Write a Line that is Our State: On Nicholas Gulig, Poet Laureate of Wisconsin | wisconsinacademy.org
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Write a Line that is Our State: On Nicholas Gulig, Poet Laureate of Wisconsin

The afternoon light is failing as Nicholas Gulig and I march through knee-high snow on the sixteen acres of land my wife and I own south of Eau Claire. The same land where, years ago, Gulig and his wife Fon were married. He is holding a beautiful literary journal called Neck, while I cradle a Remington twelve-gauge shotgun. The publishers of Neck have informed him that if he documents the destruction of their phone-book-sized journal, a new copy will be sent to him, gratis. Because Gulig and I have been friends since middle school, he knows that this variety of artful chicanery is right up my alley.

He sets the journal upright on an old wooden wire spool, propping it with snow. We mark off about fifteen paces and commence shooting.

The first blast does surprisingly little damage. The copper birdshot does not completely penetrate the thick, hand-made pages, destroying about three quarters of the journal. But the second shot does the trick. The journal is blown off its perch, landing about ten feet downhill in deep snow. We retrieve the journal and fire again. With each shot, the publication is reduced, papery bits scattered on the snow. A word here or there. Better, more organic, more spontaneous than any refrigerator magnet poetry. In the imprint of a frozen footprint there might be a fleck of paper with the word wolf. Blowing gently across the snow, between wasted stalks of ragweed and goldenrod, the words rose or lusty or oleanders or razorback. After pumping eight shells through the Remington, we take a cardboard box and collect what remains of the third issue of Neck. Later, in my kitchen, we place the spent shotgun shells in the box as well, for good measure, before Nicholas Gulig, the tenth Poet Laureate of Wisconsin mails the works to Austin, Texas.

The news of Gulig’s prestigious appointment came as no surprise to me, rather as a well-timed confirmation of a life dedicated to poetry and language. I can remember, with great clarity, certain moments from our childhood and teenage years, when Gulig was already developing into a poet, when he would quite organically proclaim, “It’s just me up on this cliff. Me and Jesus,” or when he’d read from his account of traveling to the American Southwest as an unaccompanied teenager using the lyrics of a Tom Waits song to describe the stars over the Mojave Desert as a “pinprick sky.” At fifteen he was voraciously reading Allen Ginsberg, Arthur Rimbaud, and Jack Kerouac, listening to Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane, and cultivating a sort of personal fashion that was a blend of punk-rock aesthetics and hobo-chic. He would wear favored items of clothing until the fabric and stitches simply expired. Nicholas Gulig is the opposite of the Instagram poets of our age. This is a man who has been quietly living his passion and organically honing his craft since childhood and who now finds himself summiting the heights of American letters. Still, he is characteristically modest about the honor. Gulig explains,

Even though I feel like I should resist feeling this way or that I’d like to think of myself as not needing exterior validation—this is incredibly validating. I’ve been doing this since we were kids, 13 years old or something. And thirty-some years later you get validated. It validates all that work and time and effort. It also feels validating of all the effort other people have put into me and my work. My teachers, for example. It validates the work and attention my peers have put into me and my work. And the sacrifices of my parents. Their encouragement of me being a poet, which I imagine must have been tough. Like, how is our kid going to put food on the table? But I think it’s also an opportunity to give back what I’ve been given. I get to spend two years thinking publicly and talking publicly and hopefully introducing a lot of people to poems and poets in a way I’m hoping cultivates a relationship for them with those poems and poets. Which is something my teachers did for me. They opened up a world for me which radically changed my life and altered my lifepath. I get to do for others what has been done for me. You don’t want to pull the ladder up behind you. You want to pay it forward.

In truth, Gulig has been paying it forward long before he became Wisconsin’s Poet Laureate. After completing his PhD at the University of Denver in 2016, Gulig moved with his wife and daughter to Fort Atkinson and accepted a position at UW–Whitewater, where he is now an Associate Professor. “It would be one thing if Nick were just a gosh-wow poet of unswerving brilliance—which he is—but I’ve been fortunate enough to work with him for the last six years and have become uniquely acquainted with his commitment as a teacher,” says Gulig’s colleague, the acclaimed essayist Barrett Swanson. “This is a person who has around 75 students at any given time and who will meet with each one individually twice over a single semester to discuss the hiccups in their writing. That Nick somehow finds the time and cerebral wattage to generate his own award-winning poems and to be so meaningfully engaged in the lives of his family—not to mention the broader literary community—is a sacrifice that can’t help but stop you in your tracks. And yet he is a person who is as open-hearted and eloquent and thoughtful as his poetry is. You’re ashamed to have a lazy idea around him. It’s a great fortune of my life to count him as a friend.”

