Upper Peninsula’s poet

MARQUETTE – Marquette resident Russell Thorburn is the first Upper Peninsula Poet Laureate, chosen by a panel of literary-minded experts from around the peninsula.

In hearing his name read recently as the winner from the group of finalists that also included noted writers Elinor Benedict, Randall R. Freisinger, Eric Gadzinski and Austin Hammill, several thoughts went Thorburn’s brain.

“All those years standing before sixth-graders and others flashed through my mind,” Thoburn said in an email. “Their poetry still goes through my head, poems that can be found in three anthologies published during residencies funded through the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs (at Peter White Public Library). As an artist-in-residence for the Mojave National Preserve with my son (Gabriel), I experienced desolation, in search of narratives that could match his photography for our exhibit ‘Many Names Have Never Been Spoken Here.'”

That exhibit took place earlier this year in California as part of the Mojave National Preserve Artist Exhibit that showcased the photography of Gabriel Thorburn and the poetry of his father, who teaches writing and literature at Northern Michigan University.

“Now that the desert poetry has been completed, I have been writing about the Upper Peninsula in poems that imagine Walt Whitman swimming out to Ripley Rock, and other poets that mean much to me, like my early late mentor, Phil Legler. He wades out into Superior.”

Thorburn’s work is featured in a number of anthologies, including “Poems from Planet Earth,” which has British Columbia poets and others who read for the Planet Earth Poetry Series; “Woman in Metaphor,” which is California poets based in Los Angeles and the Palm Springs area who respond to the paintings of Stephen Linsteadt in poetry; and “Michigan Anthology,” published by New Issues Press.

However, he’s not part of “Way Up North,” a recently published anthology of U.P. poetry. A previous Mining Journal story incorrectly included him in that book.

The poet laureate post was explained this way earlier this year:

“Over 100 U.P. libraries, bookstores and writers were contacted for their nominations and these five received the most nominations,” said Ron Riekki, a noted author who is project coordinator. “The position is being created to honor a poet that regional bookstores, libraries and writers believe is of exceptional talent and who has been and will continue to be supportive of U.P. literature, especially poetry.

“With the awarding of the position, the hopes that – similar to the U.S. Poet Laureate position – the U.P. Poet Laureate will use the title for the further advancement of poetry in the region, leaving autonomy and creativity to the poet in any ideas they may have to help do so,” Riekki said.

Thorburn is looking forward to being in the post.

“I like the challenge as a poet laureate for such a large territory,” he said. “I am honored that my peers and librarians I have been working with for years chose me as the first to venture out, to find words spoken and unspoken in moments full of light and shadow, and life.

“It will be a great partnership, me and the Upper Peninsula, a place I first wandered to long ago in the seventies as a poet and musician, writing about life and love, creating music in both words and songs.”

A recent reading at the Oasis Gallery in Marquette featuring Thorburn, Jonathan Johnson, Claudia Drosen and Alex Gubbins is an example of how future events will be shaped, Thorburn said.

“Each of us wrote a poem based on one of Kyra Sido’s photos currently exhibited,” he said. “This event is a model of others to come: when artwork on the wall has an equal focus as poetry read.”

He also has another different sort of reading coming up at the Marquette Regional History Center, when the focus will be on Marquette’s imagined past of explorers and wanderers.

Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is rprusi@miningjournal.net.