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Posted by : cj on Monday, December 06, 2004 - 11:39 AM
Chicago Poetry Archives: Click Headlines TAKING IT TO THE STREETS ON TUESDAY
ChicagoPoetry.commers Hit The Tuesday Venues

On Tuesday, June 26, some of the Letter eX staff hit the streets of Chicago to see what various poetic happenings were simultaneously going on and to report it all to you. From Shag's Little Thing to the Tallgrass Writer's Guild, from Women OutLoud to the Aloha Circus, we set out to answer the two most asked questions: Who was great and who was late? What we found proves this city is ground zero for poetry performance, and Tuesdays are one of it's biggest nights to hear spoken word.


Shag's little thing is a late-night, cross-generational, spiritual be-in man! Located at Phyllis's Musical Inn at 1800 W. Division, Shag has been doing his thing in "beautiful, downtown, Wicker Park Heights" for two and a half years. And performances don't get much more postmodern than at Shag's: complete with rappers, musicians AND poets

At least that's what I gleaned on Tuesday, June 26, from what has been about the fifth time I've come to this venue. Located in the now gentrified, landscaped and Starbucks-bedecked Wicker Park, Phyllis's has at least been around since Myopic Books was on Evergreen Street (kitty corner to where Quimby's used to be as well). Not to mention The Busy Bee on Damen, which used to be THE place to get poached eggs and potato pancakes with apple sauce (there I go on a complete digression). I went over these things in my mind, as I walked from The Note, having just taken in part of Joanna Marshall's performance, complete with dancing clowns and video footage of the "Jewish Sex Goddess."

Anyway, Phyllis's is not unlike any pre-war built (perhaps) Chicago, Northwestside bar, except they do have an enormous fish-tank in the back and an outdoor garden with a basketball hoop. But I was there to review Shag's Little Thing (from here out, I will be calling it S.L.T). Well Wicker Park has changed, but Shag certainly hasn't. I've known him roughly five years and he still wears William Burroughsesque thrift-store suits, has weird sideburns, and utters his ironies in his own special brand of sotto voice. If anything, being a Chicago poetry scene veteran, he has earned his poetry chops and his humor has gotten dryer than the Nevada playa during an August water drought.

By the way, don't read those listings on or the Reader that list his S.LT. as starting at 8:30 or 9:30 because Shag never starts on time. He fired up the microphone at 10:45 p.m. and Kate and a few other stragglers hadn't even walked in yet. There have been more than enough complaints about how he never starts on time.

"It always starts late. You know, you promise people a certain time, and you don't respect that. They're waiting around so they leave, and don't come back. And it leaves a bad taste in their mouths."

The anonymous source that told me this is correct, however, there is one secret advantage to starting at an unofficial time: it tends to keep the yuppies away. And god knows, for lack of a better term, the yuppies will always bring down the atmosphere of a kick-ass venue. The only exception being the Green Mill, which are all yuppies to begin with.

Shag started out the show with the appropriately campy "Goldfinger" theme. He read one of his pieces about protecting a woman from a guy who beats her up, using his own brand of ironic suaveness.

Sun shadow just around the corner
I'm the one scurrying along the dark alley walls."

He also used a tiny metal instrument, which must have been a noise distorter, with the line "I am your secret bodyguard." He went on to indicate in the poem how he knew the address of the antagonist in the poem, and that he would be "there when he has you by the throat."

This was one of the best performances I've ever witnessed out of Shag, working to create a juxtaposition of comedy and surrealism to a very serious topic.

After that he pointed to an empty chair and asked us to thank the invisible Thax (he was late, of course) and a hearty round of applause went round the room. Last year, when his sidekick known as "Mr. Stumbly," didn't show one night, Shag lovingly replaced him with a doll in a black robe and a skull head (I recall that the doll also received a rousing round of applause).

The next person to hit the mike was R. Sean Wolf. A cool, somewhat burned-out looking, surfer dude, in grunge wear and a panama hat, R. Sean read a poem about surfing in a monotone that was too soft. It was an interesting story, but it didn't capture my attention all that much. He definitely had a strange stage presence that I rather like, and a gentle bohemianess that never seemed faked. I could almost see myself on a California beach somewhere with him sitting in a VW bus, smoking a phatty. Later when I talked to R. Sean, he told me he was from Minnesota. I never did get a chance to find out how he surfed there.

Next up was Richie the rapper. I don't know this guy's last name. But he got up and busted some pretty good rhymes. He had the audience do a call and response for Fuck/You: him saying "fuck," and them saying "you." Not very original, but I liked this guy's spirit. What I can tell you is that there was much "AHH AHH AHH" type sounds, he mentioned Curious George, and made references to bending over-typical type Beastie Boys-like fodder. I enjoy rap, Kate however, hates it.

"Kid rock on ovaltine," She said.

Let me say this. If there's anything that comes closest to poetry, more so than music, it's rap. Although considered music by most, it has a definite rhythm and cadence closer to spoken word than other art forms.

