn't,
for once, she didn't feel like absorbing it and Jasmine's been
home for six days on her own, her mother said she was headed
out for a couple hours and hasn't come back, and this happens
once a month and Jasmine lies in the dark on the floor of her
kitchen, near the oven, curled up and waiting and Vivian waits
too, for her sister who ran away two weeks ago with a boyfriend
who hits her and there's been no word and she has no words
except empty, empty as the police lights flash through her
window and she merges into the doorframe, her forehead
calcifying into wood and she brings the stiff of that breaking
into my classroom and I bring it home in my bookbag and she
writes in her portfolio that Creative Writing kept her from skipping
school, she wanted to be there for sixth hour and Cheyanne walks
into seventh hour shaking. A boy called her the c-word in her previous
class and she got in trouble for shouting back and I don't know what
that story's about but I know her mother calls her fat a lot and she throws
up her food a lot and her father drinks a lot and her best friend had to move
hundreds of miles away from her own father, he couldn't keep his hands
off her, and all this I bring home in my bookbag and I grade papers
on the sidelines of my daughter's soccer game and Miguel's grandmother
passed away last summer and she gave him his first soccer ball but he didn't
get to say goodbye, she was still living in poverty in Mexico with no doctor
and Jason almost never speaks in class and never looks anywhere but forward,
dead straight ahead, and I wonder if he's the kind of boy who will detonate
like a pipe bomb and he writes how he once glued construction paper beneath
a buzzing fan and then dropped the Valentine anonymous on the porch of the girl
he was too shy to talk to, then watched another kid take credit in class the next day
and he didn't do anything except write about it five years later and I grade papers
during field hockey and flag football and look up barely in time to see my daughter
make a dazzling tackle and thank you, Brian, for saying my class makes you want
to wake up and even if you're just B.S.-ing and sucking up for a better grade,
thank you, anyway, for caring enough to do that, and thank you, Lauren,
for sharing how your twenty-four-year-old cousin molested you when you
were eight and how you survived it and thank you, Meng, for trying to fight
back against the boy who wrestled you to the grass on New year's Eve,
and I carry your stories in my bookbag and sometimes I lift weights
and wonder if it's to maintain the strength to do it but these stories feed me
too and how you muster the throat to tell them tells me to keep listening
and I try to make you laugh, I try to make all of you laugh, I try somehow
to make every hour better. It's what I do. I'm a teacher.

Post 2: Reinventing the Ann Arbor Book Festival

For about three years now, the Ann Arbor Book Festival has been struggling. The downtrodden economy has caused the festival to lose several sponsors and a few of the grants we'd hoped to garner have fallen through due to decreased federal and state funding. Contributions from individuals to support the festival have also dropped, largely because people have chosen to direct their personal dwindling charitable donations toward essential services like food banks, homeless shelters, health clinics and children's hospitals.

I can't quarrel with that kind of choice.

Still, I believe the mission of the Ann Arbor Book Festival is vital. Reading and writing are crucial elements of our lives and if we can help to enhance our community's culture of literacy, then I believe we are doing a great deal to improve the quality of life in our area and to enrich all kinds of peoples’ day-to-day lives.

A little history – The Ann Arbor Book Festival began in 2004 and its mission is to promote reading, heighten awareness of literacy challenges, and showcase the rich culture of the written word in Michigan and beyond. Originally envisioned and kick-started by the Shaman Drum Bookshop, we held vibrant street festivals from 2004-2008 that included author readings, panel discussions, spelling bees, poetry slams and exhibitors. As we evolved over the years, we added unique events like an Author's Breakfast, a Writer's Conference, year-round Author's Forums, and the presentation of our annual Leaders in Literary Arts Awards, or LILAs.

We began to encounter funding difficulties in 2009 after the financial crash and downscaled the street festival that spring, condensing our slate from about three dozen events to six and shifting most of our exhibitors off the street and inside the Michigan League. In 2010, we downsized even more, essentially eliminating our exhibitors and the whole idea of a street festival, and holding only a LILA Awards presentation event and reading, an Author's Breakfast, a Writer's Conference and several Author's Forum events scattered throughout the year.

When the board of directors met this past fall, we wondered whether we should shut down the Ann Arbor Book Festival altogether. Had we reached the point in time where we'd outlived our usefulness to the community? Do people even care enough about books anymore to merit an annual festival?

