THE TENTH ANNUAL STATE OF THE CHICAGO POETRY SCENE ADDRESS
Monday, December 21, 2009
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Publisher of ChicagoPoetry.com.
My Fellow Poets,
I can ecstatically say that in my twenty-five years as a poet and activist in this windy city of ours, the Chicago Poetry Scene has never been as lively and pleasingly ferocious as it is right now, at the dawning of this New Year. No better gift could I receive on this, the tenth anniversary of ChicagoPoetry.com, than to be hip to it all. It's beautiful, man. At no other time have I felt such a sense of belonging and personal accomplishment as I do right now. One only needs to check out the homepage of ChicagoPoetry.com to appreciate that there is so much going down in our poetry scene that it can barely be contained. There is an unprecedented volume of poetry venues sponsored by an amazing number of publications and establishments hosting an historic amount of events; in fact, often four or five poetry gigs have been happening simultaneously on the same night and that is groovy: this is a sign of the poetry scene's vitality. We are lucky to be part of the world's most thriving poetry scene.
So let us declare 2010 The Year Of Making It Happen Together—because we can make it happen, together. We can make it happen.
Grab a pen and a piece of paper and jot down this important information. First, I want to invite everyone to come out and celebrate poetry at ChicagoPoetry.com's first performance event of 2010. The New Year Poetry Cram will take place at Cafe Ballou, 939 N. Western Ave, on Saturday, January 16, from 6 to 8 PM. It will be a great opportunity to get together and to start out the year on the right foot, and it's also my birthday. So be there or be utterly square. Next, let me get this out of the way. I won't throw any ridiculous numbers at you or set any outrageous goals or otherwise lay it on thickly, and I know times are pretty tough and practically every poetry organization in town has been hitting you up for dough, but, come on—maintaining ChicagoPoetry.com takes a heck of a lot of work and I do it out of the goodness of my heart, so please, please consider clicking here and giving a gift through PayPal if you find this site useful. Thank you in advance to those who can afford to give. Okay, okay, fine. If you are absolutely paranoid or otherwise unable to give online, please email me at my new address, Publisher@ChicagoPoetry.com and I will send you a snail mail address. Please take a moment to add that new email address to any lists of contacts you have, because I will soon be using it instead of ChicagoPoetry@ChicagoPoetry.com. Let's not lose touch with each other.
I will now ask for your indulgence as I report about ChicagoPoetry.com's accomplishments, then I will have a few words to say about our poetry scene in general, and finally I will make an important announcement regarding the fate of ChicagoPoetry.com.
For ten years now, ChicagoPoetry.com, the Internet offshoot of the Letter eX Poetry Newsmagazine that dates back to 1985, has dabbled in quite a few areas in the poetry world. ChicagoPoetry hosts live poetry events, publishes poetry chapbooks, holds poetry contests, reports poetry news, publishes Chicago's original and most inclusive online poetry calendar of events, reviews poetry books and performances, and most uniquely, ChicagoPoetry often prints outspoken editorials and criticism regarding the politics of the Chicago Poetry Scene. I have to say: doing all of these things simultaneously involves quite a juggling act. I often feel like I am the poetry scene's lightning rod. At times conflicts that arise in one area unintentionally seep into another area, and it is impossible to be this influential in so many facets of this titanic sea of egos without quite frankly pissing a few people off. Shit happens. A poet recently criticized me for having problems with twenty different poets, and I had to laugh—only twenty?
The root of just about all the so-called problems that I have to deal with is, of course, the area of criticism. People generally don't like to be criticized and it is certainly not my intention to make friends through my criticism. It is, however, my intention to use criticism to ultimately improve the scene that I belong to by calling attention to, using no uncertain terms, what I believe is wrong with the scene. And I have been extremely successful at it. But when I do this it is inevitable: those who are content with the way things are will get upset. The indignant argument is then put forth by the objects of my criticism that since I have upset a few people through one area of my work, that the other areas of my work should not be supported. This may raise the question of whether or not ChicagoPoetry.com should be involved in so many perhaps conflicting areas of poetry, but my response to that debate is that the point is moot, since ChicagoPoetry has already been involved in all of these areas of poetry for ten years. Each area of my expertise has already been successfully established, so I have no need to justify or defend my right to do what I already have been doing. Face it. I am going to get up on my soapbox once in a while and I am going to rant and rave against the egomaniacs of the world. It has become a tradition. Do not fret. No matter how hard the injured egos try to obfuscate the issue at hand by bringing my other areas of work, such as my events or publications, into it, I will always prevail. When it comes to the poetry world, I am a master juggler.
