Chicago is famous for a lot of things, but one of its best-kept secrets is a thriving community of some of the country's most innovative poets. They can be found hosting and performing at reading series and slams, teaching inside and outside of the classroom, working at bookstores and literary organizations and on the shelves of bookstores nationwide. Four new collections released by Chicago poets this fall are deeply rooted in their racial and LGBTQ identities: Black Queer Hoe by Britteney Black Rose Kapri, Refuse by Julian Randall and If They Come For Us by Fatimah Asghar make their debut along with On My Way to Liberation, the third collection by H. Melt. I spoke with each of these writers about their poetics and their thoughts on this good news for the Chicago poetry scene.
Fatimah Asghar put her own work into context, saying "A lot of what I learned about Chicago and Chicago poetics is a real anchor and a grounding...in the act of witnessing. When you think about Chicago's history of poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Studs Terkel you get this deep, deep sense of portraiture and real-life observation and kind of elevating everyday moments into poetry and that impacted my craft and how I wrote and how I approached poetry." Brooks and Terkel both used their work to celebrate and magnify individual experience, Brooks in her poems and Terkel in collections of oral histories. Chicago's poetry community just celebrated Brooks' one hundredth birthday with Our Miss Brooks 100, an eighteen month-long series of events.
Three of the four poets publishing this fall were quick to identify themselves as the speaker in their poems. Kapri commented that "I think often folks think they are empowering 'silenced' voices by speaking for them when usually all you're doing is furthering their silence." H. Melt echoed this, saying "There is a way to show complexity without hurting and alienating the people whose lived experiences you're trying to discuss."
"Most of the poems align with a speaker who's very similar to me," said Randall, acknowledging that his speaker is also a character in a creative work. His poet/speaker shares his timeline of major life events, such as moving from Chicago to Minneapolis in ninth grade, but Randall takes poetic license with other details. His poet/speaker has an imagined conversation with Barack Obama in one poem, and a series of poems was written from the perspective of Randall's father.
Several of the poets acknowledged a nuanced sense of responsibility tied to writing in their own voice. "Speaking even a kind of reality towards power has stakes, has consequences. In trying to figure out how to make these poems the best that they are I had consider, what are the stakes? What am I willing to risk in order to tell this particular reality as I know it and as I've seen it?" said Randall.
However, these poets write about their own identities with specific goals in mind: "I want my work to be useful in ways that make the world more welcoming for queer and trans people," said Melt. On poems about her family, Asghar said, "There's a lot of love I feel for my family even amongst hardship, so there was a way that I wanted to really present that sense of a complicated relationship." Randall explained, "Poetry does the work of starting towards empathy building...I'm building this experience and I want you to live inside of it so you can see as best I was able to see it."
As vividly as the speaker/poets' bodies and voices are re-created in their poems, these poets purposefully signal geographic place in meditations on self and home. "I've spent pretty much all my life trying to get back to Chicago in a way that would allow me to stay here," said Randall, in reference to both his writing life and his living situation. "For me to pursue my joy in my home, against all odds of gentrification and all other forces involved in capital—that's what brings me back home."
Kapri describes her symbiotic relationship with the city: "Chicago is me. No matter where I go or what I do, Chicago is me," she said. "Place also informs your diction. You know if I call someone a 'goofy' it's a very serious form of disrespect cause of where I am from. So you always have to be aware when you're writing pieces that can be misinterpreted when they leave home."
"Place, and more specifically home, is a major theme of my writing," said Melt. "What does it mean to feel at home? Who would you want around you? One of the poems in this collection called 'Ode to the Gay Sex Shop' defines home as a site of misrecognition. My writing is deceptively simple and direct on the page. It's utilitarian and the Midwest definitely influences that. I want people to read and understand my poems. I want them to be useful."
Possibly the most striking similarity between these poets is the enthusiastic love they express for their community. "I think that's something that pervades every person I've ever known from Chicago...they want to know what you're working on and they want to know how they can help. It's such a collaborative, wonderful, beautiful city for that," said Randall. "We're part of the same community, we've taught together, performed together, written together, we are very much in each other's lives, and our poems are too. It makes complete sense that our work would be related because we're related, we're family," said Melt.
Asghar cites collaboration as an integral part of her writing process, from her first slam team to writing workshops. "I think that's so much of why I make art—because I'm looking for that moment of connection with people. That moment of being able to say this is how I felt; this is a particular kind of loneliness I feel and to reach out with that loneliness in the hope to...get people to feel a little bit less lonely. The answer to isolation is community."
It seems the strength of Chicago's poetry community, on the page and in collaboration, is related to its complementary values of individuality and empathy. On the changing role of the poet at work, Randall mused, "It's been cool to dream wildly like that alongside a bunch of other people who are dreaming wildly about like, what future selves are we making paths for?"