Friday, October 30, 2015

Between the Lines: Ladislav Hanka - In Pursuit of Birds

by Zinta Aistars
for WMUK 102.1 FM
Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate

Between the Lines is my weekly radio show about books and writers with a Michigan connection. It airs every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. (or listen anytime online), on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. I am the host of Between the Lines.

This week's guest: Ladislav Hanka

Lad Hanka with his collaborative art with live bees (Photo by Zinta Aistars)

Ladislav Hanka of Kalamazoo is no ordinary bird watcher. His ventures through former Soviet military zones in Eastern Europe pursuing birds sometimes led to his arrest. Some of his bird watching tales are sobering, others are hilarious. Those stories, and Hanka's visual art, are collected in his newest book: In Pursuit of Birds: A Foray with Field Glasses and Sketchbook.

“There have been moments in my life when birds have played a pivotal role as omen and sign,” Hanka writes. “There have also been moments when splendid and otherworldly apparitions of great art have intruded, like signs from above, and changed the course of my life. Occasionally they have come packaged together.”

Hanka’s fascination with birds, and nature in general, began in childhood. His roots are in the Czech Republic, although he's lived in southwest Michigan for many years. Hanka says respect for the earth is deeply intertwined with the Czech culture. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology and zoology from Kalamazoo College; a master’s in zoology from Colorado State University; and a MFA in printmaking from Western Michigan University. His artwork, mostly prints and etchings, have appeared in galleries and museums worldwide.

In his new book, Hanka has collected nearly 200 drawings and etchings created in 35 years of printmaking. His drawings are based on field studies and on specimens preserved for study in museums. He describes his first encounter with the art of Carel Fabritius at The Hague, in Holland, mesmerized by the beauty of Fabritius' reproductions of birds — to the point of losing track of time, returning again and again to look at a famous drawing of a goldfinch.

"The goldfinch…became a mysterious doorway. I was opening up and learning to see.”

With his own artistic renditions of raptors, warblers, sparrows, nuthatches, juncos, woodpeckers, flickers, owls, vultures, and many other birds, Hanka shares his love of them in line and in story. In his stories, he expresses a respect for the bird as a bird, not as a symbol or metaphor, but for itself. He shares his philosophy of life: to move gently across the earth without disturbing its rhythms but becoming one with those rhythms, including those of birds.

During a trip to Tibet, Hanka discovered the practice of ...

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Between the Lines: Iliana Rocha and Karankawa

by Zinta Aistars
for WMUK 102.1 FM
Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate

Between the Lines is my weekly radio show about books and writers with a Michigan connection. It airs every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. (or listen anytime online), on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. I am the host of Between the Lines.

This week's guest: Iliana Rocha

Iliana Rocha

Iliana Rocha has had a remarkable year. Her work was chosen for the Best New Poets 2014 anthology. While that was big, the drum then rolled on: her first poetry collection, Karankawa, won the Donald Hall Prize in Poetry, one of the most prestigious prizes a poet can receive. That was really big. Karankawa was published by University of Pittsburgh Press and Rocha is now lining up readings to introduce her work to the public.

“Beginning writers really depend on these book prizes,” Rocha says. “I had had this collection out to contests for about a year. I didn’t even know that I was a finalist. I got a phone call as I was getting ready for work and they asked me, 'Are you sitting down?'"

Rocha is currently a Ph.D candidate in English with a creative writing emphasis at Western Michigan University. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Arizona State University, where she was poetry editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.
Rocha chose the title for the collection, Karankawa, to honor a little-known tribe of Native Americans in her native Texas. “The impetus for the collection was the passing of my aunt,” she says. “She lived in that area of south Texas. So I started to do a little research and found that this tribe was subjected to ...

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Between the Lines: T. Geronimo Johnson

by Zinta Aistars
for WMUK 102.1 FM
Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate

Between the Lines is my weekly radio show about books and writers with a Michigan connection. It airs every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. (or listen anytime online), on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. I am the host of Between the Lines.

