Fox Cities Book Festival: Mike Koehler & Faith Barrett

The poetry event continued after Rozga’s reading with three local poets. As they were introduced, a large group of students crowded by the door began to spread throughout the space. These three had brought quite a crowd of friends, family, and interested strangers.

Many of us still reflecting on Rozga’s powerful set were surprised at the tone the next poet, Mike Koehler, took. When Koehler perched on the stool on stage with his single earring & taxi cap, I never expected his accent or the words from his mouth. Excellent prose make his strange accent more pronounced. It was a mix of southern drawl and the U.P. / Minnesota long vowels. He sets the scene so perfectly. You can almost feel the stuffy air of your parents’ garage in the summers as you call to request songs on the radio. His rough look fits better in the local tavern than a poetry reading. But no. There’s no dissonance between his character and his poems. They’re straightforward and clear – full of that back country imagery so familiar to Wisconsinites. When he speaks of the traveling WWII wall, he captures the orderly march of names. The hollow sadness that sounds from within. It was possibly my favorite poem from the night. Unlike the other poems which left you laughing, this one struck deep. Perhaps a testament to the technology age, Koehler whipped out his iTouch to read his last two poems. How times change.

When Faith Barrett took the stage, the students in front quieted their whispered conversations. Most were Lawrence University students of hers. She stood at odds to the previous poets. Her style focused more on descriptions to ease from one action to the next. She admitted to writing with an ‘obsessive vocabulary and repetitive sounds.’ Barrett leaves you silently painting each detailed scene in your mind. She writes in what seems to be a series of moments of stories rather than full tales. It’s nearly impossible to accurately describe her poetry. She constructs each detailed scene carefully, but each is vague enough to make you get lost in the imagery and not track the storyline. The focus is on how it is rather than what it is. Interesting but not overdone her words wander seemingly along the same tangents a person’s mind might take: Sideways in bursts rather than pacing forward in time.

Barrett was well-supported by her squad of students – a group of A+ students & brown-nosers. One slept, another chomped her gum looking distant and bored, but the other 8 leaned forward on their chairs sucking it all in. After she left the podium, many of them bolted from the audience in search of a more exciting way to spend their Thursday night. It was disappointing to say the least. But who was I to judge? I may have done the same back in college (no. not really.), and here I was looking like one of them as I scooted out as well.

Feeling a little guilty, I ducked out before the last poet Bruce Dethlefsen. This is rather more disappointing as he has been named the Wisconsin Poet Laureate for 2011 and 2012. However, despite being quite late at this point, I was determined to catch the end of new novelist Hillary Jordan’s talk on the trials and tribulations of getting published.

Mike Koehler

BIO:  Wisconsin poet Mike Koehler has the ability to look at everyday experiences and turn them into poetry, a poetry that captures the feel of small town life in the Midwest and the people who live here. Koehler’s collection, Red Boots(2009), won the first R.M. Arvinson Manuscript of the Year Award from Little Eagle Press in 2008. Tangletown (1997) and Notes from Skinner’s Elbow (1999), his other collections, are also distinguished by their clear imagery and straightforward language.

Koehler has done poetry readings on Wisconsin Public Television, the Wisconsin Public Radio program Higher Ground with Jonathan Overby, and has had poems published on various websites and in print journals. He currently lives in Little Chute, Wisconsin, with too many books and a huge tomcat named Jerry. Koehler says to stop by his blog One Hand Armands and he’ll buy ya a cold one.

Bio from Koehler’s profile on the Fox Cities Book Festival‘s website.

Faith Barrett

BIO:  Faith Barrett is Associate Professor of English at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin. She teaches courses in American literature and culture and creative writing/poetry. Barrett earned her PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of California, Berkeley, and her MFA in Poetry from the University of Iowa. Her chapbook of poems, Invisible Axis, was published in 2001. She coedited, with Cristanne Miller, Words for the Hour: A New Anthology of American Civil War Poetry(2005). Barrett’s scholarly work, To Fight Aloud Is Very Brave: American Poetry and the Civil War, is forthcoming from the University of Massachusetts Press.

Bio from Barrett’s profile on the Fox Cities Book Festival‘s website.

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