I can talk about how successful I have been in this act of juggling, but talk is cheap. Numbers, on the other hand, don't lie. I judge the success of the things I do in different ways. For example, I judge the success of the performances I host by the quality of the poets who participate in them, but more importantly by the quality of the audience that supports them. It is my belief that if Lawrence Ferlinghetti held a poetry reading in the woods when nobody is around the reading might as well not exist. On the other hand, I judge the popularity of my poetry calendar and poetry news reporting by the amount of traffic ChicagoPoetry.com gets and by all the positive feedback that I receive. And I judge the success of ChicagoPoetry's print publications by the consistency by which they are published and by the quality of the work inside of them. Finally, I judge the success of my unique style of poetry scene criticism by whether or not one basic thing holds true: that I do not allow myself to be censored, intimidated or otherwise influenced by those who would aggressively attempt to silence me. It remains my firm belief that criticism is a vital part of any art scene and that criticism legitimizes an art scene. It is often a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
My Fellow Poets, by all accounts, the year 2009 was my most successful year ever.
Trust in the numbers, not in the talk. ChicagoPoetry's live poetry events have never been more popular. In 2009, we held six events at the Loose Leaf Tea Loft that together featured about sixty poets and that often drew in such large crowds that we couldn't fit everyone in the room. And you didn't see me tap dancing for Chase or begging permission from an arts council in order to host a poetry reading. Like Nike, my motto is just do it. Chicago Poetry also packed a gigantic room at the Harold Washington Library with hundreds of people during the Chicago Poetry Cram that broke all previous cram records, when 53 top notch poets representing some of the finest publications in Chicago performed for the Public Library Poetry Month Fest in an event that was recorded for WBEZ's Chicago Amplified. I also personally helped to represent the Chicago Poetry Scene at the AWP conference during a panel, as well as during a spontaneous event that we jokingly called an anti-slam. That one turned a few heads, huh. We also jam packed Peter Jones Gallery for the Chicago Poetry Explosion despite the worst rainstorm of the year. ChicagoPoetry was also represented at the annual Printers Ball, where I hosted an hour reading featuring 14 poets. Then we had a lot of fun reading poetry outside during a "Poet On Deck" event and we finished off the year with a Poetry Cram release party at Cafe Ballou that attracted about thirty people despite bitterly cold weather and a flu epidemic. ChicagoPoetry did all of this and more in 2009. What a year!
About 90% of ChicagoPoetry.com's internet traffic comes from a steadily growing, committed audience that has been developed over the years. A lot of you use this site as a homepage or you have it book marked for easy access. Another 5% of our traffic comes from search engines and the other 5% from links from other sites. But in 2009 our overall audience suddenly grew by about 30%. ChicagoPoetry.com received over 700,000 page view hits, 200,000 more hits than it received during the previous year. We currently receive about 2,000 page views every day. What other independently owned poetry themed website can boast such numbers? It was a record-breaking year for ChicagoPoetry.com as far as this increase in audience goes. As the publisher, I accomplished this increase in traffic by keeping the site cutting edge and by daring to express my candid opinions. I also launched a rather wily campaign of reverse psychology in a deliberate push to tap into a new audience of young adult poets who discovered us and liked what they saw. As a result, ChicagoPoetry is now more informed and can give much deserved attention to venues that it had previously neglected to acknowledge. In order to compensate for this enormous increase in traffic, I invented some major changes to ChicagoPoetry's homepage, so that more detail is given to individual calendar listings and important information can now be found more readily without having to click on so many things.
My Fellow Poets, don't believe the hype: print publishing is alive and well. As a promoter of print publications, ChicagoPoetry.com Press published four issues of Poetry Cram, one more than the previous year. Each issue of Cram featured quality poetry by quality poets from Chicago, around the country and around the world. Over a thousand of these publications were given away free to anyone who wanted one. And ChicagoPoetry lent its support to the greater small press world with several book and performance reviews as well.
In 2009, victory against censorship was ours. Against all odds, even when it seemed as if it was up against the entire world, even when forced to go toe to toe with some of the largest, most heavily funded poetry organizations: I find great peace in saying that your favorite underdog ChicagoPoetry.com refused to be silent. It not only reported what is great about our poetry scene, but it bravely reported about what needs to be fixed in our poetry scene as well. And because someone had the strength to say what needed to be said, the Chicago Poetry Scene is now on the right path, headed toward poetic freedom.