There are a lot of people who do music at poetry readings, and at Shag's this is acceptable, because he advertises it that way to begin with. A lot of young, struggling musicians and performers of different genres go there coz it's a late-night venue that's low maintenance where they can practice their work. And the audience is ALLOWED to talk during the performance and it doesn't cause the friction I see at other venues, where it's all about poetry only, but then some musician comes in, and talking during the performance is considered disrespectful and breaking a social more. Shag's is not the kind of venue where you feel like you have to live up to a slam-type standard, or impress anyone. At the same time, I myself don't do the same pieces at Shag's I do at other venues; since Shag's is performance-centered without being demanding, I feel free to test run any poem I want.

Elizabeth Harper is one of the best poets in the city, but is extremely low-key and not the type to hand out flyers, or if she is featured, has to use videos and dancing clowns, such as the likes of Joanna Marshall, to get her message across. It's strange that I didn't have my tape on for her performance, however, it was definitely one of the best ones of the evening, and I am kicking myself for not being prepared enough to get an audio of this amazing poet. There is a great performer who tends to show up at readings in jeans and a T-shirt, but who reads these amazingly biting and coherent narrative pieces that always blow me away. Well tonight was no exception. She got up there on that little stage at the back of Phyllis's, a beautifully understated persona in postmodern vaudeville, and read a poem about her secret loathing of particular human beings. It was chilling when she described how she could basically dismantle the faces of these hated individuals, but one would never know this by talking to her. Her quiet and intense presence belies the passion and anguish that comes out in her poems.

Kate Cullan got up and performed a piece she wrote in Canada when she was on vacation about June 14, the day of her birthday. "I sweat bullets every June 14," she lamented. She went on to say, in diary form, how she was trying to improve herself by paying the rent on time, give up smoking pot and "fucking boys I just met." This was pretty interesting and actually a departure from Kate's usual pieces, with topics which have been about teen homicide, sex, and Attention Deficit Disorder. Kate can write traditional narrative, but tends to write about what is ailing her mentally. "I have a big, huge ego, and I like to roll around in me. Me, me, MEEEEEEEEEEEE," she wailed at one point. Hey, at least she admits she's a narcissist. I know a lot of poets who think this, but wouldn't dare put it in a poem.

I don't want to overlook the fact that Thax and Shag had a hilarious interchange that night in which Shag was about to introduce R. Sean Wolf to perform at song.

Shag: Please welcome back to the stage everybody, the man who is the sand in my stone.

Thax: The sand in your WHAT?

Shag: Stone.

Thax: (grumpily) Why, what does that mean?

Shag: (whispering into the mike) You're fired.

The audience tittered at this point. The thing is, this is one of the best venues because everyone gets involved with the cross-talk and no one takes themselves too seriously.

I am going to end this with the last musician and performer of the night, Kantz, a young guitar player who is a member of the band Marvelkind. Kantz reminded me of a gen-Ex Tom Verlaine, who was the lead singer of a new wave band called Television who influenced many other bands to come, including U2 and R.E.M. Tall, lanky, wide-eyed and agreeably handsome, Kantz performed a song filled with hope of a sane life after hard drugs; also, another one, with much expectation of better times, had Kantz playing like a crazy cat, his eyes bugging out, declaring:
information please
show your face to me
up around the bend,

and then he went into this dreamy, strummy guitar riff.

I didn't get to every single minute detail of the night. There was a fake metal Eiffel tower that Shag and Thax were making suggestive jokes about, and I just happened to have 8 or 9 White Castle postcards I snagged at one of those trendy restaurants up in Lincoln Park, and handed them out right after Shag happened to make a White Castle joke (also know as "Schwag Hassle" by one of my old poetry buddies who is probably back in Texas by now). Shag created a contest by which anyone could win the tower trophy by guessing some of his pet metaphors he uses every week. Kate won the Eiffel tower after guessing three of them to plug S.L.T. and they were, "wake your neighbors; call the kids right now; The Greatest Show on earth; and (the one I used in the lead) beautiful, downtown wicker park heights."

Shag also thanked everyone who performed, which were the likes of Richie, MC Think, Kate, Kantz, R. Sean Wolf, Elizabeth Harper, Me, and Nicholas the bartender. I didn't get the opportunity to cover everyone's performance, but Thax Douglas was amazing as always. By the way, MC Think snubbed me at a rooftop party the other night (my only revenge being that my boyfriend & I got the last sips of mushroom tea about thirty seconds ahead of him, HEH).

Anyhoo, more people should come to Shag's. It's the only venue where the music, the poetry and the comedy all are one big dysfunctional, wacky family. And you get to see all the rising stars for free.

--Jane Ripley


In 1993, I decided I wanted to do stand up comedy. I was in Western Nebraska, and I didn't know much about the business, so I interviewd a guy who booked talent for the Omaha and Lincoln clubs. One of the first things he told me was that today's audience has a very short attention span and they must be stimulated every minute. This advice rings true at poetry readings as well as comedy clubs.

The days when someone could take the mic. and woo audiences by simply reading a poem and maybe playing guitar are over. This is the MTV era, and a successful performer must ask the audience to use all 5 senses to appreciate their art form. Joanna Marshall certainly followed this advice during her feature performance at Women Out Loud on Tuesday, June 26th at The Note.

