Northern Michigan Poet Bard makes poetry popular

terry wooten

Photo by Alan Newton/Newton Photography

As an author, I know how scary it can be to present your work.

It can be even harder for poets. Terry Wooten, who bills himself as Michigan’s Poet Bard, figured out a way to make a living as a poet and to bring others along.

In 1980, Terry met the late Michigan poet Max Ellison, who ran a weekly campfire/poetry session in a woods near Shanty Creek. They became friends. Ellison inspired Terry to create a venue of his own.

“I was bothered by restaurants where musicians sing their hearts out and everybody ignores them,” Terry says. “I wanted to create a place of awe and wonder. A place where the words come across and poetry, story and song are the center.”

At the time, Terry’s wife Wendi’s family owned hundreds of acres of cherry trees. The McLachlan farm market now belongs to King Orchards in Kewadin. (Cherry lovers alert: in summer, King sells some of the plumpest, firmest, sweetest cherries in northern Michigan.)

Terry decided to build a stone circle in the meadow behind his house in Kewadin (near Traverse City).  “Our ancient ancestors used stone circles as a place of gathering and communication,” he says.

Northern Michigan is blessed with a limitless supply of granite boulders, a gift of the last ice sheet to retreat some 10,000 years ago. To collect these treasures, Terry borrowed McLachlan family tractors equipped with 3-point hydraulic forks for hauling cherry tanks. He found some boulders deep in the woods; others, down in ravines. Many had been dragged by horses to the edge of farm fields more than 100 years ago. Terry brought dozens of boulders back, one at a time, through a woods on the family farm. (Much of that property is now A Ga Ming Golf Course.)

Thirty-one years ago, Terry created his first stone circle. When the circle was complete, he invited family and friends to a poetry reading. It was a Saturday night in 1983. About 100 attended.  The event was such a hit that Terry decided to host it weekly. Ever since, lit by firelight and lanterns, Stone Circle events take place on Saturday nights all summer long. Donation: $5.

Finding, hauling and placing stones became a passion. Terry added 2 more circles, finally stopping 4 years later.  He had completed 3 concentric circles, for a total of 88 stones.  88, for numerology buffs, is the number for infinity in Pythagorean math. It’s also the number of keys on a piano and the number on Terry’s football jersey at Marion High School (southeast of Cadillac, MI).

The show still goes on. Many attend year after year. “Stone Circles have become an Up North experience,” Terry says. His and Wendi’s children grew up attending. Blaise, 31, has a stone circle tattooed on her back. Ezra, 33, has the phases of the moon on his right arm.

Many poets, story tellers and singers return every summer. Terry has memorized 563 poems (from Chaucer to Whitman, including 323 of his own). He recites on request. Poets joining him include David Jones of Valparaiso, IN, who writes about trains; Rose Bohn, who teaches language arts at Penn State; Louanne Lechler; and Jim Ribby, a probation officer in Bellaire, MI. (Ribby recites poems by cowboy Baxter Black, one of my faves.) Guitarist Joe Troyer of Grand Rapids appears often, as does his son Joseph E.

When summer’s over, Terry visits schools throughout Michigan. In his Elders Project, he brings community elders, including veterans, into middle and high schools. They talk about their experiences.  Students then write poems in the voice of those elders. Terry does, too.

Word of Terry’s Stone Circles traveled across the ocean. A film crew from Barcelona recently spent 4 weeks filming at the Wootens’. Thirty-some poet-friends returned to do interviews and perform. Among them: Mi Ditmar, who teaches at Syracuse U. and Steve Marsh, past executive director of National Slam Poetry. Poet Daryth Davey, who first appeared at a Stone Circle when she was 17, flew in from Rome where she taught at the International Academy.

Stone Circle audiences often hit 50 or more. Some audience members first came with their parents as children and now bring children of their own. Still going after 31 years, Stone Circle is the longest lasting outdoor poetry venue in the USA. Terry continues to light up the night.

(Teachers interested in poetry programs for their schools can reach Terry at [email protected])

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2 thoughts on “Northern Michigan Poet Bard makes poetry popular

  1. Marilyn Connor

    What an interesting story. Stone Circles . Would love to be a part of one someday. You are such a gifted writer to tell the story.

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