©2019 by Stephen Schwei

My History as a Poet

I began attempting poetry in 10th grade on a sarcastic and disruptive basis by writing a paper for English class about the poet Loreli M. Thodvigs, an anagram of "Oliver Goldsmith", who we were reading at the time.  I produced all the poems myself, largely in the style of e.e. cummings, who I admired.  I'll show some here once I locate them.  They were all small.  Only a few friends were in on the "joke".  I don't remember what grade I got on the paper, but I had some discussions with my teacher when she couldn't find any other references to this poet.  I probably made other attempts throughout my school career when we were assigned to write poems, but none are notable or memorable.

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee, a couple of my friends (John and Judy) began taking creative writing courses.  My majors were in Math and Psychology, but I often dabbled in other areas and had plenty of room in my schedule for other courses.  I signed up for an evening course, three hours once a week on a Wednesday, with Steven Lewis, a poet and instructor at the school.  I took a second semester with him and one or two semesters with James Hazard, another poet, much better known, and a professor at the university.  Jim sometimes brought in his wife, poet Susan Firer, or had her fill in when he was away.  These courses provided a strong foundation for me, got me thinking about poetry seriously, and delivered needed feedback from the instructors and other students.  My best poem of the period, "Duluth", was written in Jim's class and has been published several times.

As a side note, these were all fun people.  These poets, along with Antler and Jeff Poniewacz, seemed like a cohesive department.  John, Judy, and I, and sometimes others would frequently go drinking with Steve Lewis after class and continue to talk about poetry and life well into the night.

I took another serious English course that was not about me writing but about three poets - Kenneth Koch, John Ashbury, and Frank O'Hara.  I also began to go to poetry readings, although I don't remember any noteworthy poets during that period.  John Hawk's Pub was a local bar in Milwaukee that had weekly open mic nights, so I frequented those.  After getting up the nerve to read, my poems were often well-received.  As a graduate student at the University of Minnesota (in Math), I went to a reading by Allen Ginsberg and traveled north in winter about 180 miles to Bemidji to hear Kenneth Koch read.  Both were fun and inspirational.

In the summer of 1974, just one semester short of my university graduation, I quit my job and spent the entire summer about 8 blocks from Harvard University, living with a childhood friend (Michael Dornbrook) and two of his friends from MIT.  It was a great summer to reflect, spend a lot of time at Harvard's math library, be exposed to state-of-the-art computing at MIT labs (primarily on the down-low), and watch all of "The Prisoner" again and many episodes of the British series "The Avengers".  I also found a poetry group that met weekly in the evening at Harvard, led by Claudia Buckholts.  They were a great group that motivated me to write more, provided meaningful feedback, and led to several publications.  Claudia published "Gargoyle" and I had three poems published there (not the same "Gargoyle" as currently located in Washington D.C.)  There's nothing like publication to make you feel like you "arrived" to an extent as a poet, with the quality and respect of the publication affecting that overall feeling.

I continued to write poetry off and on over the years, most often during emotional periods in my life.  I've accumulated a lot of scraps and partial poems that I hope to return to someday to see if they can be starting points for more substantial efforts.

My brother, Mike, and I corresponded for perhaps a year about poetry and provided feedback to each other.  I also began a multi-year practice of publishing a calendar for my family each Christmas that contained many poems by me and some by other members of the family.  This motivated me as well, because there were pages to fill.  I solicited from others to fill the gaps.  I didn't pursue publishing my work formally during most of my life.

Since retirement in October of 2015, I have pursued poetry much more seriously.  I am 

writing more regularly, attempting to publish, and seeking out readings where I can present my work and get the informal feedback those provide.  It has been fulfilling so far and I feel like I'm increasing in my professionalism and improving the quality of my work.  See the Readings page for details on when and where I attempt to present my work these days and the Publications page for where I have been successful in that area.