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A Gift Given, A Gift Returned

Kimberly Blaeser and the Revelatory Power of Poetry
Kimberly Blaeser, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate

The news that Kimberly Blaeser would be Wisconsin’s new Poet Laureate could not have arrived at a more fitting occasion. On a cold November evening at Woodland Pattern Book Center in Milwaukee, Blaeser had just finished reading aloud to a crowded (and very warm) room of friends and fellow poets. She had read works featured in a collaborative, interdisciplinary art installation called HYBRID: Transported by Word and Image. Conceived by poet Sara Parrell and photographer Thomas Ferella as a way to get people thinking about the intersections of art, poetry, and ecological conservation—three of Blaeser’s favorite subjects—HYBRID features paired poems and photographs in Milwaukee- and Madison-area hybrid taxi cabs.

HYBRID poets Matt Rogge, Margaret Rozga, William Stobb, and Angie Trudell Vasquez read from their works Ferrella discussed the origins of the project. Afterward, William Stobb, poet and chair of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, pulled Blaeser aside to convey the good news. 

“I was flabbergasted,” she says, “because I didn’t expect it at that moment. I was very happy and kind of speechless.” Luckily, Blaeser’s husband had the presence of mind to pull out a camera and snap a few candid photographs, which show Blaeser surrounded by beaming colleagues, students, and fellow poetry lovers—an apt celebratory scene for a life-changing moment. 

“It was a really lovely moment, because [Woodland Pattern] has been my ‘book home’ since I began working in Milwaukee,” she says, pointing out how the community center has hosted many of her poetry readings over the nearly twenty-five years that she has lived and taught in the area. Blaeser regularly schedules readings for her students there as well. “It’s been a place in the community that I’ve worked with for a long time,” she says. “It was a great place to hear the news.”

The setting was also appropriate for Blaeser because the notion of hybridity plays a pivotal role in her work—specifically the fusion of visual art and literature. Her current creative project, a collection of “Picto-Poems,” places poetry and photography in thought-provoking combinations. The concept comes from Native American pictographs: art often found on rocks or canyon walls. One of Blaeser’s picto-poems, “Ephemeral Habitation at Cavate,” was recently published in the Milwaukee-based literary journal, Cream City Review, and is also featured in a new anthology called Mediating Indianness (Michigan State University Press, 2015). The poem is comprised of four layers of images: a canyon wall, the partially translucent phrase “Do Not Copy,” a framed photo of a young woman’s shadow, and finally the text of the poem, made more powerful by its arrangement amidst the interposed images.

“All of my work continues to have a grounding in the perspective of an Anishinaabe woman,” says Blaeser. “That is just who I am.”

But her poetry reaches far beyond traditional Native American themes. And Blaeser’s picto-poems are the newest additions to a sizable body of work that frequently conveys her fascination with natural environments. Water imagery often appears in her work. “A huge percentage of my childhood was spent on a boat at the lake or ice fishing,” she says, and animals often make appearances, too: from muskrats to crickets to snowy egrets. These nature poems reflect a keen awareness of and belief in the interdependence of all living things, bearing witness to occurrences of ecological degradation while encouraging readers to take responsibility for their actions and initiate change. 

Many of Blaeser’s poems explore issues of social as well as environmental justice. An enrolled member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe, she frequently writes about Native traditions and casts light on historical events involving Indigenous people. Poems about her Anishinaabe and German ancestors often look at the past with an intimate, almost confessional perspective. In her more spiritual poems, Blaeser considers life, death, and the search for transcendence. Always, though, her words convey the conviction that everything—people, animals, insects, trees, rocks, water—is a part of something larger. 

“A lot of my work has to do with the natural world. Of course, if we think that the natural world needs to be protected, then ideas about how we are in the world and how we choose to live in relationship to the natural world are automatically involved in the politics of ecology,” she says, noting that “everything overlaps.”

Many of the principles that guide Blaeser’s poetry—her respect for nature, passion for social justice, and delight in language—were instilled in her as a child by family and friends living on the White Earth Reservation in remote northwestern Minnesota. She describes the childhood home where she lived with her grandparents as the middle of nowhere. “We didn’t have television,” she says. “We didn’t have a lot of the things that people entertain themselves with these days, so we had a lot of oral storytelling.” 

