B U C K E T O F P E R K I N S
Story By C. J. Laity
Poet Chuck Perkins has lived in Chicago for over eleven years, but don't let that accent fool you: New Orleans lives in him like the brass band in a funeral procession. Still, if you want to see him, you'd have better luck checking for him at such shows as The Poetry Slam or Urban Voices, or possibly on Richard Fameree's Hyde Park radio show; in venues such as The Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art or, doing a tribute to Gil Scott Heron, at The Guild Complex; or even in such publications as Oyez Review. Or you can have your own pocket version of Perkins, by buying his CD, Bucket of questions, which you can find, well, anywhere Chuck Perkins is. Drop him a line at email@example.com and ask him where he'll be next.
What about his CD? Well, when I got over the repetition of lines, such as "every time the pistols blaze," or the reference to hands being part butterfly, I found what is truly what a poetry CD should be: no music, no dolby THX surround sound, no excuses, no bull -- just Chuck Perkins' poetry set at a mythical Logan Square venue, with what sounds like canned applause and restaurant white noise to give it ambiance. Perkins paints rainbow colors over the darkness as his voice refuses to be distracted by the bullshit. When his momentum surges, he has yanked the string and dug the hook in, even when talking about something as simple as "sitting at the lunch counter at the Woolworths." Perkins doesn't take anything for granted, as he offers a relaxed, short intro to most of these poems, not caring if we agree with him or not--he just wants to make us think. Without shying away from the ugly, he let's us know it is damn good to be alive, with pieces such as "Lil Greg" and "Inner City Blues," which could stand up on the radio as strongly as any top ten hit.
INSIDE CHUCK (AN EXCLUSIVE LETTER eX INTERVIEW)
Laity: What brought you to Chicago from New Orleans?
Perkins: I transferred here from Texas in 1993 with my former job.
Laity: How would you sum up Chicago's Poetry Scene?
Perkins: The Chicago poetry scene is strong and full of very good poets. I am sometimes dismayed by constant in fighting and groups not getting along. When people do not get along or fight for good reasons I understand, but when its do to drawing erroneous conclusions or miscommunication, that's a shame. I expect more from poets.
Laity: What is (are) your favorite poetry venue(s) to perform in?
Perkins: I have been to poetry venues all across the country, and the Green Mill is my favorite by far. Many poetry venues consist of poets reading to poets. The incestuous nature of this makes it difficult for poets to receive needed criticism, because it becomes difficult to differentiate as to whether the person or the poem is being liked. Every Sunday the Green Mill is different, and while there is a core group of people who attend each week, there is also sure to be non poets who have never been to a poetry venue. I think non poets are important if this rejuvenated
interest in poetry is to last and elevate to the next level where poets are taken as serious as painters, and other artist. I also like the fact that you can get snapped off the stage at the Green Mill. I remember seeing this guy who read one of the most sexist, poorly crafted poems imaginable. The Green mill audience snapped him off. That guy was known to do that poem at another venue and receive applauds. I will admit that there have been times at the Green Mill when the snaps were mean spirited and malicious. People who go there enough, know the difference and no one likes it.
Laity: What other Chicago poets have been helpful in establishing you in the local literary circuit? And how?
Perkins: Mark Smith, has done a lot to get me established in the local literary circuit. I went to the Green Mill for the first time in 1996. Less than one year later I had an opportunity to MC a Sunday night, and I have also featured there a few times. In 1999 Mark presented Sheila Donahue and I with the privilege of MCing the National Poetry Slam at the Chicago Theater. He has taken me along for radio interviews, and provided gigs in some very interesting places. I believe that I have been evolving as a poet, and that I have the potential to go as far as I want to, but Mark's assistance has been useful, and has probably pushed me along faster than I could have achieved alone.
Laity: Where do you usually write; what usually inspires you to write?
