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Wendy Vardaman’s piece “Midwesterners in Paradise” appears in Midwestern Gothic Issue 14, out now.
How long have you been writing?
I’ve written poetry seriously for 20 years, ever since I finished a brief & inconsequential stint as an academic. Before that I was writing papers for classes and a dissertation. I went to grad school in order (I thought) to make a living as a poet, but my dissertation on American multiethnic autobiography was a mix of the scholarly and the creative—literary analysis and theory, ethnography of work collected from my students, personal nonfiction—and not of interest to anyone but me. I don’t regret having a PhD though. I’ve written book reviews and interviews for the last 10 years, and during the last 5, I’ve gone back to writing literary criticism of a sort, along with creative nonfiction. I come closer to bringing my scholarly and creative interests and writing together all the time, though it’s taken a while to get there. At some point I’d like to be able to write both things simultaneously and effectively for an audience, however small. With illustrations, glitter, fabric, equations, and/or animated puppets.
What’s your connection to the Midwest?
I went to high school in downstate Illinois, where my mom and brother still live. I’ve lived in Madison, Wisconsin, 14 years after spending many years in the Northeast and Northwest—it’s the longest I’ve ever been anywhere. I’m still not sure what, if anything, I am, north or south, east, west, or Midwest, but I think moving around and experiencing different parts of the country (as well as living outside the country) has given me perspective on what the Midwest is and offers.
How has the Midwest influenced your writing?
So many ways. For starters, there are many Midwestern authors and artists and organizers, past and present, who have influenced me as a writer and as a producer of others, and those two things, writing and producing writing, exist in some feedback loop with each other in my work.
Then there is the incredible artistic resource that Midwestern cities represent, in particular, for me: Madison with its world-class university and engaged community, both creating endless intellectual and cultural public programs; Milwaukee with its wealth of sophisticated, inspiring, and down-to-earth activist-writer-artists; and Chicago, an amazing resource for visual art, theatre, poetry, performance poetry, public art, architecture, dance, music—I go there often for readings, theatre, art exhibits—but it’s deeper than that. Chicago has this long history of bringing people from different races, classes, and cultural backgrounds together, and the artistic innovation that comes out of those colliding forces, from the community theatre movement to improv to slam to jazz, is the cultureshed that all Midwestern writer/artists have the privilege (whether or not we realize it) to be nurtured by.
Living in Wisconsin has also given me an incredibly supportive statewide writing community. Wisconsinites like to do things together and are good at getting organized—amazingly, that extends even to poets. As co-editor of Verse Wisconsin for five years, I’ve gotten to hear about and draw inspiration from so many different poets, kinds of poets, and programs that incorporate and support poetry throughout the state. One of my favorites of these is First Wave at UW – Madison, a hip hop and urban arts community that brings internationally known speakers, readers and performers to town. I’ve been to the summer Hip Hop Educators’ Institute twice, getting to take workshops in everything from poetry and cypher to intersectional identities to tagging to hip hop culture. I’m not going to be in any rap battles (performance and improvisation aren’t my strengths), but I love that Madison, Wisconsin, is on the cutting edge of an international movement in hip hop and critical pedagogy, and that serendipity has definitely affected my aesthetics and what I value in poetry and performance poetry.
For that matter, so has the political turmoil here the last few years, which has pushed me to be more of a public poet: one that strives, as current laureate of Madison with Sarah Busse, to make poetry public; to be open to the political content and uses of poetry; and to engage as an editor in certain kinds of activism, essentially an editing of witness. The book that Busse and I recently published and co-edited with Shoshauna Shy, Echolocations, Poets Map Madison, Cowfeather Press, is one manifestation of that editorial mission—providing space to voice the local and seeking out poetry that reflects the demographic and aesthetic diversity of the city.
The Midwest seems to call me to organize and to help build community. I’m not sure I would be that kind of writer/person in another part of the country.
Why do you believe there has never really been a regionalist push for Midwestern writing in the past like there has with the South or even the West Coast?
So many reasons! I don’t think I can do justice to them all. For starters of course there’s the invisibility of the Midwest to coastal folk. We’re the “fly-over” and that’s not a metaphor. I’m not sure that we can do much about that with respect to truly coastal critics and venues. We can organize ourselves better to create a more visible presence. The internet helps, of course, and I really appreciate venues like Midwest Gothic that look to do that, but more importantly, we need to think of ourselves as Midwesterners with a regional identity and some investment in it. We need to help each other become the best writers we can be and promote each other’s work in big and small ways.
That might start with educating ourselves about what the Midwest is—one or many? It’s complicated by the large geographical territory, as well as some of the historical divisions and frictions within it. Urban versus rural, for instance. I think Midwesterners need to recognize that our cities, as much as our farmland, make up the region, and that the cities have always been important. I went to a conference recently on Midwestern literature and was pretty surprised to hear scholars talking about the region as if Sinclair Lewis and August Derleth were still the last best thing to happen here. As if “Midwestern literature” was something that existed in a rural past. As if it was some inherently pastoral thing that couldn’t exist without the family farm. So that’s one problem. What is Midwestern writing? It’s what Midwesterners are writing. Now. Including graphic novels and slam poetry and wacky musicals and storefront plays and The Onion.
