When does the next bar stool take off? A poet’s retrospective of Chicago—Part II of IV

When does the next bar stool take off? A poet’s retrospective of Chicago—Part II of IV

By By Christine Swanberg, Author and Poet

People age. Sometimes gentrification is simply part of refining tastes. I have been on the periphery of the Chicago poetry scene for three decades. Eventually, I met the old guard through groups such as Poets and Patrons, which continue to sponsor contests for the Chicago area, give workshops and critique each other’s work. Through that group I have met excellent writers like John Dickson and the late Richard Calisch as well as Carol Spelius, a dear and generous soul who runs Lake Shore Publishing out of her home. She published my third collection, Slow Miracle. I have enjoyed getting together with Poets and Patrons in the delightful Beyond Words Cafe in the Harold Washington Library. Through them, I was able to connect with Laurel Sher, who twice booked me for readings in the library’s Author Room, prairie style in the Frank Lloyd Wright tradition.

During the ’80s, I began actively seeking role models for my own writing. I went to a poetry festival at the old Chicago Library, now the Chicago Cultural Center on Michigan Avenue. There I heard poets who strongly influenced me. Lucien Stryk read his elegant, imagistic poetry, and I decided right then to take a sabbatical from teaching and try to work with him at Northern Illinois University, where he taught poetry workshops. That year, 1984, I began to define myself as a poet, and I have Lucien Stryk to thank. His Zen focus helped me to find my own focus; that year I generated poetry nearly every day.

Lisel Mueller also read. I was struck by the power of her quiet, elegant, enchanted style. A few years later, I was able to work with her at the Port Townsend Writer’s Conference, and I remember vividly looking at pronouns in a new way. Shortly after that, Jeff and I were trying one of Chicago’s hundreds of great ethnic restaurants. We were at the Helmund, an Afghanistan restaurant, when I realized that Lisel Mueller was sitting next to us with her family. Really, what are the odds? A decade later, shortly after she won the Pulitzer, I had the great fortune of being seated next to her in Springfield, Ill., at the Illinois Authors’ Conference. Her work continues to inspire the women in my poetry salon. She is one of our staples; I am glad I happened to be in the audience that day at the old library.

Lisel Mueller isn’t the only Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago author whose life touched mine. Although I had taught the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks for years, I never thought our paths would actually cross. In the early ’90s, I was very involved in community activism and served as chairperson of the YWCA Leader Luncheon. In an organizational meeting, I suggested that we ask her to be our keynote speaker, and to my delight, everyone agreed. We used a line from one of her poems, “To civilize a space,” as the theme for that year’s luncheon. We sat together in a room filled with about 1,000 women. I was so pleased that she didn’t read only “nice” poems, but also delved into some starker issues. Gwendolyn Brooks served as Illinois Poet Laureate for many years. Her name is engraved on the State Capitol Library. She left a legacy of programs, scholarships and prizes to the black voices of Chicago and touched countless people with her generosity and candor. Simply giving the introduction for Gwendolyn Brooks made my day.

The Chicago literary community is diverse. Anyone who has gone to the annual Printers’ Row book fair can see this. Readings by Chicago’s Latino witers, the “Poetry Tent” which sponsors day-long readings, women’s groups, the Society of Midland Authors, as well as a healthy assortment of small presses, are just a few of the offerings. Since it’s usually in early June, the weather always seems to cooperate. Sometimes strolling minstrels, jugglers and other Renaissance folks happen your way. Printers’ Row has always had a certain magic for me.

In 1991, Lake Shore Publishing had a booth, which I helped Carol Spelius run. A few years earlier, I had submitted a poem to Papier-Mache Press, famous for publishing a great many women’s anthologies, most notably When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple. Though Papier-Mache was California-based, that day I ran into Sandra Martz, its publisher. We really clicked and began a great relationship. She came to Rockford on one of her Chicago visits and was very well-received. We enjoyed visiting her and the Papier-Mache operation in Watsonville, Calif. She published my work in both I Am Becoming the Woman I’ve Wanted and Home for the Holidays. One of Jeff’s photographs, a picture of an old cowboy with a small child in a cowboy hat, was on the cover of Generation to Generation, a Papier-Mache classic. Though the Papier-Mache books did very well for small press—When I Am An Old Woman, I Shall Wear Purple sold two million copies—the press could not compete in a world increasingly short of independent book stores. Another essay for another time.

To be continued…

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