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Antler

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A conversation with Antler starts with a walk down to the Milwaukee River. Dressed in jeans and boots, his ample white beard framing his face, the 58-year-old Riverwester could be taken for a lumberjack. But as he speaks of coming to the river on winter nights to immerse himself in the icy silence, there is no doubt that the gentle-voiced man is the infamous Milwaukee poet. Sitting on a log near a stretch of the river where no buildings loom and where the only sound is the splashing of the ducks, Antler talks, his eyes pausing on the flowing water. Antler, author of three poetry collections and Milwaukee’s former Poet Laureate, was born and raised in Wauwatosa. He has lived in Riverwest on and off since the late 1960s. In those days, he says, recalling $80 a month rent, “it was easier to be a young bohemian type, pursuing art, music, poetry, drama.” As a young man, he could afford to work factory jobs and then travel to California for months at a time. Today, “it’s harder for younger artist types to survive on their work,” he says. “There is a fear of letting young people pursue the arts and contempt for free spirits.” And young artists, he adds with an elated smile, want to “pledge heart and soul to [art], like a lover.” Sometimes speaking almost in verse, Antler talks about recurring topics of his poems and his life philosophy. He prizes nature love and the humanist, erotic vision of mankind presented by Walt Whitman in “Leaves of Grass.” (Whitman, he notes, visited Milwaukee in 1848 and was deeply impressed by the river.) Though human constructed religions may hold truths, he says, “the source and fount of all nature predates them.” He wonders why human society considers itself superior to, say, snapping turtles — who, after all, do not charge rent for their shells or kill each other. He wants America to become beautiful, he says, citing Whitman’s benevolent vision of the country, not despised as a warmonger. Antler’s years as a poet and naturalist make for good stories. He tells about facing off a bear while camping in the wilderness (he kept eye contract and peed, after which the bemused bear went away, Antler recalls with a laugh). About living in a truck, called the Whitman Mobile, in San Francisco in the late 1960s. About going over a manuscript with Allen Ginsberg at a kitchen table at Antler’s then-home on Bremen St. About meeting his best friend, poet Jeff Poniewaz, with whom he has lived for 40 years, when the two noticed they had the same Signet edition of “Leaves of Grass” in a poetry class. Antler, who has referred to himself as a loner in the past, says he has almost two personas. One is an active member of a housing co-op, a teacher and a community anti-gentrification activist. (Raising his usually gentle voice, Antler calls construction of Jewel Osco on the corner of Humboldt and North a tragedy). The other persona is a solitude-loving naturalist. He goes on wilderness sabbaticals every year. He reads poetry aloud in solitude, an exercise that allows one to “assume the breath of a dead person.” A cell phone taken for emergencies on his wilderness trips might have its use, he concedes, but “technology takes away delight of the risk element that…the vision quest experience makes excruciatingly beautiful.” Soon, Antler says, gathering up belongings at the end of a conversation, he will go on another 60-day wilderness retreat. As always, he will semi-fast, look at constellations and think of his past. The vastness of nature makes him “sense that I know nothing of the mystery,” he says. He leaves the clearing, where the air of just-invoked Whitman, nature love, frosty midnights, wild bears, stars, snowflakes and poetry-drunk young bohemians lingers.
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