on Shelley Nation

Shelley NationThere are survivors, and then there are those who come back and mean business.

It's common to practice poetry very casually these days. Many people can get by in it, simply visiting an open mic or two each week. They style an ego for themselves, and inhabit a stage likeness to some poetry archetype, a once-a-week fantasy of themselves as an author in the limelight for a few minutes. It's fun, but it's not serious. It's the widely unadmitted conceit. It's all about making fun, making friends, and finding a small community of like-minded souls. ... Or is it?

Shelley Nation came to Chicago's poetry milieu in the very early years of the spoken word renaissance, at the end of the 1980s. A young college student from Oklahoma, she adapted quickly to the smokey, jazz-filled ambience of the urban clubs where poetry lived. Wicker Park, Bucktown, and Lakeview were her favorite neighborhoods. She was a regular presence at poetry venues like the Why Not? Café (once on Belmont, west of Sheffield Avenue), and the Bop Shop (once on Division Street, near Wood). She knew Chicago poetry back in the day, when it was new, untried, even visionary.

Then things changed a bit. Shelley Nation wrapped up her college degree. She married and settled on the southwest side of Chicago. She took a job as a teacher. She kept writing. But she stayed in touch with the open mic circuit of the city.

After that, however, things really changed. She was stricken with lupus erythematosus, an autoimmune disorder. With lupus, the body's immune system attacks its own organs as if they were foreign, and no organ is safe. The nervous system, the heart, the kidneys, and digestive tract... all are vulnerable. Rashes and organ damage are common. The joints become painful. While medicines may relieve some symptoms, there is no cure. The patient can only rest and hope for the best. In the time she was recovering from lupus, Nation suffered a severe head injury. She was weak, she lost her balance, and she simply fell in her own home. This meant yet more recovery time, even re-learning some common motor skills. For Nation, there was no time for work, just time for therapy and quiet recovery. An ordinary night out with the poets, something that she once enjoyed frequently, was simply out of the question. She lost her connections with her poetry tribe, and for the most part they lost track of her.

Years passed. The climate of poetry changed not only in Chicago, but the whole United States. The game got harder and, as slam matured, the competition for a place in the scene became a kind of national sport. Innocense fell by the wayside. And a kind of professional gloss, a 3-minute lucidity, made poetry smooth, instant, and impactful, but sometimes also insincere, dogmatic, and conformist in a politically correct sense. After a decade of stylistic drift in this direction, and after a very long personal struggle for her wellbeing, Shelley Nation returned to the poetry open mics she once knew or, more accurately, to an altered poetry landscape. She was a young, millennial, female version of Rip Van Winkle.

It would have been easy, even fashionable for her to dress up as the suffering victim and make a new career on the open mic circuit. She could have changed her rants to fit the momentary vogue. But that didn't happen. She stuck to her work and vision as a writer. She made more stories from her strange days in Chicago as a Southwest Plains immigrant. Her stories from then, from back in the day, continue through her stories now. She writes about the troubled kids she's worked with in school, about charismatic jazz musicians with skewed attitudes, about machismo-ridden men and the women who stand up to them, about big city nightmares and suburban detachment. Given the years of her circumstance, Shelley Nation can actually testify that the more things change, the more they stay the same. And in persisting to reveal this, she also reveals her cause.

If one takes on poetry as more than an avocation, it isn't for the faint of heart. It will become a life choice. If one is to succeed beyond the microcelebrity of the open mic scene, one must find a personal vision that expresses itself in charity and goodwill for others. When an artist makes that connection, their poetry becomes a cause, a purpose for their life. That purpose will nurture the poet in tough times. And as the poet serves their readers with selflessness, the readers reward their poet with respect.

I respect and celebrate Shelley Nation for her spirit, persistence, and authenticity. And I invite you to audition her poetry and read her own story as she reflects on the Chicago poetry scene she once knew.

- Kurt Heintz, April 2004

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