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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