We also need to read and learn more about Midwestern writers. The April “Midwest Remix” issue of Verse Wisconsin is a collaboration among many guest curators who contributed their own content to it. We were really impressed by the range and diversity of voices represented—each of the curators is a Wisconsin-based visionary and expert with respect to poetry and to the region, or the many regions, that comprise the Midwest.
Another phenomenon that we saw working on Echolocations, which solicited poems recognizably set in Madison and referencing some public place within the poem, is that Midwestern writers themselves may not necessarily value what’s local to them. May not think the local is worth writing about. May not name the local if they do write about it. The point we tried to make with the anthology is that if we ourselves don’t write about our place, no one else will. It’s not like New York, with people coming through and saying, “Look at me. I was here at the Brooklyn Bridge” or some other famous monument. I mean, seriously, everybody knows what the Pyramids and the Eiffel Tower are—why put those places in the title of your poem but not the names of local stores, parks, buildings, street corners, co-ops where you live? And why not talk about the place you live when you have a larger platform—regional or national—to do that? I’m always encountering writers from Wisconsin at national venues who never mention where they live or read work that witnesses events, people, and places nearby. I’ve started to see it in terms of colonialism: I worry that many of us have accepted the dominant narrative that nothing significant culturally happens here, that we’re the fly-over zone, that we have to connect with writers in New York City or San Francisco or Los Angeles to matter and that those are the people/places that will validate us as artists. Which is completely untrue. Everything and everyone we see around us is worthy material, and it’s up to us to witness our local places/people/stories and to make connections with writers, artists, and activists close by. So much artistic innovation occurs all the time right here—we need to document and value that. I believe that for most of us, building local writing communities and learning about/engaging with other local arts circles, will make our writing lives more meaningful, too.
How do you feel about social media to promote your writing, and do you use it?
I have a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Tumblr blog, and an author website. I also contribute content to some of those things for Verse Wisconsin and Cowfeather Press. I share links to my own writing that way, and I misuse Tumblr egregiously by posting long-form essays there instead of fun visuals & gifs, but I’m more interested in using social media to share articles and exciting art projects by others, as well as observing how it can be used creatively to build writing / artistic/ activist communities and movements that take advantage of and cut across geographical and demographic boundaries. When Verse Wisconsin was publishing poems about the Wisconsin protests in 2011, we did it through Facebook notes, as well as on our website. I’m in awe of Milwaukee’s Overpass Light Brigade, a grassroots arts-protest organization that started three years ago as a local action and built an international community through Facebook. I admire the way that hip hop pedagogy uses Twitter and the hashtag #HipHopEd to hold public, weekly conversations about the discipline among an international community of scholars, teachers, artists, and other interested people. Wisconsin author Lynda Barry’s Near-Sighted Monkey is an incredibly creative Tumblr blog that does so much more than promote her or her work.
I’ve lived too many lives as a reader, student, writer, editor, reviewer, publisher, and mother to just pick one, but I’ve always enjoyed challenging, quirky, innovative books with interesting language, whether novels, plays, poetry, or something else. Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior, Joyce’s Ulysses, Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston), One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), the complete poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Emily Dickinson, Beloved and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Shakespeare’s complete works—especially Hamlet, King Lear, and The Tempest, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom and The Sound and the Fury, Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Orlando, Shaw’s Saint Joan, Housekeeping by Marilyn Robinson, Jane Austen’s novels, and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series “for kids” are a few of the books that have been really important to me at one time or another, and that list is always growing. The book I just finished reading (and loved) was Building Stories, a graphic novel/poem in a box by Chicago author Chris Ware. Right now I’m reading new work by two stellar performance poets I admire, Douglas Kearney (Patter) and Chicago native Patricia Smith (Shouda Been Jimi Savannah).
Chocolate or hummus. But not simultaneously.
If you could have coffee (or tea or a beer) with any literary figure, alive or dead, who would it be?
I’d much rather have a literary party where I get to invite 20-30 writer-artists (living & dead) and listen (while becoming invisible) to what they have to say to each other. Or better yet, have them work on a project together while they talk. Let’s say a poetry mural for the front of my house or a poetry couch.
Where can we find more information about you?
My author website is wendyvardaman.com. My blog live art(s) art live(s) (not about me) is at wvardaman.tumblr.com. The major projects I work on with Sarah Busse—Verse Wisconsin, Cowfeather Press, and the Madison poet laureateship—reflect my aesthetics and community-focused thinking about art. Two articles particularly in Verse Wisconsin deal with that: “poetical economy/exchange: kitchens, coffee shops, cluttered tables, communities” and, with Sarah Busse, “(di)Verse Wisconsin: Community & Diversity”.