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On Wisconsin!—Poetry? YouBetJah!

By Wanda Coleman

In his April 3rd Harriet entry on the anti-union, anti-human mishigas in Madison and beyond, Mark Nowak asks: ‘But this is a poetry blog… What does this have to do with poetry?’ It has EVERYTHING to do with poetry, education and the intellectual life of our nation—and all the arts! While corporations are given welfare, artists, poets and writers are being forced onto the welfare rolls! (Ironically, this is happening while numerous small cities across America are gentrifying/turning themselves into “art centers” in last-ditch efforts to reverse economic blight!) Has anyone noticed that this cultural warfare is an organized, orchestrated movement that dates back to before our nation’s labor movement? (Okay, I won’t go there.) But: Have you noticed which programs are being slashed, if not eliminated, when the budget cuts are passed in your city council or state legislature? Have you looked at the arts council in your state lately? What’s going on at your county museum? At your city and county libraries? Are their staffs beset by severe budget cuts, personnel down to the minimally operative level? Are your non-profit community arts organizations on life support? Where have all the state, county and city grants for individual creative artists gone—regardless of assumptions about political leanings? Has anyone been in a bookstore lately? They’re as empty as the movie theatres. After all, ain’t ALL ART and ALL intellectuals degenerate by nature? Didn’t Hitler and the Nazis prove that?

Whoa!

Take a slow ride east of Madison into Milwaukee and make your way to 720 East Locust Street. There you’ll find Woodland Pattern, a marvelous modern bookstore and the cultural heart of the city’s intellectual life (www.woodlandpattern.org). On my first visit, I met poet Karl Gartung (Now That Memory Has Become So Important), whose knowledge of poetry is so subtle and vast, he was even savvy about what was going on in my neglected region, and pointed out an original copy of Leland Hickman’s Great Slave Suite (see Tiresias, Nightboat & Otis Books). Not only did Karl know more about poetry than I had forgotten, he was and, for a generation, has been a union man and an activist—presently a shop steward with The Teamsters. Karl and his wife, quilter and dollmaker Anne Kingsbury, became my friends instantly, if over a very long distance and many years. As much as I loathed the dolls of my childhood, I couldn’t help but purchase one of Anne’s fantastic and legendary dolls. We met again in St. Louis for the 1999 Dual Muse conference at the University of Washington. Later, I traveled east to help celebrate Woodland Pattern’s 25th anniversary. I recently caught up with Anne, its current director, explaining that I’d been following the headlines and wanted to know how things were really going in Wisconsin.

Anne filled my ears with the bad news: Woodland Pattern was virtually running on prayers—facing a 16% budget cut, the staff and community supporters scrambling to raise the thousands of dollars needed to make it through the rest of the year, fighting despair over the possibility of having to end their fine programs—featuring such important voices as Clayton Eshleman and Ron Padgett. Governor Scott Walker and the Department of Public Instruction are gutting millions in funds for libraries and student education. A cultural activist in her own right, Anne was in the middle of sending out an alert letter detailing Walker’s proposed 2011-2013 state budget which reduces the budget of the Wisconsin Arts Board by 73 percent! But Anne had an even scarier story—that Wisconsin’s genuine grassroots movement, led by ordinary working people, is being infiltrated by destructive forces. While union rights, education and the arts are being assaulted on the surface, the right to peaceful protest is being assaulted underground. The move is on to stymie recall efforts. The ugly subterfuge, trickery and demonizing used to devastate the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) is being used against sincere and honest protesters in Milwaukee. What has been identified as a true grassroots movement by the people of Wisconsin is now being undermined by “outsiders” (akin to the strikebreakers and COINTELPRO of old) brought in to demonize the strong and corrupt the weak-willed, tempting and tricking movement organizers into making fatal errors—errors that will ultimately be used to discredit the movement in the media and public forums.

Outrage and indignation aside, our conversation turned to our inner lives. Anne, Karl and I consider ourselves artists above all other concerns. Anne mentioned a dream of Karl’s in which she was nude, hip-length braids flowing as she walked alongside a pond—a beautifully simple image, peacefully erotic on its own, suggesting the idyllic moment sought at the end of a stressful journey. And being an artist or poet or writer these days, is extremely stressful for those of us who rely on bookstores to sell our books, libraries to supplement our education, universities and colleges to nourish our communities with presentations of contemporary voices in open forums—sanctuaries in which the minds of all nations should be able to flourish without fear. We believe our work is important to the lives of our communities; certainly, it is at the center of our very small, individual universes. And it is tough to focus on one’s art when one’s world is so well along in its descent into an irreversible madness and the inevitable death of all dreams.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 29th, 2011 by Wanda Coleman.