M. Bartley Seigel, poet laureate of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, is the author of This Is What They Say (Typecast Publishing, 2013) and an associate professor of creative writing and Writing Center director in the Department of Humanities at Michigan Technological University. In 2021, Seigel received an Academy of American Poets Laureate Fellowship to launch the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) Young Poets Program, in collaboration with state public and tribal high school teachers, which introduces high school students in Michigan’s underserved, rural Upper Peninsula to the diversity and transformative power of poetry, encouraging their own emerging voices, and providing them with a college-level writing workshop that will be offered at no cost. Selected youth poetry produced in the student workshops will be published and promoted on social media. It will be the only such program serving approximately fourteen thousand Upper Peninsula public high school and tribal students.
Poets.org: What do you hope for the future of poetry in Michigan, and what support do you hope future poets laureate have?
MBS: It’s a big state, and that’s a big question. I guess the first thing I would hope for is a state-level poet laureate. We’ve never really had one in Michigan. Several local and regional laureates, but no one that can speak for the whole state. There were rumblings of one in 2021, but the idea fizzled for reasons I can only guess at. It would be a tall order, given the diversity of the state and some of the entrenched regional divides—lower and upper peninsula being a big one. In terms of support, I just wish for more arts funding in general. We throw all kinds of money on all kinds of crazy things and people—funding poetry projects and poets can’t possibly be any worse for us than underwriting sports or industries to the extent we do.
Poets.org: How can a poet, or poetry, bring a community together?
Any person, any people with a voice, they can speak for themselves, and, in doing so, move mountains. We have too few voices saying too little in the public sphere—all this white noise passing for wisdom, putting up walls. Poetry, in all its myriad forms, is the trumpet.
Poets.org: Has being a poet laureate changed your relationship to your own writing in any way?
No. I still write for myself and my place and my people. I’m still a slow and plodding writer. What sticks to the wall still sticks, what doesn’t still doesn’t. I’m still an obscure voice from an obscure part of the world. I think I’d like to keep it that way.
Poets.org: What part of your project are you most excited about?
Getting into Upper Peninsula schools, into these far-flung and remote little locations and dislocations on the map, helping these kids find their own voices, tell their own stories, and showing them how that matters—it’s just been so humbling and thrilling at the same time.
Poets.org: What obstacles, if any, did you experience when you started your project?
As poet laureate of an entire geographic region, I’ve had a lot of ground to cover, and during a global pandemic. Visiting the schools, I have had to be sensitive to what the schools, the teachers, the students need, and when and where they need it. None of them are the same. None of them are working with the same resources. It’s meant a lot of driving for me, a lot of miles, on a lot of bad roads. It’s meant a lot of figuring out digital and analogue workarounds. It’s meant adapting content for wildly divergent audiences. It’s meant working closely with teachers to help ensure I’m supporting them, not just taking up their time. But it’s good work if you can get it.
Poets.org: You say “Who better to write the story of this place than them? [...] They sometimes see it truer than us” on youth writing about Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. How can adult artists help to encourage and sustain youth art? How can we protect that sense of wonder, but also honesty, in youth?
Good teachers open the door, then get out of the way so students can walk through themselves. Youth art doesn’t need to be sustained so much as it needs free reign. Where wonder and honesty have faltered, roadblocks have been erected. If we, as adults, would just stop road-blocking kids at every turn with our own biases, our own anxieties, our own fears; if the kids were just set free, so to speak, who knows where they would go. They certainly wouldn’t sit still in their elders’ shadows.
Poets.org: The project instills a sense of pride in youth, as well, as they look for and find inspiration in the neighborhoods they grew up in. Were there any recurring themes in the students’ poems? How has their work changed the way you see the Upper Peninsula?
The first challenge is always to convince students that they live somewhere strange and exciting, and that other people are interested in their places and the stories that emerge from there. The second challenge is to get them outside of the myth and cliché of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, outside the fear that loving a place or person and being honest about them can’t coexist on the page. But, when it goes well, youth writers write the lives they actually live, and that’s a much more fascinating place to visit, filled with beautiful and harrowing landscapes, human triumphs and tragedies. And those stories, those poems, have real value. These young poets, their lives have real value. They’re more than the butt of some downstater’s Yooper joke. It’s made me very, very proud of this place I call home.
Poets.org: Is there a poem on Poets.org that inspires you and your work in the Upper Peninsula?
At the moment, I want to say, “Now That We Have Tasted Hope” by Khaled Mattawa. Not terribly U.P. specific, though we have our histories of despair, displacement, war, and genocide here, too. And Ukraine is, of course, much on my mind at present. And Mattawa lives just down the road, so to speak.