The effluvial literary murk of Steve Hughes

A few weeks ago, Steve Hughes and I met in a neighborhood bar for a happy hour chat. To be more precise, we met in a Hamtramck bar in our neighborhood. Hughes, a writer possessed of uncanny descriptive powers, with much of what he describes occurring in places like this, would probably appreciate that. We live blocks from each other in a neighborhood filled with bars.

More description: two televisions bookend the long barroom inside the Baker Streetcar Bar, so named for, yes, a tram line that once rumbled down the center of Jos. Campau and transported not only laborers to Dodge Main at the south end of town, but could get you downtown or over to the Ford Rouge plant at the Detroit-Dearborn border if you ever needed to go that far west.

We order a pitcher of beer. Then I hear myself saying it would probably be more appropriate to talk about Stupor, Hughes' art-literary project since 1995, at the end of a night of drinking, not at the beginning. "I know," he says, pouring himself a glass of High Life.

We begin our story where no one -- neither Vince Carducci in his review of Washed in Dirt, Hughes' newly published collaboration with art star Matthew Barney nor Freep special writer Anna Clark in this Q&A -- could possibly go: back to the fall of 1995, when I was introduced to Steve by a mutual friend, who told me Hughes and his wife, artist Anne Harrington, were looking for a place to live in this same neighborhood.

"You told me to see the pizza guy, so I went to Amicci's," he says. All I knew about Hughes then was that he had just finished a masters in creative writing at the University of New Orleans, which sounded pretty impressive. I came to learn he was from Ann Arbor originally and attended Hope College in Holland, Michigan. It was there that a serious writing bug bit him, especially after he took advantage of an off-campus study program in New York, where he experienced directly the influence of John Giorno and his poetry systems project. He also got to visit the Bunker, the infamous apartment/subterranean salon of literary lion William S. Burroughs. "He was still alive but had moved to Lawrence, Kansas by the time I got there," Hughes says. 

A few months before I sent him to the pizza guy -- who had some rental properties I thought Hughes might fancy; he didn't, he found another place with another landlord in Hamtramck -- he'd started the zine Stupor in New Orleans with a writing colleague. Since becoming established back up north he's produced Stupor by himself, though with increasing assistance from Detroit fine artists.

The bar is filling up. More pitchers appear at our left and right. Hughes fast-forwards to "around 2000, when I took a break from Stupor for a few years." Hughes and Harrington got busy raising a family. He was also busy painting houses and doing construction work. Over the next few years, I would often see Anne walk the kids to the school around the corner from my house; I would see Steve, splattered in mud or paint, driving home from jobs in the suburbs or Ann Arbor.

A few years later, Hughes began cranking out Stupor once again. Why? "I starting meeting artists, like Mitch (Cope) and Gina (Reichert)," an artist-architect couple who opened Design 99 on Jos. Campau in 2007. "That led to collaborations with other artists over the last five years." Hughes has worked with 15 different artists, many of them grant winners and social innovators like Cope and Reichert, nationally known for their Power House project.

Hughes himself became a Kresge fellow in 2010, soon after producing a handsome Stupor compilation. He met international art star Matthew Barney in Detroit, when Barney was filming his indescribable KHU project in Delray. Hughes was doing construction work on the set when he asked Barney if he would illustrate his next edition of Stupor. He also got a chance to meet Barney's partner Bjork, who was visiting Detroit during the production.

The collaboration with Barney resulted in Washed in Dirt, a 16-page, full-color issue of Stupor. It was printed using money raised via Kickstarter. He describes it as filled with "raw sewage, people floating in effluvial murk, like rivers of shit." Sounds great. He reminds me that the new Stupor is available on the Stupor site, as is the volume of collected works. 

Finishing his last glass of beer Hughes gets up to go. He's a devoted family man, always keeping his happy hour time to around an hour. He has rare discipline as an artist, writer, husband and father. 

He might stay out a bit later on May 12, when Hughes reads from Washed in Dirt at Leopold’s Books, 15 E. Kirby in Midtown. Copies will be on sale for $2. There will be beer.

Read more articles by Walter Wasacz.

Walter Wasacz is a writer and the former managing editor of Model D. You can find more of his writings here.
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