For nearly 20 years, the Milwaukee Public Library has been sharing writing by local poets with the public through its ongoing poet laureate program. Each laureate makes several public appearances at library branches across the city over his or her two-year term.
Roberto Harrison, a long-time fixture of Milwaukee’s live lit scene, is our 10th poet laureate. We recently sat down with him to ask him about his life and work.
Have you always wanted to be a poet?
As a kid I drew constantly, but I didn’t get the idea of becoming an artist until much later. I also raised rabbits and other animals and wanted to become a veterinarian. When I got to college I became interested in computer math and from there became interested in a little bit of pure math, mostly abstract algebra. When I was in graduate school for math I encountered many different writers through my friends there and became interested in becoming a writer. Soon I found all sorts of poetry in the library and finally decided to focus on poetry.
How would you describe your work?
My work takes different forms. Generally I would say I’m an internal writer. I’m interested in the spiritual in the broadest sense and I also think a lot about what it means to me to be from Panama. I also try to address computer technology and its effects on our internal lives. My work is almost completely improvisational and intuitive, even in my more straightforward poems.
You’re also the editor of the Bronze Skull Press. Can you tell us a little about it?
I’ve published 20 or so chapbook titles through Bronze Skull. I do all the cover art for the series. The name comes from César Vallejo – “Bronze Skulls” was one of his initial possible titles for what became his masterful Trilce. Most of the Bronze Skull chapbooks are written by Midwestern poets. As soon as I can get the press going again I plan on publishing a chapbook by the excellent Chicago-based poet Paul Martinez Pompa.
Which other authors do you like to read?
Lately I’ve been reading Jimmie Durham, Etel Adnan, Larry Eigner, Novalis, Paolo Javier, Timothy Morton, Thom Donovan, Maurice Blanchot, Simone Weil and some younger, and very exciting, local writers like Jenny L. Davis, Nikki Wallschlaeger, Amanda Ngoho Reavey, Élias Sepulveda, Sam Pekarske, Franklin K. R. Cline, Soham Patel and Bethany Price.
You’ve lived in Oregon, Delaware and Indiana, and spent much of your childhood in Panama. Why did you decide to settle in Wisconsin? And does Milwaukee feel like home now?
I came to Milwaukee in 1991 with a former girlfriend who went to UW-Milwaukee for graduate school in architecture. We first lived right around the corner from Woodland Pattern Book Center on Pierce Street, which was perfect for me. Woodland Pattern was also where I met my wife years later, the poet Brenda Cárdenas. Brenda and I have managed to make a beautiful home together here. And so, yes, Milwaukee feels like home to me now. It’s not too big and not too small. And we’re not far from Chicago and Madison. I love riding my bike here through the parks and along the lake.
When did you find out you were being named the city’s 10th poet laureate?
I found out a few months ago when Paula Kiely, the Milwaukee Public Libraries Director, called and told me the good news.
What’s the experience been like so far?
It’s really nice to receive that kind of recognition, especially since by now I’ve done most of my creative work and study in Milwaukee. I enjoyed giving my inaugural reading with many of my friends and family in attendance. It’s been good too to give readings organized by younger poets like Bethany Price and Freddy La Force since being named the laureate.
Do you perform at readings around town? Any upcoming ones that you’re especially excited about?
I have readings coming up in Sheboygan for the 100,000 Poets for Change event there and at Carthage College (Kenosha) in September. Soon I’ll have a book release reading in Milwaukee for my new book Bridge of the World, which should be out any day now. Not sure yet when that reading will be, but it will probably be at Woodland Pattern.
What advice would you give to young poets hoping to improve their craft in the city?
We have Woodland Pattern, which is a treasure for poets around the world. Follow the electricity that courses up and down your spine. Find ways to make your own kinds of sense and ways to love despite the veils of the end.