Nick Demske—Bonk!

[Connect with BONK! here]

BONK! is a monthly performing arts series mainly focused on music and poetry, though we’ve featured fiction and non-fiction writers, graphic novelists, dance crews, comedians, culinary artists and a great number of other things that defy categorization.  BONK! is usually held in one local art gallery or another (it wanders from location to location often), so there’s a strong emphasis on the visual arts at nearly all of our events as well.  Though BONK! features acts from all over the country (and, occasionally, beyond), the selections solicited for this issue of Verse Wisconsin are exclusively chosen from artists, poets and musicians living—not just in the Midwest—but specifically in Southeast Wisconsin (either Racine, Kenosha or Milwaukee, to be exact—though I tried to not tap into Milwaukee much).  

My hope is that the Midwest Remix selections I’ve chosen here will, if nothing else, serve as a testament to how much unbelievable, top-rate artistic talent there is right here in this small pocket of the Midwest.  If I can exhibit that little ol’ Southeast Wisconsin holds this many fantastic artists, poets and musicians, my hope is that it suggests a little just how many great artistic talents there are beyond in the Midwest...especially when you do start tapping into the larger population areas like Milwaukee, Chicago, Minneapolis and beyond.

One of my favorite things about the collection of pieces I’ve culled here for Verse Wisconsin is how different they are from one another. This makes sense, given that BONK!’s motto is “Cross-pollinate” and, since we began 5 and a half years ago, we have aimed to bring artistic talents together that you would probably never see side-by-side anywhere else.  Another hope I have with this particular selection of pieces is to illustrate that, even in this very narrow geography of Midwest arts talents, there is a pretty remarkable diversity of expressions.  

It has been a major gift to me to get to have such an active role in the BONK! community.  I hope you enjoy discovering these artists, musicians and poets here as much as I did the first time I encountered their work and realized I’d get to share it with others through BONK!

About the Contributors

Kelsey Gray (Racine)
Kelsey Gray wrote this poem in a nursing class at the Racine Campus of Gateway Technical College, shortly before she abandoned the program.  Where I grew up in Northwest Indiana, nursing seemed to somehow be the young woman’s equivalent to what steel mills were for young men: a way to make a living wage enough to support your family.  But not necessarily a way to live, since both jobs can be so brutal.  If this poem doesn’t succinctly articulate that brutality, I don’t know what does.

Brent Mitchell (Kenosha) [audio of The Well]
Originally from Denton, Texas, Brent Mitchell has expressed a lot of struggle over living in the Midwest.  Local musicians are treated like heroes in his home region, the way football teams are diefied here.  Still, because he is insanely talented and dedicated to music, he’s managed to make a name for himself in this area that’s so much less enthusiastic over independent musicians.  He’s even written a song about his new home, Kenosha, which brings the total of songs written about Kenosha up

Jenie Gao (Milwaukee)
Jenie Gao makes prints that manage to be simultaneously both very gorgeous and disturbing.  Animals and landscapes transform weirdly into deeply personal representations.  Many of her pieces, like this one, are hugely extra-informed by their brief titles.  She often prints tiny broadsides, as well, to go with the visual art she makes.

Nick Ramsey (Racine) [audio Sun's Not out Today]
Born and raised in Racine, Nick Ramsey is the current Poet Laureate of Racine county.  He’s not just an ambassador of the arts—he’s a straight-up poetry apostle, building encouraging community around words and creativity everywhere he goes.  I have to believe that this is the only poem to have ever rhymed “Mequon” with “Step-mom.”  or maybe to have ever mentioned Mequon at all.

The Barrow Band (Nomadic/Racine) [audio Brother, Sister, Mine]
The Barrow Band actually has members spread out a bit through the Midwest, though one of their members, Jackson Potter-Barrow, is a Racine native—born, raised and splitting his time between there and Milwaukee, as he finishes up a degree at UWM.  Their music in general seems somehow mysteriously informed by the landscape of the Midwest in ways I won’t try to articulate.  But this song in particular captures a strange, dark essence of rural Midwest gothic; striking, precise and often beautiful imagery, but still subtle and suggestive enough to leave an unsettled feeling in the listener.  Unsettled beauty, to me, feels pretty synonymous with the Midwest.

Jerrold Belland (Racine)
Influenced by Mad Magazine and pin up posters as much as by high art and religious iconography, Jerrold Belland makes comic-inspired art which expertly captures the uber-weird baggage that’s inherent to just being alive.  I’d like to imagine his piece included here is the first artistic expression to include both The Grim Reaper and the Piggly Wiggly—two decidedly Midwest institutions.

Katarzyna Rygasiewicz (Racine)
Kat is a Racine staple—one of the wandering street-prophets of our city.  Though she’s a tribe elder of the community, you’ll find her decked out in the wildest of colors, maybe spitting manic poetry on a street corner like something hilarious out of the Old Testament.  Her work—in and out of poetry—is constantly in confrontation with authority, which is just another reason why she strikes me as a Midwest version of Isaiah or Jeremiah.  As this piece suggests, she is unwilling to shy away from unpleasantries.

The November Criminals (Milwaukee) [audio of Vulgar Boatmen]
Is there anything more Milwaukee than a polka-hip-hop group?  Yes—this politically-bent anthem of The November Criminals, championing the middle class.  Union dues get a shout out in this song and, in Wisconsin, unfortunately, that alone would be viewed as a type of activism under the state’s current political climate.  This trio consists of 3 MCs: all of them rap on this track, one of them plays a melodeon and another is bringing the harmonies on the clarinet.  Ridiculous.  And they’re completely serious, too.

Naomi Marie (Racine) [audio for Red]
Though not mentioned in this song, Lake Michigan features prominently in Naomi Marie’s music.  She also has a song called “I-80”.  Between that and the obvious fact that she is an astounding musical talent, this was a Racine-based musician I knew needed to be included in a collection focused on the Midwest.

The Nielsen Brothers (Racine) [audio of Snow Day]
This song is a real outlier for The Nielsen Brothers, since most of their songs are focused on sadness, depression and other kinds of Midwest malaise.  In fact, the album this song comes from is called “More Songs About Loneliness and Death.” This song, however, is a sweet encapsulation of that floating holiday of the Midwest, the snow day.  Dan Nielsen does lead vocals on this track.  Dan has also been writing and publishing great poetry and poetry journals in Racine, WI, for decades now.

Mexico City is Sinking (Racine) [audio of Midwest Winter]
Marco Jaimez of Mexico City is Sinking was born and raised in Racine.  His songs are simple, his voice is pristine and it’s all so melodious that you could easily not notice at first that his lyrics tend to be pretty insightful, profound and maybe even a little messed up.  That feels like a reflection of the Midwest to me somehow in and of itself; neat and tidy on the exterior, but with a lot of troubling stuff stirring just barely below the surface.