The Annual State of the Chicago Poetry Scene Address by CJ Laity
with photos from the 2007 Chicago Poetry Fest by Lonna Kingsbury
(This and four bits will get you a copy of the Tribune.)
My Fellow Chicago Poets,
I am happy to report that the state of the Chicago Poetry Scene is good.
All rumors of my demise have been greatly exaggerated. All attempts at coup d'états have thus far been unsuccessful. I'm still here and ChicagoPoetry.com is still going strong. ChicagoPoetry.com is now entering its ninth year as one of the great leaders in the Chicago Poetry Scene.
ChicagoPoetry.com has a great history and I am proud to be its commander. It arose in late 1999 as the internet version of the Letter eX Poetry Newsmagazine, that was published in Chicago from 1985 to 1995. Since then, there have been three versions of ChicagoPoetry.com over the past eight years. The first version was clunky and looked like it was designed with crayons and was hosted by WebTV. The second version was somewhat better but was hosted on a server that constantly crashed whenever it received too much traffic. The present version is being hosted on a monster server that allows us to remain online uninterrupted as it accommodates our growing audience with nary a glitch, thanks to ChicagoPoetry.com's hero, Mr. Bill DuPree.
In February of 2007, ChicagoPoetry.com (Version 3) reached an important landmark. It reached its one millionth "page view" hit. ChicagoPoetry.com has received an additional 330,000 page view hits since then. These are real numbers that I monitor. There is no guesswork or mystery to it. I can actually keep track of why people come to the site. For example, I've noticed the name Luis J. Rodriguez is a name that many people search for on Google; when they do, they find ChicagoPoetry.com because it has an in depth review of Rodriguez's book. If you are a poet in Chicago, use Google to search for your name and see if ChicagoPoetry.com is informing the world about you. ChicagoPoetry.com is doing a very important job.
ChicagoPoetry.com is one of the most popular poetry themed sites in the country. I don't say that to brag. That is simply a fact. Did you know, if you use Google to search for the single word "poetry," ChicagoPoetry.com usually appears somewhere within the top 100 listings (although this is always fluctuating), out of more than 14 million listings? We get a lot of visitors because of that. ChicagoPoetry.com is also very timely. When the police raided Poetry Magazine's Printers Ball, ChicagoPoetry.com had a story published about it within twelve hours, and that story alone attracted over 18,000 visitors to the site. These visitors then browsed around to discover all the other important information that exists on the site. This sign of success is due to strategy and hard work. I know how to get people into the site. I'm really good at it.
Another reason ChicagoPoetry.com has become so popular around the world is because we network. ChicagoPoetry.com's intentions are clear and noble. One only needs to look at this site to see what those intentions are. For example, there are over 400 links to other poetry websites on our sidebars. See them? We also have a calendar of events on the homepage that is updated on a daily basis.
Make no mistake: keeping the site updated is hard work. It also takes faith, because a lot of the time this hard work is not appreciated or is taken for granted. I can tell you countless horror stories, but the most recent involved a poet named Bob who harassed me in an attempt to get me to make him one of my "Top Dogs" of poetry, even though he doesn't even have a book published. Of course I didn't cave in, so he said something nasty about my liver and now there is yet another poet who selfishly gives me the silent treatment. Oh boo hoo to Bob. As you can see, the price of publishing ChicagoPoetry.com doesn't only involve time and money, but at times it costs relationships as well.
Yet despite the unfortunate politics of the neurotic poetry world, the fact remains that ChicagoPoetry.com is about networking. I have reviewed dozens of books by Chicago poets and have used my email list to keep the community informed. There is absolutely no way to make everyone happy but I do my best to be all-inclusive while at the same time attempting to keep the nay-sayers at a distance. All of this comes only through the utmost struggle, because as any poet knows, there is no money in poetry. So in order to keep the dream alive, a poet has to do what a poet has to do, and once in a while I have to swallow my pride and beg for a little money from the community I serve. Even for this, sometimes I am chastised, as in the example of when a poet named Todd once emailed me on Christmas Eve to inform me that he thinks I am a thief and a "charlatan" for asking for a reading fee during a fundraising drive. I nearly lost my faith in it that time. Thanks a lot, Todd.
Presently the landscape of the Chicago Poetry Scene is changing. I regret that I have not been keeping up to speed with what the younger crowd has been doing. There has been a renaissance among the academic crowd that needs to be recognized. One of the reasons I haven't paid more attention to this movement is because I had been introduced to it through a man named Ray who seemed to want to do nothing but butt heads with me. I unfairly attributed his hostility to the entire crowd, but now that I have been getting out and experiencing it for myself, I am finding out that this crowd is actually very friendly. On the other hand, I can sense a longing among other poets for a rejuvenation of the slam scene. I predict new slam-oriented venues will arise in 2008 and they will pump some life and energy back into the performance scene. Get busy on that. When that happens I will be there to report about it. In the middle of it all is the open mic scene. It is called "open" mic because that is what it is, open. The open mic scene is the epitome of freedom of speech. You don't have to belong to any school of poetry to be accepted at an open mic. The open mics are where poets from all walks of life have the opportunity to meet each other. These poets find out that people who are different are not as threatening as they first appear to be. So I encourage everyone to make an effort to support Chicago's poetry open mics in 2008. If you are disappointed in the quality of the poetry at the open mics, well then, raise the quality by participating.
