michael koehler | tangletown & beyond

19 10 2009

Drawing by Emmett Johns

PoetryDispatch No. 295 | October 19, 2009

Michael Koehler: TANGLETOWN & Beyond

I stand before a shelf of thirty-two Cross+Roads Press books published to date. Staple-bound, the earliest ones–beginning with a small book of poems, AN EVENING ON MILDRED STREET by Mariann Ritzer 1995. Perfect-bound, all the rest of them, since 2004. I turn my head sideways, running down titles and authors, recalling many of the works by the color of the cover.

I could write a book on each of them, writer and work, from the initial idea of the project to publication day. Most of the books (limited editions, 250, 300, to an occasional run of 500 copies) immediate sell-outs. Others, still available–from a few copies to ‘a-little-more-remaining-than-I-expected.’ Most of the authors, still in touch; some, never to be heard from again, dead-and-gone…writers, like Curt Johnson, Don Olsen…two guys in particular I really miss. The silence of those others still out there—who knows?

Not, I trust, anything I did or did not do as a publisher, fellow-writer, friend. We move on. We are busy. We forget. We’ve become better, maybe different writers since then. We are seeking other publishers. We may have become somebody, something else. We may have given up? But I remember them all. Especially the joy in guiding their first book toward publication, finally seeing it in print.

My memories of Mike Koehler and TANGLETOWN go something like this…in ‘short-hand’ if you will, since I have neither the time or desire at this point to write those books on every CR+Press writer I’ve worked with, published.

He appeared one spring in my annual Clearing class in writing. He was big, burly, rough along the edges, bare-armed (tattooed?). A sense of ‘the biker’ about him. Not much formal education. And just on the verge of the writer’s life-long journey of becoming well-read. He liked the outdoors. Talked about his down-and-out Dad with admiration, love. Wrote some interesting, ‘beginning’ stuff. Worked at the usual, low-pay, shit-jobs many writers are prone to—in the beginning—or stuck with the rest of their lives. Caretaking people who needed such service—perfect. Works well/into the writing. Real. Small town (Midwest). He knew the territory. Lived it. Was still looking for the words.

The outward appearance—roughness along the edges—was exactly that. Superficial. He spoke softly, tellingly, passionately, with more concern about that sad old “human condition,” than anyone might expect. “All heart,” as they used to say. A gentle giant.

If memory still serves me well, I had no idea how he found the class or could afford a week’s tuition—though he may have come ‘recommended’ to me by another writer, and I did what I could to get him some help.

On the pathway to class the first day, he walked beside me and said: “I’m looking for a mentor.” And I knew without saying, he had found one—though it was not something I had ever considered myself or ever been called before.

Eventually (a year or two later?) he put a pile of poems in my hands…eventually I went through them—good, bad, indifferent, okay, almost, great. But one thing above all stayed with me. A single word which popped up occasionally in only a few poems: “Tangletown.” There’s the poetry, I said to myself. There’s the book. Now to explain what I saw.

I told him the book was “Tangletown”…told him to read Anderson’s WINESBURG, OHIO…Masters’, SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY…probably Edwin Arlington Robinson’s, TILBURY TOWN…and anything at all by Dylan Thomas (UNDER MILKWOOD for sure)..any book that rang true about small town place. I told him to go home and write about it…tell me everything he knows about TANGLETOWN, everything he remembers and imagines. Maybe even consider beginning each poem with the identical first line: In Tangletown…

Times passes. When the all the words were set in ‘place’…the book of thirty-six ‘final’ poems chosen, agreed upon, arranged…I asked my good friend, artist Emmett Johns, to read the TANGLETOWN manuscript straight through…show me what it looks like, though his eyes, his drawings…Michael Koehler’s words.

And this is some of what TANGLETOWN is all about—still, 12 years later…destined for “Midwest classic.” The kind of thing only small presses, who care about this stuff, do best. —Norbert Blei

In Tangletown

lives a young man
22, may be 23,
who writes of walking
the tracks in November,
looking for things lost
among old mills and abandoned shafts.
He carries a battered collection of Hart Crane poems,
a spiral notebook,
has eyes much too old for his age.
When his buddies are gang-banging
in back alleys and dying,
he writes of biker love, the moon,
the elephants of summer.
He reads poems at his father’s grave.
That slab of stone looms in his dreams.
He walks all night along
the tracks- searching
in Tangletown.

Drawing by Emmett Johns

In Tangletown
the streets are narrow
and tavern signs hang low.
Walking, at 3 a.m.,
windows dark with sleep
except for the uncertain
glare of insomnia.
From those windows,
cigarette smoke and loneliness
pour into the cool night air.
Nearby someone cries into a saxophone;
the bricks of buildings are moved to tears,
curtains flutter like kerchiefs.
Whole blocks at a time weep.
The gutters run with rain all night
in Tangletown.

Drawing by Emmett Johns

In Tangletown
on Sunday mornings,
the bars are quiet as churches,
prayers rise off the blacktop
in waves toward heaven.
Claude pushes his apartment
down the street on its creaky wheels
picking up empty beer cans
and cigarette butts
all the while talking to God.
Hung-over hearts wake up
next to unfamiliar faces,
regrets buried under loneliness.
Here, what is holy
is what gets you through the day.
We are sinners, all,
in Tangletown.

Drawing by Emmett Johns

In Tangletown
one year
the union called for a strike
because management wouldn’t listen to grievances.
We voted 1089 for to 6 against
at a meeting at Center Park
one Thursday afternoon.
After the meeting,
feeling united and powerful,
some of us went to the National Miners Bank
to cash our paychecks.
The shades were drawn, a padlocked chain
was passed through the door handles.
The Red Owl Supermarket closed.
The taverns were dark, dry and empty.
From far up the hill where the big houses were
came a whistle calling us to heel,
and like the kicked dogs we were
we tucked tail and crawled for home
so we could go to work tomorrow
in the mines
in Tangletown.

