My Ears Talk Back To Chicago: An Introduction to Chicago Poetry

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When Abby Sheaffer first approached me to ask me to be Chicago Literati’s first Poet of the Month, she wanted to publish my poems daily in order to give my work a boost within the community and make poetry a bigger presence on the website. But my first thought in response was to turn the lens outward—to examine the fishbowl of community that I’ve immersed myself in throughout my time in Chicago. This reaction is characteristic of who I am as a poet and organizer in this city, so what better way to fulfill my residency?

If one thing has become obvious to me, it’s that performance poetry and spoken word in Chicago looks like a novelty to outsiders. In my time as a professional slam poet, I’ve watched the same handful of poets get the same handful of accolades over and over again. But in an artistic tradition built on populism, there is much more diversity that goes unsung. Many of the most important artists in our community are relatively unknown to outsiders. Their groundbreaking work across multiple fields often gets lost.

One of the most important values within Chicago spoken word is diversity. Youth poetry, woman-led spaces, and desegregation within art are the biggest priorities for many of us who participate. Unfortunately, the most visible artists are pockets of white-washed, male-dominated, and cisgendered. The reality is that women, people of color, and other minorities have to accomplish two, three, four times as much as their white male counterparts to get on a “Best Slam Poet” list in local publications. Organizers who are bettering the city in tangible ways are usually unknown, overshadowed by whoever has the biggest stage presence.

So I want to use my opportunity as the first poet-in-residence for Chicago Literati to attempt to change that perception. In a magazine that strives to bring together novice and veterans of literature, I want to do my part to see the right side of history told. In addition to publishing weekly poems of my own, I’ll be highlighting a different local mover-and-shaker every week, each selected because of the unique qualities of their artistic work as writers, organizers, performers, or all three. I’ll also be contributing editorials with the aim of reshaping a popular view of Chicago performance poetry. I want to show a side that isn’t dominated by competition and gimmicks, but instead by community values and populist artistic aesthetics.

Most of the poems I’ll be contributing will be written this month as part of a 30/30 challenge Abby assigned to me (that is, write a poem every day for the month of June). However, this first poem I wrote a few weeks ago, just before I was approached for this project. “My Ears Talk Back To Chicago” embodies a lot of what I intend to do this month, and, as such, is the most appropriate piece of mine to kick things off.

My Ears Talk Back to Chicago

You act like you don’t know us
from a hole in the ground
from a drinking well
you just spit & spit & spit
down in us then act like it won’t
end up back in your cup.

Yeah, we’ve laid our drum
to the whir of your concrete
but you’re all mouth & no swallow
all tongue & buck teeth. What we eat
stays. Won’t come back out

again, & you act like your shit
won’t burn, like you’re not
drenched in someone else’s piss.
Meanwhile, the river runs hot with garbage.
Meanwhile, you try to string yourself

in Emperor’s clothes, wear newness
like empty, but money talks—shit—
money runs up
the motherfucking phonebill—shit—
money is a symphony

over last weekend’s gunshots.
You think we don’t hear that, too?
Even in our sleep, we dream
with the song of your landscape
on a loop in our head, we dream

of walks to school slunk
into the slur of grown-too-fast
blues songs—& who hasn’t heard that?
Don’t be so quick to forget what we’re made of:

two hammers, & we crush every vibration
passed through to pulp.

 

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STEPHANIE LANE SUTTON is a poet, performer, and educator living in Chicago by way of Detroit.  She has represented Chicago at three international slam competitions, including as a semifinalist at the National Poetry Slam in 2013.  In addition to being a decorated competitor, her poems have been widely published.  Her work has been featured or is forthcoming in Radius, The Bakery, THRUSH, elimae, and Vocation:Vacation, among others.  Her manuscripts have been finalists in Write Bloody Publishing‘s new author competition and Tired Hearts Press chapbook competition.  She holds a degree in poetry from Columbia College and studied spoken word pedagogy at Concordia University.  She teaches poetry to high school students in Chicago Public Schools.