The Hibiscus Collective

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Fabu

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 27, 2015

As a poet who is African American, the very act of writing poetry creates change. I write to encourage, inspire and remind. My specific historical context and skin color coupled with writing poetry about the reality of many Africans (from the continent and the Diaspora) automatically ignites change because the majority of people in the world do not know the truth about me, my people or our contributions to the world, especially to the United States.

My poetry in Wisconsin asserts that peace, justice, and real community all have to be connected to truth.  In the pursuit of this truth, I helped to found The Hibiscus Collective (for multiethnic women) and A Place at the Table (for women artists seeking to have their voices heard in the world). We still pick up anthologies entitled Wisconsin poetry, or Midwestern poetry and don’t see our voices represented. We write because we must not be silent or silenced.

There are international, national, and state issues right now that are causing people to die unjustly. Stopping the death of human beings becomes an immediate, critical issue that should move straight to the top of our concern, advocacy and poetry.

Fabu is a past poet laureate of Madison, Wisconsin. Pictured above is The Hibiscus Collective in 2010 with (from left to right) Rakina Muhammed, Blanca Cruz, Fabu, Nydia Rojas, Jolieth McIntosh, and Araceli Esparza.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Kwabena Antoine Nixon

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Kwabena Antoine Nixon

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 27, 2015

I, for one, am a living testament that poetry has the potential to create change. I lost my father when I was young, and nobody really paid attention to me, growing up on the west side of Chicago. Then I read Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem, “We Real Cool.” I read it in class, and I wasn’t supposed to be reading that poem. It changed me right there. Later, Langston Hughes, “The Darker Brother.” I felt like it was talking to me.

We have to have a platform, a place to get the message out. We have to touch the heart and soul of the individual. We need to change the way we perceive each other.

When we listen to each other, we are changing the culture.

Kwabena Antoine Nixon is a poet, educator, and the co-founder and host of Poetry Unplugged in Milwaukee, a weekly poetry gathering started 11 years ago that draws over 200 people every week. 

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Sarah Gilbert

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Sarah Gilbert

Email Interview by Lisa Vihos, November 24, 2015

I do think poetry can help bring change of many sorts, not just political/social, but personal and spiritual. A poem is life distilled, focused. It can tap into our shared human experience, help us recognize truths. “Ah, yes, that!” So, poetry can help change by connecting people, building empathy.

I think poetry’s power to inspire empathy can bring increased understanding, therefore reduce prejudice and fear toward those who are different—whether the differences are around culture, race, gender, sexuality, religion, ability, experience, or anything else. That clears the way for peace, justice, community.

Personally, my return to poetry was sparked by my several cancers, so my writing is often therapeutic. Sharing my story through my poems has been a way to connect with others and to raise awareness of the specific hereditary cancer syndrome I have, and encourage others to know their family medical history. I find that people feel emboldened to tell me their own stories, whether cancer-related or not. This, too, is community.

Around the state and the nation there is a lot of fear and closed-mindedness. Those in favor of social justice can find a powerful tool in poetry, whether addressing the refugee crisis, terrorism and war, racial injustice, LGBTQ issues, incarceration, immigration, or the environment. It’s all about mindful compassion.

Sarah Gilbert coordinates the Poetry Rocks! reading series in Appleton, Wisconsin.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Margaret Swedish

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Margaret Swedish

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 29, 2015

How do you shift culture? The cultural work has to be rooted in local experience. There is so much potential here.

It’s not that poetry in itself changes the world, it’s when poetry meets a moment that it can open things up. Poetry is one of the ways that activism gets expressed out into the culture.

It’s important to create time and space in which to be creative. My fantasy in the long term is that there would be a space created in this “cultural desert.”

Writer and activist Margaret Swedish served for 25 years as co-coordinator, then director of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico in Washington, DC. She serves on the board of The Center for New Creation.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Michael McDermott

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 27, 2015

Black Earth Institute has a new group of fellows every three years. We bring people to Wisconsin from all over the country. The Institute promotes people’s work, and they in turn do projects that further the goals of the Institute.

Can poetry change the world? You bet! Sure it can. Sometimes it feels like we are speaking to the choir, and sometimes we are. BEI exists at the intersection of social justice, environmental justice, and spirituality. We are a progressive think tank.

Artists speak truth, but they go beyond that to a deeper sense of things. Art embodies truth.

Michael McDermott, MD, is the co-director of Black Earth Institute, founded by McDermott and poet Patricia Monaghan. BEI is a Wisconsin-based progressive think-tank dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society. In addition to its fellows’ program, BEI publishes the journal About Place. Read a reflection by Sarah Sadie on Brigit Rest, where BEI is located, here.

Photo at Brigit Rest by Lisa Vihos.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Poetry Factory at Riverwest 24

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Freesia McKee

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 24, 2015

I work at Art Works for Milwaukee, a job training program in the arts. I grew up on the South side of Milwaukee, went to North Carolina for college, worked in a writing center there, as well as on service learning projects, then returned to Milwaukee in 2012. Poetry and activism was always a fact for me. The poets I first loved were the ones talking about society and the way it was.

For prisoners, poetry really is life-sustaining, there is so little else there. People really are writing to save their lives. There are studies that show that creative writing and art projects do decrease recidivism.

I feel like all poets need to look at the Black Lives Matter movement. Every time there is a social movement of this size, poets are writing about it. As Adrienne Rich put it, “Poetry is not revolution, but a way of learning why it must come.” I feel like I see a lot of white poets not paying attention. They are missing out on an important moment in poetics in America.

