GUILD COMPLEX DIVVIES OUT DINERO DURING POETRY DUEL
Story and Photos By C. J. Laity
It was exhilarating to see the Chopin Theater's upstairs auditorium packed "to the guild" on June 21 for the 13th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic. Awards, because, as you know, last year the Guild Complex sort of petered-out, only did a few fiction readings and some weird Iron Poet thing. What was that all about? This year, however, with the help of some real veterans in the scene, such as lovebirds Mary Hawley and Mike Puican, the Guild is slowly coming alive with more dependable programming, such as Palabra Pura, a bilingual reading series that will feature David Hernandez of Streets Sounds and blockbuster-poet Brenda Cardenas on Wednesday, June 28 at the California Clipper, 1002 N. California. The Guild is also continuing their prose series and they have been working in conjunction with other local arts giants such as the MCA. Yarr, networking is good. It's inspiring to see the Guild Complex finally taking the right path after such a long period of hiding from the cameras, but let me tell you, whoever writes their neurotic messages for their list serv needs to get out of the 1960s.
In a flashback from the old days, the Guild brought out two blasts from the past, Guild retiree Quraysh Ali Lansana (looking snappy and not breaking a sweat), and former Guild employee (and also last year's winner of the Open Mic. Awards) Toni Asante Lightfoot. The most enjoyable part of the evening, as usual, was hearing Lansana and Lightfoot read from the work of Ms. Brooks. And Toni led the entire house in a "We Real Cool" sing-a-long. Lansana is known for having had a close relationship with the late Gwendolyn Brooks, and this fact has guided him in the course of his life and has boosted him in his career beyond measure. Yet Lansana seemed rather somber on this night, reflecting on the life of Ms. Brooks and possibly remembering the good old days when the Guild was thriving with readings every Wednesday night and the brotherhood in the scene was much more fresh and energized. Not all of us remember Spices, but those of us who do belong to an old-school poetry club that has been in remission for years. We saw the life of poetry for one fleeting moment in history. There were no thin skins back then and there was a rare respect for diversity. Lansana is one of these veterans, and he remains one of the most influential poets around; yet, like many who take the University route, it seems these days his energy is often trapped within the walls of the institution, instead of serving as the poetry injection Michael Warr spoke about in the early 90s. What the hell am I talking about?
Ah ha! You see! I have captured definitive proof that Mary Fons rocked the house. But she didn't win those five hundred smackeroos, no Siree. Get this straight. The Gwendolyn Brooks Awards carry with them the ultimate unspoken PC rule, making it taboo to complain about it or feel jipped, 'cause, as Ms. Brooks said, everyone is a winner. That rule excludes me. Let's be honest. It's kinda about the $500 too. I mean, would twenty of the hottest poets in town gather for a pseudo-slam where only one individual scores the loot, if it wasn't for the prospect of that fat check? So, we want it to be fair, or at least feel like it's fair. To be honest, after witnessing, year after year, a certain urban performance style always celebrating victory, I wonder if some of the poets, such as Stella Radulescu (who speaks with a thick European accent), even stand a chance, or are they just filler in a prewritten destiny. The idea of only allowing audience members to vote in one of five heats always sounded good in theory, but now that I've seen so many of these competitions, I don't think I've ever seen that strategy make much of a difference: deserving or not, the one with the most friends in the house usually gets the prize anyway. But now, see, I feel like I am somehow insulting Ms. Brooks or her legacy or violating the hush-hush attitude of our thin-skinned society by saying these things. It's that PC beast keeping us from communicating, striking us down again, that Bush-ism of non-criticism. So not another word. Or that whack-job Todd Welp might accuse me of drinking again (ah, there I go, popping up from time to time). Let's just say, Mary Fons rocked the house, but she went home empty handed.
Then this woman, Emile Ferris, popped her head into the poetry scene. Wow. Where did she come from? I want to see more of her. Her story about 1968 Chicago was really well written. And she performed it with zeal. I sat there and I listened and saw what she was talking about and understood what she was saying with her gigantic, colossal metaphor. But, come on, be realistic, no matter how well written it is, does an extended comparison between Anglo family values and the city streets written by an unknown stand a chance in the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic. Awards? Me thinks not. I guess it stands as much of a chance as tonight's winner stands to get his work published in Poetry Magazine. But that's a bad analogy, because tonight's winner is talented and also young, so who knows what achievements he will score in the future. My foot would taste mighty good if he proved me wrong. In any case, putting the bitch in me aside for a moment, the event did give each poet the opportunity to share their work in front of a large, attentive audience (not an accomplishment that comes easily in the poetry world), and I probably would not have discovered Emile Ferris if she didn't make it to the big twenty. Somebody has to git the booty, but tonight that someone was not Emile Ferris.
