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‘Swimming in the mystery’ describes a view of life

‘Swimming in the mystery’ describes a view of life

NORFOLK, Neb. – After listening to Kelly Madigan read some of her poems and provide insight into how they came about, it is clear that she loves adventure and the written word.

The two passions are combined in a clever way as she tackles such ventures as examining the corpse of a wild boar that was shot, or attending a “retroactive” baby shower for a friend’s deceased grandmother who had to get married at a time when it brought shame on the family.


As the first writer of the year to be featured in Northeast Community College’s Visiting Writer Series on Wednesday, Oct. 11, Madigan shared some of her poems from “The Edge of Known Things.” She also has written a book about sobriety.


The award-winning poet and essayist, whose awards include a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in creative writing, and the Distinguished Artist Award in Literature from the Nebraska Arts Council, comes across as a person who would be the most interesting person in the room.


The Iowa writer shared that she has fainted a lot. That almost included 16 years ago when she first appeared at Northeast in the writers series and she felt lightheaded. And waking up is odd, not knowing anything, including shapes, colors, and people’s faces.


The shapes, colors and people’s faces come back quickly -- within a minute -- but it is unsettling. So where is the person mentally when this happens? That’s a question she has asked herself.


“For whatever time I was lying on the floor, multiple times in my life, I was in some kind of cradle of dark as I came back out to be with you guys. So, there must be something, right?” she asked a gathering of about 20 people near the Union 73 coffee shop.


Dreams and the unknown are favorite topics. Madigan pointed out that nobody truly knows what life is about.


“We’re all just kind of swimming in the mystery. We don’t know what’s coming. And we don’t know where we came from. We’re all just trying to piece it together. Some of us think we have a surer vision of it than others and some of us are OK in the mystery.”


Madigan sometimes shares thoughts that can make people uncomfortable. But then she will make a reassuring statement, laugh, or offer a big smile that makes it seem like everything will be OK.


The former drug and alcohol counselor tries to write a poem each day during April. The month is NaPoWriMo, which is short for national poetry writing month.


She has a lot of “started journals” but doesn’t journal each day. She likes to hike, but goes slow, including as a guide for tours through the Loess Hills of western Iowa.


And she’s a firm believer in walking. “The vast majority of problems in my life have been solved by walking,” she said.


While Madigan usually writes about her own experiences, she occasionally will write from another person’s perspective or voice – including a porcupine.


“I have found that writing about heavy, personal issues is a way to … digest them and then crystalize them. And when I have successfully written about something that has been terribly painful, it kind of sets them (the pains) off slightly, so it’s no longer like an all-consuming pain. It’s like we are making art out of our pain.”


There are some pains that Madigan has gotten over with the help of writing. Others, such as her father’s death more than 20 years ago, still are being written about. Sometimes it appears that Madigan is looking to find a way home.


“Even though I lived in Nebraska for close to 40 years, I never lived or was raised where I was born,” Madigan said, “so I’ve never been a local.”


As one could imagine, that feeling prompted Madigan to write a poem called “Local.” And while it hints at aloneness, there also appears to be a deep truth that is unknown because she didn’t know anything different about not being a local.


“I never belonged anywhere, never was ‘the one who grew up here,’ don’t know what it is to be a local. I don’t remember the place I was born, attended four schools before third grade,” she read in part of her poem, “Local.”


As she describes some adventures in poems -- some dating back to childhood -- it appears she is searching for something that others have. But it ends on a happy note.


“Ask me a question. Even better if you unfold a map first. Do you know where you are? Finally, in the strangest way, I do,” she read in the conclusion of “Local.”


Her book, “Getting Sober: A Practical Guide to Making It Through the First 30 Days,” was in print for more than 17 years by McGraw-Hill. It just recently went out of print but has been recommended by many counselors as a guide for those seeking to become sober and getting through that first month.


Visiting Writer Series cutline

Kelly Madigan shares a smile after reading a poem at Northeast Community College as part of the Visiting Writers Series. 

(Northeast Community College)