The year 2009 was a huge one for ChicagoPoetry.com as well as for the Chicago Poetry Scene in general.
My Fellow Poets, when I speak of the Chicago Poetry Scene, I do not speak of one group of Chicago poets. If there is one phrase that has unwittingly arisen in our poetry scene in 2009 that I unconditionally agree with, it is the phrase "we are all Chicago poetry." When I speak of the poetry scene, I speak of all groups of poets, from the far north reaches of the Heartland Cafe to the southern tip of the Jeffrey Pub and everything around and throughout the suburbs and everything in-between. We are all bound together by a common love, and that is poetry.
Yet it can be an even greater poetry scene if we want it to be. Our wonderful scene has not been without its problems. But the problems that have arisen in our poetry scene are not signs that our scene is struggling; they are signs of how immense and dynamic our scene has become. There are simply more poets and more venues attempting to function together in that small room we call the Chicago Poetry Scene. It has become crowded, and sometimes we can't help but to step on each other's toes. Some poets accidentally hurt a fellow poet's foot and then graciously apologize, but, then again, some poets stomp around like clumsy elephants without the slightest bit of concern for their neighbors' feet. In its own way, the Chicago Poetry Scene is an ecosystem, and every decision and action of every active poet in it affects the scene as a whole. The more crowded it gets, the greater this ripple effect becomes. The answer, of course, is not to create a scene with fewer poets or less poetry. There can never be enough poetry! On the contrary, the answer is to instead expand the room! And you can only expand a room by tearing down its walls. My Fellow Poets, the camps and cliques in the Chicago Poetry Scene have created so many walls that I sometimes feel like I am wandering around in a senseless maze.
It has been said by one of these camps that our poetry scene is a society, and that poetry readings are social gatherings, but I say no. This societal philosophy encourages poets to share their work only with others in their own "society" and that usually means only with other likeminded poets. This attitude creates walls, encourages nepotism, makes poetry gatherings popularity contests, stagnates the creative process, eggs on ignorance and fear and ultimately leads to utter isolation and implosion. This societal attitude forces poets to decide who is "included" in said society and also leads to poets being exiled from said society, and the ones who are outcast are always shunned merely for being different than the majority of those in said society. The Chicago Poetry Scene is not a society; it is an escape from the prejudices of society. We need to embrace diversity and at least make an effort to understand those who are different than we are. The idea of poetry as society offers no hope for the little guy who simply wants to celebrate poetry without joining a game of tug-a-war. What chance does this little guy have in a world where the quality of poetry is not based in reality but based on who has washed whose back or who has been on his or her best behavior as judged by society?
Let's tear down that wall!
It has been said by another camp that our poetry scene is a family, but again I say no. The utopian family is one of unconditional love, cooperation and loyalty. How many of us enjoy this utopian vision even within the realm of our blood relatives, let alone within a group of virtual strangers? This familial attitude tends to open the door to nothing but a dysfunctional, abusive and disrespectful poetry scene, in which poets, like little fighting children, play cruel games with each other and analyze each other's behavior in order to decide whether or not poets want to be "related" to each other. What comes out of a poetry family? Excuses. Reasons to minimize our audience instead of expanding our audience. So this poet won't support the work of that poet out of fear of association. What an excuse! Poets go around grounding each other and giving each other the silent treatment and basically holding their breath until they turn blue in the face. In the dysfunctional poetry family, poets are so absorbed with who they should boycott, they don't have any time to effectively support poetry. And then they say, gee, how come nobody showed up to my poetry reading? This all comes about due to personal grudges that would have never developed if we didn't get trapped into the notion that our poetry scene is a family.
My Fellow Poets, there will be brief moments when you will enjoy a sense of togetherness with your fellow poets and you may be tempted to call the scene a family, but keep in mind that you are not your fellow poet's mother, brother or uncle; and therefore you should never feel betrayed by your fellow poet because your fellow poet owes you nothing—nothing but respect, that is. You are not a member of a family; you are a fellow artist—whether amateur or professional—and you deserve to be treated like an artist. If you think the poetry scene is a big family then that implies that we should all get along or at least make up by the end of the day, and that isn't always going to be the case, because in truth we are not related and we are not bound by blood. So the slightest infraction will burst the bubble and cause the concept of poetry as family to collapse like the house of cards it is.
