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.