Unlike other feature shows, where someone just sits and reads their poetry, Marshall used dance, music and cyber images to get her message across. At one point, while her image was on a video screen, she reminded any onlookers that while the girl in the video may look warm and tempting, the only thing she's flashing is her smile. Throughout the evening, many of Marshall's peices dealt with objectification from the view of a women who receives plenty of it. Her cyber piece reminded us that when you fall for a cyber goddess (or god for that matter) you are not falling for that actual person, but for an image you see that is based somewhat on a real live human being. By presenting the images on a screen, she is able to allow onlookers to admire and drool at her without invading her privacy or violating her sense of who she is. Not everyone in her position can do this as easily as she does.

If you get a chance check out the Land of Make Beleive show at the Subterranean in August.

As usual I was impressed by the quality of poets who attended Women Out Loud at the Note. I got there late and missed the evening's earlier poets. (Sorry)

Co host Krystal Ashe impressed me with her work. She is so recognized for her work in maintaining venues and slams in Chicago that her poetry itself doesn't get the credit it deserves. Other impressive preformances were given by Lucy Anderton and Stef Rock. My favorite performance of the evening came from newcomer Megan Steilstra, who read an eye opening peice of fiction about the perils of being late.

The only thing that disappoints me about Women Out Loud is that more men don't attend. They might find that it provides more insight about what women want than a Mel Gibson movie.

--Kate Cullan

LEAVING MY OPTIONS OPEN. (Review by C. J. Laity)

It was a hot night in Chicago on Tuesday, June 26th. What better way to cool down than with some poetry? Ever since I called Hyde Park's venue "Words On Crap" due to its former host, Ra Amen's bullshit, I've found myself not on the Woodlawn venue's email list (if there still exists one), so I wasn't going to brave heading all the way there just on the chance there might be something cool going on. I thought the Tallgrass Writers Guild show in Lincoln Park would be a good place to hang out, because I remembered the Red Lion has a deck on their roof, and I had received an e-mail from Charlie Rossiter earlier that day letting me know Avant Retro was playing, show scheduled to start at 7. The idea of sipping on a Guinness under the setting sun to the tune of Back Beat set to music was right on dude (unfortunately, this vision was only in my head). When I got there, I discovered the show was to be held inside, just feet from the tempting patio door leading to the fresh air, and despite the new lights they installed, I was immediately disappointed by how dark and stifling it was in that room. And Whitney Scott was very serious about collecting $5 from both Maggie and I, after we had already signed the open mic. list. I'm a supporter of Scott's and a supporter of paying poets, but when you charge a cover you take the chance that some people won't be able to afford it. We sat at the bar downstairs, hoping more people would show up to justify coughing up the green. By the time 8 rolled around, Rossiter was still a no show (I hear he arrived shortly after), DeGenova was just now wiping his mouth clean from some good old fashioned Irish bar food, and we were instructed to go upstairs to begin anyway. After much effort convincing Maggie's blessed big heart that she need not feel guilty for ditching out, that's exactly what we did--ditch out. It was nothing personal against Tallgrass; I just needed some air and I honestly didn't feel like forking up five bucks to read in the open mic.: not to suggest that it's not worth it on a good night, but this didn't seem like it was going to be a good night, starting an hour late with an audience which could be counted on the fingers of one hand and all.

We hit the newly renovated Cafe Aloha in Lincoln Square instead. Markus Sroge was hosting and he did a damn good job. I'm not sure if the blacklights and the eyeballs painted on the walls are pleasantly surreal or just plain tackaroony, but it doesn't really matter--the new Aloha is a very supportive venue and the applause was loud and gracious. The only thing it lacks is a liquor license. The evening was mixed between singer / songwriters playing guitars and the poets. It pisses me off when poets are given three minutes to read but folk singers are given ten. What makes them so special? And why not give the poets more time to read? Does the show have to end at 10? I was just really getting into it when all of a sudden it was over already. It was great to see Michael Watson come out of hiding and strut his poetic stuff, and Ken Greene had us all in stitches with his church poem. And the feature, Dennis José, was an extremely pleasant surprise. He demonstrated a remarkable wit within his deadpan reading style. For example, one of his poems started out "I wish life was like it is in the beer commercials," with descriptions of yuppies on the beach playing sports, a description of possibly someone's utopia, until we learn the narrator is actually sucking on a quart behind a dumpster having just pan-handled enough change for his beer. Dennis also did a lengthy piece about Jesus coming to Chicago which should not be missed (so go out to see Dennis Jose the next time you see him listed as a feature in our calendar). The new space at Café Aloha is ready for growth, so go out and support it. And we'll give a Tallgrass reading another chance on some other night to be fair. This is Chicago, and when it comes to poetry, those are the breaks. And of course we are open to reviewing Words on Tap, but we need to be informed about what the hell is going on down there now that it has moved to Tuesday.

Tuesday nights in Chicago offers a little something of everything. No matter what your poetic tastes are, you're bound to find something you like on Tuesday nights.

--C. J. Laity

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Note: Ripley, Cullan and Laity all go out on the same night to different poetry shows and then report back in.

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