The poetry scene is not composed of mafias; it is composed of individuals. If you do not require your fellow poet to behave like a family member, you will not take things so personally and you will seldom be let down. Do not limit your own potential or decrease your own opportunities by cheating yourself with loyalty to a non-existent family. Dear poets, the Chicago Poetry Scene changes, and quite often at that. I have seen the Poetry Center of Chicago change hands four times and I have witnessed Poetry Magazine go from being an introverted journal that basically kept to itself to being the most active Poetry Foundation in the world. I have watched dozens of the poetry scene's most relied on poets relocate, quit poetry altogether and even pass away into the afterlife. Everything changes, constantly. The power structures, the venues, the publications, the poets, everything that makes up the Chicago Poetry Scene is relentlessly shifting and morphing. Your pseudo-brothers and pseudo-sisters may not be around next year, so where will that leave you if you burn your bridges to prove your loyalty to them? We need to respect each other, but most importantly we need to respect ourselves and think for ourselves so that our poetry scene shines with the wisdom of hundreds of individual souls rather than a dozen segregated families.
Let's tear down that wall!
And it has been said by another camp that our poetry scene is a community, and to this I again say no. Communities promote law and order. Poetry promotes anarchy. Communities encourage the development of chambers and legislative bodies with officials and rulers. When we think of poetry as community these secular things are reflected in our scene by little groups of poets who sit in a room wearing their fezzes. They delude themselves by making grand decisions for the rest of us. They begin to believe their own bull, and their imaginary communities grow into imaginary nations—and when their idiotic, make believe nations collide, they even wage a poetry war. And how ridiculous is it for poets to wage war upon each other? Quite ridiculous indeed! Poets are supposed to be masters of truth and experts at communication, but instead they find themselves being dishonest with each other and closing their ears to each other because they imagine that the laws of their community have been broken. It is a great big delusion! There is no such thing as poetry law! Poets are outlaws! Poets: do whatever you want to do! If you want to write poetry on a balloon and sail it into the clouds, do it. If you want to shout a haiku while kayaking up the river, do it. If you want to spell every word in your poem incorrectly and send it by courier pigeon to the Poet Laureate, do it. And if you want to do something as unconventional as publishing a poetry tabloid that has a gossip column, do it! The more original the idea is, the better. Don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't do, where you can or can't go, whom you can or can't support, what you can or can't say. Don't let anyone dictate to you the definition of what is good or bad poetry. Respect your fellow poet's opinion, but think for yourself.
Another word for poetry community is poetry apartheid. If we divide the poets into communities, we also divide the audience. Anyone who, for any reason, causes our audiences to be minimized should be seen as an enemy to our poetry scene. If we drop this entire notion that our poetry scene is composed of communities, then we can open the door for poets who are in disagreement to at least be allowed to sit in a room and act civilly toward each other during a poetry reading. This is how we can double or triple our audiences. We cannot increase our audience unless those poets who disagree with each other learn to stop bringing their personal baggage into the poetry venues. It is hard enough to get anyone at all to come to a poetry reading; so the last thing we should be doing is making anyone feel unwelcome. The Chicago Poetry Scene will benefit from this unanimous declaration of forgiveness, so snap out of it, poets!
You don't have to agree with every word Gregorio Gomez says in order to perform poetry at Weeds. You don't have to buy into the idea of a "new experimental school of poetry" in order to check out a Series A reading in Hyde Park. You don't have to believe that Slam is the beginning and end of it all in order to have a drink at the Green Mill. And for heaven's sake, you certainly don't have to agree with a single word I say in order to read in one of my shows or have your poetry event promoted at ChicagoPoetry.com. It doesn't matter if we agree with each other; as a matter of fact, disagreement is a sign of how diverse our scene is. We should not trouble ourselves with establishing mutual agreement; the only thing we should worry about is how do we get more people to come to our poetry readings. Those who try to trick you into believing that the poetry scene is about anything at all but getting poetry into the hands of the people are doing so for their own personal reasons. We should seek out those who we disagree with and we should invite conversation because that, my friends, is the only true road to peace. Otherwise, we might as well hang signs on our venues saying "no (insert name of poetry community) allowed".
Let's tear down that wall!
I say our poetry scene is not a society, a family or a community, it is a scene composed of hundreds of brilliant artists and I say, let us remain individuals and celebrate the spontaneity of poetry and not weigh our scene down with rules, laws, walls, or definitions. True, we all benefit to a point from being part of a group or club or school or organization—there is nothing wrong with that—but don't allow these groups to define you and don't allow them to create walls that will restrict you. Our goal should not be to merely share our work with other poets in our groups but to reach out to the masses and to find the person who has never read a poem in her or his life and bring poetry to that person like a gift.
