Poet and Humanitarian Andrew Oerke Wins William Meredith Award for Poetry

Andrew Oerke lived many lives before his untimely death in 2014.  By “living his poetry” throughout the globe in kaleidoscopic natural and human environments, he intensely enriched his poetic substance and quality. For decades he worked with the poorest of the poor to lift them from their disadvantaged condition, beginning in 1966 in Kenya in the village of Kakamega and continuing through the work of “Partnership for Productivity” in which he founded the concept of “Microenterprise” . His poetic realities reflect these deeply-rooted global experiences.(African Stiltdancer, Elephant Cakewalk, Songs of Africa). Andrew’s final projects, setting up medical help after the Haiti earthquake ( January, 2010) included helping the poorest of the poor in the Western Hemisphere through a series of medical personnel we sent to aid the Haitian people in the earthquake epicenters of Gressier and Leogane and his futures non-fiction book Future of the Western Hemisphere show the profundity of his understanding of the existence of the poor. Africa ( African Stilt Dancer) was the first focus  of Andrew’s living his poetry, while  his poems of Latin America ( San Miguel de Allende) had a different rhythm and sound and message. “Diary of Death” tells of the Middle East bombings horror in the Levant, and Children of Hunger expresses the experience of children dying as victims of hunger politically motivated in northeast Africa during famines when Andrew sent seeds to help feed the children .

Andrew’s early life had been in Norwegian farm country from Western Wisconsin to South Dakota during the “dust bowl” years of the depression, “Boyhood in Bayfield” and his Lake Superior poetic sequences were parts of this early experience.  After one semester at St. Olaf’s College, he transferred from the Cold North to sunny University of Texas and Baylor University and then for a Masters degree studied Wellerisms with Charles Smith at Baylor, was drafted into the active Korean War, had Fulbright scholarships’s at Frei Universitat in Berlin, and UNAM in Mexico City in linguistics. Andrew finally worked on a Ph.D under Mark Strand sitting beside another student of poetry Charles Wright during Strand’s first year of teaching at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Oerke left his academic post as poet-in-residence at St. Andrews University ( a great books University founded in 1896), after years of teaching Native Americans in Northern Minnesota, because  he was seduced with the prospect of living a non-Ivory-tower existence in Africa. He had told Wisconsin Senator Proxmire and Congressman Reuse in late summer 1960, while visiting Rev. Hjalmar Oerke, Andrew’s father, (who was the Pastor of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Milwaukee, Wisconsin)  his concept of a partial solution to the Cold War by sending  groups of youth who would give service to the citizens of these nations, youth who should  befriend , live in villages speaking their local languages, and help develop nations’ educational, agricultural, and  medical needs, including simple things such as hygiene and wells, modern food production methods, and useful education. Andrew said , “Youth will respond to this challenge and you will get the youth vote.” They sent him to the Wisconsin Campaign office of Kennedy , and  Andrew received a letter back  from the elected officials thanking him for these ideas.  Six weeks later, Kennedy announced the concept on the steps of the student Union at the University of Michigan campaign rally at 2:00 a.m. on October 14, 1960 Kennedy challenged the you and said in a very brief speech ” How many of you who are going to be doctors, are willing to spend your days in Ghana? Technicians or engineers, how many of you are willing to work in the Foreign Service and spend your lives traveling around the world? On your willingness to do that, not merely to serve one year or two years in the service, but on your willingness to contribute part of your life to this country, I think will depend the answer whether a free society can compete. I think it can! And I think Americans are willing to contribute.” ( Peace Corps web site). So the project was off and running when Kennedy was elected that November. When the offer came to participate in The Peace Corps  in Africa, as a leader, Oerke  jumped at the chance and left academia forever. He also sadly left formal poetry circles which were embedded in academia . However, the experiences he lived through gave him a richer , more global life to draw upon for his poetic realities.

