THE SEVENTH ANNUAL GWENDOLYN BROOKS OPEN MIC. AWARD
THE GUILD COMPLEX AT THE CHOPIN THEATER, JUNE 21st
Poetry and big bucks. I like the sound of that. Too bad I can't get my hands on some of it.
For the seventh time the Guild Complex was pleased to award one poet with the prize of $500, a sum provided by none other than Illinois's poet Laureate herself, Gwendolyn Brooks. This is how our 83 year old Chicago legend puts the money she gets from places such as the Illinois Arts Council BACK into the community (for anyone named Gloria who is wondering).
At 6:45 the crowd was already large for a show not scheduled to start until 7:30. Much of the audiences consisted of the public; there were a few Chicago poetry people, however, who's names I don't mind dropping: Bob Boone (of Young Chicago Authors), Joe Roarty, Jeff Helgeson, Adam Swinford-Wasemm, Christopher Stewart and poetry land's beloved bass player, Mitch Mitar Covic.
THE CEREMONIES BEGIN
The evening actually could have been titled "The Gwendolyn Brooks All Female Open Mic. Awards," because out of twenty-four poets, only three of them were male. If I remember correctly, poets submitted their work on sheets of paper which did not include their names, and I know two of the preliminary judges were Calvin Forbes and Cin Salach (honest people to be sure), so I think it just somehow turned out that way, and it wasn't planned like that. But it was an unfortunate fact that more male voices weren't represented.
For some reason the Guild Complex held the event downstairs, and that place was PACKED. There were extra chairs, but there was also a standing room only all the way to the back wall. Lucky more people didn't show up. Where would they have put them? Channel 2 (CBS) News also showed up to film the Complex for the first time for their evening news. As Artistic Coordinator Mario said, "And we didn't even have to hurt anybody."
Mario had the pleasure of announcing our host for the evening, Quraysh Ali-Lansana, who took to the freshly painted stage for his last time hosting the Complex, as he is moving soon to New York to study poetry. "There is not a kinder, gentler human being on the face of the earth," Ali-Lansana said of Gwendolyn Brooks, who was not present, because "she no longer leaves her house during summer time." He also told an antedote about how he called Brooks on her birthday to wish her well, and how she was eating chocolate cake and Ben and Jerry's ice cream, while she listened to an interview with her mother and grandmother recorded some twenty years previous.
Then Ali-Lansana explained the rules of the contest. Poems could not exceed four minutes, otherwise the poet would be disqualified. Any bio. information or introductions to the poems would be counted in that four minutes. Poems had to be original, written by the poet reading it. There would be no props or music allowed. Poems did not have to be memorized, but could be memorized. The 24 poets (Uggh! 24 poets!--no, it actually went quite fast) were divided into three groups of eight; each group was designated by a color. The audience was divided by three colors as well. Audience members could only vote on their same color group. I thought this was very fair. It eleminated the possibility of an entire group of people showing up specifically to vote on their friend. If the poet wasn't in your color group, you couldn't vote on her.
Now, any way you look at it a poetry contest is going to resemble a slam. You can divide it into three heats. You can let everyone in the audience vote. You can eliminate the one to ten scoring. You can change the slam forumula around any way you like, but the bottom lines will still apply. The order of the poets count. Audiences (and judges) seem to warm up after a while, giving poets who perform later in the competition better scores. Poets who go first are pretty much doomed when it comes to live poetry competition (especially in one where the first poet is going up against seven to follow). Even if the first person is supurb, the last poet only has to be three-quarters as good to sound twice as good. And the poem itself will always be in competition with the style of performing. A great performance of an average poem will do better than an average performance of a great poem. How can this not be true when the ear is the main tool used by the judge? And short poems? Give it up. A five line poem will NEVER beat out an epic performance poem in a live competition. Just admit it. These patterns are inherent to performance poetry competition, and I don't mean to imply that it is at all the fault of The Guild Complex.
As a matter of fact, up against all these issues, I think the Guild Complex did a fine job making this competition as fair as possible, and though I personally didn't agree with some of the outcome, the final verdict was undeniable and was a very fair decision. Even if most of the poets competing that night had no chance of beating out a member of the National Slam Team, there was no rule disqualifying experienced performance poets, and she was the best of the night--so she won. And I bet she needs the money in order to go to Rhode Island: so who can question fate?
THE FINE CONTESTANTS (and some excerpts from their poetry)
Kathleen Kirk: "I taste a liquor never brewed / and it tastes itchy on my back."
Lucina Vasquez: read a biligual poem about "women who hurt": "sweep your men"
Bonnie Kustner: read a beautiful poem describing childbirth like I've never heard it done before. "Wounds gathered like a bouquet of bruises"
Laura Lurawski: read an intense piece about visiting the motel where Martin Luther King was killed.
