Margaret Rozga: Wisconsin Poet Laureate |
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Margaret Rozga: Wisconsin Poet Laureate

Wisconsin Poet Laureate Margaret Rozga, 2018. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography.
Wisconsin Poet Laureate Margaret Rozga, 2018. Photo by TJ Lambert/Stages Photography.

Peggy Rozga calls to apologize, says she is running late. She’s been working on a poem and lost track of the hour. There’s not enough time to have dinner before the reading in Madison, but perhaps enough to get a bowl of soup and a loaf of fresh bread to take home to Milwaukee, where she’s lived her whole life, where there will be people to share it with: grandchildren who come to her house to play, friends and Bay View neighbors who drop by, fellow poets from the writing group she’s been a part of for 25 years.

Her given name is Margaret, but she doesn’t mind if you call her Peggy. In fact, she prefers it. She is used to meeting new people, traveling between Milwaukee, Waukesha, and Madison to teach creative writing or to do a reading here and there. But she’s traveled farther: Japan, Senegal, Mexico, Turkey, Italy, Spain, Alaska. In 1965 she traveled to Alabama to work on voter registration. “I thought racial problems in this country would be solved by the end of the summer,” she says, recalling those days. “Yes, I was that naïve. But I also could see the Voting Rights Act on the horizon and believed that would go a long way toward solving those problems by giving people most affected some power to address the issues that affected their lives, all of our lives.”

While her writing is grounded in the life of her Bay View community, it often reaches out and touches our collective memory. 200 Nights and One Day, Peggy’s first book, was her way of keeping the 1967–1968 fair housing marches in Milwaukee from being forgotten. She told the history in poems and from the point of view of the teenagers who marched, including herself. “Elders were not telling their younger family members about these very meaningful experiences in their lives,” she says. “I myself had hesitated to write about my civil rights experiences, thinking no one was interested any more.” 

Peggy is good at remembering details. She recalls parts of other people’s poems, what they told her about their children. She makes you feel like she wants to know about your writing, your project, your mom, whether you need to eat, what you are doing to make the world a better place. She asks a lot of questions—How are you? How was your trip?—and listens to what you have to say.

Her capacity for listening finds its way into her poetry. Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, her second book, tells the story of Peggy’s response to her son’s two tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan: places she hasn’t seen. Understated poems speak to the experience of letting go as a parent and to the ways in which civilians are disconnected from modern war. “It was difficult to write about this intense experience,” she says. “While I wanted to face what was happening to him in a war I didn’t support, I balked at naming my fear, or him, or even myself.”

Peggy is quiet while thinking and seems to look at a point in the distance before drawing a deep breath to speak. She widens her eyes a little before making an observation and lifts her eyebrows. If you are working on a poem, sharing critique in a group, Peggy might surprise you with how much she notices: emotions you thought were hidden, a connection you hadn’t drawn between the present and the past, the form and variations in the rhythm that you didn’t think anyone would notice. 

But writing poetry hasn’t come easily for her. Her first book, the one on the fair housing marches, was written after more than forty years of living with its story. It was published when she turned 63. The intervening years were spent working and raising a family. “Our children were six, five, and two years old when my husband died,” she recalls. “I wrote a lot of haiku [then] because I could keep so few words in my head no matter which child was sick, which ones were fighting, how rushed I was to get dinner on the table, whether the telephone was ringing. They were generally pretty bad (the haiku, not the children), but that was the way I could continue to identify as a writer when time to write was scarce.” 

Now that the kids are grown and have families of their own, Peggy has more time to focus on her writing. Over the past few days she has been working on a poem to read at an interfaith creative vigil for democracy that happens to be a couple of days before Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers’s inauguration ceremony. She worries about the story she wants to tell in the poem, how to tell it right for this audience and this evening. 

Peggy drives to Madison to deliver the poem she wrote for this occasion on a few days’ notice. The sun has almost set when she arrives in late afternoon. She loses track of time getting the story right. The poem, set in the present, includes glimpses of news and neighbors, though no mention of the new grandbaby whose illness has weighed on the family for two weeks. That’s personal. “He went home yesterday,” she says, with relief. If he hadn’t, she wouldn’t have managed to come. That’s priorities.

Peggy’s writing often explores serious social themes, yet is also playful at times. “I don’t understand why the power of truth-telling words should be confined to introspection, to telling about one’s loves whether happy or unhappy, to thinking about mortality,” she says. “There’s so much more to life, so much more that affects our lives, and we need to write about it as we see it.” 

Arriving a few minutes before tonight’s vigil, she waits quietly at the back of the room, her poem clutched tightly in her hands. It isn’t long before one person and then another recognizes her and comes over to say hello, get a hug, a thank you for having me. Thank you for organizing this event. Thank you to someone else for hosting the event. And thank you to another for their contributions.

