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Writers festival is rare opportunity to feel part of something larger

By Dawn Hogue

Originally published in The Lakeland Mirror, November 1, 2012The Great Lakes Writers Festival is entwined with my Lakeland College experience in a profound way.

The first ever festival, as sharp in my mind as much as the one last year, was held in 1991. The featured writers were Mark Strand, who was the United States Poet Laureate at the time and Judith Hemschemeyer, a nationally known writer with very local roots—Sheboygan Falls, Wis. In later years the festival welcomed many gifted writers, many of whom are still considered rock stars. I loved them all, but we have our favorites, and to this day, Billy Collins holds a special place in my poetic heart.

Karl Elder deserves accolades for bringing important writers to Lakeland and for designing spaces for personal connections. In 2007, I remember sitting near the Daily Grind with Phil Dacey and Margaret Dawe, the three of us just talking about writing. I can’t imagine that happening in Madison.

As an English teacher, I was always excited to bring students to the festival. We’d arrive early and enjoy the college atmosphere. I’d cajole one or two into reading at the open mic session. I remember Jacob powering through his nervousness to read his short story in the pub. His face justly blushed with pride when Lakeland writer Rob Pockat said something like, “Man, you’re a freshman? Cool.”

I’d make submission of their prose or poetry for a workshop a condition of attending the festival, so my students were often able to hear constructive feedback on their work by writers they respect. Josh listened with grace and a grimace or two as Beth Ann Fennelly discussed his poetry in a workshop, treating it not like student writing, but as real writing. He commented to me later how that had affected him, that she took his work so seriously.

I remember how genuinely star struck Kelly was by Strand and how she held her copy of The Selected that he had just signed as if it were the rarest possession ever. No doubt she cherished it for a long, long time.

At festival’s end, my students and I would take a detour via Dairy Queen before we unwillingly broke the spell by going back to school. In the car and as we ate ice cream, the energy of their conversations buzzed around me. They jabbered about the writers and their sound advice, voted on their favorite moments of the day, and I would just smile and listen, so grateful to have been able to give this to them, so grateful to Karl for making it all happen.

I have attended all but a few of the past festivals and this year I find myself—quite humbly—as one of the featured writers. To celebrate the 15th Great Lakes Writers Festival and Lakeland’s Sesquicentennial, Karl Elder invited four writers who are also Lakeland College alums. I stand proudly with Matthew Henriksen, Jean Kuehnel, and Jodie Liedtke.

I am excited to be in this new role. I know that as I stand at the podium and look out into the crowd, the memories of all the festivals before this one will surge within me. In that way, I imagine it will be a transcendent experience.

To be immersed in the writing life can be lonely. To be immersed in a celebration of writing through the Great Lakes Writers Festival is an opportunity to find like souls and minds and to feel a part of something much larger.

Marilyn Taylor and Sebastian Matthews featured at Great Lakes Writers Festival

by Tom Montag

Poet Marilyn Taylor and poet and memoirist Sebastian Matthews are the featured writers at this year’s Great Lakes Writers Festival at Lakeland College, Sheboygan, Wisconsin. The festival started yesterday with a reading at 11:00 a.m., which I attended, and it continues through this afternoon. There were workshops scheduled yesterday in the afternoon with Taylor and Matthews, and another reading by the writers in the evening. They will read again this morning, and conduct more workshops this afternoon.

Marilyn Taylor was one of the people on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission who interviewed me when I was a finalist for that appointment in 2004, and she recognized me when I came into the auditorium before the reading; God bless her heart. When I was introduced to Sebastian Matthews, he asked me about my work; his host on campus, Jodie Leidke, had been telling him about my Vagabond project.

Marilyn Taylor is a former Poet Laureate of Milwaukee and a professor in the creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She said she was beside herself with joy at being invited to the Festival, “and it’s an honor to be the opening act for Sebastian Matthews.” She is the author of several books of poetry, three of which I was able to purchase before the reading.

