Meet Angela Trudell Vasquez, Madison’s poet laureate

Trudell Vasquez is the first Latina to be named to the position.
Angela standing in front of her poem
Photo by John Ficenec
Angela Trudell Vasquez

By the time Angela Trudell Vasquez decided on graduate school, she’d been writing poetry for four decades, having started while growing up in Iowa.

She went on to publish poetry books, teach workshops and perform countless readings. Yet in 2015, at 48, she sought a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing at the Institute of American Indian Arts in New Mexico.

“I wanted to find out what I was doing wrong, how I could better define myself on the page,” Trudell Vasquez says. “I wanted to learn.”

“A lot of times once people publish, they think, ‘I’m good. I know what I’m doing,’ ” says Jon Davis, a distinguished poet and founder of the MFA program at the institute. “Angie saw an opportunity to learn and get better. It was exciting to watch.”

In January, Trudell Vasquez’s lifelong dedication to writing was rewarded when she was named Madison’s poet laureate. She’s the first Latina to be named to the position and the city’s seventh poet laureate overall.

She and her husband, Devin Trudell — son of Madison poet Dennis Trudell — own a home near Hiestand Park. They’ve lived in the city since 2015, having returned to the Midwest in 2005 (in Milwaukee) after two decades in Seattle.

They moved back in part to be closer to family, an important component of Trudell Vasquez’s life and poetry.

Her family’s roots go back to Mexico and — since the late 1800s — Iowa, where Trudell Vasquez grew up. She graduated from Des Moines East High School. She was writing poems by then — having been gifted a diary by her grandmother at 7 years old — about the same time she read the classic children’s book “Frederick the Mouse.”

Trudell Vasquez next to her poetry books

A selection of Trudell Vasquez’s books (Photo by John Ficenec)

Frederick was a poet and Trudell Vasquez decided she would be, too.

“I realized the power of words,” she says. “How they can make people feel loved and whole.”

Trudell Vasquez has been writing almost daily ever since, getting her first thoughts down in longhand. That’s still the way she works, but now editing —  interrogating every word, as she says — defines her craft. Her subjects have evolved, too, but certain themes — social justice, family, place — have endured.

After high school, Trudell Vasquez earned an English degree with a poetry emphasis from Drake University.

She and Devin moved to Seattle in 1997, where Trudell Vasquez integrated quickly into the arts, cultural and political scene: volunteering to teach English as a second language; performing at the Bumbershoot arts and music festival; putting on events at the Hugo House, named for the eminent poet Richard Hugo; getting involved with the writers group Los Norteños; and publishing many poems in Real Change, the city’s award-winning street newspaper.

It was much the same when they relocated to Milwaukee in 2005. Trudell Vasquez was the office manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin — poetry does not pay the bills — and she led a workshop titled, “Poetry, Politics and Power” for the group’s Youth Social Justice Forum. She read at Milwaukee’s Woodland Pattern Book Center’s poetry marathon and later became both a donor to the organization and a board member.

She also made regular trips to Madison, often for poetry. In 2013, the late Madison poet Susan Elbe invited Trudell Vasquez to read at the Chazen Museum of Art as part of the museum’s poetry-inspired-by-art series.

Trudell Vasquez read her poem “Eyes Alive,” inspired by Lily Furedi’s painting “Subway.” It included this:

“Even with lids closed the eyes reach out from the picture and claim, I am, I was, I did once exist, and this is proof of my existence.”

Angela holding a massive sheet of paper with her poems

Four poems by Trudell Vasquez on a large sheet of paper (Photo by John Ficenec)

The move to Madison in 2015 — Trudell Vasquez now works as operations manager for End Domestic Abuse Wisconsin — coincided with her desire to go back to school.

The two-year MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts is called low residency: Students work online and visit twice a year for two weeks the first year and make three two-week visits the second year. Trudell Vasquez loved it all: walking amid the jackrabbits and deer in the mornings outside Santa Fe, tapping into the institute’s resident poets and recalling again the power of words.

“She sharpened her imagery and focused on the language,” Davis says. “The sound of the language — how words chime off each other.”

Last fall, Trudell Vasquez nominated herself for the Madison poet laureate post, which Oscar Mireles was vacating after consecutive two-year terms.

“I’ve always been a big proponent of ‘There’s no harm in asking,’ ” she says. Her body of work was certainly worthy of consideration. “I’ve been part of the literary scene for a long time,” she says. “I’ve seen people be literary citizens, and I really wanted to be a poetry ambassador, a poet for all the people.”

She got the good news call from Madison Arts Program administrator Karin Wolf in December, and the City Council made it official the following month.

Trudell Vasquez’s plans as laureate include doing free workshops and readings and establishing a youth poet laureate position.

“I’m just thrilled,” she says. “It’s the 7-year-old poet’s dream come true.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Read his blog, “Doug Moe’s Madison,” on madisonmagazine.com.