Margaret Rozga, poet, civil rights activist and professor emerita of English at UW-Waukesha, highlights the creativity of diverse Milwaukee poets at a recent state poetry conference.
Milwaukee: the source of positive energy that could revitalize Wisconsin? Or, a drag on the state?
Those who live outside of Milwaukee and fear visiting here see Milwaukee in the negative role exclusively. When they get here, they sometimes find, or are shown, a positive and inspiring Milwaukee, not despite its racial, ethnic and cultural diversity but because of it.
One recent example occurred when the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets held its annual spring conference in Milwaukee for the first time in over 20 years. The conference opened with the incoming and outgoing state Poet Laureates, Appleton poet Karla Huston and Kimberly Blaeser, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee professor of creative writing and American Indian literature.
Blaeser highlighted the outcome of her laureate project. At gatherings in Milwaukee and throughout the state, she invited people who had committed to heart a favorite poem to record their recitation of that poem. The result is an online interactive state map that can link viewers to recordings of Wisconsin residents reciting these poems.
Next up was “Milwaukee Voices,” four local poets whose readings energized the ballroom full of experienced poets from across the state.
Amanda Ngoho Reavey explained that her poems grow out of her experience of being on the border of identities; she was born in the Philippines and adopted by a Milwaukee family. She began and ended her engaging reading with a Tagalog folk song “Bahay Kubo,” which means “nipa hut” or “house cube,” the Native Philippine house.
Another of these Milwaukee voices, Timothy Kloss organizes the Monday Night Poetry series at Linneman’s in Riverwest. His satiric piece, a chilling dramatic monologue, was brilliantly performed though Kloss was under the weather on that rainy night. David Press changed the mood with his deadpan and wry poems.
Michaela Lacy, Milwaukee High School of the Arts senior and co-founder of the Sacred Garden monthly poetry event, did a stunning spoken word performance. Her poem “Lemonade Stand” speaks frankly and powerfully of differences between life in a struggling African-American neighborhood and that in white suburbs: “Ain’t no lemonade stands in the hood. Instead we got liquor stores…”
Delivered with heartfelt energy to a predominantly white audience, she had everyone’s rapt attention. Her performance was an eye-opener and earned rousing applause.
Saturday morning’s breakfast conversation was filled with praise for the Milwaukee Voices presentations: “Electrifying.” “They energized the whole room.” “We have got to get Michaela up to Door County.” “I wasn’t going to come last night. I’m so glad I did.”
Another Milwaukee Voices session on Saturday kept the excitement going. Freesia McKee and Anja Notànjà Sieger each read a selection of their poems, McKee’s with an emphasis on social justice issues, Sieger’s more whimsical and light-hearted. Earlier that morning they typed spontaneously composed poems on manual typewriters for $10 each for anyone who requested one.
De’Shawn Ewing and Kavon Cortez Jones added to the sense of a vibrant creative community in Milwaukee with their spoken word performances. Ewing demonstrated what had earned him places in regional and national poetry slams. Among his memorable lines: “If I had time, I’d take time to slow down time” and “I’m just a rattling of souls like windows in a tornado.”
Cortez Jones performed a poem that brought back to life Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African- American from Chicago murdered in Money, Mississippi, in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. The performance also brought forward little-known details about Till’s family, especially about his father, who as a soldier in World War II was fighting “for a country that hated him,” that court-martialed and executed him for “willful misconduct.”
The energy of the Milwaukee Voices sessions stayed with conference-goers. Madison poet Sarah Busse posted on Facebook the next day: “sitting in a room full of people from all backgrounds who strive to make sense of life thru poems moves me in a way it did not used to.” Katy Phillips said the Milwaukee Voices “didn’t want to fool around. They were not afraid to let the city come through. We heard the edges. They made the city real.”
We in Milwaukee can be proud of the creativity emerging in our city and showcased at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets spring conference. Milwaukee’s diversity is a strength, a source of inspiration. Thanks to conference organizer Ed Werstein for scheduling sessions that helped poets from throughout the state see a Milwaukee they may not have known existed, and one they will not soon forget.