Home Entertainment Sequoya Summer Poetry Festival offers a tender display of Madison’s sprawling poetry...

Sequoya Summer Poetry Festival offers a tender display of Madison’s sprawling poetry landscape

Natasha Oladokun. Photo by Rodlyn-mae Banting.

Last Saturday, Madison Public Library’s Sequoya branch hosted the Summer Poetry Festival, with featured poet Natasha Oladokun and special guest Madison Youth Poet Laureate Maliha Nu’man. The two were also joined by eight additional Wisconsin-based poets whose works spanned a wide range of philosophical musings, geographical landscapes, and stages of life. 

Curated by poet James Roberts, the lineup consisted of poets who were originally invited to read at last year’s well-established and beloved multi-week Winter Poetry Festival. Because of the sheer volume of outstanding poetic talent that Madison has to offer, Roberts had enough writers to create an entirely separate event, ushering the wintertime celebration into the warmer months. 

In his introductory remarks for Oladokun, Roberts mentioned that he traveled all the way to Viroqua, Wisconsin to hear her read, and has been captivated by her work ever since. Oladokun opened the afternoon with poems from her first book project entitled Black Credit. With an orientation towards the divine, Oladokun read five poems, including the title poem, “Black Credit,” and “Two Virgins and the Cleveland Museum of Art.” 

Estranged from her own Evangelical upbringing, Oladokun’s work challenges the notions of queer pleasure and joy as sinful. “I think it really pushed me, in my faith, to figure out what outside of that world was real,” she said. “Because I knew when I experienced poetry, God felt very real to me.”

Oladokun was followed by Nu’man, who delivered poems about the struggles of growing up and the gendered constraints imposed by religion with rapid-fire confidence. Her measured fury reverberated through poems like “The Starvation of Women Men Forgot to Feed” and “The Constellations of a Girl Begging to Be an Adult.” The urgency of her work was written into the very lines of her poems: “I know now that I have shit to say,” she boldly declared.

Roberts was intentional in inviting both established poets and newer voices to the Summer Festival stage, making for a truly diverse array of poetry, from form to content. Marilyn L. Taylor (Outside the Frame: New and Selected Poems) shared multiple humorous sonnets and villanelles, and Deshawn McKinney’s “Collective Punishment or Article 2” (father forgive me) interrogated the role that the poet plays in our world today, especially amidst Israel’s genocide on Palestine. 

Madison Youth Poet Laureate Maliha Nu’man. Photo by Rodlyn-mae Banting.

Community leaders who tend to highlight and develop others’ literary voices were able to share their own work, including Art + Literature Lab’s Executive Director Rita Mae Reese (The Book of Hulga), and Poetry Out Loud coordinator Jacqueline Martindale, both of whom read on the interrelated experiences of motherhood and childhood. 

Mary Rae Goehring, Richard Merelman, Sandy Stark (Counting on Birds), and Ingrid Andersson (Jordemoder: Poems of a Midwife) also treated the audience to delightful works that touched on everything from reimagining of cultural figures like Elvis and James Baldwin all the way to what Andersson called “uninhibited everyday desire.”

In the event’s third hour, Roberts paid homage to Richard Roe (Poetry of Song, Tango & Jazz), who coordinated the Winter Poetry Festival before him and who passed away in July of 2019. “I thought of him as a mentor, not only in poetry but in the way he lived his life,” Roberts shared, before reading a poem he wrote on the day Roe died, and two Roe wrote himself. In addition to his involvement with the Winter Festival, Roe was also a longtime member of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. 

Time and again, Madison proves itself to be a city teeming with poetry, not only in number, but in skill and heart. After another successful festival, Roberts said it best: “The future of poetry is bright and strong.”