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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Bonk! poetry community

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Nick Demske

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos via email, October 16, 2015

Name me a poem that has changed anything. It’s hard to do, right?… not impossible, but challenging. But that’s only when you think on some kind of grand scale, like Raul Zurita bulldozing a line of poetry into the Chilean desert so the military jets above would have to read it when they fly over … things like that. More importantly, though, art changes people—experiencing it and making it. If I read a Melvin B Tolson poem and it even so much as informs me of something I didn’t know, it has changed me. So if it delights me, or outrages me, or disturbs me or arouses me or—God forbid—inspires me … if it breathes it’s spirit into me and possesses me for the rest of my days (and I assure you it has), then what am I going to do with that inspiration? Well, inspiration is crazy infectious, so it’s going to exponentially multiply itself and possess everyone around me too. And then what are we, as a huge communal family, going to do with that inspiration? We gonna change some shit, baby! How can we be changed and the world not be changed with us, too?

So just allowing people to come together, share those bits of themselves with each other, talk about things that don’t get talked about at work or in so many churches, etc. … simply creating that space is holy. But it’s not just doom. It refreshed and inspired the people there. We weren’t just complaining, we were being with each other to remind ourselves what can be done about it. I read a poem about a blue bird that I picked up, because it seemed injured. But then, after 5 minutes of me holding it, it burst into flight. And that’s what this is all about. Picking up our injured selves and remembering we can still do more than we may realize—more is possible. So it inspired all the people there, then we bring that out into our greater community and keep circulating the spirit of kindness, compassion and love and, before you know it—woah—things are different. Sometimes in intangible ways, sure. But sometimes in political ways, in economical ways, in statistical ways … on and on.

Even more than all of the symptoms of sickness that could be given attention through 100TPC, though … I think our hopelessness is what might need the most attention at an event like this. So how do you give hopelessness attention? Do you read poems about hopelessness all night long? No! You read poems about hope all night long. Or maybe not even about hope … just poems that inspire hope.

Poetry is a spiritual practice. We need to be inspiring and re-inspiring each other all the time—coming back to our first Love. Because it’s just so easy to get hopeless when you’re fed corporate messages of hopelessness all the time. So maybe more than anything, we need to remind ourselves and each other not to believe the lie. We need to remind each other that more is possible than what our eyes tell us. We need to remind each other that worms eat garbage and crap out the best fertilizer in the world. We need to conspire—to breathe together—and, in so doing, inspire. We need to help each other remember how to breathe.

Nick Demske is co-founder of Bonk!, a Racine-based community of poets, artists, and activists.

“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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Reading for Turn Up the Volume: Poems about the States of Wisconsin at Woodland Pattern

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Margaret Rozga

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 19, 2015

Language is powerful. We are moved by words all the time. Poets are word artists. They practice their craft, employing the many resources of language to achieve an effect, and the effect can be a change in perception, in understanding an issue or situation. That is the groundwork of change. Poetry works in a different register from prose, and so it offers the possibility of reaching people in a different way, a way I think that is more compelling.

This is not to say that any one poem is going to bring about change all by itself. I’ve been actively working for social justice since I volunteered to work on a southern voter registration campaign in 1965, long enough to know that multiple components are needed to effect change. Poetry and other arts have an important role to play in helping to set the tone, creating the climate and understanding that is part of how change happens.

Poet and civil rights activist Margaret (Peggy) Rozga has written several books, including the award-winning volume about Milwaukee’s fair housing marches, Two Hundred Nights and One Day, in which she participated. She co-edited two anthologies, Cries for Justice: Poems for Dontre Hamilton and Turn Up the Volume: Poems about the States of Wisconsin. The photo above was taken by Joe Brusky at the launch reading for Turn Up the Volume at Woodland Pattern.

“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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Bonk!'s 100 Thousand Poets for Change event, 2015

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Tom Hibbard

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos via email,  October 20, 2015

The relationship between poetry and change is important. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz said that “poetry is the language of the future.” Poetry asks us for our opinions but in a fragmentary form, that also includes observation, description, learning, memories, contradiction, impressions of others. In this way, a poem suggests reality but with it a sense of the new and the possible.

I would say that poetry doesn’t impose itself on reality but rather tries to express its miraculous nature. Reality moves, but it doesn’t change. Our understanding of it changes, increases. Poetry is often stormy and critical, but I don’t think it tyrannically imposes an idea, a form on what is ahead. I really believe in the ideas in my poetry. Poetry is often about ideas. At the same time, I’m cautious to toss in a phrase or word that takes the poem in an unintended direction.

Since childhood I’ve been influenced by Impressionism. Written poems infuse the interesting qualities of language, sometimes lapsing into visual displays, which put the poem on a fundamental existential or archeological level. But, in general, my poetry began with a feeling of wanting to “say something.” That’s where it starts for me; language was intended for people to get involved. If we try to do too much, language itself shuts down, becomes dull and confusing. Perhaps, it’s about sincerity or identity.

Tom Hibbard participates in the Bonk! and 100TPC poetry communities.

