Illi­nois needs to pick a poet, but which one?

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­berg@sun­ | @NeilStein­berg

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.”

Any oth­ers?

“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.

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