Poet’s $2,000 Gas Reimbursement a Casualty in Walker’s Wisconsin

Poet Bruce Dethlefsen
Poet Bruce Dethlefsen. Source: Dethlefsen family via Bloomberg

A career in the arts “don’t plant no corn,” Bruce Dethlefsen’s father told him when he was a boy in Kansas City in the 1950s. Soon, his job as Wisconsin’s poet laureate may not even pay gas money.

The $2,000 annual budget for the post, which Dethlefsen assumed Jan. 1, is a casualty of Governor Scott Walker’s drive for austerity. The first-term Republican, whose proposal to curb collective bargaining for public employees has incited protests across the U.S., faces a $3.6 billion deficit over the next biennium. His proposed budget seeks $3.4 billion in savings and spending cuts.

For Wisconsin’s poets and artists, “it’s just a smack in the face,” Dethlefsen, a 62-year-old retired librarian, said in an interview at Leystra’s Venture Restaurant in Sauk City, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) northwest of Madison, the capital.

“In good times arts are magical, and in tough times they are essential,” he said. “That’s when you need them the most. Art makes you human. If it’s just about the money, then it’s petty and vindictive.”

Tommy Thompson, a Republican governor, created the office in 2000. It was “important that Wisconsin maintain its strong tradition of excellence in the arts,” his executive order said. “Poetry serves as a tool for the enrichment of all people and serves as a herald for the deep emotions and pride felt by the citizens of this great state.”

Education, Health, Art

Pride may be too costly for Wisconsin now. Across the U.S., states are scrutinizing every expenditure after the worst economic crisis since the Depression slashed tax revenue and contributed to $125 billion in projected shortfalls next year.

Walker’s budget, unveiled March 1, would cut more than $800 million from education and $500 million from Medicaid, the health-care program for the poor. Crowds of more than 70,000 have come to the Capitol to protest it.

The budget would slash the state’s Arts Board funding by almost 70 percent -- to $759,000 in 2012 and 2013 from $2.4 million in 2011, said George Tzougros, its executive director. That makes it unlikely the board will be able to supplement the laureate’s stipend as it has with $2,500 the past two years, Tzougros said in a telephone interview.

Last month, the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission received a letter indicating the governor’s office wouldn’t renew Thompson’s order creating the position, said Jane Hamblen, who volunteers as co-chair of the Madison-based body and is chief counsel of the state’s investment board.

Big as Baseball

Though the commission is seeking a new home at a nonprofit, no longer having its association with the governor’s office may impede fundraising, Hamblen said.

“Having a state-sanctioned position gives it a certain gravitas, respect,” said Hamblen, who is drafting a letter to the governor seeking a compromise. “Having an official position for a poet gives high school students the possibility to believe it’s as important as being a baseball player.”

Forty states have a poet laureate, as do Great Britain and Canada, according to the Library of Congress. California’s Ina Coolbrith became the nation’s first in 1915. Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Frost was poet laureate of the U.S. from 1958-59.

The position is not without controversy. New Jersey’s second poet laureate, Amiri Baraka, came under “intense criticism” after a poem he wrote about 9/11 was thought to include anti-Semitic sentiments, according to the Library of Congress. The state Legislature dissolved the position, the only way to get rid of him, in 2003.

Organic Republic

Dethlefsen’s tenure as Wisconsin’s fourth poet laureate has been quieter. He moved to the state from Kansas City, Missouri, at 18 to attend college and lives in Westfield with his domestic partner, Susan. In addition to being a poet, he says he has taught more than 1,000 people to juggle, loves to garden, and, in the late 1960s, played in a psychedelic band called the Organic Republic.

He began writing poetry in seventh grade -- “awful, awful stuff,” he says, took a hiatus and resumed in the 1990s. He has published three books, and his work has appeared in Garrison Keillor’s ‘The Writer’s Almanac’ on public radio.

Dethlefsen he will continue the two-year term granted him by former Democratic Governor Jim Doyle “until someone stops me,” he said. It was never about the 48.5 cents per mile, or as much as $2,000 a year, in fuel reimbursements for traveling the state to lecture and teach.

He typically composes the first three or four drafts of each poem in longhand with a Pilot G2 gel pen in 19-cent school notebooks, he says, before transcribing them on the computer.

One of his most recent is a haiku written amid the recent turmoil in his home state:

“Fifty-thousand strong

we stand up and scream to save

sitting down to talk.”

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