Poetry Spotlight #5: Instructions for black boys (from America’s perspective) by Rudy Francisco

I am part of the executive board for Lyrically Inclined (LI), an umbrella organization containing the poetry club and slam team on campus. Earlier this school year LI had the privilege of bringing Rudy Francisco to Cornell College, a poet born and raised in San Diego. “Rudy is the co-host of the largest poetry venue in San Diego and has featured at countless venues […] Ultimately, Rudy’s goal is to continue to assist others in harnessing their creativity while cultivating his own. Rudy Francisco is the 2009 National Underground Poetry Slam Champion, the 2010 San Diego Grand Slam Champion, the 2010 San Francisco Grand Slam Champion and the 2010 Individual World Poetry Slam Champion” (Via).

10976388Scratch is Rudy Francisco’s second chapbook. On Rudy Francisco’s website Scratch is described as “love, fearfulness, confidence, humility, awkwardness and determination compressed into 31 pages of unapologetic honesty” and I couldn’t agree more. After I finished reading Scratch I immediately reread Scratch. Continue reading

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.

My Barbaric Yawp: why I need more poetry in my life.

Yawp, Walt WhitmanRecently, I went into my backyard to read some poetry. And even as my skin darkened and perspired in the sweltering afternoon sun, I was not uncomfortable. I was wrapped up in the process of world jumping; the process of reading poem after poem in an anthology: a synthetic solar system made of planets that were never meant to orbit so close to each other, yet compliment one another in wonderful & mysterious ways.

I am a poetry nerd. For me, poetry is relevant, a refuge, an open community, a fresh perspective that can only be fed to me by metaphor. I recite lines that do not belong to me more often than I read my own and I read my own (almost) as often as I can. I’m a slam poet: constantly adding to my youtube playlist of favorite poems.

Many aren’t comfortable with the idea of slam poetry: they attach stereotypes to it or think that the distinction is unnecessary. But to me slam poetry is merely performance poetry and I believe any and every poem can (and should) be performed. Every page is an invitation for performance. What is form on but stage direction?

Another reason I often single out slam when I talk about my love for poetry is the energetic community vibe. If you’ve never been to a poetry slam (competitve “reading”: in which poets are scored from a scale of 1 to 10) or the like, you may not know what I’m taking about. I mean how rowdy and passionate the crowd gets for poetry: the way we will chant 10 after a moving piece. The way that our cheering, screaming, groaning, and snapping are welcomed; the way they add fuel to the fire the poet’s bringing on stage. Poetry is so primal and fundamentally human.

We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for. via Dead Poets Society

People say they just don’t get poetry but that’s like saying you don’t get fiction. Poetry is not a mere matter of understanding (though it’s certainly a component). Poetry is, above all, an emotional experience. It moves me before I can articulate why. It’s a literary reflex I believe all of us have, whether or not we want to admit/embrace it; we can all have an aesthetic and poetry is too broad to dismiss entirely. Even if you aren’t a “fan” of poetry, if you give it a chance something is sure to strike you.

But for all my talk about poetry, I don’t give it nearly enough time. I watch poetry very frequently (via Button Poetry and Speak Easy NYC) but the poetry section of my bookshelf and my notebooks are, still, far too empty. So to combat this I am going to do a 40 day poetry streak starting tomorrow: I will read at least one poem a day and will post share my favorite at the end of the week.

If you have any poetry books to recommend please comment below!

To love the dreaded and ignored literary form

dead-poets-society-caveThis block I’m in a contemporary poetry class. It’s been 6 months since I’ve been in an English Class and I haven’t enjoyed the content of a class since November. That’s not to say I’ve been miserable in my courses but with a block off due to illness, statistics, and a  biology class for nonmajors–it’s been an apathetic and surprisingly easy last couple months. 

This only adds to how enamored I am with this course. With the exception of a few articles, none of my work feels like work. I’ve spent most days this week reading poetry round-robin style with 2 of my good friends (who are also in the class)–we are basically the dead poets society and I love it. I talk poetry before, during, and after class; but I am far from expert. I connect with poetry on an emotional level that I can rarely articulate. It takes me even longer to figure out why the poem makes me feel that way: what is it doing to cause this reaction?

this was my 6th year performing at LTAB

this was my 6th year performing at LTAB

I feel so strongly about it, it’s hard for me to imagine how people can not be in love with poetry. But then I remember that most of the places that cultivated my love for poetry were outside of the classroom. It was my slam poetry team, it was Louder Than A Bomb (the world’s largest youth poetry slam), it was YCA, it was youtube, it was wherever I could escape the high school cannon and find something I  could actually relate to. So how can we make the classroom a catalyst for this love?

Besides the flaws of how typical hs poetry curriculum is taught, there’s also the flaw of when it’s taught. Poetry is a brushed over topic. The novelty of your English class come April.

