As part of the 2022 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to M. Bartley Seigel in response to a video of him reading his poem “Into the Thicket” aloud. M. Bartley Seigel wrote letters back to six of these students; their letters and his replies are included below.
M. Bartley Seigel also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear "Into the Thicket" Readers & Listeners,
I was very moved that so many of you, from so many varied and distant places, chose to spend some time with my poem, “Into the Thicket,” and then pen letters to me expressing your own thoughts and reactions to my words. That we are all coming together in conversation over such a little thing—a poem!—and hunkering around for a short spell to tend its flame, that is the truest representation of magic to me.
Everyone who wrote to me mentioned their own connection to place, to where they live, and about their own affinity with the nature that surrounds them. I believe a sense of place is something most people can relate to. Certainly, for me, a sense of place, of home, is very important, and that place is Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. At 16,377 remote and rugged square miles, Michigan’s U.P. s larger than the state of Maryland, and represents thirty percent of Michigan’s landmass. There are 300 miles of densely forested two-lane road east to west between Sault Ste. Marie and Ironwood, and another 250 miles of it north to south between Copper Harbor and Menominee. Despite its size, the U.P. is home to only about 311,000 people (compared to Maryland’s six million), a scant three percent of Michigan’s total population of ten million. What we lack in population we make up for in nature. Ours is a land of cedar swamp, boreal forest, white-tailed deer, wolves, moose, black bears, bald eagles, brook trout, and 3.5 billion-year-old exposed bedrock, all tucked in between three inland, sweetwater seas—lakes Superior, Michigan, and Huron.
“Yoopers,” we mostly call ourselves—a phonetic play on “U.P.ers.” We are a grab bag of settler colonial transplants, castaways, and misfits like myself inside the larger Ojibwe (Chippewa) homelands and ceded-territory established by the Treaty of 1842. Indeed, the U.P. is just a piece of the shared lands and waters of the sovereign Native American nations of Gakiiwe’onaning (Keweenaw Bay), Gete-gitgaaning (Lac Vieux Desert), Mashkii-ziibing (Bad River), Odaawaa-zaaga’iganing (Lac Courte Oreilles), Waaswaaganing (Lac Du Flambeau), Miskwaabikong (Red Cliff), Wezaawaagami-ziibiing (St. Croix), Zaka’aaganing (Sokaogon Mole Lake), Nagaajiwanaag (Fond du Lac), Misi-zaaga’iganiing (Mille Lacs), and Gaa-mitaawangaagamaag-ininiwag (Sandy Lake). It is a place where land, water, weather, history, language, and culture are inextricably borrowed, mixed and mingled, sometimes confused and muddy, all too often bloody, but always place-proud, and true.
“Into the Thicket” is one of many poems where I ruminate on this place I call home, on some of the deep currents hiding just out of sight, but never far from mind. I’m deeply grateful my words were able to so strongly evoke the vibrations of this corner of the world, and for so many of you. Sometimes I feel like the definition of being a poet (or an artist of any kind, really) is bearing the gift of being a differently tuned antennae, of noticing the nuances, subtleties, and tremors others might have missed or may not have had a chance to experience themselves. Our job as poets is to notice and to share. That’s why I read so voraciously, too, because I want to share in the reciprocity. The generosity and curiosity between storyteller and listener, reader and writer, is the most human kind of exchange possible—another kind of powerful magic.
I hope my words stick with you for a while longer. I hope you keep reading, keep finding voices that speak to you from beyond your own perspective. I hope you find a safe space to write your own poetry, tell your own stories. Be well.
M. Bartley Seigel
Poet Laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula