Dear Chicago Poetry Scene,
Once again (days before the Printers Row Lit Fest) it is that one week of the year during which anyone I know cares about what that little free magazine that you line your birdcages with, NewCity, has to say. I'm sure everyone on the "Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2011" list is fully deserving in their own way, and I'm not trying to take anything away from them, but come on: the list is a complete joke.
This year's Lit 50 is simply a generic list of just about every editor, publisher, bookstore owner, academic chair and organizational head that the folks at NewCity could think of without giving it much thought. It is a list of 47 Caucasians, two African Americans (if you guessed the obvious, Haki Madhubuti and Quraysh Ali Lansana, you're right), and one single Latina / Hispanic (Moira Pujols of Contratiempo). I find it especially shocking that Erica Hilton of Poetry Center of Chicago--an organization that has barely hosted a half dozen events in the last three years--is included on this list, but Kimberly Dixon of Guild Complex--an organization that consistently sponsors lit programming, including a monthly bilingual poetry series--is not included on the list. It couldn't be that a few years back, the previous chair of the Guild criticized the very same list for not being inclusive enough, could it? Of course it could! And let's get my personal beef out of the way: the reason that I've never been included on the list couldn't date back some eighteen years to when the publication I worked for, Letter eX, criticized NewCity, could it? Well, let me stop there before Ray Bianchi accuses me of being nothing but a self promoting hack again.
The NewCity list is a clear representation of how Chicago's lit scene has been gentrified and whitewashed. It is truly a racist list that concentrates entirely on a nepotistic "industry" and ignores Chicago's neighborhoods and grassroots scene. It's not surprising that, in the opening statement, The Poetry Foundation is hailed in a paragraph that begins with the word "Power," because this list is designed to reverse the power structure established during decades of grassroots networking, to literally take the power away from the people and hand it back to the Ivory Tower. "Not only can we claim Poetry Magazine, the premier publication of its kind anywhere, but its wealthy sibling the Poetry Foundation will open a whole building dedicated to the form later this month," says New City. As an afterthought it continues, "Plus, this is the town that created the Poetry Slam as well as Louder Than a Bomb, the largest teen slam anywhere."
The new "power players" (i.e., people with money) in today's lit scene love to throw the poetry slam a bone once in a while, because they recognize the "power of the people" that the slam has, but if you want to know what the "powers that be" truly think of the slam, just look at their list. Out of 50 people who "really book" in Chicago, only two of them, both with clear connections to the academic scene, seem to represent the slam (if you guessed the obvious, Kevin Coval and Robbie Q. Telfter, you're right). In the year that the Poetry Slam is celebrating its 25th anniversary, apparently Marc Smith isn't worthy of being on that list. The opening paragraph to this list can be translated as follows: we have a two hundred million dollar foundation now that supports the mainstream, academic, city-approved downtown scene, so we don't need you troublemaking performance poetry jerks, and there's no reason to pretend to be diverse or inclusive anymore. In case you didn't get the message first time around, guess who is number one on the list of people who really book in Chicago? Is it an author of a bestselling title--Roger Bonair-Agard perhaps? Is it someone who has worked diligently and selflessly for years, perhaps Larry Sawyer of Milk Mag or Al DeGenova of After Hours? Maybe it's someone from Oyez or RHINO? Why, no, of course not, it's John Barr, ex-Wall Street mogul who once did work for Enron, who was hired to manage the Poetry Foundation not because he "books" (in fact one of his books of poetry was even criticized as being racist) but because he knows how to manage large sums of money (and probably spends quite a bit of it buying advertising from publications like NewCity). And if two nods to the Poetry Foundation weren't enough, Christian Wiman (Barr's editor) and Fred Sazaki (Barr's Printer's Ball man) are both on the list as well!
I tried to warn the poetry community about how the Poetry Foundation was threatening to whitewash the poetry scene. I also warned about the city sponsored "ChicagoPublishes" that is planning to define for the rest of us what the "new Chicago style" of poetry is at their upcoming event at the Cultural Center. But instead of working together to keep the grassroots poetry scene alive, a lot of poets were simply played and were convinced to attack me for speaking my mind. And look at what we have now. Do you see Poetry Cram Mag on the list? Do you see the Neighborhood Writers' Alliance on the list? Proyecta Latina? Tallgrass Writers Guild? CC Carter? Mojdeh? How about the big shots from Waiting 4 The Bus or the Poets' Club of Chicago or even Puddin'head Press--are any of those guys on the list? It's as if that entire scene doesn't even exist. Where's the gay/lesbian presses on the list for that matter? Where is anyone representing the world of online publishing (other than Dan Sinker's fictional twitter handle @MayorEmanuel)? But some guy who has been around about two minutes named Donald G. Evans, who last year compared the Chicago Poetry Fest to "a backyard barbecue" when I told him I couldn't afford to pay $45 to attend his exclusive Lit Hall of Fame--his name made it on the list. And Dominique Raccah, who runs a publishing house located in Naperville--she's on Chicago's list. And if you go on Facebook you can probably find people who are on the list congratulating a dozen of their closests friends who are also on the list. There you have it. Welcome to the new Chicago style of poetry. Sort of Gucci, isn't it?
I hate to say I told you so, but I TOLD YOU SO!
Click here to continue reading this editorial. (Slightly rewritten again at 6:30 pm.)