The Essay That I Begin Writing While Walking to the Wisconsin Capitol Trying to Discern the Right Question, 2/24/11

By Wendy Vardaman

Do you know where the Assembly is?

I am walking down the street with a yoga mat under my arm, a back pack with a laptop, and a sleeping bag that, dangling from a cord, cuts off the circulation in my right hand, even through heavy mittens. It is cold and dark. It is February in Madison, and  I have a cold.

I am walking toward the University at 8:35 pm. Really, I’d rather be sleeping. But I am meeting my 18-year-old daughter at a coffee shop where she is meeting friends to talk about starting a Shakespeare theater group at UW. She waves through the winter fogged windows, comes out with her sleeping bag and backpack, and we continue toward campus, talking as we go about her plans for next year when she goes to college for real, away from home, we still don’t know where.

We are walking because we always walk. We are walking because we do not own a car.

Confession: I have not been a political activist. I have never marched in a protest before this week. Have never protested except in response to undone chores at home, unreasonable deadlines, and demands that eat up my poetry-writing time. Have missed voting in numerous primary, and a few city elections.

I do not like parties, political or seasonal.

So what am I doing on day 11 or 12 of the protests in Madison on a marble floor, my yoga mat doubled beneath me, my sleeping bag rolled behind me, writing as fast as I can in my notebook outside the State Library Office of the Capitol’s 3rd floor at midnight?

People ask me directions all the time, even here: do I look like I know what I am doing?

Are you aware that you might get kicked out?

My daughter and I reconnoiter with the male half of the family in front of my husband’s Folklore office at the UW. We’d have gone down earlier, but he’s meeting late with his group of Bradley Learning Community freshman, one of many extra campus duties cheerfully done. He teaches them how to make bread, which they have not learned at home. He’s baked all of our bread, in fact, since I was pregnant with our first child. Our 14-year-old has arrived spattered with clay from his pottery class. It’s about 9 pm when we gather to head down State Street. The TAs who started this sleepover have asked faculty members to come tonight with their friends and families.

We’ve been spending time here, separately and as a family, almost daily, sometimes more than once a day, since the protests began, but we haven’t yet stayed all night. My husband wants to support the grad students—he’s been involved in the Coalition for Affordable Public Education (CAPE) since it began, an organization founded “to increase state funding for the public university system in Wisconsin and thereby increase access to higher education.”

At first it is just our son who plans to go along. Then our daughter finds out that the Governor plans to depopulate “Protest Nation” this weekend. I draw myself out of cold-induced, I’ve-got-deadlines apathy, knowing that an overnight protest at the Capitol is probably not something we will do again as a family: our oldest son has already left Wisconsin to attend college, and our daughter will soon follow.

A young woman wearing a chartreuse vest with Marshall  stamped on the back stops to talk to the guitar-playing college student close to me. I wonder if she is telling him that he needs to stop singing 60s songs? She comes over, munching a Lärabar, then bends down to share her message: There’s a workshop at 11 pm, 1st floor, about nonviolent protest. I’m welcome to come and should spread the word.

It’s nice that the Marshalls are concerned for us.

Will you take our picture?

We walk the halls deliberating about where to camp. The building is a lot more sparsely occupied than it has been during the day, when thousands jam-cram together, shoulder to shoulder, drumming and chanting. Did I mention my dislike of crowds?

We were inside earlier this week when the disappearance of the fourteen Democratic senators made it impossible for a vote on the Budget “Repair” Bill to go forward, and protesters responded with a thunderous thank you, thank you, thank you. We were inside another day when Jesse Jackson led us in a round of “We Shall Overcome,” the Capitol so packed we didn’t even know we were following him. We will be here later tonight when the Republican majority rams through its vote on this bill in 10 seconds, not even allowing everyone in its own party time to vote. But you need a lot more room to sleep than to stand, even if you plan to do it reclining. In the end we have to split up. Girls on one side of the hall, boys on the other. People who already have a space stroll past confidently. They know where to get the free food, the bottled water, the Ian’s Pizza, the Lärabars. Almost immediately my daughter bumps into one of her theater friends and disappears.

I sit down. The family scatters. I have brought work, my computer. I have all kinds of things I am supposed to be doing this evening. But instead, I sit under a poster with Scott Walker’s face on it, the word Dope emblazoned beneath, scribbling with a purple pen, as fast as I can, while people of all ages walk past—really, it’s a little like being at a mall without shiny goods to purchase. (Did I mention that I hate malls even more than crowds or parties?) The poster sticks with an inch of painter’s blue tape to a marble column and details an off-site rally held earlier today. I notice that every column has such a sign. And of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of other signs stuck with painter’s tape to the columns, the walls, the balconies, the doors, everywhere you look. They will all pull away easily when it’s time to take them down. It will look as if nothing unusual had ever happened.

