Increasingly, Lorine Niedecker is known around town. A mural featuring a line from one of her poems greets drivers heading into Fort Atkinson on HWY 12.
The line, taken from Paean to Place, is also the opening of a chapbook called ‘Along the River’ that was published by her fans and followers after Niedecker’s death. Better known outside Wisconsin than in her home state, it is now, 45 years after her death, that she is becoming a home-town hero.
The Wisconsin Humanities Council has proudly supported the Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival, which was founded in 2009, with several Mini-grants. I was recently invited by one of the founders to come ‘meet’ Lorine on her home turf of Blackhawk Island. Ann Engelman, along with her friend Amy Lutzke at the Dwight Foster Public Library, has been instrumental in bringing Niedecker’s work into the spotlight in Wisconsin.
Talking with Ann, you might think she and Lorine had been sisters or close friends. She is protective of the poet and utterly dedicated to her legacy in a way I found inspiring. Aside from learning a lot about Lorine, I found myself wanting to celebrate Ann for her big-hearted volunteerism on behalf of not just Lorine, but also the people of Blackhawk Island and Fort Atkinson. She believes in the history and the future of that place completely. And she is unfailingly loyal. In other words, Ann is a typical and truly remarkable public humanist and community leader.
Driving along the single-lane road that parallels the Rock River to visit Lorine Neidecker’s cabin on Blackhawk Island, Ann honked and waved to everyone we saw. She pointed out Lorine’s father’s house from before they lost their wealth and properties in the depression, then told me a story about past and current occupants to go with nearly every other house.
It was drizzling rain and a bit dreary. Before heading out, I asked Ann if she wanted to postpone the trip. “It’s a great day to go to Blackhawk Island,” she said emphatically. Later she explained that any day is a great day to go to Blackhawk Island and I understood, from the potted flowers on the cabin steps, that Ann must make the trip very regularly.
The one room cabin is on privately owned land. Ann has a relationship with the family, who live in Chicago and have a history of spending summer vacations on the island. Ann takes care that the cabin does not fade back into the encroaching woods and tends to flood damage while also cultivating friendships with the people who can help her on her mission to get the cabin protected into perpetuity.
After a massive flood in 2008, Blackhawk Island was devastated. Many of the island’s old cabins were cleared and not rebuilt. “But there is a culture here. It’s a very unique and special place,” Ann told me. Flooding is one of the challenges to getting Historic Preservation status for Lorine Niedecker’s home.
Ann quietly brings poets and others, such as myself, to see the rustic home where Lorine wrote, to look out through the window to understand the inspiration for her writing, and to fall in love with the downtrodden floodplain that is Blackhawk Island so that it is not all lost to history. Her efforts are working.
Over lunch at Cafe Carpe, sitting on the screened in porch overlooking the river, Amy and Ann told me about their successes, as well as their grand vision. When the local library, where Lorine had once worked, was renovated in 2011, the Friends of Lorine Niedecker were involved in fundraising and planning. The library holds a large collection of Lorine’s original journals, as well as her personal book collection. There is now a beautiful room of the library dedicated to Niedecker where researchers can access these local assets.
In addition to organizing the annual Wisconsin Poetry Festival, the Friends of Lorine Niedecker host monthly poetry readings at the library, they produce content for and maintain the Niedecker website, and they publish The Solitary Plover newsletter twice a year.
“In the beginning, it was Amy and I and a few others really pushing hard. This year, I stepped back from organizing the Festival, and the Friends group stepped up. That makes me really happy, to know that we have built something with its own momentum,” Ann told me.
At the end of August this summer, an event called Paean to Place was featured as part of the Token Creek Chamber Music Festival. John Harbison, a nationally known composer, wrote music inspired by Lorine’s poetry, which was performed and complimented by a forum with Lorine’s biographer Margot Peters. Ann was particularly excited to have Lorine’s poetry staged for a new audience.
I asked Ann and Amy about other big goals. Already I had visited the Lorine Neidecker permanent exhibit at the Hoard Museum and gotten the sense of all that has been accomplished.
“We really hope that students in Fort Atkinson will someday learn about Lorine in school,” Amy said, but then she laughed. “Actually, we have been barking up that tree for a long time, but recently we got more than we even dreamed of asking for.”
A member of the library board is also on the school board. He suggested they talk with the high school art teacher about the schools’ plans to redesign the glass entryway. With the art teachers’ oversight, a student designed a stained-glass piece featuring lines from a poem called March.
“Now, when anyone comes or goes from that building, they see Lorine Neidecker’s name,” Amy said. “It is probably way more effective than a history lesson, to have every teacher, parent, and student walk beneath Lorine’s poem.”
“And the poem is about sex!” Ann grinned.
What a coup it was. I have no doubts about what can be accomplished by the people who know and love their own place, its history, and its people.
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The 2015 Lorine Niedecker Wisconsin Poetry Festival is coming up on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 16 & 17. Find the schedule and more information here.
We are proud to be a sponsor of the Festival, which received a WHC mini-grant in August 2015.
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