The mission of the Madison poet laureate is to integrate poetry into the fabric of the city, connecting civic life with the celebrated and everyday rituals that make life in Madison specific and special.
Madison’s current poets laureate, Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman, hope to encourage Madisonians to explore how they understand the city and their place in it through poetry with a project they’re calling “Write Your Madison.”
The project got its start with an anthology of poetry, “Echolocations, Poets Map Madison,” which was co-edited by Busse and Vardaman with Shoshauna Shy, organizer of Poetry Jumps Off the Shelf. It includes over 100 poems from nearly as many poets, all set in specific Madison locations, times or events, though not all of the poets live in the city.
“It’s a little bit different than most place-based anthologies that do ask for poets who live in a particular place,” Busse said in a recent phone interview with her and Vardaman. “We wanted to focus on the text on the page that said something about the city of Madison.”
A few of the poems have already made their way out into the world. In the spring, several of the poems were displayed on about 30 bicycles rented through Madison B-cycle, a local bike-sharing program.
Several more of the poems were included in an exhibit of photos, poems and spoken word pieces at the Goodman South Madison branch of the Madison Public Library as part of a 25th anniversary celebration for the Dane County Lakes and Watershed Commission. After two months, the pieces will move around the city for display.
The book will have its official launch this Saturday, Nov. 23, during an event from 1 to 4 p.m. at the new Central Library downtown. Busse and Vardaman hope the launch will go beyond what people think of when they imagine a traditional poetry reading. There will be some interactive activities that include poetry, text and maps to spark questions and thoughts about what Madison means to its citizens.
“With the launch, we’re also thinking about what other kinds of things we’ll be doing to extend the life of the project, online and through conversations in town — that’s what we’re calling Write Your Madison,” said Vardaman.
“It’s a very open-ended, process-oriented project — we don’t have, at this point, some master plan for the exact iterations that it’s going to take in the next few years,” agreed Busse. “The way that we’ve conceived of this project and conceived of our positions as laureates is to engage in conversations and partnerships.”
Busse and Vardaman are Madison’s fourth poets laureate. Mayor Paul Soglin appointed Madison’s first poet laureate, John Tuschen, in 1977. Tuschen served until 2001 and was followed by Andrea Musher (from 2001 to 2008) and then Fabu. Busse and Vardaman were appointed in January 2012.
“We applied for the laureate position together because here in Madison it’s a very service-oriented position,” said Busse. “Since we already had a model of service and creating conversations and events, it seemed like a natural fit to continue that work with the additional platform of the laureateship to work from.”
One of the first Write Your Madison partnerships will build on a project initiated with Madison Metro by Madison’s third poet laureate, Fabu. Fabu worked with Madison Metro to display poems by high school students on buses in the community through the “Bus Lines” project.
This year, Madison Metro partnered with Busse and Vardaman to open up “Bus Lines” to all ages and use the submitted poetry more extensively on Metro materials like fliers, transfer cards, their website and the sides of buses. The program also accepts video poems to share online. The deadline for submissions is Nov. 30. Find out more at www.cityofmadison.com/metro/poetry/.
“From what I’ve seen around the country, I think it’s a very dynamic and maybe even new example of how poetry can work in connection with a community organization or a city government organization like Madison Metro,” said Vardaman.
“The idea that another (city) department, which is not an art-based department, can have an arts component to it is very exciting as well,” said Busse.
Another aspect of Write Your Madison, new this month, is the invitation by Vardaman and Busse to Madisonians to use the hashtag #WriteYourMadison to submit via Twitter their work and links to their work, or to comment on the project or otherwise engage with poetry. The Twitter feed will be linked to Cowfeather Press’ website, www.cowfeatherpress.org. Vardaman says the Twitter feed is a new way to think about submitting poetry to a journal.
“We want it to be a process — we want one thing to lead to another and for it to be open-ended,” said Vardaman.
“Our role is also to be listeners, to be open to projects that are meaningful to the participants in the communities that we engage with,” said Busse. “Whatever plans we may be brainstorming, this is really an invitation for people in Madison to engage with us to make things happen that are meaningful to them.”
Kim Ukura is a freelance writer who blogs about books at her website, www.sophisticateddorkiness.com.