As a lifelong resident of Wisconsin, 2017-2018 Poet Laureate Karla Huston has proudly taken up her role as an ambassador of the arts in the state.
Huston is a graduate of West Salem High School but it wasn’t until after a 23-year hiatus from education that she decided to go back to college to become an English teacher. She graduated from University of Wisconsin Oshkosh in 1994 with a degree in education, majoring in English and minoring in journalism.
Huston had briefly attended UW-La Crosse in the late 1960s, however since then she had found that education had changed a lot, especially with the use of computers.
“I’d never used a computer before and learned to use a Mac in my journalism classes. I remember asking the woman sitting next to me what ‘this; is—a mouse, of course, but I’d never seen one before,” said Huston, who resides in Appleton.
Despite the challenges, Huston said she enjoyed her time as an undergraduate at UW Oshkosh.
Following her commencement, Huston enrolled in a creative writing class at UW-Fox Valley—taught by Laurel Mills as part of their continuing education programming. She cites this decision as a major influence on her success as a poet later in life.
“It was because she used contemporary poetry models for writing that I found my love of poetry,” Huston said.
She began her career as an English teacher in 1994 at Neenah High School. While teaching there, Huston returned to UW Oshkosh to earn her master’s degree in English and creative writing.
“Although I was unable to take creative writing classes as an undergrad, I was able to feast on them while earning my master’s.” she said.
Huston returned to UW Oshkosh because it was located close to where she was teaching and because of her positive experiences with the English department professors during her time as an undergraduate.
“The most important factor of my UWO education as a whole was its teaching staff. They were challenging and encouraging,” she said. “I’ll never forget Dr. Dingledine’s Contemporary Writers of Color class. There are many ways in which a student can show what they’ve learned, and Professor Dingledine offered me an opportunity to show what I’d learned in a way that worked best for me.”
Huston graduated from the master’s program in 2003, continuing to teach at Neenah High School until 2009.
Life as Poet Laureate
Created in 2000 as a way to keep poetry and literature alive in Wisconsin, the Poet Laureate position is a two-year term that is served by an accomplished poet, selected from a pool of applicants by the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. The Poet Laureate is chosen based on their involvement in the Wisconsin writing community and accomplishments as a writer.
“Karla’s got it all,” said Ronnie Hess, chair of the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. “She’s the author of eight chapbooks of poems. She’s won a prestigious national Pushcart Prize for her poem Theory of Lipstick in 2011, among other awards. She’s been a tireless advocate of poetry, through her work for statewide writing organizations, and her frequent reviews of other poets’ work.”
Keeping with the tradition that the Poet Laureate chooses an organization to partner with during their term, Huston is currently working with the statewide Memory Café program to support those suffering from mild memory loss and dementia along with their caregivers. The project encourages social interaction and information sessions through creative and social gatherings. Huston enjoys facilitating these gatherings, leading poetry readings and collaborative creative learning sessions to spark the therapeutic qualities of the arts.
“Memory Café programs are incredibly gratifying,” Huston said. “To meet our elders and listen to their stories is a privilege.”
The impact of arts and especially poetry on those with memory loss is immense and the Poet Laureate Commission recognizes what great work Huston is doing.
“She’s found that poetry is an enduring companion, even when memory fails,” Hess said.
Through being named the Wisconsin Poet Laureate and working with the Memory Café program, Huston said she has learned a lot, both about herself and others.
“I’ve learned to be a better listener, but most importantly, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate position has brought me to people all over the state: to those who love poetry, to those who write it, and to those who are curious,” she said.
In Huston’s writing, she cited, “Memories as well as alternative ways of looking at ‘the thing’” as her means of finding inspiration. In composing her poem, Winter on Lake Winnebago, Huston drew her inspiration from a desire to use the word “judder” in a poem.
“It was spring and time for the yearly ice shoves on the lake and judder means ‘an instance of rapid and forceful shaking and vibration,’” she said.
Huston incorporates the word in the seventh stanza of the poem, while also including echoes of the word throughout:
Just when you think
you’ll never be done with it,
the ice pulls back, leaving
what’s left, shard and stub.
Just when you think
you’ve forgotten the sound, the smell,
the sun, lusty and warm
starts to thaw. Just when you think
the ice—long deep and rutted,
fish moving like slugs
below—starts to crack and shift,
>drift away. And sometimes,
the daggered ice, driven by wind and flow,
shoves ashore, pushes into juddered heaps.
Needles thrust and surge, clatter
like shattered glass. The fox, already
mated, stops it’s midnight weeping.
The Impact of the Arts
As her first year as Wisconsin’s seventh Poet Laureate comes to a close, Huston reminisces on the importance of the Poet Laureate Commission and the impact this position has on the arts in Wisconsin.
“The arts are an important part of the culture of our state,” she said. “People move into communities for good jobs and good schools. They stay because communities offer beauty and something worthwhile to do.”
Dec. 4: Lecture and conversation: “Why Poetry Matters,” 6:30 to 7:45 p.m., Waupaca Area Library, 107 S. Main St., Waupaca.
Dec. 6: Memory Café—Join Wisconsin Poet Laureate Karla Huston for a Memory Cafe event where guests will read, recite and write poems. 1-2 p.m., Avalon Square, 222 Park Place, Waukesha.