Competing with the guitar player and his friends, who harmonize quite beautifully, are the sounds of giggling teenaged girls hoping to attract some boys’ attention, an occasional tuba blast, a soprano sax, the periodic cheering and chanting from the floor where the Assembly is in session. The kids circle back. I keep seeing people I know—families from the neighborhood, families from the theater where I work. It’s funny how many people I do see now that fewer people are here. During the days, dozens of friends and acquaintances came to protest, but I didn’t run into them in real life—too crowded—just on Facebook, as we posted and reposted information: new facts, old facts, more implications of the bill and budget as they’ve emerged since February 11th. Heartening stories of Ian’s Pizza, loaves and fishes for the crowd, provided by folks from Arkansas to Finland to Iran. YouTube videos. Ken Lonnquist’s half comic, half serious “14 Senators” song celebrating the democratic lawmakers who fled to Illinois. “The Cheddar Revolution.”

I have taken more than one picture during these protests.

Excuse me, ma’m, are you an educator?

It fascinates me to watch all of this. To read obsessively the news that comes over my Facebook wire service. But I’m just a poet, not a singer, not a journalist, not a news analyst, not a teacher. What can poems contribute to politics, to history? Oh, sure, I know the role that folksongs played in the Baltic revolutions. The use, earlier this month, of protest poems in Egypt. The subversive and communicative power of slave songs and stories in the American South. Innumerable World War I poets whose battlefield poems, and deaths, were and continue to be a powerful anti-war statement. And what about William Butler Yeats, who became a senator, and the other poets and writers who created and maintained the fight for Irish independence? Our own national anthem was written as a poem in the heat of battle, set to the tune of a drinking song, printed less than three weeks after the events it describes, and then used to rally others for nearly 200 years.

But I have not been that kind of poet, not that kind of person. I do not like to argue. I avoid groups. I find it hard to explain my thoughts out loud. I don’t think I even know what they are until I begin to write them down, which is why on any given day, at any given hour, I’d rather be writing. And I’d rather, for the most part, be writing poems, which, for me, have always been wonderful little boxes of language and sound first: a place to put special words, a place where each word can become special, can sparkle, separated from other words, given space, and considered for both sound and sense; or, part of some little collection of needle-thin syllable slivers—glint, gleam, shine, strike—one against the other.

Are you correcting papers?

I don’t say it’s normal or desirable to be so absorbed by something so trivial as the way syllables sound. But it’s a harmless way to spend time, or I have thought so. At any given moment of any given day, I would rather be rolling these marbles in my hand, turning them over, feeling them against the skin of my fingers, and hearing the pleasant clack-clack sounds they make, despite the fact that, at any given moment, there are so many more urgent and important demands on my time: the work of helping to hold a non-profit children’s theater together; the work of producing an independent, volunteer poetry magazine; the work of parenting three, now two, soon to be one child. Of even the chores, which themselves rarely ever anymore get done, dog hair collecting like heaps of dirty snow in the corners of a house I can hardly make myself care about at all now that the kids are almost grown. Even sweeping seems, on the face of it, more important than any particular poem.

And yet we poets write poems. I write poems. And when the protests started here in Madison, and Sarah Busse, my co-editor at Verse Wisconsin, wanted to make a statement, we decided a little impulsively to invite our friends, our readers, for their poems about these historic events. Publishing them in the magazine, on Facebook, as written, as they were sent to us, without censure or deliberation, without time, as she eloquently said in a poem about the protests, for perfection. Letting this impromptu issue unfold as it will, as its contributors direct.

I am writing, I explain, a poem

Would it help?

Would it hurt? There are all kinds of arts unfolding spontaneously—not sloppily—here at the Capitol: In the signs by protesters, in the posters. In the display of signage on the walls and hanging from the balconies. In the drumming of the student groups that have loudly led days of chanting. In the costumes of, for instance, a man who dresses up as an Imperial Walker. In the chants. In the bagpipes played by the firefighters who joined the protesters early on, who themselves slept over a few days ago.  In the musicians who came with their guitars and cellos and saxophones. In the musicians who come with only their voices when instruments are banned around Day 19. In the knitting and crafting circles that meet at specific times. In the chalkboard at Ian’s, amended daily with a new color for the names of more countries from which donations have come. In the pictures and videos that people create and share on web sites, blogs and Facebook pages. In the little campsites of those who have been here many days, with their home-made quilts and arrangements of stuff to create a place. In the Post-Its that will cover the Capitol doors when they close to Wisconsin’s citizens. In the impromptu dramatic readings that took place yesterday at the Bartell Theater. In the attempts of Assembly Democrats to keep the debate going. In the speeches, planned and unplanned. In the “theatrical stunts” of the fourteen senators who figured out a way to create this time in the first place for us to fill. In the continued “theatrics” of our minority assembly officials. In the “prank” phone call that went out to Scott Walker from The Beast ( ). The total effect of all of these different kinds of expression and creativity occurring simultaneously is something like what happens in theater, itself always a collaboration among different artists and arts—visual, textual, architectural, sculptural, performative: more impressive and more effecting than these things could be individually. More ephemeral, too, as any given performance unfolds over the space of a few hours and runs of even the best shows are limited.

