Peninsula Poetry: Nancy Rafal

In 1994, Nancy Rafal and her husband, Harry, left the Chicago area and moved to Baileys Harbor. She took a poetry-appreciation class with Barbara Larsen, started writing semiseriously and joined the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets. Rafal served as its treasurer and held the same position with the Wisconsin Writers Association.

Nancy Rafal. Photo by Heidi Hodges.

She was one third of the “Off Q Gals” who collaborated on Slightly Off Q. The other two – June Nirschl and Judy Roy – have published additional books, and Rafal is working on a new title herself.

In 2003, she became interested in the works of poet Lorine Niedecker, became a board member of the Friends of Lorine Niedecker and spearheaded the creation of the Baileys Harbor Community Mural Project. Ram Rojas, the mural artist, cleverly hid quotes of Niedecker throughout the mural.

Rafal is also an active chair caner, a meditative activity that gives her time to ponder poetic ideas.

What is your writing routine?

The pandemic really shut me down. I wasn’t writing or chair caning – just doing more reading. When things started to pick up again, I enjoyed going to art galleries and doing Art Speaks with Francha Barnard, who made all the participants comfortable, newcomers and experienced poets alike.

What do most poorly written poems have in common?

It seems to me that most poorly written poems use conventional language, try to emulate “famous” poets and don’t show their authentic self. They are poems that tell rather than show.

What do most well-written poems have in common?

It seems to me that poetry can be considered well written if it elicits an emotional response. Sometimes this is a unique way of writing about a landscape after a rainstorm or a new father whose just-born baby has grasped his dad’s finger and won’t let go. A well-written poem can make you laugh or cry, but it will always grab you at an emotional level.

Is it important to understand the meaning of the poem or for the reader to be able to “solve” it?

Each reader brings a body of experiences to the poem and understands the poem in relation to that life experience. We understand the poem differently each time we read it over a number of years. In many cases, this is true for the poet who wrote the work, too.

What book are you reading right now?

The Overstory by Richard Powers is the main title, but the writing of Phil Ochs, I’m Gonna Say It Now, also occupies my reading time. I have a number of books to read that will occupy my time until I am 284 years old.

Peninsula Poetry is a monthly column curated by the Door County Poets Collective, a 12-member working group that was formed to publish Soundings: Door County in Poetry in 2015 and continues to meet.

I’d forgotten sunrises, stars blinking you awake, geese
rising in unison over the lake
twenty two years living in the woods will do that
The new home is smaller, won’t hold
our countless books, but the spacious backyard is
clear of utility poles and wires, and provides
a seasonal water view and an occasional deer
The real miracle is that eight years ago
when the house was rented out 
a baby was birthed here
in the space I’ve placed my writing desk
The Nature of Birds and Poets
Like the mother robin the poet must brood the words
	must lay them in the warm nest of expectation
	shelter them from predators
Like the mother robin the poet must turn the words
	tending them so that they will hatch out
	peep, peep, peep incessantly to be fed
Like the mother robin the poet must fly away
	in the world to find food for the words
	until they fledge and grasp the edge of the nest
And like the mother robin the poet must send the words
	out into that world and know
	that they will find their way to a branch that is their own
Vacation Again, Vacation Again
	Thanks to Marilyn Taylor’s “Home Again, Home Again”
The tourists are back, the tourists are back
They’ve come to buy doodads, eat out, and relax
The vacation has come, they’ve arrived in da Door
They’ve zoomed down the highway always questing for more
The lure of the bayside has called them again
They’ve swooped through Egg Harbor, Fish Creek and Ephraim
They’ve sampled the ice cream and swallowed cheese curds
Now they want fish boils before they return    	home
Their life in the city with potholes and traffic
Makes them immune to our ways so bucolic
They drive either so fast or so frighteningly slow 
We year-rounders just wish they would go 		home
Some come to get away and camp in the park
but all those campfires just block out the dark
We wish they would go and leave our county in peace
But I’m afraid they’ll be back when it’s time to wear fleece 
Yes, summer and winter, in the spring and the fall
Door County is open for one and for all
The tourists have come. the tourists have come
I shouldn’t complain because I once was one