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I’ve known M.L. Liebler for the better part 20 years now, and if he’s passionate about anything it’s poetry and music, especially if they relate to Detroit.
Liebler has written 15 books of poetry and fiction and has taught English and creative writing for 40 years at Wayne State University. He’s the leader of a pack of musicians called “Beatles Forever,” which does an unusual tribute to the Beatles based on a short story he wrote. For a number of years each summer, he’s led a class of students to London for a deep dive into the Beatles’ culture and music.
And fortunately for lovers of Detroit music, he’s partnered with another Detroit native, poet Jim Daniels, to edit a new anthology of poetry: “Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music,” which is singularly unique in its breadth of genres and the talent they were able to bring to the project.
If you remember such a thing, the nearly 500-page book is telephone directory thick — filled with the poetry of more than 100 contributors from both the deep Detroit music scene and poetry world.
“Respect” is literally an A to Z collection of poetry featuring the famous, the infamous and fledgling poets and musicians, like Marrim Akashi and Michael Zadorian. The famous include Eminem, Jack White, Billy Braggs, Paul Simon, Robbie Robertson, Gordon Lightfoot and Wayne Kramer. They riff on Detroit music of all genres including blues, jazz, rock, northern soul, techno and hip-hop.
The book is broken up by music category, so it makes it easy to jump back and forth. Both Daniels, who teaches at Carnegie Mellon University, and Liebler have contributed pieces from their own oeuvres.
Daniels takes you on a trip to his teen years with his poem “School’s Out, Alice Cooper, 1972” and writes about a “guy named Alice with the face of cartoon death.” Readers will have to dig deeper to catch his drift about his “sky-blue panties.”
Anyone who’s seen and heard Patti Smith will get his poem “Patti Smith at the Punch and Judy Theater,” where he writes “She’s one freaky kind of scarecrow scaring all the birds away.”
“Respect” is also a musical tour of all the venues that made and still make Detroit famous. The poetry takes you on a ride from the Bluebird Café (jazz) to the Grande Ballroom (rock) and to the blues clubs that are a cloudy memory for most.
Liebler stresses that all the entries were obtained gratis, or as he calls it “all for free.” Without the tremendous cooperation of poets, publishers, musicians and lyricists, it would have been impossible to compile this anthology, Liebler said.
Both Liebler and Daniels have what can only be called musical rolodexes (an old-fashioned way of keeping contact information) that are a mile deep and a country wide. As an example, there aren’t many books that can boast work from the poets Phillip Levine, June Jordan, Rita Dove, Nikki Giovanni or Melba Joyce Boyd. In addition, three of the five MC5 members have contributed work to the anthology, including Rob Tyner’s “Grande Days,” when he considers the famed rock palace. “Now the Ballroom stands empty, nobody ever comes to play.”
Michael Zadorian has a piece on the infamous song of the MC5 “Kick out the Jams,” and the time a high school classmate convinced a teacher to let him play it in class. Most everyone knows the rest of the lyrics.
Liebler and Danielson first approach a couple of other publishers before settling on Michigan State University Press. It was MSU Press that convinced Liebler to change his original title “I Just Wanna Testify,” to “Respect” as a way to honor the Detroit superstar. He said it was Aretha Franklin’s funeral that helped turn it around for him.
He said the idea for an anthology grew out of his book “Heaven Was Detroit,” a collection of essays on Detroit Music. Liebler has two entries in the book including “Rhythm and Blues Fire,” which he dedicates to the Falcons and Sir Mack Rice. It ends with this line: “It’s our good fortune to have new hymns for our northern souls.” The Falcons (not to be confused with the original Detroit Red Wings) were a 1955 rhythm and blues group known for helping create soul music and Sir Mack Rice was the composer of “Mustang Sally,” which has been covered innumerable times.
Liebler recognizes they missed some big name, like Smokey Robinson and Patti Smith, due to running out of time or missing a connection, but the early popularity of this anthology seems to demand a volume two.
What is known for sure is garnered from a single line by poets Hajjar Baban, A’leetzia Burns, Nandi Comer and Marrim Akashi in their collaborative work “A Mediation on Music,” “Daddy taught us young, this music was holy.”