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Monsters Of Poetry returns with a deep bench of Wisconsin-connected writers

The long-standing, on-again-off-again free reading series has been a staple of the city’s everchanging literary scene for more than a decade.

Header image: Clockwise from top left: photos of Barrett Swanson, I.S. Jones, Jennifer Nelson, and Kabel Mishka Ligot. I.S. Jones photo by Nicholas Nichols. Kabel Mishka Ligot photo by Danny Montemayor. Jennifer Nelson photo by Eileen Lagman. Barrett Swanson photo courtesy of the author. 

Monsters Of Poetry, the rag-tag, ephemeral Madison poetry and literary arts reading series, is back in action after a COVID-19-related pause.

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A sponsor display for The Sessions at McPike Park.

The reading series reemerges with a lineup of Wisconsin- and Madison-adjacent writers—I.S. Jones, Kabel Mishka Ligot, Jennifer Nelson, and Barrett Swanson—on Saturday, March 19 at 7 p.m. at North Street Cabaret. The event requires proof of vaccination for entry.

Monsters Of Poetry has no permanent physical home. In years past it has filled venues ranging from the long-gone Project Lodge to the Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art to the renovated downtown church known as the Maiahaus Project Space at 402 East Mifflin Street. Founded in 2009 by Edgewood College professor and poet Adam Fell, the series has been a place to showcase regional talent, both springing from the revolving door of UW-Madison’s Institute For Creative Writing as well as from off-campus literary hubs such as Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL).

Monsters Of Poetry alumni include Derrick Austin, Chloe Benjamin, Oliver Baez Bendorf, Meghan O’Gieblyn, and so many more writers who have passed through Madison or arisen from it in the past decade.

For the uninitiated, Monsters Of Poetry also prides itself on creating a relaxed environment. Fell has been known to raffle off signed books, scraps of high school yearbooks, Rorschach cards signed by poets, mixtapes created by organizers, and other odds and ends. While the specific prizes have yet to be announced, the raffle returns at the March 19 reading, and donations go directly to the night’s readers. Admission to all Monsters Of Poetry events is free.

I.S. Jones, an American Nigerian poet and former music journalist, will make her Monsters Of Poetry debut at the March 19 reading. Jones received her MFA in poetry as an inaugural 2019­­-2020 Kemper K. Knapp Fellow at UW-Madison and continued her studies in Madison as a Hoffman Hall Emerging Artist Fellow at UW. She currently operates ALL’s Watershed Reading Series.

Jones’ 2021 chapbook, Spells Of My Name, was the winner of nonprofit publisher Newfound’s Emerging Poets Chapbook Series. In the chapbook, Jones explores identity, sexuality, and memory in bloodied and animalistic scenes. In the chapbook’s opening poem, “A Field, Any Field,” the speaker is laid bare and ponders a deadly routine of losing oneself:

So much of your intimate life has been devoted / to what war / you pull out of yourself / to level another landscape / how many times have you had to prove / to yourself / you were not prey / but what thrashes in the night / & keeps blood awake

Kabel Mishka Ligot is a current UW-Madison student pursuing a Master’s in Library Sciences, who also received his poetry MFA in 2019 from UW. With work published in POETRY Magazine, Likhaan: The Journal Of Contemporary Philippine Literature, The Shallow Ends, and more, Ligot writes of contemporary technologies, American culture, religion, and climate dread as a younger generation gifted a faltering planet. Ligot’s poem “In the middle of Metro Manila’s water crisis, my mother posts a picture of my siblings in a swimming pool” is a piercing examination of memory, climate, history, and narrative:

Maybe in one translation of heaven we’ll have swimming pools / gilded pits of shellac and tourmaline we’ll be made to fill / mouthful by mouthful from a nearby brook before we’re allowed / to swim in it. In this life, wilderness is a mouth. It must first be made / full with the right bodies.

UW-Madison Art Historian Jennifer Nelson also writes of disaster and systemic failure in her 2021 chapbook Harm Eden, published by Ugly Duckling Press. Nelson’s focus is on the failures across Western civilization, and her frame of reference reaches back to Aristotle, Constantinople, and the Tower of Babel. Nelson weaves centuries of philosophical quandaries with ease, further situating her work in Midwestern places such as Wisconsin and Lake Superior.

The March 19 Monsters Of Poetry reading also features the work of Barret Swanson, former Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing fellow and current UW-Whitewater professor. Swanson, a Wisconsin native, released his debut essay collection Lost In Summerland in 2021. Lost In Summerland is rooted in familiar Wisconsin places such as downtown Milwaukee, suburban Waukesha, and a rundown east Madison bungalow. Swanson portrays these places as full of residual memories. From the site of his brother’s assault and subsequent comatose state to the chasing of shadows after a friend lost in an accident on the banks of the Mississippi River, Swanson writes of what it means to live in a city, state, and nation with disaster cracking through every surface.

In the essay “Flood Myths,” Swanson meanders around Noah’s Ark Waterpark in the Wisconsin Dells, after he was essentially forced to take time away from teaching due to stress and anxiety. But a calm eludes Swanson, and climate anxiety follows him to the chlorine-drenched landscape:

As a mammoth wave capsized the family next to me, I couldn’t help wondering whether attending a water park in 2019 requires a willful self-blindness, whereby all fun and thrill-seeking depends upon blinkering oneself to the fearsome changes in our climate. Because who can enjoy the Congo Bongo in light of mudslides in the Pacific Northwest? Who can enjoy The Flying Gecko when you have species-wide devastation in the Amazon? The sheer insanity of a water park in the age of the Anthropecene hits me fully when I finally coax a young staffer into revealing that the park goes through two million gallons of water per day, a cruel parody of our country’s dwindling natural resources. It was in the context of this thought that the Big Kahuna Wave Pool began to strike me as a dress rehearsal for our coming disaster, a nightmarish burlesque of a live-action drill.

Lost In Summerland blends journalistic endeavors into cult-adjacent utopian societies of coastal Florida as well as personal essays about the relationship between manhood, football, and paternal figures. Following spirit-hunting travel logs in quiet New England towns, it ends with an understanding of what it means to survive disaster during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Swanson hunts for meaning, clarity, and purpose in every essay but finds the bones of reason picked clean by the collapse of political discourse, threats to democracy, impending climate disasters, and a supposed new normal.

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