It was the final day of a long week, and Kimberly Blaeser, moving from an eco warrior panel discussion directly to this interview at Write On, Door County in Juddville, asked that her salad be saved for her.
“It’s the one with chicken on it,” she said before turning and, squaring her shoulders as if to physically draw her energy around her, beaming attention onto the person now sitting across the conference-room table from her.
Words such as “small,” “lovely,” “gracious” and “elegant” would aptly describe Blaeser’s bearing. Those words, however, don’t capture how animated she appears even while sitting – how lively and strong. She radiates confidence and energy, no doubt fuel for a long list of achievements and on-paper credentials, exhausting even to record: writer, photographer, scholar, past Wisconsin poet laureate, author of five poetry collections, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee professor emerita, M.F.A. faculty member for the low-residency program in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe.
Blaeser is also an Anishinaabe activist and environmentalist, an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation who grew up on a reservation, and the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers Circle of the Americas.
There is more – much more. For the purpose of this story, however, Blaeser is the founding director of the Indigenous Nations Poets (In-Na-Po). She left the woods and wetlands of her Lyons Township, Wisconsin, home a couple of weeks ago to visit Door County for In-Na-Po’s second annual, weeklong retreat.
Poetry as Part of Community
In-Na-Po was founded in 2020 to create a community of Indigenous writers and writing. Among the rainbow of organizations that are part of the Poetry Coalition of the American Academy of Poets, none were Indigenous prior to In-Na-Po.
“We came into existence because there was a need,” Blaeser said.
Modeling after some successful poetry organizations and working in collaboration with others, In-Na-Po’s mission is partly to mentor Indigenous writers, and partly to expand the visibility of Indigenous voices, literature and poetics while supporting tribal languages and sovereignty, and raising the visibility of all Native writers.
“It’s not only the poetry in isolation; it’s poetry as part of the community and what poetry does in the world, and part of what that does is support Indigenous culture,” Blaeser said.
Poets are involved with In-Na-Po either by participating in all that the organization offers, or as a fellow. Eight fellows are selected annually through an application process for a yearlong mentorship program. Last year’s eight fellows were the organization’s first, and as they move out of the fellowship, they take up a mentoring role and join the newest fellows.
Community connections and service are important. To be selected as a fellow requires more than just an ability to write good poetry.
“We expect, and ask them to answer, ‘What will you contribute to our community?’” Blaeser said. “That’s an important thing to ask.”
Björklunden, Write On Partner to Host In-Na-Po
This year’s In-Na-Po retreat had an eco-poetry focus as it brought together 16 Indigenous poetry fellows from 12 tribal nations for a week of seminars, presentations, conversations and public readings. The group’s first retreat in 2022 was held at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
“There is an archive of knowledge that didn’t always include Indigenous,” Blaeser said. “Part of our statement to them was [that] you do belong here. Your voices, your writing does belong to this place. I get goosebumps talking about it.”
That first retreat was a “magical” week – “How often do you pass the Gutenberg Bible on the way to the bathroom?” she asked – that was capped by participation in the closing reception for the final term of U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo, a member of the Muskogee (Creek) Nation.
Door County became the site of In-Na-Po’s second retreat because Blaeser said it came to mind as a good location for an eco-poetry focus – until its National Endowment for the Arts grant failed, and the peninsula did not seem like an affordable option.
Then, by happenstance, Tom MacKenzie, director of Björklunden in Baileys Harbor, contacted Blaeser about visiting the facility. She took the opportunity to talk about In-Na-Po’s as-yet-unresolved fellowship retreat location.
“I said, ‘Can I tell you about this thing, and would it be possible to house us there?’” Blaeser recalled. “He got really excited,” she said, and Björklunden ended up hosting the group for all but the final evening of its weeklong stay.
Two of the days were spent partially at Write On. As part of that, Jared Santek – who is Write On’s founding and artistic director and listed as an In-Na-Po advisory board member – made dinner for all of them from his own kitchen and served it up at the writing center.
“It was such a perfect location” between Björklunden and Write On, Blaeser said, and the fellows, who came from all over the country, “loved to see these spaces.”