Last April, Matt Cook was named Milwaukee’s Poet Laureate. Because Cook was appointed to the position and did not apply for it, he was surprised to get the call from the library, the sponsor of the poet laureate program.
"Someone from the library left a voicemail telling me to call back. I didn’t know what it was about. I thought I had too many overdue books," says Cook.
Cook succeeded Jim Chapson and the late Jeff Poniewaz, who were joint laureates for the two-year term from 2013 to 2015. The poet laureate program started in 2000 and is supported by the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library and sponsored by the library.
The poet laureate’s job is to make guest appearances during the two-year term and promote poetry throughout the community.
Other past Milwaukee poets laureate include Antler, Brenda Cardenas, Susan Firer, Peggy Hong, John Goethe and Marilyn Taylor.
Originally from Colorado, Cook earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a master of fine arts from the University of Memphis. He is the author of four collections of poetry.
In honor of Poetry Month, and because Cook is a cool guy, OnMilwaukee caught up with him to talk writing, how Milwaukee rates as a poetry town and why so many people dislike poetry.
OnMilwaukee: When did you start writing poetry?
Matt Cook: I started writing poetry as a teenager like a lot of people do. I grew up out in Boulder, Col. The Naropa Institute was just down the street. When I was 16 years old I took a poetry workshop there with Allen Ginsberg, but of course so did hundreds of other people. The important thing I guess is that I stuck with it. It’s like how every kid draws, but then everyone stops drawing when they grow up. It’s like that with poetry. I never stopped, or maybe I never grew up.
How did attending UWM inspire / affect your writing?
I went to UW-Milwaukee in the ‘90s and took a lot of classes with James Liddy and Jim Hazard who were great poets and great professors who have since passed away. Both of them taught at UWM for decades and their influence on the Milwaukee literary community was profound.
When did you start performing poetry?
I performed a lot in the early days of the poetry slam. The poetry slam is a silly yet harmless form, and I’m not sure what it says about me that I excelled at it. Maybe it says that I’m silly and harmless.
Which of your publications are you the most proud of?
I guess you’re always proud of the most recent book, which for me is "Proving Nothing to Anyone" from Publishing Genius Press.
Who are some of your favorite poets, living or dead; local or international?
James Tate’s probably my favorite and John Ashbery and Walt Whitman’s pretty good too.
What are some of the projects you are working on as Poet Laureate?
We did a really fun show back in February where a group of poets read ‘found poetry.’ Ready-made pieces, recontextualized pieces, words from found sources and so on. I found a bunch of descriptions of faces from 19th century novels and strung them together to make this one sort of endless absurd literary description of a face.
Why do so many people seemingly not dig poetry?
You always meet people who say, "I don’t like poetry," or, "I don’t know how to read poetry," but you never hear people say "I don’t like prose," or, "I don’t know how to read prose." People sort of plead ignorance with poetry. I think poems can be hard to enter and they’re not terribly narrative, although they can be, of course. A lot of readers read fiction for a story and they read nonfiction to "learn something." Poetry’s not concerned with those things so much and that’s probably why I like it.
Is Milwaukee a good poet's town?
Milwaukee is a fantastic place for a poet to live. The people are so damn funny in Milwaukee. I mean that sincerely. There’s something about the spirit of the place. Maybe it’s simply the insane bar culture. The energy of a city but the warmth of the village tavern. I’ve lived in many places but I’ve never seen such a concentration of lovely and funny and clever people.
Molly Snyder grew up on Milwaukee's East Side and today, she lives in the Walker's Point neighborhood with her partner and two sons.
As a full time senior writer, editorial manager and self-described experience junkie, Molly has written thousands of articles about Milwaukee (and a few about New Orleans, Detroit, Indianapolis, Boston and various vacation spots in Wisconsin) that range in subject from where to get the best cup of coffee to an in-depth profile on the survivors of the iconic Norman apartment building that burned down in the '90s.
She also once got a colonic just to report on it, but that's enough on that.
Always told she had a "radio voice," Molly found herself as a regular contributor on FM102, 97WMYX and 1130WISN with her childhood radio favorite, Gene Mueller.
Molly's poetry, essays and articles appeared in many publications including USA Today, The Writer, The Sun Magazine and more. She has a collection of poetry, "Topless," and is slowly writing a memoir.
In 2009, Molly won a Milwaukee Press Club Award. She served as the Narrator / writer-in-residence at the Pfister Hotel from 2013-2014. She is also a story slam-winning storyteller who has performed with The Moth, Ex Fabula and Risk!
When she's not writing, interviewing or mom-ing, Molly teaches tarot card classes, gardens, sits in bars drinking Miller products and dreams of being in a punk band again.