If we desire true poetic freedom we must tear down the final wall as well, and that thick, brick wall is a real son-of-a-bitch. The wall I am talking about is the imaginary divide that we believe exists between the page and the stage. There are poets who are afraid of unity. There are poets who want to keep the scene divided. Every time we take a step forward, they attempt to push us back two steps. They think if performance poets and academic poets get along, cooperate and work together, that will decrease their own personal chances of getting that award or receiving that accolade, because they believe there will be more competition in their society or community or whatever it is they believe they belong to. This is the reason the stupid illusion of the existence of a great divide persists. What a crock of shit. The more doors you open, the more opportunities will come your way. The irony is that the so-called page poets have been doing more performing than anyone else in Chicago, and the so-called stage poets have been getting published and winning awards with their publications. And the best poetry coming out of Chicago today incorporates the best aspects of both the page and the stage. When the beauty of language is combined with the excitement of performance, magic occurs and people come out in droves to witness it. So let us, once and for all, see the battle of the page versus the stage for what it is: a practical joke that has been played on us by an insecure minority of poets. We are all poets, period. Let us no longer be defined by the terms "page" or "stage" because these are merely slurs that lead to prejudice.
Let's tear down that wall!
Open your mind's eye and see. Now that the walls have been torn down, the dust is settling. We find ourselves no longer in a tiny room stepping on each other's toes. Now we are all stretched out in the vast field of dreams called the Chicago Poetry Scene. True, sometimes it will snow and you may have to seek shelter (this is Chicago after all), but let's live for the days when the sun is shining, when you will be able to see for miles across a cosmic landscape filled with the beautiful faces of your fellow poets. Look, over there, someone who survived the horrors of a world war and who uses poetry to help heal her wounds. And over there, someone who has spent the last six years studying and who has finally landed that book deal. Look! There is someone whose ancestors were chained and shackled, who uses poetry to protest the injustice in the world; and, over there, someone who discovered poetry and has used it as a means to escape the perils of the street life; and there, a mother of five, who once in a while finds a moment to write a poem. Listen to them. You will learn something from each and every one of them. Do not fear them. They are not that different from you. Do not judge them. Instead, meet them. Get to know them. Respect them and they will respect you back. Invite them and they will invite you back. Share your poetry with them and they will share back. Hey! Yoo-hoo! Right here! Here I am, the middle aged bachelor who thinks it's amusing to frustrate those who take poetry too seriously. Here I am getting drunk and making an outlandish speech again. Join hands with us and let's teach the world to sing!
Dear poets, now that I'm finished with my Coca Cola commercial, I have an important announcement that I have to make concerning the fate of ChicagoPoetry.com. It has always been my plan to end the publishing of ChicagoPoetry.com after ten years. Up until a few moments ago, I was prepared to make the announcement that ChicagoPoetry.com would soon come to an end, and I was even making arrangements to use my domain names for other purposes. However, I witnessed some real stupid nonsense in 2009. It seems those twenty-or-so poets mentioned above—the ones who I supposedly have "problems" with or more precisely have "problems" with me—got together and created a colossal hysteria in order to vilify me. They managed to upset all sorts of innocent people and they did their damnedest to ruin my reputation. They once again managed to put their little dark cloud over what was otherwise a very productive time in my life. It may have strayed off in all sorts of directions so that we can't even recognize the origins of it anymore, but it all started a few years back, when I refused to support the release of a certain Killer Poet from prison, and the unyielding character assassinations against me have been piling up like dirty laundry ever since. It would be wonderful if these poets joined us out here in the field under the sun, but without hearing them articulate that desire we shouldn't make any assumptions. I fear if I quit now it will appear that I've been pushed out and that may empower some extremely immature people. So, on second thought, I've changed my mind. This isn't a good time to quit after all. I am convinced now more than ever that Chicago needs an unabashed voice that is not afraid to put his cards on the table once in a while.
However, I simply can't be the Chicago Poetry Scene's lightning rod indefinitely. At some point I have to declare my mission accomplished and move on. But I must insist that this closure be on my own terms. Therefore, I am setting a solid date at which time ChicagoPoetry.com will cease publication forever. It is with great sincerity that I announce my intentions to keep ChicagoPoetry.com rolling for only three more years, starting today. My Fellow Poets, I regret to inform you that the Chicago Poetry World, as we know it, will end on December 21, 2012. But I feel fine.
Muse inspire the Poetry Scene,
Note: CJ Laity gives his annual State of the Chicago Poetry Scene speech. Click here.