At the age of forty-three, in what is, I hope, the middle of my life, I became the tenth poet laureate of the state where I was born. The honor feels surreal to me. A second-generation immigrant, my relationship to the community and culture of Wisconsin has always been obscure. By this I mean, simply, that growing up, I both did and didn’t feel at home within my state. My mother recalls the moment when I came home from grade school, for example, distraught by the realization that I wasn’t white, that no one else’s mom spoke English with a thick Thai accent. I don’t remember this particular incident myself, but there are other iterations of the experience that I do recall, adjacent memories wherein the distance between myself and the broader world of the American Midwest felt strained by differences both real and imaginary.
Thinking back, one of the first places where I didn’t feel estranged was within the worlds and words of poets. My late father was an avid reader, a lover of literature, and our house was filled with books. Because we were poor, my dad worked two jobs, one during the day as a set designer for the theater department, and another as an adjunct lecturer at the community college late into the night. This meant that I rarely saw him, and so, on weekdays, I’d do my best to stave off sleep until the old blue van he drove flooded the driveway with its headlights. On the nights I managed to stay awake, my dad would sit on the bed and read to me and almost always he’d read poems. Thus, at a young age, the first experience of truly belonging somewhere that I remember, of drifting off within the warmth of another person’s presence, happened in the ebb and flow and rhythms of my father’s voice, a low murmur in the quiet of evening’s dark that held the words of strangers to my ear.
Later, as a teenager, the first community with which I felt a palpable affinity was a group of punks and artists I met in high school. They, like me, went about their lives largely disconnected from the culture happening around them. Unlike me, their experience of disconnection was intentional—an act of purposeful rejection, a lived critique. Many of these folks have remained an active part of my community and friend group, and what’s true about them now was just as true back then: they were, and are, wildly and movingly creative. Sensing the vapid nature of the culture they inherited, the punks I met in high school intuited the limits of their time and place in the world and refused to passively consume it. But this refusal wasn’t simply some idealized, teenage, anarchist rejection. In the absence of the culture I disowned, I found myself instead among a group of artists determined to forge a new community. Because the songs on the radio, which repeated amid the corporate onslaught of commercial noise, felt dead to us, we started our own bands in our parents’ garages. We published our own books and magazines on the copiers at Kinko’s and held impromptu poetry readings on the tops of downtown roofs until the cops descended and scattered us away. The experience of cultural alienation became the opportunity to become an artist for myself. There was, I think, an inherent freedom in that artmaking, and it was within the open borders of the creative act that a new, more vibrant community arose. The act of making art became the means through which the place where I was born began, finally, to feel like home. This feeling would assert itself again years later when my father died and I returned to Wisconsin after living half of my life away.
When my dad fell ill in the summer of 2015, I was living in Thailand, completing my dissertation. After his death, I knew I needed to come back, so when a job opened a few months later at the university in Whitewater where I now work, I leapt at the opportunity. In the last year, while traveling the state for lectures and readings, I’ve told this story many times:
It’s summer and I’m driving to Fort Atkinson where my uncle has offered me a room to live while I wait for my wife and daughter’s visas. The drive is difficult and strange. The ugly leadup to the 2016 elections is already underway, and small town, rural Wisconsin is a blistering sea of MAGA flags and Trump signs, stark reminders that immigrants aren’t welcome. In my heart, I’m doubting my decision to return, questioning the fairness of asking my family to forgo their home in Thailand for a place in the world that very clearly and very openly doesn’t want them.
It’s early evening when I pull into town, the thin light falling on the brick façade of fast food restaurants and chain stores. I turn off Highway 12 and start down Main Street. There, on a small marquee above a restaurant called Scottie’s Eat-Mor, a sign reads “Welcome Poets” in small, black letters above the doorway. Also, on the side of that same building to my left: “Fish, fowl, flood, water lily mud, my life.”
Fort Atkinson is home to Wisconsin’s most notable writer, the poet Lorine Niedecker, and the excerpt scrawled on a mural on the side of a building downtown is the opening to her most famous poem, “Paean to Place.” Though I didn’t know it at the time, Niedecker’s writing will soon become a central facet of my life, a body of work upon which much of my own work will come to rest. That evening, as I drove alone across Wisconsin amid an endless litany of MAGA billboards, flags, and bumper stickers, I couldn’t have felt more alien, more displaced. But suddenly, the sign was there above the diner, the mural painted on the building side. In more ways than I can name, Niedecker’s poetry, its legacy and material effect, returned me to Wisconsin. Or rather, more precisely, Niedecker’s poetry and the myriad ways the community of Fort Atkinson has come to be defined by it, gave me back my state and made a home for me at a time when it felt that the door to home was closed.
In my experience, poetry, at its best, breathes life into communities because poetry is, in essence, a deeply communal act. For example, when I consider again the DIY aesthetic of the artist-punks in whom I found refuge as a teenager, the spirit of that time and place feels largely intact. This is true even now as a writer who is very much supported by the state, the institution at which I work, and by organizations like the Academy of American Poets. Admittedly, there’s something unsettling for me about this, like maybe I’ve turned my back on some pure ideal that I held when I was young.But that would be a lazy reading of the deeply contingent and cooperative nature of the context in which I work. As a writer, I welcome the time and sustenance provided to me, in large part because the sources of that support are the offspring of dedicated and passionate communities whose efforts live in service to other people. Organizations like the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, as well as all the subsidiary organizations that contribute to it, are, at their core, guided by an unwavering faith in the creative capacities of people. Because poetry is such a marginalized genre, the acts of sacrifice and offerings of help that make a literary community possible feel definitive of the medium in a way that doesn’t feel as central to people working in more popular, lucrative modes.
The hard truth is that very few of us, if any, will make a living writing poems.And so, like poor folks across the board, it’s up to us to care for one another. At this point in my career, I no longer see the act of writing poems as exclusively decisive of what it means to be a poet. The creative act is part of it, of course, but another equally important aspect involves cultivating fields of deep attention for the work and words of others. To be a poet is not only to write poems but also to read them, to listen to them, to purchase books, to show up and create community from the cold ground up. We do this not only with our money but also with our time and our physical bodies, attending readings and events. To be a poet is to edit the drafts of friends, to found a journal with a colleague, or start a reading series at a local coffee shop or bookstore. If you’re a teacher, being a poet means spending hours with your students’ poems and loaning books to them you know full well you’ll never see again. This is the work of the poem as well— an effort that makes poems possible and that, in turn, welcomes others into the living, social fold. I feel at home in my community in large part because of poetry, a medium whose language names the place where I live and gives voice and credence to the people I live with.
The poems that floated within my father’s voice defined the home I needed when I was young in much the same way that Niedecker’s poems and legacy do for me today. I know and feel that I belong here. My family belongs here. We are a part of Wisconsin, and Wisconsin is a part of us. If my life as a poet has taught me anything, it is that the living effort of our belonging is a language formed by the love and work of others. Nowhere else, except for maybe in the hardcore punk scene of my youth, have I encountered a group of individuals as dedicated to the work of other people as I have within the broad community of writers I’ve had the privilege to meet along the way. If I had the time and space to name them here, I would. My hope is that they know who they are, how grateful I am, how crucial their efforts are to mine. My work depends on their work. This is the essence of community. No one lives alone.