When I’m asked about poetry in Chicago, I’m inclined to reply with the old Quaker response: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” But, all I really mean is that Chicago is distinct in its poetics because there is no system, no unifying center that explains its existence.
Chaos is the key to understanding how Chicago’s poets function. We don’t have a school here, nor a consistent, essential aesthetic. As a geographical center of the country, Chicago inevitably absorbs everything outside and assimilates the characteristics of visitors and the new locals.
Some are produced by MFA programs and the academy. Others still listen for Spicer-ian Martians are trying to communicate through us. And still, there are those who radiate in between. Either way, poetry is occurring here.
Whether at Danny’s Pub, Myopic Books, an obscure performance space in Humboldt Park, or a small dingy bar with a busted microphone and our third scotch and soda, we are drifting and crashing. But not indiscriminately. We are fine with chaos. Our canon is illimitable. It’s our impulse to constantly add, never to subtract. Poetry in Chicago is not something stable. We are a melting commune. Most of us are, as the Gospel of Thomas declares, passers-by. Constant travelers dripping ink onto the concrete of first and only editions, our solitary iterations now rare treasures to be found in the racks and corridors of the countless independent bookstores. No, you can’t count on us.
We are a lonely city in a way others aren’t. I’ve already mentioned there is no school. Chicago poets operate more in cliques than in a over-arching school. And these cliques are fluid. The cliques are often determined by identifying precedents and transforming/blending the aesthetics of the past avant-gardists and the projective politics of Now. We are bastard children of everything past, present, and future.
Facebook, needless to say, has provided a lot of networking for poets in the city. Since there are several venues with different aesthetic concerns, and various locations, it seems necessary to use such an electronic forum to expand the communication between poets and their performative space. I moved here in 2009 and the first place I found online was Myopic Books. I kept up with the schedule waiting for a familiar name. Michael Bernstein was the first in line. Although we hadn’t met personally yet, he’d published a few poems in his magazine Pinstripe Fedora that would go on to be included in my first chapbook some months later. I had to meet the man.
I showed up at Myopic Books around 6:30. I wanted to be able to exchange a few live words with Bernstein. Of course, working off profile pictures is a dubious way to identify someone. I made a lucky guess and did get to speak with Michael a little. Pleasantries, mostly. It’s difficult to move beyond those when you’re relationship with someone is completely defined by the Web. The reader before him was Nick Demske, a Wisconsin-ite who makes frequent visits to Chicago. Nick Demske, his award-winning book from Fence Press, had not been published yet and I’d never heard of him. Demske’s lines were long and acrobatic, bending the boundaries between cultural obscenity and flowing lyricism. Bernstein’s were short, terse, and filled with surreal dread. Both poets explode with infinite reference and anxious projection. The diversity of the reading is a trademark element of events at Myopic. You go to see one poet you know and end up hearing one or two you don’t, reaping the benefits of curious participation. One is tempted to make comparisons, but any comparison I could make doesn’t quite fit, since Myopic seems to be synonymous with “unique in its own world and vision.”
And yet I digress, this is the night where my career as a poet changed. The curator of Myopic, Larry Sawyer, is truly a committed veteran of poetry in this city if there is such a thing. He overheard my name after the reading and called out:
“I heard the name ‘Connor.’ Is he here?”
I raised my hand.
“I’ll answer your e-mail this week.” He was in a rush, but I knew he was genuine.
Weeks later, I read alongside Philip Jenks.
Larry’s commitment to poetry is unparalleled in any scene. After my initial email, he invited me to read four times, even inviting me to host one reading. I reviewed his book, Unable to Fully California in Another Chicago Magazine. He exposed me to the depths of surrealism and showed me the limits of our own language as a vehicle of expression. For Larry, poetry is not a method of egotism, but a explosion of voices that can be organized into a revolutionary diction. Larry doesn’t force his poems onto a soapbox, but realizes Walter Benjamin’s conception of surrealism as the disruption of bourgeois logic as poetry’s true revolutionary potential.
Larry Sawyer showed me that the tradition of Myopic Books reading series was a long one. He had and has been involved for over a decade and has had poets of varying fame to read. Ron Silliman, Eileen Myles, Tony Triglio, David Trinidad, Gabriel Gudding, Bernadette Mayer, et al.; you name it, they’ve been there. And yet, he let us newbies read, those of us hopefuls who want to be poets. Myopic Books is certainly a go-to spot for me when it comes to poetry readings. Poetry to Larry Sawyer is not a question of achievement, but commitment. If there is a committed, centered Chicago poet, it is Larry. As a curator and promoter, he brings the audience’s focus into a special, intimate poetic communal experience.
At any reading in Chicago, it’s not likely that you’ll see two poets of an identical ilk reading in one night. It’s not intentional, but a poetry reading in Chicago is almost destined for diversity. This what makes poetry in Chicago so exhilarating and overwhelming, our multi-vocal drive. This is our unconscious focus, our journey without a destination.