This week's guest: T. Geronimo Johnson

T. Geronimo Johnson (Photo by Elizabeth Cowan)

Four university students in Berkeley, California, friends who call themselves the "Four Indians," decide to protest a Civil War reenactment in one of their hometowns. Something goes terribly wrong when a student pretends to get lynched and acting turns into reality. T. Geronimo Johnson’s newest novel Welcome toBraggsville (William Morrow, 2015) takes on issues of class, race, politics, and even social media.

The book was long-listed for the National Book Award 2015, and Johnson’s debut novel Hold It ‘Til It Hurts was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize. Johnson says the role of social media in the escalating the storyline, especially once the lynched student is found, is crucial.
“It’s an important role in the book. It also speaks to the collapse of the 'reflection period.' Social media often means there’s very little reflection left between when we decide to share something and when we actually share it. So not only do we have less filtering going on, but we have much less context. That’s part of what gets the 'Four Little Indians' in trouble.”
The “Indians” represent different backgrounds: Malaysian, African- American, a mix of Caucasian and Native American. They hail from small towns and big cities, liberal juxtaposed with conservative, street smart and naive. Their intervention in the Civil War reenactment in a small southern town brings to the fore the truth that history can be seen in very different ways depending on your background and perspective. Johnson illuminates stereotypes, sometimes employing a dark sense of humor to illustrate the absurd.
While writers are often told to write without their audience in mind, Johnson says he finds himself writing for more than one.
“As a writer of color, I often find myself writing for two audiences: the outside audience and the inside audience. That’s one inherent challenge. The gatekeepers for literature are predominantly white, so there’s a period in the process where you have someone who doesn’t know your experience telling you how they think you should best represent it. That’s probably the biggest challenge to artists working in any medium on the periphery … you have to do a lot of anticipatory emotional and psychological work.”
Johnson says he hopes readers ofWelcome to Braggsville come away with the realization that ...

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Investing in what's working: GRPS offers diverse options

by Zinta Aistars
Published in Rapid Growth Media
(Photos by Adam Bird)

Investing in what's working: GRPS offers diverse options

At Grand Rapids Public Schools, neighborhood schools offer traditional education, theme schools offer experiential education in unique surroundings, and Centers of Innovation offer students a career-based curriculum that connects them to community business leaders. With so many choices in schools and approaches to learning, GRPS is contributing to the growing vitality of the city of Grand Rapids, attracting families to move to the city for the first time or to return.

Nancy Haynes couldn’t help recalling her physics class in high school as she watched her kindergarten-age son sliding a lunch tray, then a carpet tile down a snowy hill. He slid the piece of carpet down the snowy hill first with its smoother bottom side down, next with the carpeting side down. She saw his face light up with understanding.

“And he got it. He understood the principle of friction in kindergarten, a principle I struggled to understand in my own high school days,” Haynes says. “With hands-on learning like that, my son understood what I never quite got from reading a textbook.”

Haynes is the executive director at the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan. With three sons in the Grand Rapids Public Schools system, the very best in school options were at the top of her priority list.

“We looked at charter schools, Catholic schools, neighborhood schools, Christian schools—we looked at them all,” Haynes says. “We chose to send our son to C.A. Frost Environmental Science Academy. Once we walked in the front door and met the principal, we were hooked. There was magic in the classrooms. The kids really enjoy themselves at Frost.”

The magic Haynes witnessed was a combination of teaching techniques that allows students to apply what they learn in a practical manner. Topics are woven into all manner of subjects—math, reading, science, art—while taking advantage of every opportunity to apply that learning to life experiences.

“You won’t ever hear my kids say, ‘I’ll never use this in real life,’” Haynes says.

She tells a story about how her son studied food-related issues in his science class, followed by a field trip to a farmers market.

“Now when we go to the farmers market, my son buys himself fresh dill to munch on. We go to the store, and my kids will ask me to buy chard. Chard! They’ve learned about food waste in the food system, and they know what’s good for them and why and how to use it.”

Because of her work at the Fair Housing Center, an organization that strives to ensure housing opportunities are open to all on an equal basis, Haynes is keenly aware of parents in the district making choices about where they live based in great part on the available options in schools.

“GRPS makes choice in schools a reality for everyone,” says Haynes. “They combine the old-fashioned traditions of the classroom with experiences out in the world.”