The nature of this movement is dispersed. WFOP [Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets] is the only statewide poetry organization. It is a great thing, but I would love for Wisconsin to offer a Split This Rock type festival/conference. Poets! We have our call to action. Let’s do it!

Milwaukee poet Freesia McKee is a social justice and creative writing educator. The photo, courtesy of McKee, is of the Poetry Factory at Riverwest 24, August, 2016. Milwaukee bicyclists wrote 322 poems at the event. 

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Photo by Joe Brusky, Overpass Light Brigade

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Lane Hall

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 25, 2015

Overpass Light Brigade was developed by myself, Lisa Moline, and Joe Brusky. The kickoff gathering was in our neighborhood, during the time of the Walker recall. We asked ourselves, What could we do for an evening action? Why not make the signs with light? It was coming up on Christmas time and this coincided with the availability of LED lights. The first sign said Recall Walker. That night it got on Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz.

From there, we got the idea to go up on the overpass. It grew quickly. We showed people how to make signs and this grew the Light Brigade Network. There are now 50 chapters with one in Paris, two in Germany, and one each in the UK and New Zealand. In the US, there is the New York City LB, San Diego LB. Viewers gravitate toward the message, toward the Light.

Such a simple thing has opened up a nighttime space as a messaging space. We affectionately refer to it as “The People’s Bandwidth.” I think some of the more powerful things we’ve done are the events that speak to gun violence.

It is a physical form of embodied text, and one of the things that is so interesting is that it goes from being a graphic display to being a community building endeavor. People from all different backgrounds meeting, standing next to each other, holding the Light. Becoming aware of the collective nature of the effort. Each letter is separate, meaning is made when the letters are held together by cooperating hands. Performative text.

Lane Hall is a multi-media artist, writer and professor in the Department of English at UW-Milwaukee. He is a co-founder of the Overpass Light Brigade, a direct action group aimed at DIY political messaging, visibility, and the creation of community through the power of play.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Angela Trudell Vasquez

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Angela Trudell Vasquez

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 22, 2015

Through poetry, we learn that there is so much more that we have in common even if we have political or ideological differences. I became a poet when I read Carolyn Forche’s poem “The Colonel.” Ginsberg’s “Howl,” was gritty and real. Three inspirations for me: Kunitz, Forche, and Ginsberg. Max Rothschild quote: “If you look back over the past 100 years, you see how vital poetry has been to peace and justice.”

There is so much that we don’t give credit to in the arts.

Poetry is alive and well in Milwaukee. I love to hear young people say “I saw this poet and it changed my life.”

Whatever happens to me, I will be engaged in this on some level.

Poet/writer/activist Angela Trudell Vasquez has worked for the ACLU in Milwaukee for the last 10 years. One of her projects was the book, Cries for Justice – Poems for Dontre Hamilton (2016), which she co-edited with Margaret Rozga and Freesia McKee and published as Art Night Booksco-founded by Trudell Vasquez. The photo that accompanies this post was taken by Rozga after the book release at Woodland Pattern. “It was after over a year starting this project, and I was quite happy with the turnout and the book, and relaxed,” she says. Read about another of Trudell Vasquez’s projects, The Latina Monologues, in the Verse Wisconsin archive. 

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Woodland Pattern Book Center

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Karl Gartung

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 21, 2015

Poetry uses language the way artists use shapes and colors. To break the barriers. Poets participate in all these things. I don’t much respect poetry that tells me what I already know. I don’t want poetry to be the newspaper. I don’t discount activist poetry, or constantly rubbing up against the idea that what you’re doing is useful. Words matter more in poetry than anywhere else. Sincere politics is indicated through words. I despise poetry that speaks down to people OR, over their heads. As a poet, Truth is elusive. Truth is dubious.

I don’t believe that poetry changes things, it changes people. Poetry is an individual endeavor.

Karl Gartung, with Anne Kingsbury, founded Woodland Pattern Book Center as a non-profit organization in Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Riverwest neighborhood in 1979. The center houses a bookstore with over 25,000 small press titles and an art gallery for exhibitions, artist talks, readings, experimental films, concerts, and workshops.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Rob Ganson

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 21, 2015

It was water that weaponized my poetry, evolving out of the proposed GTAC mine and actions against that. Activism infused my poetry with a purpose. A lot of time, as often now as I’m writing for the love of the word, I’m writing for the effect my words will have on hearts and minds.

Poetry is growing and coming to the forefront again. It’s bringing a lot of us together. I’d never met Peggy Rozga until she got in touch with me for her chapbook, Turn Up the Volume (2013).

In this movement there are no leaders. Everything evolves organically. People do what they’re good at.

Let’s get a tribe of poets. Maybe we should have 100 Thousand Cheeseheads for Change and marshal our resources. None of us know what the others are doing.

Rob Ganson is a Wisconsin activist, photographer, and writer. His photo, above, appeared on the cover of Turn Up the Volume, a 2013 chapbook edited by Margaret Rozga whose proceeds went to the First Amendment Protection Fund to pay necessary legal expenses to defend against charges in the more than 300 arrests for singing in the Wisconsin Capitol.

“Wisconsin Poetry Activists” is a flash interview series by Lisa Vihos, which grew out of research that she conducted for an article in Wisconsin People & Ideas, Turning on the Lights, Spring 2016.