TAKING THE HIGHER GROUND: 16 Cool Things About Friday Poetry
DAVID HERNANDEZ AT COFFEE CHICAGO, 5256 N. BROADWAY, DECEMBER 1ST, Story and Photos By C. J. Laity.
I finally got to see John Starrs host his poetry venue, The Higher Ground. One of the cool things about this venue is that it is hosted by this blonde Chicago legend, and he attracts a variety of talented poets as well, who come to share their work with him every Friday night at 8 PM. The fact that we have not one, but two successful poetry venues (the other being Corwin's Gourmand) running on Fridays, shows what a vibrant poetry scene we are enjoying in this new, millennial age of poetry. What a wonderful feeling to once again be able to see the great voices of this American city gathering in public to excercise their freedom of speech. If you are reading this, and don't live in Chicago, please select a venue from our calendar and make the trip in one of these days.
Another cool thing about the Coffee Chicago poetry is the audience. The night I attended it was jam packed with a friendly community of artists and poetry fans. The atmosphere was warm and receptive. The energy was contagious and the applause was loud. As a result, the poets gave some of the best performances of their lives. This turned out to be one of the finest of intimate poetry readings in the year 2000.
The place was so packed there were even people sitting near the window behind the poets as they read. Though, at times, if it wasn't for the voice of the poet, you might be able to hear a pin drop, until the cheers roared up through the room. The huge audience (including Joe Roarty) was also paying attention and was very supportive. It seemed the venue even tried to keep the espresso machine down, though that white noise is expected at any coffee house venue. When has something like that ever stopped a Chicago poet? Hell, if we can't read over a coffee order, how will we shout out above the injustices in the world, or describe the beauty we see for others to hear? Hey. Is that what's wrong with you guys? Is Florida's espresso machine on too loud?
This is a venue for all ages, though eleven year old Stephanie Irish writes some pretty mature, heavy literature. Keep your eyes out for this young lady in the 21st century. Stephanie, if you are reading this on a computer, please click HERE in order to contact Kim Berez about submitting some of your poetry to StarWallpaper, Chicago's annual anthology of young Chicago poets.
Dave Barr shared a spoken word piece with us, about unions and going on strike and getting arrested in the County Building. His off-page presentation added a fine variety to the nature of the performances. It was a pleasure sitting in a room with those who had stories to tell. There was a lot of Chicago history at Coffee Chicago that night. Both in the poetry and in the poets themselves. I would suggest, for those seasoned, puplished poets who don't get out to the performance scene much, put your trust in John Starrs to offer a safe reading space; share your work with others who love the word like you do.
Someone asked me if this man is the notorious Wicker Park pirate radio MC, and I said I don't know, but that's Larry Winfield, who braved public transportation to make it to this rocking event. Larry is the publisher of www.mediapoet.com and performs with a poetry band called Brass Orchid. Remember this face. This man has been a huge part of our poetry scene for a decade. Though we must wonder about his yet to be materialized idea of an S and M poetry reading.
Susan House was "pumping unhappily through the city." And as she read, we coud see the city behind her, outside of all the windows. This venue reminds me of the old Guild Books, remember, across the street from the Biograph Theater. Years ago, they held the Guild Complex readings there, and because their poet read right in front of a window, passers-by could see something going on and they would stray in. It's the same with this classic venue. As the poet reads, you can see the people outside looking in, some of them coming in. Though it is technically Andersonville, it seems more like Uptown outside the Higher Ground, which makes for a good, city view of cop cars and neighborhood folk serving as a backdrop for the poets.
Cool thing number seven. This venue offers treats for the young at heart. As Carol Anderson read, people were enjoying ice cream cones, calzone, taco or pizza puffs, chocolate chai tea, and of couse, lots and lots of coffee. Mmmm. The Ginsing tea was a nice warmer upper after coming in from the bitterly cold first day in December with the election battle still raging giving the country an overall chill. But to warm the soul, we had some of the best of Chicago poetry performed for about two hours.
Urban Voices poet Lawrence Tyler, author of Prophecies, added his pinkish-purple aura to the room. It was good to see a mixture of veteran Chicago poets such as Tyler or Swinford-Wasem, as well as new, first timers, gathering at Coffee Chicago for an evening which won't soon be forgotten. This place makes the poets want to grab hold of the microphone and sweetly paint wordster surprises in saphire and gold about the cigarette butts blown under a dumpster by the whistle of the windy city. Starrs needs to get the microphone stand fixed so that it doesn't keep dropping down to our waistlines. Even that became entertaining after a while.
