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A Detroit Poet and Her City as Muse

Rhonda Welsh knows Detroit and its devilish side. After all, this urban poet grew up in the city and still lives here. She's no fool. She has watched the television shows, read the newspaper headlines, heard the radio broadcasts. The bad stuff? It's mostly true.

But so are the moments of beauty, peace, discovery, quiet contemplation. From her perspective, the world doesn't change when you cross the border from Detroit to the suburbs. She can see Southfield and Farmington Hills from her house – and those places have the same strengths, the same struggles. To her, it's all Detroit, and it's all good. (More on See pictures of the remains of Detroit)

“I live on the West side. I definitely don't want to gloss over the problems here because I see them and I'm aware of them,” Welsh said. “But I'm surrounded by families, kids taking lessons, people fixing dinner, people going out and about. So, sometimes, when you watch the news and you see how Detroit is depicted, it's hard for me to understand.”

That is where poetry comes in. It is one of the ways Welsh deciphers what is around her, the epiphanies of everyday life.

Here's one thing she's learned: Detroiters keep going. They take the best of what's given to them and run with it. Sure, they are impacted by the negative, the noise, the neglect. But most just keep going. So she might have had to step over broken glass to get to the library. She did it, and she read until she was full. (More on See TIME's special report "The Committee To Save Detroit")

“Of of the things that inspires me is the driven in this city,” Welsh said. “There is such an artistic scene – there's the Detroit Institute of Arts. There's the Kresge Foundation (giving grants and fellowships). There's a strong underground movement. … If we don't have something, we make it up. … I'd like to think I have my foot in all of those worlds.”

Welsh just wrote her first book of poetry: “Red Clay Legacy.” Her parents inspired the title. They are from Georgia, and her father came here to work in the Ford plant in 1954. Everyone thought they should come North because it would be wonderful here. … And it really wasn't that much better, Welsh said. It was harder to survive, family values were lost and there were lots of lonely latchkey kids.

Words, spoken and written, became her hideaway. Her influences were many: Gil Scott Heron, Phoebe Snow, Langston Hughes and Nikki Giovanni. So was her life around Detroit: the Michigan State Fair, Eight Mile, Eastern Market, Belle Isle. (More on See 10 things to do in Detroit)

Her family had its struggles, too. Her parents thought she was crazy to want to be a poet, so she kept it largely hidden. She graduated from college, got her degrees, got jobs. She tried public relations, and it stuck. One layoff turned her back onto poetry – and jobs related to writing. Suddenly, she was a working poet. She recently found a home at the College for Creative Studies, and they understand her and her passion for writing.

“Art is a job. That's something that people don't get. There's a creative part, and that's the part that's amazing,” Welsh said.

Her poetry collection is about her early life, her spiritual life, her marriage and now. It is one part poetry and one part memoir. There is a poem about Detroit – about how Detroit has been her only home. For so long, Welsh wanted out. In fact, she compares herself to George Bailey from “It's a Wonderful Life,” always thinking elsewhere was an escape. (More on See a TIME special on how Detroit lost its way)

“Every time I tried to leave this city, it never happened. So I thought about it, and I decided something. I'm still here, so I should try to impact change,” Welsh said.

Like many others, she assumed Detroit was a dead end. Instead, she realizes it is alive and needs a little patience to get it right this time.

“You keep hearing the city is dying, but we keep going,” Welsh said.


My Only Home
By Rhonda Welsh

Detroit is my only home.
Child of the west side...
Majestic, Puritan, Elmhurst,
Linwood, Plymouth, Eight Mile

All the while
craved a
different existence
but finally realized
Detroit is who I am.

Good students teased for acting too white
while the suburbs scream too black.
Neighborhoods who know no lack
always labeled poor.

Detroit was once much more than…

Dirty streets. Corrupt politicians.
Perverted superstitions
make some people treat books
like bad ju ju.

But my Detroit is not that simple…

Kind-hearted hustlers work day and night.
Make a dollar out of fifteen cents.
The auto industry came and went
but true Detroiters always make it work.

Saturday greens from Eastern Market
and a new hat from Mr. Song.
You can't go wrong on Sunday mornings
shouting and rocking
until the blues melt away.

Detroiters always seek
a brand new day.

Even our skyline boasts a Renaissance.

And the summer…

Caribbean Picnic on Belle Isle,
Moonlit concerts at Campus Martius,
and greasy fish fingers
clap to the beat
with sandal clad feet
at the African World Festival.

Poetry is everywhere.
Music Hall, Scarab Club, 1515 Broadway,
even at the Y-M-C-A.

Detroit is no longer in its heyday,
but its days are not finished yet.

There is much more life.
More pride runs through the veins.
Soon the activists must rise and take the reins.

Restore what has been lost.
No longer give thought
to those who diss and dismiss.

It is not a wasteland.
There are families here.

Educators, doctors, lawyers,
butchers, bakers,
yes, even candlestick makers reside in Detroit.

Shake off depleted self-esteem
that hangs over the city like a cloud.
Shout the city's praises out loud
and recognize its worth.

Induce the new birth.
Invoke that migrant spirit
transplanted from red earth.

Don't let it die an unnatural death.
Purge the dross and rebuild the best.

Detroit is the only home I've ever known.

©Rhonda Welsh 2010
from the book Red Clay Legacy

See more from TIME's yearlong look at Detroit

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Comments (3)
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  • 1

    What a wonderful profile exposing a sprinkling of Detroit gems from a true Detroit gem, poet Rhonda Welsh. Thanks you for sharing with the world our true treasure.

  • 2

    Nice poetic touch. For a more Bruising view by another local poet, read STINK, by M Durfee. It will shock ,and perhaps, amaze!

  • 3

    I look out my front door and see Detroit. North, South, East, West--all Detroit. I've looked out my front door for 56 years and that is what I have seen.

    As a poet I can respect Ms. Welsh but this piece in particular is only the view from a single perspective, Detroit has more ways to see things than the eye on a fly.

    Migrants came here from many more places than the red clay earth of Georgia. Not that I find the imagery offensive just short sighted. Detroit was built by Jews, French, Irish, Poles, Arabs, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics, Transplanted southerners of both races. All deserve both blame and credit for what we are and where we were.

    Yet in glossing over the right now with a hope that at the moment in the dream stage is not looking at reality, You can throw a coat of paint on a moldy wall and it looks OK until the mold grows through the new paint.

    That hope has been Detroit's downfall for nearly 5 decades now. We look for a better tomorrow instead of making today better.

    Really a hustler changing 15 cents to a dollar? The image is pure beggar, can collector, homeless squatter? How is that an image I am supposed to look to and see hope in?

    I find it better to dialogue with my neighbors and kids who live on the same block I live on and question them in their use of language and attitude towards where they live. Most of whom have no sense of history of Detroit because they have moved so many times.

    I write poetry and have been probably writing far longer than Ms. Welsh has been alive but the biggest difference is I don't try to paint a picture of hope when a dose of reality is what is called for.

    Hope can come when there is not vacant land equal to the size of the city of Boston sitting unused except as dumping grounds or returning to wildlife habitat. Because that will mean, when that day has arrived, that the people who still live here have done something for ourselves instead of waiting (still) for the Downtown improvements made to enhance profits for corporations with large tax abatement's to reach 8 mile road.


    Mark Durfee

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