Over the years, ChicagoPoetry.com has dabbled in several aspects of poetry. It has hosted live shows and it has tried its hand at publishing a few anthologies. But its primary mission has always been to report the poetry news, to be the source that keeps not only Chicago but the entire world informed about what the Chicago Poetry Scene is all about. In 2008, my intention is to bring the focus back to this primary mission. I've been looking around at the pages of the site and I've noticed that certain areas need to be updated. For one thing, the site needs more performance reviews. I need to follow up my Top Dog series that concentrated on male poets with one that concentrates on female poets. The site also needs to get back to the job of spreading the poetry gossip. Now, come on. Don't let that word "gossip" scare you. Anyone who reads ChicagoPoetry.com knows that its gossip is not the same kind of gossip that comes from the a-holes who go around spreading rumors behind people's backs or who post crap on the internet anonymously. I sign my name to my "poetry gossip" and it is generally quite harmless anyway. But the "poetry gossip" is what makes ChicagoPoetry.com unique, and I don't intend to assimilate the site into something that lacks a sense of humor.
The physics of my life are the same as yours: I only have a finite amount of time and energy. That means, if I am going to reincarnate my role as poetry reporter in order to bring ChicagoPoetry.com up to speed with the changing landscape of the scene, I will have less time to do other things, such as organize poetry contests. Although I intend to do a few big shows in 2008 (like an event for the Public Library Poetry Fest), the hosting of live poetry shows will come second to reporting the poetry news. If I concentrate for a while on reporting the poetry news instead of organizing so many live events, everyone will benefit.
Now, I'm not naive. I know I have enemies in the scene. I wish it didn't have to be that way, but I have always had enemies, since day one. There are actually poets in the Chicago Poetry Scene who wish that I would fail, who find joy when I'm suffering, and who resent ChicagoPoetry.com and who seem to be constantly plotting to sabotage whatever I do. What the hell is their problem? I honestly don't know. There are some poets in Chicago who got pissed off about something that I wrote and instead of respecting my freedom of speech or debating about it rationally, they broke off all ties and now they go around pretending that I don't even exist. For the first couple of years it seemed really silly but now it is beginning to creep me out. Why does it creep me out? Because I do exist, obviously.
Let me give you an example. The host of a certain poetry radio show recently featured a poet named Brent Mesick. In the press release for this particular show, the host made mention of the Chicago Poets Against the War CD that I produced. But, since this poetry host has some kind of bug up his butt about me, he altered the facts and falsely and intentionally reported that the CD is published by Lulu, sponsored by PoetryPoetry.com, and that it is presently sold out, cutting me out of the history of my own project. (By the way, the CD is not sold out: I have a pile of them sitting on my desk if anyone wants to purchase one.) This is but one example of a person who, through passive aggressive means, has been causing divisions in the poetry scene. Often what is not said is more vicious than what is said. What is likely to happen is, some poets will see my change in direction as a sign of weakness. They'll pump up their little passive aggressive assaults until perhaps I act like the flawed human being that I am, and that's when I'll openly tell them to go to hell or something. Then they will point to what I say in order to demonize me, because, of course, I have no record of something that was not said to use as my defense. Wow. I articulated that really well. I think my Disco Hypnotic Mind Trips are actually working.
To this handful of poets who still have a problem with me, who still give me shit even after I have tirelessly served the community for eight years, I want to make myself purrrfectly clear. I am not in a pissing contest with anyone. But I do deserve respect. I deserve respect because I work hard for the community. When people show me respect I show nothing but respect back. If someone has a problem with me, that problem is his or her problem, not my problem. A Chicago poetry website that reaches a half million people a year is not the problem, it is the solution. When someone doesn't support it simply because their personality clashes with mine, that, my friend, is the problem. And that problem has been tearing up a certain portion of the scene for years, as is demonstrated by the dwindling audience at some of the open mics. People are not fools and they can sense bad vibes. Who the hell wants to come out to support the poets when the poets don't even support each other?!
I won't lie. When someone tries to hurt ChicagoPoetry.com, all bets are off and I will use every means at my disposal to defend it without remorse, because it is simply too important to lose. If I were not prepared to do that, then I wouldn't be much of a leader. But what I desire, what I have desired from day one, is unity among the poets, and unity is a two way street. So, in 2008, can we please just celebrate poetry without being obsessed with our differences? Can we present to the world a mature, rational and thriving poetry scene that gives the City of Chicago the reputation that it deserves? Can we let bygones be bygones and act like the adults we are?
I know, I know. I'm too white, too male, too straight and too rough around the edges to be accepted by some of the poets in Chicago. I simply cannot please everyone. But ChicagoPoetry.com is not "the Man". There is no reason to rebel against it. There is no need to give it shit. There is no need to make my job harder than it already is. ChicagoPoetry.com is so underground it should be on the other side of the freaking world. It doesn't accept money from the government or from commercial advertising. It survives on a shoe string budget through the generosity of some very loving and caring people, such as Bill, or those who chip in a couple of dollars here and there to help pay for my long, long hours of work. ChicagoPoetry.com is here to serve you. Take advantage of it
Finally, let me say, ChicagoPoetry.com does not ask anyone to take sides. You can support me and still support the bipolar poet who was my friend yesterday but who for some mysterious reason wants to be my archenemy today. If that person wants to live in a comic book world that is her or his choice. We're not battleships on the high seas; we're merely poets; we're merely human beings. Honestly, the gigantic job of keeping this website operational is too exhausting for me to keep track of what this or that poet's problem with me is this time. All I want to do is report the poetry news. And that is what I intend to do.
I'll see you out and about. Happy Holidays! Here's to making 2008 a Year of Living Poetically.
Note: CJ Laity gives his annual State of the Chicago Poetry Scene address. Click Here for a transcript of the speech.