A pair of Douglas County poets recently earned top nods from the Wisconsin Library Association for their lean, poignant prose. Jan Chronister of Maple and Peggy Trojan of Brule were named outstanding poets for their 2020 chapbooks, “Distanced: Poems from the Pandemic” and “River,” respectively.
Trojan, 88, also earned second place from the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets annual contest for “River,” a tight bundle of poems detailing how her husband’s diagnosis of Lewy body dementia altered their lives. It follows Trojan's decision to move her husband, David, to a memory care unit, the impact of COVID-19, her choice to bring him home and his death in September 2020. Interspersed are memories of their life together, small windows into the past.
Winona State University Professor James Armstrong, one of the judges, said the poems built a gripping story that resists sentimentality.
“This is a rare book of genuine feeling about love in the very jaws of death,” he said.
A class shared
The two authors live 6 miles apart, but they first met 12 years ago at a poetry class in the Iron River Community Center. Chronister was the teacher, Trojan the student.
“I took Jan’s class, and she said ‘You have to send this stuff in.’ And I was on my way,” said Trojan, a former high school English teacher.
“I read one of Peggy’s poems and thought ‘This woman is a poet,’” said Chronister, 72, who has been writing poems for 55 years.
Trojan published her first poem at age 77. It’s unleashed a torrent of writing — at least 300 poems and counting — starting with family stories. Trojan’s mother had written an autobiography in her 70s; her father penned one in his 90s. Her six children wanted that tradition to continue.
“My kids said 'You have to write your life story,' and I didn’t want to be that honest yet, so I thought 'I’ll write other peoples’,” said Trojan, who grew up in Brule. “My first book was poems about my folks as a Christmas present to the kids.”
Titled “Everyday Love,” it won second place in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets chapbook contest. Then came a book about life during World War II, “Homefront,” followed by childhood reflections of growing up in the small town of Brule, the award-winning “Free Range Kids.”
To date, she’s caught up to Chronister on publications. They’re tied at two full-length books of poetry and four chapbooks (a short publication of up to 40 pages) each. The two are neck and neck on awards, as well, scooping up accolades in both Wisconsin and Minnesota contests. Their words can be found in journals and anthologies, sprinkled on the internet, even cast in bronze at the newly-completed Price of War Memorial in downtown Brule.
“It’s fun, because we support each other,” Chronister said. “We don’t compete with each other.”
They two have shared winter afternoons at Trojan’s home beside Rocky Run Creek refining their work, editing word choice and comma placement.
“When you love words and you know what they can do, you want to make sure that, you know, they do it,” said Chronister, current president of the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.
Her full-length collection, “Caught Between Coasts,” was recognized as an Outstanding Book in Poetry by the Wisconsin Library Association, and her 2019 chapbook, “Bird Religion,” was awarded an honorable mention in the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets chapbook contest. While teaching at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, she spearheaded creating an annual anthology of creative writing and art, “The Thunderbird Review,” that continues to be published.
Short and semisweet
The neighboring poets have similar writing styles. Each poem is short, about 30 lines or less, and usually fits on a single page. The words are packed with meaning. Their philosophy? Don't bore the reader; get to the point.
"You don't have to explain the whole poem to the reader before you quit. Give them some credit for being able to take away from the poem what is important to them," Chronister said.
“I guess if you were going to sum up my poems, I tell a little story with attitude,” Trojan said. “At the end you know how I feel about it.”
She said her writing process usually starts with that final line — the feeling — and works backward. The Brule poet, who has macular degeneration, recites poems from memory at readings.
"They're funny, they're heartwarming," said Chronister, who gave dramatic readings of some of her favorite Trojan poems.
Sending poems in for contests and publications provides the writers with a deadline and keeps them on task.
"If I didn't submit, I probably wouldn't produce at all," Chronister said.
She finds inspiration in her garden and shared experiences like the pandemic, and plans to write a chapbook a year in place of a Christmas letter for friends and family.
Trojan said she enjoys the admiration and feedback her poems elicit. She received a "fan letter" recently from a man in the Twin Cities area, and they have become pen pals. She sent him homemade raspberry jam; he sent back a poem in a bottle. He's since gone on to enter poetry contests with his work.
The Brule poet plans to keep sharing her stories.
"First of all, for my family, I tried to write about the things that they wouldn't know if I didn't tell them about it and then now it seems like the things I'm sharing are sort of reminding people of what they already know. And I'm reminding them of what they feel," Trojan said.
Where to find it
Poetry books by Chronister and Trojan are sold locally at Zenith Book Store in Duluth; Art on the Planet and the Douglas County Historical Society in Superior; Redberry Books in Cable; and the Washburn Cultural Center. They are also available online through Amazon.