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you came to take us/to recreate us

14 Oct

What an insane month it’s been. Capping off an insane summer. Working through my first manuscript was by far the most challenging and loneliest process I’ve experienced as a poet. Right now I feel exhausted, a little sad but satisfied, and eager to make new work.

So let’s not talk about that just yet. Let’s talk about Chicago instead.

This song right here.

Yes, a little love post about the Chi poetry scene. I moved here to be a part of it, feeling like I could both learn and contribute in a meaningful way, and folks have been really welcoming. I’ve stayed transient since moving here, and when I’ve been home, I’ve stayed fairly agoraphobic – so there are a lot of shows I either haven’t seen or haven’t seen enough of to really talk about; here are just a few Chi-town poetry highlights from your favorite misanthrope.

The Encyclopedia Show

Robbie Q. Telfer’s brainchild is one of my favorite shows in the country. Encyclo is among a new wave of shows that’s redefining performance. Their super-talented ensemble cast stays sharp, fresh and funny, and they invite top-shelf artists from all fields to contribute to each happening. Blockbuster and beyond, babe, if you didn’t know. Small wonder Encyclopedia’s gone viral, spreading from Oklahoma City to South Korea. *shrugs* You prolly don’t have to hit the Chi to see this show; at this rate, some permutation will be in your town very soon. (monthly)

Uptown Poetry Slam

The show that started it all stays one of my favorite slams in the nation. A lot of that has to do with SlamPapi Marc Smith, the man who invented the game that revolutionized poetry. He still hosts at the Green Mill, and he still shapes what the show means. Loves, you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Marc do his thing. And for the slam nutcases: it’s very difficult to grasp the heart of the seed of this thing until you’ve heard SlamPapi himself sing, rant, and berate m’fs, all out of love. (weekly)

Mental Graffiti

MG doesn’t have the same outsider pull that the Mill does (by virtue of venue and legacy, in large part), but MG is where poets perform for poets. It’s one of the hardest rooms in the country – but also one of the most attentive and familial. I stay swearing that Tim Stafford, the host on most nights, is the funniest man alive – and the crew that works mostly behind the scenes includes Emily Rose and Amy David, two of the most solid organizers we’ve got. It’s a great place to get an honest read of your poems, and it’s a great night if you want to hear a range of fantastic work. (monthly)

Vox Ferus

This organization, in an earlier incarnation, actively brought me to Chicago. I moved here so I could be a Vox Ferus poet, back when the group I lived with was still defined as such, and our house was still the meeting place for the Vox Ferus After Dark workshops. The workshops still bring together professional and aspiring poets from a range of different sources, offering challenging and very diverse critique from its varied participants. Marty and Tristan work very hard to make the space safe in the right way, and difficult in the right way. VF is a great place to grow your game, and a great place to network with poets and poetry lovers. (bimonthly)

Real Talk Live

This is my baby. I developed the concept of this show in conversation with Andi Strickland, then my housemates, neighbors and I worked together (and continue to, although we’ve all moved) and made a pretty cool thing. Our idea is a commitment to honesty, joy and diversity. The notion is to give ourselves, the performers, and the audience permission before each show begins to be genuine. All the Real Talk folk are poets, but we try to book and invite folks who rep outside of that realm as often as possible, trying to actively cross genres and encourage collaboration while maintaining serious integrity of performance. This is also the most racially mixed show, in leadership and attendance, that I’ve seen in the Chi. (monthly)

Young Chicago Authors

This 20-year-old organization is incredibly crucial to the Chicago poetry scene. It would be difficult to understate its importance. With programs like WordPlay, the Saturday Morning Writing Program, GirlSpeak, Louder Than a Bomb, and all their other programs that bring professional and youth poets together, YCA has breadth and influence that benefits the poetry community immeasurably. They’ve got a few rockstar poet-organizers in their ranks, notably Toni Asante Lightfoot and Robbie Q. Telfer.

Muzzle Mag

I might be jumping the gun a little here, as Muzzle’s second issue hits the net tomorrow – and perhaps it’s a bit off-base to praise an online magazine that could be read as national, but eight out of the ten chief editors (including me) currently live in the Chi. Anyhow, I’ll praise Muzzle as it feels right now. Stevie Edwards, one of the poets who came out of Vox Ferus, recently created a magazine that’s truly progressive in its mission and influence, with high standards of content, but true openness to the spoken word community, and a real commitment to stylistic diversity. As an editor, I’m particularly impressed with the process Stevie’s implemented, which allows the rest of us to critique submissions with total anonymity. (quarterly)

