Caleb Whitney has thick forearms and a grip that could crush a coconut. A landscape gardener and firefighter from Baileys Harbor, Caleb was telling me about how he just got engaged to his girlfriend, Kristen Peil, and that his landscape business, Green Side Up, was really taking off.
I learned all this, and felt Caleb's powerful handshake, in the small-talk moments before we began our fiction and poetry contest winners’ reading at the 2009 Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison. Caleb had won the second-place poetry prize for his poem, “Kiehnau’s Service Station (since 1952) Fire—Spring 1996.” As we stood talking in the nonfiction aisle of Avol’s Bookstore, I also learned that Caleb, who was about to read his poem to an audience of fifty people, had never read to anyone before—and that he was extremely nervous.
When it was Caleb’s turn to read, his voice broke a little as he admitted to the audience that it was his first reading. Caleb said he didn’t really think of himself as a poet, but that he was grateful for the award and the opportunity to read his poems, which he then did to a rapt audience.
After the contest readings, the award-winning poets, writers, and a few of their friends joined me at the Plaza Tavern for congratulatory beers. As we began to loosen up and get to know each other over Plazaburgers and pitchers of Capital Amber, it became clear that most of the contest winners had never before read their poems or stories to an audience. Over the course of the evening, each in his or her own way mentioned how winning the award, receiving prize money, and reading for a group of strangers were experiences they would never forget.
It’s been nine years since my first Wisconsin People & Ideas writing contest experience, and I am so very pleased that we can continue to support Wisconsin writers from all over the state. Over the years, a few contest winners have gone on to achieve critical or commercial fame for their work. But almost all, like Caleb Whitney, now consider themselves poets and writers.