REVIEW: In the Heights

It’s been some time since I’ve studied art history, but I remember one of the first things I learned about looking at a composition is the way the eye is directed to move around the piece of art. During nearly every musical number of In the Heights, I found my eyes moving around it in a way that felt deliberate – and I was unstoppably stunned the entire time.

From its very first scene with Graffiti Pete dancing, spray-paint can in hand and somehow defying all sorts of gravity, I don’t think my jaw left the floor. It was an excellent primer for the choreography of the rest of the show. During intermission, I flipped through the program and was equally stunned to learn that this show had two debuting choreographers in its cohort. Needless to say, those involved in the show radiated their talent into one of the best MUSKET shows that I’ve seen. The main cast and ensemble had near-perfect unison in their group movements while keeping their voices strong and smooth. A hallmark of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musicals, I enjoyed the incorporation of rap and hip hop and loved that the actors also seemed to enjoy it.

The cast, primarily actors of color, seemed made for the roles — especially Usnavi. While this was my first introduction to the musical itself, I felt that his casting could not have been more perfect as the bodega owner close-knit with those around him. Additionally, his character was such a centrally driving factor of the show’s main themes: community and the familial support that comes of it, and sense of identity in terms of the idea of “home” as an immigrant. The show also explored themes of being a first-generation college student, gentrification, cultural identity, and past versus future with the turbulent present that lies in between.

Cast and director Bruna d’Avila answering audience questions following the Saturday performance.

Following the show — which made me laugh, cry, and be completely astounded — I stuck around for the talkback with the cast and director Bruna d’Avila. As a senior and having seen 6/8 of the MUSKET shows put on during my undergrad career, I hadn’t experienced an addition like this and was excited to hear their insights. Several other impressed viewers (from high schoolers in a theatre group to adults who have emigrated from Latin American countries) sat around me and praised the crew for doing incredible work to highlight a story to which they expressed their personal relations to and respective admiration for the show. Stories such as these are beyond what I personally have experienced, though I felt grateful that a show such as this one exists for those whose stories it mirrors as well as a method for others to better understand these complicated notions of home and new life in America.

When asked about her favorite musical number of In the Heights, d’Avila excitedly spoke about “Carnaval del Barrio” and the importance of waving your flag proudly. This was a number with which I was also enamored both because of the cast displaying flags of specific Latin American countries and because it was one of those numbers full of complexity. Several lines of verse from its main characters worked into and beside one another as the song concluded, and I found my attention moving from one to the next in a circular pattern before realizing just how inimitable this scene was as a climactic moment.

The ending scene of musical number “Carnaval del Barrio”

There was not one part of this show that I disliked — every cast member appeared devoted to their roles and it showed. Each named character had their own arcs, even the piragua vendor/comic relief, Piragüero. Similar to the works of authorial genius Victor Hugo, the characters were interconnected with one another in a way that made the show feel well-rounded, as opposed to restricting certain characters to certain storylines. Everybody knew each other, which made the sense of community and family (which are not mutually exclusive) especially strong.

MUSKET has kept my attention all four years that I have been here, and I have made it a point to see as many of their shows as possible. Each of those shows have left me feeling impressed and grateful that such a talented group of people can become a familial community over a short span of time for a weekend of performance that blows us all away. If you also love musical theatre and are interested in getting involved with the team, the MUSKET family is always welcoming of new members.

REVIEW: Nell David & Franny Choi

On Friday night, the Helmut Stern Auditorium of UMMA was a small and cozy literary haven away from the museum’s After Hours event beginning upstairs. Though I attended alone, several Zell MFA friend groups and writer-enthusiasts (and probably writers themselves) around me gathered and giggled while we all waited for fiction writer Nell David* and poet Franny Choi to take the stage. The atmosphere was excited and comfortable.

In the tenth installment of its kind, two current MFA students emceed this year’s Webster Reading series. David was the first to read, and one of the emcees read her introduction: at an AWP conference in Washington, DC, the two strolled from table to table finding magazines in which David’s work was published. In each, her last name was different – a detail that interested me from the get-go of the evening. “At age 25, she was writing better fiction than people five years out of their MFA programs and didn’t give a damn about the name she put on it,” the emcee joked.