Other noteworthy poetic endeavors in the Chicago community include: John Paul Davis’ Bestiary, a gorgeous lit mag that highlights the work of excellent poets and authors; the Speak’Easy Ensemble, a performance poetry troupe Marc Smith founded that brings performance poetry into awesome and unexpected places; In One Ear, the weekly poetry show at Chicago’s legendary Heartland Café; Safe Smiles, Billy Tuggle’s monthly, high-quality open mic at Trace nightclub; Mojdeh Stoakley’s Lethal Poetry, an amazing show that actively connects artists to community service; Cara Brigandi’s Grown Folks Stories, a monthly forum for storytelling that’s just as it sounds; Ian Belknap’s Write Club, a monthly show that challenges select artists to duel, debate-style, on pre-set topics; The Paper Machete, a weekly “live magazine” that stays topical, and doesn’t have the poetry bias that a lot of the other shows I’ve mentioned do. 😉

So yeah. This is a great town for art. Come visit. Move here. And if you already live here, even if you’re a homebody/introvert like me, you should be very proud of the way art breathes in this city. I sure am. ❤

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Aye, the Haggis Is In the Fire For Sure.

22 Sep

*shudders*

I totally betrayed my TNG blood oath with that title. But what can ye do when the haggis is…um…a-burnin’…?

My real live book is coming out in October (oh, I so hope!). Interestingly, the process is driving me completely insane.

Mainly I blame myself for being such a perfectionist. I also chose one of the most discerning, exacting poets I know to be my editor. I have four days to finish, and I will – not on some Mozart deathbed requiem shit, but engaged until I can feel almost every single molecule that makes me pulsate? Yes.

On the sweetest side, looking at the PDF of my theoretical book cover made me cry, it’s so goddamned pretty. Credit Angela Davis Fegan and the Write Bloody design staff for birthing gorgeous art. They inspire me to live up to the high standard they’ve set.

Content will get finished very soon. If you like to look and think, my book will engage you. If you can buy it once it’s done, please do (money = food). Buy it from me if you can (talk to me here or via FB or email), ’cause I make more that way, but if that’s too high maintenance, or if it makes you squirmy, for def get it off the Write Bloody website. I’ve gotta pay rent, and so does my press; we both work very hard for the money.

This book is going to bring you somewhere you’ve never been. I’ve been a closeted people-lover for a long time, and a loner for a long time: my voice is distinctive. At the least, you’ll arch and furrow your brows regularly. At the most, you’ll suddenly decide to fuck someone strange for an unexpected reason, or disappear into the desert for all time.

Speaking of change, Chicago’s proved to be a great place for my writing to thrive. Yes, I’m growing and bearing fruit. It’s extremely uncomfortable! 🙂 A small part of me feels I’m resisting that as much as I’m cultivating it. Demons and angels stay battling, right? And it’s hard to know which is which some days; sometimes demons are the greatest agents of change.

My housemates and I are relocating to a new place in Logan Square at the end of the month, which is where the next Real Talk Live will be held, if all goes well. I’ll keep you posted.

My next update will probably be a condensed review of/homage to Chicago as a poetry town. As I’ve mentioned, I could give a million different reasons why I moved here, but at this point I can mostly answer that with an online round of applause for the poets and organizers of the place itself.

I love you guys. Thanks for loving me back. Extra special thanks to all y’all who’ve cheered me on throughout this process, and thanks to those who’ve chided me for dallying online, &c. – although that actually doesn’t help very often. The brain has to scatter and breathe, and I allow that. I allow it. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here. ❤

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.

Real Talk Live: It’s the Sexiest Room You’ve Ever Seen.

20 Aug

It’s Real Talk Time! If you missed last month, make it up to yourself and join us for our next installment on Friday, August 27, 2010, 7:30p (Doors @7p) at the Real Talk House (4520 N. Monticello Avenue, Chicago, IL).

We’ve got an amazing night planned for you. Poet Jamaal Vs. May from Detroit and Comedian Brendan McGowan from Chicago are going to wow the crowd something serious.

Some info about them: Jamaal Vs. May is a poet, editor, producer and recording artist from Detroit, MI. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana Review, Atlanta Review, Verse Daily and The Collagist among other magazines and anthologies. He has received a Bread Loaf Work Study Scholarship, a Pushcart nomination, an International Publication Prize from Atlanta Review and a Cave Canem Fellowship. May is a two time Midwest Regional Poetry Slam Champion and two-time Individual World Slam finalist. He is an MFA candidate at Warren Wilson College and teaches poetry in public schools through the Inside Out Literary Arts Project. His first chapbook “The God Engine” was published by Pudding House Press in 2009. Production and engineering credits include The Last Poets, Dead Prez and The Four Tops. http://www.versiz.com/

Brendan McGowan is a stand-up comedian with a focus on storytelling and social satire. Born and raised on the north side of Chicago, he has performed at all the premier independent showcases in Chicago, as well as in comedy clubs throughout the Midwest. Brendan recently ranked among the Top 10 best comedians in Chicago by Comedy.com. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JdE4Dd-8qg&feature=related

As always, we are an 18+ performance space. There will be an open mic, but the list fills fast! Get there early to grab a spot. Requested donation at the door. Rumors of a cash bar with wine, PBR, water and soda for sale.