So let's move on.
(from Joe Eldridge's poem "Query Me")
And I say final time because faggot doesn't hang
over my head like a flashing neon "kick me" sign
but shoots like a spiraling scud straight
to the bunker housing my sissyhood
exploding in a wake-up slap
jolting into action that special reserve
of testosterone that fuels my flamboyance
as I twirl under the flaming disco ball
belting out a show stopping show tune.
Every queer bone in my being queries:
Am I not a man? Am I not a man?
My fists howl -- yes I am -- as I pound
his surprised head against the pavement
rhythmically cracking it
blow upon blow, a palette of oozing reds
his eyes at last opened
and me hissing:
How does it feel to be beat by a faggot?
Of all the poets in the house during the show, Joe Eldridge inspired the most imagery in my mind's eye. His monologue about standing up to a gay-basher was hilarious and full of surprises. Eldridge has a focused voice that captivates and draws the listener in. But, once again, the thought occurred to me that a poem that ends in violence probably wasn't going to represent this distinguished annual accolade, though one would hope that the competition is about the quality of the writing and not about how Brooks-ish the writing is. And I called it right; Eldridge left with nothing but his poem in his hand.
Okay. Larry Dunne should have won. That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it. His poem was not only extremely well written, but it would have made a fine addition to the tradition of this award. This is not to put down tonight's winner, but anyone anywhere who competes in live poetry competitions should realize that their honor is the result of the whim of the audience and receiving a prize doesn't necessarily mean that the winning poet has the performance discipline as, say, gordon cc liao, or the breadth of Jared Smith, or the maturity of voice of Larry Dunne for that matter, even if these poets were not voted for by the audience of the day. Also, live competitions depend on the poet's ability to perform, meaning anyone with a speech impediment or other disability is handicapped in a slam-like bout despite the quality of the writing. This is not a pattern arising exclusively within the doors of the Guild Complex, but it is a given anywhere live poetry competitions happen, especially within the slam scene. Larry Dunne articulated beautifully (twice!) despite appearing to have come off a long, hard day, and that seemed to me to be more of an achievement than the typical youngblood def poetry jam style that is so prevalent today. If I had been the sole judge, Dunne would have walked away with the bread, but there were about a hundred other judges present that evening, so Dunne was done-in by tonight's recipient of five hundred greenbacks.
Langston Kerman returned after getting sacked by Toni Lightfoot last year, and he slam dunked the likes of Somara Zwick, Erika Mikkalo, and Robert Chicoine (also returning from last year), to snatch the five-hundred clams. And why not? Who is to say what is the best poem, who is the best poet, who should get the cold hard cash. Me? Hell no! It's my job to bitch about it not to do it. I don't even judge my own contest! So let the audience decide. Why not? And decide they did. Congratulations, Langston Kerman. Only one poet each year gets the honor of the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic. Award, and this year that be you.
Kerman's poem (in three parts) blended an enthusiastic performance style with some real human sentiment, and kudos for that. He's a young poet worth keeping an eye on. I remember being impressed by him last year, and the new clean-cut Kerman didn't disappoint. It's a great honor to hold the title. Hopefully this will serve as an opportunity to boost Kerman's career, to inspire him to work toward future goals, and to empower him and those he reaches in his life. And congratulations to the Guild Complex for continuing the tradition and for giving poets like Kerman such an opportunity. I'm going to keep my eye on the Guild, because I have a feeling they are headed in the right direction.
Some of the other poets who competed included: (from left to right) Darius Walton, Erin Teegarden, Michael Fountain, Tameika Sims, Yolanda Cardenas, Elsie Vazquez Irwin, and Stella Radulescu. Poets who competed who are not shown here included Karen Fraser, gordon cc liao, Tatiana Dennison, Robert Chicoine, Erika Mikkalo, Jared Smith, Somara Zwick and Emily Calvo.
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Note: On Wednesday, June 21, the Guild Complex held the 13th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic. Awards. ChicagoPoetry.com's own C. J. Laity was there to report on the big poetry duel. Click here for the complete story.