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Nurturing Wisconsin Poetry

A conversation with Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser

Jan. 8, 2015
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John Fisher Photography
This month, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission announced that UW-Milwaukee Professor Kimberly Blaeser will take up the torch as the Badger State’s ambassador for poetry during 2015-2016. Blaeser is a published and widely anthologized author whose work has been translated into several languages and performed around the globe. She is of Anishinaabe ancestry and grew up on the White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota. This week, she spoke to the Shepherd about her plans for her tenure as poet laureate, past projects of note and her personal artistic philosophy.

Can you share with our readers what some of your responsibilities are as Poet Laureate of Wisconsin and what your plans are for the next two years?

There’s a minimum official thing and then there’s the vision. You often appear at some of the literary events that are around the state but also visit schools, work with library programs and so on. [The Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission] expects that you present your work at programs or work with people in the state of Wisconsin. It’s a minimum of eight times per year over the two years, but the poet laureates in the past have been much more activist than that and I intend to be as well. So the poet laureate’s role is to be an ambassador but also to take up a particular project in the state.

I said when I was talking about this with the commission that I felt like there was just an amazing number of really wonderful poets in the state of Wisconsin that I’ve met over the years, but I don’t think they get as much press or attention and I’m not sure that the people of the state know that they’re here. And so I was thinking there are poetry performers and practitioners that are just out there wanting to connect to a network and I think that the poet laureate is the person who can help forge that network so they don’t feel isolated in the work they do. So I’m going to suit up and be the poetry nerd or muse for the next couple years [laughs].

I have a couple of things that I’m planning. One of them is to do a monthly radio program in which I feature Wisconsin poets. The idea is to feature poets to talk about their work but also more largely about poetry and to have them recite poetry. I think that generations in the past were more inclined to memorize and recite poetry and it’s somewhat of a lost art that’s coming back. I’m a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and oftentimes in my teaching I will have my students memorize and recite poems and it’s something they really gravitate toward and it’s a lot of fun to do.

Over this past summer there was a recitation challenge in Siberia. They offered free rides on their underground rail to anyone who could recite at least two verses of an Alexander Pushkin work. I just thought that was such a cool thing because that was putting poetry in the public sphere, and so one of my other more playful ideas is to figure out some kind of poetry recitation challenge that we could do to encourage that in the state. They had that ice bucket challenge so I figure there’s got to be a way we can do this.

The third thing I’m interested in doing as a project is to put together a publication featuring Wisconsin poets because there hasn’t been one with just that as its goal for some time. As I do work around the state I do know a lot of the Wisconsin poets now, but I hope I get to know more, engage with them and then have a base from which to put together this anthology.

I have other smaller projects in mind. I’d like to take poetry to some less likely sites—things and places that are kind of unexpected. I like to go to the Horicon [National Wildlife Refuge] and many of my poems are actually inspired from being in natural areas. That’s a beautiful place and in the spring it’s just overrun with birds and they have an annual bird festival and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to do something where we create poems at the bird festival and present poetry there?” It would be to take poetry out of that staid position where it’s this old, funky thing and let people realize how vital poetry is and how much fun it can be and so on. There are tons of baseball poems so wouldn’t it be fun to bring poetry to a baseball game? Another idea is just to get people in a situation. Like I was with a group of friends one time and we began writing poetry at a sushi place. We were putting haiku lines on those little sushi boats. Like we would write a line, put it on the boat and then someone else would write another line and it went around. And we were doing that in our group and before we knew it we had people from the restaurant who were pulling up and engaging in this haiku-writing thing. Clearly I think that poetry has a serious purpose as well. It’s been important in society and it’s been very important politically around the world recently, but I also think it can have this sort of playful contribution.

Your work has been published internationally and translated into multiple languages, and you yourself are a transplant from Minnesota to Wisconsin. Your poetry is also deeply connected to the natural world and uses imagery specific to your current home. Can you discuss the role of place in Native American philosophy and your personal artistic perspective?