Taylor is a poet who is comfortable with the traditional forms. “I like writing sonnets,” she said. “I like having a vessel. It’s not a dead white male thing, as I’ll try to convince you.”

She may take to the traditional forms, but not necessarily the traditional content. “Reading obituaries is fun,” Taylor says. “Looking at their names, you can almost guess when they were born.”

Now the Barbaras have begun to die….

“Fifty or sixty years from now,” Taylor commented, “the obituaries will be full of Ashleys.”

Taylor said she invented her “Aunt Eudora” to contain an old woman’s sweet crankiness. “Of course, the old woman is not me,” the poet averred.

Reading the romance novel, her cheeks take on a bit of bloom….

Milwaukee “is not exactly your tourist mecca,” Taylor notes. However, back in the 1970s, a busload of Japanese tourists disembarked in the city, and Marilyn Taylor was the first local color they saw. Several tourists snapped her picture. She has written about the experience. “I think I’m the first poet to rhyme Milwaukee with Nagasaki,” she said.

Taylor has written sonnets to famous poets. Wallace Stevens, which whom she shares a birthday, is one of those poets, along with the resulting 13,000 ways of looking at a bird, a nightgown, or the plucking of a strange guitar. Edna St. Vincent Millay is another.

Ah, the streets you could have danced through. Ah, practitioner, why didn’t you?

“I have a poem about the mother of us all,” Taylor said, meaning Lucy, that bit of bone out of Africa.

I can feel her stirring in the core of me….

Taylor was tenting in Africa, with only tent-cloth between her and the wildlife at night, in the immense dark. A lion roared loudly and frightened the poet. “Oh, don’t worry about that,” said the woman leading the group. “They almost never harm humans.”

And she read to us from “a crown of sonnets,” where the last line of the first poem is the first line of the next, and this continues through all the sonnets until the last line of the last poem repeats the first line of the first. These are “Notes from the Good Girl Chronicles.”

When the friendly skies were full of virgins….

all this before I’d poured a single drink….

and slaps me, hard, three times across the face….

Thank you, Jesus! Thank you, Maidenform! Just watch my baby take the world by storm….

but nobody would ever want me now….

something called The Feminine Mystique….

throwing away her happiness like that….

just look: the skies are filled with friendly virgins….

Sebastian Matthews is a poet and memoirist in his own right, and is the editor of his father’s poems, essays, and interviews. His father was William Matthews, which becomes a burden if you are trying to establish your own way in the world, I suppose. “He’s William Matthews’ son,” people might always want to say.

No, he is Sebastian Matthews. His memoir, In My Father’s Footsteps, tells us how he has found his way.

For the Thursday morning reading, Matthews read excerpts from a single long piece of prose. We all have seminal experiences which shape our lives, and perhaps this is Matthews’, this night of teen-age drinking and hiking miles in the dark to get to town, of walking through an apple orchard, of his friend falling and cutting his throat open on the sharp edge of a reflector along the road.

“Sometimes your subject matter chooses you,” Matthews said. I couldn’t agree more.

The whole summer I had the sense that something big needed to happen….

Her pretty, other-side-of-the-tracks face….

We knew we were acting dumb, but we couldn’t help ourselves….

He reminded me of my brother, always coming up with a plan….

The moon drifting along the tree tops like a buoy….

Alan’s hands were out in front of his body and he looked crazed. I was glad to be his friend….

We walked with our heads down, pushed forward by momentum….

This is where things get spread out….

Alan sliced his neck open on its crude edge….

Wishing I was anywhere but where I am….

Matthews finished his reading. Host of the festival, poet Karl Elder, came to the podium. “Every muscle in my body hurts with the tension of hearing that,” he said. “And I’ve read it before!”

This year’s Great Lakes Writers Festival was off to a good start.

Thanks to Tom for this reflection. Read his blog The Middlewesterner.