Milwaukee poet laureate has UWM ties

Milwaukee Poet Laureate Jim Chapson is a member of the UWM English Department faculty.

Jim Chapson first enjoyed words used beautifully in his freshman year of high school when a teacher introduced him to translations of haiku, a Japanese poetry form not commonly studied in the 1950s. Chapson, who grew up in Hawaii, went on to study poetry at Oregon State and San Francisco State University, discovering Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and other beat poets in the rich literary life of 1960s San Francisco.

Over the years, he’s found his own poetic voice.

Chapson, who has taught creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee for 34 years, was named one of two Milwaukee poet laureates in April by the Milwaukee Public Library. He and fellow laureate Jeff Poniewaz will serve for two years.

Milwaukee poet laureate Jim Chapson (center right)and local poet Paul Vogel with Milwaukee Public Library officials.

“Jim Chapson and Jeff Poniewaz serve as shining examples of the thriving poetic culture we have and the local talent our community has fostered over the years,” said Library Director Paula Kiely in announcing the selection.

In the past few years, numerous UWM poets have served as laureates, including the first Milwaukee poet laureate, John Koethe. Other city poets laureate with UWM links include Brenda Cárdenas, Susan Firer, Marilyn Taylor and Antler. Poniewaz, Chapson’s fellow laureate, has taught courses at UWM. Another reflection of the university’s strong poetic presence – Rebecca Dunham, associate professor of English, was this year’s recipient of the Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry.

Chapson is modest about the poet laureate honor itself, but welcomes the bit of publicity it gives to the small, but strong and diverse, poetry community in Milwaukee.  “In Milwaukee, you get a chance to hear all different kinds of poetry.”

His own writing ranges from lyrics to short narrative poems, inspired by classical writing or something he observes or reads about, often with a satiric tone. “Chapson’s satirical style is pointed and forthright,” said Kiely. “He values honesty in all of his works. His work is worldly yet humble.”

Here’s a sample, from the library’s website:

The piano opened its big mouth
the cello spilled its guts
and the violin shrieked
as if its grief would never end.

Chapson views creative expression in words as something fundamental.Writers are either poets or prose writers, he says. “Few can do both. It’s an innate thing in the way you use language.”

His own work grows out of daily experiences, he says; something he’s reading or observes inspires him or arouses his curiosity. “I want to investigate it on my own terms.”

His most recent books include “Daphinis & Ratboy,” “Scholia” and “Plotinus Blushed.”

Chapson says he enjoys teaching, particularly the Introduction to Creative Writing class, and says the class is valuable for students, whatever their major. “I really like the class. I think what it does is integrate all aspects of the student’s life; the whole person is involved.”

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Visit www.mpl.org/File/poetlaureate_index.html for more information on the poets laureate, including complete biographies, a sample of published works, recommendations from the library’s collection, upcoming appearances and photos.

The Milwaukee Poets Laureate project will also be featured on the Milwaukee Public Library Facebook page and on Twitter @MilwaukeePubLib.