Blog: John D. Lamb

John D. Lamb is the director of Springfed Arts, a literary non-profit organization that offers songwriting and prose and poetry workshops. Springfed Arts also hosts free public readings by authors, poets, and performance artists at venues throughout Metro Detroit such as the Scarab Club, Detroit Opera House, Music Hall's Jazz Café, and Lido Gallery.

A singer, songwriter, and guitarist for over 30 years, John runs Lamb's Retreat for Songwriters in Harbor Springs, Michigan each fall. To date, John has directed 25 songwriter retreats and has crafted over 1,000 individual song assignments for singers from throughout the United States.

He has also directed literary conferences since 1998, including the Walloon Writers' Retreat, Springfed Writers' Retreat, and the Detroit, Michigan Writers' Retreat.

John was a journalism major at Central Michigan University.

John D. Lamb - Most Recent Posts:

Backyard Art

Our annual fundraiser is held in my backyard.  Springfed Arts Backyard Benefit happens this year on Saturday, May 12, rain or shine.  I rent a tent.

Ten years ago, our first fundraiser was held at Edison's, a high-end nightclub in the basement of the popular Birmingham restaurant, Merrill 220.  We called the benefit the Light Bulb Bash, in deference to Thomas Alva Edison's invention and for the creative inspiration Springfed Arts aims to spark.  The kitchen upstairs supplied the food and my band supplied the mood.  
With the help of an enthusiastic and well-connected fundraiser committee, we made good money that year.  Several folks who had little experience with our organization gave generous dollar amounts. 

I learned how to apply for charitable solicitation and raffle licenses, acquire donated items from individuals and businesses, design invitations, write up auction item descriptions and bid sheets, send tax receipt letters of thanks, and thank them again.

We raised pretty good money the next few years, too.  By 2007, you can probably guess, yes, we made less.  Sure, you can blame it on the economy.  I think, also, it became a tougher job to sustain the successful enthusiasm of our early fundraising committees.  Sure, you can blame that on the economy, too.  I think, also, it got tougher for me to sustain the level of enthusiasm needed to enthuse a successful fundraising committee.

For the last few years we've been doing it in my backyard.  I plan the whole thing.  Three weeks before the event, I have a luncheon at my house.  This is when I have my one committee meeting.  They show up with donated raffle and auction items in the form of gift baskets, boxes of wine, art, and, always we have a garden cart filled with handy garden tools for a gardener.  I feed everybody, mostly ladies (been trying to get more of my male buddies to participate just for a good mix).  While everyone gabs, we find out how much the donated items are worth and what is a fair opening bid.  I wouldn't want someone to show up at the party and be insulted by a low suggested bid on a gift they procured.  It's understood that we want folks to feel like they're getting a deal and maybe we'll get to see some real bidding wars.  That's the best.

The auction is silent except for one live auction item.  Here's the description:  Italian Dinner for Ten (Live Auction).  John D. Lamb cooks in your home and cleans the kitchen.  Dessert includes a selection of songs from John a la guitar.  Menu: wine, appetizers, plate of Pasta Bolognese, salad, spumoni or cannoli with coffee.  The Bolognese sauce is a meat sauce honed and handed down by John's mom, Marianna.  (For vegetarians we can offer a delicious marinara sauce or pesto).  Top bid receives Vince & Joe's Gourmet Market gift basket.  Opening bid $500.

The Italian Dinner has been a good money maker.  One year, Michael Moore was the auctioneer and he managed to squeeze $1,500 out of some lucky friends.  WXYZ anchorman Stephen Clark was the auctioneer a few years back and he did good, too.  Not as good as in those early days when people had more... you know.  I've done these dinners in many wonderful homes.  It's fun to go into someone else's kitchen and sort of take control, kind of like being sanctioned to be a bossy chef on one of those cooking shows.
The generous contributions support Springfed Art's retreat scholarship fund, underwrites creative writing workshops/readings, and sponsors visits by nationally acclaimed songwriters, authors and poets.

Holding the benefit in my backyard is an impetus to get me working in the garden and tending to the lawn.  I invite my musical friends to perform for free.  They get a thank you letter.  The music stops at 10 p.m.  My neighbors get a letter.  They are invited to attend for free.  So far, no one has called the cops on me.

Writers in Rogue Locations

As director of Springfed Arts, one of my tasks is to administer writing classes.  These educational opportunities are presented in a series of six-week courses offered throughout the year at locations in Ann Arbor, Birmingham, Clarkston, Dearborn, Detroit, Farmington Hills, Hamtramck and Royal Oak.  Anyone can register for a class specializing in fiction, beginning and advanced poetry, or memoir.  To my knowledge, in the Detroit area, these are the only regularly-meeting workshops of this nature outside of college writing classes.

To enter the advanced poetry workshop we ask a new student to send a few samples of their work just to make sure they won't feel intimidated among the other participants.  Some of our finest poets and writers have been taking these classes for years.  They don't receive a college credit.  They do become a member of a community of supportive writers.  Many of our writers have published poetry book collections and chapbooks.

We limit the class sizes to about ten writers, sometimes less.  Our instructors want to insure that there is ample time in each class to workshop everyone's work in progress.  Most of our instructors have a Master of Fine Arts or are working on completing their MFA.  Their job is to impart knowledge and to facilitate the kind of discourse that will inspire good writing and encourage refined sensibilities.  

As I stated, these classes are not college sanctioned.  They may even be rogue.  We don't own, rent or lease our own facilities. We do rent meeting rooms at libraries, art centers and  public school media rooms after hours.  In some cases, our classes are held rent-free at cafes gracious enough to allow us.  In one case, we are using the meeting room of a Big Boy Restaurant, grateful for the small amount of regular business that comes from class attendees who are hungry for knowledge and food.