Students work in small groups at the Grand Rapids Public Museum.Diversity in programs for a diversity of children
Omar Cuevas, an assistant vice president at Fifth Third Bank, refers to his six children as the Brady Bunch. The two boys and four girls have been enrolled in Grand Rapids Public Schools from the beginning, and this year, two of his children are seniors. He also parents a junior, a sophomore, a freshman, and still has one in 8th grade at C. A. Frost.

What makes him such a believer in GRPS, he says, “is the diversity in programs to challenge our children. They take individuals with different goals and give them options to fit their interests. Instead of pigeon-holing the kids into one discipline, the kids can all choose the disciplines that interest them.”

Cuevas says he had options open to him, options to enroll his children in other schools, but he’s committed to GRPS because he feels that GRPS is committed to his children. He’s watched the changes over the years, the downs and now the ups, and he believes in the improvements he is seeing. He has nothing but praise for the new leadership, beginning with Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal.

“I see her knocking on doors, gaining support,” he says. “Not only are the individuals at the top working for improvement, but parents are engaged, too, and community. We want quality. I’m committed to be involved in my children’s education and they’ve opened the door to that.”

As important as diversity in programs, Cuevas says, is the diversity and inclusion he sees in the leadership, staff and teachers, and the student body. “The programs offer diversity in thought, and to learn in a school surrounded by diversity in people—well, that’s a life lesson.”

The view from the inside
Arguably one of the most groundbreaking innovations in education that GRPS offers is ...

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Between the Lines: Nicole Mullis and her Little Brother at Work

by Zinta Aistars
for WMUK 102.1 FM
Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate

Between the Lines is my weekly radio show about books and writers with a Michigan connection. It airs every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. (or listen anytime online), on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. I am the host of Between the Lines.

This week's guest: Nicole Mullis

Nicole Mullis reading at Battle Creek Books (Photo by Jim Donahue)

She writes a column for the Battle Creek Enquirer. She's a journalist, a playwright, and a novelist. To be that prolific, Nicole Mullis has learned to write on the run, grabbing moments wherever she can. While she was writing her novel A Teacher Named Faith (Cairn Press 2015), her children soon understood that Mom had adopted another kid into the family: a laptop called "Little Brother."

“One day I had the laptop in the back of the car,” Mullis says. “We stopped and the laptop pitched forward. I jokingly said, 'Let’s seat belt the laptop into the car.' And that’s when it became 'Little Brother.'”
Mullis’ children are used to sharing Mom with their new "sibling." She often writes while sitting in the car waiting for this or that, or wherever and whenever she may find a free moment. That’s how her new novel took shape, she says, the same way many of her newspaper columns have been written.
“I’ve always wanted to write,” Mullis says. “I remember the first gift my parents gave me. It was this little typewriter that had six words on it. I think I created every sentence you could out of those six words.”
Mullis began her professional writing career as a journalist. Growing up, she shared the Detroit Free Press sports section with her father, both being Detroit Tigers fans. Because of that, Mullis initially wanted to be a sports columnist but found the many detailed statistics of sports daunting. She was drawn instead to the stories behind the athletes: the "hero’s quest."
“I worked in sports departments, stringing,” she recalls. “I could watch a baseball game for six hours and appreciate the drama of it. But I worked five times as hard to keep all those stats together. I recognized that there’s a mind for this, and it wasn’t mine.”
When Mullis’ children were born, she chose to be a stay-at-home mom. She found that her writing fit in nicely with that lifestyle. "As soon as those babies were down for a nap, I was on that computer,” she says. “I wrote some pieces and sent them to the Battle Creek Enquirer.”
The Enquirer hired Mullis as a columnist in 2006 for “Developing Laugh Lines” on Sundays. She also does theater reviews and has written columns for other papers.
Her new novel had its beginnings in a play, since Mullis is an equally prolific playwright. She was working on a two-act comedy called “On Bended Knee” when she got writer’s block ...

Sunday, October 04, 2015

Between the Lines: Four-Legged Girl

by Zinta Aistars
for WMUK 102.1 FM
Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate

Between the Lines is my weekly radio show about books and writers with a Michigan connection. It airs every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m. (or listen anytime online), on WMUK 102.1 FM, Southwest Michigan's NPR affiliate. I am the host of Between the Lines.

