Pioneer teacher, author and poet releases new book of short stories

‘Knuckleheads’ designed to encourage young male students to read

By Carlina Duan
AAPSNews Service

Weekday afternoons, you’ll find students in Creative Writing classroom C-331 at Pioneer High School huddled over notebooks, scribbling down lines and lyric, or circled together reading their pieces aloud for peer feedback.

You’ll also hear a dynamic voice booming from the teacher’s desk, the owner of the voice nodding his head to the rhythm of students’ words; delving into writing prompts with clear energy and purpose. That voice belongs to Jeff Kass: Creative Writing teacher at Pioneer, poet, Yankees fan, Literary Arts director at the Neutral Zone, and, more recently, author of a new collection of short stories called “Knuckleheads,” due for release from Dzanc Books this week.

A release party for “Knuckleheads”  will be hosted at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 31 at The Neutral Zone, 310 E. Washington St., Ann Arbor. The free event will feature readings by Kass, as well as performances by youth poets and musicians. Copies of “Knuckleheads”  will also be available for sale for $16.95 each, with a student discount of $12. He is also scheduled for a “meet the author” event at Nicola’s Books at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 27. Nicola’s is at Jackson and Maple roads in the Westgate Shopping Center.

Kass, a well-known literary figure in the Ann Arbor community, is the author of two novels and several books of poetry, yet “Knuckleheads” is his first collection of short stories. Kass describes the book as “my first debut publishing effort that’s more of a major endeavor.”

The book includes ten short stories showcasing the lives and struggles of true knuckleheads, a term Kass describes as “something in between an insult and a term of endearment.”

The word knucklehead is one of Kass’s favorites, and he tags the expression as a somewhat optimistic one. By using the term, he said, “you’re telling somebody you’re doing something kind of stupid right now, but you’re not necessarily saying you’re a stupid and hopeless case.

Jeff Kass and students
Pioneer High Creative Writing students Andrew Inwood, John Wurster and Doug Crockett with teacher Jeff Kass. "Knuckleheads," his new compilation of short stories, was released this week.

“What you’re saying is that whatever you’re doing right now, you need to figure out a better way to live your life – but there’s hope for you to do that. And in each of these stories, there’s a character who’s trying to figure that out.”

The knuckleheads in his book represent a diverse group of all male characters – ranging from an elementary school playground-hopper to a high school wrestler to a hopeful father; with a satisfying array of teachers, husbands, and brothers thrown into the mix. Yet one quality the characters all share is their bizarre thirst to steer through life and its pelting curveballs.

Each story in the book represents a stage in “knuckleheadedness,” Kass said. “(All these characters) are in that place where they make a lot of dumb mistakes, but there’s still hope for them to (improve) their lives. They don’t always get there, and sometimes, their decisions are so misdirected they don’t even know what ‘better’ is,” he laughed. “But I don’t think knuckleheadedness totally disappears when you get older. It just comes up in different forms.”

Kass admits that though none of the stories in the book detail any occurrences in his personal life, there are some characters who were inspired by his experiences. “There’s a lot of seeds that come from my own ,” he said. “I plant (these seeds) in the soil of my own imagination, and grow something entirely different from them. Maybe there’s a situation that’s similar to something that occurred when I was a kid or adult that I was a part of or witnessed, but then it becomes something entirely different.

“Ultimately what blossoms is almost completely made up.”

Kass spent about four years writing and editing the book. Between teaching, working as the Literary Arts director at the Neutral Zone, and balancing family life, Kass believes finding the time to work on Knuckleheads was his biggest challenge to publishing the book. “It takes a lot of focus and energy to write the stories and edit the stories,” he noted, “But it’s pretty exciting. I feel like, for a long time, I was writing a lot of stuff out in the wilderness, not getting feedback. Now, it’s just exciting to feel like some of this work is paying off.”

‘I feel like, for a long time, I was writing a lot of stuff out in the wilderness, not getting feedback. Now, it’s just exciting to feel like some of this work is paying off. – Jeff Kass, ‘Knuckleheads’ author

The target audience of the book was sparked by Kass’s teaching experiences, and his desire to see more of the male students in his class become engaged in reading. “I just wanted to write something that I thought would reach out to them, where they could see a little more of themselves (in the characters) and hopefully think more about why it’s worthwhile to read,” he said.

Additionally, Kass hopes that “Knuckleheads” will introduce student readers to a fresh genre of literature. “I think high school students in general don’t really read short stories on their own, and since I know I can reach out to a lot of high school readers in a way, I’m saying, ‘Here’s a new genre that you can try. Maybe you don’t have time to read a whole novel, but you can have half an hour to read a story,’ and in a way, introduce them to the genre of contemporary short story.”

Some of his characters are high school age male protagonists. Many of Kass’s own students of the same demographic have already displayed interest in reading the book.

Senior Adam DesJardins, a student in Kass’s Creative Writing class, said he plans to read it. “It sounds really interesting. I think I’m definitely going to read it. I know a lot of his poetry, but not a lot of his prose, so it’ll be cool to see that part of his work.”

DesJardins said he thinks it will have an impact. “I think it’s a really good thing that Kass is publishing his work,” he said. “I’ve noticed in class that a bunch of young people, usually male students, don’t like to read aloud. They don’t like to let people in as much per say. So this— it’s pretty inspirational.”

Kass expresses mixed feelings about the book release, which is officially Friday, April 1, according to the Dzanc Books website.

“It’s really scary to have a book – a collection – that’s been years in the works – come out. I’ve been working on this collection for essentially four years, and to have it come out… maybe it’s not going to sell, maybe nobody’s going to like it, thinking about that is really scary,” he said, “On the other hand, I think it’s exciting to think about creating these stories essentially out of nothing, and having a book of them that somebody will sit down and read and maybe affect their lives in some way.”

Above all, Kass expresses hope to motivate his students to read more through the book’s release.

“I guess, in my heart, I really, really want those kids in my class – those dudes who hide in their sweatshirts – to pick this thing up and read it. And I hope the general audience will like it, too,” he said. “I hope they get a few laughs out of it, and I hope the stories make them think.”

And, he said, he hopes his male students find it helpful. “Sometimes I just feel like I want the boys in my classes to be happier,” he added. “I want them to appreciate that they’re allowed to screw up and do really good things, and grow into really good people; and I want them to forgive themselves a little bit more, smile a little bit more. Hopefully this book will let them do that.”

Carlina Duan is a senior at Pioneer High School and editor of The Optimist, Pioneer’s student newspaper. She contributes regularly to the AAPSNews.

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