Join our FB group here. Invite your friends, tell everyone you know. ❤

Tremors.

13 Aug

The strangest day came upon me yesterday. An enormous storm rolled into DC, including flash floods, lots of falling trees, and a day-long power outage in our neighborhood (other neighborhoods, mainly in the suburbs, have longer outages in store).

The good news is I had time left on my laptop battery, so I actually worked on my manuscript for four hours or so. It’s due Sunday, so that needed to happen.

The interesting news? I stumbled over an emotional rift I hadn’t expected. A rift, I managed to suss out, totally exposed – and potentially worsened – by the process of compiling and editing my manuscript definitively.

Why, I don’t quite know. Storms do bring out, yeah, elemental emotions in me, so it isn’t really a shock. But I had no idea working on a book would be internally difficult in this way. Let’s talk about some of the reasons this might be that I’ve come up with so far. The list:

1. The intensity of revisiting potent emotional landscapes, be they fiction or fact.

2. The pressure of having, for the first time, truly finished poems.

3. The inability to carry success with grace and forward looking – as opposed to guilt, self-sabotage and an overwhelming feeling of unworthiness.

4. The stress of the most serious deadline of my life to date.

5. My not having an entirely grounded space of my own.

Now let’s talk through each one (excuse me, therapy definitely affected my brainscape).

1. Those moments are potentially static. I can choose to visit someone’s grave, to tell someone I still love him, to perpetuate a difficult mystique of myself I harbor in my own mind, or to put off, or to let go. It doesn’t make my situation simple, but I don’t have to tackle every aspect of my life challenges right now.

2. Most writers hate their first books. This will probably happen to me, in some fashion. Poems rarely feel totally finished, but that doesn’t mean other people can’t gain a lot from reading them, or that I can’t gain a lot from sharing.

3. I know I’ve earned this. The year has been fucking overwhelming; a lot of great things came to me in a very short period of time. But I’ve been writing and performing since I was a child. So what if I see where I could still grow? That’s a good thing. That means I’m not finished. That’s what living people do.

4. I will get it done. It’s done enough right now. But I will get it finished.

5. I’ve decided I want to fight for the Chicago space I see in my head, the one I want. I’m not going to be bitter if it isn’t exactly right, or if it doesn’t happen. If it doesn’t happen, I’d like to try to stay in Chi anyway, and see a full year through. There’s potential in me and my housemates that I don’t think we’ve truly grasped as a whole, and I want to see that through. I chose to live with these poets for good reason. I also haven’t addressed the city itself as fully as I mean to, although knowing the extent of my introversion, I likely won’t ever be satisfied in this regard.

Yesterday was literally a dark day. But you know the adage. I’m glad I came to DC, for my sister’s birthday, yes, to see my family, yes, but also to be somewhere familiar, to take enough space from the questions in my head so I could get a moment to answer them. To give me a buffer between a few of the demons. This must be one of the main reasons I’m compelled to travel so much, and to love so many people.

*shrugs* I’m ready, y’all. My draft is due on Sunday. It’s going to be a book worth reading. And rereading. This much I can promise. ❤

You Can’t Go Home Again.

28 Jul

Bathroom graffiti from a bar in DC.

The other night at the Green Mill slam, I was sitting at the bar with Adam Smith (not the economist) and a couple of older gentlemen from Chi. After a little preliminary chat, Adam offered up this gem: “This whole city’s not as bad as it used to be. It’s a pussy city now… It was all junkies, and whores.”

DC made me. I was born there, and my nuclear family lives there. I went to DCPS for eleven years. I remember my hometown as it raised me. I remember:

wandering around the Smithsonian boiling hot days as a kid

smashing Atlantic Blue crabs with hammers to get at the sweet meat inside

prettyboys in dukes rollerblading down P Street

the passing scent of Drakkar and Coolwater from not-quite-men in my junior high

walking down 14th Street in the middle of the night in a hoodie and steel-toed Docs and never feeling afraid.

Many of my most painful memories live there, too.

DC as I knew it at sixteen or so wasn’t all junkies and whores. It was rastas, musicians, poets, couriers, hardcore kids, corner boys, gutter punks… But yeah, I knew addicts and people who sold themselves, too. Altogether, it made for quite the symphony, dangerous, ecstatic and strange.

