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Wisconsin poet laureate Kimberly Blaeser.

Milwaukee Talks: Wisconsin poet laureate Kimberly Blaeser

Earlier this month, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission named Kimberly Blaeser as the new Wisconsin poet laureate for 2015-16. Blaeser is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where she teaches creative writing, Native American literature, American nature writing, life writing, writing as a spiritual quest and more.

Blaeser is of Native American (Anishinaabe) ancestry, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe who grew up on White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

Blaeser's work has been translated into several languages, including Spanish, Norwegian, Indonesian and Anishinaabemowin. She has performed her poetry around the world and gave readings in more than two hundred different venues in a dozen different countries.

She is also very active in social justice issues and currently serves on the editorial board for the American Indian Lives series of the University of Nebraska Press and for the Native American Series of Michigan State University Press.

Recently, caught up with Blaeser and chatted with her about her writing, her family life, how being Native American influences her work, her favorite writers, the power of a good nap and what exactly the poet laureate does. What are the poet laureate's duties?

Kimberly Blaeser: In a phrase: to be an ambassador or "voice" for poetry and, more broadly, to encourage engagement in the arts throughout Wisconsin. What that means on a practical level is to promote poetry through participation in programming including readings and public presentations, and to support it through publications, educational events, and through the various media. The Wisconsin poet laureate is specifically tasked with visiting all areas of the state at least once, and in undertaking a special project during the time he or she serves.

OMC: What do you plan to do as poet laureate?

KB: I'm certain I have more ideas than time, but let me share a few of them. First, I have begun planning for a monthly radio program that will feature Wisconsin poets and poetry events. I'd like to create a space for conversation with and performances by regional poets, and expect to feature both well-known Wisconsin writers as well as newer voices, including student poets.

I'm also excited about the possibility of bringing poetry into more public spaces and events — to unusual places. I've mentioned the Horicon Marsh (maybe to their bird festival if the planners will have us), to athletic events, flower shows or sushi bars. 

Right now I am beginning to think about how to work with writers around the state to highlight recitation using social media (think ice-bucket challenge, with a twist).

And, on a more practical level, I also plan to draw upon my past experience in editing anthologies and work to bring the poetry of Wisconsin writers to press for Wisconsin readers.

OMC: How do you respond when people say they don't "get" / understand poetry?

KB: Sometimes, with the best intentions, classroom teachers pin poetry to too neat an equivalency and therefore instill in students a fear of "getting it wrong." I like to invite readers and listeners to enter poetry in whatever way suits them. You can "get" poetry partly through its rhythm or cadence alone. In the same way that music affects us, the sound of language can carry us, make us feel or experience a certain emotion. Or an image – think word picture – can spark an imaginative moment of understanding. The choice of words, the diction of a poem, also helps create meaning. For example, simple phrases like "owl moon" or "stalked by hypochondria" conjure very different reactions.

Perhaps the most reassuring thing I might say to someone who feels anxiety about "getting" poetry is that often poetry is not interested in a single ultimate "meaning" as much as it is in engaging us in the process of exploring ideas and small moments of truth. Sometimes in a poem words or images bump against one another in a way that creates a "spark," a flash of illumination in our quest to understand the world. I often say poetry helps us pay attention to what is around us, to see it in a new way, from a different perspective. That often happens not through poetry presenting a mathematical equivalency of meaning, x + y = z, but through the simple gesture of language, the poet asking us to see again that which we may have previously overlooked.

OMC: Is poetry more or less popular today than it was when you started teaching?

KB: I would say the difference between when I began teaching and now involves not so much the waxing or waning popularity of poetry as it does the differing uses of poetry and the different places we might find it. We find more poetry on the Internet. Poetry has been brought into public places like taxi-cabs and buses. The poetry slam has become common. Poetry has begun to be used more in social or political movements: poetry against war, poetry in response to 9/11, etc.

OMC: Who are some of your favorite poets?

KB: I'm a bit eclectic in my gathering of poets. Among those whose work I read and admire are Native American writers such as Linda Hogan, Simon Ortiz, N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo, Gordon Henry, Ofelia Zepada and the Erdrich sisters, Louise and Heid.

I love the work of many of the younger Native poets like Natalie Diaz and Layli Long Soldier. I have also long loved Pablo Neruda, translations of the haiku masters Basho, Issa, and Buson, and translations of the work of Rumi and Li Po. I am drawn to the work of Czeslow Milosz, Anna Swir and Seamus Heaney. I've read a bit of Baudelaire in translation and some in French when my language skills were better and certain of his poems have always stayed with me. 

I also grew up reading, hearing, sometimes memorizing long narrative poems like those by Whitman and Poe as well as work by e. e. cummings, Hopkins, Blake, Frost and Dickinson. Other poets on my shelves include Dylan Thomas, Carolyn Forché, Jimmy Santiago Baca, C.D. Wright, and the work of regional writers including many Wisconsin writers and that of all my colleagues at UW-Milwaukee. 

Something about the work that arises from people in your own communities has a special resonance. I taught Milwaukee poet Susan Firer's work in one of my classes a couple of years back and the students thoroughly enjoyed work from someone who writes about places they know. I could go on and on and wish you had the space and I the leisure because it is a shame not to name all the wonderful regional poets. Luckily, during my tenure as Wisconsin poet laureate, I will have opportunities to celebrate the work of the writers in our state.

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