by Ellen C. Warren, photo provided by J. Poniewaz
Interviewing Milwaukee’s new Poet Laureate at the Urban Ecology Center is perfect. Not only is Jeff Poniewaz considered an eco-poet and a nature poet (he differentiates between the two in that the former carries a message, a call to action), he also sat on the original board of directors of the Riverside Nature Center which eventually morphed into the Urban Ecology Center. Quite at home, he exhibits pride in the place where, until recently, he taught his UWM course, “Literature of Ecological Vision.”
Jeff is embarking on a two-year run as Milwaukee Poet Laureate, a post he shares with Jim Chapson. At his initiating ceremony, Jeff was introduced by former Milwaukee Poet Laureate Antler, Jeff’s close companion since a poetry class in 1966.
Antler’s introduction included an astonishing list of Jeff’s publications, awards and successes. Early on in his career Jeff was instrumental in bringing famous Beat poets, such as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, to Milwaukee. His reading tours have covered both coasts and include most Milwaukee venues, past and present, including a reading every year at the Woodland Pattern Poetry Marathon. He founded The Earth Poets group which has performed every Earth Day since 1988. He has been published in national and local magazines, newspapers and anthologies.
Jeff has a book, Dolphin Leaping in the Milky Way, which is currently out of print. His chapbooks are Polish for Because – Meditations of a Former St. Josaphat Altar Boy and Whales Hover Over the Freeway, a wonderful compilation of poems revolving around the WyLAND whale mural painted on the side of the Milwaukee County Courthouse Annex that used to overhang southbound highway I-43. Both chapbooks are available at Woodland Pattern Book Center (720 E. Locust) and People’s Books Cooperative (804 E. Center). By the end of this year, Jeff informs us, he’ll be publishing a new book of selected poems.
Dolphin Leaping in the Milky Way won him a PEN Discovery Award. It drew praise from Greenpeace co-founder Rex Weyler as well as Allen Ginsberg who called it “impassioned prescient ecological Whitmanesque/Thoreauvian verve and wit.” Jeff is a great admirer of Walt Whitman and of Allen Ginsberg. In fact, Ginsberg was a friend of his, and if you are lucky you may get Jeff to share some interesting and enlightening tales about the controversial beat poet.
To source his ecological vision Jeff goes back to the “crik” of his southside Milwaukee childhood. His South 4th Street block was “Where The Sidewalk Ends,” just like Shel Silverstein’s poem. Beyond the sidewalk was the Kinnickinnic River.
“I didn’t know it was a river. The kids called it a creek,” says Jeff. “The grasshoppers were there. But even then the river would stink from time to time of a faint gasoline smell and sewage. So, it was very poignant that that should be my introduction to wild nature.
“Then my parents took me on vacations up north to Eagle River… and I just loved the ampleness of up there compared to life in a city,” he continues. “Which is why this place (the UEC) is so important. It gets city kids in contact with some nature.”
For many years Jeff’s residence has been on another street “Where The Sidewalk Ends.” This time the destination beyond the cement is the Milwaukee River. His love of the river propelled him to activism in the failed attempt to save the Humboldt Yards. He was, however, successful in helping to save the wild side of Riverside Park, and originated the idea of a Milwaukee River Nature Park which has now gained official approval as the Milwaukee River Greenway.
Jeff’s poetry is not always nature-oriented. “I have to write what the muse gives me,” he explains.
Living surrounded by Polish-speakers and in the same house with his beloved Busia (pronounced boosha, Polish for grandma) doubtlessly cemented Jeff’s pride and joy in his Polish-American nationality. His book, Polish for Because, details and considers moments of that upbringing.
A poem titled “Poniewaz Revisited” takes a look at the throes Jeff has, often humorously, endured in choosing to keep his birth name as his pen name.
Kowalski at least you can pronounce. Doubletakes,
and even annoyance, have greeted my name since
childhood. I always knew when the teacher came
to my name on the first day of class: going down
the list of names he or she would come to a sudden
stop soon after the “M’s” and squint at the page.
I knew that was me.
Further into the poem you learn how to pronounce his name correctly.
Poe, as in Edgar Allan,
nYEAH, as in slang for “YES”
with an “n” in front of it
-vAHsh, like an “AH” with a “v”
in front of it and an “sh” after it.
Got that? Poe-nYEAH-vAHsh. And its meaning in Polish is “because.”
So, from another of his poems, appropriately titled, “Polish for Because,” these final lines:
The poet’s handy omniscient reply.
What parents tell children when children ask why.
Poniewaz is Polish for Because because
Poniewaz is Polish for Because.
Congratulations on your deserved appointment as Milwaukee Poet Laureate, Riverwester Jeff! For lots of reasons. And just because.