Poet spreads the word in U.P.

Francis X. Donnelly
The Detroit News

Marquette — Consider the plight of the poor poet laureate of the Upper Peninsula.

Andrea Scarpino, poet laureate of the Upper Peninsula, has helped interest in poetry grow among Yoopers.

Yes, the U.P. has its own official bard, Andrea Scarpino, whose charge is to bring poetry to local streets and trails, or, in her words, “spread poetry love.”

Are there challenges? Let us count the ways.

Scarpino and her 2010 Subaru Outback must traverse a rural kingdom larger than Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. Some might argue its Packer-loving populace is more enamored with Rodgers than Roethke, with hunting blinds than blank verse. This ain’t Paris, where people read poetry on the Metro.

“The average Yooper probably doesn’t care about poetry,” said Russell Thorburn, who became the first U.P. poet laureate in 2013.

To bring lyrical writing to these far-flung lovers of beer and reality TV, Thorburn and Scarpino were given the non-princely sum of zero dollars. That’s not much, even to poets.

Yet, in the middle of National Poetry Month, we bring happy tidings.

Scarpino, the troubled troubadour, is making inroads.

Businesses are opening their doors for poetry events, she said. Residents are volunteering to help out. A fundraising drive brought in $3,500, which was $500 over its goal. A monthly series of poetry readings is drawing 60 to 70 people a night to Ore Dock Brewing Company, a bar in Marquette.

Scarpino, 39, who became laureate last year, is winning over Yoopers with pluck, imagination and a toilet bowl cover. The cover, which shows a photo of three bears climbing a tree, was one of the items offered during the fundraising drive.

“Limit: 1,” read the sales pitch. “Because there could only be one.”

One donor liked it but couldn’t afford the $400 asking price, so Scarpino gave it to her for free.

Scarpino has been delighted, and surprised, by the region’s response to her efforts. She has attended poetry readings in other parts of the country that drew just five people.

“People think poetry is dead, but venues are interested in it,” she said. “It shows how much people want art.”

In 2012, former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall visited the U.P. during a writers’ conference. Inspired by the appearance, local writer Ron Riekki decided to create a similar position for the U.P. Riekki also wanted to establish a Michigan poet laureate, but state officials demurred.

Michigan is one of six states without such a position. The others are Ohio, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Mexico and New Jersey.

Michigan once had a poet laureate, Edgar Guest, whose seven-year tenure ended with his death in 1959.

So, in three years, the U.P. has already doubled the number of Michigan laureates.

“It’s absolutely necessary to the state,” said Riekki. “It showcases our poets, highlights what Michigan has contributed to literature.”

Scarpino won the position in 2015 through online balloting where she captured a third of the 1,000 votes cast, said Riekki. She was one of 10 poets with varying levels of publishing success nominated for the job.

She is a bona fide poet. Her second book of poetry, “What the Willow Said as It Fell,” was just published by Red Hen Press in Pasadena, California. The 80-page, book-length poem was a dissertation for her doctorate in creative writing from Bath Spa University in Britain.

The honorary position doesn’t pay anything. Scarpino’s main income comes from teaching creative writing at Union Institute and University, a predominantly online college headquartered in Cincinnati.

"Once, Then" by Andrea Scarpino

Making adjustments

Besides the challenges of the job, Scarpino faced personal travails as poet laureate.

She is a Buckeye living in Michigan, having received a master’s degree in creative writing from Ohio State University.

In 2010, she moved from Los Angeles to Marquette when her partner got a job teaching philosophy at Northern Michigan University.

It wasn’t easy moving from the Land of Perpetual Sunshine to the Place Where Winter Never Ends, she said. During the first winter, she was cold every single day, never figuring out the right number of layers to wear. The answer: a lot.

But she quickly fell in love with the U.P.’s natural beauty and vibrant arts community.

“It was a shock but a pleasant shock,” she said.

Snow has made its way into Scarpino’s poetry just like it finds its way into everything up here. Her writing also has been influenced by the endless red pines and the wide expanse of Lake Superior. She even has written about the iron ore deposits around town. One poem is called “Love as Taconite.”

“I’ll never be anemic again,” she joked.

Poetry connections

Emily Dickinson, who is Scarpino’s hero, would have made a lousy poet laureate. She was a recluse who rarely left home.

The outgoing Scarpino is more suited for the role.

She is tasked with spreading poetry through the U.P., getting residents excited about it to the point it becomes a part of daily life.

“I see it as a way to connect community members with poetry on an everyday basis,” she said.

Scarpino was bursting with ideas about how to do it. She has held lectures, workshops, school visits and public readings by her and other writers.

For foodies, she held a food tasting at the Marquette Food Co-op where participants then wrote their own food odes. “Eat this Poem,” it was called.

She set up a community book exchange modeled after the Little Free Library program.

She stocked a wooden schoolhouse-shaped cabinet with poetry books, loaded it into her Outback and drove it all over Michigan’s outback — to the Calumet Arts Center, Finlandia University in Hancock and the Marquette County Fair in Gwinn.

She hasn’t reached all of the nooks and crannies of the 300-mile-long U.P. but isn’t giving up. She plans to explore new places before her two-year term ends next year.

If you meet her, don’t say you don’t like poetry. The normally upbeat visage of the bard might darken a bit.

“That’s like saying you don’t like movies or you don’t like music,” she said. “There are so many types you must like some.”


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Love as Picnic Rocks

Because of days like this —

clear sky, rolling waves,

children playing in sand —

because the name invites

wading, lunch carried

on shoulders, back —

a fearlessness. And then

an undertow, longshore

current, a couple caught

in the pull until their lungs

lake-fill. Love like this.

A sun-filled day. And then

a turn. Gasping for air.