Faculty and Staff Shake Up Madison Writing Scene

Posted: December 12, 2010 in Arts and Culture

Michael Stock

People are likely to discuss local sports or bands, however local writers are often left out of the conversation.

Three staff and faculty members at Edgewood are involved in the burgeoning Madison writing scene.

Derek Johnson, admissions counselor, writer, and performer, has organized a slam poetry event for the past few years with high school students from Madison and Dane County.  “We worked with a variety of students on enhancing their skills and confidence to get on stage.  It’s been very successful, and with a lot of young students–even new freshmen here in Madison–the response has been overwhelming,” he said.

“It’s amazing that 80 people in a city as small as Madison will sit at a poetry reading on a Friday night.” -Adam Fell

The workshops help develop the students’ writing grammatically and creatively, but they also work on performance.  “A big part of it is getting on stage and being animated,” Johnson said.  The next workshop and slam series will be in February.

Getting young people to be passionate about poetry, he said, is easier than one would think.  “Once students were exposed to poetry, they were able to shake off their preconceptions of the ‘roses are red, violets are blue’ variety,” he said.  Writing is about having a voice, according to Johnson.  “A lot of time their voices are limited,” he said.  “This is a chance for them to really talk what they want to talk about.  When they’re confined in the classroom, high school students can only talk about certain things.”

Johnson and his brother also record the live events, and each student gets a copy of their readings on CD complete with their picture and graphics.

Adam Fell, poetry and English professor and organizer for Monsters of Poetry, just published his first book.  He also emphasizes the accessibility of poetry.  “It’s relatively easy to get people into poetry, and it’s easy to get the stigma of what they think poetry is out of their minds,” he said.

He added: “It’s amazing that 80 people in a city as small as Madison will sit at a poetry reading on a Friday night.  What’s great about Project Lodge is an event could have  some poetry and fiction writers, and a band might play, and it’s a gallery, so you’re surrounded by visual art as well.  And you can feel free to have a beer and relax and socialize.”

Angela Woodward, director of the writing center, just published her second book of poetry.  She believes that though writing is usually a solitary activity, having a group is important.  The writing center usually looks at academic papers, but she said the process is similar; the editing and communicating  step is important in writing.  Even professionals edit many drafts, she explained.

“I didn’t really know about the Madison scene until Adam came around.  It’s such a different vibe from the usual poetry readings,” she said.

“What we’re seeing here,” said Fell, “is that given the right setting, tons of people will come and pay attention and care and buy books.  It’s energetic compared to most readings.”

Monsters of Poetry is a Midwest community, as Fell explained, partly because they can’t afford to bring in readers from New York or San Francisco, but also because there are a lot of excellent writers in the Midwest.  He feels the writing scene in Madison in energetic and really multifaceted.  “You can’t have 50 of the same type of writer,” he said.

“I think it’s really important for writers to not only have a circle of themselves to depend on and see readings, but other artists as well.” – Adam Fell

Fell, Johnson, and Woodward all believe that it’s important for different kinds of artists to mingle.  “I think it’s really important for writers to not only have a circle of themselves to depend on and see readings, but other artists as well,” Fell said.  “It feels organic to integrate musicians and visual artists, and we all have something to say about art to each other.”

Woodward said that many of her friends in Chicago were involved in theatre, and it was beneficial to take her writing to other artists.  She has also gone to writing residencies that blend writers and artists.  That community and interaction, she said, was “affirming and meant a lot to me.

Johsnon helped organize a Mare Lou Williams youth poetry and jazz event at the Overture Center this year.  But he said that even more than music, poetry brings people of all races, backgrounds, and styles together.  “Some one can always relate to what’s being said or knows someone who can relate,” Johnson said.

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