The Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series (JRVWS) has been a staple of Hope College’s vibrant event list for decades—to the English department and other oncampus writers, at least. While not widely attended or given as much traction or buzz as events such as the Pull or the Nykerk Cup, the JRVWS is a gem tucked away in the calendar’s corners, between SAC movie nights and Coffee Houses. Last Thursday, this season of the Visiting Writer’s Series was thrust into motion with four artists: Linda Nemec Foster, Anne-Marie Oomen, Meridith Ridl, and Matthew Baker. There was a Q&A with the authors in the early afternoon, and a reading and book-signing reception in the evening. A comment Jack Ridl threw out at a reading of “Fresh Water: Women Writing on the Great Lakes” stuck in the minds of Nemec Foster and Oomen. “With all these women, you mean to tell me there’s no Lake Michigan mermaid?” A phone call, an email with a poem or two attached and ten years of collaborative emailing later, “The Lake Michigan Mermaid: ‘A Tale in Poems’” became a reality.
Nemec Foster reflected on their process during the Q&A: they began with a vivid understanding of the two voiced characters, the arcs of the plot easing in as the poetry began to come together. Oomen voices Lykretia; this young girl discovering the water’s mystery on her walks is calculating, speaking of the things she faces both at home and at the “thin blue lip of the blue lake.” Nemec Foster wrote in the voice of the titular mermaid, for whom she coined the name Phyliadellacia, meaning “daughter of the lake.” Drawing from Polish folklore, Native American stories local to the Great shell-sporting ones you think of. She is one with the lake, abstract and elegant in thought and shape. These ideas are enforced by the multi-media artwork done by Meridith Ridl: the mermaid is painted (and sketched, and so on) in new ways, changing color as the light hits the water, shape-shifting in the undertow, never showing a distinct face. Ridl’s palette was exactly in tune with the writers’ visions.
After turning away three illustrators who were too inside-the-box on how to represent a mermaid, they found their illustrator coincidentally in the daughter of Jack Ridl himself. During the reading, her soulful illustrations were projected for the audience, watercolor paintings with pen and colored pencil strokes incorporated throughout. Baker presented from his book “Hybrid Creatures,” a collection of four short stories, each incorporating an “artificial language”: math, music, HTML and logic. In the portion he read, an aging composer got trapped on a roof; for each sound the man heard, a musical indicator flashed by in his brain. Darts on a board were staccato. The muffled street sounds danced below in mezzo-piano. This was not Baker’s first interaction with the JRVWS.
Graduating from Hope in 2008, Baker worked for the series during his studies. He also had classes with Jack Ridl; despite not talking much in class, his former professor had this to say: “Nobody participated in class more than Matt Baker. Nobody … With everything he said, I knew his brain was going somewhere with it.” These four artists have labored to create art worth taking the time to enjoy. Their talks were engaging, personable and insightful to their craft in a way that excited students to continue to explore writing. The next JRVWS event is on November 13, featuring Emily St. John Mandel. Lakes and other sources, the mermaid in this tale is nothing like the conventional