Earlier this week, the Guild Literary Complex announced the semi-finalists for their twenty-second Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, an accolade that Brooks started twenty-two years ago to celebrate poets from all over Illinois. During an open call for submissions in June, the Guild received 120 poems from writers from across sixty-six zip codes, competing for the $600 prize. Twenty out of the original pool have made it to the final round, which will be held on July 22 at the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at 7pm.
This year’s guest judges included researcher and poet Yolanda Nieves and poet and artistic director of Free Street Theater Coya Paz. “I was struck by the diversity of style and content in the submissions, although if I think about it, it makes perfect sense,” says Paz, who found it increasingly difficult to narrow down the submissions. “Narrowing it down was a bit like comparing apples and oranges. There were so many strong options to choose from that much of it came down to whether I thought a poem offered something truly fresh, truly unique, a snapshot of a feeling or an idea or a way of looking at the everyday I hadn’t previously considered.”
There are some general guidelines that the Guild requires for submission, one of which is that, when read out loud, the piece should not extend beyond three minutes. Guild director John Rich explains that although performance is a criterion to keep in mind, it isn’t extremely imperative. “When working with the judges, I give them very basic criteria. I say that poems should be judged by poetic quality, literary merit and the perceived success of the poem as a performed piece. The latter instruction is to remind the judges of the public performance, but not as a qualifier that poems should be ‘performative,’ per se.”
The audience at the July 22 event will ultimately be the ones to choose the winner of this year’s event by casting a ballot that they will receive along with their programs. Finalists, who will receive $50 each, will then be chosen and narrowed down once more until they find the participant with the most votes. There will also be some special guests, like Deepak Unnikrishnan, last year’s winner, who will be reading one of Brooks’ poems and the hosts, 2005 award winner Toni Asante Lightfoot and Quraysh Ali Lansana, co-author of “The Walmart Republic.”
“Twenty-two years is a good number of years for a contest,” Rich says. The contest began with the generous support of Brooks who, up until her passing in 2000, was writing the checks herself for the winners. Since then, the Guild has continued to work with her daughter Nora Brooks Blakely and encouraged past contestants to come back as special guests. Rich is also thankful to their co-presenter the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts and their sponsor, the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture. Because of their support this year, the Guild will hold a free reception with food and drinks following the event. “It’s going to be a great party,” Rich says, “as it should be.” (Mahjabeen Syed)
July 22 Open Mic Award Celebration, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, 915 East 60th, (773) 702-2787, 7pm-9:30pm. $8 for adults and $6 for students and seniors at the door or at guildcomplex.org.