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Wisconsin Book Festival Poetry Contest 2009 showers Madison poets with iambs

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In announcing the winners of the 2009 Wisconsin Book Festival Poetry Contest, Wisconsin People & Ideas has all but composed an ode to Madison's tribe of poets. The quarterly journal for the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters lists poets from Appleton, Bailey's Harbor and Slinger in first, second and third place. But the names of six Madison poets dominate the ranks of runners-up in this year's contest, which drew more than 350 entries from throughout the state. Their entries will be published in the magazine's spring issue along with the poems by the three winners, who will be invited to read their work at this year's festival.

Also among the runners-up in 2008, Sarah Busse is recognized in this year's contest for "Memories of Two Lights: Notes for a Quilt." Busse, 36, ranks the recognition "right up there" in terms of gratification. "I think you're always proud and pleased to make a list like that," she says, "and at the same time recognize that there are so many good writers here, and how fortunate you are to be included among them."

Busse -- who is about to assume the co-editorship of the journal Free Verse and move it from Marshfield to Madison -- traces the inspiration for "Memories of Two Lights" to two sources. "I do a lot of sewing as a hobby," she explains. Her mother comes from a family of avid quilters in Maine. On childhood visits to that state, Busse would join her relatives in forays to Two Lights State Park on Maine's rugged and picturesque Atlantic coast. These experiences left an indelible impression. She first considered expressing them in quilt form, Busse allows, "but I decided I'd never be able to finish a quilt. So I wrote a poem." She describes the result as both stanzaic in structure but also "very, very organic."

Jeri McCormick has won quite a few awards for her poetry over the years (including one prize in Ireland, where they honor contemporary practitioners of their poetic heritage with substantial sums of money), but describes herself as "pleased -- very pleased" to learn of her runner-up laurel for "A Leavetaking." She was also delighted to see Appleton's Cathryn Cofell in first place, she adds: The two are friends, and McCormick evinces respect and admiration for Cofell's work.

"A Leavetaking," McCormick says, took its inspiration from "the death of my mother, which was quite some time ago." Such an event can take a long time to gestate into verse, she explains. The poem is not structured in any formal sense, she adds, but does "have a formal look on the page -- the same number of lines per stanza and a pattern of indentation repeated throughout the stanzas."

A frequent visitor to Ireland, McCormick -- who will mark her 75th birthday in a couple weeks -- is now preparing a book for publication there next year. It is titled Marrowbone of Memory, and is about the Irish famine. "I've spent a lot of time in Ireland," she notes. On her most recent visit, she stayed a full year while her husband was there on a Fulbright. Through a university friend, she discovered a great trove of hundreds of interviews that had been translated from the Irish into English, and amounted to an oral history of the famine. It is on these resources that her new book will be based.

Among the other local poets recognized by this year's contest panel judges: Nickolas Butler, for "The Origami of Large Animals," Ronnie Hess, for "The Portfolio," Fran Rall, for "About String," and Middleton's Richard Roe, for "Looking for a Room." Congratulations to all, and may flights of angels sing thee to thy next point of inspiration.

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