Emerging from the depths of Madison's literary scene, the Monsters of Poetry reading series has hosted events displaying the talents of up-and-coming writers from around the Midwest for years. Created from a handful of University of Wisconsin-Madison and University of Iowa grads, the series has developed a dedicated following and emerged as a venue for both readers and writers to come together, usually at the Project Lodge, to enjoy a night of poetry and fiction.
Hosting an event on Saturday during the Wisconsin Book Festival (Overture's Rotunda Studio, 8 p.m.), originating member Adam Fell talked to The Daily Page about the origins of the series and the current landscape of poetry in society.
The Daily Page: How did Monsters of Poetry series come about and where did the name come from?
Fell: If you ask any of the originating members, you'd probably get a different story on how the name came about. The truth may be lost [laughs]. But in the beginning, there were five of us who all have Iowa and Wisconsin connections.
Two years ago, we looked at the Wisconsin Book Festival schedule and it was mostly fiction, non-fiction, cookbooks and all these other things that are great, but if there was a poet, it was one who you could say had different "poetic sensibilities" than we were excited by. So the five of us, which is me, Kevin González, Lauren Shapiro (who is Kevin's wife and went to Iowa with us), Nate Brown (who was a Fiction Fellow here at UW) and his wife Thea Brown decided to have a reading during the Wisconsin Book Festival. And with Madison's proximity to other Midwestern cities, we knew that we could get a lot of cool people to come in.
So the first event was literally, "Lets call our friends whose writing we like, and get them to come read." It was just going to be a one-off, and because it was around Halloween, someone came up with the name "Monsters of Poetry," and Nate made a poster with a picture of the Wolfman and zombies and that kind of stuff [laughs]. So we said we'll make this a Halloween thing, and we'll put it on a festival night when people will be out and attending readings.
How was the turnout?
It turned out that it wasn't only friends that we invited, but people who had books and chapbooks that we were really excited about. We had nine readers, and it was just this insane, silly, long, wonderful thing with each of the nine readings being ten minutes apiece. And we had over 100 people in attendance, which just made us go, Wow. Okay [laughs]. Why is this happening?
That kind of turnout seems testament enough that you weren't alone in wanting a new sort of poetry reading experience.
Well, the thing that we learned and continues today with the Monsters is that it really isn't too difficult to get people to come out to a poetry reading. Especially with a) students who have to go to these kinds of events for classes, or b) poets who want to check out other poets. And we were also amazed at how many grad students from other disciplines came out. It was over a hundred people, but they were all from different stripes, which is what we wanted.
Honestly, poetry has become an art form where you either love it or you don't. I'm fine with that, and I love the camaraderie that comes from having a small community of poets. It's like you have a poetry platoon in your community. But it's also sad that poetry isn't more of an inclusive thing, which I think has to do in large part by how it's taught and people's perception of it.
In what ways has the current teaching of poetry lead to a resistance in reading it?
I think a lot of people have this perception of poetry as being the way it was literally before the Civil War [laughs]. They view it as something before Whitman and Dickinson, which may be writers they know about, but most people don't realize the importance of getting away from the idea of poets being these sort of "bards."
I think the fun, creativity and imagination has been taken out of the teaching of poetry. Let's take me for example. I started writing poetry in seventh grade and my teacher then was brand new, about 23 or 24, and gave us this poetry writing assignment. The first poem I wrote was about the movie The Crow [laughs]. I was obsessed with that movie and I was obsessed with the Stone Temple Pilots song in that movie called "Big Empty."
It was a silly poem, but I felt some sort of power in being able to express my obsession through this short thing. And then I got to high school, and the writing of poetry took a back seat to the reading and dissecting of poetry. Poetry becomes an autopsy in high school. Not only an autopsy, but one where the results are predetermined. The teacher says, "Okay, here's what this poem by Wordsworth is about."
My own experience is that a lot of the time poetry was also taught by teachers who didn't like poetry themselves, and they'd apologize to the class before having us dive into it. Like, "Yeah, this is Emily Dickinson. Just hang in there and it'll all be over soon." As if we were about to undergo a root canal.
Yeah, like, "Alright, here's the poetry unit." If there's one thing that I've learned as a teacher myself, it's that if I go into any classroom and legitimately feel excited about what we're doing, students may laugh or giggle or be like, "What the fuck is this guy doing?" But the one thing that'll happen is that they're going to pay attention, and they'll most likely get it by the end of the day.
How they "get it" is to have a discussion about it, and not just be talked at. Now I don't want to cast aspersions on all English teachers or professors out there, but I think that's something that's sorely missing. The idea of reading to me is to create empathy and understanding between people. I read a book so I can understand a character or the world, and think about it in a way that I've never thought of before. And I think that's lost when you then add the idea of grades and standardized testing into it.
How do you think poetry is different than other forms of literature?
I think poetry's specialty or superpower is its ability, without specific narrative, to use an image to produce a feeling in a reader. The only thing that is better than poetry in the direct transfer of feelings is music, right?
In that with music you don't necessarily need words to express an emotion.
Right, you don't need words for it, but there's a limit to how complex you can get with music. When I hear a series of chords, I can listen and say, "Okay, that's sad. That's happy." But what about when you get to guilty? Can you transfer the idea of guilt or shame or something like embarrassment via music without words? I think you could try, and maybe think you were doing it, but what does a guilty chord progression sound like? I'm sure its possible, but language I think can do it a little better.
There's a Kenneth Koch book that I love teaching. It's a poetry guide, essentially. And he argues that poetry is special and powerful, because it is a halfway point between music and language. Different poets have their own particular aims with what they do, but the bottom line is trying to get to the core of an emotion. Novels do it, too, but I think poems can do it a little more succinctly.
Can you tell me a little bit about the Monsters event this year?
The awesome, lovely Monsters event this Saturday will feature Erika Meitner and Stuart Nadler, who are both former UW fellows. We really love their work. Erika is a poet and she has three books out. One of her poems won the National Poetry Series Competition. She was also one of my first creative writing teachers at UW. I love her and I love the fact that we can bring her back. She hasn't been here in nine years, and when we asked her she was thrilled at the idea of coming back. And Stuart Nadler's first novel The Book of Life just came out. I knew him both at Iowa and when he became a fellow here. Both readers are young and full of fire, so we're all really excited about it.
The Monsters of Poetry will host Erika Meitner and Stuart Nadler this Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Rotunda Studio at the Overture Center, 201 State Street.