Tuesday, April 03, 2007


Poetry for the people

Poetry for the people
In Madison, it's out on the street and in your face

By John Lehman

Poetry is back from the grave it dug itself into and kicking up its heels in Madison.

Poetry may not grab the attention the local music scene does or be as widely reviewed as last week's Hollywood turkey. But that's okay. There's something going on here more intense than a polite reading at the library or an obscure chapbook that sneaks its way onto a bookstore shelf. Ron Wallace, head of the UW's Creative Writing Department, says, "Literature may not save us. But if it can't save us, it's at least one thing that makes us worth saving." And in Madison the "salvation" poetry offers is fast, loud, in your face and fun.

Open-mike readings are proliferating, with regular series all over town. Madison has an effervescent new poet laureate and an abundance of new publishers, journals, festivals, contests, chapbooks and web sites.

The scene is much stronger than it was 20 years ago, when I was first published in Abraxas and the Cardinal Bar was one of only two major venues for readings in town. Or even 10 years ago, when I started the literary magazine Rosebud. Poetry is no longer exclusively in the hands of the pretentious few but has become, as the poet Wallace Stevens said, "the voice that's great within us all."

The first stop for anyone interested in the Madison poetry scene should be the comprehensive guide at www.madpoetry.org. The handiwork of visual artist Jeannie Bergmann, it includes monthly calendars, workshops, listings of publications, profiles of poets, poetry, reviews, links and information on writing groups. Bergmann developed her site, she says, "because there was no central clearinghouse for area poetry information." Her effort exemplifies the "just do it" attitude behind the rebirth of Madison poetry.

As for local readings, the rowdiest is the perennial favorite, Cheap at Any Price, held the first and third Tuesdays of every month at Café Montmartre. Anyone can sign up for the open mike (reading for three to five minutes), which starts around 8 p.m. Once a month or so it is followed by a poetry slam. On a good night there are 50 to 60 in the audience of the faux-Left Bank wine bar and 10 to 12 presenting. Regulars are met with good-natured Wisconsin joshing, but there's always warm, supportive applause for first-time readers (even for those whose nervous voices make their words indecipherable despite a PA system). It's a quick audience that appreciates a particularly good line or an especially apt metaphor. Experienced poets use this opportunity to fine-tune new pieces, and for listeners it's as exciting as watching a name comic try out material in a small club.

When it's time for the slam (a kind of elimination play-off between two teams, often judged more by audience reaction than subtlety of content), much of the beer-drinking crowd have reached football frenzy. It's reminiscent of the jeering, laughing, weeping theater crowd in Shakespeare in Love. The audience becomes as much a part of the performance as the poet. Suddenly poetry is out of the tower and back in the streets with people, where it belongs.

Rusty Russell, the wry Cabaret-like MC and organizer of Cheap at Any Price for the past 11 years, says, "I'm trying to get more people involved through a newsletter, posters and direct invitations to groups, like the Latino community. There are an awful lot of folks who don't know we do this craziness two times a month. We want them to experience it, and at least once sample the vitality of performance poetry for themselves. Here there's a direct connection between writing and being heard. In three or four minutes a poet can create a whole world that you can step into and feel. That's what's exciting."

Russell contends that even slam poetry, which is fast, showy, often funny (and sometimes shallow and politically righteous), is pure entertainment. "It's a contest," he admits, "and if a poet wants to win, or get to the next round, he or she has to work the crowd into a froth."

Russell makes a passionate case for the relevance of his Cheap at Any Price events. "The essence of poetry is not the particular form, but emotion that you feel and evoke in others through language. We may not be comfortable feeling and expressing emotion in public, but recent events have shown how important this is."

Andrea Musher succeeded John Tuschen as Madison's official poet laureate last year. Tuschen had been appointed by Paul Soglin in the '70s. One of Musher's pieces appeared in that same 1981 Abraxas magazine that published my early poem. "Back then," she says, "poetry was active, but fragmented. You were black, feminist, gay, academic, etc. Your poetry proselytized to people already committed to the cause. It was exclusive, rather than inclusive. And the mark of success was getting your work printed in literary magazines and academic journals which themselves were becoming elitist."

Today, Musher says, poetry is more immediate. "There's radio, the Internet, coffeehouse/bookstore readings, cassettes and self-published chapbooks. There are good poetry groups, like the local Fellowship of Wisconsin Poets chapter, and numerous critiquing groups at the bookstores. The beauty is, you don't even have to belong to anything to participate. And not only can everyone be a poet but, as Marshall McLuhan said, thanks to the copy machine everyone can now be a publisher."

