Chicago Letter: The Open Doors

Robert Archambeau

Harriet Monroe. Carl Sandburg. Edgar Lee Masters. Gwendolyn Brooks. When people put the words “poetry” and “Chicago” together, these are likely the names that come to mind, along, perhaps, with that of The Green Mill, the Uptown bar and erstwhile Al Capone hangout where, amid the wood paneling and bullet holes, the modern poetry slam was (arguably) created. Of course “poetry” plus “Chicago” also equals Poetry (Chicago), the magazine Harriet Monroe founded over a century ago, and the flagship publication of the Poetry Foundation, whose sleek, block-long headquarters on the Near North Side and hundreds of millions of dollars in endowment inspire awe and wonder in the minds of all who contemplate them. Jealousy too, if we’re being honest. A lot of jealousy.

But the Poetry Foundation, for all its wealth, its longstanding open door policy ("the Open Door will be the policy of this magazine…to this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school”) and its laudable desire to use its headquarters as a forum for poetry in the city, is far from the only game in town. Indeed, the city seems to generate poetry institutions the way it once generated bathtub gin and cement shoes. In addition to the Poetry Foundation, there’s the Poetry Center of Chicago (not to be confused with the smaller, more experimental Chicago Poetry Project), which has hosted readings and classes in the Loop since Paul Carroll founded it in 1968. And there’s the Guild Complex, which has, for a quarter century, reached out to diverse communities with a mix of poetry and theater. But institutions like these, and the big university writing programs, stand in relation to the bustling life of poetry in Chicago the way the city’s great, luxurious theaters, the Goodman and the Shakespeare and the Steppenwolf, stand in relation to the city’s distinctive culture of fly-by-night storefront theater. It’s in the ever-proliferating small readings series that we feel the real pulse of poetry in the city. In bookstores, in restaurants, in backrooms of all kinds you’ll find series with names like Red Rover, the Dollhouse, In One Ear, or Reading Under the Influence. You can grab a beer at the Hideout or Danny’s Tavern and, on the right night, hear both local poets and those passing through town read in a setting about as different from a university reading as… well, as a dive bar is from a university library’s auditorium. My favorite among these series is one of the more longstanding ones, held in a small room with a big round table up at the top of a none-too-steady staircase in the grungy but lovable Myopic Books.

Unimposing the space may be—and, until recently, un-air-conditioned: I once sweat my way through a reading I gave there with Don Share, who remained supernaturally immune to the heat, his Memphis childhood standing him in good stead as my Canadian one betrayed me. But reading at Myopic has long been a rite of passage for Chicago poets, and for those traveling through the city and seeking an audience “fit though few,” as Milton would have described it (the space comfortably seats about 20, but I’ve seen more, counting as many as 80 crammed among the bookshelves for a reading by Eileen Myles, who arrived without books and had to pull some of hers from the poetry section. The origins of the series are lost in time: founded by Thax Davis, curation was handed off to Chuck Stebleton, who left in 2004, bequeathing the enterprise to Larry Sawyer. Audiences have seen an eclectic mix on Sawyer’s watch: he began by hosting Diane Wakowski, and has introduced countless poets, from Bernadette Mayer and Timothy Yu to Biller Berkson, Ed Roberson, Jerome Rothenberg, Maxine Chernoff, and John Wilkinson.

It’s hard to define any specific aesthetic that encapsulates Chicago poetry. I’ve heard Stuart Dybek say that it has to do with neighborhood, and Marc Smith say that it always somehow connects to the slam—but these seem like comments more pertinent to their own poetry than to the poetry of the city as a whole. I don’t imagine any single term could come close to encapsulating the diversity of the city’s poetic production, but I do think there’s something we can say about the kind of poetry we find at Myopic, at Danny’s, at the Hideout and similar venues, and I think Larry Sawyer has said it. Sawyer Describes the local poets who read at venues like Myopic as tending toward “an open-ended poetry that kicked out closure and didn’t even give it cab fare” to make it home. “It’s not that these Chicago poets have some programmatic impulse to create poetry that narrowly adheres to these sorts of strictures regularly,” says Sawyer, but that “the awareness that this is a possibility” is ambient on the scene. It makes for its own kind of open door.

ROBERT ARCHAMBEAU is a poet and critic whose books include the poetry collections Laureates and Heretics and The Kafka Sutra and the critical studies Laureates and Heretics and The Poet Resigns: Poetry in a Difficult World, among others.  He is professor of English at Lake Forest College.