We decided we'd give it one more shot, but could no longer go it alone. In hopes of creating mutually beneficial partnerships, we reached out to both The Neutral Zone and The Ann Arbor Summer Festival and have put together a series of events that we're offering this year, focusing on the ten-day period from Wednesday, June 22nd through Friday, July 1st. By partnering with The Neutral Zone and the Ann Arbor Summer Festival, we are able to save on financial outlay by sharing some resources and expenses. While we are still in a somewhat scaled-down mode from our more ambitious festivals of years past, we hope that fomenting these partnerships will allow us to grow in the future in a sustainable fashion.
Here's what we're offering this year:

June 22 and 23, All Day
VOLUME Summer Institute for Teachers
Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington
Registration required

This two-day institute will feature a quartet of terrific creative writing educators working with local teachers to help them develop strategies for teaching writing in their own classrooms.

June 24, 7:30 PM
Louder Than a Bomb
Helmut Stern Auditorium, U-M Museum of Art, 525 S. State Street
Youth Poetry Slam Film Screening

This award-winning documentary film brings to the public the passions and creative imaginations of high-school aged writers in Chicago as they battle to earn coveted spots on the Chicago Youth Poetry Slam Team.  The screening will be followed by a Q&A session with Kevin Coval, co-founder of Chicago's Youth Poetry Slam.

June 25, 8:30 AM
Breakfast with the Authors
Image Café, 2435 North Quad, 105 S. State Street
Registration required
With Roger Bonair-Agard, Kevin Coval, francine j. harris, Jim C. Hines, Jeff Kass, Adam Mansbach, Jamaal May, Angel Nafis, Karen Simpson, Lori Tucker-Sullivan, Karrie Waarala, Margaret Yang, Lara Zielin

This unique event allows members of the public to sit down with authors and talk informally about writing and the writing life. This year's breakfast includes Adam Mansbach, author of the viral sensation mock children's book, Go the F*** to Sleep.

June 25, 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM
Writer's Conference
Media Gallery, North Quad, 105 S. State Street
Registration required
Workshops for writers of fiction, poetry, memoir, young adult fiction, and science fiction.

This day-long conference allows interested members of the general public to attend writing workshops taught by the featured authors at the AABF Author's Breakfast.  

June 25, 10:00 AM to 11:30 AM
Show Me A Story: A Creative Children's Play Space
Image Café, 2435 North Quad, 105 S. State Street
For children of all ages who love stories and the images and visions they inspire.

June 25, 2:00 PM to 5:00 PM
Street Festival
Ingalls Mall, E. Washington St.
(between S. Thayer and Fletcher St.)
Poetry and prose samplers; Leader in the Literary Arts Awards; Community Conversation about Education; Kindle vs. Nook vs. iPad vs. Android vs. Books!

This limited version of a street festival will feature readings by the authors from the Author's Breakfast and Writer's Conference as well as a panel discussion about education reform and another panel where attendees can compare the virtues of the market's most popular electronic readers. We will end the afternoon with our presentation of this year's LILA Awards.

June 25, 5:00 PM
Author's Forum: Act of Grace
A Conversation with Karen Simpson + Robbie Ransom
Image Café, 2435 North Quad, 105 S. State Street
Karen Simpson's first novel explores the story of Grace Johnson, a bright, perceptive African American high school senior who saves the life of a Klansman named Jonathan Gilmore. Everyone in her hometown of Vigilant, Michigan wants to know why.

June 26 to July 1, All Day
VOLUME Summer Institute for Students
Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington
Registration required

This five-day intensive creative writing camp for high school students is one of the finest such programs in the country.

June 30, 7:30 PM
VOLUME Summer Institute Faculty Readings
Helmut Stern Auditorium, U-M Museum of Art, 525 S. State Street

This reading, free and open to the public, features dynamic performances from the instructors in the VOLUME Summer Institute, including Adam Mansbach, Roger Bonair-Agard, Kevin Coval, Jeff Kass, Angel Nafis, Scott Beal, Karen Smyte, Mike Hyter and Danny Brown.

Hopefully, by bringing these three organizations together we can continue to create vibrant literary arts events in the Ann Arbor community for years to come.  Perhaps, in these troubled times, forging these kinds of partnerships is a way non-profit organizations can not only survive but thrive and move forward with dynamic visions for the future.

Post 1: A Perfectly Knuckleheaded Rationale

On March 31, 2011, my first book of fiction made its debut.

