CHICAGO POETRY: FOR OVER 700 MONDAYS STRAIGHT--WEEDS!
Keeping It Real: "The Professor" Discusses A Chicago Tradition One Block From Hell
When I tripped over John Martinez's fine review on Letter eX a month ago, I had been reading at Weed's since 1987. During this time I always knew Weeds was exceptional, but only subconsciously, since it was such a big part of my poetical method and performance persona. Now that Weeds has a virtual presence with internet reviews, I got to thinking whether or not this might affect matters, especially the unique open mike routine of the host, Gregorio Gomez, "The G Man."
"G" always opens by asserting we will hear "Some of the best, some of the worst, some of the most indifferent poetry in the city of Chicago." Over the years I have put out some of each kind and discovered the difference by so doing. As an academic, my worst poems tend to be overly cerebral and uncommunicative. I can generally tell, by the swelling of side conversations, that I've descended at least to the most indifferent level. And early on "G" kindly told me to stop educating the masses
"For Chrisake, Tom, forget the footnotes and just do the poem."
"G" provides another valuable critique for poetical quality, instant parody replays. Generally speaking, the better your poem, the better his lampoon. But when "G" gets cooking, his running commentaries are the best part of the show, no matter how good or bad any of us are. Listen carefully after you read, as he skewers your effort more adroitly than the most expensive creative writing teacher. Over the years "G" has put out whole libraries of free association improv. If he ever gets them together, he will have plenty of poems to match "The City," arguably the best performance poem on the planet, which often ends the evening. Except that Weeds is not about getting things together, but letting them hang out.
This playful, "we don't give a good goddamn fuck" attitude is one of the keys to Weeds' open mike success. The audience helps turn the wheels of the show with inventive heckling. Laissez-faire extends to the anarchic conspiracy-theory screeds of Joffre Stewart. If you make a mistake, the chorus rises up to sing: "It could happen to you." When you perform for the first time, you are greeted by the thrice-repeated ritual rite of passage: (G) "What do we do with a Virgin Poet?" (Chorus) "We fuck 'em up!" It's like being read your rights: "You have the Right to Fail, and anything you say can be used against you by the host."
Another unique aspect of Weeds is provided by Sergio Mayora-bar owner, barkeeper, poster maker, fine artist, perennially eponymous candidate for mayor, and author of the three most over-performed poems in the galaxy: "My People Are Poor," "Shivering Through." and "The Hole." Weeds regulars have them by heart, and every week our chorus steps on his key lines and words, trying to trip him up, forcing him into ever-tighter presentations. Most importantly, as "G" always reminds us, "You are in a hole," more than the sum of its parts and celebrated by Sergio's distinctive décor: his ceramic doppelganger greets you with a thumbs-up bottle of Tequila on your way in; he hangs high heels and bras from the ceiling like booty; his expired posters are everywhere, including the johns; and he is always shuffling everything around-booths, pinball machines, even the stage-like a recurring dream.
This serves to remind you "exactly where you're at-At W-E-E-D, 1555 N. Datin, Live! One block from Hell and a million miles from nowhere, you're in Purgatory." The repetitive routines, the décor, the lurid lighting, The Yuppie Garden, the radio station that broadcasts only to those within earshot, the anarchic ebb and flow of poetry--all contribute to a dreamscape, the collective poetical subconscious of the participants. There are no features because everyone is featured. There are no slams since everyone is a judge. No cover, no minimum, and the prize is getting onstage (by signing up). Auditors, otherwise mute, arise and read because "I can do better than that!" Poets scribble at the bar in fits of pressure poetry and brag "I wrote this on the way up to the mike." We revise on the spot because "I can't read this dreck." It all feeds into "some of the worst, indifferent, best" because Purgatory is a place where you can improve.
Dreams are, of course, a commonplace of creativity, and nothing is more personal than a dream. Weeds' surrealist support of this fantasy, which begins around bedtime, cultivates an uncanny seedbed of poetry, disconnected from the suffocating roles of the workaday world and distracting spotlights of the entertainment industry. Expect the unexpected. Gregorio tags you with a nickname: "The Fly," "Veggy Dude," "La Contessa," "The Poet Laureate," "The French Tickler." A celebratory patron of the arts floods you with shots of Tequila; you chug three and give the rest away so you can finish your set. You short-circuit an annoying side conversation near the stage by leaning over to broadcast the love-chat verbatim as a found poem. You loosen up, free associate, get inspired, hear your voice, try things out, get in a muddle, make dumb mistakes: "It could happen to you." You are free to start from the back of the bar and work towards the mike, and the mike is yours--four poems and out.