Blaeser fondly recalls her mother reading to her before bedtime and her father reciting poems he had memorized, like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s “The Village Blacksmith,” on long car trips. “My dad could recite poetry at the drop of a hat,” she says. “Both of my parents were very literate. Despite the fact that neither of [them] were college educated and we lived in this remote, non-artsy place—an environment that didn’t necessarily support the arts in the way we think of them now—they felt the power of story and literature and passed it on.” 

English is Blaeser’s first language, but the older relatives on her father’s side spoke German and her grandparents, aunts, and uncles on her mother’s side spoke Anishinaabemowin, the native language of the Anishinaabe people. Because she was exposed to more than one language at a young age, she was raised with an appreciation for the musicality of speech and inflection. “It was the love of language,” she says, “the power of language that I think was embedded in my character early on.” 

Blaeser’s family and the community on the reservation helped her develop not only an appreciation for writing and storytelling, but a sense of self-confidence. “I really did start writing poetry almost as soon as I could write,” she explains. “And I’m not saying it was any good! In fact, some of it was probably quite horrible. But all the way through my childhood, I was this shy little person, and that was one of my outlets. I was encouraged in my writing from the time I was small.” 

Years later, thanks in part to this encouragement, Blaeser earned her undergraduate degree in English at College of St. Benedict in Minnesota and, after graduation, was hired as the first female reporter/photographer for The Thief River Falls Times in Thief River Falls, Minnesota. During this time, friends and family urged Blaeser to continue pursuing her writing by attending graduate school. (“Quite honestly, [at the time] I didn’t really know what that meant,” she admits.) A local librarian helped her look into programs, and her research led her to the University of Notre Dame, where she eventually earned master’s and doctoral degrees in English. 

As a graduate student, Blaeser became involved with the White Earth Land Recovery Project (WELRP), a grassroots organization founded by Winona LaDuke (an activist and fellow member of the White Earth Reservation) in 1989. The organization’s mission is to recover the original land base of the White Earth Indian Reservation and to protect and preserve indigenous traditions and community knowledge. In 1990, Blaeser began to receive recognition for her poetry when she joined LaDuke on a small fundraising tour for the WELRP. “It was the first time that I had actually performed my poetry in public,” she says. These readings resulted in an invitation for Blaeser to submit her work to a small journal, which eventually led to her first publication.

In 1992, with a few published poems under her belt, Blaeser was invited to the inaugural Returning the Gift Festival of Native Writers and Storytellers in Norman, Oklahoma. This historic gathering of over three hundred Native writers was an unprecedented event. Not only did it demonstrate the strength of Native literature at that time, but it also connected many indigenous writers from across North America and put them directly in touch with one another. Blaeser maintains that the writers she met at the festival played a crucial role in inspiring her to pursue a career in poetry. 

Shortly after Returning The Gift, Blaeser’s first collection of poetry, Trailing You (Greenfield Review Press, 1994), won the Native Writers First Book Award. “I really want to give credit to all the Native writers,” she says. “Once I got into a community of writers, there was just a lot of support.”

And she feels this support has continued to be true in the community of writers at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM), where she’s been teaching in the English Department since 1990. “My time at UWM has been filled with unexpected opportunities,” she says. “I have had tremendous support over the years and been given the flexibility to carve my own niche in the academy.”

It’s clear that Blaeser feels incredibly grateful for the amount of support she has received, and that she has taken the phrase “returning the gift” to heart. Early in her teaching career at UWM, Blaeser made a commitment to promoting the voices of marginalized poets through a multicultural writing group called Word Warriors. “It was a different era,” she explains, “and a number of young writers of color approached me saying that they didn’t feel like their work was understood, necessarily, or valued in the classroom. So, they asked if I would become the faculty advisor of their group.” 

At first, Word Warriors mainly consisted of undergraduate writers, but later it was comprised of experienced graduate student writers. Blaeser believes the group encouraged and validated countless young writers, and she considers Word Warriors a formative part of her growth as both a teacher and poet. “I would not have believed in my work nor enjoyed writing nearly as much without my relationship with the many writers in Word Warriors,” she says. “Many have gone on to publish, to academic jobs, to wonderful careers. Being a part of this ‘family’ of writers, has been one of the important parts of my writing life in and around Milwaukee.”

