Observing Chicago #1

Poetry Open Mic in a Bookstore Coffee Shop

We walk down Division, then through a few side streets and then up Milwaukee Avenue.  We are smack dab in Wicker Park.  I've had an interesting revelation about how completely replaceable I am in certain contexts and we've been parsing out the implications of that as we stroll.  She is an excellent partner - she listens, asks questions, and points out the obvious (mostly things I'm too close to see) and entices me with the promise of a big ass coffee, a pastry and some poetry.

The bookstore is new(wish).  Clean, well decorated, nice tables and chairs.  We get the big ass coffee and I get a huge chocolate cookie.  A skinny bald cat with a huge hipster beard is setting up chairs and wooden benches and a portable sound system as I eat and she goes over the poems she might read.

The format is explained: six featured poets from the same school then the open mic.  And we begin.

You can generally tell who the poets are - they are the ones sitting, fidgeting with their papers and books, in a sense of agony as they wait through the other poets in anticipation of their time at the microphone. Speaking of, in spite of the amplifier and mic stand, there is no microphone so hearing the words over the constant punctuation of the coffee grinder, the cappuccino machine, the elevated train and the constant white noise of the air conditioner is a challenge.

Around me are a trio of twenty-year-old(ish) women with phones, a bespectacled dude with a flip it cap and a chin beard, an old man with a pot belly and a Walgreen's foldable cane who scowls and sits in the front row until someone mentions the Cubs in a poem.  Then he lifts a Cubs ball cap and grins at the rest of us.  There are thirty-seven people here and only three people of color - all three are women.  I wonder (aside from these three women) if anyone else notices.

The featured poets all have extensive resumes expounded upon and recited by the host. No one has ever heard of them but the recitation provides a false sense of legitimacy.  It seems the longer the resume, the less effective the poetry is.  What's missing for many is the inherent theatricality of Slam Poetry.  What is not missed is the frequently relentless one-note rage of Slam Poetry.

I realize quickly that if a poem is too long (which is both a result of the delivery and length) I lose interest.  I also really find it annoying to hear a poet spend two minutes explaining the poem they are about to read.  Just read the damn thing.  Your context doesn't change my perception and, if it does, it should be in the poem.  Poets aren't lounge singers - stage banter is wholly unnecessary and always a bit grating.

At some point, I notice that my fifty-year-old ass craves something a bit more forgiving than a backless wooden bench and I find myself shifting my weight a lot, distracting my attention from the reading.  I notice the thermostat ("Please!  Do Not Touch!  Thanks!) and the History section just to the right of the performers.  Lots of books about Lincoln.

The features finish and Dana is the first open mic poet.  Of course, I'm biased, but she is a jewel in this room.  Brilliant, moving and scatological poems read with expression and meaning.  At some point a poet named Adam does a parody of "Howl" that includes McDonald's, the Grimace and Mayor McCheese as players and slays.  Sadly, most of the features split even though the open mic are more engaging than they were.

This is my city.
This is Chicago