I’ve been slowly working my way through Linda Christensen’s Teaching for Joy and Justice. In this book, she talks about incorporating poetry into all her English lessons and that’s something I’d like to do as well. We tend to treat poetry as completely separate from everything else–it’s own English entity. And while I believe a poem is certainly different from a novel, I think an understanding of one can inform the other. Structure, figurative language, distrustful speakers/narrators, symbolism: all of these cut across literary branches and genres. Most importantly, “poetry helps build community and teach literary analysis”–the epitome of what should be happening in an English classroom (15, Christensen).

How can educators help remove the poetry stigma? How can we teach poetry in a way that’s engaging while still aligning with the common core? What are some (in)effective techniques?

29th annual (and my first) Printers Row Lit Fest

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 7.17.19 PMAs an English Major and Chicagoan, I am ashamed to say I was unaware that Lit Fest existed (until a few weeks ago). Determined not to let another summer go by sans Lit Fest, I checked the Lit Fest website, saw the schedule, and made a tentative itinerary.

For those of you who don’t know, Printers Row Lit Fest is the Midwest’s largest free outdoor literary event. It takes place in the Printers Row neighborhood on the blocks surrounding Dearborn and Polk streets, which is easily accessible via the CTA. Each June, Printers Row Lit Fest packs more 200 authors, performers, and presenters into one incredible weekend. As well as over 200 booksellers into 5 city blocks.

Day 1 highlights

For me, Lit Fest began with The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival presented by James Kennedy. This was a “ticketed event” but what’s great about Lit Fest is that the tickets are free! It’s basically just an RSVP on their website. If tickets “sell out” you can arrive to the event 15 minutes early and you’re let in if they have space (i.e if the people with tickets haven’t show up, usually space is available). Lit Fest’s ticketed events take place in buildings that are walking distance from Printers Row. This one was in Jones College Prep’s auditorium.

The 90 second Newbery is fairly new film contest for all ages (though it seems to appeal to K-12), in which you tell the entire story of a Newbery award-winning book in 90 seconds or less (it can be a bit over if its really good). The deadline for the 3rd annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is December 10, 2013. Vist James Kennedy’s website for a full list of rules, tips, and Newbery winning books. As a prospective educator, I love projects like this so I really enjoyed seeing the silly video compressions of Newbery winners.

During the presentation James Kennedy also played  a mock game show called Newbery Secrets with an audience member which revealed fun facts like how Newbery winner Paula Fox described her granddaughter, Courtney Love, as a psychopath during an interview with the School Library Journal. And that William Steig would sit inside a home energy accumulator, bathing himself in cosmic rays (we all work differently I guess).

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 7.16.35 PMAfter the film festival I walked into printers row and was instantaneously overwhelmed and overjoyed. There was something to satisfy every literary palette: comic books, posters, books for chefs, books for revolutionaries, feminist books, books on architecture, books on history, vintage books, chapbooks, handmade notebooks, and jerseys for renowned literary characters & authors.

After quickly browsing through these booksellers’ tents, I made my way over to the Mash Stage for some slam poetry via Young Chicago Authors (YCA). I was thrilled to see Essie Linzy, a slam poet who I had the privilege to compete against during Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB), Chicago’s largest teen poetry slam. I sat front row, snapping my fingers during my favorite lines in “Rosie“–one of my favorite LTAB pieces from my 5 years of competing.

Before heading over the Art Institute to reconnect with friends and old bosses, I had to stop at John Warner’s Biblioracle reading, give him the last five books you’ve read and he’ll give you a personalized recommendation for what you should read next. I just gave him 5 favorites from the recent books I read since I don’t finish every book satisfied (case and point: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers). I gave him: Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris, Bee season by Myla Goldberg, A visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan (a book I’ve been meaning to reread), Extremely loud and incredibly close by Johnathan Safran Foer, and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. He advised I check out Fraud by David Rakoff, an author who is (allegedly) as humorous as David Sedaris.

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 7.16.50 PMAs someone who performs and listens to Slam Poetry, I was a little put off to hearing a poet perform with a band. I’ve seen it done a few times and its always seemed gimmicky or worse, sloppy. Still, I like trying things out of my comfort zone so I figured I’d check out Marty McConell and the EM Press Band. And my perspective completely changed. This was one of the best slam performances I’ve ever seen. Before Marty McConell performed Roger Bonair-Agard opened with the EM Press Band. Both of these poets’ words were elevated by the music. The volume level was also perfect, it didn’t feel like the poet nor the musicians were overwhelming my ear. Rather, they complimented each other perfectly. Unlike other music/slam performances I’ve seen, the EM Press Band didn’t just play music. They listened and responded to these poets’ words, it reminded of Jazz. Unfortunately I couldn’t find footage of either of these poets performing with the band but here is a poem I had the privledge to hear live by Roger Bonair-Agard: “The Day Biggie Died“. I am definitely buying his book, Bury my clothes, as soon as possible. And here is a poem by Marty McConell (not performed at lit fest but at Def Poetry Jam) “Give Me One Good Reason to Die. Her words at Lit Fest moved me so deeply I let my bank account drop to $1.37 just to buy her book Wine for a shotgun and get her autograph.