His experiences as Peace Corps Director in Malawi, also working in  Jamaica, Uganda, Tanzania, Kenya, and many other nations were enriched in 1973 after the Peace Corps when he became  President of Partnership for Productivity (PfP) with a  series of projects helping  first life the village African people out of poverty one small step at a time. This early PfP work blossomed into programs in 68 nations in West Africa, the Middle East, Southeast Asia and the Oceania, Latin America and the Caribbean and the microenterprise concept in action became Oerke’s humanitarian seminal work as they serviced programs in 68 nations.  His “muse was the airplane” writing as he moved between projects. He created very large strides toward models for lifting farmers and small production village women out of dire poverty. His projects from 1966 onward around the globe to lift poor out of poverty,  particularly women and their children,  became a global model for a new paradigm called “micro-finance”. His not-for profit enterprise “Partnership for Productivity” was subsumed in 1987  by CARE . However, with many of his trained personnel in microfinance are presently working around the world from Burkino-Faso to Bolivia on helping to eliminate poverty bringing about a  better life.

As CEO of the Greater Caribbean and Asian Energy and Environment Foundation ,he focused on environmental problems in the Caribbean and Latin America and also in Southeast Asia. But Andrew also believed that,  “The problem of the sustainability of the human spirit is as important as any other humanity now faces.” He believed  poetry to be an important key in sustaining and energizing the human spirit: “  He continually stressed, ” It is poetry that has given voice to the great ideals that we all live by and will save us from this prosaic, linear world we live in.”

For the first time in three decades Andrew Oerke had the time after 1987 and the solitude to devote to his poetry, publishing 7 books of poetry, which were rich with imagery, sound, and kinesthetic of the globe-hurdling life he lead all his life. In 2005, Oerke was awarded the United Nations Award for Literature by the UN Society for Writers and Artists for the double set of books African Stilt Dancer and San Miguel de Allende. One of his recent books,  The Collected Andrew Oerke, was translated into Bulgarian by Valentin Krustev as part of the East-West Poetry Exchange initiated by US Poet Laureate, William Meredith during the cold war. William and Richard Harties invited Valentin and Andrew to Breadloaf Writer’s Workshop and the two chose the poems for the book so the last volume of William’s East-West efforts were initiated, and William died within that year.  It prompted a reading tour in English and Bulgarian  in 6 Bulgarian cities in the fall 2012 during the Bulgarian Poetry week. During his career as a poet, Oerke wrote fourteen books of poetry including more than 450 poems published in journals such as The New Yorker, and Poetry Magazine. Additionally, he wrote Song cycles , (Songs of the Southwest with Gideon Waldrup, composer), two Operas and several non-fiction books, including The Future of the Western Hemisphere. Andrew’s  poems were intended to save and nourish the human spirit from the depression and mechanical mode of our present linear world.

During the period of 1988-2013, working with United Nations agencies and helping with development in East and West Africa, he participated in the investigation of two of the largest oil spills in world history in the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Mexico, sighting ports, and power plants for the World Bank. His concern for the mass exodus of impoverished peoples to developing nations was demonstrated by rebuilding 100 homes in Florida for the stream of Caribbean nad South American people entering  the gateway of South Florida. At this period in his life, he maintained 4 homes in various parts of the world. His semi-retirement led him from his Viking roots on Lake Superior to the Central highlands of colonial Mexico to the Texas plains and Florida reefs, writing about of all these experiences and spending autumns at Yale University sitting at the feet of  the literary critic Harold Bloom. William Meredith renewed  his friendship during the last 4 years of Meredith’s life and frequent dinners in Florida and occasionally in Connecticut blossomed this old friendship from Washington DC.

Andrew won a lifetime Achievement Award from the USA Club of Rome for his work on microenterprise for the poorest of the poor and  his global poetry, pointing the way to the Future. Six months before his passing Club of Rome USA held a major workshop featuring Andrew Oerke and with Michaela Walsh  ( Founding a Movement: Women’s World Bank) on Past, Present Future of global Microfinance and Microenterprise. D. Jane  Pratt ( World Bank, retired and Director Mountain Women Institute) was chair.

Anitra Thorhaug, Ph.D.

Yale University , School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. January 1 2015