Developing Skill as a Poet: Wallace Group

“The birth of the Wallace Group occurred about fourteen years ago after an annual poets’ retreat,” past Door County Poet Laureate Barbara Larsen recalled. She had been impressed with the work of Fond du Lac poets who belonged to a writing group that used the textbook, Writing Poems by Robert Wallace. She and the late Harriet Murphy purchased the book and began meeting weekly.

“In 2001,” June Nirschl remembered, “some of us had finished a writing workshop at The Clearing and wanted more.” She, Judy Roy, Hanne Gault, and soon others joined Larsen and Murphy in their study of the book, and the Wallace Group became a fixture in the writing community. Over the years the membership has changed but some of the Founding Mothers are still active.

The Wallace Group, along with Word Women and Unabridged Poets, are ongoing writers’ workshops in Door County. Typically a writing group will not have a leader but rather will function collectively. Nirschl serves as the “reminder” of the Wallace Group, she said, emailing memos to members of meeting dates, writing assignments, and project information, but she emphasizes the fact that she is not in charge of the writers.

The purpose of a writing group is to provide each poet with an opportunity to share a piece of work with other poets who will offer constructive criticism. The shared objective of the writers is to develop skill as a poet.

While the Wallace Group has used a number of textbooks over the years, each providing discussions of technique, writing prompts, and published poems as models, presently the group uses The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.

Once a month the Wallace Group gathers in a meeting room at the Meadows. In preparation each member reads the chosen chapter in the book dealing with a particular technique or approach to writing poetry, selects a prompt, writes a poem, and brings a printed copy for each member. Each poet reads aloud the poem and the others in a roundtable discussion identify its strengths and weaknesses.

“Everyone has known each other long enough and well enough to be honest” in their comments, Nirschl said. “Because we meet regularly, we have developed trust.”

In addition to their monthly meetings, the Wallace Group has been involved in special projects. One that they direct is the Meadows Show, an exhibit of poems written by Wallace members and other poets to accompany pieces of visual art. At a Meadows Tea, the poets read their work before an audience.

Other events that involve the Wallace Group are the Yearly Poetry Retreat now held a Bjorklunden (writing workshops led by well known poets) and the Newport State Park Poetry Trail (original verse manuscripts posted on weatherproof outdoor displays).

The members of the Wallace Group have all appeared in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets’ Calendar and the Pulse; all have read at the Meadows Tea and the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County Dickinson Series; all have published chapbooks.

Barbara Larsen is a familiar name in Door County after recently ending a two-year tenure as Poet Laureate. A former elementary school librarian, she and her husband have lived on the peninsula since their retirement in 1986.

Her poems have appeared in Rag Mag Magazine, and The Glass Cherry Magazine. She has received the Jade Ring and Bard’s Chair awards from the Wisconsin Writer’s Association along with Hal Gruztmacher prizes. She was commissioned to write lyrics for the Peninsula Chamber singers.

“I love meeting and critiquing poems with a dedicated group of poets,” she said of the Wallace Group. “It is the best way to grow as a writer and teaches one so much in the way of technique and skills.”

The present Door County Poet Laureate Estella Lauter is a professor emeritus of University of Wisconsin – Oshkosh. She and her husband retired in 2004 to their second home near Fish Creek.

She has appeared in a number of journals, including Fox Cry, Sheepshead Review, Wisconsin People and Ideas, Verse Wisconsin, Door County Living, and Free Verse, as well as in anthologies. Her awards include the WWA Jade Ring, the WFOP Triad, Hal Grutzmacher, and Peace prizes.

“The Wallace Group differs from other workshops I have experienced,” Lauter said, “in that we use a book to encourage ourselves to keep developing the craft of poetry.” She likes the community connection fostered by the organization’s annual exhibit and retreat for poets.

Judy Roy taught French at Marshfield High School before retiring to Door County with her husband 16 years ago. Since then, she and fellow Wallace member June Nirschl have collaborated on two chapbooks, one with Nancy Rafal.

Her journal publications include Wisconsin People and Ideas, Free Verse, WFOP Museletter, Hummingbird, and 84 Over Sixty. She has received the Wisconsin Library Association Award for Outstanding Achievement by a Wisconsin Author.

“Apart from the fact that I like and enjoy being with each of them,” Roy said, “we have become very good at critiquing each other’s work. I never feel that a poem is finished until I hear what the group has to say about it.”

In 2000 June Nirschl and her husband moved to Door County from Waukesha where she had worked as an English teacher and municiple clerk. As a poet, her “intent is to capture some small part of the human condition.”

Nirschl’s poetry has appeared in a number of publications, including the WFOP Museletter and Foxcry Review. Her awards include the Jade Ring, Grutzmacher prizes, Pushcart nomination, and Wisconsin Library Association Award for Outstdanding Achievement.

“How well a group of poets gets to know each other!” she said of the Wallace Group. “How trusting that relationship!”

A potter as well as a poet, Loraine Brink moved with her husband from Racine to Door County in 1986. In her work “I try to be light-hearted,” she said, “view the world optimistically, find the absurd as well as the rational.”

She has appeared in Free Verse, Verse and Vision, The Nature of Door, NEW Voices, and Verse Wisconsin; she has earned a WFOP Triad prize as well as a Verse and Vision prize.

“The quality of work the others do is exceptional,” Brink said of the Wallace Goup, “and I learn so much through hearing, critiquing, and being with them.”

In 1955 at age 17 Hanne Gault came to the US from Denmark for the first time, and later returned to marry and become a citizen. After vacationing in Door County for many years, in 1997 she and her husband made the area their home.

While Gault first worked as a nurse, she later became a junior high math and science teacher.

Her work has appeared in Free Verse, NEW Voices, Verse Wisconsin, and Door County Living. She won a prize in the Joanne Hirshfield Memorial Poetry Contest, and received a Pushcart Poetry nomination.

She finds that the Wallace Group has “familiarized members with the particular style of each poet making it easier to focus on critical points, including syntax, grammar, and punctuation, and yet still be respectful of content and style. It is good to have several unbiased opinions.”

A native of Sister Bay who married a local man, Anita Beckstrom studied art in college, but later in life turned to poetry. For many years she was the audio-visual aide in the Gibraltar High School library.

As a poet she likes to surprise and delight her readers as she makes sometimes unsettling universal connections.

Her poems have appeared in Free Verse, the Sanibel Island News, and the WFOP Museletter. She has won awards both in the Hal Grutzmacher and a Neville Museum poetry competition.

The Wallace Group has “become a group of good friends,” she said, “a place where you get energized, enthused, and help with tweaking lines. It keeps me writing poems!”

Dr. Phil Hansotia came to Door County from his birthplace India by way of England and the Marshfield Clinic where he served as a neurologist. In 2003 he and his wife retired to Ellison Bay.

Under the guidance of Jesuit teachers at a British prep school in India Hansotia developed a love of language that has led to his avocation as a poet, writing in English.

His work has appeared in publications including The Wisconsin Medical Journal, NEW Voices, January Thaw, Fixity and Energy, and Write Away.

“The Wallace Group has eight excellent poets,” Hansotia said, “each with a unique voice, interests, flair for language and expression. They are excellent critics and a convivial group.”

The three writing groups generally accept new members by invitation only, as the poets within each workshop are working at similar levels in developing their craft and have established a working rapport with each other. Unaffiliated poets interested in being a part of a writing group might consider seeking out other writers to form one. One of the goals of present Door County Poet Laureate Estella Lauter is to assist in the formation of a fourth writing group.