My hometown used to always be pretty invisible to people who don’t know folks there. People think of it as the place where the monuments and the government are, a place where maybe they went once on a school trip, but would never go again without a reason.

Some still think of it as the murder capital of the world, although it lost that title many years ago. Some still remember Marion Barry, who held the dubious honor of being our crackhead mayor.

Fairly few seem to know or care that DC has never had a vote in the House or the Senate. Very few know that DC’s HIV infection rate is currently at epidemic status. But I wouldn’t be surprised if all that changed very soon.

As an artist with a firmly middle-class background, I’ve been a part of the amorphous, often nasty phenomenon of gentrification, both in Oakland and Chicago. It’s uncomfortable feeling you’re invading someone else’s neighborhood, but, well, I go where other artists are, and where I can afford the rent.

It’s another feeling altogether watching my own city transform.

DC’s always been among the cities outsiders felt entitled to claim. DC doesn’t belong to a state; it was meant to be a city that represented the Union as a whole. That well-intentioned fuckery has led to unfortunate abuses on all levels, from folks who work for the government commuting in, taking jobs but not paying taxes, to the suburban kids who’ve claimed DC for years (to the point of coining the ugly, but more-accurate-than-ever term “DMV” for the District/Maryland/Virginia region).

I love the folks who are from DC. We have a nice balance of Southern mellowness and East Coast fang. And I verymuch love some of the folks who’ve moved to DC from other places. But most of these fuckers can swallow my knuckles.

The White Return Flight that’s happening in so many cities has simply engulfed my hometown; the population’s projected to be mostly white in the next fifteen years or so. DC invaders typically originate in places deemed smaller or less important, but DC is tiny itself. It’s less than seventy square miles, with dramatic height restrictions (not actually having to do with the Washington Monument). There isn’t a lot of room.

DC’s also not a terribly cosmopolitan place, let’s face it. The food is generally terrible, and best believe you’ll get funny looks if you try to wear anything but very conservative clothes. But starry-eyed twenty-somethings swarm into the city from little towns all over the South and the Midwest with the misguided impression that reaching DC makes them big fish, that they’re suddenly very wise and urbane simply by virtue of their being there.

I know I sound bitter. Maybe I am. The last few times I hung out in DC I had to deal with some ignoramus shit every time I left the house. It made me angry, with a reflexive feeling of, goddamnit, that’s my town, colonizers.

But the demographics of the place have totally changed. And really, just because property values have skyrocketed in the last ten years and I can’t afford to live there, is that really the worst-case scenario? Recently I posted this map to my Facebook profile, and my friend Jamaal, who lives in Detroit, said, “Detroit looks like it’s bleeding.” I’ve been to places that felt like ghost towns, and DC is very far from that. Maybe I don’t personally like the way the city’s changed, but does that matter? I guess I should be grateful she’s being taken care of at all, like an ex-lover who marries an asshole with a good job.

And maybe it’s just the passing of time that makes me sad. Even though there’s a part of me that still feels like that toddler or adolescent who pattered around Independence Avenue and Chestnut Street when I was growing up, the world’s stayed moving, and so have I.

The Avenue at 4520 Presents: Real Talk Live

16 Jun

Gorgeous Humans!

You are all cordially invited to the first ever edition of Real Talk Live, a house variety show taking place at your friendly neighborhood poet house, 4520 N. Real Talk Avenue (“Monticello”, to the layman).

We’ve planned a stellar evening for y’all, with two mind-blowing features. Our poetry feature will be none other than Omoizele “Oz” Okoawo, a force in poetry slam for nearly a decade, both as a remarkable performer and a talented coach. Oz placed in the top ten individually ranked poets in the 2007 competition, represented Boston’s Cantab Team in their 3rd place finish at the National Poetry Slam, and also represented the Cantab at last year’s Individual World Poetry Slam. If you don’t know this man’s work, prepare yourself for spectacular craft and performance, both.

We’re also going to have a special performance from two violinists from the Chicago Symphony (yeah, I said it!).

For our inaugural venture, all of the Real Talk poets will also be performing: Roger Bonair-Agard, J.W. “Baz” Basilo, Emily Rose Kahn-Shehan, Stevie Edwards, John Paul Davis, and Laura Yes Yes.

There will also be select open mic spots open, but spaces will fill up quickly – so arrive promptly at 7 PM if you want to share song, poetry, comedy, or the elusive other performing arts.

Strange games and prizes, rumors of PBR, and requested donation at the door. 18+ please! Invite your bros and sexy neighbors.

Love,
The Real Talk Family