National Poetry Month was initiated by the Academy of American Poets in 1996 to “increase the visibility and availability of poetry in popular culture while… celebrating poetry’s ability to sustain itself in the many places where it is practiced and appreciated.” The website for this annual celebration suggests many ways to participate, including “put a poem on the pavement” and “buy a book of poems for your library.” Far and away, “put poetry in an unexpected place” is my favorite suggestion, because it recalls for me a magnificent book hub in the heart of my old neighborhood.
As often as not, when I mention Milwaukee to people unfamiliar with the Midwest, they respond with, “where?” They ask about cheese curds and beer, or about Laverne & Shirley—all totally relevant subjects, but these aren’t the city’s only cultural signposts. Folks are often surprised to learn that Milwaukee is also home to one of the country’s great independent bookstores, specializing in small-press poetry, chapbooks, and broadsides. Founded in 1979, Woodland Pattern Book Center is a nonprofit arts organization in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood, taking its name from a line of Paul Metcalf’s poem, Apalache: “South of Lake Superior, a culture center, the Woodland Pattern, with poetry but without agriculture….”
With more than 25,000 small press titles—the largest selection in the country—Woodland Pattern boasts a massive inventory of poetry, chapbooks, broadsides, and multicultural literature, including lines from the likes of Wave, Ugly Duckling, Octopus, Gray Wolf, Fence, and others.
“As booksellers and as presenters of art and literature,” reads the center’s website, “we want people to know that there is more than what you see at your chain bookstore, more than you are taught in school, more than what is reviewed in the papers.”
For the better part of ten years, I lived mere blocks from Woodland Pattern. Nearly every day, I passed by on my way to work, or while out wandering the neighborhood. The shop sits curbside on a two-lane, high-traffic, not-particularly-pretty street, so its whitewashed façade—adorned with a fresh mural each year—was always a welcome sight. But here’s the thing: I’ve never been real big on poetry, and believing that there was “just a bunch of poetry” inside, I couldn’t find a reason to go in, content to appreciate it from outside.
However, age, education, and friends’ thoughtful recommendations have had their way with me. Last summer, on an extended visit to Milwaukee and newly hooked on Eileen Myles, I wandered into this neighborhood shop/national poetry treasure for the very first time. Inside, I not only found the book I was looking for, but also had the distinct pleasure of being surrounded by so many thousands of mostly unfamiliar volumes. Woodland Pattern feels how every bookstore should: colorful, mysterious, friendly, and a little bit overwhelming.
As if all those books were not enough, Woodland Pattern also hosts readings, writing workshops, art exhibits, film screenings, and music performances, with an emphasis on experimental and improvisational work; that such a place exists, still, is a testament to the significance of independent arts, and to the idea that poetry can sustain itself in the most unexpected places.