Few slam poets after the evangelical first generation endure for very long in any town. Slam's climate is turbulent, and Chicago's is in particular. Competition tends to spin a revolving door of talents before the public as newcomers wander in, and the walking wounded leave. Styles and politics change constantly. For Maria McCray, however, this very environment has been the garden of her poetry career.
McCray's interests in performance poetry emerged in the early 1990s when she discovered the Uptown Poetry Slam. She entered the slam competitions and began to win regularly, proving herself a durable favorite despite the audience's own revolving door effect. Only McCray has managed to earn a place on the Mill's National Slam team so many times (5 at last count). For this durability, she has earned the nickname "Mama"; young poets in Chicago especially greet her this way as she takes the stage, in tribute to her mentoring an entire generation of performance poets in her city.
McCray's talents have been incorporated into workshops with Free Street Theater and poetry festivals nationwide. Her live performance poetry was presented as a gift to the late Gwendolyn Brooks on Brooks' birthday in 1998. McCray's duties to the spoken word community continued as she MCs readings on the South Side. Beginning around 2001, she cultivated literary roundtables with and for African-American writers, such as Kent Foreman. These meetings set forth critical issues of presentation, theater skills, composition, and theme founded largely on experiences earned outside the academy. Through these channels, her invaluable experience in performance poetry was able to percolate back to the writing community.
McCray uses persona creatively in her work, and may easily shift among several personae through the course of a single poem. McCray considers herself a woman of the people, and so her language consciously omits pretense of class. And while she is not outright anti-academic, she has little use for the pretense of "literary" writing. She draws many of her poems' subjects directly from her life, and indeed she has had a vivid life from which to draw. Born in the Carolinas, McCray served in the Vietnam War; her war remembrances were among her first poems to arrest the attention of audiences at the Green Mill. McCray's fiery charismaticism ensures that the poems hit home. She is primarily (self-)identified as African-American, and she writes often from this heritage. She is also part Phillipino, and this heritage, too, finds a place in her writing. Such an intersection of American, African, and Pacific cultures gives McCray a very unique perspective.
The tracks below were recorded at the Café Aloha poetry series, Lincoln Square, Chicago in January 2001. Click to listen:
- Mar 2002