Open mikes are now engines of contemporary poetry, and a lot of what goes on at Weeds happens out there, too. Weeds, however, with its idiosyncratic dream world and encouragement of weird personal expression, does it more completely than any venue I know of. To the extent that self-consciousness is the enemy of creativity, I'm a bit apprehensive about analyzing it as much as I have. And this gets me back to the website (thought I'd forgotten, eh?). Weeds could take fame to heart, develop star power, and become a stale predictable routine that crushes the personal and intimate. It could get to thinking that "Poetry with an Attitude" is more poetical than the rest. I hope not.
You could say that all this is merely my subjective dream of Weeds. But so is anyone's. Show up, and you'll become part of the collective dream of Weeds' Poetry. As the longest running underground poetry venue in Chicago (dating back to the sets of Bob "Righteous" Rudnick in the mid 1980s), Weeds needs to stay "in a hole." Too much light and the dream will wake up.
--Tom Roby, "The Professor," 11/18/01
for more info. on Weeds go to http://www.geocities.com/weedspoetry/
WEEDS: The Last True Slam Venue
By John Martinez
When I first heard about the "Slam," I thought about people driven to be better than the rest, wanting to succeed in an art form once considered dead by the press (then alive, then in vogue), even desiring to be famous. There are now so many poets scrambling out there to read their poetry, perform their "pieces," or whatever they do, that occasionally someone who's been on "the scene" for a while might get jaded by the whole thing.
There's no other way to put into terms what happens to the poet when the chapbooks begin to sell a little more than usual: people talk to you a little more than usual; the venue you're hosting (or go to often enough) blows up and you're in the hottest place in the merry-go-round of "in" places to be heard; and, most of all, there is the ego-feeding glory of winning the big poetry award, getting the nominal government grant, and a reserved cue in line for the next National Poetry Slam curtain call of greatness. The press, the back-slapping, the gaudy sing-song onstage...
But that's just the modern "poet." What of the poetry? And the Slam?
The Slam has been shaped, misshaped, rearranged, and directed into an area where it is greedily being pitched by sponsors of some sort, or even possibly corporations. Look at that bloated monster Lollapalooza, and last year's sexual assault fest, Woodstock! We really have to understand the basics of the whole thing, and it's modest origins.
This thing we now call the modern day "Slam" was created and propelled mostly in part by Marc Smith, and for what it's worth, I'll go on public record and say--although I may have at one point been a bit critical of him (as we all are at one time or another of someone who exceeds in a craft we all pursue)--Marc went through the 80s and the 90s with the unrivaled reign of having the "longest running Slam in Chicago."
On the near north side, there's a place where, in a small dimly lit bar, the political and social constraints of the modern day "Slam" are blissfully vacant, and it exists in a place simply titled "Weeds." There are no titles for the venue, no elaborate and slick ads in magazines, weeklies or even online (not to say there's something wrong with advertising), and there are no attempts to let the "coolness" run amok by overbearing, ego-fed hosts.
Weeds seems to be a poetry entity all to itself. In the world of "performance poetry," where hip hosts give away hip prizes to hip people trying to look hip sitting in hip chairs that are hip to look at, as they listen in and glom as the next hip poet goes up to do his next hip "piece," Weeds stands ALONE as the last "Slam" venue. Sure, there is no competition, no lists to sign, no coolness oozing off of every beer tap--but there is poetry, plain and simple and unadulterated. It bleeds from the walls.
The host, Gregorio Gomez, doesn't care about glory. He is already glorious. The bartender, Sergio, doesn't try to get along with everyone. Why should he? It's his bar, and the poetry is lucky to be there. This place represents the true spirit of the Slam as first presented in the 80's, and the poets there (or the music in the goddamn jukebox) hasn't changed in all that time either.
There are no prizes. If you're lucky, you'll get a compliment from Gregorio. That's high praise in itself! He's been around almost as long as Marc, and has tried to keep the true spirit of poetry readings simple and uncomplicated. Read, then get off the stage.
On any given Monday night, you'll hear Maria McCray, one of the best poets in the city, or Joffre Stewart, or Joe Roarty, or any number of great seasoned polished veterans on the 'Scene,' who know that Weeds is the place to read to be truly "judged" by your peers. If you suck, none of that snap-snap stuff's gonna happen; it's gonna be a cold, unwashed heckling for you. Your "prize" for reading that night? Some applause. I mean SOME applause. If you're really good, you'll get even a handshake or two.
Why expect anything else? Why want anything else? Leave that for the hip, oh-so-trendy beer-of-the-month drinking "performance poets" who need to hear screams and applause and have $$$, wagged in their faces like a carrot, to show up at some places in the city (not that there's anything wrong with money). I'm even guilty of that! However, I like Weeds for it's plainness, it's honesty, and it's reality to poetry. Read, then get off the stage. If you're good, you'll come back to read again.
I've gone out to other readings, and I haven't seen the kind of excessive freedom given to the word in such a free form style as at Weeds, not since the old Spices bar, or at least most recently the old LitX reading inside the Flat Iron building.
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Note: Here Tom Roby and John Martinez compare thoughts about Gregorio Gomez's venue.