Day 2 highlights

Kevin Coval was one of the few names I knew on the Lit Fest schedule. I anticipated that’d I’d be hearing some good poetry and I was completely right. What really sets Kevin Coval apart from other Slam Poets I heard is his delivery. He is rhythmic but not in the exaggerated way people outside of the slam community expect. When Kevin Coval recites poetry as if he is educating the masses and in many ways he is. His latest book Schtick discusses Jewish American Culture, they’re assimilation (i.e now being seen as white rather than a minority group) and its discontents. 

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 7.15.44 PMAfter listening to Kevin Coval recite, I headed over to the good eats stage to catch the last few minutes of Doug Sohn’s interview for his new book Hot Doug’s. For those chicagoans who are not familiar with the restaurant its home of some of the best hot dogs you will probably have in your life. The menu features a foie gras dog I am dying to try and french fries cooked in duck fat (available Friday & Saturday). Their line usually goes out the door and around the corner but it is entirely worth the wait. In fact, chef/Author Anthony Bourdain listed Hot Doug’s on his top 13 places to eat before you die. Hot Doug’s: The Book is currently available for preorder and includes stories, pictures, anecdotes and lessons learned as this eatery flourished.

My next event was a Q&A panel called the state of publishing featuring those in the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). Unfortunately, I felt like this panel tended to drone on when asked a question, often adding in things like “how they’re different than the pulitzer prize” despite how irrelevant it was to the questions posed. However, they did a solid job explaining who they were and what they did. The NBCC consists of 600 members. In order to become a member you must apply and have written several quality book reviews. Within that, there are 24 board members that serve 3 year terms and can serve up to 2 consecutive terms. Each march the award goes to one book in each of the six categories which include: Fiction, General Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Criticism, and Poetry. The NBCC board members suggested we look at the finalists just as much as we look at the winners of this award.

Here are two questions I posed to the panel:

Q: Besides considering the (social) context of a book, what other things are hallmarks of criticism? If I wanted to sit down and write a book criticism what things do I need to consider?

A: I’d don’t completely agree with everything he says but look at John Updike’s 6 Rules of Criticism. Be sure to review the book in front of you, not the book you would’ve written.

Q: How do you put your own biases, as individual readers, aside when you evaluate books? Or do you just embrace them/steer into the skid of your own biases?

A: The books always read you… It’s not this platonic idea of objectivity. [Criticism] requires a lot of self knowledge, [you have to] know when a book grabs you for the right reasons.

I ended my final day at lit fest watching the slam poet, Robbie Q. Telfer perform. Robbie Q is definitely an acquired taste but its a taste I urge all of you to acquire. To me, Robbie Q’s quirkiness is a prime example of how slam poetry is whatever you want it to be. My favorite piece was his hate poem to a hypothetical person, which included this phenomenal line: “I had a dream that you and I were having sex and you were really enjoying it but I was bored and I faked all my orgasms!”. Before his set even began he told a Lit Fest volunteer:”I wrote a poem in the voice of a garbage can whose predecessor was thrown away inside him”. Robbie Q’s unique style and writing topics, like all of slam poetry, turns the mundane into something interesting.

Other Lit Fest Noteables

CAKE: chicago’s alternative comic expo: a celebration of indie comics happening June 15th and 16th. I won’t be able to make it this year but its on my Summer 2014 itinerary.

Neighborhood Writing Alliance: offers free writing workshops and the opportunity to get published in the alliance’s Journal Of Ordinary Thought. They’re spread across the city in Albany Park, Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, the Near West Side, and Uptown. I encourage everyone to check this out; never underestimate the power of taking time out of your week to write, share, and peer edit.

Guild Literary Complex: “a community- based literary organization presenting and supporting diverse, divergent, and emerging voices through innovative programs including performances and readings”. Check out their calendar of events  which includes bilingual poetry readins and architecture inspired writing. You can also participate in their contests, you can win $500 in their upcoming Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Contest by submitting a poem by June 28th; the 20 finalists compete for the cash prize on July 23rd.

Screen Shot 2013-06-14 at 7.17.45 PMIf Lit Fest has taught/reminded me of anything it’s that literature does not sit behind a velvet rope. Literature, like many things in life, is about community. It’s about talking to people who are passionate about what they are doing. It’s about challenging your preconceived notions. It’s about delving into the genres you love and learning about genres you’ve never heard of. At its core literature is words and we use words to communicate. Be in the audience, get on stage, read blogs, go to expos, and attend workshops; be a part of the conversation and keep these literary subcultures thriving.