By Rachel Werner | Photographed by Kaia Calhoun

“As the saying goes, you can’t swing a dead cat in this city without hitting a writer,” poet Rita Mae Reese says, chuckling. Her light drawl and candid demeanor, and a dose of Southern charm, reflect her upbringing in Charleston, West Virginia. “I’ve always been interested in movements—and language,” she reflects. “Especially the history of words.”

And unlike many artists, she’s managed to be steadily employed for nearly two decades in occupations connected to her passions, beginning with working as a fulfillment manager at a lesbian press in Florida. “A glorified moniker—I basically packed books in boxes,” she jokes.

Later, she worked researching terminology for the Dictionary of American Regional English and now is the co-director of Literary Arts Programming at Madison’s Arts + Literature Laboratory. Reese has harnessed this continual funnel of energy and connections to publish two poetry anthologies, “The Alphabet Conspiracy” and “The Book of Hulga,” while also building bridges for others to fuel their creative genius around the city. “ALL encourages artists of all mediums and varieties to share the space and collaborate on projects,” she says.

Reese points to the art hub’s new CSArt venture—a Community Supported Art shareholder system launched in May as a way to generate more direct community buy-in to the local arts scene—and her side gig cranking out lesbian author and poet trading cards via Headmistress Press as a means to garnering more recognition for historically underrepresented groups’ artistic contributions.

Says Reese, “Cross-pollination lifts the outcomes to the next level so we create change that actually endures.” ritamaereese.com.



Because she wanted to be closer
to God she took off all of her clothes.
She unnamed them as they came off
God like water all over the drowning
Over and over and over God
but under too deep under everything
stays under except God+ God. One nation
under Hulga. Nation like a fist
in the small of her back
That was years ago is how now felt then
Now covering her body at last.

This poem originally appeared on “The Rumpus” and was reprinted in “The Book of Hulga.”

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