Whether on stage tonight or elsewhere on another day, Peggy always speaks about the Civil Rights Movement and the Progressive Movement in Wisconsin with gratitude and a sense of debt. “Establish justice, promote the general welfare—these I think are everyone’s responsibility, writers and poets no less than politicians,” she often says.  

Before she reads tonight, there is music. She doesn’t need the words projected on the wall to join along with “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Her voice isn’t loud, but it is firm and unwavering. 

A woman in the audience taps her shoulder. “I wanted to say hello. We were neighbors growing up in Bay View. We went to grade school together.” They hurry to catch up before the words and songs of the vigil begin, happy to cross paths at an event designed to bring old friends together.

Peggy recalls the sidewalk games of childhood. “We ran errands for our mothers, but mostly we were free to play. I probably thought my neighborhood was the world. Or the world was like my neighborhood.” 

The spirit of neighborhood games stays close in her mind. “I like to think [the poems in 200 Nights] chalk the Milwaukee sidewalks. The material about the Civil Rights Movement helps poetry. It rescues poetry from its confines to limited subject matter, and limited audiences, to a central community position,” she says. 

Balancing work, family, writing, and activism is difficult but not impossible. “Because I write about work I’ve done in the community—what I did when I wasn’t writing—the writing and the activism aren’t always different compartments. If I once thought they were, that distinction has blurred.”

The emcee for the evening forgets to introduce her until after she reads, because everyone here knows Peggy, and they have stories of how they crossed paths five or fifty-five years ago: at an anniversary event for the fair housing marches; at a Martin Luther King Jr. commemoration at the Capitol and an impromptu reading together in the rotunda; on the team organizing the book festival in Waukesha; during the reading at Woodland Pattern or the Arts + Literature Laboratory; or while preparing an art exhibit by high school students at Arts@Large.

Cross-pollination with other arts, history, and social justice efforts helps poetry breathe and thrive, she says. Peggy explains why her poetry group created Threaded Metaphors, an exhibit of fiber artists and poets responding to each other’s work. The writers “wanted people who didn’t read literary journals to see the poems,” which hung side by side with quilts and textiles, traveling with them to universities, churches, even a bank.  

This evening’s creativity potluck is the kind of thing that Peggy herself would plan, has planned, as the organizer recalls. It’s what inspired him: his invitation to a fundraising book launch that she organized in Milwaukee. Tonight it’s a few poems, some spoken word, projected photos, some videos, songs, and sing alongs, chalk for writing and drawing on blackboards. Opportunities for people in the audience to contribute. Some bring notebooks and read a page written eight years ago or yesterday. Some speak from memory. Others from phones. 

Peggy is happiest being an activist as a poet. “Powerful language can also advance social justice. … Getting Poetry to chalk on the sidewalk with History, and to rollerblade with Justice, [is] what I want to do.”

The event this evening celebrates the work of many years. The kind of work Peggy has always participated in and sometimes led. Picking up a sign at a neighbor’s house or dropping one off on the way home from a poetry workshop, moving from person to person, acknowledging their efforts and presence, challenging others to take part, encouraging them to offer what they can. 

Peggy’s poem for the evening fits on a single folded page. She opens it with care, takes a deep breath, and reads slowly, clearly. Her words are understated but witty, and she holds the claims of others up to the light for examination. The news may be breaking, as the TV claims, but it has not broken us. When she reads a voice other than her own, her expression changes subtly, so that you know someone else is speaking—that child, that parent, that teacher, that unpaid worker, that asylum seeker. 

Poetry in multiple voices is a path to involving audience members, too. “Bringing in other readers perks things up. It’s one of the things I’ve learned from younger people who do spoken word and draw large audiences,” she notes. 

Peggy doesn’t try to become other people when she reads, but she does want to amplify their voices, and uses poetry and story to “turn up the volume.” It is the story, and the people behind it, that is most important. If she gets their voices right, the story will be right. The right story, she knows, will help all of us to find our own unbroken voices. 

She worries about how she will do as Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate. What poems and stories do people need? What poems and stories does she need to tell, and do those needs overlap?

 “I’ve never wanted to be a nostalgia act,” she says. To reinvent herself and the stories that she tells, Peggy listens to the words of younger poets and activists and works to understand their historical moment. “That helps me to see mine, to see how what I experienced continues to be relevant as struggles for justice and peace continue.”

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Wendy Vardaman, PhD, is the author of three collections of poems. A past poet laureate of Madison, she works as a website manager and sometimes as an editor, artist, and designer.


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