Which local spots define Madison? Madison poets laureate Wendy Vardaman and Sarah Busse, along with local poet Shoshauna Shy, find answers through creative writing projects. A recent project called Echolocations has local writers compose poems about specific places in our city, to create a "map" of location-based reflections and observations. It resulted in Echolocations: Poets Map Madison, an anthology that will be unveiled at the Central Library on Nov. 23.
The book is just the first phase of this citywide writing initiative. The launch party kicks off phase two of the project, which includes audio recordings and a Google map of poem locations.
While some poetry collections concentrate on poets from a certain city, Echolocations focuses on poems about our city.
"A lot of times writers think that where they are isn't as important as bigger places," says Vardaman, who co-edits the poetry magazine Verse Wisconsin with Busse. "People will talk about going to the pyramids or Paris. But not so many people will do that with places close to home."
Vardaman and Busse solicited work from writers and nonwriters alike. Soon they had poems from more than 100 people. The outpouring of submissions took the duo by surprise. They realized the work was significant enough to be shared online and through a new, larger project called Write Your Madison.
Creating civically en-gaged poetry is one of their goals as they continue the journey that spawned Echolocations.
"Getting people to recognize what is happening right here is vital," Vardaman says. "We were very aware of that after the recent publication of the [Wisconsin Council on Children and Families] report on the county's inequities. It reminded us we need to listen to each other and see what's going on, not just on our own street corner but everywhere in the city."
The book launch will include poetry readings by contributing writers, but attendees won't simply be asked to sit and listen. Vardaman says there will also be activities such as neighborhood mapmaking and haiku composition. Some work created at the event will be published online.
Echolocations' poems have already found a life outside the book, too. Some ended up on Madison B-cycles last spring. Short poems written by high school and middle school students, and now adults as well, will appear on city buses, in the Metro Transit Ride Guide and even on the backs of tickets.
In other words, poetry about Madison is becoming part of the city's physical landscape. Vardaman says it's helping to change the way we live, too.
"Poetry slows us down. It's a good counterbalance to the speed and busyness of our lives," she notes. "Writing or reading a poem is like walking. It asks you to interrupt the normal flow of your life."