The following essay was contributed to e-poets' Plain Text column by Shelley Nation in 2000.
Here I am. Seven years later, and I resurface into the poetry scene. In 1994, I became a hermit to work on my masters in education through Loyola University. By 1995 I was diagnosed with Systemic Lupus, an auto-immune disorder, causing my immune system to attack my kidneys. Within three weeks of my diagnosis, I tripped while running in my house causing me to land on my head creating two hemotomas, one on each side of my head. After one month in the hospital from that injury and five years later, I am coping well with my Lupus and my head injury. I am anticipating a new era of poetry in Chicago. While I'm looking forward to experiencing new creative energy and excitement, I'm finding that the torches that were brought forth from ten years ago, are much smaller and discreet.
One of my favorite analogies of the poetry scene in the early nineties is that we were consistently in a perpetuation of poetry orgies. One of my favorite of these was the venue at Sheffield's, The School Street Café. Every Thursday night, first Steve Malone, then Kathleen Shandelmeier hosted the poetry reading. Vincent Balestre, Will Harter, Andrea Change, Jeffrey Spar-Summers, Julie Hattory, myself and a host of other characters joined together for a raucous evening of live poetry. Laughing, touching, hugging, intensity filled the air for hours until we were booted out of the back by the owners of the bar. There was always a sense of ownership, of belonging to one another. Anything said during those times were open to discussion, argumentative or otherwise, leading into new poetry for the next week. We were family.
Another exciting arena for poets to voice their thoughts and ideas was at The Green Mill. Yes, I said The Green Mill, before it became a bad word for serious poets. If the Vatican is the cornerstone of Catholicism, The Green Mill was the cornerstone of poetry. You might even say, it was the father of the poetry scene, the place where all other poetry venues came from. No matter which Sunday you chose, the bar would be filled with "family"; Carrie Lovestadt, Nat David, Cin Salach, Dean Hacker, Tom Mladic, Thax Douglas, Lisa Buscani, Pat Smith, of course Marc Smith, myself, and others I can't put a name to right now. There was always a table for you to sit. Our jeering at bad poets, that usually sent me laughing into the bathroom, was revered. One of my favorite times of the evening, was right before the second set. Marc would have certain poets standing in different places around the bar to orate one of their signature poems to the audience under a circle of light. This was an event that Marc was very fond of.
Kurt Heintz once hosted a wonderful reading at Batteries Not Included. Not only are the batteries not included, the bar itself is not included on the street anymore. The bar was dark and gloomy, giving off an air of defiance and tough veneer. Very comfortable for us rough, and sometimes bawdy, bar poets of the time. There was always good material for us females, the men appointing the name, "men-hating poems." So what if sometimes I thought of flushing some man down the toilet, or having him drive off a high cliff... in a poem? It's the price we must pay for the ability to express our insights to others.
And Weeds! How could I ever forget? Somewhat tainted and unsavory of all the venues put together. Gregorio Gomez did and, as I've heard lately, still does a superlative job putting on the show. Filled mostly with men ten years ago, Gregorio's show nevertheless made me feel comfortable to show up early or late to do a reading at Weeds. There was always someone to walk me to my car, or the train. Everyone was family, including the men. Everyone took care of everyone else. As a matter of fact, I cannot think of very many times I bought my own drinks at any of the venues. As soon as one person left the bar, someone else took over my tab. Anyone who new me, most everyone, knew that my drink was scotch and soda. One evening, when I arrived at the bar before everyone else, I seemed to be working at that time, I ordered myself a drink from Sergio. After I profusely scolded him for giving me too much soda and not enough scotch, he dumped the glass and filled it almost to the brim with scotch and a tad of soda. From that night on, I always got good drinks at Weeds. Every time Sergio new it was for me, he would remember that moment.