Karen Stockwell: read a prose poem about "American children"
Fran Markwardt: read a humorous piece about a senior citizen's picnic, in which a man had "two holes in one shoe / cut out for his corn and bunion"
Virdajean Towns-Collins: another senior poet, read a sarcastic piece about a lazy 29 year old. "Either she ain't wrapped too tight / or her mother didn't raise her right"
Lucy Anderton: "my teeth are silver bricks / holding the moon on the garden of my tongue"
Sarah Kozlowski: "you said my hair resembled the first sunburn shafts of dawn / lies"
Karla Powell: (mmmm, maybe just a little bit too explicit for this page, sorry)
Mike Hawkins: rapped his story of peace to an appreciative audience
Anna C. West: KEEP YOUR EYES ON ANNA WEST: this up and coming poet "peeled the words off of grass blades and made them whistle"
Jenny Siedelman: read "The Girl With the Dress"
Maureen Riley: danced as she sang about the conga in her poem "Musica Salsa"
Kevin Coval: microcosm / plastic simulation (Rage Against the Machine move over)
Duriel Harris: God might have made her funky, but the microphone made her voice sing
Mars Gamba-Adisa Coulton: it was almost surreal to hear her song mixed in with her words in her poem "Decade"
Donna Vorreyer: "How to be a poet without all that suffering / that's not suffering, that's life"
Denise Ruiz: read "My People," a powerful poem full of "cocunut redemptions"
Margaret Morris: "Don't buy the lies."
Cherie Caswell Dost: "on nights like this the sea is no different than the sky"
Michael H. Brownstein: told a story about an "iffy" neighborhood in which he got mugged by a man who threatened to urinate on him
Joanna Schier: read a short poem which reflected on friendships
and Tracie Amirante: was "sick of these thrid person confessions / whatever, whatever, amen"
THE EVENING POINTED TO ONE INDIVIDUAL
After eight poets read, the audience voted. Then another eight, and another vote. And a third time. This left three poets to go up against each other, reading the same poems once more: Tracie Amirante, Mike Hawkins (hey, a man!), and Lucy Anderton.
Even though this all took place in as fair of an environment as can be expected, the finalists going up against stiff competition and prevailing, it was obvious who was going to take the check. At first I was a little disappointed that I had figured it out from the beginning, like already knowing the end to a good mystery movie. But when the time came, I thought, if Lucy Anderton doens't get up on that stage and give it every inch of her ALL I will be VERY disappointed. At the least this was good practise for her to prepare her for the professional competition she will go up against this August.
Hawkins had a powerful rap, but he rushed through it making some of the words hard to understand. And Amirante had a wonderful poem, but she just didn't have the performance ability Anderton has. Personally, I thought Anderton would have had a harder time going up against Anna West, but it's possible the judges (the audience) thought West's style was too similar to that of Anderton, and that's why they didn't ultimately vote for her after Anderton was already selected as a finalist. (I'm just speculating.)
Shear talent showed itself and Lucy Anderton walked away with the check for $500.
Nobody went home disappointed, though. All the poets got the opportunity to share their poetry with a sizeable audience, and we all enjoyed hearing the work of many of the poets who will be gracing tomorrow's Guild Complex stage as well as other poetry venues throughout the city. It was a great chance to see and hear a multitude of new voices coming out of Chicago.
--C. J. Laity
Young Chicago Authors at Guild Complex Presents Kim Berez's StarWallpaper
by cj laity
On May 30th, some of the stars from StarWallpaper: The Ninth Neutral Turf Anthology of Young Chicago Poets, came out to the Chopin Theater to read their work during the book release party. Here are some of the images our Letter eX spy, who was hiding behind the stage curtains, captured.
The evening was introduced by Mario, Young Chicago Authors' Man of the Year, who received the recent Wallace S. Douglas Distinguished Service Award during the YCA graduation ceremonies.
StarWallpaper publisher, Kim Berez (right), introduces the first poetry star, Taylor Bibat, author of I Wish, who is a 9th grade student from St. Ignatius Prep. School. Taylor was inspired by the Words on Fire poetry theater at the Steppenwolf. Kim had a little surprise in store for her. Namely . . .
Cin Salach! After signing Taylor's book (and after Taylor signed Cin's book), Chicago legend Cin Salach took to the stage to perform her powerful poetry. Cin Salach's book Looking For A Soft Place To Land will be the focus of an upcoming Letter eX feature article.
Bucktown Arts Fest regular, Lynn Fitzgerald brought one of her students, Kathy Jacobson, a senior at Prosser Vocational High School, who read about the "teen scene" at the Carnegie Theater in the poem Even the wall can't steal our Jazz.
Lilian Ochoa, a 6th grader at John H. Hamline School, is the youngest poet in the book. She read her poem Shopping.
Melvin Maclin, a 9th grader at Thornton High School, explains the difference between "rap" and "flo" before he reads his poem "Come on with the come on". His poem is included in the anthology as an introduction.
Jeanne Bustamante, an 11th grader at St. Ignatius College Prep., recites For Susan which is the first poem in the book.
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Note: From Young Chicago Authors to The Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic. Award, Letter eX explores Guild Complex activities.