Fabu Carter-Brisco, Madison’s poet laureate
A poet of the oral tradition
By Jonathan Gramling
There are times in life when positive indeed comes out of negative — a poetic twist of fate in a way. Back in fifth grade in Memphis, Tenn., where she
grew up, Fabu Carter-Brisco was set on being a novelist and wrote a book for a class project. But the teacher spent more time correcting spelling and
marking up the book with her red pen than realizing a fifth grader had the wherewithal to write a book.
Fabu — as she is known professionally — turned to poetry as a means to build up her writing skills when she was in college, still determined to be a
novelist. But when Fabu really got in touch with poetry, it was a match made in, well … poetic heaven. “When I started with poetry, I loved poetry back,”
Fabu said. And she has been in love with poetry ever since.
Fabu is the prototypical struggling literary artist. While her passion is poetry and promoting it and the literary arts in general, she has always had to
supplement her work as consultant and artist-in-residence with day jobs in the human service field. For a song or for free, Fabu has shared her poetry in
many venues in the Madison area, from Madison’s Juneteenth Day celebration to events associated with the Wisconsin Book Festival to area schools. She
also co-founded the Hibiscus Collective, a platform for female writers of color to support each other in their literary pursuits.
And while she hasn’t published her poetry with a known publishing house, people from many walks of life know Fabu as an accomplished poet and are
familiar with her writings. “I am published in the oral tradition,” Fabu said. “And that really is my African American culture, isn’t it?”
In January 2008, Madison area poets and the city of Madison recognized Fabu’s accomplishments and her efforts to promote the literary arts when she
was named Madison’s third official poet laureate. She had been nominated by Andrea Musher who had held the position until Fabu’s appointment.
Becoming a poet laureate was not something Fabu expected to be. “I had met the United States poet laureate, Rita Dove, at a conference many years
earlier,” Fabu recalled. “So I was aware of what a poet laureate is and what a poet laureate does. And I also remember when Wisconsin began with its own
poet laureate program. I remember very kind people calling me and saying ‘Why don’t you apply?’ I told them no because when you become a poet
laureate means you have contributed to the field of poetry, which includes publishing widely. So it never really entered my mind that I would be considered
or sought after. And I actually turned it down first. I turned it down because another poet was interested in the position and I felt that poet had much more
experience, was more widely published and was a very good man. Lastly, he was an elder in the community. I felt I had more years to write and more years
to do it. I just thought he should be given first crack at it. But he didn’t live in Madison, and as it turned out, he couldn’t accept the honor.”
While it is an unpaid position, there will be many things that Fabu can do as Madison’s poet laureate — and many demands placed on her time. She
received some words of advice from Wisconsin’s poet laureate, Denise Sweet, to be careful about overdoing it and burning out.
And her role as Madison’s poet laureate will take her places she probably wouldn’t have gone to. This summer, she will be featured at the Kickapoo
Valley County Fair in Western Wisconsin.
Fabu looks upon this as an opportunity to support local artists and to encourage Madisonians in general to take up poetry. “Whatever you do in life, you
need to be in touch with your feelings and you need to be connected with people and the world around you,” Fabu emphasized. “So even if you decided to
be a rocket scientist, it will help you in your chosen profession to write poetry because in poetry you are trying to capture — in the fewest words — the
biggest word pictures and the biggest concepts. You talk about universal things like love, but in an unusual and unique way. You don’t want to repeat ‘Roses
are red, violets are blue …’ In an effort to do that, you get to put your own imprint on words and you get to show how you look at the world. So you can be a
farmer or a newspaper publisher or oceanographer, whomever, and poetry will be a healing tool.”
Fabu is breaking new ground as Madison’s poet laureate. And perhaps without intending to, she has become a role model for others. “I met someone out
in the community who had been in prison,” Fabu said. “He knew of my poetry. He told me that never in his wildest dreams would he have thought that a
Black woman would be selected as Madison’s poet laureate. So for them, it’s a way of sharing with me the hope that you can be Black in Madison and still
Staying connected to community — and her inner self — is important to Fabu. While she was born in Memphis, Fabu has always considered herself an
“African born and raised in America.” She is proud of her longstanding connections to the African Women’s Association and the African Association of
Madison. “I’m very appreciative of my African self,” Fabu said.
And true to her connection to community, Fabu doesn’t look upon this as much as an opportunity for herself as it is for the community to get in touch
with its inner-self through poetry. “Poetry is who I am,” Fabu exclaimed. “It’s a very important piece of me. It’s not the whole of me, but I think by far, one of
my most beautiful attributes. Being poet laureate allows me to thrive with the talent that I have. Part of me being an artist and poet, is to also share
resources with other people and to provide opportunities for other people as well. It is very important to provide other opportunities and resources for people.
What I know, I share.”
And as Madison’s poet laureate, we can only hope that Fabu will share often during her reign.