Musher's own pet project, the Poetry Buzz, sponsored in part by a Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission grant, is in the process of recording 52 Madison-area poets, including Andrea Potos, Dennis Trudell, Tenaya Darlington, Robin Chapman, Ruth Nichols, Lynn Patrick Smith, Richard Roe, Jeri McCormick, Oscar Mireles, Ron Ellis, Tom Neale, Ken Haynes, Francine Conley, Ron Wallace, Jeannie Bergmann, John Tuschen and dozens more, even me. A poet can be heard each Monday at 8:30 a.m. on WORT or at the Poetry Buzz web site at www.netphoria.com/wort/poetrybuzz, where you can read along with the spoken words. At the end of the year the project will be released as a CD.

Musher, along with Richard Roe and Robin Chapman, is a preliminary judge in the first annual poetry contest by the Wisconsin Academy Review, published here in Madison. The first prize of $500 is the biggest in the state; the deadline is Dec. 1. (See www.wisconsinacademy.org for details). State poet laureate Ellen Kort is the final judge.

Musher, a sort of frizzy-haired big sister to all Madison poets, is also co-editor (along with me) of a new free Madison quarterly called Cup of Poetry and a Side of Prose. Patterned after New York City's Literal Latte, each issue will feature two poems by 10 area poets and one or two pages of prose. It's available at local coffeehouses, bookstores and libraries. "Since the major daily and weekly newspapers and magazines of Madison don't publish poetry," Musher says, "we feel there's a need for this kind of outlet. The first issue focuses on sorrow and healing."

Other local poetry publications include Abraxas, the area's oldest independent publication; the Madison Review, published by the University of Wisconsin Creative Writing Department; my own Rosebud, now the third-largest-circulation literary magazine in the country; Mobius, whose fiction and poetry deal with social change; Modern Haiku, an international journal of English haiku and criticism; NeoVictorian/Cochlea, a magazine favoring traditional poetry, but also open to well formed free verse; and Sun-Optikos of Mount Horeb.

As for Madison-area publishers of poetry books, there's the UW-affiliated Parallel Press, which since 1998 has produced a string of quality chapbooks featuring many Madison poets; Ghost Pony Press; Silver Buckle Press; Eureka Publications; and Zelda Wilde Publishing, which will soon offer a biographical collection of letters and poems by Lorine Niedecker, perhaps Wisconsin's most internationally acclaimed poet (2003 marks the 100th anniversary of her birth).

Another relatively new publisher is Premiere Generation Ink (www.premieregeneration.com), which produces books and a biannual magazine besides organizing popular readings. Sachin Pandya, one of the founders of Premiere Generation Ink along with Yogesh Chawla and John Ejaife II, explains that he and his partners are first-generation Americans. "My parents came here from India 27 years ago," he says. "They saw it as a fit place to raise a family. But now, getting to their age, I've found myself becoming upset and certain that things are much worse than they ought to be, and that the mission of Premiere Generation Ink -- to foster cross-cultural communication -- has at no time been more necessary."

Pandya believes art should be cheap and accessible and help make each moment worthwhile. "Poetry is the most basic form of communication: words written and spoken," he says. "Every time we speak and express ourselves there is poetry in what we say and the way we live our lives. Poetry readings bring people together and get them to interact and share ideas. They create community and get us out of our houses, out from under our televisions, and speaking to each other face to face like real people."

Like Pandya, Bill Rodriguez wants poetry to be vital and immediate. An innovative member of Memorial High School's English Department, he has organized the popular Dane County Youth Poetry Festival for the past 15 years. When he moved here 20 years ago from the South Bronx he ran poetry readings Monday nights at the Creperie restaurant.

"Poetry was struggling in the schools in the '80s and '90s," he says, "but all of a sudden it has taken off. It may be that rap music has made the spoken word popular again."

At the annual festival hosted by his school, Rodriguez doesn't find rap influence in the poems' content, but in their intensity. "The rap kids are into the music scene," he says. "Those who write poetry concentrate on things like adolescent angst. It's the strong desire to find and communicate feelings through words that's new."

More than 70 schools participate in the Youth Poetry Festival. "And this year," Rodriguez says, "we had the first Isthmus Poetry Slam Project, held at the Civic Center during the Isthmus Jazz Festival." Seasoned poets Oscar Mireles and Fabu Carter Mogaka visited Memorial to prep students who wanted to perform.

Can poetry be taught? Rodriguez says, "You can help people avoid beginners' mistakes, support their growth and accept their individuality. As a listener I want to be awed. I like Hazlitt's theory: `Art has gusto!' By reading your poems aloud you can tell whether or not they're good enough. The ear is the best teacher. For a while we forgot that."

So is the Madison poetry scene truly entering a golden age?

"I'd love to see a time when people go to a bar to hear the spoken word, as much as they do to hear yet another blues band," says Rusty Russell. "In Madison, we're almost there."

This article originally appeared in the Isthmus on November 30, 2001.

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