An English teacher, he coaches the poetry slam team from High School of the Arts, which just won the national championship.
“We are the champions!” trumpets teacher/poet/musician James Bruss. He’s rhapsodizing about the poetry slam team he coaches, the Milwaukee High School of the Arts (MHSA) Spiders, who have won the city championship for four straight years. On March 8th, they won a national championship at Chicago’s “Louder Than a Bomb,” the largest teen poetry slam in the country. They did it by defeating two teams from Tulsa, a team from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, and a team from Hamilton High in Canada. And they squeaked by Milwaukee’s King High.
Bruss grew up north of Milwaukee, where the Milwaukee River bends, in the community of West Bend. He describes it as “conservative and god-loving.” When we point out that nearby Highway 33 just launched a “Gentlemen’s Club,” and downtown, a sparkling Museum of Wisconsin Art, he agrees it’s a strange juxtaposition. Two sides to every story, so to speak.
He grew up with a love of words and a fondness for mythology, specifically Greek mythology, because his maternal grandmother, Anastasia, was the child of Greek/Serbian immigrants. She arrived in Milwaukee at age 8. Years later when she met her Serbian boyfriend, Bruss says the pairing “tore the family apart.” But that’s a story for another day.
He had some amazing teachers in fourth and eighth grade, but high school wasn’t particularly challenging, says Bruss, nor was his first college experience at UW-Oshkosh, which he says “resembled an extension of high school.” It was his transfer to UW-Madison that made him feel like an adult. As the lead singer for Creature Custard (two bass players and a drummer), he marched to his own beat (heavy on groove and weird time signatures) and wrote lyrics and poetry. And he rapped in another band, Ham G, he being Ham G. “My idols back then were Mike Patton and Ozzy. I wanted to be a rock star,” he says, but the flame burned low eventually, because “everyone was getting older, and it just wasn’t as interesting anymore.”
His graduation from UW-Madison was followed by four years of convenience store hell. As manager of a Citgo, he worked 52 hour weeks while watching employees steal stuff on a regular basis. When it became too much to handle, he moved to Milwaukee to earn his teaching certificate at Concordia (2004), and that led to his position on the faculty of MHSA, the longtime Milwaukee Public Schools arts specialty school on 2300 W. Highland Ave., not all that far from where Bruss lives on Chambers St. in Riverwest.
All MHSA students must declare an arts major and creative writing is one of four possibilities, along with art, music and theater. Bruss has taught English and creative writing for seven years, but loves the chance to teach an elective, like mythology, perhaps this fall. The mention of Icarus (he who flew too near the sun on wings of feathers and wax), Sisyphus (he who endlessly rolled an immense boulder uphill, only to watch it run back down so he could push it up again), and Narcissus (who fell in love with himself) brings a smile to his mouth which is almost hidden under a longish dark beard tied neatly in a knot at the end. It certainly is creative, more so than neckties knotted and worn with conservative business suits.
He loves language; loves words….and the Packers. As a kid, he and his dad shared Packer Jerry Kramer’s two books. “I’d read a chapter and dad would read a chapter,” he says. “It actually instilled a love of reading, because after all, it was the Packers and it was real.” Or almost. We hesitate to remind him that the Packers are a kind of Green & Gold myth unto themselves.
Last summer during the Packers’ pre-season, he was tuned to WTMJ radio. They posed a question: “What does it mean to be a Packer fan?” Bruss called in and said that anyone who wanted to be a real Packer fan needed to read the aforementioned two books Kramer authored: Instant Replay and Distant Replay.
The MHSA students (a mélange of many ethnicities) often ask Bruss “what he is.” It seems that race is often on their minds, but their teacher says he’s never thought of himself as anything but white, and in any event, he doesn’t think race matters at his school. Does he ever ask his students “what they are?” “It’s none of my business,” he says. Many come from problematic neighborhoods and sometimes tell him crazy stories about where they live, Bruss says, but he’s found he can connect with them through the written and spoken word.
For the past five years, as the founder and leader of “Spiders,” Bruss meets after school from 4 – 5:45, Tuesdays and Thursdays, with students interested in writing and performing poetry. The MPS Poetry Slam League consists of five judges critiquing performed poetry on a scale of 0 – 10. (A zero means it should have been left in the notebook.) Those who survive participate in the city championships, and from there they can enter the national championship. More than anything, says Bruss, “it’s the Poetry Slams that keep me teaching.”
But why would you name a group Spiders? Well, Bruss says, if you dissect the word, the sp equals spoken word; the id equals identity. Since this teacher is essentially a teller of tales, we listen to him elaborate on the further meaning of spiders.
Most people are afraid of spiders. Bruss hates them. That said, he thinks that when people confront their fears, they are in effect, embracing themselves. “Do not be afraid of who you are,” he says. He harbors a memory of being little and having a spider crawl onto his hand. He tried to shake it off, but it used its web to crawl back onto his arm. Creepy.
The West Bend native has become a true citygoer. He avoids big box stores like Walmart and believes firmly that people who work for the city should live in the city and get to know their community. In Riverwest, in a home he owns and shares with his fiancé and her two kids, plus two dogs and a cat, he’s doing just that.
And in the summer, there’s a garden in the back where he says he “finds peace.” And if you look closely, quite a few spiders.
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