Drawing by Emmett Johns

In Tangletown
Mayor Ed runs the dry cleaners,
plays poker in the back room
at Hunan Harry’s with the police chief
and Monsignor Cushman,
drinks dago red by the quart.
Ed pinches the waitress’ ass
and accepts campaign contributions
passed inside handshakes.
His wife gave me head
last year at the charity ball.
He has my vote.
Besides, it was nice doing to his
what he has done for years
to all us poor suckers here
in Tangletown.

Drawing by Emmett Johns

In Tangletown
last week
Aaron Dobbs went crazy.
After sixteen years of marriage
his old lady split.
Maxed out his Gold card,
wrote him a hate letter,
threw her wedding ring in the fish tank.
Didn’t take anything but the clothes on her back,
her dildo and a scruffy tomcat with one ear.
Aaron went down to Armand’s about five,
then hit every joint on the strip.
Drank enough to fill a tanker car,
still sober as a judge.
He was in bed by ten,
at work by seven.
At first whistle, he sat on the fork of a tow motor,
opened an empty lunch box,
and started to cry.
When the men from the mental hospital came at noon,
he was still sobbing.
From what I’ve heard, he ain’t stopped yet.
Everyone is still talking about Aaron Dobbs.
In little towns even small things happen in big ways.
For a moment the streets paused,
sharing the hurt that we all knew
in Tangletown.

Editor’s Note: TANGLETOWN is officially out-of-print. Contact the publisher regarding availability of archived copies and price: ngbleiATgmailDOTcom.

Michael Koehler Bibliography:

To my knowledge, only his recent book, RED BOOTS is available, $12. Contact: Little Eagle Press, P.O. Box 684, Baileys Harbor, WI 54202

Bonus: A new Michael Koehler poem:


I could get used to windows with curtains,
or looking through a curtained window
to see a pink plastic bucket in a green turtle sandbox.
I think I could learn to like laughter
coming from the sandbox in the back yard
near the corner of the cedar fence.
I could even handle mowing the lawn.

I love the idea of stairs going upward,
and the pale rose light falling at angles
upon the bedspread.
I would love the forms that remain
after the sleepers wake and rise.

The cat sleeping on the sewing table
I would surely love, as I would the hands
gathering cloth under the needle,
as I would the quiet chatter that
announces creation is love,
even a simple yellow dress,
maybe with blue flowers.

More on Michael Koehler can be found by clicking here… and for Emmett Johns please click here… and here… for the Emmett Johns web page.



10 responses

19 10 2009
Ralph Murre

Absolutely beautiful. Best poet I’ve ever known. Bar none. And Tangletown? A treasure to be sought out by any and all who care about great little books. Someday I’ll find a copy, and hock my Harley, if need be, to get it.

20 10 2009
Monsieur K.

Dear Ralph, please do not sell your bike please. Here is a source to buy Tangletown. http://www.abebooks.com/servlet/BookDetailsPL?bi=1347353987&searchurl=bsi%3D60%26tn%3Dtangletown%26x%3D22%26y%3D4


20 10 2009
Gary Busha

When Tangletown came out I recognized its beauty, craftsmanship, and worth. I wrote a review of it and did my best to let others know that here was a exceptional chapbook. I was fortunate to later publish another book by Michael and have since been happy to stay in touch with him over the years. Thanks to Norb, Emmet Johns, and Cross+Roads for Tangletown–and thanks to Michael for a book that raised the bar of poetry for all of us.

20 10 2009
Henry Denander

What a beautiful book! The poems and ohhh the drawings. I will find this book. Thanks for telling me, Norb. /Hank

20 10 2009
Sharon Auberle

Michael is the real thing–a poet who nearly always makes me laugh and cry…often in the same poem. They wrote the phrase “diamond in the rough” about him. He is one big shining diamond…
And no one but Emmett could have done the perfect drawings to go with
this gem of a book.
thanks to all…

20 10 2009
Barbara Vroman

Michael touched my heart years ago with a poem about his mother.
His poetry is aching, but always compassionate. He sees. He feels. He takes
time to to put the results in words, hands them to us like a present that
wounds and teaches. And yes, Emmet’s illustrations embody his poetry as
if they were one mind.

21 10 2009
Robert M. Zoschke

Tangletown is already a “Midwest Classic” because it covers some dramatic bases….

* It exemplifies a not-often-achieved successful outcome of creative fruition.

* It showcases what can happen when a keen cunning editor guides a writer, and an illustrator, and a book, to synchronistic convergence.

* It reeks (in a wonderful reeking way) of originality, from cover to cover and across every page inside. And it reeks (in a wonderful reeking way) of quality. Lowdown Top-Shelf quality.

* It has already stimulated Mynah Birds.

* The poems are a big part of someone wanting to hold onto this book…that being said…I have twin daughters coming in January and the diaper fund needs infusion…so if anyone wants to trade their Harley or any other significant resaleable asset for my copy of this book, I am not a guy who’s hard to track down.

22 10 2009
Ralph Murre

Merci beaucoups, Msr. K ~ For this and for all you do, but I have found a copy at a better price. Amazing and sad, isn’t it, that Blei, Johns and Koehler sold the book for $6 and it now goes for $120 without any of them getting a penny.

22 10 2009
Monsieur K.

Great to hear you found a better deal! I agree with you concerning the pricing. That’s Life!

26 10 2009
Henry Denander

found it on Bookfinder.com for USD 20,- and I have this beautiful book in my hand now, thanks Norb!

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