John Koethe: poet, philosopher, East Sider

"For now the kingdom feels sufficient and complete.
And summer seems to flow through everything:
A girl slides by on rollerblades,
The flags flap on the flagpoles, and across the street
The afternoon holds court at Gil's Cafe."

-- From "Gil's Cafe" by John Koethe

John Koethe, philosophy professor and poet, lives on the East Side of Milwaukee, but he grew up in San Diego. A self-described "science whiz kid" who loved fiction, Koethe left the West Coast to attend Princeton University where he started to write poetry in 1964.

Koethe attended graduate school at Harvard, and later landed a teaching job at UWM, located in the neighborhood that inspired multiple poem titles. HarperCollins will soon release a new collection of Koethe's work entitled "North Point North: New and Selected Poems." The very first poem is called "Hackett Avenue," the East Side street where he lives.

This new volume of work includes poems -- all of which are accessible and reflective, lyrical and slightly abstract -- that were written between 1966 and 2000. Many are his best poems from his five previous books, but 21 new poems are also featured, some of which were printed in The New Yorker, The American Poetry Review, The Paris Review, The Kenyon Review, The Best American Poetry Review and other publications.

Koethe is the recipient of the Kingsley-Tufts Award for Poetry, The Frank O'Hara Award and the Bernard F. Connors Award. He was also Milwaukee's first Poet Laureate, a two-year commitment that ended last spring.

OMC: Do you think of yourself as more of a poet or a philosopher?

JK: I like both of them...Poetry engages me, it's where my heart is, but I do like to work and publish in philosophy... I find it difficult to start a philosophy paper, but I'm always eager to write poems.

OMC: Are you a disciplined poetry writer or do you simply wait until the spirit moves you?

JK: I'm pretty disciplined. I work on poetry in late spring and early summer, and philosophy during the academic year...Sometimes I'll write a poem during the academic year, but usually I don't start writing until around Spring Break, and then I just stick with that until I feel I've written as much as I want to for that year.

OMC: Do you have a specific goal, or do you just "know" when you're finished for the year?

JK: It's usually around 10-15 pages.

OMC: How many poems have you written?

JK: It's hard to put a number on it. I haven't written as many poems as a lot of poets, but I've written as many lines. A lot of my poems are longer.

OMC: What inspires you the most to write poetry?

JK: I get my ideas in the shower and while I'm shaving. Then I go to my word processor and type, about 3-7 lines to day.

OMC: Does living in Milwaukee inspire you?

JK: I love living in Wisconsin. It's beautiful. But even though some of my poems are titled after places in Milwaukee, it doesn't mean that that's what the poem is about. "Hackett Avenue," for instance, is really about Sunset Boulevard. (Note: This is something the reader doesn't realize until the last line, "Tell Mr. DeMille I'm ready for my close-up" which is also the final bit of dialogue in the film "Sunset Boulevard.")

OMC: Who are your favorite poets?

JK: Wallace Stevens, John Ashbury, Elizabeth. Bishop, Mark Strand, William Wordsworth, Mark Strand, Kenneth Koch who just died recently. And Marcel Proust had an influence on my style.

OMC: Would you describe your style as mainly free verse?

JK: Yes, mostly free verse, but I do sometimes write in forms and meter. I tend to write long sentences and meditative, lyrical prose...I think of my poetry as music and I think of it in terms of movements and sounds and the way it flows rather than content. I often don't know what a poem is about until I start it.

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