Lakeland alums are featured writers at Great Lakes Writers Festival


Matthew Henriksen, Jodie Liedke, Karl Elder, Dawn Hogue and Jean Kuehnel

Leah Ulatowski and Heather Hartmann

One might say it takes a writer to know a writer, to truly comprehend a career that revolves around making a masterpiece out of a blank page. Fortunately, Lakeland College’s annual Great Lakes Writers Festival (GLWF) is the perfect place for writers on campus to connect, perfect their craft in workshops, and listen to seasoned writers present their work.

The 15th GLWF was held on Nov. 1-2 and was hosted by Fessler Professor of Creative Writing & Poet in Residence Karl Elder. It featured guest writers Matthew Henriksen, Dawn Hogue, Jean Kuehnel, and Jodie Liedke, all of whom are alumni.

The task of choosing the most suitable guest speakers is always a grueling one for Elder.

“I had to know that they were writing and producing good work,” Elder said. “Also, I had to know they were all team players. I’ve never invited four previously, of course we’ve never had alumni previously, but my point is that we’ve never had four featured writers in the past; we’ve only had two at a time. I didn’t know what the energy would be like, so we needed team players.”

In the end, only six alumni made the cut, two of whom couldn’t attend due to traveling abroad. Elder desired alumni writers in celebration of Lakeland College’s sesquicentennial and notes that it would have been impossible to bring in the four alumni without the extra funding provided by the sesquicentennial committee.

The event began with a welcome from Elder in the Bradley Fine Arts building and was followed by readings from each of the four guest writers. Each writer was introduced by a student from Elder’s Advanced Poetry Writing class, including art major Jacob Belknap, criminal justice major Joshua Leisemann, and writing majors Sean Gilligan and Veronica Lau.

The first writer to speak was Jean Kuehnel, who studied jazz piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee before graduating from Lakeland College in 1987 and ultimately going on to graduate school. She currently resides in North Carolina where she works in computer programming.

Kuehnel described her work as narrated by a sort of “distant” voice. The piece focused on a young girl experiencing her pet goat giving birth in an instance of innocence meets reality.

“I haven’t been writing for a while and so there’s been a lot of soul searching lately, a lot of ‘is this something I should do?’” Kuehnel said. “But, also this feeling that’s been going on for about a year that I need to start writing again, and this was kind of a weird coincidence that [Elder’s invite] came.”

The next writer to speak was Jodie Liedke. She graduated from Lakeland in 2006 and currently teaches composition, creative writing, literature, and film at Globe University in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

Liedke presented two poems entitled Sleeping with my Mother and From. The former is a tender narrative by a girl who crawls into bed with her adoring mother and inherits the woman’s varicose veins. The latter is a whimsical telling of all the places Liedke has been, and it even pays homage to Lakeland and its surrounding cornfields, as well as pokes fun at the college’s Writing and English faculty.

“I was ecstatic to come back, I had such a great experience at Lakeland,” Liedke said. “For two years I helped plan and run the Great Lakes Writers Festival, so I use to introduce the writers and now I was the writer being introduced—that was very moving.”

Third to speak was Dawn Hogue, who graduated from Lakeland in 1990 and currently works as a writing instructor for Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth. She is also the adviser for The Lakeland Mirror and serves as an adjunct instructor for Lakeland’s General Studies Department.

Hogue said that she has been actively blogging and essaying as a way to explore the concept of teaching and aid fellow educators. Hogue chose a slightly different route than her alumni companions by presenting one such blog post.

The piece she shared centered on her granddaughter Ella’s dilemma of having a teacher too quick to make decisions for the children in her classroom. Hogue communicated the necessity of allowing students some leverage in their educational environments.

“Karl knew that all four of us were going to present our own perspectives. I wanted to reach out to future teachers in the convocation audience and make the point that teachers can be reflective writers, too,” Hogue said. “The blog post I read was about how important it is for teachers to create engaging learning experiences, especially by providing many choices for students.”

The final writer to speak was Matthew Henriksen, who graduated in 2001 and recently released his first book of poems, Ordinary Sun. He lives in the Ozark Mountains where he works as co-editor of an online poetry journal and teaches creative writing at the University of Arkansas–Fort Smith.

Henriksen read several short poems, including Strange Flowers and several poems inspired by his hometown of Appleton, Wis. One might say that Henriksen’s works were characterized by impassioned diction and vivid, unconventional imagery that ranged from a peculiar girl on a bicycle to the spiritual realm.

“I was so blown away by the other readers, by the diversity of interests and by their presence as human beings, that I felt sort of inadequate reading,” Henriksen said, “or maybe I felt more like my work was just a small part of a sum total. Reading with others is often competitive or adheres to a hierarchy. In this case I felt humility and camaraderie.”

“The first thing I did on campus was head up to the third floor of WAK to see Karl Elder, Jeff Elzinga, and Linda Tolman. I have lived all over the country but have rarely felt at home. Lakeland though, especially with those three people, I feel a sense of belonging,” Henriksen said.

As Lakeland College’s writing program flourishes, it is no wonder the campus boasts a grand array of both faculty and students with a knack for the written word, most of whom were in attendance.

Some helped orchestrate workshops while others participated in them or took advantage of open mic and contest opportunities. Lakeland even invited High School students from surrounding communities to take part in special youth oriented events.

Writing major Nate Bakke and Writing and Art major Alyssa Nedbal, both of whom worked the event, lavished praises on the alumni run workshops. Hogue and Kuehnel headed prose workshops while Henriksen and Liedke covered poetry ones.

“It’s different than the workshops in Fiction Writing because it’s a singular event; it is more focused,” Bakke said.

They said that students were overjoyed to speak with the alumni during workshops as the writers had once been in their same exact shoes.

The alumni writers also had a second chance to present their work at special readings in the college’s pub. The atmosphere was very informal. Those from the Lakeland community took advantage of an open mic opportunity and the alumni writers shared their work throughout the night.

“Compared to the convocation, it was almost like being in a room with that person,” Bakke said.

The alumni, many students from the writing program, and all the writing professors showed up to the pub event and joined in on the fun and discussion.

“Writing can be such an isolating process, so [it was great] getting to know people who write and learning why they write, why they put themselves through this,” Nedbal said. “They understand, they don’t think you’re crazy.”

Elder was quite pleased with the event and the effect it had on those who attended. “I think the thing that people are most enthused about with respect to the experience of the festival is having their enthusiasm rekindled,” he said.

Follow the GLWF on Facebook and through the website.