Paul Druecke on Milwaukee
The Lyrical Bottom Line
Do what? —Brenda Cárdenas from Chiral Formation
One could say that Woodland Pattern’s Annual Poetry Marathon & Benefit, religiously held the last Saturday in January, is the spiritual center of Milwaukee’s literary scene (1). The 14 hour extravaganza features 150 writers with reputations ranging from obscure to venerated and whose eloquence breaks across an impressively broad spectrum. The Marathon affords participating individuals five minutes to plug into an institution, audience, and presumption that their words are part of something larger and sustained. The radically independent book center, which opened its doors in 1979, will host the Marathon’s 22nd iteration in 2017. People will show up in droves to read, listen, and make sure the doors stay open. It is, after all, a fundraiser.
Money. Poets seem to make do with very little of it. Most writers for that matter seem to accept—with varying degrees of ascetic fortitude—that they won’t earn a living from their work. How does money flow through and around literature in a city the size of Milwaukee? (2)
An informal conversation with independent bookstore proprietor Daniel Goldin of Boswell Books gave me one professional’s insight on how Milwaukee’s literary scene feeds itself. We talked for over an hour and for the majority of that time Goldin outlined elaborate symbiotic social networks that sustain business. Referring to longstanding partnerships he mentioned Milwaukee Public Libraries, professors at local universities, public school systems in five-counties, Lynden Sculpture Garden, Margy Stratton, independent enthusiasts Barbara Vey, and John and Ruth Gordon who organize book salons catering to Romance and Mystery genres respectively. He talked of local media coverage compliments of Lake Effect, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Shepherd Express, OnMilwaukee.com among others.
He mentioned Chuck Stebelton (3) at Woodland Pattern and Lisa Baudoin at Books & Company as well as other bookstores near and far. Mr. Goldin embodies finely interwoven economies—financial and social. He is personable, loquacious, and enthusiastic in a way that does not dull his critical edge, which may help explain his successful thirty-four year run in the business. The last thirty being in Milwaukee, and the last seven—not exactly salad days for the industry—at the helm of Boswell’s, which seems poised for a continued, robust presence in the city.
Ann-Marie Blanchard is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at UWM. She has lived in Milwaukee for about 18 months and most likely will leave when her and her partner finish their respective University programs.
On a ridiculously arctic, snow-blown day in late March—one of the reasons this native Australian won’t be likely to linger in this part of the world—Blanchard was quick to acknowledge Brenda Cárdenas as her primary mentor in a writing program for which she had all around praise. Blanchard credited her time at UWM, and specifically studying with Ms. Cárdenas, as instilling the power of literary voice to explore, and confront, cultural value. I wasn’t surprised to hear of Cárdenas’ larger-than-life presence in the classroom. I first heard Brenda Cárdenas read when she served as Milwaukee Poet Laureate 2010–2012. She enchanted the audience. She brought the room to life with cogent intimacy and the intersecting forces of personal histories.
Any scene—or creative writing program—worth its salt is going to nurture the old adage regarding the mightier tool for social change. Given Wisconsin’s regressive political leadership of late, we need Cárdenas—and wave upon wave of freshly articulate voices—championing empowered, progressive humanism. Blanchard used the word “fierce” to describe Cárdenas’ poetry and her ability to inspire. In a way to be expected for an educational institution, but distinct from Mr. Goldin’s day-to-day exigencies, Ms. Blanchard emphasized—and Cárdenas personifies—social exchange as central to Milwaukee’s literary scene.
Matt Cook, current Milwaukee Poet Laureate, is a one-person literary institution. Since the late 90’s, Cook has consistently delivered razor sharp poetic insight with comic-leaning, wildly-popular appeal. His signature strident annunciation has brought an appreciation of words, and subtlety of messaging, to new, unlikely audiences. For example, Cook was recently the closer for Lisa Sutcliffe’s inaugural Local Luminaries program at Milwaukee Art Museum where he talked about a Robert Frank photograph in the permanent collection. He killed, and the crowd dispersed with awe in their voices saying things like “You can tell he’s a poet because he knows how to use words.” Cook represents a rare type of Milwaukee hybridity that marries far-reaching talent and a resistance to moving to a larger cultural center.
I was recently telling someone a story about Cook that I swear is based on a true occurrence and, in any case, indicative of Cook’s place in Milwaukee. Back in 1998 give or take a few years, I remember seeing Matt Cook in a bar, visibly distraught, talking about how they wanted to feature one of his poems in an ad to be aired during Superbowl halftime. Cook was conflicted as to whether that was the appropriate national context for his work. His poem “Picabo Street” was recorded for Nike but Cook declined having it used during the Superbowl. Turning down the most expensive airtime in the world will make for a great Milwaukeeist (4) anecdote when Cook becomes National Poet Laureate.
1 More on literary scenes vs communities. On this unofficial website, Milwaukee shows up as #1 on the list of Literary Communities. I was not surprised that Milwaukee does not show up at all on the list of Literary Scenes.
2 In a 2014 piece titled Art Dividends, published on Temporary Art Review, Druecke looked at Milwaukee’s art economy using a similarly oblique approach.
3 Chuck Stebelton is Program Director at Woodland Pattern. He generously facilitates projects across a wide spectrum of interests going well beyond any job description. I speak from experience because I, and my work, have benefitted significantly from his extensive expertise at connecting the dots.
4 Milwaukeeists is a term coined by Nicholas Frank for an exhibition and essay of the same name.