Tuesday nights were especially exciting for any Chicago poet during this time. Everyone who was anyone started out the evening at either The Why Not? Café hosted by David Hernandez, John Starrs, Carrie Lovstadt, and me, or Fitzgerald's on the Southwest side, and then in a brilliant entourage, floated over to Estelle's bar hosted by José Chavez. I remember one evening, when I was lucky enough to acquire Ken Nordine, the famous word jazz poet, as my feature poet, and jacked up on coffee and cigarettes. I hailed everyone in the Café to saunter over to Estelle's for a continuation of rowdy poetry, offering up other people's cars so that everyone would be able to participate. We had a blast. There were so many people at Estelle's that night, others eventually had to stand around the tables. The decline of Estelle's as a poetry venue was excruciating to all of us poets from that time.
All in all, I deeply miss the good old days of Chicago poetry. Probably the best three years of my life, would have to have been between 1989-1991. This time was a time of constant creativity and explosive energy, of sharing and positive thoughts. A time when everything you do, say, or feel connects to someone else. I guess you could say it was an elevated sense of affirmative energy.
As each cause has an effect, there are many effects created from those early years, most notably The Guild Complex, which started out with poetry readings in The Guild Bookstore on Saturday afternoons. Now it has become an international, multicultural literary arts organization with programming representing almost every age and ethnic group. Out of the weekly slams at the Green Mill, the National Poetry Slam has become nation-wide. The first big poetry slam, in Chicago, filled Cabaret Metro to capacity as if a nationally known band were performing. Around the Coyote was first established through poets and artists combined, giving the art scene a well-rounded atmosphere, pulling in people on the streets and galleries to view artwork. It built bridges through various artistic connections. The Neofuturists opened up other avenues for performance poets including Lisa Biscani, who went on the New York to perform, and David Kedeski. Kurt Heintz began linking poetry through computers and film in a way that was challenging and unique. Andrea Change created The Musicality of Black Poetry in the Guild Complex, featuring the uniqueness and style of black poets, that eventually led to The Musicality of Poetry that leads up to the second month of each year at the Guild. Poetry and music became meshed together as we saw David Hernandez performing his poetry with the backdrop of his band Street Sounds, Marvin Tate and his group, D'Settlement. There was the Big Goddess Powwow, the Loofah Method, and just recently the poetry and performance of many well-known Chicago poets tied together at the Steppenwolf Theater, Words on Fire.
On a spiritual level, the community of poets shared of special sense of warmth that enabled everyone to feed off of each other. I met so many wonderful people, my husband for example, that I dare say are friends forever, even if I never see some of them again. There seemed to be a certain type of connection woven through each one of us. Seeing people I hadn't seen or heard from in seven years has not been very difficult. It has been like picking up where we left off.
We must look back and see where we started and where we have come in order to progress even further. On one hand, the poetry community we had in the past has legitimized poetry in the city. Poets are out of the bars and into cafés, libraries, parks and are getting funding from the City of Chicago. On the other hand, is this progress disrupting the line that created what we have now? Is this the beginning of the end for what we have strived in the past? Everyone has grown immensly from that era. Some of our favorite poets have circled the country, sharing their life's poetry with many others. Some have faded away into different phases of their lives. And some are just trying to get back into the poetry scene after a few setbacks in life.
The future of poetry in Chicago lies in the anticipation of being poets. I have found lately, as I reemerge into the new scene, that each venue seems to contain their own special group of people. But I have not recently experienced that bonding that was so crucial to all poets back then. It was good to be able to walk into to any venue, at any time and see the same friendly poets, friends.
A gap needs to close before such feelings of familiarity and energetic exchange take place for me. The new poets must channel into one another's force and work together. They must choose to take on the underlying causes that create a poet in the first place. Poets challenge ideas and opinions with one another, not to determine if one person can be more inflammatory than another, and not just to get a rise out of someone in the audience. Every poet must express that one thought, even if you must search for it in a poem a little longer than others. The best way for me to describe the importance of this, is in a poem I wrote in the heyday of the scene in the early nineties, comparing us to the old poets from years ago:
They were like we
- Shelley Nation, 2000