A Watershed Moment

Rita Mae Reese

I was lucky enough to become a Stegner fellow in fiction a number of years ago, and then became a lecturer in Continuing Studies at Stanford.

It was a dream job (it was in fact a surreal dream job—this hillbilly girl getting to be in charge of a classroom at Stanford? Surely they’d catch on and kick me out at some point). I loved teaching there—the students had incredible stories to tell, and they all taught me so much while being consistently grateful for the chance to learn and to create. The only trouble was that living in the Bay Area was expensive and my lectureship was a two-year position.

So I took a job with a different Continuing Studies program and moved back to Madison, a city I love. But it wasn’t at all the same. At Stanford, I’d been able to recruit local writers to teach—a financial and CV-building opportunity for them, and a boon for local students. The program in Madison wouldn’t do that and I became increasingly frustrated at the gap between my vision and reality, so I quit. I was lucky enough to teach some courses online for Stanford and at the local public libraries. (Libraries are such a great place for writing classes, btw. Contact your library and ask if you could teach one; often the Friends programs of libraries can underwrite the cost.)

Still, I wanted Madison to have more writing opportunities. I couldn’t let go of the dream of having a place where emerging and established writers share their knowledge with beginning writers. With a few friends (notably Angela Voras-Hills, Bridget Birdsall, and Genia Daniels), I helped form a group called The Watershed: A Place for Writers. When we were just a couple of months old, we met Jolynne Roorda, the founder of Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL). ALL is a non-profit organization that encourages visual, literary, and performing artists to explore and develop their craft. It encourages the exchange of ideas and support and fosters collaboration. Jolynne had been looking for someone to start a reading series at ALL when it opened, but we quickly realized that our two organizations were much stronger together, and we merged.

Since then, we’ve offered monthly craft talks that are open to the public, a reading series, a handful of workshops, and monthly write-ins. It’s so gratifying to be part of this writing community.

When I was mired in and then giving up on my university position, I thought of dynamic movements of writers such as the Harlem Renaissance, which was more than writers—it was a community of writers, artists, thinkers, activists; and many of these artists were without institutional support. I did wish that the vision I had was just there waiting for me to participate in it, but it wasn’t. But I started saying out loud what I wanted and figuring out a way to make it happen. I hope anyone out there frustrated in their search for a teaching position, or disappointed with the one they have (or even those fairly content in those positions), to dream big and look beyond the university to other models of creating writing communities. Look around, see what your community has and what it’s missing, and start reaching out. You can’t build it alone, but you can build it.


Today I’m thinking of Dmitri Shostakovich on the train
after Lady Macbeth in Mensk and Stalin’s sniggering,
his round glasses mirrors
for the darkness moving outside the windows.
I’m thinking about how he rode that train for the rest of his life,
friends in camps and friends shot and friends without work
getting on at every stop and he can’t get off that train.
Still there was music, often so faint,
he had to eliminate the sound of Stalin
the way a bloodhound eliminates the scents of everyone
but the pursued.
How much was lost in the din?
I’ve never really understood the nature of art until now.


The Whiteness of the Whale

I am a white woman sitting in the gallery,
my two white girls fighting for space on my lap

as black boys mostly avoid looking
at the pictures on the walls
and at the three of us
huddled on our plastic chair.

I am a long chapter on nothing they want to know
who only occasionally wants to erase herself.

I am required reading.

They are there to see the photos
of incarcerated youth on the walls.
They are there, some looking,
some not looking, for maybe fifteen minutes.

Fifteen minutes of containing the arms and legs
and bristling curiosity of the girls,

fifteen minutes of trying to let the boys be
but not ignore them,
trying to think of some thing to say or do
to make them feel at ease,
while the boys grow into men,
find work, fall in love, lose work,
go to school, start a family, get sick,
get worried, get pulled over, get shot.
Get shot. Get shot.
Get shot. Get
shot. Get

I have the keys to the building.
I’m just waiting for them to leave
so I can lock up.

About Rita Mae Reese

Rita Mae Reese is a recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award, a Stegner fellowship in fiction, a “Discovery”/The Nation award, and a Pamaunok Poetry Prize, among other awards. Her second book, The Book of Hulga, was selected by Denise Duhamel for the Felix Pollak Prize in 2016. She designs lesbian poet trading cards and is the Co-director of Literary Arts at Arts + Literature Laboratory in Madison, WI.


National Poetry Month
National Poetry Month

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month 2017

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.