Heart of the Matter

tyson.jpg by Judith Ann Moriarty

When the muse nudges poet John Tyson, he puts his thoughts to paper waiting in a ’60s Smith-Corona electric typewriter. A gift from his sons, the vintage machine’s sound and deliberate feel turn him on, though now and then he constructs his poems by hand, on sheets of white paper. On the day I enter his museum-like apartment near the Milwaukee River, his bed is spread with a yellow satin cover punctuated with a garish red heart. The rooms (loosely compartmentalized chambers) pulsate with outsider art, the screams of a trio of parakeets, and the beat of R.E.M. “The blue parakeet pecked out the eyes of a yellow one, which consequently died,” Tyson intones. Out of that dastardly deed rose a poem ripe with biblical overtones. Below the birdcages, cats Pearl and Doyle patrol among vintage ’30s furniture. One wall seems swallowed-up by a Fred Stonehouse painting featuring a heart motif. Does it remind Tyson that his own 46-year-old heart survived a triple bypass a few years back? Actually this poet has survived and thrived as the owner of Milwaukee’s singlepress. In late October he flew to New York City to participate in “The Cheap Small Press Fair,” where, from booth 44, he touted the merits of Accurate Key, a boxed set of works from thirteen talents. Brought to full elegance by Bay View Printers, the broadsheets, as well as those in Accurate Key 1.5, express the thoughts of not only global greats (for instance, Alice Notley), but also those of intriguing local poets. Tyson finances his projects by laboring at Channel 10 and painting houses — weather permitting. His mood is upbeat when he talks about his art. “The small press, 500 copies or less, is on the rise,” he says. Good news in an era of trashy publications. Actually the cardboard sheets in Accurate Key 1.5 are meant to be displayed like pieces of art. Tyson printed the back cover himself. “Poetry is also about actually getting your hands dirty,” he says. “It’s not just about writing something and sending it off to a publisher.” Before long, this hands-on chap hopes to install a letterpress and linotype in his west-facing room — a dream he’s nurtured since the late ’70s when he attended Shimer College, a Great Books school associated with the University of Chicago and the Art Institute. Tattooed on his chest, intertwined with his bypass scar, are two multi-colored birds representing his sons – Evan and Noah. He recalls the surgery thusly: “They lay you down naked and shave you and drop you on the metal table for the operation. It’s like a crucifixion. Like being reborn.” Or one could say, “like making poetry.” This past November he returned to the hospital for fine-tuning, and nine days later journeyed to the Big Apple to devour the words of poet Robert Creeley. asleep over water I roll into you. Disappear. it’s hard to die. (Tyson’s words to son Noah. 10-21-03.) At 7 p.m. on February 21, singlepress and Voss Books (new at 229 N. Water St.) present an evening of readings by John Tyson, Stacy Szymaszek, and Rob Baumann. For additional information, contact Voss Books, 278-1260.