Let’s move up to March—I believe—of 2011. Eileen Myles was here to promote Inferno, and Ed Roberson was the co-reader. The crowd is spread between the bar and dark back room cushions. In this dimly lit room, most of us on our second beer, second shot. I was on my third scotch thinking of invectives against Illinois smoking laws, watching luminous figures appear in the doorway. The readings at Danny’s are always scheduled at 7:30 but they rarely begin before 9. People linger into the increasingly packed crowd.
Roberson was first. His reading was dignified and still, clear and quiet, well-spoken and a little hard to hear. Contrast with NYC’s Myles, a poet whose work is clearly meant to be heard as well as read. In both Ed and Eileen’s cases, there was a sense of throbbing in the audience, throbbing from silence, then throbbing from the fascination of the New England-accented projection of poetic autobiography. The energy infinitely builds and explodes into fiery applause.
(On a side note: I bought Eileen’s new book and she signed it, misspelling my name in a way that has never felt so pleasant.)
Elsewhere, Chicago poets tend to find themselves in positions where they perform alongside musicians and other types of performance art. Like anywhere, we have to contend with the fact that many people find poetry readings fairly boring. In the latter part of summer 2011, I was on the road with Edwin Perry, JS Makkos, and Joseph Bienvenu, all of whom have had intimate connections with Chicago. Our final stop on our reading tour (Calendar of the Spectral was the title) was at the underground hit loft Ball Hall. I do confess, if you’re looking for a place where “art” is happening, stop by this space at your first possible convenience.
This reading was special in many ways. For one, it was the last reading we did as a group on the tour. Makkos and Bienvenu would go on to do one last reading in Detroit while I and Perry had to split off. Perry to plan a tour with his band and I to fulfill teaching duties for a local Rogers Park summer school session. I had driven back from Cleveland alone to attend a faculty meeting. After a week and a half in a car together, we had a couple of days off from each other. When I arrived at Ball Hall, it was the first time I had been there. It was my understanding that my three counterparts had all experienced this strange little society on several occasions before. My experience with the Chicago poetry community was limited mostly to bookstores, bars, and the occasional art gallery. Throughout the tour, however, bookstores were a rarity in our choices of venue. We had almost exclusively read in bars and self-curated performance spaces.
Walking into Ball Hall the first time, I already knew this would be even more different than our past experiences. This was partly because I lived so close to this place and didn’t even know it existed. Sure, the art spaces on the East Coast were singular, strange, dreamlike communes of the summer, but this was local. This was personal.
This reading was very special because it may very well have been our largest crowd since Boston and was the second to final reading we did together. The reputation of Ball Hall as an epicenter of artistic performance alone had drawn disillusioned and creative youth of all ages to come see what we had produced, what we had to perform.
The highlight of the evening was our reading of a four-voice poem that we had composed on the road. When I say “on the road,” I mean that we actually wrote this poem while driving. Since I drove at least 90 per cent of the tour, I dictated my lines while I was driving. The first few performances of this poem were a few steps above disastrous, but this time a harmony shone through that we hadn’t seen yet. It was a Dada/Flarf coherence of goofiness and collision in which each of our distinct voices crashed, joked and, ultimately, cohered. Our time apart had given this poem a new life. Time does not finish a poem, but the temporal silence of its voices does allow for its organic growth. The originally Flarf-y humor of four voices shouting “fucking” in Reich-ian unison lost its humor and instead took on the memorial frustration of our lives together, however short that life was.
Our stretch does not stop with the city limits; we take advantage of our geography. We are inclusive of the suburbs, Indiana, Wisconsin and Michigan as well. Michael Czyzniejewski still travels into Chicago from Bowling Green to serve beer at Cubs games, and Bill Allegrezza still edits Moria. Lake Forest College is also a hotbed of innovative writing; Joshua Corey, Robert Archambeau and Davis Schneiderman still maintain the northern part of the state as a literary stronghold, with the college hosting a fantastic literary festival, as well as running the excellent &Now Press. Go just about a half hour further north and you’d be in Racine, where Fence Prize-winner Nick Demske runs the BONK! performance series at the local library, featuring not only great Chicago poets and artists but performers from all over. Francesco Levato founded a workshop group in 2011 called the Chicago School of Poetics, which offers a diverse array of courses and faculty devoted to the growth of poetry in the city. Yet, despite that, a consistent aesthetic will never emerge. Rather, new aesthetics will branch out infinitely, unlimited by any dogmatic constraint.
This is our strength, our boast. The visitors can’t help but see the schizophrenic variety of what it is to be a poet in this city. Our poetics of place are our relinquishment of a center, the lack of an essential location. We are the poets of many faces, bringers of both syntactic revolution and passive boredom, gazers between the silence of the pages’ white spaces among the monoliths of our piercing architecture. And yet, this is only a brief, highly selective description of what happens here. I’ve left out so much, but can only hope this has sparked your curiosity. So the chilled streets call to the arriving, curious traveler: Beware, Welcome, Look.