In a race that’s decidedly more gentle than the one for the White House, Wisconsin will soon choose its next Poet Laureate.
Not that the job hasn’t borne its own share of political upheaval in recent years. Shortly after taking office, Gov. Scott Walker did away with the state’s official Poet Laureate post, redlining the annual $2,000 that the state Poet Laureate Commission received from the governor’s office — money the commission passed along for the poet’s travel expenses around the state.
The move came as a surprise. For months, the laureateship was in limbo — until the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters stepped forward in May 2011 and gave refuge to the post “for the forseeable future.”
The Academy is currently accepting nominations for Wisconsin’s 2013-15 Poet Laureate through 4 p.m. Friday.
The state’s prime poet will receive a small stipend for travel, thanks to donations from individuals and literary groups, two weeks of an artist residency at Shake Rag Alley in Mineral Point, and the chance to put his or her work — and passion for poetry — in the state spotlight.
“The whole point of my job is to go around and promote Wisconsin poets and poetry,” said Bruce Dethlefsen, the state’s Poet Laureate through the end of 2012.
“Last year I did 72 events. It was wonderful — busy,” he said.
A retired librarian, Dethlefsen made it his goal to visit small public libraries with poetry, often sparking new local writing groups and ongoing open mics in the process.
He also visited many classrooms.
“I give them permission to be artists,” he said of his school visits. “I wish that some man would have come into my seventh-grade class and said, ‘I know some of you think a little differently and you might be artists. I give you permission to try your best to follow that dream if you can. We need you; we need artists — in good times, and especially in tough times, like now.’ I think it would have encouraged me to start writing sooner than I did.”
Dethlefsen, who lives in Westfield, a village north of Portage, is the state’s fourth Poet Laureate. The first, Ellen Kort, was appointed in 2000 after a group of advocates, led by Appleton-area poet Cathryn Cofell, approached then-Gov. Tommy Thompson’s office with the idea of establishing the position.
“It really didn’t take much convincing that our state needed a Poet Laureate,” Cofell recalled. “At that point we were one of only 13 states without one.”
Though many states name a Poet Laureate simply as a honor, Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate Commission wanted an “ambassador” for poetry, she said.
“We really felt there needed to be someone out there championing the positive power of the written word — and helping people understand that it’s not something that you have to be afraid of, that it could actually make your life fuller, more meaningful,” Cofell said.
Taking poetry to “surprising places/spaces” also is the stated goal of Madison’s two Poet Laureates, Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman. Co-editors of Verse Wisconsin magazine and Cowfeather Press, the women were jointly appointed by Mayor Paul Soglin in January. Madison was one of the first cities in the nation to have a Poet Laureate, starting with John Tuschen in 1977.
On both state and local levels, advocates say, the job is meant for someone who is a good poet — but, more importantly, someone who is good for poetry.
“We’re really looking for somebody who’s already kind of out and about and has some credibility in the poetry world,” said Cofell, who will head a 12-person committee to select Wisconsin’s newest Poet Laureate by mid-December.
“It may not be the best poet. They’re all very good poets. I don’t know how you’d even pick ‘the best.’ It’s really someone who has an interest in getting out around the state and saying, ‘Writing is important, creativity is important, creative thinking is important’ — and do it in their own way.”