Max Garland is the Johnny Appleseed of Wisconsin's poetry landscape. As our new poet laureate, he'll travel the state for the next year, sowing seeds of knowledge and sermonizing about the value of arts and culture. The goal is to help Wisconsinites grow as readers and flourish as writers.
The laureateship, announced Jan. 3 by the Wisconsin Academy, is the latest addition to Garland's long list of honors, which includes a National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship, a James Michener fiction fellowship and two Wisconsin Arts Board literary fellowships. He also teaches at UW-Eau Claire. I chatted with Garland shortly after he received the good news.
The Daily Page: I couldn't help smiling when I read these words from your poem "Because You Left Me a Handful of Daffodils":
It was the only thing I was ever
Elected. A very short king.
I wore a bow tie, and felt
Like a third-grader.
Has the dry spell broken now that you've been named Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2013?
Garland: Funny that you've quoted a poem I wrote about being elected king of fifth grade long ago, because now that you bring it up, I realize this is the second time I've ever been elected, once as fifth-grade king of Concord Elementary, and now the Wisconsin poet laureate.... I think I prefer being poet laureate since a bow tie is not required.
Could you explain what a poet laureate does?
As I understand it, the job is to promote poetry and creativity in the state and encourage people of all ages to participate in the ongoing conversation poetry provides: as readers, listeners and writers. By extension, I hope to be among those who encourage participation in and support of the arts in general.
Why do you believe this appointment is important for Wisconsin and the arts in general?
No matter who is appointed to this role, I think it's important for two reasons. The first is that public support for poetry, and public-private support for the arts, has been undermined by leaders who prefer the language of sales pitch, divisiveness and political propaganda to a language that strives to say what's true, or could be, an art form that promotes the positive impulses of human imagination.
Secondly, we live in a culture in which words and images, mostly trivial, often brutal, bombard us daily, and poetry offers access to a slower, deeper, more lasting and meaningful language. I think it's cool that when the current governor slashed arts funding in the state, thus eliminating the position of poet laureate created by former governor Tommy Thompson, our outgoing poet laureate, Bruce Dethlefsen, just kept doing his job, writing, nurturing and promoting poetry in Wisconsin. And the Wisconsin Academy, aided by a number of statewide arts organizations, stepped forth and figured out a way to keep this voice for poetry and the arts alive.
Why did you decide to write poems for a living?
I wish I could say it better than the brilliant scoundrel Ezra Pound did when he said literature is "news that stays news." But I can't. That's what appeals to me about poetry, that it allows for individual expression, and yet through imagery, metaphor, music and intuitive extension, it also allows us to connect to others, living and dead, and possibly yet to be born. And a good poem is never obsolete. Also, poetry, at its best, breeds empathy, and we need more of that.
So many writers and poets are also accomplished musicians. Do you have any hidden musical talents, and do you attribute music to your success as a writer?
I don't claim to be an "accomplished" musician, but I do play guitar, sing and write songs, and adapt some classic poems to music. I play in one of Eau Claire's 1,001 bands, Eggplant Heroes, the other members of which are real musicians. In terms of the connection between music and poetry, much of the first poetry I heard was embedded in music. In fact, now that I think of it, the first poetry anyone on earth ever heard was sung or chanted, inseparable from music.
Who or what are your greatest literary influences?
The King James translation of the Bible, my grandmother's Methodist hymnbook, the singer-songwriters of the late '60s and early '70s, Dylan Thomas and William Stafford.
What inspires your writing?
The gnawing awareness of mortality. Also, reading someone like Mary Oliver or Ruth Stone or Wislawa Szymborska or Nazim Hikmet. But mainly it's the gnawing awareness of mortality.
What do you hope to accomplish during your tenure?
I hope to continue writing poems, and to encourage others to read, hear and write poems as well. I also hope to learn more about the relationship between place and poetry in Wisconsin. In other words, could it be that there are other ways of mapping and knowing our state? Is it possible that finding the right words to express our connection to the places we love might actually help us and others live in those places? I wonder about things like that.