The poetry community: a reflection on Sarah Kay & open mics

To live in Chicago is to have the world right in front of you. But this should come as no surprise, after all, we are a “world city”: meaning we have world class musicians & artists, a wide range of authentic ethnic cuisine, an expansive transit system, professional sports teams, renowned museums, a stunning amount of free/inexpensive events, and fests for everything from ribs to Bastille Day to oysters. The list goes on.

With all this life blossoming around me you’d be surprised how often you could find me wasting away on my futon.

I’m working on this. Much like running, making the time & getting out there is the hardest part; I never wish I didn’t go to an event. But even my bad habit of occasionally submitting to sloth-ness couldn’t deter me from the Sarah Kay Chicago show. One of my favorite poets performing at a venue that ISN’T 21+? I had to go.

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 11.29.15 PMI was excited to see Sarah Kay, and while I hadn’t purchased her book yet I had heard every poem she has on youtube (from her famous TedTalk to a reading at the Bowery Poetry Club); this made me wonder if I’d enjoy the show as much as someone who had heard less prior. But much to my surprise, the difference between watching Sarah perform on youtube vs live was as wide as the difference between playing a CD and being 5ft from the band. My favorite poems came to life right in front of me. I can recite Sarah’s “type of woman” poem line for line but listening to the backstory of it and watching it live moved me in new ways. Sarah has mastered the art of being completely prepared but still making it feel like the words were coming to her in the moment.

She’s had some of these poems in her repertoire for a while (such as private parts & montauk) but she performs them with all the passion of a newly finished piece. As a performance poet this inspires me to step up. Usually my process is to make new pieces, compete in a slam, and repeat–never revisiting old work, never reciting last year’s poem. Part of that is artistic dissatisfaction, but hearing all these incredible made me want to write something great–something I’d want to perform for years.

I was familiar with all of the featured poets (Jamila Woods, (half of Milo & Otis), Robbie Q. Telfer, and Fatimah Asghar) and had even heard some of their poems beforehand. These are poets I know from LTAB, Lit Fest, and YCA’s weekly “Wordplay” open mic. Contrary to popular belief, anyone who lives in Chicago will tell you how small it is. Since every niche is it’s own little community you run into people often and you & your acquaintances have a surprising number of mutual friends. The Sarah Kay + Chicago friends show was a reminder (that I get often) of how much talent exists in this city. It also revived my somewhat suppressed desire to make “poet” a larger part of my public identity–something that people know me as.

It’s not that I’m a closet poet, just a lazy one. Writing is hard; it takes dedication. And when writers block sets in it’s easy to give up before you even start. But I’ve found nothing cures writers block like live performance; nothing inspires me like the work of my contemporaries.

This brings me to two days ago: I finally went to wordplay at YCA. There, I saw my Essie–who I first saw as a high school slam poet–and was introduced at the open mic by Jamila Woods. I read a poem I’d been working on for weeks (but didn’t finish till 10mins prior) and when I got off stage & took my seat I received props from my surrounding peers.

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 11.29.53 PM


Going to poetry shows & open mics not only makes me a better writer/performer; but it also keeps the very thing I love alive. When you support a community it supports you back.


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