Springfed Arts has long offered free-to-the-public reading events at various Metro Detroit locations.  Over the years, we have featured poets, authors, and songwriters at the Scarab Club, the Detroit Opera House Cafe, the Arts League-Virgil H. Carr Center and at the Music Hall Jazz Cafe.  We still do some events at those downtown Detroit locations,but since late 2010 I've been focusing our efforts on The Lido Gallery Poetry & Music Series, a monthly showcase held in Birmingham.  The Lido Gallery & Gifts offers expert custom framing, fine art exhibits, original prints and posters, imaginative gifts and more.  The owner, Diane DeCillis, is a Mona Lisa scholar, a poet and a writer, a long-time member of Springfed Arts, who has been taking our poetry classes and substitute teaches for Springfed Arts.  At our monthly gatherings she offers up a table of specialty teas, cakes, cookies and food.  

These free reading series are faithfully attended by many of our members and by the friends and family of our featured writers.  When I plan these events, I do it as if I'm booking a variety show.  Usually, I will invite one songwriter besides myself and a mix of writers who will read either poetry or prose.  I begin the night by strapping on my guitar and singing a song.  This gets folks to subside their conversations and find a seat.  Then I make a few announcements regarding our various Springfed activities and maybe sing another song, something chosen especially for the featured guests or say, the occasion of Dylan's or Springsteen's birthday.  Then I introduce another songwriter who does a couple songs.  After that, I introduce several poets and writers who read their work from our custom-made podium.  When all of our guests have read, I get up and make everyone sing along on the chorus of some old pop song.  I know, it sounds a little quaint or corny, but folks are warming up to it.  Members tell me that they used to have a hard time dragging their husbands out to poetry readings, but now that we feature songwriters they look forward to attending more often.

Who are the readers at these Springfed Arts events?  They are poets, writers and songwriters with some fame and acclaim.  You might have heard of some of them.  Sometimes we get a famous writer on a book tour.  We occasionally feature our own Springfed writing instructors.  
Increasingly, though, I am asking these instructors, "Who is writing good stuff in your class?" And then I invite someone to do a public reading for the first time in their life.  And they are thrilled and nervous.  They read their stuff for all of us and we enjoy listening to their thoughts and the way they put things.

A Kick in the Pants

Agreeing to write this blog and the ensuing gnashing of brain gristle to come up with something informative rather than showy is case in point for taking a writing class or attending a writing retreat.  At first, I didn't want to do it.  I have enough day-to-day tasks.  The Metromode editor was kind to ask me to talk about Springfed Arts.  How could I refuse a chance to tell more folks about what our nonprofit organization does?  Sure, it would be great to have someone else write it for me.  From past experience, though, I'm rarely satisfied with another reporter's take on what we do.  After all, I am the director of an organization that promotes and encourages writers.  So, if I back out of writing this, then I am wimping out on our mission: Springfed Arts is dedicated to promoting the craft of writing, be it prose or song, and the performance of works, be it spoken or sung.

I've put myself in this position before.  In 1995, the simple act of naming a retreat after my own largely unknown self forced me to deal with doubt and feelings of unworthiness.  This year I will be directing my 18th annual Lamb's Retreat for Songwriters.  Over the course of these annual November three-day conferences,  I've had years when my creative output was low.  And there I was, getting ready to welcome a hundred songwriters from throughout the land.  They were coming to me with the promise that I (with help from my illustrious staff) would inspire them to write songs.  This is what I wrote to the attendees of my 2005 song retreat, "Don't feel pressure; just try to let the words and the music flow.  It is my job to tell you this.  It's also what I am telling myself, for I must admit something to you now – this year I have not written but one whole song...I suspect there are some of you who haven't written much lately.  And maybe that's why you are here.  It should be comforting to you that I disclose my sorry productivity in the songwriting department.  I'd much rather brag about how prolific I am, but that would only prove intimidating to some, annoying to most."

Said editor had good ideas when I asked her about what I should blog.  I knew that I didn't want to write technically about the travails of running a nonprofit arts organization.  I didn't want to come off as a complainer about the lack of funding for the arts and the rigmarole of applying for grants (but I just did, didn't I?).  Mainly, I didn't want to be boring or write badly.
So, what did I do?  I sent her some letters I'd written years ago hoping she'd find them interesting enough to publish and call it a day.  But no, she called me on it.  She kindly asked that I write something especially new and current for this blog.  She was doing to me what I've been doing to other writers for years.

At my songwriter retreats in Harbor Springs, I give every attendee an individual song assignment on Friday after lunch.  By Sunday after brunch, they have to sing a song they've had two days to write.  I've handed out hundreds of song assignments.  They are scenario ideas sometimes half a page long.  I spend hours writing them in the days leading up to the retreat.  It has become this thing that I do.  Most folks complete the assignment.  Many come up with decent first drafts and quite a few have completed full-blown excellent songs. 

One guy, after I gave him his song assignment, said to me, "I'm not going to do it.  I  brought some songs I've been working on and I'll just keep working on those."  I told him it was no big deal, just think of the assignment as an exercise that might spark something new, get him out of his own head.  Well, the next day he looked to be strutting about the place and he came up to me and excitedly said, "I got something going on with that assignment and I think it's gonna be good."  That's the kind of little victory I get from doing this work.  You can't buy it.

So, here's my thanks to Metromode's editor for kicking me in the pants and making me write something new.

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