Of Spines And Dreams: Poet Finds A Bookstore Home In Milwaukee

By Kimberly Blaeser | May 20, 2016


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There are many kinds of homes, from where we actually live to the coffee shop that’s an extension of our living room. When poet Kim Blaeser moved to Milwaukee, she found her “book home” in a place that’s been nurturing poets and celebrating poetry for decades.

The year is 1987.  I am an acronym: ABD—all but dissertation graduate student,  just hired to teach at UW-Milwaukee.  Miraculously, during my first month I find a “book home.” I am a long time haunter of book stores and have particular needs. This place measures up as a browsing spot: eclectic, homey, customer friendly, and with good reading chairs. You want to know the name, but let me keep it a secret awhile longer.  If the Safe House in Milwaukee has a password and a clearance test, I think this treasure of the Midwest deserves no less.

After all this is no chain book store with an assembly-line of commercial best sellers streaming in and out. This is a non-profit book center specializing in poetry and fine print materials. Think 25,000 small press titles, broadsides, and—the miracle in 1987—multicultural literature, chapbooks with original prices. A Joe Bruchac chapbook from The Blue Cloud Quarterly for two dollars. This is where I found a palm-sized book of translations of Li Po with wood cut illustrations.

Soon I discover the three-room book center also sponsors community programs—readings, workshops, experimental films, youth camps, music performances—anything in the arts (including an edible book show).  One year in a time before facebook, I receive a word-of-mouth notice that Tuvan Throat Singers will perform.  Imagine hearing one person produce multiple vocal sounds simultaneously, their bagpipe bodies defying the limitations of a single voice box. In the days that follow I experiment churning new sounds from my throat, visualizing the deep drone, the quaver above it, and the pulsing gong.  I count this profit to my poetry as are the many nights I have been privileged to hear literary masters, celebrated the release of books by Milwaukee writer friends, and hosted readings by my own students.

I relish bringing students into this community space where booklovers gather—many of them creative writers reading in public for the first time, their grandparents and college roommates in tow.  We pause when we are done to mingle, glasses of soda, crackers and cheese easing the way to talk—about their talent, their hunger for a life that someone somewhere does not support, about books if we get by all the rest.  I always find at least one student has wandered off, been pulled to the stack in the back of the middle room, fingers tasting spines and dreaming of things not in this small urban space.  Isn’t that why bookstores exist—so that we can leave their confines on the grace of words and image?

Founded in 1979 by artist Anne Kingsbury and poet Karl Gartung, this renaissance book center takes its name from the work of an experimental writer Paul Metcalf, the first poet to read here. Okay the name: Woodland Pattern. Now the year is 2015, I have just picked up world-renowned poet Quincy Troupe from the airport and his first request—to go to Woodland Pattern (where he happily stuffs his bag with treasures).

The year is 2016, one hundred and forty-three poets have signed up to perform five minute slots in the 22nd Annual Poetry Marathon.  Stark political commentary, sestinas, incantatory earth poems—the faire is wide-ranging and the mood is all Woodland Pattern with food out front, some whooping when needed, and appreciation for poetry. Ten hours in, during the seven to eight hour, I challenge the poets to recite by heart a poem by a poet they love. Many take up the challenge, reciting snippets or whole poems with a particular frivolity I attribute to the atmosphere of the place as much as the late hour.

This book-scented building is a community center; people have been here before.  Two of the participants had a post-wedding poetry night here.  I was installed as Wisconsin Poet Laureate here. Writers I meet from around the country inquire about Woodland Pattern as if asking about a cultural landmark.  Indeed perhaps they do.  This Milwaukee Riverwest storefront with changing artwork on its exterior walls has welcomed the likes of Alice Notley, Joy Harjo, Ed Sanders, and Diane Wakoski. And it has welcomed me.

Kimberly Blaeser

Kimberly Blaeser

Kimberly Blaeser teaches creative writing and Native American literature at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. She is the author of three books of poetry, including Apprenticed to Justice.
2018-01-19T17:52:54-06:00Tags: , , , |

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