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Verse Wisconsin uses modern methods to tout local writers
Poetry 2.0

Editors Vardaman (left) and Busse get creative on the web.
Credit:Dustin J. Williston
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What happens when one of the world's oldest forms of communication meets one of the newest? You get Verse Wisconsin, a new poetry journal published both in print and on the web at www.versewisconsin.org.

Even before the advent of writing, people used poetic forms to pass down stories through oral traditions. Now, Verse Wisconsin uses Facebook and the Internet to reach out to a community of poets and readers. Edited by Madison poets Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman, Verse Wisconsin published its inaugural issue in January 2010.

Verse Wisconsin's third edition, just published, is the summer issue. It features more than 70 poems, almost 50 of them by Wisconsin poets, from Madison's Nick Lantz to Sheboygan's Jane Kocmoud, from River Falls' Thomas R. Smith to Beaver Dam's Michael Belongie. There is an essay by Laurel Bastian about poetry in prison, an interview with poet and UW grad Martín Espada, now a professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and an article by Busse about Lorine Niedecker (1903-1970), the acclaimed Fort Atkinson poet.

The new journal is a reinvention of an established Wisconsin print poetry journal called Free Verse, which from 1998 to 2009 was edited and published by Linda Aschbrenner, in Marshfield. It enjoyed a loyal following.

The mission statement of Verse Wisconsin includes the goal of connecting Wisconsin's poets to each other and to the larger literary world. The editors credit Aschbrenner with this idea. "Free Verse provided Wisconsin poets with a community," says Busse. "In addition to verse, Linda published news about poets' latest books, and about their readings and other activities. We want to continue this tradition."

When Aschbrenner, who wanted to retire, announced that the 100th issue of Free Verse would be the last one, Wendy Vardaman got in touch. "I felt like I wanted to make sure the magazine continued," says Vardaman, 47. "I approached her about whether she was thinking about turning it over to someone else and asked if could I help in some way or possibly even be the editor."

In her reply, Aschbrenner suggested Vardaman co-edit with Busse, 38. It turns out Busse had already contacted Aschbrenner. "Linda felt that two people would make the work more enjoyable and less of a burden," says Vardaman.

Busse and Vardaman didn't know each other at the time, though they were familiar with each other's work. Busse has an MFA from Bennington College, and her chapbook, Quiver, was published in 2009 by Red Dragonfly Press; another chapbook, Given These Magics, has just been published by Finishing Line Press. Vardaman has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Pennsylvania, and Obstructed View, her collection of poems, was published by Fireweed Press in 2009. She has been nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.

"We work very well together," says Vardaman. "Linda really knew what she was doing."

Aschbrenner's decision to hand the magazine over to Busse and Vardaman was met with great support. "People were relieved that we were going to keep this alive," says Vardaman. "Free Verse had a national following, and people didn't want to see it go. We like to think of ourselves as finders rather than founders."

The transition was a logical time for a name change. Verse Wisconsin emphasizes the journal's commitment to the Wisconsin poetry community.

Busse and Vardaman spent about a year planning their approach before they even started reading submissions. The first issue took several more months of organizing. The editors established an advisory board, drafted a mission statement, did some fundraising and met with local poets to obtain their advice and support. Then Vardaman went to web camp to learn how to create and launch a website.

While Free Verse was purely a print publication, Busse and Vardaman decided right away that their incarnation needed an online presence. "You can't not have a website" says Busse.

Poetry journals are increasingly moving online, but few use the web as creatively as Verse Wisconsin, whose print and online versions differ significantly from one another. Some established journals, like the venerable Poetry (founded in 1912, and supported by a wealthy foundation), publish their entire contents in nearly identical print and online versions as a nod to tradition and as a service to their readers.

Other journals are moving to online-only publication. Shenandoah, published at Washington and Lee University, and a fixture of Southern literature, recently announced that its spring 2011 edition would be its last print edition, followed in fall 2011 by a shift to a purely online presence.

But when Busse and Vardaman decided to publish two distinct versions of Verse Wisconsin, they made a conscious effort to take advantage of the different opportunities that the two media offer. The print edition of Verse Wisconsin publishes articles and poems in a traditional format and is for sale in bookstores, while the free, online edition offers more poetry, articles, book reviews, video and photography. The online version also features newer poetic forms, like visual and animated poetry. To get the whole Verse Wisconsin experience, it's best to read both versions.

Social media has been useful to Busse and Vardaman in helping spread the word.

