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Apr. 16, 2008
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Since the 1980s, local author and UW-Milwaukee instructor Jeff Poniewaz has been using poetry to usher in a greener, more environmentally aware city. After immersing himself in the eco-inspired poetry scene of the West Coast in the late-’70s, he came back to Milwaukee in the early ’80s to find a community of like-minded individuals. He says that then-President Ronald Reagan (whom Poniewaz describes as “the worst environmental president we’ve had prior to the current one—who has outdone Reagan twice over!”) had a galvanizing effect on the more environmentally concerned members of the populace, and that Milwaukeeans became more receptive to green issues in the ’80s. In 1988, he put together the first Earth Poets Celebration, sparking a tradition that is still going strong.

When and why did you start incorporating elements of music into the celebration?
One of the members of our group, Harvey Taylor, along the way picked up some ability on the guitar … he wound up performing with some of his friends at the Coffee House on 19th and Wisconsin— Jahmes Tony Finlayson, who’s a drummer with Ko-Thi and One Drum, and Holly Haebig, who plays the flute and is a tremendous singer. They’re the kind of musicians who are magicians. Tony is not just a drummer; he has a variety of subtle percussion instruments that he uses to magical effect. They began as guests one year and they were so good with the group chemistry that they’ve become regulars.

Do you plan on incorporating other arts into the celebration?
We’re definitely open to that. Poetry readings used to have dazzling posters in the ’60s and ’70s and we’d like to revive that. We’re open to incorporating everything toward the greater effectiveness of what we’re doing.

Is your audience composed of hardcore fans or do you get an influx of new people each year?
There are a lot of people who’ve become fans of the group; kindred spirits. We’d like to get our work across to people who aren’t kindred spirits, but that’s always the rub in doing this kind of art. On the other hand, although some people make the criticism that we’re preaching to the choir, well, the choir does get discouraged and does need to have its spirits lifted and have its feelings corroborated.

Do you feel that younger people are as passionate about these issues as you were Jeff Poniewaz in your youth?
Well, I teach a course through UWM called Literature of Ecological Vision and I know from students who enroll in the class that there are young people out there who are ardent in these matters. There just aren’t as many as I’d like.

Has the format of the celebration changed much?
No, except for the addition of musicians. We’re a group of individuals who read 10 minutes’ worth of our work and the total event might go an hour and a half, but there’s a nice sort of kaleidoscopic turnover in voices, alternating male and female and different viewpoints, and how we express ourselves is very different.

Are you wary that “green” has become such a trendy concept recently, sometimes tagged to buildings or cars as a badge of respectability?
Well, there was good reason to be wary of that in the past, with what’s called “green washing”—and I’m sure corporations still do this. I hope that they are, if not through actual conscience, picking up on the fact that the public is beginning to expect that in every aspect of society—that it’s not just green washing; that it’s segueing into real action to do something about the environmental crisis because it is so urgent … It can be overwhelming—the direness of the situation.

In my own poetry I face the direness, but I always have some kind of humor as a saving grace—something that prevents people from getting too bummed out and instead getting determined; that’s the trick.


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