Reading series author champions regional literature

Sept. 24, 2014 at 6:15 p.m.

I first met Thursday's speaker in 2007 when Ron Riekki submitted a chapter for a book of essays I edited. In our correspondence that followed, I soon learned Riekki was more than a talented critic. He was an equally talented novelist, playwright and poet who wrote truthfully, lovingly and unflinchingly about his native Michigan. His work in literature has taken him across the country and the world, but he has never lost the importance of place in his writing. He continually returns to the familiar territory of Michigan in fiction, drama and poetry. In 2011, I met Riekki in person. We met up to have dinner at a conference in L.A. and spent the next three and a half hours talking about literary matters. Our conversation that night was far-ranging and all-too-short.

Riekki's first novel, "U.P." (2008), follows four rural high schoolers through their misadventures. Riekki's remarkable feat in this novel is his control of style, achieving a distinctive individual voice for each of his four protagonists that is firmly rooted in the language and voice of Michigan. Regional writing like Riekki's is vital to American literature because it represents the particularities of place, time and voice that stem from a specific location. Riekki recently won several awards for his anthology "The Way North" (2014), which collects work from authors featuring Michigan's Upper Peninsula. "The Way North" has led to his anthology, "Here." Due out in 2015, it will focus on women's writing from the Upper Peninsula.

In an effort to promote the writing and writers of his home state, Riekki is a part of the struggle to get the Michigan statehouse to recognize a poet laureate for the first time. Michigan is one of only six states that does not have legislation on the books to name the state's most representative writer. The poet laureate position is vital to recognizing and promoting the literature that best represents a state in a particular time and context. Poets laureate are ambassadors of poetry, lobbyists for literature.

In some states, the poet laureate position is not without contention. Recently, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory caused an uproar in his state's literary community when he appointed a poet laureate without the state's usual advisory process. Amidst the uproar following the appointment, the author he named resigned but not before drawing the attention of the literary establishment nationwide to the issues surrounding poets laureate and their selection. Fortunately, other states take this esteemed literary position much more seriously. Texas has named a poet laureate almost every year since 1933. Recently, poet Dean Young succeeded former UHV/ABR speaker Rosemary Catacalos as the Poet Laureate of Texas.

In an era when many critics have turned toward globalism for relevance and meaning in literature, Riekki suggests the opposite - a turn toward the local. It is local authors who can paint the real texture of a place. There are truths and experiences in a region that are hidden, even to those who live there. Such truths are not the flattened perspective of journalism and news media. Instead, literature offers truths revealed by the depth of psyche in the novel, the soulful examinations of poetry, and the greater human truths held in fiction. The literature of a region allows us to unpack and understand areas of life that are all around us but that often remain obscure to us until a talented author pulls back the veil.

We are truly excited to welcome Riekki to Victoria, a place where regional literature is alive and well in the UHV/ABR Reading Series. The Reading Series has welcomed Texas Poets Laureate Paul Ruffin and Catacalos, as well as regionally notable authors Domingo Martinez, Naomi Nye, Nicolas Kanellos, Bret Anthony Johnston and many others. This is in addition to the poets and writers working in the UHV creative writing program, training the next generation of Crossroads writers - Dagoberto Gilb, Beverly Lowry, Kim Herzinger, Kyle Schlesinger, Diana Lopez, Saba Razvi, Charles Alexander and A.J. Ortega.

On Thursday, Riekki will be reading selections of his own work, as well as discussing the publishing industry from a variety of angles, including marketing, television and print. Please join us at noon in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St., for Riekki's presentation in the UHV/ABR Reading Series.

Jeffrey Sartain is managing editor of American Book Review and an assistant professor of English at the University of Houston-Victoria. He may be contacted at SartainJ@uhv.edu.


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