"The Verse Wisconsin Facebook page was just buzzing with energy when we released our second issue," says Busse. The page provides links to poets' individual web pages, news about upcoming readings, links to articles in the press about poets and Wisconsin poetry, and anything else that the editors think might interest local poets. "Our goal is to start conversations between groups of poets who wouldn't otherwise know each other," she says.

Which isn't to say that the editors aren't interested in connecting with traditional venues for poetry, including the academy. They recently spoke to the MFA students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the first issue of Verse Wisconsin featured an article about the UW-Madison Fellows Program, which offers two annual fellowships at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing. Poems by the 2009 fellows Lauren Berry and John Murillo were included in the issue. Verse Wisconsin's advisory board includes B.J. Best, who is on the faculty at Carroll University in Waukesha, and David Graham, an English professor at Ripon College.

Was it the best idea to take on the helm of a literary magazine in a struggling economy? John Lehman, for one, hopes Busse and Vardaman can avoid burnout. He is the founder of Rosebud, a national poetry and short-story journal, as well as literary editor of Wisconsin People & Ideas and a contributor to Verse Wisconsin. "Publishing is a difficult business," he says. "Nobody appreciates it. It takes over your life."

Verse Wisconsin's print edition breaks even with the income from subscriptions. "We have about 500 paid subscribers, which is pretty good for a poetry journal," says Vardaman. Most of the Free Verse subscribers have stayed with Verse Wisconsin, and new readers are subscribing, too. Busse and Vardaman say their online costs are practically nothing.

Verse Wisconsin is only one part of the thriving poetry scene in Madison. A plethora of poetry events, festivals, literary journals, websites and networking organizations nurture Madison poets and have for years. Busse and Vardaman feel lucky to be located here.

They hail Ron Czerwien, owner of Avol's Bookstore and a published poet, as an inspiration to local poets. Avol's hosts poetry readings by local and national authors, holds a monthly open mike night and, most important, stocks poetry journals like Verse Wisconsin and books by local poets. "That's huge," says Busse. In March, Avol's hosted Verse Wisconsin's launch party.

In this age of digital media and pop culture, how relevant are print poetry journals? "Little magazines have been extremely important for the past 100 years or so," says Ron Wallace, professor of poetry and English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the university's creative writing program.

Poetry journals are, he says, "the primary venue for introducing the work of new poets and the new work of established poets, and increasing the readership for poetry. They are the testing grounds for individual poems that may one day find their way into a book."

Books of poetry may be years in the making, and Wallace says that when he compiles a collection of poetry, he would hesitate to include one that hadn't already been published in a literary journal like Verse Wisconsin.

"With large-circulation magazines like The New Yorker and The Atlantic receiving upwards of 50,000 poetry submissions annually, and publishing only a handful of (mainly) well-established poets, smaller magazines like Verse Wisconsin are increasingly important."

Wallace is less enamored of the online version of Verse Wisconsin. "Although I appreciate the interest today in online journals (which may be the format of the future), I'm glad to see that the editors have retained an attractive print version as well," he says. "It's probably the Luddite in me speaking when I say that I think poetry loses something on the computer screen."

Rosebud's John Lehman disagrees. He thinks that technology has helped propel us into an exciting time for poetry. "Twenty or 30 years ago, you could study great poets but you couldn't be one," he says. "When I was in school, no one asked us what we were writing. Now, poetry has hit the streets. Kids are encouraged to write, to express themselves individually through poetry."

The Internet is providing ways for poets to get their voices heard, says Lehman. "The role of publications has changed. I'm a street poet. I publish a poem every Monday on my Facebook page. I don't have to wait 10 years to get published by a university press."

Lehman says that the trend in poetry over the last 20 years has been toward more readable poems, poems that "tell a good story or express emotions." Rosebud has been publishing more of these types of poems, as has Verse Wisconsin. Lehman praises Vardaman and Busse for their inclusiveness, and for providing encouragement to young poets.

It is Busse and Vardaman's support for emerging poets that excites Marilyn L. Taylor, Wisconsin's poet laureate. Busse and Vardaman have "a good eye," she says. They provide mentoring and guidance to poets who submit to Verse Wisconsin, even if they end up rejecting their poems.

Taylor emphasizes that this kind of feedback is rare in the poetry publishing world. "They are open and welcoming without giving the impression that they will just take anything."

Taylor is also delighted with the way that Verse Wisconsin is raising the profile of Wisconsin poets. The journal is, she says, "showing readers beyond the borders of Wisconsin that important poetry is being written here."

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