Our virtual Secret Fabula was held on April 30 – the final day of National Poetry Month. The theme was “Backstory”. How do creative, word-loving people blend lived experience and learning; imagination, image and sound, to come up with poems? How do we heal ourselves by writing poetry and telling stories? How do we connect, and in doing so, heal, or challenge others?

Ex Fabula teamed up with Milwaukee Poet Laureate Dasha Kelly Hamilton. Dasha (who’s graced the Ex Fabula stage many times) is the co-founder of The Retreat; and founder of Still Waters Collective.

Five Milwaukee poets – Matthew Gutierrez, Michaela Lacy, Isaiah Furquan, Sam Pekarske and WI Poet Laureate Margaret Rozga offered poems. Then, they shared the stories and artistic decisions behind their work. They shed light on the varied, magical ways that poems come to be, only to live in the world beyond their creators.

Dasha started it off with an exuberant poem about moving from youthful insecurity to adult self-love and confidence. Only skill with words could make readers and listeners believe that Milwaukee’s dynamic change-agent was ever a wallflower!

Matthew Gutierrez recited his poem A Loner and a Ghost. He had us right in the car with him, cruising the city as a young man with a close friend…who became a ghost. The backstory Matthew shared about this friend and friendship was searing. In 2002, his friend, just 18, was lost to gun violence.

Matthew relived the funeral this spring, when he joined his friend’s family at the same funeral home. A cousin of the poem’s “ghost” was one of the workers killed in the mass shooting at Molson Coors. Matthew’s poem grew from the experience of grieving with this family yet again.

It felt like a night at SWC’s Pentastic Open Mic as listeners – adept at Zoom by now – typed lines that resonated with them into chat…digital post-its tossed to the stage.

Ex Fabula’s own Michaela Lacy was the next poet up. She performed her poem “Generational Curses”. So – let me pause. I have the 2018 Still Waters Collective anthology, “Runs Deep”. Sometimes, we note titles more or less in passing…yeah, that’s nice… And sometimes, we experience a poem or performance, and the true meaning strikes us. Below, beyond surfaces, there’s much more to know.

So it is with Michaela. It can become a reflex to underestimate young people, but don’t. In her poem, she takes a long, courageous view of suffering the women of her family have endured at the hands of abusive partners.

Michaela was bold and generous in sharing the backstory. Several generations of her family’s women were watching the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do with It?”. A scene where Tina fights Ike opened a floodgate of memories and stories. Michaela herself remembers being awakened in the middle of the night by her mother, to flee her abusive father. She shared that she was a rape victim; and that she’s resolved never to allow that in her adult relationships. And that she has stumbled at that, stood up and resolved to try again. She creates art and healing as she goes forward. She’s working on a book “Vanilla is Brown”, so get ready for the release.

Isaiah Furquan has performed his poetry all over the United States, so the Ex Fabula audience was lucky to meet him in the relative intimacy of a Zoom. His poem “Glass” began: I used to be made of sand…Isaiah shared that his backstory here was more mood than a specific story. He asked: has anyone ever come along and shaken your foundation…so that your “normal” changes? That was the experience he conveyed, with images and metaphors that fired all the senses. solar flare. path of brokenness leading to you

“Chat” was popping with snaps. Lots of us could relate. In the talk-back, someone asked Isaiah what it’s like to perform for thousands. Isaiah said that is a kind of excitement. But to him, a greater thrill is to have one person come to him and say what his words meant to them. That one-on-one feedback is what he values the most.

Next up, Sam Pekarske. Sam read “Alms for the Bored”, the galloping title poem of her 2018 book (from Vegetarian Alcoholic Press). Sam had been working on an elegant collection called “Terminal”. Something kind of formal, academic… Sam loves and respects English department types, but that’s not her. In 2017, drunk and on Twitter…she tweeted the phrase “Alms for the Bored”.

Something clicked. She trusted her instinct, read the signs! She killed “Terminal” (I roused myself from a Zoom stupor to shudder with admiration) and went to work, penning 99 poems in less than a year. Sam isn’t a strict formalist, but a little symmetry is nice. Needing an even 100, she wrote the title poem last.

Sam talked about the respect she has for those who write poetry because they just do. Just have to. No degree necessarily, no accolades…just art. Connection. We’re the weak of wares but rich of spirit – hounded and nourished by our compulsions.

Current Wisconsin Poet Laureate, and Milwaukee icon Margaret (Peggy) Rozga wrapped up the night with her poem “Cake and Lemonade for Neighbors”. Peggy co-edited a 2018 anthology. “Where I Want to Live, Poems for Fair and Affordable Housing”. The book was a final project wrapping up two busy years commemorating the 50th Anniversary of Milwaukee’s famous, consequential Open Housing Marches.

She wasn’t sure if she’d contribute a poem. How to quantify, qualify the things that make a desirable living situation, a place you’d want to live? Well, for Peggy, it isn’t a subdivision with houses widely separated on large lots. She described a convivial, tolerant, diverse neighborhood…a place where people interact but also give each other a little space. As she laid out the poem, she realized that 41st and Ruby, where she lived when her children were young had been just such a place. She wrote the poem first, and then realized where it came from!

Ex Fabula’s original motto was “Story, Stage, You”, and of course, there are no stories without you, and you and you. But now, it’s “Connecting Milwaukee Through Real Stories”. Emphasis on connecting! Poetry is therapy. It’s art. It’s often storytelling too. It all came together during “Backstory”. A fitting end to National (middle of a pandemic) Poetry Month 2020!