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Madisonian Oscar Mireles

Madison’s new poet laureate, Oscar Mireles, is executive director at Omega School, which prepares students to take the GED test to receive a high school equivalency diploma.

Oscar Mireles found his voice in poetry 35 years ago.

For the next two years, as Madison’s new poet laureate, Mireles will seek to “bring poetry to the people and then bring the people to the poetry.”

Mireles has lived in Madison for 21 years. He is executive director of Omega School, which prepares area students to take the GED test to receive a high school equivalency diploma.

His years of experience working with community organizations include five years as Edgewood High School’s wrestling coach.

When did you start writing?

It was a basic, college English writing course. In the beginning of the class, if I wrote out a topic and I wrote four sentences, I was convinced it was complete and I was done. I think (UW-Oshkosh professor Vincent Lopresti) opened my eyes to the power of finding your voice in writing. So, on the one hand, it’s hard to believe that someone who wasn’t a very good writer (has) become a poet laureate — especially in Madison. There’s a lot of talented writers in Madison.

You didn’t write before college?

No, I didn’t. I used to think about things. I’ve always thought about things. Thinking about a lot of “whys” and trying to understand things.

How does your poetry fit into your work with Omega School?

Well, I think it fits in a couple ways. Here we work with students who didn’t finish high school for a wide variety of reasons. I think each situation is unique. And in writing, each story or poem is something upon itself. I see people who live in the human condition. I try to write about things that I’ve experienced and the things that I’ve observed.

Why does the poet laureate read poetry at the City Council meetings?

The act of it has elevated the position because now, after they’ve heard different poets, now they get it. Now they get the power of poetry.

If it’s effective poetry you internalize it through your lens and your experiences. It becomes real to you even if it’s their words and it might be a far different experience from you ... words have implicit power based on your frame of reference.

But, since (being named poet laureate), I’ve tried to be aware of what else is going on in the poetry/writing community ... I’ve found out there’s sidewalk poetry. I’ve discovered a couple of groups I wasn’t aware of. The universe is bigger than I thought. The universe of poetry in Madison is bigger than I thought.

What does your newest anthology, “I Didn’t Know There Were Latinos in Wisconsin” Volume III, include?

It includes my poetry, but it’s 40 different writers that all talk about the Latino experience from their own perspective – in Wisconsin. Then there’s themes of Madison, searching for home, Wisconsin’s more than snow and cold, and then either speaking Spanish or not speaking Spanish, our mothers, our fathers, about food, a sense of identity and a sense of longing, a sense of finding home. They’re focused on Latinos, but it’s a common experience for all of us.

What’s next?

Right now, the Appleton Public Library has picked the book as their “community read.” They purchased 50 copies, and I’ll be going up next month to read and talk to people. It’s kind of an engagement, kind of like a book club-ish kind of thing. They picked a number of books to encourage the people of the community to read.

— Interview by Amanda Finn

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Amanda Finn is an arts and lifestyle reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.