This week's guest: Diane Seuss


Kalamazoo has a well-deserved reputation for being rich in the literary arts. And Diane Seuss is one of the best-known and most loved poetic voices in town. When Seuss gives a reading, the room is usually packed, and the audience often sighs, emits "oohs" and "ahhs," and claps for more. She has also taught many workshops and seminars in local literary circles.

The writer-in-residence at Kalamazoo College launches her third poetry collection in October. It's called Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf Press). Seuss readily credits her friend and mentor, poet and Kalamazoo College professor emeritus Conrad Hilberry, for her success.
“There’s no me without Con,” says Seuss. “When I was 15, I went to a rural high school in Niles. So not even the main high school in town but in Brandywine, out in the cow pasture. Con was a poet in the schools then and he was signed up to go to Niles High School. He’d read a poem of mine that I was naïve enough to send to a contest for which he was the judge. He gave it an honorable mention but he didn’t forget it. He came on his own volition to my high school to find me.”
Having found her, Hilberry told Seuss how much he had enjoyed her poem and asked for more. He also invited her to give a reading with him at the school. The rest, as they say, is history. Seuss was encouraged to pursue a career in writing and to come to Kalamazoo College where, after earning degrees there and at Western Michigan University, she's taught since 1988.
Seuss didn't always write poetry, though. She recalls time in New York writing romance novels and what she politely refers to as “that other genre” for a quick buck when she was young and finding her way.
But it is poetry that's brought Seuss critical and popular acclaim. She's the author of two previous poetry collections: It Blows You Hollow, andWolf Lake, White Gown Blown Open, a winner of the Juniper Prize for Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Best American Poetry 2014, the Georgia ReviewNew Orleans ReviewPoetryThe New Yorker, and elsewhere.
A theme that reappears in her work is the power of femininity.
“And it’s not pink,” Seuss says. When thinking about what feminine power means to her, she says, “The first thing that comes to my mind is ...

Thursday, October 01, 2015

Vibrant Schools, Vibrant City: Will Grand Rapids invest in its future?

Photography by Adam Bird
What’s Best for the Kids

One phrase stuck out in the mind of Larry Oberst, chief financial officer for Grand Rapids Public Schools (GRPS), when he met the new superintendent, Teresa Weatherall Neal. It had become her mantra, and it convinced Oberst that he wanted to work alongside her.

“She kept saying, ‘what’s best for the kids, what’s best for the kids,’” Oberst says. “I realized she meant it. It wasn’t about what was best for her career, or even what was best for the teachers and staff. It’s always been about what’s best for the kids.”

The Grand Rapids school board approved Oberst unanimously in February 2014 as the district’s new CFO, hand-picked by Weatherall Neal. Oberst, who lives in Gaines Township, is the former vice president of finance for Spectrum Health Continuing Care. He’s been in accounting for more than 30 years, a partner for the international accounting and consulting firm, BDO USA, and CFO for Holland Home, a senior care community.

“Working here, it’s been challenging and fun,” Oberst says. “There are a lot of positives going on, and the superintendent has mended many broken fences, but we still need to make a lot of changes.”

Larry Oberst (Photo by Adam Bird)

When Oberst arrived at his new position with GRPS, the third largest employer in Grand Rapids, he found plenty to do. He was on board with Weatherall Neal’s Transformation Plan (see Call it a Comeback, Rapid Growth Media, September 17, 2015) and rolled up his sleeves to continue what he calls “the first attack cost-side.”

“GRPS was still working with an old business model, the same model that’s been used for school systems for the past hundred years,” Oberst says. “To remain relevant in a constantly changing, evolving world, a business model needs to be fluid. When you hear people say, ‘But that’s the way we’ve always done it,’ you know it’s time for a change. Too often, we take the old model and tweak it, but what we need to do is toss it out and begin by asking—if we were starting a new school today, what would it look like?”

One of the first things Oberst noticed in his new position was that the business software in use at GRPS administrative offices was obsolete. He couldn’t find a reliable head count for GRPS students. The old software wasn’t issuing the regular reports he needed to oversee the GRPS budget.

“That’s how we get paid,” he says. “We receive funding per pupil from the state. New technology will get us the data we need to move forward.”

Oberst says he started asking questions that made people uncomfortable, but then—