Wisconsin’s poet laureate taps Native American roots

Kimberly Blaeser wasn’t born a poet, but it didn’t take long for her Native American heritage and its storytelling culture to influence how she experienced the world. Those oral traditions now inform her poetry, allowing her to take her writing in creative directions.

Blaeser now serves as an English professor at UW-Milwaukee, where she teaches creative and critical writing and Native American literature. She also is Anishinaabe, an enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, and grew up on the White Earth reservation in northwestern Minnesota.

Taken together, her heritage and job significantly influence her current position as Wisconsin’s official poet laureate, appointed by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters. Now in her second year of the two-year appointment, she hopes the position gives her a platform to promote poetry’s importance in the state.

Blaeser also wants to revive the practice of poetry recitation to increase the literary form’s popularity and return poetry to one of its fundamental roots. “I had the gift of growing up among some amazing storytellers gifted in oral performance,” Blaeser says. “I guess that got inside me and seemed like a way to have that power of words and language be a part of who I am.”

Oral performance is a critical part of Native American culture, Blaeser says. Recitation was a way to pass traditions and lore from one generation to the next and played an important role in ceremonial rituals, something to which the poet laureate had extensive exposure while growing up.

“Oratory is very important to the transmission of Native American culture,” she explains. “Also, in northwestern Minnesota we didn’t have any TV growing up, so it also was part of our entertainment.”

Blaeser will be explaining this and other facets of the art form at the 2016 Poetry & Pi(e), a poetry reading sponsored by the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts & Letters and held on the UW-Madison campus. The March 14 event, in celebration of “Pi Day,” will feature coffee and homemade pies in addition to a reading by Blaeser.

Many of Blaeser’s poems tap into her Native American heritage. Others discuss nature themes and other, more personal thoughts and feelings. However, poetry is not her only medium.

“In addition to poetry, I write and publish in many genres, including fiction, nonfiction, plays and biography,” says Blaeser, who worked as a photojournalist before receiving her master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame.

Her published poetry works include Apprenticed to Justice (Salt Press, 2007), Absentee Indians and Other Poems (Michigan State University Press, 2002) and other volumes. She will tap these and other sources for the March 14 reading.

“I try to write poetry that’s speakable and I always talk to myself and read things out loud when I am writing,” she explains. “Poetry is ‘sonic’ and you have to hear it. It’s part of the creation process and the way I understand poetry.”

But there is a little more to poetry than just its delivery, at least from Blaeser’s perspective. The audience, whether readers or listeners, also has a role to play.

“Any type of writing informs through a sense of reciprocity, and that’s how the oral traditions work,” Blaeser explains. “My work allows that reciprocity. It’s an invitation as well as an exploration of ideas that leaves room for reader or listener response.”

Blaeser hopes to attract more interest and response from budding state poets and poetry fans under a new initiative that will help Wisconsin poets gain greater exposure to new and untried audiences.

The Wisconsin Poetry Recitation Challenge, which Blaeser plans to launch in April, invites poets and poetry fans to submit a video of themselves reciting their favorite poems from memory.

Blaeser oversaw a soft launch of the program on Jan. 30 at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern Book Center, 720 E. Locust St. The event started at 10 a.m. and didn’t finish until 1 a.m. the following morning, with 143 poets reciting favorite poems and original works.

“Poetry has more than one life and one of those lives is its performance,” she says.

Entries can be submitted via email to wipoetlaureate@gmail.com. Each entry should include some brief background as to the choice of the poem, as well as the name of the reciter, title and author of the poem performed, and the location and date of the recitation.

An editorial committee will review all video submissions, and acceptable submissions will be posted on an interactive Wisconsin map available on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate at wisconsinpoetlaureate.org. The deadline for submissions is March 31 at 5 p.m.

“I want to make Wisconsin the poetry recitation capital of the United States,” Blaeser says. “We have a different relationship with poetry when we memorize a poem. It changes the way we understand the poem and it stays with us for life.”

If you go

“Poetry & Pi(e),” featuring Wisconsin Poet Laureate Kimberly Blaeser, will be held March 14 at the Steenbock Center, 1922 University Ave., on the UW-Madison campus. Tickets are $25 for academy members, $35 for nonmembers. For reservations call 608-263-1692, ext. 11, or email afai@wisconsinacademy.org.