In Arts & Entertainment

Milwaukee writer Michael Schumacher has edited a new collection of interviews with Beat legend Allen Ginsberg.

Milwaukee writers on other (mostly Wisconsin) writers

Who knows writers better than other writers, right?

Thus, when some Wisconsin scribes – in this case Jim Higgins and Michael Schumacher – pen works about other scribes – and in one case about other Wisconsin scribes – we take notice.

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Arts and Books Editor Jim Higgins is a veteran newspaperman and one I'm not shy about saying helped me get my start in the game. His first book, "Wisconsin Literary Luminaries: From Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ayad Akhtar," is out now from The History Press.

In it, he traces the careers and influences of 10 Badger State writers, from poet Lorine Niedecker to humorist Michael Perry to accomplished novelists Jane Hamilton and Larry Watson, among others.

What I love most about the book is the way Higgins blends history with a bit of lit crit in a supremely readable, almost conversational way, almost as if he was talking to us about these authors over coffee.

"THP asked me to write for recreational and pleasure readers, which I did," Higgins told me in an email. "But I also kept in mind students who might turn to this book for a little more information or insight into what they were reading.

"To create a book I hoped would have value and shelf life, I concentrated on literary and imaginative writers, as opposed to ones whose work is primarily biographical or historical. While I value those kinds of books, too, I wanted to explore writers worth knowing for their style and powers of imagination."

I asked Higgins if it was challenging picking just 10 writers – though in his introduction to the book he tackles this very question, too, suggesting other potential inclusions.

"I felt I could say things worth saying about each of the 10 writers I picked," he said. "As I note in my book's introduction, other versions of this book with a different lineup of writers are possible.

"My subjects can be separated into three groups. The two Wilders, Leopold and Niedecker are pillars of state literature. And in Leopold's case, I thought it important and worthwhile to talk about him as a writer as well as an ecological prophet. Cordwainer Smith and Ellen Raskin are two wild talents from Milwaukee with strong cult followings, especially among other writers. Each of the four living writers has written at least one contemporary classic or major work that's widely known and studied. Also, because my book is aimed primarily at Wisconsin readers, I picked living writers who either still reside here or return frequently. I liked the variety I ended up with."

Me, too.

Schumacher on Ginsberg

Perspective is everything, as I was reminded when Michael Schumacher's "First Thought: Conversations with Allen Ginsberg" landed on my desk.

Because I know the Milwaukee author for his historical works on the Great Lakes, I'd somehow managed to miss that he's a renowned expert on Beat legend Ginsberg, having penned a bio of the writer and edited a collection of his work.

So, while I devoured with great interest Schumacher's book last year, "Torn in Two: The Sinking of the Daniel J. Morrell," the impending arrival of "First Thought" from University of Minnesota Press was totally off my radar.

"The books simply represent my interests," Schumacher told me. "I've often joked that, taken as a whole, my books act as a sort of autobiography. I love the writings of the Beat Generation, particularly Allen Ginsberg, so I wrote/edited four – soon to be five – books on Ginsberg.

"I live near Lake Michigan and have always had a great love for maritime tales, so my four Great Lakes shipwreck books are connected to that. I've always had an intense interest in politics, so the book I just completed, an account to the 1968 presidential election, fits into that. I'm interested in comics and graphic novels, so my biographies of Will Eisner and Al Capp fit into that slot."

This latest book – published in paperback – is an assemblage of interviews with Ginsberg, many of which are collected in a book for the first time here. Because other such works already existed, Schumacher said he was conscious about avoiding overlap and repetition.

"When I selected the interviews, I chose interviews not included in David Carter's 'Spontaneous Mind,' a large collection of interviews, wonderfully edited and published by HarperCollins," he said.

"Ginsberg gave a lot of interviews over the years, and they all couldn't be gathered into David's book; some were just too long. I included some of those in this book, plus I had a handful that were either unpublished or, luckily for me, extended to include material that didn't appear in the original, published interviews. One of the interviews was so rare that its publisher didn't have it.I gave them my copy, when all was finished."

As you might guess, Schumacher's "dueling" interests keep him busy. He said he's got two more books in the works, both due out next year.

"The book about the election, which I mentioned earlier; and a volume of Ginsberg's journals, which I edited. The journals are from 1965, and I think they're very special. They are a record of Ginsberg's to Cuba, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, Poland, and England, and these travels came at a very critical point of Ginsberg's life.

"I've always thought that Ginsberg was at his best when he was traveling, and these journals catch him at his best, whether he's describing the Russian countryside as he sees it from a train, or he's recording conversations with Vosnesensky and Yevtushenko. There's a lot of previously unpublished poetry in the journals, as well. I think the journals were particularly illuminating in their depictions of Ginsberg as an individual and poet."

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