Illinois needs to pick a poet, but which one?
The great Midwestern poet is, without question, Tom Eliot of St. Louis. What, never heard of Tom? Maybe you’ve been led astray by his phony British hauteur and borrowed high church Anglicanism. But T.S. Eliot, as he styled himself, is as Missouri born and bred as Buster Brown Shoes. Chicago’s Carl Sandburg just can’t compare.
We could argue this. That’s one joy of loving poetry. You’re free to love what you love, though sometimes choices must be made. Such as when selecting a new Illinois poet laureate — submissions are being accepted until Aug. 15. I limned the parameters of the job in my column Monday. Now I’m wondering who’s in the running.
I discussed this with Mark Eleveld, a member of the search committee.
“To me, it’s a no-brainer: Marc Smith,” said Eleveld. “He’s such an outsider. Marc provoked and stoked the fires.”
Smith is not only a prolific poet, but in the mid-1980s, he created the Uptown Poetry Slam. The Slam pried the fingers of Received Pronunciation toffs like Eliot from poetry’s throat and let it sing, returning it to its dramatic roots, sensual and gritty.
Eleveld is biased — he’s Smith’s friend. I’m biased too. Smith has invited me to be featured speaker at the Slam, twice. So I thought I’d better check with a neutral party: Tony Fitzpatrick, poet, artist and notorious truth-teller.
It should be Smith, right?
“I think he’d be a great poet laureate,” said Fitzpatrick. “He made it a very cool thing to love poetry.”
But not the only candidate.
“Kevin Coval would be a fine choice,” Fitzpatrick said, then realization dawned. “They’re a couple of white guys. In the age of Black Lives Matter, perhaps it should be a Black poet.”
Fitzpatrick considered that aspect.
“Haki Madhubuti, founder of Third World Press,” he said. “He’d be a great choice. There’s not any shortage, any dearth of wonderful poetry minds.”
“Mark Turcotte, my favorite living poet,” he said. “He is Ojibwa-Chippewa. He grew up on the rez. He’s a professor at DePaul. He really made me understand what being a First Nation person is about. He’s my favorite choice. It’s absolutely him.”
That addresses the “white” aspect. But not the “guys.” What about gender? In the house of identity politics are many rooms. Eleveld mentioned Angela Jackson but added she wouldn’t be keen to travel around the state.
The larger question is why anyone would want to be Illinois poet laureate. I put that to Smith, finding him, not where he belongs, at the Green Mill midwifing poetry. But in Savanna, Illinois, his new home.
“A little town on the Mississippi,” Smith explained. “A little river rat biker town. That’s my safe haven in this crazy time.” How’s the poetry scene in Savanna? “I’ve done some stuff out there, in Mount Carroll, Galena. There’s some progressive people out here.”
No doubt. But what about the Slam? When will it start back up?
“It’s all up in the air,” Smith said. “It could be over. A 35-year run is pretty good.”
So he’s not praying at night to be poet laureate?
“I’ve been an outsider my whole career,” Smith said. “I don’t believe in that stuff, titles and awards. That’s not my thing. My friends are pushing for it; they’ve done this for years. I don’t take it seriously.” Which of course makes him almost perfect. “It should not be someone who wants the job as an act of self-aggrandizement,” said Kevin Stein, the most recent laureate. “It’s honorific, volunteer work. If you’re going to have a rush out of someone introducing you as poet laureate, you’re the wrong person for the job.”
Just so Smith or Coval don’t take rejection too hard, remember that neither Eliot nor Sandburg would pass muster today. Not only are both white guys, but the former was an odious anti-Semite (“The rats are underneath the piles/The jew is underneath the lot”), and the latter titled one of his “Chicago Poems” with what we must now discreetly call “the N-word” (which didn’t stop him from being named Illinois poet laureate in 1962. But it’s a new world, Golda).
I’m glad the decision rests with the committee, not with me.
Fitzpatrick illuminated a path out of the identity bramble.
“You look at the poems,” he said. “You look at the ones that reach out to people in the broadest sense and encourage them to embrace the written word.”
Marc Smith, organizer of the Uptown Poetry Slam, in 1986.