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spacer.gif   Is The Poetry Foundation A Threat To Chicago Poetry?
Posted by : cj on Tuesday, May 04, 2010 - 12:38 PM
Chicago Poetry Letters Section .
Chicago poets,

The following are my thoughts and my thoughts do not necessarily reflect the thoughts of anyone who reads for me in my shows, anyone who I report about at this website, anyone who I will mention in this article, anyone who I publish, or anyone else beside myself, period. So if you have something to say, say it to me, and leave my friends out of it.

Now, please allow me to rant a little bit about The Poetry Foundation, an organization that is literally pumping millions of dollars into a campaign designed to change the landscape of the Chicago Poetry Scene.

This city's poetry scene has a long history that began in the mid-eighties and came to fruition in the early nineties with the creation of the Poetry Slam, the rise of the Guild Complex, the publication of the Letter eX Poetry Newsmagazine (that would eventually be reincarnated into ChicagoPoetry.com), and the invention of a poetry open mic community. I was there, in the field, doing grunt work to help establish the poetry scene. Even if you are not a so-called performance poet but are part of what has been called the "page" scene, you owe a lot to those who created the current landscape. You may find it hard to believe, but before the mid-eighties there were no public poetry readings in Chicago, there were no poetry open mics, there was no poetry scene to speak of. Very few people cared about poetry in Chicago. If there was a poetry reading it happened within the walls of a university. The only organization that attempted public readings was The Poetry Center, but the Art Institute sponsored that as well. A group of us set the stage for the thriving poetry scene that we have today. If you like, I can dig up a Chicago Tribune article from 1991 that documents it all. We helped make poetry important and poetry was truly advanced through our work. And we did that work without millions of dollars at our disposal. We did it out of shear love for poetry. Since then, poetry has had and still has a home in Chicago: in our hearts. Now, all of a sudden, The Poetry Foundation has stepped in and they are very subtly trying to claim Chicago poetry as their own.

Make no mistakes, The Poetry Foundation is a great big multi-million dollar behemoth that has decided it wants to be a Chicago poetry organization, rather than the national organization it was before it received its fortune by finagling a dying woman's inheritance. Through very subtle actions they are attempting to chip away at the poetry scene that we envisioned, in order to create their own version of a poetry scene, which will not advance poetry but will send it back twenty-five years and place it right back into the ivory tower. In order to fool us into thinking they are inclusive, once in a while they throw us a bone, but when push comes to shove they show their true colors. I, personally, have been directly insulted, indirectly attacked and blatantly infringed upon by this massive institution, no doubt because ChicagoPoetry.com includes information about Slam Poetry, performance poetry and spoken word poetry in its news coverage. They have not so subtly tried to replace me as one of the main voices of Chicago poetry. Last year an employee of the Poetry Foundation openly declared a site, that was copying things off my site, the "official" Printers Ball blog, and the Poetry Foundation allowed representatives from that site to pass out slanderous fliers about me at their Ball, fliers that encouraged people to stop supporting the real ChicagoPoetry.com and to instead support the Poetry Foundation's chosen site. Recently, I caught another employee of the Poetry Foundation copying information off my website and using it in the Poetry Foundation email blast, without crediting her source. When I wrote a letter of complaint, she retaliated by ceasing to list my poetry crams in the Poetry Foundation's news blasts as well. These are just a couple of examples of how, if we allow this Foundation to gain too much power and influence in our (I repeat, OUR) poetry scene, they will throw their weight around in an attempt to cleanse the scene of dissent and diversity. With hundreds of millions of dollars to do with whatever they desire, they hold an unfair advantage.

It is important that the Chicago Poetry Scene remain independent of this monstrous entity. For one thing, in these tough times it is simply obscene how they are wasting millions of dollars on, huh, poetry? We really ought not associate our scene with that type of exorbitance, lest the public think supporting our poetry projects financially to be unnecessary. And what have they really accomplished through their spending spree? Their claims of bringing poetry to millions of people are outrageously exaggerated. Sure, a poem in a newspaper is duplicated hundreds of thousands of times, but what proof do they have that anybody is actually reading it or caring about it? The proof is in the pudding. The poets of Chicago have been bringing poetry to the masses for decades already, and we didn't need to spend a large fortune to do it. The Poetry Foundation also spent millions of dollars conducting some type of survey dissecting public opinions about poetry. Quite honestly, who cares? How does that help anyone? What an obscene waste of money! How many homeless people could have been fed with that money? The poets in Chicago don't have millions of dollars at our disposal. All we have is a lot of soul. But we can use that soul to defend our poetry scene from the clutches of the beast.

