Shake the Rust (with Apologies to Anis Mojgani)

5 Sep

So I moved to Chicago. It’s been five months now, and the transplant is going better than I could have hoped. Maybe I haven’t yet made it to the Sears Tower to see my feet levitating stories of air above the Chitown streets, but I have developed an obsession with hot dogs (that is not a euphemism).

With the exception of poetry shows and the rare date, I don’t get out a lot – but I’m someone who partly makes life sustainable on her ability to read a place and people quickly and accurately, and to sufficiently adapt to her surroundings. Developing these skills has helped to make this move very smooth.

Much of what I’ve learned in the last couple of years has come to me from the Great Lakes region. For a year before moving, I seriously dated a man from this area and got in the habit of visiting him, and wanting to know more about his home. He’s the one who first gave me the bug, I guess.

Although I’ve seen more of this country than most, touring all the time constantly reminds me how vast is our homeland, and how ignorant I still am. The Chi is neat because it’s so old (for this country), with well-established culture and a host of thriving subcultures. The city is far too complex to be grasped on a series of visits, or even a few months of living here. Chicago is Great Lakes, it’s Midwest, it’s North Country, it’s Rust Belt, it’s cosmopolitan, it’s small town, it’s farm and country. Chicago’s a big city, so diversity of lifestyle is generally accepted, but the Chi also has a very strong neighborhood mentality. I’ve talked shit on the Chi regarding ghettoization and such, but I understand that there’s a beauty in people of like minds or backgrounds collecting together as well… The racism here sometimes disgusts me – it’s no mean feat to find shows or events that don’t sharply reflect this trend – but this has also traditionally been one of the hotbeds of black culture, and boasts immigrant populations out the wazoo. The endless contradictions of this place keep my mind super sharp.

***

INTERLUDE: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Rust Belt (Quick Thoughts on Regionals)

My friend Logic organized a regional slam that came together soon after I arrived in the Chi. A regional slam is what it sounds like, and the Rust Belt Slam is what it sounds like, too: a chance for poets from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, &c. to get together and spit amazing poems.

I’d heard great things about last year’s Rust Belt Slam from Will Evans, so I was very excited to go. The tournament this year took place in East Lansing (don’t ask me anything about East Lansing, I don’t learn much about places when I travel for tournaments). The event was very, very well run. The bouts were all well-attended (having them all in the same venue helped enormously), and the event as a whole always gave me the impression that folks were looking out for me. Traveling there with my dear friends Billy and Andi helped with that, and hanging with Karen Garrabrant gave me great joy. 🙂

And the poetry… I was familiar with many of the poets already from tours and national competitions, but the impact of seeing all these incredible writers gathered together was something else. Columbus brought highly sophisticated humor and darkness in epic proportions from both its venues. The burgeoning Cleveland scene delivered a surprise uppercut to contenders, Chi Town represented beautifully, and Minneapolis’ fresh-faced squad shook the house to its foundations.

The Detroit poets really stood out to me at this particular competition, with blockbusters from Jamaal May (a favorite of mine since ’05), plus T. Miller, whose craft has skyrocketed even since her appearance on WoWPS Finals Stage two years ago, and Mic Write, one of the most talented new poets to rework hip hop styles for poetry audiences. Power, power, superpower. Very impressive indeed.

This is all to say that the regionals did exactly what I’d hoped: they greatly deepened my respect for Midwestern poets and organizers. I’m very happy to be a new member of this incredible extended family.

***

Chicago hasn’t been all sunshine and flowers. A little while ago, some interpersonal challenges came to a head and I seriously considered leaving the city. Because so many wonderful things were happening to me outside of that, it took me a long time to fully realize that something was wrong. My performances were totally off for months: on the rare occasions I actually took the mic, I dropped poems and songs I should have been able to rattle off in my sleep. I was drinking a lot more than usual, leaving my room a lot less, and clutching my laptop like a security blanket. My confidence was shot, frankly, and it wasn’t until the National Poetry Slam a few weeks ago, when I reached the height of instability, that I understood just how wrong I felt.

But one of the reasons I’m a slam poet is because slamming makes you tough. It’s a means of directly confronting an audience and absorbing whatever criticism they lob your way. I also had an inkling that moving to Chicago would make me tougher in a good way, and it has. And it still has more to teach me. I’m looking forward to getting schooled.

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