David, or [redacted] as they had also earlier joked, took the stage with the first few pages of a short story called “Joyce is Better Now.” The story was about a single mother whose son had just moved out for his first year of college, and how she fell in love with a doctor she had been seeing. While I’ve been paying more attention to poetry than fiction these days, I was still struck by her characters and how she moved through the piece. Characters, notably Joyce herself, were relatable yet given realistic and unique voices. I was reminded of life itself as they focused on small desires in a big world: two themes I noticed were those desires of finding honesty in already friendly relationships and being candid yet kind. Her reading style was confident and reserved, and I appreciated that she laughed at a funny line of her own. The excerpt she read gave us just enough information that we didn’t get the entire story, but wanted to know what happened next and how Joyce’s endeavors turned out.

Next was Choi, introduced by a different student (I think – or peer). He introduced her personality as a poet and commended her talents: “Saying that you’re a famous poet is like saying you’re a famous mushroom. Franny is the morel of poets.”

I’ve seen videos of Choi doing slam poetry a few years before, but this was a new experience. Slam poetry usually consists of some storytelling with sounds written to be heard on stage alongside movement, and I could sense those sounds echoing in her work within wordplay and patterns that I wouldn’t have expected. Sound aside, the images evoked were abundant and worked into one another while working together and alongside one another – stunning. She spoke with her hands and read so confidently, too, which also made me think of spoken word and slam poetry trends. Again, I was struck by the writing, especially as a poet myself.

Her first work that she read was from a collection about conducting a Turing Test on herself to see whether she’s actually a robot, though she read different poems thereafter (including one I’ve seen recently, “On the Night of the Election”). Before reading “You’re So Paranoid,” she noted that she’d never read it aloud before, and took a short pause before starting. That small moment was so beautiful, and I wondered whether she was considering the best way to read it, or whether she was capturing the moment for herself and the poem. Another intriguing piece she read was partially in response to the conversation about allowing neo-nazis speak on campus and a video wherein Richard Spencer used an image of her face, “The Cyborg Watches a Video of a Neo-Nazi Saying Her Name.” I liked how she bookended her reading, ending with a piece called (and reading the title in a voice that reminded me of an AI voice) “So, How Do You Like Working with Humans?”

Something that I appreciated about her reading lineup was that she interspersed poems about the aforementioned collection with others unrelated to it, but still managed to flow from one to the next cohesively. It was well-rounded and full of incredible work.

There was lots of writer’s confidence in the auditorium that evening, which extended to me, and for which I was grateful. I encourage y’all to read and support these talented writers as well as those who share the community here in Ann Arbor and beyond – or at least attend an MFA reading at some point.

*I wanted to include links to Nell David’s work in this review, but had some trouble finding her online and would appreciate any located links in the comments!

PREVIEW: Nell David & Franny Choi

As part of the Mark Webster Reading Series (affiliated with the Helen Zell MFA Writing program of UM and its second-year students), fiction writer Nell David and poet Franny Choi will be sharing a stage and reading their own selected works. David is a writer from Washington, DC. Choi is a published poet and editor of Hyphen, a literary magazine. This event is free and open to the public.

The series is praised for being a warm and relaxed setting full of literary energy. As a creative writing student and poet myself, I’m really excited to attend!

Date: March 16th, 2018
Time: 7-8pm
Location: UMMA Helmut Stern Auditorium


On a sunny Sunday, I ventured down Liberty — past Main — to the Ann Arbor Art Center. Despite being my first time venturing upstairs, it was my second-ever visit. Both times, natural light and kind staff have made the space feel open and inviting. The first floor was comprised mainly of their shop behind a small gallery space of artworks for sale, but stairs in the middle of the room invited me to see the exhibition space in their 117 Gallery. This juried exhibition was media-focused, displaying drawings from multiple different styles and perceptions.


