By Molly Snyder Senior Writer Published Jul 17, 2002 at 5:33 AM

"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.

OMC: You're giving a reading on Wednesday night at Schwartz Bookshop. Do you enjoy doing that?

JK: I've gotten to the point that I like them more often than not. I used to feel uncomfortable, but I got the hang of it... I'm not wild about going to poetry readings because the kind of poetry I respond to is meant to be read on the page... I do like (to go to readings) to see what the person is like, but I still think poetry is something to be read to one's self.

OMC: How do you feel about poetry slams? Do you consider this kind of performance to be poetry, or is your definition of poetry stricter?

JK: I don't have anything against poetry slams, but they just aren't anything I'm interested in... But it's great that poetry is such a huge field these days.

OMC: What are your thoughts about the Borders Bookstore moving in downtown?

JK: It seems like a good thing to me because it's not near one of the local bookstores like Schwartz so I don't think it will undermine anyone.

OMC: Considering your love of poetry, have you ever taught a poetry class?

JK: I taught a poetry class in 1990 at Northwestern University. It was on reading and writing longer poems.


OMC: Think you'll ever teach poetry again, maybe at UWM?

JK: I might give a seminar on Poetic Theory, but I don't plan to teaching many writing classes....Many poets are shackled to their writing jobs. I'm happy in philosophy.

OMC: What does it mean to be Milwaukee's Poet Laureate?

JK: (laughing) I was the first one, and no one was quite sure what exactly I was supposed to do. The Friends of the Library oversaw the position, so together, we just sort of made it up. I read Dr. Suess to some kids, gave a poetry reading, read a poem to The Common Council. I also introduced four writers at Centennial Hall: two fiction writers, Martha Berglund and CJ Hribal, and two poets Susan Firer and Lisa Samuels.

OMC: Did you get paid?

JK: I received a $2,500 honorarium for the two years.

OMC: A lot of your poems seem personal, about yourself and loved ones. What is your family life like?

JK: I have a son who is in medical school, and I was married. The last poem (in his new book), "Falling Water," is a chronicle of my marriage.

Professor John Koethe will read from his new book, "North Point North" at 7 p.m. at Schwartz Bookshop on Downer. For more information, call (414) 332-1181.

Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.

Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.