On a national scale, Blaeser also helps to promote writers of color in her role on several advisory and editorial boards for Native American-focused literature series at academic presses. She also recently initiated the Milwaukee Native American Literary Cooperative (MNALC), which, with additional help from poet Jim Stevens and other supporters, brought 75 Native American writers to Milwaukee for the Twentieth Anniversary Returning the Gift Festival in 2012. Drawing support from UWM, Woodland Pattern, Marquette University, Milwaukee Area Technical College, and the Indian Community School, MNALC is still going strong today.

Blaeser has helped to shine a light on marginalized voices in her roles as teacher, advisor, and editor. But, of course, she draws attention to Native people, issues, and traditions through her own poetry as well.

“Early [in my career],” she explains, “part of my compulsion was to maybe correct some mis-tellings of history or to give a perspective that hadn’t been represented appropriately.” In addition to countering false stereotypes, she has found it equally important to honor her Anishinaabe relatives and community by simply telling their stories. “These people are not well-represented and their stories aren’t known,” she says. “I have such strong feelings for the importance of my culture and my community, I [want] to somehow serve.” 

Blaeser believes that her connection with Wisconsin is rooted in a spiritual engagement with place. Whether ice fishing or boating on a lake, watching sandhill cranes and beaver, or listening to loons, she finds that being in nature is healing and brings her joy. “It’s like purging myself of the chaos,” she says. “We write because the world reveals itself. And the world reveals itself partly through the search in language for meaning or understanding or beauty.”

She recalls one autumn afternoon several years ago when she felt transported by the beauty of the trees’ colors. “I think I’m still part of that ecstatic tradition in poetry,” she says, “because I am transported by the leaving of my own ego. Just for a little bit, you’re entering into another place, and in that other place, you’re nothing. You’re on the fringes of something so enormous and there’s the possibility of these little moments of revelation.”

Blaeser aims to share the revelatory power of poetry with as many Wisconsinites as possible. As the Wisconsin Poet Laureate for the next two years, she will have an opportunity to develop a special project that highlights poetry in a public way. Blaeser said she would “like to bring poetry into more public spaces and events—to unusual places like the Horicon bird festival, to baseball games, flower shows, or sushi bars.” She’s hopeful that a radio program featuring Wisconsin poets and poetry events will launch soon, and she’s planning a large-scale poetry recitation event in April. 

Blaeser also intends to draw on her past experience editing anthologies to publish the work of Wisconsin writers. Having had the opportunity to meet many of the state’s poets through conferences, festivals, and other events, Blaeser says, “The poetry of our state continually astonishes me. To be selected as Wisconsin’s ambassador for poetry is truly a gift.”

This concept of the giving and receiving of gifts is fundamental to Blaeser’s way of being in the world. She considers the Poet Laureate position not only an honor, but also an incredible opportunity to pass on the encouragement and inspiration that she’s received over the years to an even broader audience.

“There are people everywhere who carry poems around, for whom poetry means something,” she says. “Why is it that poetry means so much to us and how does it? Why does it matter enough that we store it and carry it around with us? That [poems] become maybe mantras?” Blaeser looks forward to exploring these questions as Poet Laureate.

She admits that she’s been surprised by how quickly her calendar has filled with scheduled appearances since the announcement. But to her, the demand for her time as Poet Laureate is also an excellent reminder of the many places where poetry readings and other poetry-based events occur across Wisconsin—at libraries, schools, and retirement centers, to name just a few.

“I always knew that poetry was important and working out there in the world,” she says, “but it’s lovely to see that more concretely, to see all of the places that poetry is at work.”

Contributors

Kimberly Blaeser is a poet, scholar, and former Wisconsin Poet Laureate (2015–2016). Of Anishinaabe ancestry and a native of White Earth Reservation in northwestern Minnesota, Blaeser crafts poems that dwell deeply on a complex, natural world—which includes the power of human imagination.

Elizabeth Wyckoff is an editor at the Wisconsin Historical Society Press and freelance writer living in Madison. She holds an MFA from Oregon State University and her fiction has been published in The CollagistCopper Nickel, and Quarterly West, among other journals.

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