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Wednesday, January 19,2011

Working class wordsmiths

Book salutes literature of laboring people

by Bill Castanier
M. L. Liebler says he has a lot of friends. Liebler, who has taught English, labor studies and the art of the working class at Wayne State University for more than 30 years, was not shy in calling upon some of those old acquaintances when he was looking for contributions to “Working Words: Punching the Clock and Kicking out the Jams,” an anthology of poems, short fiction, memoirs and song lyrics that tell the story of the working class.

The first thing you notice about the book, which was named a 2011 Michigan Notable Book, is it is hefty, more than 450 pages, just right for the hands of a steelworker or Michael Moore, who contributed “Horatio Alger Must Die,” an excerpt from “Dude, Where’s My Country?” Liebler said he was inspired by having to Xerox material for his students. “There never was a collection like this,” he said, “and that gave me an idea to compile one.”


And what a collection he has compiled.


There are poets (Amiri Baraka, Stewart Francke); filmmakers (Moore); Pulitzer Prize winners (Philip Levine) and novelists (Stephen Crane).


“There wasn’t anyone I wanted who said no,” Liebler said. “Everybody, surprisingly and willingly, participated in the process.”


And everyone would include the likes of Bob Dylan, and Detroiters Eminem (“Lose Yourself”) and Jack White (“The Big Three Killed My Baby”), whose lyrics are included in the anthology. “The guys who I thought would be the most difficult were the easiest,” Liebler said.


How easy? A friend put him in touch with a key Dylan contact and, basically on the spot Liebler said, he was given permission to use anything he wanted.


Three Dylan songs are in the collection, including “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” Also in the mix is one of the original working-class ballads, Woody Guthrie’s “1913 Massacre.”


It seems natural that many of Liebler’s friends are from Michigan: The familiar names of David Marsh, Philip Levine, Jeff Vande Zande, Dudley Randall, Jim Ray Daniels, Lolita Hernandez, Anne Marie Oomen and Stewart Francke leap out. Liebler also contributed two of his own poems, "Making It Right" and "On the Scrap."


Liebler says part of the inspiration for the book comes from his own Detroit area roots. “I come out of the working class. My grandfather was in the 1937 Sit-Down Strike (at Flint’s General Motors plant). I guess you could say it’s in my DNA.”




M.L. Liebler


Part
of a roundtable discussion with authors Jeff Vande Zande and Josh Maday
(" On the Clock: Contemporary Short Stories of Work"), Ben Hamper and
Lolita Hernandez 7 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 25 Schuler Books & Music 2820
Towne Center Blvd., Lansing (517) 316-7495 www.schulerbooks.com

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