It was published by Dzanc Books, a small non-profit press based in Michigan, and it's a collection of ten short stories called Knuckleheads.

I'm proud of it.

Writing it and editing it took about four years.

I also know I will make almost no money off it. In fact, if one were really to do the math and factor in the hours I spent writing; the hours I spent editing; the hours I spent querying and submitting; the time I've more recently spent doing readings, organizing a series of mini book tours, and creating some kind of marketing plan; and then add in the money I've spent traveling in order to do the readings; the money I've spent creating posters, fliers and handbills; the money I've spent buying copies of my own book from the publisher and from various bookstores so I could try and re-sell the books out of my backpack; the money I'm contemplating spending in order to develop a web site – well, ultimately I'll probably end up losing several thousand dollars.  

So, why do it?

I mean, seriously, what's the point?

The thrill of seeing my name in print? Of walking into a bookstore and seeing my own actual book on the shelf, right there with its pretty red cover and my professionally taken mug shot (another cost I need to factor in) smiling from the inside flap jacket?

Honestly, I couldn't care less about those moments. I don't think I was actually ever thrilled by that mythological instant of cutting through the shipping tape and opening up the box the first time to see the product of my words, of my imagination, staring back at me, and, even if there was some small sense of something that maybe felt like satisfaction, that smidgen of positive feeling has long since been eclipsed by a kind of stomach-churning shame resulting from having to prostrate myself and beg people, stores and schools to buy my book.

Listen, I've been prostrating myself for years. I'm pretty good at it. I've garnered support from all kinds of people and institutions to support the programs I've envisioned. But that prostrating has always been about creating opportunities for young people to read and write and publish and have their words be heard by the public. Knuckleheads is different. It's about my words. My stories. It's about promoting myself. Yuch.

Except, it's not about that.

I've always loved to read. Always. Seuss and Sendak when I could barely understand the letters and after that The Hardy Boys, Encyclopedia Brown, Tolkien, Conan Doyle, Twain, Dickens, Steinbeck, Irving, Atwood, Morrison, Richard Russo, Junót Diaz, Zadie Smith, Dennis LeHane and the list goes on – reading has not only given me my sense of sense of self, but also my sense of others.

When I'm holding a book, I'm holding human history.

Grandiose statement, I know, but I believe it. Reading is the best way I know how to build empathy, to immerse oneself in someone else's story and to feel for that person. Deeply. Not saying that can't happen watching a movie, or a play, or even listening to a song, but reading is a sustained experience. A commitment of several hours, days, sometimes weeks where a reader forges a one-to-one relationship with an author's voice. It's a solitary activity and a communal activity at the same time, one that builds both a sense of independence and a sense of broader social responsibility.

All the interesting people I know – people I enjoy having conversations with – read a lot. Every one of them.

Think about it, no other species has the ability to organize its thoughts and to bind them and deliver them to other members of the species encased as a lasting artifact. We do. At heart, that's what books are, the delivery of the thoughts in one person's brain to another person's brain, the opportunity for two brains to bridge the chasm between them and think and grow together.

So, why did I write Knuckleheads?

Because I have way too many male students (both in my high school classes at Pioneer and my college classes at Eastern) that have no real answer when I ask them what they've been reading lately. Many claim not to read anything at all. Ever.

That's not an acceptable answer to me. We can't just write off large portions of our male population with the hope that if we point them toward their X-Boxes, they'll still somehow develop sufficient levels of empathy. We can't just tailor the output of the publishing industry toward the largely female book-buying public and give up on males who maybe just haven't yet found the right books that will captivate them.

I don't know if my book will be that book, that reading hook, for a lot of habitually non-reading males, but I sure hope it will be. More than anything I wrote Knuckleheads for that high school kid in a hooded sweatshirt who seems to want nothing more than to his lay his head down on his desk and sleep through class, for that college kid who dreams mostly of the next keg party, for that guy a few years out of school in construction boots driving the newspaper delivery truck or the backhoe, or climbing a ladder to paint houses or fix phone lines or prune tree limbs.

I want my imagination to communicate with their imaginations. I want those guys to twine my stories with their own. Somewhere out there, right now, there's a slightly knuckleheaded dude reading my book, laughing, thinking, wondering how we can all redeem our better selves. I wrote Knuckleheads for him. Keep reading, my man, keep reading.