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Poetry Mon Apr 06 2015

Poets for Chuy: Creative Work + Creative Action

By Jacob Saenz, Jennifer Karmin, Matthias Regan, Toby Altman, Cean Gamalinda, Barbara Barg & Toni Asante Lightfoot

On March 13, 2015, Poets for Chuy brought together writers from across Chicago's neighborhoods and aesthetics to support Jesús 'Chuy' Garcia's progressive campaign for mayor of Chicago. Chuy himself even stopped by, speaking at length about his love for James Brown, the political audacity that has driven his career, and the poems his mother wrote when he was a child. Co-organized by the curators of the Red Rover Series and the Absinthe & Zygote Series, the event took place at the art activist space Center Portion in the Logan Square neighborhood. The featured poets were: Barbara Barg, Sheila Donohue, Laura Goldstein, Jennifer Karmin, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Matthias Regan, Jacob Saenz, Erika L. Sánchez and Keli Stewart. Focusing on the connections between poetry, activism and civic engagement, Toby Altman was the evening's emcee.

poets for chuy

In the sincere hope that poetry can transform our common worlds, we present here a portfolio of responses to the Poets for Chuy reading — by performers, curators, and event volunteers.

Jacob Saenz:

When I was asked to read in the Poets for Chuy event, I jumped at the chance to do so. I wanted to show my support for Chuy's candidacy beyond casting my vote for him. The diversity of the reading and strong work shared gave me a sense of hope and optimism in our democratic process. Maybe art can spur action whether by canvassing in the neighborhood or effecting the way one thinks about who to vote for and why. Days after the event, I read that one of Rahm's advisors snidely dismissed the event to the press. The fact that they even mentioned the event tells me they are worried, maybe even scared. Maybe money isn't everything in politics. Maybe art can affect real change in this country. We'll see on the night of April 7.

The Bachelor Votes for Chuy

Not because he shares the same name as my tio Chuy
or because his moustache reminds me of my stepfather —
thick & dark & muy Mexicano — or that he's from Durango,
the fabled land of my biological father whom I don't know
& have never met & could Chuy be my father? Probably not
but could he be my mayor? Yes because he cares about all people,
black, white & brown & bastard bachelors born out of wedlock.
Because I can't imagine him literally yelling "Fuck you!" to a teacher
followed by a "Fuck you!" to students by shuttering fifty schools,
during which Rahm was out of town for, probably skiing.
Because Rahm would rather build a new basketball arena
for an overpriced institution than a new school for underprivileged kids.
Because I don't fear Chuy is a part of the Illumanti or Freemasons
or is a lizard-person who could grow back a lost half-digit
but chooses not to in order to appear more human.
Because Rahm was caught running red lights by a camera
program he now wants to remove only after Chuy announced
he would suspend the program if elected.
Because Rahm vacations w/Gov. Rauner in Montana
where they fly-fish using $100 bills as bait.
Because pay-to-play politics is still intact despite
the mayor's talk of "ethics reform."
Because voting fiscally is not enough.
Because voting fiscally is enough when you consider Chuy
being a part of two financially responsible administrations
in recent history, under Harold Washington & Toni Preckwinkle.
Because there is no "Poets for Rahm" event.
Because the donors for Rahm are out-of-touch billionaires
w/names like Griffin & Pritzker & Sacks & the donors
for Chuy are poets who scrounge together ten dollars
w/names like Barg & Donohue & Goldstein & Karmin
& Lightfoot & Regan & Saenz & Sánchez & Stewart.

Jennifer Karmin:

As poets, we have a responsibility to deconstruct the communication strategies that aren't working. We can use the power of imagination to dream up how we want things to be. This means not just finger pointing and blame, but offering innovative models for change. We can simultaneously point to a problem and a solution. It's a public practice of radical doubt and radical openness.

Matthias Regan:

Hope v. Expectation as regards the candidate's political demeanor. Like a rock star or slugger, he palms for high fives, jogging to the podium. Turns out to be a good comedian, switching from a story about his wife's love affair with James Brown to a story about his own. He tells us that he would prefer not to wear suit & tie, but come on, he's running for office here... Sewn into this discomfort is his belief that teaching art in public schools is the sign of a great city, an urban civilization. After he's gone, the evening goes swimmingly; the well-oiled voices grittier, the trenchant liberalism leavened for an hour. Few fail to flutter on the updraft sprung from his passing.

Toby Altman:

What is the place of poetry in public life? The question presumes that there still is public life — a shared space, constructed by and for the people who use it. That presumption seems, well, presumptuous, for all the usual reasons: the monetization of speech; the privatization of public services, etc. It would be naïve to imagine that poetry — or, for that matter, an election — can somehow disrupt this motion, which is native to capitalism itself.

"Cynicism is not revolutionary," writes bell hooks. Neither is naivety. Then what is the place of poetry in public life? Poets for Chuy was, I think, an improvised, tentative response to that question. That question is best answered in person, rather than in the abstract; in the intimate exchange between poets and poems, rather than on the intangible avenues of the internet. Poets for Chuy — like Chuy Garcia's campaign itself — was an opening, a shard of messianic possibility, within the usual dull routines of neoliberal politics. I hope we extend and expand that opening here.  

