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    Wisconsin Lawyer
    September 01, 2013

    10 Questions: Tom Erickson: A Poet's Exchange

    Some poets conjure a space or memory – Orion on a spring night, snowshoeing on a frozen pond, a close interrogation room. Some poets have perfect pitch – you hear the speaker, and you see and smell him, too. Meet Tom Erickson, whose defense work provides at least some of the debris that is poetry to him.
    Tom Erickson

    Tom Erickson, Marquette 1985, is a solo practitioner in Milwaukee, practicing primarily in criminal defense.

    What type of law do you practice?

    I have been in solo practice in Milwaukee since graduating from Marquette Law School in 1985. I’ve done pretty much everything from civil and criminal litigation to divorce and probate. Presently, the majority of my practice is criminal defense, but that could change anytime depending on how the wind blows and where the business is.

    How did you start writing poetry? I was an English major at Beloit College and took a few poetry courses, which I enjoyed, including a poetry composition class. I wrote a handful of poems during my college years as well as a full-length play. I pretty much forgot about writing poetry until about 15 years ago when I was attending some boring CLE seminar. A few days before the seminar, I had taken my two sons, who were just little kids at the time, sledding, and I started writing a poem about it. The writing was rather automatic. I’m sure the poem was terribly maudlin, but working on it made me realize how much I missed using that part of my brain.

    How did you develop your writing?

    I audited a couple poetry classes at UW-Milwaukee and became friends with Marilyn Taylor, a professor there, who is an excellent poet and was poet laureate of Wisconsin for two years. Marilyn and I and a few others started a poetry workshop that has now met monthly for several years. Our group is called the Hartford Avenue Poets and our book, Masquerades and Misdemeanors, was published this summer. By the way, one of our members is Helen Padway, who is the matriarch of the Padway family, well known in Milwaukee legal circles.

    Tell us about your poetry book. What’s the story behind the title?

    It’s called The Lawyer Who Died in the Courthouse Bathroom, published earlier this year by Parallel Press of the University of Wisconsin Libraries. It’s a chapbook, which means it’s a shorter book of poetry. There are 22 poems in all. The title comes from the first poem in the book which sets a tone for several of the other poems. One of wistfulness and a sense of duty bound to a quiet futility.

    What are the themes of the book?

    The press release for the book states it’s “a complete and complicated portrait of the human condition.” Those aren’t my words, but I would have a hard time summarizing the book myself. About a dozen of the poems involve the experience of working as a lawyer. The other poems are fairly random in subject matter. Some deal with personal relationships. Others involve such topics as Anne Frank, a trip to Berlin, the four little girls killed in Birmingham in the church bombing in 1963. I guess those sound pretty dark, but I don’t really think of them like that. I try to find some humor or some nuance in almost all my poems that doesn’t leave too dark of an impression or at least leaves a ray of hope.

    Why write poems about being a lawyer?

    I wouldn’t say my poems are about “being a lawyer,” per se. Invariably, you write what you know, so at least a fraction of my poems touch on my work. I don’t sit down and plan to write about a defendant accused of murder or attending a police line-up or about a home visit of a particularly impoverished little girl who was my ward; but if I do, there is some spark there that makes the particular universal for me and that’s what I hope to convey. Flaubert said, “Even a lawyer carries in him the debris of a poet.” It’s the debris that is poetry for me.

    Do you have a favorite poem in your book?

    I don’t have a favorite, but one of the very first ones I wrote several years ago is called “Chester’s Pants.” While most of my lawyer poems consist of an amalgam or combination of cases with some fiction thrown in, “Chester’s Pants” is pretty close to home in what happened. My client was accused of some particularly heinous crimes. He didn’t have any clothes for his trial, and I had him wear some of mine. Years after the trial, I found the pants in a filing cabinet. I thought about throwing them away but decided to keep them and wear them. The poem ends with the line, “After all, they are my pants.” I thought that was somehow emblematic of the empathy and ability not to judge you must have even when representing a person who apparently did some terrible things.

    Is writing poetry somehow important to your practice?

    I can’t say it’s made me any money but it’s still valuable to me. Any time I write a poem about anything it causes me to reflect on the world around me and to try to use some creativity in what can be a profession that often has little need for reflection or cause for originality.

    What is on the horizon in terms of your poetry?

    I hope to get a full-length book published soon and continue to do readings whenever and wherever I’m asked. There’s not a great clamor for poetry readings. I usually do three or four a year at coffee houses or book stores.

    Are you continuing to write poems that involve your work as a lawyer?

    Not so much recently. My poetry, like my law practice, tends to wander around in terms of subject matter. I do have a goal, though: to write a poem about a probate case. I’m kidding, of course. Well, maybe not. After all, they are my pants.

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