Fond du Lac’s Foot of the Lake Poetry Collective

by Mary Wehner

Often when poets gather, they begin the conversation by raging against the un-poetic world—politics, school issues, the spouse or significant other, their day jobs. Yet it doesn’t take long to circle back to what they love most: poetry—how it works, how to write it better, and ultimately how to encourage the rest of the world to read and listen to the poems about which they are so passionate.

This is how it happened with a small group of poets in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Five poets: Sandra Ahrens, Judy Barisonzi, Paula Sergi, John Walser and I met at a coffee shop in 2003 to explore ways to promote poetry as well as support each others’ writing. Inspired by the Laurel Poetry Collective in Minnesota and various other groups around the country, we began to combine our visions for promoting poetry in the Fond du Lac area.

Fond du Lac sits on the south end of Lake Winnebago. The lake and its poetic imagery has inspired much of the poetry written by members of the group, thus, “The Foot of the Lake Poetry Collective.” Membership consists of the original five poets plus two recent additions, Cathryn Cofell and Karla Huston. We have several “Friends of the Collective” who have generously contributed to its wellbeing in recent years.

Our mission statement is very simple:  we are a group of local poets who will support one another as poets, create frequent opportunities for the community to discover what poetry offers, and energetically foster the synergy of all artists working together.

A reading series was developed the first year and the inaugural reading took place in February 2005 at “The Awarehouse,” a loft space/art gallery. Wine, snacks and an open mic slot brought in a broad and enthusiastic audience.  After the Awarehouse closed we were invited to hold our readings at the Windhover Center for the Arts, a thriving art center with a cabaret style atmosphere, a cash bar and snacks the membership provides. Happily, our featured readers have been surrounded by art in a quiet and acoustically sound setting since 2005.

At the end of our eighth year we continue to provide readings and workshops, collaborations of all kinds with various organizations and artists. We can count nearly sixty reading events with a respectable audience of 30 to 40 loyal and enthusiastic attendees.  Only the highest quality poetry is featured and the series has become sought after by poets and writers all over the state. The reading series runs from September through May and is generally held at the Windhover on the second Tuesday in the month. We begin promptly at 7, and always feature a short open-mic. One reader, Ralph Murre, said he would gladly come from Door County just for the high quality open-mic.  Well known area poets, David Graham and Kate Sontag from Ripon, and Karl Elder with his car load of students from Lakeland College near Sheboygan all bring poems to read at open mic. We have attracted writers and lovers of writing from across the state.

In 2011 the Collective collaborated with Agnesian Health Care when we brought in Phyllis Langton from Virginia to read from her book Last Flight Out, a memoir recounting the final days she shared with her husband with Lou Gehrig’s disease. The reading took place at the hospital and the audience was filled with doctors, nurses, caregivers and many others interested in Langton's fine writing.

Other collaborations include bringing Eau Claire poet Max Garland to Fond du Lac for two readings at the local Unitarian Universalist church and a project with the Fond du Lac Public Library in the summer of 2010.

Paula Sergi submitted a winning proposal to Poetry Jumps off the Shelf in the name of the Collective in 2010.  We received funding for the project we called Poetry at the Market. As part of the project we worked with the Fond du Lac Farmer’s Market organization and WICK.  A call for submissions went out around the state and poems about harvest and food came flooding in. Fourteen poems were chosen; the Library designed a logo, 3000 copies of the chosen poems and large posters were printed to distribute each week at the Saturday Farmer’s Market. An art exhibit was presented at the Windhover featuring food and garden related paintings. A reading featuring then Poet Laureate Marilyn Taylor kicked off the summer-long event. As a wrap-up several chosen poets including a twelve-year-old from Baraboo read at the Park Ridge Organic Farm’s Fall Festival. It was a great three month success.

Poems in Your Pocket provided another opportunity for partnership with the Library.  A Mannequin in a blue jean dress was placed in the lobby of the Library with various poems written by Collective members tucked in the smock’s pockets.  “Take a Poem—Put it in Your Pocket” said the sign, and folks did.

The Collective’s reading series is comprised of several recurring events. For the last seven years we have asked three College or University professors in the area to choose three or four students to read their poetry or prose. We create a special event with printed programs, posters and newspaper press releases. Highlighting the upcoming writers in our area is part of our mission to honor good writing.  Our “Favorite Poem Project” is a another popular event each year. Based on former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s Favorite Poem Project, local celebrities are asked to read their favorite poem. We ask the State Poet Laureate to read several times during their tenure. Marilyn Taylor and Bruce Dethlefsen have both been extremely generous with their time.

We created a special event a few years ago called Two Voices in the House featuring couples who live together and create art in different ways. In February 2011 the late fiction writer and poet Jim Hazard and poet Susan Firer, his wife, presented their individual methods of writing. It was a special night none of us will forget.

This year poets Jeanie and Steve Tomasko and artist-poets Sharon Auberle and Ralph Murre gave us a sampling of their individual work and discussed their continuing collaboration.

Several years ago we created the website where we share the work of all of our readers and announce upcoming readings. Check us out, see what we’ve done over the years and what we are all about. We have a great line up for next year’s programming and look forward to creating new ideas for expanding our mission. One of my recurring dreams is to publish an anthology of past Foot of the Lake Collective readers. No doubt, it will be a best seller.