Maggie Rubin is one of the brightest young poets this city has to offer, and I'm not just saying that because we are practically married either (but maybe the vise versa is true). She shared with us a tale of how she was inspired to begin reading in open mic.'s by two of the evening's celebs, Eddie Two-Rivers and David Hernandez. Then Rubin did two of her signature pieces, riding the positivity in the room like an ocean wave. And her new red hair is quite fashionable. I hear she's a real jet-setter too, always travelling to New York, Maine, Texas, Europe. The fact that she is well travelled and well read lends an original spark to her work which shines as brightly as some of the other great goddesses this city's poetry scene has produced.
Dave Gecic, publisher of Puddin'head Press, was in rare, adult form for the night, skipping the purple goo and opening with a poem about how there is no middle ground in Omaha, no gray, nothing between left and right. Once again, the vibes in the room took hold of a poet and inspired him to give the performance of a lifetime. Gecic also runs a poetry venue for young poets in Oak Park. He's been doing things like this for years! On an altogether seperate note, did you know Letter eX accepts nominations for its Poet of the Month feature? Poets to be considered ideally should be active in the poetry scene--in both the performance and publishing / getting published aspects of it.
StarWallpaper publisher and Poetry Center instructor, Kim Berez, says leave your vices at home.
That is, there is no smoking or drinking of alcohol at Higher Ground. Some poets went outside during an intermission to have a smoke, but the quality of the poetry kept most die hard addicts' minds on the verse. You know me. I like a Guinness with my wording it up. But at Coffee Chicago, I didn't even miss it. This is one of the most comfortable coffee house venues I've ever been to.
Another fine Chicago poet, Dina Stengel, made a rare appearance and brought a hush upon the crowd as she read her absorbing, original writing. This is a very unique city if you think about it. Where else, besides New York, do the published poets unite every night of the week? We are very lucky to have a city so full of culture and talent. The Green Mill, The Mad Bar, Guild Complex, Weeds, Hungry Brain, Woodlawn Tap, Some Like It Black--Shag's Little Thing--we have a litte of something for everyone.
Whoa! I mean, Wheee! This turned out to be a rare night indeed. The age old duo, David Hernandez and John Starrs, joined forces once again to do poems about the city and its suburbs. As Hernandez read about Chicaaaaaago, sometimes from the premier issue of After Hours, Starrs read from his journal about places such as Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove Village and Blue Island. No pun intended: their work goes together like salt and pepper. Now, pun is intended: what a way to open up the holiday "season"! (You kinda have be careful what you say on the web these days.)
David Hernandez's solo work was way more entertaining than the Smashing Pumpkins concert at the United Center. He had more energy and wasn't as depressing as Billy Corrigan. Hernandez went on for over an hour with a blend of his greatest hits and some stuff never even heard before, such as a poem inspired by Kim Berez. He did the bonzai tree poem written for Chicago's Sister Cities Contest. He read some biligual classics. He even read a lengthy piece of prose. If you are a fan of David Hernandez and you missed this feature, you truly missed something wonderful.
Though, you still have an opportunity to see him read at Gourmand, Friday, Dec. 8th (if you're not at Coffee Chicago seeing Joe Roarty--oh, decisions!).
The sixteenth cool thing about this venue is it gives you the opportunity to stand around with some famous poets after the show to discuss and even debate poetry. Here, American Book Awardee, E. Donald Two-Rivers, is freshly returned from his performance for the Smithsonian, and he has a few good old Chicago opinions to share, including some of his own, uncensored work. Two-Rivers will also be featured at Café Gourmand on Friday, December 15, with J. J. Jameson, so go check it out (if you're not at Coffee Chicago--aaah! I feel like a dog with two bones!).
I would also suggest, if you've been to Gourmand and haven't checked out Coffee Chicago, or vise versa, venture out to see something new. There are enough fantastic poets in this city to serve both places, and both places are friendly to both page and performance poets. Friday is a hot night for poetry in the city of Chicago. What's up with Thursday?
--C. J. Laity
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Note: Laity jabbers about David Hernandez and John Starrs, together again.