Harmony Cafe is pleasantly busy tonight. I half-expected a modern, mis-planted store look like the Green Bay counterpart. Happily, i’s warm and old school as my favorite coffee shops often are. Deep red walls and high tin ceilings complement exposed brick and hardwood floors. They have a special ‘stage room’ for events like this. It’s shut off from the loud coffee grinders and blenders.
My object here is duel purpose. I love supporting local(ish) events and hearing passionate speakers, but I’m on a mission. Learning comes first. I want to gather as much information as possible. As an aspiring writer, I’m inhaling everything about how to write and how the industry works. After I’ve sucked that avenue dry, my focus shifts to networking. Many of the speakers are writers, editors, librarians, and/or teachers. To better my own work will take practice and critique. Taking classes in creative writing seems to be the next plausible step.
When Margaret Rozga takes the podium, I’m struck by the image of a rather stern teacher determined to quell a loud classroom. This particular room is dead silent though. Rozga doesn’t ‘speak’ she just talks. There is nothing preachy about this former civil rights movement member.
“What is history worth anyway?” her first poem asks. Rozga fears we are losing the knowledge and history of our civil rights movement. Most students know Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, but even Milwaukee students don’t realize how much happened in our state during those turbulent years. The poetry takes you back to another decade. A time of segregation. Her words are wrought with personal histories. “How had I walked these streets for years and did not see the ugly?” Each of the three poems she reads from Two Hundred Nights and One Day is supplemented with Rozga’s own memories and back-stories. When she turns to the last day of the battle, 19 March 1968, you can see the passion, the feeling as she remembers.
I try to imagine her words on paper – without her strident voice – be it seems impossible. How could you remove her voice, tone, attitudes from this work?
To finish her set, Roxga chooses a poem from her latest book Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad. You feel shivers as she describes her feelings, getting choked up, when her son left for Iraq. She speaks so direct and factually. There’s no fluff in the poems she reads. Yet, the works she chose are so powerful, ringing through the long room.
I regret not purchasing a copy of each collection. Even without her exceptional delivery, those poems are an important history of this state. I’ll have to be quicker to the draw in picking up books for the rest of the festival.
BIO: Poet and playwright Margaret (Peggy) Rozga is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin Waukesha. As a member of the 1967-68 Milwaukee NAACP Youth Council, she participated in the 200 nights of marching that helped secure passage of federal and local fair housing legislation in April 1968. Later she married civil rights leader Father James Groppi. They have three children.
Her play about the Milwaukee fair housing marches, March On Milwaukee, has seen three full productions and three concert readings since its debut at UW Waukesha in 2007. Her book Two Hundred Nights and One Day was awarded a bronze medal in poetry in the 2009 Independent Publishers Book Awards and named an outstanding achievement in poetry for 2009 by the Wisconsin Library Association. Her new collection of poems, Though I Haven’t Been to Baghdad, reflects on her experience as the mother of an Army Reservist deployed first to Iraq and then to Afghanistan. It is scheduled for release in 2011.