One Month In

March 18, 2011

By Sarah Busse

Over the noon hour yesterday I stood in the rotunda and sang along with a group of protesters. The drum circle is gone now, but people come at noon each day to sing the old songs, “Solidarity Forever,” “We Shall Overcome,” “Keep Your Eyes On the Prize”…we don’t all know the melodies, and sometimes we start on different pitches and create a weird, unearthly sound which is beautiful in its own way, as it rises into the dome. New verses specific to Wisconsin and Governor Walker have been written. Some people hold signs. Some people hold babies. The State Troopers are still in charge with their metal detectors and wands. When I went over, the Raging Grannies were there too, in their aprons and bonnets.

Outside the building, it was pretty quiet. One lone man with a bullhorn aimed his voice toward the windows and tried to explain how overworking nurses endangers public health. “I’ll be here every day, until you get it,” he promised. The windows were closed; I don’t know what they heard inside. There were pockets of people with signs, and a group of elders marching. A few cars honked the familiar rhythm “show me what democracy looks like!” as they drove by. But it was nothing like the crowds I’ve grown accustomed to seeing, over the last month. Now we wear the buttons; we carry the clipboards; we move out into the towns of Wisconsin. This is a second chapter.

I put my essay under “Editor’s Notes.” I was hoping you would also write something. Wendy emailed me yesterday. It’s a moment of transition for us too. We’re about to post the March issue of VWOnline, and with that the protest poems will move from our homepage to a new “Main Street” issue. The original rush of poems we received has slowed down. What happens next?

Very like the protests themselves, this issue began spontaneously, exactly one month ago today, mid-February, as we tried to respond to what was unfolding hour by hour in our community. It grew at an amazing rate, poems came in, the issue took on a shape all its own. We moved forward on our gut and nerve, intuitively making decisions about how to publish, when to publish, how much to make our editorial presence felt. We have heard from many readers and poets how moved they have been by what they read, by the fact that we asked to hear their voices and then provided a space for them to be heard by others. We have been moved as well, and only now, a month in, is there time to take a moment and try to figure out, what is it that’s happening here?

Poetry is a solitary art, but poets thrive in connection with each other. We seek each other out. It’s tempting to focus on geopolitical definitions, but what you have with this issue is not a poetry of Wisconsin or a regional poetry, but a poetry of event. We invited poets to engage with current events in a specific, immediate situation, one which personally affects many if not all of us in this state directly, and as we are learning, has ramifications which ripple quickly out into the national arena. There is an obvious parallel to Sam Hammill’s Poets Against the War project, with one very large difference: in our call for submissions, we did not ask poets to choose a side. We actually did just the opposite (and have continued to emphasize this): we acknowledged that there are multiple sides to this issue and invited poets to write from their own truth.

And I like to believe that because of this difference, the pieces we have received try to do what poems always try to do. They voice individual, human stories. They present discrete moments for us to enter. They remind us of our full humanity at a time when, all too often and all too easily, we see both sides trying to de-humanize the other. At times, these poems witness and reflect complexity and fullness when politics too often tries to simplify. At other times, they give vent to the individual shout of revolt. Poets are not journalists or historians. Through my experience in the last month, I have come to believe we serve a different, but important, role in the public square, giving voice to richer truths, allowing readers to ponder heated and polarizing issues in a way that tries to bridge the divides which politics so often, unfortunately, creates.

Now we move into a new phase, as a community and as poets. The poems that bore witness to the fierce jubilation of peaceful protest will give way to new poems, which I look forward to reading. Poets who so far have been too distracted, too caught up, too upset to put pen to paper will eventually come back to the page and screen. Verse Wisconsin wants to hear from you, when you do. What is happening now will continue to unfold over the coming months and years. The necessary internal processing we go through to reflect on these events also continues. Re-visioning of all sorts will occur. This issue remains current, growing, organic as the movement of a people in the street. Our call for submissions remains open. Send us your poems, when you have them. Send us your songs, your visual poetry, your spoken word. Add your voice. Speak your truth. Bear witness.