Jan. 25—Growing up, Nicholas Gulig was surrounded by books.
He didn't have the internet, nor did his family own a TV, but he had books, music and a strong imagination. He looked forward to his weekends perusing the bookshelves of the L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library. That was all he needed, he said, to get to where he is today.
Gulig, an Eau Claire native and Memorial High School class of 1998 graduate, has been named the 2023-24 State Poet Laureate of Wisconsin.
The role of the state's Poet Laureate is to act as a statewide emissary for poetry and creativity, keeping the arts accessible and vital to all age groups. This can be done through legislative advocacy, activism, social engagement and other services.
When Gulig learned he had been named the next Poet Laureate, he said his first reaction was one of shock. Though he had applied for the role himself, he told the Leader-Telegram it was a part of the art world to accept rejection.
"When you're in the arts you apply for so many things because it's so hard to get things published, it's so hard to win awards, it's just so hard to make it in the arts," Gulig said. "I was shocked, I was surprised. It wasn't something I expected, because I've learned not to expect anything."
A passion that began as a teen, Gulig said he found refuge in literature following a knee injury that ended his hockey career just before the start of high school.
Despite some initial concerns about the reliability of a career in writing, Gulig said he always had a support system in his parents and friends. He said the first thing he wanted to do after hearing he was named Poet Laureate was to call his father, who died in 2015.
"I just wanted my dad to know that those sacrifices amounted to something," Gulig said.
After high school, Gulig continued honing his passion for writing through higher education, studying literature at the University of Montana, the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and the University of Denver, where he earned his Ph.D.
In 2011, Gulig received a Fulbright Fellowship to Bangkok, Thailand, during which he completed his first book, "North of Order." Also written by Gulig are "Book of Lake" and "Orient," which was a finalist or semifinalist in six national book contests, eventually winning the Cleveland State University Open Book Poetry Prize.
Gulig has gone on to give numerous readings, talks and lectures across the countries at institutions such as Naropa University, Cleveland State University and the Association of Asian American Studies, among others. Locally, he has twice won the Wisconsin People & Ideas poetry award.
Today, Gulig is an associate professor at UW-Whitewater, where he co-runs "The Muse," the campus literary journal, as well as the UW-Whitewater Creative Writing Festival and the Growing Writers Summer Camp.
He has also founded and curated a variety of reading series, including the Warhawk Reading and Lecture Series, the Lamplight Reading Series and the Spotlight Reading Series.
It is his network of peers, though, that inspire Gulig to keep writing.
"I've been lucky enough to have been educated at places that have produced really, really talented writers. My network of peers, by virtue of the places I went to school, is just wildly successful, wildly talented," he said, explaining his desire to "keep up."
B.J. Hollars, UW-Eau Claire professor of English and founder and director of the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild, said he has known Gulig for about six years. The pair met at one of Gulig's book readings, and have since crossed paths through multiple CVWG events.
"Nick's work really drills down to precision of language and helping to find new ways to view the world and the landscape that's far beyond the traditional look at the natural world," Hollars said, noting how Gulig's poetry speaks to a wide range of readers.
"Nick is an incredibly humble and humane writer who gives generously to the people in the communities around him. I've always been so floored by his willingness to support fellow writers and his commitment to Wisconsin at-large."
Hollars said Gulig is stepping into an important role as State Poet Laureate — one that was held by another Eau Claire native just a few years ago, Max Garland.
"(The role is) a way to ensure that poetry and art more broadly remains at the forefront of our state. In recent years, we've had a host of incredible writers representing us," Hollars said. "I think Nick is really kind of carrying the torch forward to continue to represent poetry and poets and art throughout the state, both by way of presentations and workshops to all demographics of folks."
Elan Mccallum, a member of the CVWG Advisory Board, serves as the guild's representative on the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission. She described Gulig's work as "gorgeous" and "resonant."
"For me it's the kind of work that sparkles darkly, like a flash in the dark, and you have to take another look to be sure of what you just experienced," she stated in an email to the Leader-Telegram. "The Commission is really looking forward to how Nick will be an advocate for poetry in the state."
Though it can be difficult to say for certain what his tenure as State Poet Laureate will look like, Gulig did say he already has one project in mind.
He wants to examine the ways Wisconsin is connected to the larger literary world around it.
"I grew up feeling like I lived in the middle of nowhere," Gulig said. "I grew up feeling like culture and the arts and literature and everything that was of interest to me happened in New York or happened in California — everywhere that wasn't the Midwest. ... But, that's not true."
As he's grown and learned as a writer, Gulig said he has come to see that the state is full of people who share this same perspective, and he wants to challenge that narrative. That gave him an idea.
Gulig said he wants to curate a sort of short essay or interview series in which writers in Wisconsin talk about poems or poets outside of Wisconsin that are important to them. On the flipside, he also wants to ask out-of-state writers to write about Wisconsin poems or poets who are important to them.
"I think if I can combine those two things, I can paint this picture that kind of proves the illusionary nature of how I thought about the Midwest when I was growing up as an aspiring poet in the Midwest, feeling like I was the only one who cared here and that no one cared outside of here cared about here," Gulig explained. "I think I was wrong to think that, I just didn't have a way to know any better."
Gulig began his two year-term as State Poet Laureate of Wisconsin on Jan. 14. For more information on Gulig, his work and the Wisconsin Poet Laureate Commission, visit wisconsinpoetlaureate.org.