Before coming to UW- Eau Claire, Dr. Audrey Fessler and husband Dr. Jeff Vahlbusch taught at Washington College, a small university located in Chestertown, Maryland. Here, the two fell in love with an annual poetry reading that happened there in which people took turns reading in different languages. Although the event was small, (around five or six languages) it made a lasting impact on both Fessler and Vahlbusch.
After accepting positions in Eau Claire, Fessler in the English and Women’s Studies departments, and Vahlbusch in the German department as well as the University Honors program, the two took the initiative in creating an International Poetry Reading for all at UWEC and the community to enjoy. Fessler says that one of their initial goals in creating this event was to allow people here to realize the many cultures and languages that exist right here in our city, and to help celebrate that linguistic and cultural diversity. This event gives those at the University as well as the community who speak another language the opportunity to showcase the love they have for their language, as well as the admiration they feel for all others who speak foreign languages.
Fessler remembers their very first year organizing the International Poetry reading in 2006. They had set up a smaller room in the old Davies Center, and had expected around fifty people to show up. What happened was something much more extraordinary. They received a smattering of support, the custodial staff of the building having to open up the overflow doors into the cafeteria to accomadate all those that showed.
Since that first year the International Poetry Reading has only grown, with about two hundred to two hundred and fifty people coming each year. From its initial beginning, around seventy-five languages have been featured, typically around forty each year. Fessler says she hopes for around forty to be showcased this year as well. New languages are featured each year, this year those being Michif, an indigenous Canadian language, Perl, a computer language, which will be read by Dr. Alan Benson of the English department, Tap Code, a language used by POW’s, and last but not least Turkish.
Anyone can read at the International Poetry Reading, and according to Fessler, the readers are typically very diverse. Usually featured are community members, international students, national students, faculty and staff of the university, and even beginners who may be taking an entry level language course. Jeff Vahlbusch will be reading in Dutch to commemorate a professor who meant a lot to him when he was a graduate student.
Although this will be the tenth and last year for the International Poetry Reading, Fessler hopes that it will be the most phenomenal year yet. Thomas Wayne King, a Professor Emeritus of UW-Eau Claire, has very generously given a monetary donation to this event in it’s final year in hopes of making it extraordinary. Due to this special generosity, the event will be able to give thanks and gifts to all of it’s readers, as well as offering a keepsake to all of those in attendance, in hopes of preserving this wonderful event. This year’s event will be held on Wednesday, May 4th, from 7-9 pm, in the Ojibwe Ballroom on the third floor of the Davies Center at UWEC.
Although this event unfortunately comes to a close this year, Fessler has many things she hopes people will experience this year with the International Poetry Reading. “I hope that people take away a renewed sense of awe at the power of language to convey ideas and emotion, and that people come away honored and thrilled to be able to have so many people who love the languages they know, share the beauty of those languages with the audience. It’s a tremendous gift that every reader on the stage will be providing for everyone in the room, and I hope that we all come away drawn closer together through appreciation of other’s pride in their language, others cultural knowledge, and others willingness to share and celebrate that cultural knowledge broadly with everyone in the community.”
For those with questions, please contact Dr. Audrey Fessler at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Included below is a video taken from the 2013 International Poetry Reading.