The Dickinson Series: Building a Community of Poets in Door County

by Estella Lauter

Door County has been a good place to write poetry for a long time, but recently it has become a good place to read poetry as well, and the process of reading is having a positive effect on the writing.   For many years, we have had published poets, ongoing workshops, small presses, a yearly contest, a lit page in a local paper, a yearly poets’retreat, classes at The Clearing and at Bjorklunden and more, but until 2009, we did not have a dependable venue for reading our work.  We had tried various coffee shops and book stores, but the readings remained occasional and the number in attendance was small.

In 2008, Chuck Lauter (full disclosure, husband of Estella) participated in a discussion about the need for a regular place and time to read poetry with Henry Timm, who was then a literary editor of the Peninsula Pulse, Nancy Rafal, and Estella Lauter, who had met to plan events for poetry month.  Having been a Dean of Students at Lawrence University and accustomed to action, Chuck decided to ask the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship if as a member of the Board he might organize a monthly poetry reading there. Board members were not unfamiliar with poetry, in part because the Fellowship had sponsored a reading at a Sunday service during April for several years, and they responded enthusiastically.  There had long been an Emerson Series for the arts and culture, so it made perfect sense to have a Dickinson Series for poetry; it would be advertised to the public each month as part of the Fellowship’s adult education initiative with the help of the newsletter editor, Marilyn Hansotia.

Chuck was encouraged to begin the series in April 2009, and he did so by inviting members and friends of the Fellowship to be the first readers (ensuring that there would be a program each month for at least one year).  He prepared a schedule, and a resourceful Board member, Helene D’Iulio, produced a brochure, which was distributed throughout the county.  After the first month when 50 people came, audiences were small (15-25), but now after three years, it is unusual to have fewer than 25, and the number is more likely to be 35 or 40. New people show up each month.  A poet has begun to videotape the readings.In the fourth year, 2012-13, several poets will read for the second time, and poets have begun to request places in the 5th season, 2013-2014.   

Near the end of the first year, it became apparent that the poems were publishable, and the Fellowship applied for ISBN numbers to allow for a series of chapbooks.  Chuck's experience teaching Freshman Studies at Lawrence has made him a good editor, and Helene has become a skilled production manager and Jill-of-all-trades. The third chapbook was published in April 2012. In each case, the poets who were featured each month (41, all from Door County except two Poets Laureate), were asked to submit up to five poems from their reading, two of which were printed on facing pages with a short biography.  Books are available from at $10 apiece.

From the beginning, the 30-minute featured reading has been accompanied by an active open mic with at least a dozen readers per session.  Several members of the audience have read for the first time at the open mic and have then gone on to become a featured reader. A reading by a teenaged member of the Fellowship in the first year led the group to ask students from Gibraltar High School to read each February.  We have a wine and cheese reception after each reading, so there is ample time for poets to exchange information and ideas and for others to ask questions about or comment on what they have heard.   

As a poet who has read at this open mic every month that I have been in town for three years, I can say that this ongoing experience of public reading has contributed to my poetic development as much as any group or class.  I think it is because I am more able in this context to try on voices and try out styles in response to other poets whose work is also growing and changing.  Because the venue is both dependable and challenging, poets can take the next step, wherever it leads.