Posts Tagged ‘Chicago’

In Memoriam, David Hernandez, Chi-Town Poet

Yesterday, I learned that David Hernandez had passed away of a heart attack at the age of 66. He died in his beloved city, Chicago, on Feb. 25, 2013. (By the way, there is another David Hernandez, a poet from California, who is very much alive.)

Reading this news two months after the fact brought back vivid memories of another stage of my life, when I was fortunate enough to know David and be influenced by this fabulous poet and teacher. As I read articles about his life that included lines from his poems, his distinctive voice came back to me as well. David read his poetry with a musical lilt, even when he wasn’t performing with his band Street Sounds. When he was with the band, then the full sense of the Latin rhythms came through, but even without the band, you could hear the echoes of the music in his lines. Poetry Poetry┬áhas audio clips of several of his poems available online, including one of my all-time favorites “Why I Want to be a Real Poet.” But it’s hard to pick a favorite David Hernandez poem: every poem is a hardened gem.

Hernandez has been described as a street poet, as Chicago’s unnofficial poet-laureate (he wrote innaugural poems for Mayor Harold Washington), and Chicago’s first Latino poet (he began publishing in 1971). But I didn’t know any of those things when I met David in 1986. He was well into his second decade as a published poet, but apart from his fabulous poems, you’d never guess it to look at him or to interact with him.

I was just a kid, fresh out of college, trying to make a living in my first job at Chicago Review Press, and my good friend and college professor, Robin Metz, was running Knox Colleges’ Urban Studies program in Chicago for a semester. He enlisted me to help out with their poetry workshop. David was the real poet, I manned the coffee pot and ┬ásat in on the informal discussions. I was probably full of myself and gave too much ‘advice.’ David was always encouraging, gently prodding or exploring a poem, but mostly encouraging the other poets to explore their creativity. You see, he never treated us like students; he always treated us like artists. He could be demanding about art, but you never felt judged or looked down upon. He led by example, and his example was absolute honesty. There was no room for pretentiousness in the little church basement where we met each Saturday. He never had to lay down the law or tell us to be humble: you just knew. In part because, though he never claimed to be a great poet and even wrote ironic poems about wanting to be a ‘real poet,’ we could sense we were in the presence of a real poet.

I learned more about life and about poetry in those Saturday mornings with David than I would in many other classrooms, so I was sad when the Knox students packed up their bags and went back to campus. But I didn’t need to be. David was still around, and I’d bump into him at the Green Mill Lounge, where I’d started going to the Poetry Slams. And David never forgot who you were and never acted like he didn’t know you because he didn’t have to know you anymore. Each time you saw David, it was like no time had passed. We remained friends throughout the time I lived in Chicago, and he remains one of my absolute favorite poet friends from those days.

Apologies to Chicago or ‘Truth’ in Poetry

As I wrote awhile back, we visited Chicago this summer. I got to read at the Uptown Poetry Slam and see old friends. We also drove around the city (driving the Loop on Sunday morning was delightful!), took the dog to the Montrose dog park, had Leona’s pizza in my old neighborhood, and had a thoroughly wonderful time.

That all got me thinking about a poem I wrote several years ago that is in my new book Time Capsules. The poem is “Travelogue,” and it was written on a cross-country trip as an experiment in writing very autobiographical poetry about what was happening as it happened. Mind you, this could be dangerous to do while driving, but never fear, I did stop to write most of the time. Occasionally, I jotted a line or a few words on a scrap of paper, but mostly composed in my head or waited until I could take a break to write. Everything in the poem happened in one way or another, though I quickly found that memory became a theme even though I had planned to write about the present. Past memories and present experiences merged, which should probably not come as a surprise, since I was driving for days by myself with just a cassette player and my dog to keep me company.

Though my goal was to write the truth, I also realized quickly that the truth is a slippery concept in a poem. Hence my need to apologize to Chicago or to my friends who stayed there, at any rate. While driving the interstate in heavy traffic, I was caught in a long traffic jam. This reminded me of some of the reasons I left the city — the traffic, the concrete, the heat in summer, the crowds of people — all of which could be exciting and oppressive, especially to a kid from a small town.That section of the poem ends:

             …Now I
remember why I left Chicago.
It was not the traffic really,
but all that concrete and so
many people going nowhere.