The poet Jane Wong, who was a classmate of Gulig’s at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop from 2008-2010, shared similar sentiments. “Since we met at Iowa, Nick has been one of my closest poetry readers. He’s immensely generous, kind, and also hilarious. And if you ever doubt the power of poetry, he will remind you of the wild garden that a poem can grow. Nick’s poems are ones that I return to like a hawk, with precision, curiosity, and layers of relation. I’m so thrilled that he is now the Poet Laureate of Wisconsin, though I can’t say I’m surprised. This is a role he was meant for, spreading love for poetry across each field, town, city, heart.”

Teaching is clearly a foundational ethic of Gulig’s, an acknowledgement that language is a communal experience and a generational transference of what it means to be human. He is quick to credit his own mentors and professors. “If I had to point to a single teacher, it would be Joanna Klink at the University of Montana (where Gulig studied from 2002-2007, earning his Bachelor’s degree). Even though she wasn’t technically my first poetry teacher, she was my first prolonged teacher. I took every class of hers during my five years at Montana. She was one of the first teachers who really believed in my potential. When I was an undergraduate, she allowed me to take graduate workshops. There’s a big difference between an undergraduate workshop and a graduate workshop. In most undergraduate workshops there’s two or three students that are very talented. But a graduate workshop is filled with those people, and that lights a fire under you. That forces you to take your writing more seriously. You have to put everything into it. So I basically had three graduate experiences. She was the first person I wrote to when I heard I was going to be the Poet Laureate of Wisconsin. Her books are always right next to me when I’m writing. There’s not really ever a poem I write that I don’t wonder what she would think of what I was working on.”

Books by Nicholas Gulig

In an email, Klink writes of Gulig, “Nick is that rare, compassionate person who writes extraordinary, compassionate poems. He is brilliant, self-deprecating, humble, hopeful, passionate, and wide-open to life. I wish I could sit in on his classes. Whatever he does as Poet Laureate, it’s sure to be remarkable.”

Gulig’s work is fragile, ephemeral, beautiful. Like an Andy Goldsworthy installation, there is the sense that his words, his images, his line breaks—all of it coheres on the page and in the mind with the delicacy of hoarfrost or a final-throe blossom just before a storm. His poetry never takes the easy route, never allows itself to become a blunt force instrument of sentimentality or emotion, but instead strives to—like cold, heat, water, wind, or perhaps lightning—become the space between emotion and perfect articulation. In this way, his poems are elemental, naturalistic, a mature expression of his Wisconsin roots.

“Growing up in Wisconsin,” Gulig explains, “means growing up outdoors. I grew up camping and fishing. I grew up driving around the countryside in high school, cultivating a relationship with the landscape. And especially in my early poems, that landscape was something I wanted to engage. Something inspiring. Something I wanted to pay tribute to. So if my early work was pastoral, it was because I was raised this way.”

Gulig explains that the Wisconsin of his youth “… felt isolated. Maybe that was illusory, but that’s how I felt in the early 90s. It felt like art was happening somewhere else, culture was happening somewhere else. So if I wanted to participate in art, I had to make it, and make it with my friends. To the extent that art and culture were missing from where I was from, I needed to be a maker. We had to make the music ourselves or write the poems ourselves. That DIY ethic was instilled in me at an early age by two different ends of the cultural spectrum, a rural Wisconsin mentality and an urban punk mentality. You know, making chapbooks at Kinko’s.”

The nascent Eau Claire arts scene (pioneered and still led by the likes of John Hildebrand, Allan Servoss, Max Garland, Michael Perry, Bruce Taylor, et al.) was finding its youthful footing in the 90s. Future Grammy Award-winning musicians like Justin Vernon and Geoff Keezer, and sought-after record producers like Ryan Olson, plus award-winning writers, artists, and a lengthy list of extraordinarily talented musicians, most of whom graduated from Eau Claire Memorial High School in an eight-year window, and most of whom were, and remain, good friends. These young artists were orbiting one another, walking with one another in easy teenage ways: partying, sharing music, meals, books, and poetry.

As Gulig explains, Eau Claire is uniquely positioned to experience the Twin Cities art scene and the bucolic Wisconsin countryside. The same young artists who were venturing into Minneapolis to watch shows at First Avenue were also canoeing the Eau Claire and Chippewa Rivers; they were as likely to be found backpacking the Porcupine Mountains of northern Michigan as they were to be seen at the sparsely attended punk shows at UWEC’s Council Fire Room. There was a kind of moxy in the air at that time; it wasn’t that there were expectations or visions of success, or even a track record or role models. It was instead a kind of cool hutzpah, a confidence that arose from a safe, middle-class, Midwestern upbringing and excellent public schools and educators.

Nicholas Gulig at work, December 2022.

