Wisconsin’s new governor, Governor Walker, has caused a great deal of controversy with his proposed budget cuts.  I do understand that the state is in financial trouble and cuts in spending are needed.  I would not want to be the one responsible for choosing what to cut, nor do I have a lot of creative ideas on how to save money for Wisconsin.  Even though I don’t live in southeatern Wisconsin, I was angry that Governor Walker refused to accept the federal money to build light rail between Milwaukee and Madison, a project that not only would have helped transportation but would have created hundreds of new jobs.  The recent brouhaha about limiting the rights of state employees, teachers and nurses to collectively bargain and requiring them to pay more toward their pensions and health care coverage as well as cutting medicaid eligibility has been front page news.  I am still working on digesting that issue.  However, today I received a disheartening letter that I can identify with personally, both as a citizen and a poet.  The letter (see below) states that Governor Walker intends to decommission the committee that selects and supports a state poet laureate and cut the funding.

I can remember when the poetry community of Wisconsin rejoiced over the creation of an official Wisconsin Poet Laureate by Governor Thompson.  My friend and outstanding poet, Ellen Kort, was named our first poet laureate.  She traveled and worked extremely hard to create poetry events and to promote the understanding and enjoyment of poetry all around the state, including schools and prisons.  She was followed by an equally outstanding poet, Marilyn Taylor, who continued to further education about poetry.  More special poetry events were created.  Last fall, I was proud to be at the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets meeting when our third state poet laureate was announced, again a very talented poet I have known for some time, Bruce Detlefson.

It seems that Governor Walker has decided that eliminating the state poet laureate, and thus the $2000 funding of the position, is necessary to help trim the state budget.  But why does Governor Walker have to stop naming a poet laureate?  He should continue to support this position and allow private citizens and organizations, like the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets for instance, to fund the position. I realize that this blog’s readership is small, but I want to encourage those of you who are reading this right now and agree with me to let Governor Walker know that we still want a poet laureate!  Why must the fine arts always be the first to be cut when times get hard?  Music, art and literature don’t support life but they surely make life worth living!  Stand up and support the arts with me.    Cathy Conger 

The following is the letter I referred to above from Les Smith, president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets: 

Dear Fellow Poets and WFOP Members,

As you may or may not be aware, our new governor has opted not to continue the Poet Laureate Commission and has ended its annual $2000 funding, effective immediately. Please note that this does not strip Bruce Dethlefsen of his post as Wisconsin Poet Laureate. Bruce was named to that position as one of the final acts of the previous governor, and his term as Poet Laureate would continue for the full two years. Without a Poet Laureate Commission, however, there will be no one to review or appoint new Poets Laureate after Bruce’s term ends. Consequently, the Poet Laureate Commission has decided to continue its own existence, and its members are currently in discussion with possible umbrella organizations to give them a home. They’ve promised to reveal more information once things are settled.  

Obviously, they are committed to continue naming new Poets Laureate in the future, with or without governmental approval. There are wrinkles to be considered, however, so they are being careful as they move forward. For further details on the Poet Laureate Commission’s situation, I refer you to this post on Cathryn Cofell’s Facebook page,  http://on.fb.me/he32af, or to Jane Hamblen’s statement on the Verse Wisconsin Facebook page.  As for the WFOP’s role in this, you may recall that we have donated more than once to a fund to support the program permanently, and that we have given further to meet added expenses incurred by our Poets Laureate. The WFOP board intends to continue that sort of support in the future, believing that is your desire. (We will, of course, report to you any such giving, and will bring any large expenditures before the membership for a vote, as always. Given that the annual honorarium has been ended, I suspect we may wish to contribute to that fund when the need comes up early next year.) 

In closing, I would like to speak personally about the situation. On the one hand, I might credit Governor Walker with making this decision in keeping with a no-nonsense attitude toward budgeting. On the other, I suspect that he could have found some way to continue the program, even if he felt funding was unwarranted. From what I have learned of his history, however, I suspect that the governor does not view the “liberal” arts with a friendly eye. Personally, I would suggest that you spread the news of his decision now, far and wide, while the topic of his budget bill is hot. Whether people agree or disagree with that bill, I believe most will see this decision to discontinue the Poet Laureate Commission as an unnecessarily frugal, if not downright foolish, abandonment of Wisconsin’s arts community.  Thank you for your time and efforts on behalf of Wisconsin poetry. 

Sincerely, Lester Smith

President, Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets (www.WFOP.org)