There are ways that you can support your local poetry scene. Support small local poetry organizations that are doing big things with small amounts of money, such as Lethal Poetry, which will be helping to sponsor the Humboldt Park Art Fest on Saturday, June 12—they will also be putting on a Poetry and Spoken Word Festival called Outspoken this September. There will be a benefit for Outspoken at Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St., on Wednesday, May 26, at 7:30 PM. They will also be hosting a "Geek" Words That Kill show on Thursday, May 20, at Lilly's Bar, 2513 N. Lincoln Ave, 7 PM.

Another great local organization is Young Chicago Authors, sponsor of Louder Than A Bomb. They not only encourage students to recite poetry but to actually write original work as well. You can listen to the recent LTAB Finals by clicking here. And don't forget YCA hosts a youth open mic called WordPlay every Tuesday, with a workshop at 6 PM and readings from 7 to 9 PM at 1180 N. Milwaukee Ave, 2nd Fl. By the way, Robbie Q of YCA will be performing at Molly Malone's, 7652 Madison St, Forest Park, on Monday, May 10, with an open mic from 7:30 to 9:30 PM.

The Guild Complex is still looking at the poetry scene and asking, "what's missing". Support your local open mic venues, such as Safe Smiles that will be celebrating its 9th anniversary on Wednesday, May 5, 10 PM, at Trace, 3714 N. Clark St. Don't be misled by the Poetry Foundation's inclusion of selected open mics in their email blast. It's just a ruse. How many of those open mic poets will ever see their work within the pages of Poetry Magazine? What's telling is not what's included in the Poetry Foundation's feigned support of the scene, but in what's missing from it. Support poetry readings that are sponsored by individuals, such as the ones listed here in this link. Support publications, both print and online, that are open to all sorts of poetics, such as Muzzle Magazine. And support projects that are socially conscious, such as The Save The Frogs Poetry Contest. Because poetry can make something happen.

But the best way you can defend our poetry scene from big money is don't be tricked into relying on the Poetry Foundation for everything. They want you to rely on them to see big name poets, to give you your local poetry calendar listings, to give you a site to blog on, to represent your small press at their function, and to even give you a big, twenty million dollar poetry venue that will no doubt attempt to establish a monopoly on poetry readings. Once you rely on them for all of that, they will basically own your ass. As they pump their money into projects that do the same things we've been doing for years, they will make our projects obsolete and then they will control the entire show. Then they will change the landscape of the Chicago Poetry Scene and reverse all of our advancements. If you accept their Trojan horse, don't be surprised when the day comes when, in so many words, they threaten to cut your funding off or they make you feel unwelcome in poetry's "home" if you criticize them or support something that they disapprove of.

Let me be clear before some guy from TimeOut puts words into my mouth again. This is not a call to boycott The Poetry Foundation. If they put on a cool reading and you want to go to it, go to it. Who cares? But we need to turn Chicago into a publishing mecca by supporting Midwest authors, not by shipping in New York authors, so be wise; be aware that where big money is concerned priorities change. What the Poetry Foundation is doing is ultimately about protecting the big money, not about creating a friendly, inclusive, soulful poetry scene. Their President John Barr represents the gentrification of poetry; he used to do work for Enron for chrissakes. Do you really think he cares one iota about the history of the Chicago Poetry Scene? He'll slap up the cinder-blocks while tearing down poetry's architecture if we let him. And he'll call his cleansing advancement. If we're not careful, the Foundation will suck the blood out of our scene like a big vampire bat on the back of a cow. We need to take everything the Poetry Foundation does with a grain of salt and be very cautious about allowing them to be too influential in OUR poetry scene.

Never Silent,

CJ Laity

Note: CJ Laity takes on The Poetry Foundation. It's about time! Click Here.

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