Kimberly Blaeser

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Kimberly Blaeser

Email to Lisa Vihos, November 30, 2015

Those who have heard me speak this year as Wisconsin Poet Laureate, have likely heard me quote Audre Lorde who claimed, “Poetry is not a luxury.” We need poetry precisely because it is an agent of change. I always say poetry like other arts is an act of attention: it asks us first to look at and then to look through what we encounter in our world, to see it differently.

In my own work, activism and poetry have always been wedded. For me, poetry is a vital part of a life lived leaning toward an other light, a different vision of how to be in the world. Humbly, as I place myself among those who seek justice, equality, a sustainable relationship to our planet—who seek change, I hold up my own small lamp of assembled words and images.

I have had opportunities that have allowed me to meet and perform with poets in various regions of the world including Bahrain and Indonesia, and yes, poetry of witness, poetry of resistance, poetry for change is flourishing around the globe. But because poetry does raise awareness, there are also attempts to silence the voices of writers, artists, and other agents for change. I have met individuals who have suffered at the hands of repressive governments. To me the fear that fuels such repression merely reinforces my belief in the power of literature to incite change.

In Wisconsin the danger of mining has been an important issue and one that I have addressed in my writing. Right now there is a grave danger that mining might be approved in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW). That and other environmental threats seem an extremely important subject for poet activists.

Why do we still remember what a Persian poet and Sufi mystic from the 13th century, Jalaluddin Rumi, wrote: “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” If there are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground, and I believe there are—hundreds of thousands of ways to say remember, to say pay attention, to say blessed, thank you, grace, creator, spirit, beauty, love, laughter, survive, justice, and all the other necessary words and ideas, then we need writers to help say them and keep saying them until the world does indeed pay attention.

A Native American poet and writer of mixed German and Anishinaabe descent, Kimberly Blaeser is the Wisconsin Poet Laureate (2015-2016).

“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.

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Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Bruce Dethlefsen

Email to Lisa Vihos, November 25, 2015

I’ve been volunteering in three state correctional institutions (Fox Lake, New Lisbon and Red Granite) with Bob Hanson, a poet, retired Lutheran minister and Buddhist teacher, for three years. We meet with the men who live there.  We share some of our poetry, talk about the writing process and then give the men writing prompts like “Tick Tock” or “Lost and Found.”  They write for fifteen minutes or so then read their work which is always followed by applause. What they share is always heart-felt and engaging. It’s like they have been waiting a long time for someone to care about and listen to what they have to say.

I do it because I was taught as a child in my church and family, I was to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and imprisoned. The Buddha says to recognize suffering and help lessen it. I know the work isn’t about me. It’s about listening to them.

Last night I asked a group of men in Red Granite Correctional why they thought this work was important. One man said it makes them feel more human and connected. One man said it was all about giving a voice to the voiceless. Another man said working with writing helps him analyze and organize this thoughts, reflect on his life and has helped him to forgive himself and others.

Martin Espada, a nationally known poet who works with prisoners in New York, often begins his talks about poetry with “poetry saves lives” and then goes on to tell you specific instances where it has. I have experienced that once. A young hurting man found that by writing and reading poetry he was able to forgive himself and others and started to feel a sense of belonging with the community, inside and out.  He said through writing poetry he found out who he was.

I was going to answer your questions one by one, but I wrote this instead.

Bruce Dethlefsen served as the Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2011 and 2012. Read an interview with him at Cowfeather.

“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.

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