Seigel humbled, honored to be UP Poet Laureate


HOUGHTON — In recent weeks, the country has been introduced to the likes of Amanda Gorman, the national poet laureate, who read poems for the inauguration of President Joe Biden and for the Super Bowl.

While he is not expecting to be seen and heard on quite that scale, M. Bartley Seigel is ecstatic to be named the U.P. Poet Laureate, as was announced earlier this month.

In fact, he is not yet sure how best to use his new platform.

“The biggest challenge for me is that it’s so open-ended in terms of what I can do,” he said. “There aren’t any real expectations of me. I can just be a poet. It’s an honor that I hold, I attach it to my biography or I can do what Marty (Achatz) did. (He) really took it upon himself to take an educational role, and a community outreach role, and sort of anywhere in between.

“I’m free to do as I please with the honorific and that part of it is, to me, really daunting, because I don’t want to just have the title.

“At the same time, I’m not sure yet what it is I want to do to capitalize on it.”

One thing Seigel is sure of, he wants to share this honor.

“I do have some sense at this point, as I always have in my career, that any kind of little honor or little power that is bestowed upon me, I like to sort of use it to pull other people up and pull other folks along,” he said. “I’m just not sure how I’m going to do that.”

Seigel is looking to build, in his own way off of the efforts and recognition of current and former U.S. Poet Laureates, like Joy Harjo or Gorman.

“I don’t feel the pressure to be Joy Harjo,” he said. “She’s doing a great job at being Joy Harjo. She doesn’t need my help, and Amanda Gorman, she’s such an amazing poet and such an inspiring person.

“I think what I love is that the U.P. Poet Laureate has been around for a number of years, and other poet laureates have been working for decades around the country. The prominence of someone like Amanda Gorman, really coming to the forefront reading a poem at Joe Biden’s inauguration or reading a poem in the in the sort of preamble to the to the Super Bowl, arguably the most American spectacle of all, that shining a spotlight on all of the work that of all of the lesser known poets and poet laureates are doing. I think that’s pretty special.

Poetry is seeing a bit of a renaissance right now, and Seigel believes that carrying the title poet laureate carries more weight in the country’s current climate.

“I think there are people, fellow Yoopers there folks in the up who are aware that they too have a poet laureate in a way that in previous years, they might not have been,” he said. “(That is) because of the work that people like Amanda Gorman and Joy Harjo are doing.”

Seigel admits that this past year has been difficult to navigate both as a poet and as a teacher, which is what he spends the bulk of his time doing during the school year.

“I’m a teacher and I’m still teaching amidst the pandemic,” Seigel said. “The pandemic has presented all of us with many unique and difficult challenges, but the silver lining to those challenges is that the pandemic has forced all of us to really think outside of the box, and to figure out ways of being and doing that will allow us to get through this horrible time together and in one piece.

“I don’t see the pandemic as a challenge to my teaching. I see Zoom calls as a challenge to my teaching, and I see the mental health of my students as a challenge to my teaching. I’m still bringing the same energy to my classroom practice.”

While Achatz set a lofty precedent for the U.P. Poet Laureate position by traveling around the U.P. and reading at various libraries and classrooms, Seigel is finding a way to continue that, even if it means doing so virtually.

“With the poet laureate position, there are going to be a lot of challenges, especially this year,” he said. “I can’t show up at a library in Escanaba, or St. Ignace, and give a give a live reading. At the same time, I’ve participated in a number of Zoom readings this year, and they’ve been wonderful, and better attended, than live readings that I’ve participated in in the past. I have given readings to audiences of 200 (in person), but I have given a lot more readings to audiences of five. Every Zoom reading that I’ve done this year has had at least 50 people in the audience. That’s a pretty well-attended poetry event.”

With the rise of Zoom during the pandemic, Seigel feels it is opening doors for artists to be seen and heard around the world.

“That, to me, is the silver lining,” he said. “I don’t want to make light of the pandemic. It is horrible and it’s really putting people to the test. It’s destroying lots of lives, but I think amidst all of the destruction, we’re also finding ways of being.

“I think poetry is an example of that, right? Through art, people find ways of being this stand in opposition to the challenges of being a human being. So the idea that the challenge of the pandemic would somehow be an impediment to art, or an impediment to my job as poet laureate, it seems, to me, antithetical to the entire endeavor to begin with. I mean, poetry is exactly the thing that we need right now, to stand up to the horrors of our time.”

While he is thinking about how to reach out to the world through programs like Zoom, he also has to focus on what is happening at home, where he and his wife are still working their way through raising two teenagers, one of whom is preparing to head to college next year.

“I think that my children are very amused by their father,” he said with a laugh. “My kids have grown up in a world very, very different from the one in which I grew up. They’ve got academics for parents, and they’ve spent their whole lives surrounded by poets and musicians and I think they’re very proud of me.”

As for his wife, Marika, she is still his harshest critic, but also his biggest supporter. She is originally from the Copper Country, and is the main reason he is here now.

“We came back here and we built a really beautiful life,” he said. “She has roots here, but I’ve put down roots here. I’ve really come to think of this place as my home. This place is in my bones now. I couldn’t I couldn’t have found that if I hadn’t supported that ambition that she had back 15 years ago, 16 years ago, to move back up here.

“I think, likewise, she has been incredibly patient with me. Throughout our marriage, she has tolerated all kinds of tomfoolery from me. She’s stuck by me and she’s supported me. She’s held me to a very hard standard. She expects a lot, but she’s thrilled that I’m poet laureate. I think it’s just one more thing for us as a couple with two careers and two kids and one kid about to go off to college. It’s just kind of one more ball to juggle in the air. We’ll do it together and she’s always been my biggest supporter and my hardest critic. What more can you ask for than that?”


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