Though true for me, and certainly true of the traffic jam I was in as I drove I-80, I felt even as I wrote it that the last line both was and wasn’t true. There are so many people in Chicago, but many are going places, even though at the time I left, I felt I needed to move on to go where I wanted to go. So for my friends who have gone many places while staying in Chicago, and even for myself, now that I see where I might have gone had I stayed there, the last line isn’t true. And yet in the moment of composition it was the truest line I could write. To say more would have overburdened the poem.

Of course, this is the case in any poem, and it’s not just a matter of poetic license. The demands of the form you are working with or the demands of the thematic choices you have decided on (to write the truth as you see it at the moment of the writing, for instance), affect what you can or should say. The sound of a word or the length of a sentence can demand that you need to tell it ‘false’ in order to reveal the ‘truth.’ The truth of any situation is complicated and has many facets; a poem often can only hold some of the many ways of looking at it.

For “Travelogue” this was even more the case than usual, since I was weaving together the surreal experiences of memory and a long drive. And as with any autobiography, experience became subjective even when ‘recorded’ as it was happening, since it was filtered through my experience of it and my thoughts and memories. This became a theme for the book as a whole, or at least for parts of it, as the working title of the collection remained “Travelogue and Other Poems” for quite awhile.

Slam Poetry

Slam poetry has to be the complete antithesis of haiku. It is loud, long, and boisterous and only occassionally sweet or pensive. This summer I had the good fortune to return to Chicago and visit my old stomping grounds at the Green Mill Lounge on a Sunday night.

Here, 23 years ago, according to Marc Smith, organizer extraordinaire, the Uptown Poetry Slam was born on a Sunday night in July. It wasn’t too much later that I first wandered into the club to see what was going on, and not long after that I began reading in the open mics and slams. I can’t say that I won very often, though it seems as if I took home the $10 grand prize for the weekly slam once or twice (taking home, being figurative, since it was probably spent on drafts of Guinness), and I don’t recall ever winning one of the finals that were held occassionally with the top performers, though I’m sure I competed as long as I could last. But I did meet some great friends there, especially fellow poets Cin Salach and Sheilah Donohue with whom I started the Bob Shakespeare Band under the direction of Marc Smith who often stepped in to add his voice to our choral arrangements of poems — not much singing, but three or four poets speaking simultaneously from different places around the room. Later, we were joined by Doug Rand, who took my place when I left Chicago, as is recounted in “An Incomplete History of the Slam.” We performed at the Green Mill and on Tuesday nights at Adolphs, a tiny bar in another part of town. In the late 80’s poetry was spreading like wildfire after the success of the Uptown Poetry Slam, and there were open mics sprouting up all over the city.

A friend recently wrote from Germany, saying a Poetry Slam was coming to their town and wondering what it was. I mention this to show the influence the slam has had on poetry. It soon became a national phenomenon (though I wasn’t involved by then), and there have even been international slams. For those who may still not be aware what a poetry slam is: imagine a cross between a boxing match and an open mic. A slam is organized in ’rounds’ where each poet gets up to the mic and reads a poem, which is then rated on a score of 1-10 by three judges (at least at The Mill, that’s how it goes). The judges are picked from the audience and usually claim to know nothing about poetry, though sometimes they are academics, poets, or writers in other fields. Marc likes to have the occasional academic judge for the audience to ridicule, and there is sometimes at least one professor in the crowd who doesn’t mind the abuse (or he wouldn’t come back). Audience participation is part of the act, and cheers, boos, and finger clicking (if the poem goes too long or gets boring) are meant to influence the judges, heckle the participants, and generally keep the energy going.

Slam poetry is still alive and well in Chicago today, as witnessed by the standing-room-only crowd at the Green Mill that Sunday night. And when I say standing-room-only, I don’t mean only a few people standing around a bar. The place was packed out and people weren’t leaving. I stood up the whole night, just like in the old days when I didn’t get there early enough to claim a stool at the bar. The open mic session that started the evening off was impressive: some really good poems–as good as any read in the slam–and some tentative first attempts by poets who had finally gotten up the nerve to read aloud in public (impressive more for the guts it takes to do that for the first time than for the poem, perhaps, but we’ve all been there!). Then David Hernandez and Street Sounds took the stage and performed his fabulous poetry to Latin music. Some were poems I remembered from long ago, others were new to me, but they really took me back.