Even if the Chippewa Valley of west-central Wisconsin did not have a particularly illustrious history of art, it seems destined to. People around the world now pay good money to see musical performances by Eau Claire Memorial alums of the 1990s who once could be found playing pickup basketball at the YMCA or at sweaty, red Solo-cup soirees off Water Street. It is difficult to illustrate the amount of young talent coming of age in Eau Claire and Chippewa Falls at that time, and Gulig’s recent ascendancy is proof positive that much of it is still being discovered.

“I think that my work has changed a lot over the years. I think that what I’m most interested in as a poet is finding ways for different types of languages to cohabitate or coexist in the linguistic landscape of the poem. What I mean by that is, different types of languages, originating from different kinds of dictionaries. Take a poetic dictionary full of roses, meadows, larks, et cetera. But there’s also a critical dictionary, you know. The language of theory, the language of music, or philosophy or political science. In a poem I want to explore the extent that these separate vocabularies might contribute to or challenge each other. I want a poem to find its source in as many vocabularies or dictionaries as possible.”

This curiosity, this desire to work across boundaries, is also evident in Gulig’s vision for his time as Poet Laureate. “I want to put together a resource of writers living in Wisconsin that relates to a poem that happens outside of Wisconsin. Why that poem is open to them. Little essays about that. And then, writers outside of the state writing and reflecting about Wisconsin writers. So you’d have two vantages, two perspectives. Looking out of Wisconsin, and looking into Wisconsin. And if you can put those two things together, it creates a picture of the influenced and influencers. A kind of resource for high school and college teachers teaching poetry.”

Later that night—after gathering up the gunshot remains of Neck magazine, long after the winter sun had collapsed over the western horizon—Gulig, his wife Fon (whom he met in Thailand as a Fulbright Scholar), Grammy Award-winning producer Brian Joseph, Joseph’s dad, Norm, and I meet at a new restaurant in Eau Claire called The Good Wives. Gulig, Joseph, and I are all members of a vinyl record club (mostly of Eau Claire Memorial alums) where Gulig serves as Spiritual Advisor, a role that calls for him to read a poem towards the beginning of each meeting. His invocations are often high-water emotional moments of the evening, and even though we gather on Zoom (the club began during the first year of the COVID epidemic), it is easy to see, or even feel, the membership’s reactions to the material he has chosen. At times, these invocations have produced tears, and recently, after the reading of an Auden poem, an unprecedented encore.

We are the last table in the restaurant. The chefs and waiters are standing by the bar, arms crossed, waiting for us to leave. When we do go outside into the cold and splinter off into our separate directions, Gulig and his wife drive a short distance to the Third Ward, a beautiful neighborhood not far from the campus of UW–Eau Claire where Gulig’s father, Art, worked for many decades, to where his mother still lives in his childhood house. I imagine Gulig parking in the driveway, and walking inside that house, where on so many weekend nights, I was invited for sleepovers, where we whiled away hours talking about music, girls, and our futures. Our mothers used to rejoice in the fact that our names were the same—even our middle names—so when they inevitably screamed “Nick!” we both came running, most times with our friend Nik Novak as well. So much time has flowed between those memories and now. And yet, here we are. Dreaming the same dreams we did so many years before.

If there is a defining characteristic of the artists who have risen from the Eau Claire area, it is loyalty. A loyalty and commitment to place, community, and friendship. Nicholas Gulig’s poetry is a reflection of that ethos. His poems celebrate the landscape of Wisconsin, the beloved ghosts of his past, the friends that fill his evenings with laughter and music, his students and colleagues at UW–Whitewater, and the young family (daughters aged four and eleven) he is raising in Fort Atkinson, home of course, to another great Wisconsin poet, Lorine Niedecker.

In one sense, a state is just a line drawn upon a map that defines a space, a line guided by rivers and lakes, informed by other lines, older lines representing identities, feuds, established territories. The line and name of the line does not much matter. What matters, is how the space is filled. What importance we give to that space. For some, a state line is nothing, a border they drive across en route to someplace else. But for Nicholas Gulig, the line that defines Wisconsin contains a home, a place that has inspired and guided his pen, like a familiar hand.

In the imprint of a frozen footprint there might be a fleck of paper with the word wolf. Blowing gently across the snow, between wasted stalks of ragweed and goldenrod, the words rose or lusty or oleanders or razorback.


Amor Fati

This is how I’ve loved: dark
sky, bruise of wind like language
slipping into grief—

light, the drifting edge
of listening. Here,
where I am other than

and after—always
after—the incandescent wake
of every mercy

I’ve been given clears
the myriad complexities of ache,
my only ardor, error

like the bluest harbor,
the shoreline shaking in the inconsistent
weather of your name.

Nicholas Gulig


Nickolas Butler is the internationally bestselling author of the novels Shotgun Lovesongs, The Hearts of Men, Little Faith, and Godspeed, and the story collection Beneath the Bonfire.

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