I never really know the best direction in which to roam around a gallery, but there were only two other visitors there that afternoon, so I had some freedom. The first artwork I saw was a large, colorful piece that had received honorable mention: Scott Teplin’s mixed media piece Big School. I remembered seeing it on the AAAC website, but in person, the colors were much more vibrant and the large piece encapsulated much detail.

There were some more traditional pieces, such as John McKaig’s Blind Crown, a large-scale colored pencil piece full of exquisite drapery. Often enamored by drapery studies from both a viewer and artist perspective, it became one of my favorites.

Detail of “Blind Crown”

Beside it, a 3D-drawing pen and plant-based resin sculpture by Lavinia Hanachiuc named Silkie3 hung with its shadow close by on the wall. It didn’t take very long to notice the depths of the variety in style from piece to piece, and I quickly began to realize that I was getting an indirect lesson in the possibilities of drawing as a media. While there wasn’t an every-other order from the traditional to “experimental” styles (for lack of a more accurate descriptor), there was a nice shift from framed pieces to installation-types every so often.

The gallery space flows from windowless to brightly sunlit-spaces, though I enjoyed all of the shadows created of the three-dimensional pieces no matter the light source. I never thought about the corners of galleries until I noticed Larry Cressman’s Drawing (Into a Corner 10) installation drawing, composed of teasel, graphite, matte, medium, and pinsi — seemingly created to be shown in a corner. It sticks out, drawing attention to itself, though somehow also seemed reserved…an element that I enjoyed.

“Drawing (Into a Corner 10)”

Aside from final results of drawing, an exhibited piece was a drawer itself. The center of the room boasts a robot drawing machine by Ashley Pigford, available for demonstration with the assistance of AAAC staff. I didn’t end up using it, but I’d be interested in seeing its results.

As far as the gallery space itself, I liked that it was on the second floor because it felt like a more personal and unsupervised first experience with the art on show. There was no pressure to react in any specific ways, which I sometimes sense when viewing galleries with a staff member nearby or passersby peering in through a window. The sunlit section was more inviting than the other space flowing into it, but that’s absolutely a personal bias and not related to the exhibition itself. I attended alone on a particularly quiet afternoon, but it would be a fun outing with friends as well. It was also a nice chance to see works done by artists affiliated with the Ann Arbor arts community, outside of the university bubble.

This gallery visit was kind and eye-opening with simple displays of a wide range of works. I highly recommend a visit! It’s free and open to the public, and if you’re an interested art-buyer, many of these works are for sale. On March 16th from 5-7pm, the day before the exhibit ends, AAAC is hosting a happy hour as one of the final chances to see Art Now: Drawing. There will be refreshments and an interactive drawing activity — if it’s with the robot, I want to see results! Otherwise, gallery hours are below.



Venturing just slightly beyond the bubble of UM, one can find the Ann Arbor Art Center, a nonprofit organization home to local art and rotating exhibitions. The current exhibition is “ART NOW: Drawing” — one focused on particular media and the fourth annual of its kind, exploring conventional and less traditional types of drawing.

For more information, check out their website.

Or, wander down Liberty and check it out!

Dates: Showing through March 17th, 2018
Location: Ann Arbor Art Center’s 117 Gallery
117 W. Liberty St.
Gallery Hours:

REVIEW: Poets at Michigan, Then and Now

On Friday, April 7th, natural light filled the Rogel Ballroom as poetry enthusiasts gathered to learn about the UM poetry scene from the 20th century to now. Because I only attended two out of the three panels of the symposium, I will only be reviewing those two: “The Middle Years” and “The Art Continues: Contemporary Michigan Poets.” This symposium intended to highlight the history of poets at the University of Michigan (not just poets from the state) and where that history has brought us.

The Middle Years panel consisted of poet and current professor Laurence Goldstein, former professor John Knott, and the illustrious multi-genre writer and funeral home director Thomas Lynch. Current professor Cody Walker introduced the panel. Goldstein began the panel by discussing the “middle” history of poets at UM from Theodore Roethke to Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon. He opened with a poem by Anne Stevenson titled “Ann Arbor,” fittingly. He read mostly from his notes but clearly loves this subject and showed excitement about previous poets from here. He mused on Roethke never turning his coursework in until the very end of the semester and on Robert Hayden’s “proletarian poetry.” A notable closing quote from his portion: “You don’t have to be an English major to write great poetry.”

