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A quiet success

Duluth poet Connie Wanek may not have the name-recognition of some poets in the region, but she has quietly built a career that puts her among the elite.

Duluth poet Connie Wanek may not have the name-recognition of some poets in the region, but she has quietly built a career that puts her among the elite.
Wanek has been published on numerous occasions in the highly-esteemed Poetry magazine, most recently in March. Other publishing credits include the prestigious Atlantic Monthly ("The Coin Behind Your Ear" can be heard or read at the Atlantic Monthly's Web site), Prairie Schooner, Quarterly West and the Great River Review. She won an award from the Willow Review.
"You try to build a measure of success for individual poems," she said during an interview at a Woodland cafe.
In September, Holy Cow! Press will publish her second book, following "Bonfire," published in 1997 by New Rivers Press. The new book will be named "Hartley Field," after one of Wanek's more successful poems -- it appeared in the August 2001 edition of Poetry, alongside an interesting essay by Billy Collins, who had just been named U.S. Poet Laureate. The book's cover art will be a work by Ann Jenkins.
Wanek, who resists speaking of her own success too glowingly but liberally praises others in Duluth's literary scene, said she's even more thrilled about the upcoming book than she was about "Bonfire," which came about through an annual contest New Rivers used to put on.
Part of the reason is Holy Cow! Press and its owner, Jim Perlman. Wanek said the competition is stiff and that Perlman is very easy to work with and allows a lot of control over the finished product.
"Jim, he is one of the best publishers in the entire Midwest -- we're really lucky to have him in Duluth," she said.
Perlman is quick to return the compliment. Perlman said he's impressed not only with Wanek's credits but also the content and style of her work.
"(She's) a poet of great economy and imagination," he said. "And she's able to write quite convincingly about common objects and also the lives of people in her family and others that are close to her with great clarity."
Another part of Wanek's joy at the new book is the process -- where "Bonfire" came out of a context that was held annually by New Rivers Press. The manuscript itself for "Bonfire" was written over many years, the earliest poems dating to her college years.
This book came about more traditionally and is more of a coherent manuscript, she said.
One key theme running through the new book will be parenthood, which she says is one of the most important parts of her life. She and Perlman worked hard to balance that theme with the rest of the book.
But readers may note right away that Wanek, who works as a librarian in Duluth, writes fewer personal poems than many contemporary poets do. Many are object poems. In fact, she has an entire series of poems based on children's games and the meanings behind them, including "Checkers" and "Jump Rope," both published in the March 2001 edition of Poetry.
"Jump Rope" is a good example, which she says asks, "What is the price of success for a girl?" In the poem, Wanek explores the hidden meaning of the jump rope chant which picks the initials of a future husband. If the girl is good enough at jump rope and reaches the end of the letters of the alphabet, what then?
"Success -- competence -- means you don't have a sweetheart," she said.
These and other less personal poems are different than current trends, although that hasn't always been the case, and they are something she has had success with. "There is a lot of poetry as therapy; it's not poetry as therapy," Wanek said.
Perlman said he sees the trend in other Midwestern poets like Robert Bly and also in some surrealists. It goes back to William Carlos Williams' concept of "no ideas but in things."
"Investing a common object with poetic force somehow makes poetry more accessible to all of us in that you're dealing with something that is known and is common and is available to many people," Perlman said.
That accessibility is a point Wanek, who is influenced by poets as diverse as Tomas Transtromer, Elizabeth Bishop and Duluth's Louis Jenkins, whom she calls "one of the best poets in the country," is adamant about.
"I think sometimes obscurity is just incompetence in disguise," she said, noting that the best poetry has a clarity to it.
But not everyone sees it that way. Some have criticized Collins, for instance, for a perceived lack of depth or even an animosity toward complex thought. Wanek will have none of it.
"The hardest thing is to write something simple and direct and yet new and fresh," she said. "... I'm sure if they could write like Billy Collins, they would."
With Wanek the depth comes through in underlying subtleties in the poem, what Perlman called a little bit of a dark shadow.
"I'm not as optimistic a person as I'd like to be," Wanek said when asked about the slight tinge to some of her work. "It's a discouraging world out there."
Although Wanek does not write directly about social injustice or politics, she said it's an uneasy time politically, and she is concerned over the environment and global warming. Yet nature continues to give her hope.
"Things have a way of enduring anyway," she said. Taking Hartley Field itself as an example -- it used to be a farm -- she said, "There's something in the living that continues to want to live."
Wanek says her husband, Phil, is "incapable of dishonesty" and her best critic.
Perlman is optimistic about Wanek's future.
"She's extremely down to earth and very pleasant, and I find her very principled in a moral way," he said. "I think that she has a great future as a poet. I think she is probably one of our stronger regional poets right now."
He's also optimistic about the book, which he says can transcend its regional appeal.
He's probably right. Wanek has obviously already transcended hers.

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