By Levi Todd
Our silk-screen babies baptized
in these Third Coast holy springs.
Imagine the Lake Michigan waters
washing jubilee into our streets.
Watch us closely.
Be our witness.
--From “Litany: Chicago Summers” by Parneshia Jones
I have no time to explain to the doubtful that poetry is not, in fact, dead. In any era, the often repeated statement is laughable. There are always poets working tirelessly to promote their art to the world, and there is always a devoted audience willing and ready to receive it. Anyone who is confident that poetry has died must also believe that music is dead, or maybe they think visual art is on its way out the door as well. Poetry is not just eeking by; it is thriving. This has always been and will always be true. However, it is especially true today.
On a daily basis, I give thanks that my friends and I were born into this era. We are surrounded by absolute icons who are creating work that expands the cultural canon, who are bringing poetry to new audiences, and who are showing us all the ways in which poetry is the lifeblood to our lived experiences. Poetry book sales are skyrocketing, with 2017 being the best year for poetry sales to date. We have poets performing for late night talk shows while being treated with the same reverence as musicians. I cannot begin to list the poets who are both embracing and redefining convention while producing stunning collections of work, but how blessed are we to be living at the same time as Layli Longsoldier, Tyehimba Jess, Morgan Parker, Ocean Vuong, and Fatimah Asghar, just to name a few? (I almost want this essay to simply be a list of the countless living poets I’m leaving out.) This poetic greatness is true across the globe and across the US, from Rochester to Los Angeles to Muncie to Austin. But if the poetic renaissance can be seen especially anywhere, it is in Chicago.
Numerous publications have taken note that something special is taking place in the Windy City. There have been articles on Young Chicago Authors’ youth poetry festival, Louder Than A Bomb, and the outstanding young poets who are making names for themselves. The New Yorker did a feature on No Blue Memories, Eve Ewing and Nate Marshall’s shadow box play utilizing puppets to celebrate the life of Gwendolyn Brooks. The Chicago Review of Books highlighted just a few of the countless poets who continue to center their work around the city. The CRB was bold enough to call our current cultural moment what it is: the Chicago Renaissance.
Of course, the CRB is not the first to recognize that Chicago is fostering a cultural renaissance, and it is certainly not the first to give it its proper name. Local musicians, writers, dancers, and artists of all kinds have long been celebrating each other’s work before it becomes recognized at a national level. Noname, Saba, Ravyn Lenae, and countless other local musicians have moved past the Chicago circuit to venues across the country. Artists like Hebru Brantley, Max Sansing, and Sentrock are finding innovative mediums to showcase their work, from book covers to public murals to music videos. This essay alone cannot capture the scope of the cultural garden that is blooming (and already grown) in Chicago. But since it’s National Poetry Month, let’s focus on the poets.
It is absolutely impossible to talk about poetry in Chicago without talking about its youth. In an era where public schools are slashing their arts budgets, countless organizations such as 826CHI, the Chicago Poetry Center, and Young Chicago Authors are stepping in with classroom visits and afterschool programming to guarantee that our students are exposed to poetry at a young age, and that they understand its accessibility, potential, and importance. Increasingly, more schools are developing slam poetry teams to compete in Louder Than A Bomb, and these students spend the entire year gearing up to share their work in front of audiences of hundreds. The result is that our students are saved from thinking that poetry is outdated or dull, or simply not for them. When I recently volunteered for a poetry field trip hosted by Open Books, we asked the visiting 6th grade class what they thought poetry was for. Without missing a beat, one girl raised her hand and said “Poetry is for resistance.”
