Poetry Dateline: 10/21/09
Dear Chicago Poetry Scene,
I have been following what the Poetry Center of Chicago has been doing for twenty years. In 1991, I was featured in a double bill with the late Mark Perlberg, former Director of the Center, and throughout the early nineties I reviewed Poetry Center events for the Letter eX Newsmagazine on more than one occasion. I was also featured on more than one occasion for Poetry Center events when Kenneth Clarke was the Director. So I assure you, I am speaking from an informed point of view when I say that Francesco Levato is absolutely the worst Director the Poetry Center has ever had. He has changed their three decade old mission so drastically that the Poetry Center is barely even recognizable. Despite his conspicuous failure to manage the Poetry Center successfully, Levato's barefaced abuse of his position continues to go unchecked. That institution should be renamed the Poetry Center of Levato.
Let's go over what Francesco Levato has done since he's taken over this once respectable institution. After I finish pointing out all the things Levato has destroyed, I challenge you to name something he has accomplished, other than using his position to secure accolades for himself that he otherwise has not earned.
I pay close attention to what's going on around town, and as far as I remember, there was no public notice seeking applicants for the job of Executive Director of the Poetry Center of Chicago. The position was handed to and accepted by Francesco Levato before anyone even knew the former Director was leaving. The first thing Levato did upon gaining his position was abruptly cancel the LIP open mic. that took place at The Spot. The LIP series was the only thing the Poetry Center was doing that truly reached out to the public and that gave local poets an opportunity to feel like they were part of the Poetry Center. By canceling the LIP series, Francesco Levato made a statement that performance poetry would no longer be recognized by the Poetry Center. How can it call itself the Poetry Center of Chicago (birthplace of the Slam) and not be on friendly terms with performance poets? Instead of attempting to create some type of balance between academic and performance poets, right from the start, Levato chopped the Chicago Poetry Scene in two and gave the "experimental" poets the upper hand. In fact, the Poetry Center programming has now become so experimental that nobody can even understand it anymore. Is it the Poetry Center's mission to cater exclusively to a small clique of young poets?
You would think that Levato would want to expand Poetry Center activity and give people a reason to sign up for membership, but instead he cancelled the Big Table Workshops that were offered free to those who subscribed to the Poetry Center. These workshops weren't costing the Center a dime. All it had to do was supply a room at the Art Institute for poets to hang out in. No official explanation was given concerning this change in mission; of course, no explanation is ever given by Francesco Levato.
Next the Poetry Center hogged the Small Press Month reading and only featured eight presses in it. Presses that were allowed to be part of it included the publisher of Levato's own book, the distributor of Levato's own book, the publisher of the Poetry Center's own Juried Reading chapbook, friends of the publisher of that chapbook, and a publisher who works for Time Out Chicago who gave the event great press and openly attacked ChicagoPoetry.com on behalf of the Poetry Center when I criticized the event for being so non-inclusive.
Right then it became clear that the Poetry Center was no longer about Chicago or about bringing big name poets to Chicago, but about the personal baggage and personal promotion of its own Director. It was as if Levato was cloning himself through the Center's programming. Levato is Italian, so the Poetry Center proceeded to host a reading of Italian poets. Levato is into poetry film, so the Poetry Center attempted to start a movie night. Levato declared himself a "new media" poet and he scheduled a "new media poetics" event. Levato had issues with how the poetry news is reported in Chicago, so as a form of protest he set up something called Chicago Scene that lists non-Center events. None of these things are about the Poetry Center's "mission", but instead they are about Levato's "vision".
A lot of absurd things have happened with it since Levato took over, but one of the most absurd things has to be when the Poetry Center sent its own Director to Berlin to show off his own poetry films, and it even bragged about it on its website. Is it now the Poetry Center's mission to promote the work of its own Director? In fact, since his first day on the job, Levato has been using his title of Executive Director as a means to get scheduled as a featured poet at prestigious events all over town, despite his lack of publishing credits, putting his work for the Poetry Center on the back burner as he pursues his personal projects.
For example, why do you think Francesco Levato, of all people, was chosen to be featured in the Rockpile Poetry and Jazz Fest, alongside such esteemed writers and musicians as David Meltzer, Michael Rothenberg, Bob Malone, Dan McNaughton, Art Lange, and Ed Roberson? Was it because Levato has written a great body of work that demonstrates musicality in poetry, or perhaps because he is some type of expert on music? No, Levato holds no credentials that qualify him to speak on a panel about poetry and music. He obtained that honor because he featured David Meltzer and Michael Rothenberg for a Poetry Center of Chicago event, and now he is shamelessly, personally benefiting from that. Dear Chicago Poetry Scene, our Governor got impeached for doing stuff like that! Levato already benefits from his job by getting a paycheck that is funded by tax dollars through government grants, and until he actually starts doing his job successfully, he should not be allowed to use the title of his administrative position as a means to turn himself into a celebrity poet. Presently, he has even been attempting to start up his own poetry press, flashing his Executive Director badge around to gain the connections needed for yet another personal project. Given the shambles that the Poetry Center is in, it is nothing short of amazing that Levato is concentrating on anything other than the job he is being paid to do.
Well, his trip to Berlin might not be the most absurd thing. Instead of putting out an open call for entries and then selecting three or four poets for the "emerging artists" program, like the Poetry Center has traditionally done, with Levato at the helm, the Poetry Center declared the wife of one of their advisory board members, who just so happened to live in the same house as Levato, the one and only "emerging artist"—and she was celebrated with a huge, gala Poetry Center event with Stuart Dybek and Yusef Komunyakaa.
It continues. The Poetry Center Juried Reading winners were announced six months late without any explanation given. An explanation would be nice. Seriously, did their judge Brenda Hillman flake out or did they mismanage the prize money that was raised through all the $15 entry fees, or what? It's important. Francesco Levato doesn't think he owes the Chicago Poetry Scene any explanation, but the fact is his salary is funded by tax dollars, so he is absolutely obligated to answer to the public. Who knows? Maybe he spent the prize money on his trip to Berlin. Can the Poetry Center of Chicago be trusted with entry fees? And who finally won the Juried Reading? The ex-wife of the co-sponsor of the Poetry Center's David Meltzer reading won. Seems like the Poetry Center of Chicago has become one big happy family.
Finally, in a series of baffling actions that completely isolated it from the festivities of the Chicago Poetry Scene, the Poetry Center pulled out of the Public Library Poetry Month Fest and stopped sponsoring the poetry stage at the Printers Row Book Fair. By then, just about everything every former Director had accomplished, Levato managed to either cancel or taint with nepotism. And even though all of this failure is undisputed, Levato continues to openly accept unearned personal favors that are based entirely upon his ability as Director of the Poetry Center to return those favors. Something does not smell right when the poet in Chicago who has benefited the most from the Poetry Center is its own Director.
It barely hosts any readings. It has cancelled most of its core activities. The events it clings to reek of nepotism. And its Director is too busy with his personal projects to fix any of it. Yet it stubbornly hangs on to Francesco Levato as if simply to spite those who have been criticizing him.
The Poetry Center of Chicago has become so preposterous that I can't even find a witty sentence that sums up all the absurdity in order to close this letter. As a twenty year fan of the Poetry Center, I am so flabbergasted by Levato's bungling that all I can do is ask, what exactly is the mission of the Poetry Center of Chicago?
Note: Can the Poetry Center progamming get any worse? Can the Poetry Center of Chicago get any more anti-Chicago? CJ Laity is not afraid to speak his mind.