Do you know where they’ve taken our blankets?

When I was little, my favorite book was Mr. Snitzel’s Cookies. It’s a parable about a poor baker, a hobo, and a rich grocer. The hobo asks both for shelter. The grocer turns him away. The baker shares what little he has left of his own food and gives the man his bed for the night. In the morning the hobo tells him, Be careful what you do first when you go to work. You will do it the rest of the day. The baker forgets, arrives at the shop, hopes to find enough overlooked ingredients to make one last cookie. To his surprise, there is a little flour, a bit of sugar and butter. He begins to bake, and magically, the ingredients replenish themselves all day. His hat-making, more business-minded friend from next door comes to help. While he bakes, she sells the cookies, giving some away to those who can’t pay, as the hobo has instructed. And the grocer? He hunts down the hobo, brings him home for the night, feeds him a sumptuous supper, gives him the guest room with its wide bed and thick blankets.

Next morning the hobo thanks him, same as the baker, and offers the same advice. The grocer and his wife have planned to count money all day. But first, his wife asks logically, don’t we need to clear some space for the money we will count? So they begin: sweeping, tidying, sorting, clearing shelves, taking out trash. Can’t stop, no matter how many boxes they empty, how many trash cans they fill. Meanwhile, Mr. Snitzel, buoyed by the previous day’s bustle, is able to continue as before, baking beautiful cookies and making enough money to sustain his modest needs.

Do you know what time it is?

It’s a dream, perhaps, this coming together of love and livelihood, but one that every artist can relate to. And aren’t most of us artists of some kind, at least some of the time?

Watching the flying figures behind the pizza counter at Ian’s three days ago as they bustled about taking our orders, sliding slices of pizza into wall ovens, someone else making hash marks on a slip of paper, adding to the “given away” column, and subtracting from the “donated” column with a stubby pencil, someone else throwing new country names on the chalkboard, others somewhere in the back baking, baking, baking, someone else somewhere else posting Facebook updates, the place humming with happy people, phones ringing, orders collecting online, as this place offered, for a little while, a collaborative, cooperative economic model, I remembered Mr. Snitzel and the longing and the hope that story gave me as a child for a life of significance and meaningful work: for a sustainable life that balanced material and spiritual needs. A busy life of turning out cookies, but not so busy or so self-involved to prevent helping someone else.

What are you hoping to accomplish with these protests?

If poems seem less immediately significant or desirable to others than pizza or cookies, I am sorry. But they are the only thing I am really compelled to make: what I remind myself to choose first thing in the morning, and what I hope others who feel similarly also allow themselves to choose. It’s not, perhaps, that anyone here really needs any of the poems I’ve written, or any particular poem at all. But it’s how I join my voice (the one I find while writing) to the voices that collect around me like needles needling, like marbles dropping on marble, and I need to give voice to these thoughts, as you do too. To give witness, sometimes, to the people and the events around us through our poems. To give witness, sometimes, to the art of words and writing by showing up and doing it in public, as when painters show up with sketchbooks, chalk, easels. To let ourselves be counted among those who love words and deliberate about their weight, sound, and significance. To join, now and then, the party.

When my daughter returns despondent from the debate downstairs (two weeks before she will lead others in singing “We Shall Overcome” in the rotunda), she looks both older and younger at the same time, having traveled from activism to apathy in one night. And she asks.

Why do this?

And I begin again.

Relying on Your Imagination to Discern the Question, a Prose Sonnet
(at the Capitol, 2/25/11)

Because what's the point if you're not enjoying your life. Because neither of us is getting any younger. Because it is an unseasonably pleasant February day in Wisconsin. Because it is an unpleasantly seasonable February day in Wisconsin. Because my children are with me. Because who needs all this stuff this house these plates this bed these chairs. Because it all comes down to backstory: who we & why we. Because there is free Ian's pizza from Finland and Arkansas at the top of the hill where we listen to Rabbi Biatch.

Because you can read the news on Avol's Bookstore windows and on Facebook and in poems and on people's faces. Because Tammy Baldwin, my congresswoman, and Beth Kiser, my children's grade school cello teacher stand on either side of me. Because "ROTC Kills." Because my husband writes Solidarity on his sign in seven languages while my teenagers get out their magic markers. Because poetry and plays came from one place, and theatrical gestures aren't stunts or tricks or mere or even just. Because 14 senators are just enough to make a sonnet, if you're careful, and I am letting go of perfect all the time and sometimes the performance is the poetry.