Wisconsin’s poet laureate delivers letters of the heart

Max Garland discovered that he’d been named Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate for 2013–14 while sharing a beer and cheese curds with a friend at a rural Wisconsin tavern. The setting couldn’t have been more appropriate for the former western Kentucky native and current University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire literature professor.

Before entering academia, Garland worked numerous odd jobs, including 10 years as a rural letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, following the same route served by his grandfather. The experience gave him both a love of the land and an appreciation for the geography of the soul, sensibilities he tapped in writing “The Postal Confessions” (University of Massachusetts Press, 1994), his first poetry collection. The collection won the prestigious Juniper Prize for Poetry.

As poet laureate, Garland travels the state to give readings, including an upcoming appearance at the Aug. 12 Rural Musicians’ Forum in Spring Green.

What is poetry? 

Max Garland: Shelves of books have been written in answer to this, but the definition falls short of the experience. When we read the Dylan Thomas lines –

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs

About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green 

– we recognize that language is doing more than simply conveying information. And when we read the end of that same poem –

Oh, as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,

Time held me green and dying

Though I sang in my chains like the sea 

– we also realize that the poet is not just talking about his own experience, but the shared experience of time, of human mortality. There’s a kind of music to the language, and you can’t separate the meaning from the music. We come across such language in literature, in Bibles, in novels, in songs and sometimes in conversation. When we do, we refer to it as poetry. It’s easier to show examples than settle on an abstract definition. 

When did you know you were a poet? 

It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t occasionally get lucky with language, say something surprisingly lovely or moving. A poet is just someone who develops that impulse over time. At some point I realized that much of what I thought and felt, much of who I was, was not expressed in my ordinary speech and daily interactions. There was something else important and internal, and the only way to say it was through poetry. 

You speak of poetry as a “mapping” of the heart and soul. What does that mean?

Our current miraculous mapping technology allows us to bounce signals from satellites 12,000 miles above the Earth to determine what road we’re on, but we still don’t know “where” we are. We don’t know the nature of the place, the way people live, what they think, feel, believe, fear, hope and imagine. GPS technology is wonderful science, but it takes art to express the flesh and blood experience of a place.

How has personal experience and understanding of people and surroundings affected your work as a poet?

I’ve had a lot of different jobs, working-class jobs, and the years outside the academic world, including the years as a rural mail carrier, are important to me. I still feel like I’m delivering mail, just a different kind of mail. I’m interested in the lives of people who drive trucks, farm, teach kids, repair things and want a fair share of the fruits of their labor. They’re the kind of people I grew up with, delivered mail to. I don’t admire tycoons or captains of industry any more than I admire the people who clean their hotel rooms. Having cleaned hotel rooms myself, I remember who does the hard work of the world. For a poet, that’s a useful thing.

Is all subject matter fair game for poets? 

It’s difficult to think of a subject-matter barrier that hasn’t been broken time and again. It’s not really the subject, but the depth and compassion of the poetry that matters.

How do you go about writing a poem? 

I write every morning, and although most of what I write is just warming up, sort of talking to myself, occasionally some words or phrases seem more interesting or promising. I follow up on them and begin to wonder if they might eventually be meaningful to others. But it always starts from the habit of writing. The obstacle is always the same – it’s hard to put experience into words, and particularly words that represent the shared human experience. You never quite wind up with what you’d hoped for, but occasionally you decide a poem might be worth the attention of someone else.

Tell me about your upcoming performance with the Rural Musicians’ Forum.

As I understand it, there will be original music inspired by places in Wisconsin and poetry interspersed with the music. I look forward to hearing the compositions, and hopefully initiating some conversation about the ancient and ongoing relationship between music, poetry and place. 

What counsel would you give to people who want to become poets?

Reading is important. A good musician listens to a lot of music and the same holds true for poetry. But the most important thing is the habit of paying attention. Poetry is a common human impulse, the desire to express human experience in words that ring true. It’s rare to find a person who doesn’t feel that impulse. Poetry, like singing in the shower, is fairly cheap, easy to try and you don’t need permission to start. You just need to feel something you wish you knew how to say, and then say it.

A laureate almost lost

In 2011, Gov. Scott Walker eliminated state support for the $2,000-per-year position of state poet laureate.

Fortunately, in May of that year, the Madison-based Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters assumed stewardship of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate program to ensure its continued survival. 

Created by former Gov. Tommy Thompson in July 2000, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission’s purpose was to conduct the poet laureate selection process, assign responsibilities to the elected poet and assist that individual in performing official duties. The poet laureate receives an annual stipend of $2,000 to help offset the costs of attending readings and conferences.

For more, visit www.wisconsinacademy.org/content/wisconsin-poet-laureate.

Upcoming appearances
   July 22 – 6:30 p.m., Rhinelander School of the Arts, Rhinelander.

July 25 – 7 p.m., McMillan Memorial Library, Wisconsin Rapids.

Aug. 12 – Rural Musicians Forum, Hillside School Theatre, Taliesin, Spring Green.

   Aug. 14, 21, 28 – 10:15–11:45 a.m. Phillips Memorial Library,  “Poetry of Place,” Eau Claire.

Sept. 14 – Southwest Wisconsin Book Festival, Mineral Point.

Sept. 17 – 7 p.m., Chief Oshkosh Amphitheater, Egg Harbor Book
Festival, Egg Harbor.

Sept. 26 – 6:30 p.m., Whitefish Bay Public Library, Whitefish Bay.

Sept. 27 – Schiocton Public Library, Schiocton.

Sept 28 – 100 Thousand Poets for Change, Sheboygan.

Oct 5 – Fermentation Fest, Reedsburg

Oct. 5 – 7 p.m. Reedsburg Public Library, Reedsburg

Oct. 6 – 10 a.m.–noon, “Poetry and Place” Writing Workshop,
Fermentation Fest, Reedsburg.

Oct. 12 – Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival, Fort Atkinson.

Oct. 18 – Chippewa Valley Book Festival, Eau Claire Country
Club, Eau Claire.

Oct. 19, 20 – Wisconsin Book Festival, Madison.

Nov. 9 – WORD Festival, Stockholm.

Dec. 5 – 6:30 p.m., Marshfield Public Library, Marshfield.