I often say that we become the places we know. Do we know the four seasons? Do we know what colors are in our landscape? What are the sounds that we’ve heard? They’ve done studies where babies in utero will recognize voices and sounds that they’ve heard. As we grow in a place it’s like a community of place because it involves everything from the certain quality of light to a scent to a sound. There are things about the place that begin to inhabit us. And for Native people of course that kind of relationship also had to do with subsistence. When I grew up, actually, still people in my family would do hunting, fishing, ricing, gathering berries. There were seasonal activities that you engaged in so it’s sort of like your body is on that clock; it adheres to that rhythm. There’s a cycle that becomes a part of you so you become in tune with that cycle. I think everyone experiences that to a certain degree in the place they live. And then the sounds of the place inform our language as well. There was an early study about the sounds of language in different parts of the United States and how they were slightly different—the idea that our very language is informed by the place that we inhabit because it inhabits us as well. I talk about being apprenticed to place. There’s this sense in which, after you’ve been somewhere for a long period of time, it’s like you become a part of that rhythm and there is a sort of reciprocity, a give-and-take relationship with that place. And that also for me involves a spiritual element. So I can’t imagine not being a part of this spiritual reality that is the natural world. And in Native culture of course that was involved in having specific animals or natural creatures with whom you had a particular relationship. If we recognize in these other beings particular qualities, powers, strengths and so on they become a kind of inspiration. For me, because my relationship with the natural world is so much a part of who I am or how I am in the world, then it just makes sense that that informs my poetry. I spend a lot of time outdoors, I spend a lot of time canoeing and hiking, and I’m also a wildlife and nature photographer; it’s where a big portion of my time is spent so that is what inspires a lot of my writing as well. On a practical level, because I care about our natural world, my writing also wants to inspire that same attention to and care about the natural world. In some ways it becomes a sort of ecological voice—in other words, trying to inspire people to take care of this world. And so sometimes that means it spills over into political poetry that’s asking for a particular action and so on.

Would you say that your poetry has always reflected the place where you reside, or do you ever, for instance, travel and then draw inspiration from that?

Oh, absolutely yes. Probably the clearest example of that is I was part of a program in Kirkenes, Norway. It was arctic Norway and it was January so it was still dark. It was pretty amazing. This celebration called the Barents Spektakel was happening and then every year when the sun starts to return they have this 10-day arts festival. So I was there for 10 days and during that time I did interesting things—I went on a sled dog ride, I went with a local guy on a snowmobile and we went out into the areas and he told me some of the history. It was an amazing, amazing journey. I spent quite a bit of time in that place and when I looked at the program, it turned out I was a part of the closing program for this arts festival. There was going to be the lighting of some fire sculptures that a German woman had come in and helped local people make. It was held outdoors a little bit outside the city; it was sort of up the mountain just a little and it was near some water. So the fire sculptures were going to be lit at the water and then I was going to read a poem and this was their closing ceremony. And I thought, “Oh my word, I can’t just open a book and read a poem that I’ve written. It’d have to be about this place, this ceremony.” And so I wrote a poem that came out of my experience of that place and those people and their relationship to their own landscape. And I, of course, drew from my own memories of being a northwestern Minnesota girl because some of the colors were what it looks like in the winter there—the sort of almost blue color of the snow sometimes and just that intense cold and how you celebrate the return of the spring and so on. So I drew on a lot of my own experience as well, but also on that time so that when I created that poem it was from that place—very clearly from that place.

You’ve been involved in many notable events and organizations, including the Milwaukee Native American Literary Cooperative. Can you tell our readers a little about this project?

The Native American Literary Cooperative, was a brainchild of mine. We began to have less and less money for programming and any one institution might not have the resources to bring somebody quite famous to Milwaukee. And I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if we just made a plan where we drew up an agreement and this group of people, this group of organizations, would say, ‘Let’s work together all the time and every year we will each throw this amount of money in a pot and then we’ll plan together.’” And that way you can also plan farther ahead. You have a little bit more money to work with. You can get bigger-name people in. It ended up being Marquette, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Woodland Pattern Book Center, MATC and the Indian Community School. Those are the five organizations that began this Native American Literary Cooperative.

It’s always a lot of cooperative work so even with these entities working together we still will sometimes link up with something somebody else is doing as well just because if you’re bringing someone and it’s a reasonable amount of money it’s always nice to try to get them as much exposure as you can, but also to coordinate the payment so that everyone throws into a pool. And that’s basically the idea: that the resources were shrinking and so we thought, “We’ll grow the community.”

Any advice for aspiring or professional poets?

I have a couple of things. Probably this is the same thing that professors have been telling their creative writing students for years: Read. Read poetry. Because you can’t write in a void really. It’s honestly not going to replace your own vision or your own words. It’s only going to prime the pump. It’s going to give you more energy for your work. Sometimes people shy away—they don’t want to be influenced. That’s really not something that we should worry about. We should worry more about not getting exposed to enough poetry.

And then, the thing that poetry helps you do but you also need to do as a poet is to pay attention: to really look at things and see things up close in a new way from another perspective. I think the more you write the more you will pay attention and see things you hadn’t realized were there before. But you can actually just give yourself time to be in a place and not just rush by and experience—actually give yourself time to pay attention, to see what’s there, to hear the sounds, to smell the scents, to see the people, to listen to the voices, whatever it is, to really absorb and be in the place you’re in, to be in the world, and pay attention to it and let it affect you. So there are the two things: to read and to pay attention.

To learn more about Dr. Blaeser, visit her website or explore the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission’s steward organization, the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters.


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