Margaret Rozga is the newly appointed Poet Laureate of Wisconsin. Rozga, a poet, civil rights activist, professor emerita at UW-Waukesha and a regular contributor to the NNS Community Voices column, writes about the Milwaukee poetry community that inspires her.
I begin my term as Wisconsin Poet Laureate energized. I found that energy where I often do, at a Milwaukee poetry venue. I’d been to three of them recently. Woodland Pattern, Linneman’s, and the Jazz Gallery, all in Riverwest, are among key gathering spots where Milwaukee’s vibrant poetry community thrives. The creativity that happens when people gather at these venues pulls me in and helps me wake up ready for the day’s writing, meetings, phone calls and errands.
Before heading out to an evening poetry event, I sometimes hesitate. Not tonight, I tell myself, not this late, not in this rain or this cold, not by myself when I may not know anyone there. Then my need to hear empowering words overcomes the alternative: yet another newscast about undermining fair elections and civil rights, and about building walls of one kind or another. I’m of the mind of the Robert Frost poem that begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” The arts offer a way not to ignore these issues, but to address the positive, to build the inclusive community we need.
Last week, feeling the need for an inclusive community and affirming words, I headed to Riverwest’s Jazz Gallery. The MC at the PENtastic open mic, hosted by Still Waters Collective, was starting the evening program as I walked in. From her position on stage, she greeted me, “Hello there. So glad you came.” I’m not sure I knew her, but that didn’t matter. Everyone was welcome.
Before the reading began, she had us write on this question: “What is Black?” Everyone, black and non-black, set to work. Several eager volunteers then read their drafts, including black and white poets from Milwaukee and one from Racine. During the first set of the open mic, readers included spoken word artists and poets who read from their books or cell phones. At the break, we were told to get to know someone new. I found that two young women sitting near me were from Sheboygan and came after seeing news of this event on Facebook. They said they didn’t know of any poetry events in Sheboygan, so I gave them the name of a poet friend who organizes poetry events there. “Friend her on Facebook,” I said. I’ll tell her to expect to hear from you.”
This particular evening serves as a model of how we create community. Welcome everyone. Assume that everyone has creative potential. Create space where that potential can find room to stand up and be heard. Welcome different styles. Create a positive tone, even as we speak to perplexing and distressing issues.
A similar model can be found Monday nights at Linneman’s. Tim Kloss organizes these weekly open mics with a featured reader. He lives and breathes poetry and the visual arts — drawing, painting. Always on the lookout for new voices, he schedules them in as featured readers. Everyone is welcome, and all are warmed by his greeting, his smile, and his insightful comments on the poems. His own annual turn as the featured reader is not to be missed. His performance of Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” brought that poem to life and awed the audience. It would make a fan out of even the person most reluctant to engage with poetry.
Woodland Pattern Book Center brings national poets to town for readings and workshops and celebrates Milwaukee poets. The center opens its doors to events like the launch of the poetry chapbook anthology “Where I Want to Live: Poems for Fair and Affordable Housing,” a project of the March On Milwaukee 50th anniversary planning committee. Black, brown, and white poets, gay and straight poets, middle school, high school, and poets of all ages, including some in their 70s participated. The event was not only about imagining an inclusive Milwaukee, but it also stood as an evening when that reality was palpable.
On Saturday afternoon, Jan. 26, Woodland Pattern will serve as the venue for the official passing of the Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate’s torch from Karla Huston to me. How very appropriate this setting will be.
I studied poetry in college and graduate school. I know iambic pentameter and anaphora, lineation and prose poetry as concepts. What I learned in school provides a solid base for the work I’ll do as Wisconsin Poet Laureate, promoting poetry throughout Wisconsin. What I learned as a practicing poet adds depth. What I learned as a participant in Milwaukee’s poetry community will help bring it all to life.