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.