By Marla Seidell
Back together for the first time since they shared the stage with Allen Ginsberg in New Jersey in 1997, Guild Literary Complex founders Michael Warr, Patricia Smith and Luis Rodriguez will gather at Jak’s Tap on March 1 for a special reading to commemorate their extensive contribution to the poetry performance movement that swept the Windy City and the country in the eighties and nineties.
Coinciding with the reading are the writers’ recently published books: Smith’s book of performance poetry, “Shoulda Been Jimi Savannah,” (Coffee House Press, 2012, $16), Rodriguez’s memoir, “It Calls You Back: An Odyssey Through Love, Addiction, Revolutions and Healing,” (Touchstone Books, 2011, $25) and Warr’s latest volume of poetry, “The Armageddon of Funk,” (Tia Chucha Press, 2011, $16), which won the “Honor Books For Poetry” Award from The Black Caucus of the American Library Association. With the Guild founders reading from present and past works, the event recalls the writers’ early days in late-eighties Chicago, when they gathered for readings at the Red Lion Pub (now closed) on Lincoln Avenue.
“Jak’s Tap is the type of place where we honed our performance skills and shared our writing,” explains Warr over the phone from San Francisco, where he now lives. It was in 1989, at the Red Lion Pub (located right down the street from the no-longer-existing Guild Books) that Warr, Smith and Rodriguez decided to form the Guild Literary Complex.
“Back in those days, it’s hard to imagine, but there were not a lot of places where there was a cross-cultural element going on,” Warr recalls. It was the Guild that played an instrumental role in moving people across the divide. Guild Books boasted a wide array of diverse books: an impressive poetry section, academic books and newly published chapbooks by local poets, in addition to sections on labor, black studies and women’s writing (a new concept at the time). And just like its diverse book offerings, the Guild’s poetry slams, readings and open mic events reached across cultural barriers.
North Siders attended readings on the South Side, and vice versa, and in general, people who would not otherwise meet mingled and performed under one roof. “Poets from the academy shared the same room with performance poets for the first time,” says Warr.
“Here you had a movement where not only was poetry moving into the community, but communities were starting to come together in places across the city,” explains Warr.
Following in the footsteps of Chicago performance poet David Hernandez, who founded the poetry and music performance ensemble Street Sounds in 1971, the Guild hosted weekly open mics across Chicago, formed poetry bands and ensembles, created poetic films, duplicated and added twists to Marc Smith’s poetry slam, recorded spoken-word CDs, produced poetic plays, started independent publishing companies and took poetry into the schools. During its heyday in the nineties, Rodriguez says the Guild was the largest literary organization in the Midwest.
“It was a mass movement,” says Warr, who acted as founding executive director of the Guild until 1999.
Rodriguez and Smith played no less a critical role in creating a cross-cultural literary movement that did not exist in Chicago (or anywhere else) prior to that time.
In 1989, Rodriguez started the independent Tia Chucha Press, which started publishing Chicago performance poets of the time such as Hernandez, Smith and Warr. Tia Chucha soon attracted manuscripts from across the country and established itself as a national press that continues to thrive.
Rodriguez also took poetry “to the street,” conducting workshops in prisons, juvenile detention centers and homeless shelters across Illinois. And Smith played a vital role in introducing the poetry slam around the world. In 1993, along with Rodriguez and poets from across the United States, former national poetry slam champion Smith led a European poetry slam tour, hitting countries such as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. “We were spreading poetry—performance style—across the U.S. and around the world,” Rodriguez recalls over the phone from LA.
As a result of their efforts, says Warr, some of the artificial schisms in the literary scene have disappeared. “The once overbearing cry that performance poetry is not poetry has at least been drowned out by the voice of hundreds of thousands of poets on stages across the world, as their words are printed, recorded, digitized, danced, painted, shouted and even signed,” says Warr.
“I go to high schools in the middle of nowhere, and kids are doing poetry slams,” says Rodriguez.
Performance poetry has become a phenomenon beyond what Marc Smith started and what Warr, Smith and Rodriguez contributed to.
“We started together, nobody knew who we were, but individually and collectively, we have become very important on the national level, which shows the vitality of the Chicago scene that helped people like us get to where we are,” concludes Rodriguez.
The reading will take place Thursday March 1 at 7pm at Jak’s Tap, 901 West Jackson, (877)394-5061. Michael Warr also reads Thursday, March 8 at 6pm at Barnes & Noble, 1 East Jackson, (312)362-8792.