The impact of prioritizing our young people in poetry communities is that once they find a home in poetry, they stay. For example, the same students impacted by Young Chicago Authors’ programming at its inception are the ones now leading it. The success of poets who studied under YCA such as E’mon Lauren, Jamila Woods, Britteney Black Rose Kapri, and Nate Marshall proves that once young people are brought into poetry, they stay, and they lead the next generation. This legacy of mentorship continues to pay homage to Chicago’s own Gwendolyn Brooks (one of many participants in the Chicago Black Renaissance of the early 20th century), who didn’t just dedicate her life to her own writing, but also taught free poetry workshops and hosted opportunities for young poets to showcase and develop their work. Unlike cities such as New York or Los Angeles that have flocks of artists moving there to begin their careers, the majority of our creatives are built up within the community. Poet and curator H. Melt summarizes this well by saying, “Chicago poets care about each other. We actively support each other--not just as writers and teachers, but as whole people too. We see ourselves not solely as individual poets, but as part of larger communities who all deserve to be heard. We value telling our own stories equally to listening to the stories of other people. We celebrate each other, hold each other accountable, and frequently collaborate. Poetry in Chicago is thriving because we recognize that being a poet is not simply about writing, it's about supporting the people around you.”
Chicago poets understand that the only way towards our communal success is through collaboration. This is the city indebted to the work of small presses, independent bookstores, and DIY shows, all of which work in harmony together. Independent shops (which vastly outnumber Barnes & Nobles here) like Women & Children First, Uncharted Books, The Seminary Co-Op, and Volumes Bookcafe make a concerted effort to stock small press books and zines, and host readings for local and visiting poets. Open mics and readings take place regularly across the city, whether they be in someone’s living room, or at a neighborhood bar, or at a gallery. Small presses like Haymarket Books are making an intentional effort to anthologize the work of poetic greats, through projects like The Breakbeat Poets, The Breakbeat Poets Volume II: Black Girl Magic, and the forthcoming Volume III: Halal If You Hear Me. There’s simply no room in this city for a sense of competition among poets. The community is always willing to share its resources and knowledge in the name of uplifting local talent. As Eve Ewing puts it in her New Yorker feature, “There is a Midwestern cultural aspect to it—a cultural norm of sharing and abundance, rather than scarcity and competition,” The culture in Chicago is not just do-it-yourself. It’s do-it-together.
We don’t just have a duty to develop and hone our own craft, but also to be kind citizens both to our local communities and to the poetry community at large. Poetry inherently aims to resist the traditional lenses we view the world with, and this resistance is a sibling to political resistance. The hardworking activists behind #LetUsBreathe Collective, Assata’s Daughters, and #NoCopAcademy fighting against the city’s police violence, housing inequality, and lack of investment in the city’s South and West sides are the same people you see at the open mic. Protests and direct actions make space for poems in between speeches, understanding that they are two heads to the same coin. On this connection, poet and organizer José Olivarez says, “I think our poetry communities developed in response to our particular socio-political realities. Chicago is famous for being segregated. The city has a gang database that targets and discriminates against Black & Latinx people. Artists in the city have responded by making work that imagines alternative possibilities & by creating spaces that attempt to uphold values more in tune with the city we hope to make.” Chicago understands that we use the same language to write poems as we do to write manifestos and visions for equitable futures.
Chicago’s poetry community isn’t perfect, certainly. Like any community, we need to continue to improve and open the door wider to guarantee that everyone truly feels like poetry is relevant to them, and that they are capable of breathing their own life into it. Producer and creator Daniel Kisslinger explains, “I think sometimes we sugarcoat what community means and leave out a lot about how community means tension and disagreement but not disposability." When we talk about a renaissance of poetry in Chicago, we shouldn’t imply that we have all the answers that folks can learn from. Rather, we should open ourselves to the likely possibility that we will make mistakes, and that we will be better for listening to the folks that hold us accountable for them.
Poetry and imagination go hand in hand, and poets in Chicago are trying to imagine the city they want to live in. We know that community will take us there, and that it is both our responsibility and privilege to hold each other up. At the end of the day, it’s not just about poetry. It’s about Chicago. Our artists are creating work with the people who live here at its center. We care about each other first and foremost. The incredible poems that continue to pour from our city are part of a larger task: to let the world know that our community is home to people with their minds set on a more inclusive, radiant future. It takes activists, artists, workers, dancers, organizers, musicians, and yes, poets, to get there. It’s not a Second City complex that makes us rep Chicago wherever we go and whatever we do. We’d just like you to join us.