Media Meet in the U.P. is one of the great local PBS TV shows. I come from a rural community, the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the top half of Michigan that has a landmass about the size of Hawaii and Maryland combined. The U.P. is absent from too many maps and when it is included, usually the focus is on the Lower Peninsula.  Maps, when I grew up, if they said Michigan across the state, would always be emblazoned on the lower half, with the U.P. left blank.  The Upper Peninsula has federally recognized tribes in its cities of Brimley, Baraga, Watersmeet, Sault Ste. Marie, and Wilson and people who work the mines that create the materials for the auto industry and more.  I often view the amnesia and absence of the U.P. in Michigan discussions as having a blend of anti-indigenous, anti-rural, anti-working class subtext.  Maybe I read too much into it.  Maybe not enough.

This year the top four U.P. Poet Laureate finalists included Marty Achatz, Kathleen Heidemann, Saara Myrene Raappana, and Sally Brunk.

Sally is Lac du Flambeau Ojibwa, Bear Clan.  The last time I met with her, on the Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College campus, she was a reflection of peace, an Anishinaabe sky.

Saara grew up all over the U.P.—in the Sault, Rudyard, Menominee, Palmer, and Suomi (a town so small it’s not even included on mapquest, no matter how much I push the + sign until the U.P. map on my screen only contains grey-white).  She is a nomad, part of her Finnish roots, like me, with my border-transcendent Saami and Karelian blood.

Kathleen grew up on a farm, which she sums up on the show in two words: “Hard work.”  When she speaks, it is often about the Earth, the earth, from her heart.

Marty is working-class in his roots.  Of his U.P. mining-community childhood, he says, “I remember the red dirt, and how it just got on everything.”

Marty continues, “My family’s home was right by a mine and so at three o’clock everyday as I was walking home from school all these cars would come blowing by with all the miners coming from there, and so that just really stuck with me, that kind of cyclical thing during the day and, you know, how in Negaunee sometimes at a certain time there’s the mine’s explosions where the whole town sort of quivers.”

I remember those sounds, that shaking, the earthquakes for iron ore.

My grandfather’s finger and hearing were given to the mines.  His life was given to the mines.  My uncle is still owned by the mines, addicted to the mines, wrinkled from the mines.

You can feel the ore in the poetry up here.

You can hear the mines in the voices.

There is lake in their stanzas.

Rural demeanors.

Watching Marty and Kathleen and reading Saara and Sally and thinking of what they all have to say to the world, I feel proud of my U.P. roots, despite the misperceived nothingness of my existence, of its existence, of our existence.

I am still struggling.  Work is a forever search.  I’m a mining child still.  But I learned to speak, raised in the library of Negaunee, in the small community theater of Negaunee, in the woods with their lyrical birds in Negaunee, wandering the graveyard’s poetry in Negaunee, so that even unemployed I am still alive and vocal and forcing myself to be heard.

And, at the end of Media Meet, when it is announced that Marty Achatz is the official Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate 2017-2018 to his surprise, I am literally teary, literarily teary, with a burst of happiness, watching Marty turn red as the ground from glee and embarrassment and shock and love.


Ron Riekki

Ron Riekki

Ron Riekki’s books include U.P.: a novel, The Way North: Collected Upper Peninsula New Works, and Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.