When my application materials for Wisconsin Poet Laureate were assembled, I was asked what my “project” might be. Many of the past poet laureates put forth a project: Kimberly Blaeser’s Recitation Project, for example. Bruce Dethlefsen reached out to libraries to help them build reading series.
Since I’d been asked to lead a Memory Café at an eldercare facility in the Fox Valley last November, my brain went into overdrive. Why not? I wondered.
For those who don’t know, a Memory Café is a social event for those with mild to moderate memory loss and their caregivers. There is usually a program of sorts. And refreshments. There are dozens of Memory Café projects operating in the state, many sponsored by care facilities and community groups.
Initially, I had a plan about how to proceed, but as with many plans, interesting things happen if you allow for them. I’d hoped some might remember poems they memorized in school, maybe recite a few words. Since I had little response, I shared a couple of my poems, ones based on my memories. Those poems opened the floodgates of their own memories. Soon we were talking about first dates, proposals, old dance halls in Outagamie County.
Poetry seemed to be the key that unlocked the door to what they, too, remembered. Maybe poetry acted as validation—their memories were still important and relevant. Someone might be interested in hearing them.
If you’ve ever had a discussion with a family member about an event from the past, you understand that memory is a fluid thing, an entity that takes the shape of the vessel in which it is contained. You and your sibling, for example, might remember a past event, but likely each of you remembers it differently. Did your brother get the red wagon you wanted for Christmas—and you got the lump of coal? Does he remember it differently?
What about the history of a community? Community memory is often something shared by a group—the history of an organization, for example, or the collective story of a small town or a large city.
My first “gig” as the Wisconsin Poet Laureate took me, not to a Memory Café, but through several small bergs on the east side of Lake Winnebago the first weekend in February. I was invited to participate in a library talk about a new old book about the history of the small city of Kiel, Wisconsin.
Brad Vogel and Ed Majkrzak introduced the historical novel Yellowbird. Both Kiel natives, Vogel is a practicing attorney in New York City. Majkrzak is Kiel’s historical conscience. They call each other sidekicks; though their age difference spans nearly sixty years, they are truly of one mind. Both love their small city and the stories swirling around its inception.
Thus the mythical Indian princess Yellowbird is reborn. Part fiction, part historical fact, Yellowbird: A True Tale of the Early Settlement of Town Schleswig was written by Henry Goeres in the late 1800s and translated from the German in 1900 by Paul Dachsel.
Majkrzak and Vogel collaborated to reintroduce the book, researched to verify locations and facts. Annotated and painstakingly edited, this is the first new edition to be published in over a hundred years.
Yellowbird herself is an enigma, a woman who, so the story goes, leads the remaining Native Americans in the area to save a new settlement of German immigrants from a flood. Not all of it is folklore. There is proof of a near dam break and a concerted effort by community members and Native Americans to save it and the city from certain destruction. What is real or what is formed to become myth and part of the collective memory of this community?
Perhaps as important as this wondrous story is that more than eighty people packed the library, with standing room only in the aisles of the stacks, to hear Majkrzak and Vogel talk of their collaboration—with plenty of references to buildings and businesses still standing, references to famous founding fathers and mothers.
There was plenty of laughter and camaraderie. It left many listeners nodding their heads in homage to what they shared—stories passed from generation to generation becoming the fabric of their folklore.
After pictures were passed, after questions were posed, and with many residents clutching their books close, Vogel asked if there were other memories, other stories that might be added or if there were corrections. The process of revision continues, the memory fluid and moving as the Sheboygan River on which the city is built.
Vogel and Majkrzak will continue to serve as willing listeners and intrepid documenters to the tale of their city. If enough people remember, if enough agree on what happened, if enough facts can be verified, the collective memory becomes part of the story of Kiel.
And I will begin the process of working with the Memory Café projects in the Fox Valley and beyond. We’ll recite poems, share memories, and maybe write together. It’s out of individual memory that community memory is built. Together, we’ll tell their stories.
Karla Huston, Wisconsin Poet Laureate (2017-2018), is the author of A Theory of Lipstick (Main Street Rag: 2013) as well as 8 chapbooks of poetry including Grief Bone, recently released from Five-Oaks Press. Her poems, reviews, and interviews have been published widely, including the 2012 Pushcart Best of the Small Presses anthology. She teaches poetry at The Mill: A Place for Writers in Appleton, Wisconsin.
The theme of teaching and learning poetry, and our emphasis on student poets, speaks directly to the action of poetry in our country and global community. Never has the education of our students been so threatened, and never has truth been more challenged than in the current political climate. The truth emerges through education and the resistance and questions of our youngest generation, and it is their lead we absolutely must follow if they are to live in a society that fosters their achievements, liberation, and justice. Truth emerges through poetry as well — poetry bears witness to what truths seem impossible to speak any other way. Its constraints limit the temptation to misconstrue, obscure, and bury.