Pondering a poet laureate


by Sarah Squires

"[Art] means nothing if it simply decorates the dinner table of power which holds it hostage."

These words were written by Adrienne Rich, one of the nation's most acclaimed poets, to President Clinton in 1997 as part of an explanation for her refusal of the National Medal of the Arts. She said that she could not accept such an award during an era where arts and artists were not supported, and merely a token few were appreciated as contributing to society.

Over the last few years, art has not just decorated Winona's dinner tables. It's started lining shelves and walls, erected its own stages, buildings and organizations. Art has begun to move forward with a momentum that may make Winona one of the most supported art scenes in Minnesota. And Winona may soon become the third city in the state to designate its own poet laureate.

On the national level, a poet laureate serves as "the nation's official lightning rod for the poetic impulse of Americans," according to the Library of Congress, the government body in charge of choosing the artist. The national poet laureate is appointed annually, and "seeks to raise the national consciousness to a greater appreciation of the reading and writing of poetry."

A Winona poet laureate would serve the same purpose as the national laureate, only at a much more intimate level. "The idea behind it is to have a public spokesperson who can promote the literary arts throughout Winona," said Fine Arts Commission member Carol Borzyskowski. The commission is trying to scope out the level of public interest in such a project, and will discuss whether it would be worth pursuing at its February meeting.

The potential Winona laureate would participate in leading workshops, readings and special events, and would serve as a leader and mentor for Winona poets. "One of the things we're hoping this would add is a bit of visibility to poets in Winona," said Borzyskowski. She said she'd like to see poetic ads on buses, "random acts of poetry," and bring people's understanding and participation in literary arts to a new level.

Borzyskowski said that there is a strong undercurrent of poetry and poets in Winona, but you can't find it if you aren't looking. "It's not like poets are a different color, shape or size, so you can't really spot them," she said. "But, there are a lot of poets in the area who have been published.

"There's no money in it," she continued. "It's always an act of love."

The Fine Arts Commission is looking, if there is enough interest and support for a local laureate, to form a committee to begin working on the idea.

The lucky local poet would receive a tentatively-planned stipend of $1,200, and would agree to do the following:

"Attend a reception announcing his or her selection as laureate;

"Conduct a public reading of his or her own works each year during National Poetry Month (April);

"Organize an annual reading for local poets;

"Host one poetry workshop or class at the high school level each year; and

"Promote poetry in the Winona area in a manner of his or her choosing.

Additionally, applicants for the designation would have to meet certain requirements, like having either published a volume of poetry in the last ten years at no cost to the author (at least 48 pages), or have published at least two chapbooks (at least 16 pages) in the last ten years at no cost to the author, and have been a Winona County resident for the last five years.

Potential laureates would have to apply for the position through a letter describing what they would do as laureate, a literary resume and ten pages of poetry. Applications would then be reviewed and judged by a panel of judges which may include local college professors and other related businesses and organizations.

Borzyskowski said that part of the reason for the potential project is due to the momentum building in the local art scene. The Great River Shakespeare Festival, the upcoming Frozen River Festival, the planned Winona County Historical Society museum expansion and the city's upcoming, arts-supporting comprehensive plan all add up to a real movement in support of local arts and artists, she said.

"I just think it would be so cool," she said. "I just see it as a thing of the future.

"Poetry doesn't have to be scary and boring, and it doesn't have to be sappy either," she continued. She said that poetry presents the feeling in a fact, idea, or common experience, and is a reflection of life. "And we'd like a laureate to help do that for Winona."

If you would like to volunteer to help out with the potential program, find out more, or express your opinion on the potential for a local laureate, contact Borzyskowski at borz@charter.net.


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