“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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Sarah Sadie Busse at Woodland Pattern

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Sarah Sadie Busse

Email to Lisa Vihos, November 19, 2015

A poem is an experience more than a container. Whether or not change occurs when one reads a poem, enters and undergoes the experience, depends more on the quality of attention on the reader’s part, their stance, their openness to being changed. The work of poetry happens one on one, writer to reader. Whether the poem is being read in front of a crowd or in the privacy of one’s reading nook, the essential exchange is still between individuals.

I am not sure poetry’s role is to have a measurable outcome. I think the work of poetry is 1) interior and 2) not linear, nor (often) immediate. I do this work because it is self-evident to me that the gifts of poetry are necessary to our time, as to every time. And still, even as a volunteer and advocate, doing all this work, I resist that word “central.” Poetry is marginal. It exists on the edge, and pulls us out of our ordinary. Pulls us out of our own middles and muddles. This is my conception of it, anyway.

Poets, with our nuanced language, our care-full attention, the way we listen… perhaps we can help to bridge the rifts that seem to open so easily, to help us all remember how to communicate across difference. To complicate any reductive binary model. More often than not, this is a question of learning to listen to difference, to listen deeply. And that deep listening is the work of poetry. Yes, yes it is.

Sarah Busse (Sarah Sadie) co-edited the anthologies Echolocations, Poets Map Madison and Local Ground(s)—Midwest Poetics, co- founded Cowfeather Projects and was Madison Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2015.

“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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AWP 2015 Midwest Poetics Panel, with Brenda Cardenas, Margaret Rozga, Wendy Vardaman, Fabu, and Kimberly Blaeser (also pictured, Nick Demske)

Wisconsin Poetry Activists | Wendy Vardaman

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos via email, November 23, 2015

Anything that helps people slow down and be more watchful or brings people together in community to share their voices and stories has the power to create change. Poetry has the power to do both of those things. Change begins with paying attention, with discovering what we don’t know. How do we know what we don’t know? Conversation across difference, going to places we’ve never been nearby and far away, reading and sharing and listening…. poetry, spoken word, and the arts are all ways of knowing and have the potential to deepen our knowledge of ourselves, each other, and the communities we’re part of.

I am much more interested in the poetry, and the editing, “of witness,” that is, poetry and publication and curated events that reflect a diverse society and many sides to our different stories. I still love the craft of writing, but I feel like other questions are at least as important too, including: What is this poem about? and Do I have a story that needs to be told, and what is that story? Do I have a story to tell that others would benefit from hearing? How do I balance my time as a writer-artist in terms of creating my own work and being a producer of/audience for the work of others?

I also think it’s crucial to realize that there are many forms of arts activism. Writing (and providing space for) protest poetry is one. Going into schools is another, as is bringing awareness to political issues and issues of social justice through readings and publications and writing. Asking questions, bringing attention to language, encouraging others to do the same, and providing space to do that is another.

So many complex, interrelated issues deserve our thoughtful attention and efforts as informed citizens: racial justice, the right to vote, the right to organize, the right to make a living wage and to get a decent education, mass incarceration, healthcare, homelessness, a woman’s right to choose, depression and mental illness and despair, accessibility, gender equality and self-definition, water usage, global warming and environmental degradation. Where to even begin? I think that poetry, while it doesn’t solve these problems, is a way of knowing, a way of looking at the world, that attempts to make connections and to place our materiality, as physical and economic beings, in a wider spiritual context apart from the practice of any particular religion, or any religion at all. I believe that this awareness and openness to others and to language would serve us well as we try to connect with each other across differences to create a more just society.

Wendy Vardaman co-edited the anthologies Echolocations, Poets Map Madison and Local Ground(s)—Midwest Poetics, co- founded Cowfeather Projects and was Madison Poet Laureate from 2012 to 2015. Pictured above at their AWP 2015’s panel on Midwest Poetics: Brenda Cárdenas, Margaret Rozga, Wendy Vardaman, Fabu, Kimberly Blaeser; also pictured: Nick Demske.

“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 | Brent Goodman

Interviewed by Lisa Vihos, November 21, 2015

Does poetry have the potential to create change? Yes. I know this because poetry has changed me. Rilke has changed me. Rumi has changed me. Issa has changed me. All transformation begins within the individual – the outer world only appears to change when our inner perceptions shift. Say you read a poem about lightning striking a tree, and it changes you: suddenly you’ve grown intimately aware of the path between earth and sky. You’ve seen the light branching, felt your skin tingle, breathed in the ozone, heard the crash of thunder in your chest. In the following days, weeks, months . . . you begin to see the connection between all things. Does poetry have to create change? No. Change is the only constant. Change is the effortless current. Change is always present. Poetry merely has to remain transparent for it to inspire personal transformation. Everything else is always as it should be: multidimensional, abundant, whole. Poetry simply reminds us of the center of things, the pivot point from which our entire world shifts, personally and collectively.   

Brent Goodman writes haiku and poetry and lives in Rhinelander, 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.

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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.

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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.

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