And then, right before the slam, I got up and read a couple of poems. Marc was kind enough to introduce me and tell the audience a little about my history at the Green Mill and with the Bob Shakespeare Band, though he couldn’t resist giving me a bit of a hard time for becoming an English professor. I didn’t mind, and in fact, I appreciate the anti-establishment sentiment of the slam (anti-poetry-establishment, I should say), and the idea of taking poetry to the streets and not pretending you need several degrees to understand it. I couldn’t agree more, and it’s one of the things that has kept poetry alive in this country in the face of reality TV and video games (etc. — don’t get me started!). I read the poems “Ishtar” and “Flags,” dedicating the latter to Cin, since her boy loves them, too. That embarrassed Cin enough, so she came up and recited a lullaby-poem for her son, Leo, which was completely impromptu. Even before the slam, it was a perfect evening. Thanks to Marc and Cin, I even met a few of the poets who now frequent the Mill.

I was struck, though, by how similar the poems in the slam were to the ones I remembered from twenty-some years ago. There was a Barbie-Poem, and a Bag-Lady-Poem; there were poems that sounded like rap and those that sounded more like stand-up comedy. That may sound like criticism of Slam Poetry–that it is predictable or derivative–but I don’t mean it that way. Each poet had his or her individual style and voice, some more unique than others, of course. I think of academic poetry or what is sometimes called MFA ‘workshop’ poetry. There are common themes and styles in these poetry worlds, too. One reason the poems I heard at the slam sounded so much like the poems I heard there twenty years ago is that the poets were all young. They are experiencing the things we experienced then, and they are trying out their poetic wings and learning what we learned (or hope we learned). I know I learned more from the audiences at the Green Mill about what works in a poem and what falls flat on its face than I ever could have in a class on poetry (though I learned a lot in classes that I probably wouldn’t learn at the Mill). What this similarity tells me is that there is a genre of poetry called Slam Poetry, and that’s all right. There are sonnets, haiku, concrete poetry, Slam Poetry, and a bunch of other types.

So after all of this, what is Slam Poetry? At least as far as I can tell after having been involved with it and going back to witness a great night of it, Slam Poetry is long (but not too long — no more than 3 minutes or when the audience starts snapping its fingers louder than the poet is willing to bear). It is entertaining: sometimes angry, sometimes funny, occasionally sweet just for contrast. It sometimes goes for the cheap laugh or the easy sentiment, though the best slam poems avoid this. It is deadly serious and frivolous at the same time — why else would a poet stand in front of a rowdy crowd in a bar for a chance at $10 (yes the prize is still the same) or a chance of humiliation? — oh yes, there are spotlights, there have to be spotlights and fame, if fleeting.

Though I began by saying it is the antithesis of haiku, Slam Poetry shares something with haiku in the competition. As I understand it, there were intense haiku competitions and anthologies the poets vied to be included in. There were schools of haiku, and the haiku master, Matsuo Basho, often traveled around Japan writing haiku, visiting Buddhist shrines, and promoting his school. There were linked verse forms where poets would get together and improvise stanzas of poems that would run 100 stanzas or more. We may think we invented something new with Slam Poetry or choral poetry or performance poetry, but it is really just one side to a poetic tradition that goes way back, and it is a side that is as vital to the existence of poetry as the calmer, more private, perhaps more pretentious at times (though in ways less pretentious at times) academic poetry that exists in books and polite readings. Maybe they aren’t separate things at all, but two moods of the same thing or two sides of the same coin.

Slam Poetry reminds me not to take poetry too seriously and that it’s okay for poetry to be fun, entertaining, angry, pretentious, unpretentious, silly, etc. It reminds me that poetry sounds best when memorized and lifted off the page, though there are pitfalls to performance (as there are with anything), and it is worth resisting the urge to play to the cheap laugh or the lowest common denominator. In the Slam, those tactics don’t always work, either. And Slam Poetry reminds me that the judges aren’t always right, and neither is the audience. Sometimes a really great poem will get low scores or even boos from someone who just doesn’t get it. That’s all right, if the poet keeps getting up and giving it to them! Remember that the next time you send your stuff to a literary magazine or contest. More than anything, the Poetry Slam gets people who don’t normally read poetry to come out on a Sunday night in July (and any other month of the year) when the weather is wonderful and there are a hundred other things they could be doing in the city. They come out week after week and they have a great time and they go home believing they understand poetry at least a little. Now, what could be wrong with that?