It’s 4:30 p.m. on a Thursday at a dive bar in Hamtramck, Michigan. Nobody is seeking anything. The evening hangs in suspended animation, slowly atomizing the hopes of the day to make room for the coming bad decisions. It’s June, but the twinkle of the Christmas lights above the shelves of booze prick the darkness of the bar’s interior. An older couple sits and talks quietly in the corner. A few regulars sit at the bar and stare into their glasses, as the bartender thumbs listlessly on his iPhone. This is the intermission. It’s the space in between, and we are all happy to soak in some solitude before the night has its way with us. I find myself a spot at the end of the bar to sit and wait. I’m noticed. I know it. I’m clearly not from here. But nobody cares and nobody’s curious. I’ve casually feigned familiarity with the place and ordered myself a PBR. A quick scan tells me that you drink your beer from a can here, so I do the same.
Suddenly, the front door jumps open with a blast of daylight and Steve Hughes walks in. The sun etches an outline around his lean figure. The light tangles with the billowing soot that beats up from his work boots. Steve is a writer, but he’s covered in dust. It’s the day job, working construction that clings to him. From the waist up, he’s all cerebral with sharp eyes gleaming from behind his glasses, but from the waist down, it’s Dickie’s work pants and heavy construction boots. The door slams shut again and the bar returns to its dull electric hum.
Steve publishes a literary zine called Stupor. It’s the longest running zine in Detroit. I had sent him an email telling him I was coming to town and that I wanted to meet up with him. He had agreed, but was very firm about the time and place: Hamtramck, between 4:30 and 5:30. I guess this was after work but before he went home to his family, during the intermission. He pulled into the bar stool beside me and ordered himself a PBR. Steve was cool; a nice guy, good to talk to. We’re both dads so that was an instant connection point. The thing is, as we were talking we were also drinking. Syd Barrett’s playing on the jukebox, and I wasn’t about to whip out a notepad and start scribbling. I’m playing it cool.
We talk and we drink. This is the theme of Stupor and the catalyst to Steve’s literary practice. Steve tells me that his stories start as conversations with strangers in bars. He listens and later he writes it all wrong. Those are his words. As he explains it, sometimes he does a better job at drinking than he does at remembering, so he’s got to put new skin on the stories later. I take this philosophy to heart and just sit back and let the conversation wash over me. Steve had invited me into his world and now I need to operate in it.
As we drink, I listen to Steve talk. He tells me about his writing process. He wakes up at 4 a.m. so that he can write in peace before his family gets up and he’s got to go to work. That’s what real writers do. He tells me about the time that Matthew Barney came to town to shoot his film “River of Fundament” and hired him and a whole bunch of the local guys to help produce the project. I guess Steve is pretty good at getting things done, so he was called again to work on another Barney project entitled “KHU.” He convinced Barney to art direct his next issue of Stupor called “Washed in Dirt.” I see why Barney did it. Steve is credible, the real deal. I give Barney credit for recognizing a fellow true artist among his cadre of production hires.
We talked for a while longer and drank more beer. I shot some pictures of Steve by the light from the back door, but generally just tried not to make him feel uncomfortable. I went home and read through an issue of Stupor. It’s some of the damn finest writing I’ve read in a long time. I set my alarm for 4 a.m. intending to wake up early and write down what Steve and I had talked about. I slept through the alarm so you’ll have to forgive me for writing it all wrong.
RA: When did Stupor start?
SH: Stupor zine started in New Orleans in 1995. When I moved back to Detroit, it moved with me. It’s morphed a little bit over the years and I’ve taken some breaks, but my process has stayed basically the same. I hang out in bars, I drink and I listen. I listen to people’s true stories and later I write them down. The problem is my prowess at drinking is sometimes better than my prowess for remembering. The stories come to me in a skeletal form. Later, I put skin on them. When I’m happy with the stories, I give them to a local artist who will create visuals to go with the stories and I publish it as Stupor.
RA: What is Public Pool?
SH: It’s an art cooperative that I formed in 2010 with my wife and some other people. I show artists work there, mostly people from around the area and other artists that I meet. My favorite thing we have there is a reading group called Good Tyme Writers Buffet.
RA: What’s Good Tyme Writers Buffet?
SH: It’s my version of the perfect way to hear writers read. We potluck. We drink beers. A DJ spins, and then six writers read for ten-ish minutes each. It’s not exactly rapid fire, but there’s a whole lot coming at you in a short time frame. It’s relaxed. It’s cool and I curate it with a variety of readers.