Perkins: I never use pen or paper to write. I construct all of my poems in my head and type them when I'm done. I usually write while I'm driving, in the shower, or lying in bed unable to sleep. This way of writing gives most of my work a very fluid style, which I like. It doesn't allow me to be very prolific, this is the thing I don't like. I don't have the discipline to put aside too much time for writing, I'm far more interested in living. I would rather live a poem than write one.
Laity: How would you describe the relationship of the page to the stage?
Perkins: I did a show at Lewis University a few months back performing some of Mark Strands work. He and I had a chance to talk afterwards, and he said that you have to be a stage poet or a page poet. I hope that Strand is wrong because ultimately, I want to be able to perform a poem on stage, that can also stand on the page just as well.
Laity: Please elaborate on the voice and character in the poem "Lil Greg."
Perkins: I grew up in a very tough neighborhood in New Orleans and as I reflect on my childhood I realize that a lot people in my community had a lot more respect for sports than scholarship. In fact good athleticism and below average grades seem to fair better than above average grades and clumsiness. I was fortunate enough to graduate from college, I have a family and life for me has been OK, the sad aspect is that some of my friends who have not been quiet as fortunate, had the acumen to do just as well as myself if not better. I have wondered a lot about this and I have concluded that white washed history exacerbates the problem. Black kids attending all black schools, taught by all black teachers, open their books and see only white people. Young black boys and girls see very few people who look like them beyond the covers of these books, so subsequently scholarship is falsely associated with being white; therefore, if you strive for that you may be seen as selling out. Some current music reinforces this bullshit notion. I also think that a lack of fathers in home makes the situation worse. When I was a kid I was fond of shooting craps. I can remember this guy called Wap coming over to shoot with us, he was about 12 years older than me and my friends who were about 15 at the time. While this incident is about 21 years old I can remember when he showed us blood trickling from his arm. He explained that he had recently shot heroin and some how he relayed his story as if he was really impressed by his deed. My friends and I should have seen him as a low life dog intentionally corrupting kids, but instead, he left us all awe struck. We sort of looked at him as if he was the king of the night, some kind of ghetto prince. A very subtle thing happened for me not long after. My entire family was getting into the car, as Wap happened to be heading our way. There were no words exchanged, but looks said everything. My father looked at Wap as if he were a piece of shit, and Wap's look was that of a sad punk. After this occurrence he didn't seem so large to me, unfortunately my friends who lacked fathers probably spent a few more years seeing this guy as a giant. Lil Greg has not been able to reach his fullest potential because of reasons like these and more.
Laity: What advise can you offer others who are just starting to break into the local performance poetry scene?
Perkins: It is easy for anyone to find 50 or so people to tell you about how great your work is. While we all need positive feedback it is prudent to seek out those individuals who are capable of giving good criticism. This is something I still find painful, but in the end if I want to continue to grow as a poet it will only help. Standing on stage and having an audience appreciate your work is good but audiences can send false signals. For example, many audiences will respond positively to what is nothing more than a political speech, if they are in agreement with the sentiment They can also sleep on a very well crafted thought provoking poem. Therefore, audience approval should never be the objective. I would also suggest that we remember, being a poet involves looking within and finding our own unique voice. A voice we should work hard to be honest with, and deal with in a fresh perspective.
Laity: Who is your favorite poet of all time? Why?
Perkins: Patricia Smith. It is totally emotional. Her images are colorful and clear. She uses time and space like no one I have ever seen. I look forward to the windows she allows me to look in.
Laity: What can we expect from Chuck Perkins in the near future?
Perkins: I am currently in transition. I recently lost my job of 9 years and I have had a horrendous case of writers block because of it. There is a good possibility that I will be moving to Texas, primarily to get closer to my family. If that does happen I will surely miss this big vibrant beautiful city and all of my friends in it. I know that I will be writing again soon, and where ever I go, just as I have always taken New Orleans with me, I will carry the colors, sounds, smells, and taste of Chicago. I will be a better poet and person because of it.
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Note: This article includes an eXclusive interview with Chuck Perkins.