This past Friday afternoon I got into my car and drove for far too long a time into the middle of pastoral nowhere: the Smith family farm west of Madison, Wisconsin. There I took part in what the organizers, Austin Smith and Mike Theune, call the first annual Arena Wisconsin Poetry Festival. After drinks and food in the house up the hill across the road, we all gathered in the barn for three rounds of poetry readings, featuring Matt Guenette, Chip Corwin, Bri Cavallaro, Meg Johnson, Patrick Moran, Andy Gricevich, Christine Holm, Seth Abramson, Brooks Johnson, and yours truly, as well as others. You'll note that list is awfully short on women, which was the festival's major shortcoming. But aside from that it was a helluva good time.
Austin is the very young and exceptionally gracious poet who came up with the idea and convinced his parents (his father Daniel is also a poet) to invite several dozen poets from around the upper Midwest to come and read and celebrate. As Mike Theune (the other major organizer) observed, it was a rare opportunity to create a real sense of the local in poetry, while at the same time extending the reach of what "local" means. (Can Chicago be local to Arena, Wisconsin? Apparently it can.)
Mike was in rare form that evening (though he did punk out on the small hours hillside campfire that took place afterward - I wish my camera had been capable of capturing the Milky Way stretching overhead). Ubiquitous and gregarious, putting everyone at their ease, he helped make up for Kent Johnson's unfortunate absence by reading a typically scabrous and satirical poem Kent had written about Dean Young and his imitators to us. Later, he and Chip read some hillarious collaborations they'd written together based on the notion of the "purity test" that Tea Partyers supposedly want to administer to Republican candidates.
Apparently, Austin had written to Robert Bly (a Wisconsin resident) inviting him to the festival, and had received a nearly illegible but gracious note in reply, along with a poem to be read. Austin did so, in one of Bly's trademark vests. It was one of those moments in which parody and homage blend inseparably together in a kind of Mobius strip.
One of the highlight readings for me came from Andy Gricevich, whose work I hadn't been much familiar with previously but who rocked the house with an understated sort of sound poetry that simulated tuning across radio stations - if those stations were playing a mix of pop music, political theorizing, and existential dread. Other readings that stood out for me were those by Pat Moran (who read from a long sequence that riffs off of the character Harry Lime from The Third Man) and Seth Abramson (I'd never read his poetry, being more familiar with his indefatigable blogging persona, but the poems he read were dark, funny, and disquieting)
I was most startled by Brooks' reading. Brooks happens to be the son of Kent Johnson, and he's a recurring character in Kent's recent poems (see for example Kent's marvelous, unnerving collection Homage to the Last Avant-Garde). He has a goofy and unprepossessing affect when you talk to him, but at the podium he dug down into something fierce, funny, and uncompromising. It turns out he's another Chicago poet, living on the West Side where he helps to run the Mid-Coast Free School, an outfit which offers free classes to the community on subjects as diverse as yoga, "Government Aid and You," and Jacques Lacan.
It was a lovely community to suddenly be a part of, if only for a few hours: a genuine Temporary Autonomus Zone or poet-shepherds' pastoral (though there were some unidealizable elements, like the mosquitoes). It renewed my desire to take root more deeply in the Chicago literary community. The upcoming Printers Ball will offer one opportunity for that, but for the most part events like this are rare. It's the steady, slow accretion of connection that counts for the most and lasts the longest. And this was certainly a reminder of the reality of geography, and the almost magical effect of being in a group of others with only night, wind, and cows outside.