Next, Knott (who filled in for current poet XJ Kennedy, who originally was going to speak at the event) talked about the poetry of Roethke and Hayden as well as beginning the segue into today’s poetry scene. He read Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz” and Hayden’s “Those Winter Sundays,” both hallmarked poems about their respective fathers from their childhood perspectives. He discussed them in the context in which he taught these poems: thinking about their tones and complexity of the emotions and relationships. Before Lynch stood to talk, Knott finished his discussion by honoring the Helen Zell MFA program and comparing the old poetry scene to today’s, which is now lively and full of readings. He was also excited to be there and talk about our historical poets.

Lynch’s section was mostly him telling stories relevant to the middle years of UM poetry – he started by telling a recent one about his experience at the Russian Bathhouse with other writers. While he didn’t necessarily discuss specific MI poets, his stories were highly entertaining. He also noted (several times) the importance of buying books of living poets, gesturing to the Literati vendor in the back of the ballroom. His section and this panel ended with him reading his “unfinished and failing” poem, “Heaney-esque.”

Thomas Lynch telling his stories

The third panel was incredible: poets Jamaal May (who filled in for Tarfia Faizullah), Airea D. Matthews (filling in for Vievee Francis), and Laura Kasischke each read from their own works. This panel was a reading, so it gave a different energy than the previous panel and was a great end to a poet-filled day. Keith Taylor, poet and current director of the Creative Writing subconcentration, introduced this panel and told stories about each of the reading panelists.

Keith Taylor introducing Jamaal May, Airea D. Matthews, and Laura Kasischke

May began with some politically charged pieces and kept reading from his latest collection Big Book of Exit Strategies including pieces such as “I Have this Way of Being,” “There are Birds Here” (his famous Detroit poem, which he had memorized), “As the Saying Goes,” and “The Gun Joke.” He read a few pieces from his other collection Hum before closing with saying “I’ll never stop marvelling at the fact that people sit still while they listen to what’s in my head” and reading his poem “Now for My Last Trick.”

Jamaal May

Matthews began her section by discussing the return to representation and pattern-making. She read from her very new and very beautiful collection, Simulacra including: “Epigraph,” “On Meeting Want for the First Time,” “From the Pocket of His Lip,” “Rebel Opera,” “Letters to My Would Be on Dolls and Repeating” (probably my favorite), “Narcissus Tweets,” and “If My Late Grandmother Were Gertrude Stein.” Her poetry was poignant and emotion/language-driven, with an amazing focus on images. Some pieces had conversation threaded throughout. She explained that the last one began as a facebook status and informed the crowd that poets can start anywhere. She’s right.

Airea D. Matthews

Kasischke started the last reading by bringing up Frank O’Hara, a UM poet from the middle years, and how she didn’t hear anyone else discuss his work. She read his poem “Animals” before going into some of her funny and energetic, older poems. “You can’t swing a baguette in Ann Arbor without hitting a great poet,” she mused. Because she is a Michigan native and went to UM for several years, she said “When I die, they’ll have to mix my ashes with the cement and put it in a parking structure.” As for the poems she read: “Woman Kills Sweetheart with Bowling Ball” (inspired by a newspaper article by the same title), “Praying Mantis in My Husband’s Salad,” “Something You Should Know,” “What I Learned in 9th Grade,” “Two Men & A Truck,” “Time Machine,” and “Memory.”

Laura Kasischke

Each reading was incredible and I wouldn’t be surprised if the poets in the audience went home directly afterwards to write poetry inspired by what they had heard that afternoon. While the Middle Years panel taught us about older poets in more of a mini-lecture form, the third panel’s conglomerate of contemporary poetry was a great ending to the afternoon. If you’d like to learn more about poets at Michigan, consider taking Cody Walker’s English 340 course on the topic this fall semester.