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Short poems from a Michigan poet

Apr 8, 2015

It’s National Poetry Month and in its honor, we are exploring the work and styles of Michigan poets.

Ken Mikolowski teaches his students from the University of Michigan's Residential College to want to write, not how to write.
Credit poetryfoundation.org/bio/ken-mikolowski

Ken Mikolowski, a poet and poetry professor at the University of Michigan, has just released his fifth book, ThatThat. It’s a book that reveals this poet’s mastery of the short poem – no poem within the book is longer than three short lines.

“Haiku is much too long for me,” Mikolowski said.

He said his role as a publisher, editor and printer of The Alternative Press – a literary journal he and his late wife founded together in Detroit – started his 30-year stint in typesetting, or letterpress printing. It was this activity that began the evolution of his poetry towards shorter poems.

“And I always thought as I was setting that type, ‘I wish this poem were shorter,’” he said. “I wish somebody would write shorter poems. Finally, I had to start doing that myself because no one else seemed to be doing it.”

But Mikolowski’s poems are short for more reasons than just to ease the work of the typesetter.

“I really did want to say something but I didn’t want to say it pompously, or I really wanted to be precise,” he said.

He wrote his first short poem for his son, who was ten at the time. 

“I wanted him to be able to understand it,” he said. “I didn’t want to use big words, I wanted to use one-syllable words as much as possible and just basically say the poem.”

As for his writer’s voice – his style – that one’s easy.

“How would I characterize my voice? Detroit – come on,” he said. “You’ve got to have attitude to be from Detroit.”

Sometimes inspiration wakes him up in the middle of the night or hits him while strolling through the streets. The brevity of his poems makes the process fairly simple – he just writes down his idea immediately, and voilà – he has a draft of the poem.  

After the inspiration comes the editing.

“Often I have to edit it, meaning I cross out words,” he said. “There’s too many words usually. And I get it down to the essence and then, for me, that’s the poem.”

-Lindsey Scullen, Michigan Radio 

Tell us about your favorite poem. Why is it important to you? Submit via email to stateside@michiganradio.org or leave your favorite poems in the comments on this page