Cean Gamalinda:

i'd planned to attend the poets for chuy reading primarily to see barb barg & toni asante lightfoot perform when i was asked by toby a few days before the event to work the door. because i worked the door, i was the first to greet chuy when he arrived & even shook his hand. his palm had the texture of sausage lining & it was an entirely underwhelming handshake. onstage, he prefaced his talking points with some flirtatious banter about james brown. barb & toni slayed (duh) & i left with the impression that, for better or worse, if he wasn't a politican this guy could just as well have been a poet.

Barbara Barg:

My poetry curves around politics and activism, because politics and activism have been a focus of mine since I went to kindergarten and discovered there are a lot of really nutty people in the world who hate my freedom. Writing/performing poetry is one way to be heard, which is why teaching writing is so important. Have had many students whose struggles in life laid them low. In poetry, they found a way to be heard and to hear others, and they don't need expensive equipment to be a poet. Poetry helps keep visions of a more functional and pleasant humanity alive in a soul-crushing society. And, for me, poetry readings are often a comfort zone of sanity. I'm most interested in poetry that interacts with the human heart, though the heart is deemed unreliable in some circles.

Toni Asante Lightfoot:


Chuy Be Creative For Chicago

We put our finger mustaches up
To show who we want more.
We are here to reconcile our lack of ...
with our hopes for...

Artists know struggle and how to turn a nickel into a dollar. We know how to build revenue one person at a time. We know how to word our work to be granted the opportunity to show it, research for it, and retreat for it. Like a poor man with an ice-cream cart, some of everything we make goes back into our community. Let's make it good. Let us be the teaching moment of what we want the world to learn.

As artists we can show people with a modicum of money how to pool it together and invest it in the community. We are developers so let us develop the neighborhoods in different ways. Let us buy on the cheap and share the high we feel when we renovate DIY. Chuy, tap the artists of the communities who can show the bankers their money is safer when they loan it to people who want to develop business hubs for the community, in the community. We don't want to develop a property and sell out to whomever comes or abandon what will make more money empty than viably occupied. If the people in a community can't afford to pay more than $500 a month then the market should adjust and allow for $500 rents or the wages need to be increased to compensate the worker in a way that they can thrive in the city in which they work.

Chuy, please, listen to the artists who can do so much, integrate our wisdom into the community in so many ways. We as artists can do so much if we are allowed to do more than dazzle the wealthy. We need to bring them to the schools we teach in and then show them the schools we can afford to educate our children in.

I'm thinking about my last job in the arts teaching and after-school drama program at Ancona School. This school charged $19,000 a year not including the after school programs I taught in and instead of paying the going rate of $50 for the teacher's time, expertise, and worth, Ancona paid $17.50 for one hour and balked at having to pay me an even $20 to at least help with the hour in travel to get there. I had to beg to get my child to be able to play with their children. That ethic disgusts me. The parents valued education. The school didn't value its art teachers. I quit the second I got another job and vowed to never teach the arts as a living. This city had stopped paying teaching well and proved that it hates to pay a living wage anyone who loves children and the arts. Chuy you know how disturbing this is because you've loved the whole city. Hung out in and danced in this city. You've eaten polenta, matza balls, dumplings, and grits. Chuy, you know without vibrant, multicolored neighborhoods Chicago cannot be strong. Wealthy homogeneity is equivalent to sinking sand. Artists need to be in the communities of the city.

Artists can create theater like Lorraine Hansberry, books like Nelson Algren, poetry like Li Young Lee, short stories of the city and its grit like Stuart Dybek. Artists are the ones who tell the world what the character of the city is. Look at the movies, the TV shows, the web series that are here. No one would ever care about a 13th century Dane if the artist William Shakespeare had never written about him. Keep us close to keep our history close. This is what art and artists can do.

Chuy, know an artist's worth, value, and values. Rahm the dancer, likes to talk about the arts but he's stealing from the neighborhoods and funneling it downtown. Our people all over this city need art to smooth the rough edges of life. Remind everyone that this city is who we are. Chicago is known for the all the art that came out of the men and women who worked to clean this city, chauffeur this city, build this city, jazz this city, roll this city, blues this city, rock this city, dream this city, manufacture this city, poem this city, sing this city, paint this city, jook this city, design this city and admire the sexiness of a city built by workers and affordable to workers.

We can as artists funnel our art into the political communities of developers. Can we teach the people how to make a little investment that they make a little profit from in order to benefit the whole area? Si se puede! Can those who can afford it, buy some 3 flats and renovate them to house artists and teachers and entrepreneurs and nurses and preachers and chauffeurs. Not to make an obscene amount of money but to profit a bit and then profit the neighborhood and bring some unity to the community.

Chuy I know knows the struggles of this city. Rising from working class to power broker, money maker, mover and shaker. The story of Chicago over the past 50 years is the story of Chuy. I fit in this city and his story because I moved here and was cared for by this city, I was sheltered by this city, I was robbed by this city and I was given a second chance over and over again by this city. Not everything in Chicago is always good nor is it in all ways bad. It is a city filled with humans on the move. Immigrating and migrating by choice to the city. Some migrate out of this city, any city because the cost of the city has risen out of their reach. We are losing blood. The blood of our city is being shed to water the way for cheap property to be turned into expensive, expansive, communities of newcomers. If Chuy can put monied power brokers on notice we all can. We artists must.

 
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