January is traditionally a busy month for the Chicago poetry scene, and this year is no exception. Last week was the kickoff of the Guild Complex's Musicality of Poetry Festival, with I Was Born With 2 Tongues (300 fuckin' people showed up!); Shappy's book release party is tonight (also at the Guild); Lisa and I do our feature at Gourmand on Friday; Lisa's book release party is on the 28th; and Marty McConnell of The Morrigan was back in town for the holidays this week and ended up doing an impromptu feature at Madbar on Monday.
I often wonder what guides the waves of popularity in the poetry scene. For the five years I've been involved, there seems to be two peaks each year -- one in January, mostly concentrating on high output, and one in July, concentrating on large audiences. This makes sense. With the cold weather, writers tend to dig into their bunkers and do a lot of writing instead of being out, getting drunk and trying to get laid. When Chicago hits its warmest, of course, everyone does want to be out, getting drunk, getting laid, and an open mic is a fun place in which to do so.
Chicago's poetry scene is unusual, in that its modern incarnation was fully established in the early '80s and has never dissipated since. At any given point I think it's safe to say there's roughly a dozen or two open mics in the city, with around 100 writers regularly performing at one or more of them. (In 1997, when John Biederman was running the poetry magazine Tunnel Rat, we had one month where we counted 75 different poetry events in 30 days.) You mention "poetry scene" to most people nationwide and they'll sort of wrinkle their nose at you thinking of their own city, which usually consists of one shitty coffeehouse and a dozen angst-filled undergraduates wearing black clothes and reading epic poems about the "vampyre." ("That's vam-PEER, motherfucker!") The Chicago poetry scene is a lot different -- vibrant, rowdy, huge, with true success stories and real money-making opportunities. It's hard for me to impress this on someone who hasn't seen it for themselves.
So what other cities have poetry scenes like this? Definitely New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, Boston and Albuquerque. It's a safe bet that any city with a slam has at least a small, fun poetry scene. Some places have larger poetry scenes than they should, like Madison WI, Fargo ND, Worcester MA. Some places should have large scenes but don't like Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis. Most cities' poetry scenes are dependent on the number of people dedicated to making shows happen and promoting the hell out of them to get audiences. And these people can pop up in the unlikeliest of places.
I make fun of the poetry scene a lot but ultimately I'm glad it's here. It provides me with a good excuse to hang out and be social and for my friends and I to congregate together on a Monday night. I feel I've become a better writer as a result. I certainly get hit on a lot more. Besides, if there wasn't a poetry scene I'd just be going out anyway, lurking in the back of yuppie bars and not talking to anyone and having a miserable time. If nothing else, the Chicago poetry scene gives all us losers an excuse to hang out together and convince ourselves that there's nothing wrong with all of us being losers. And really, that's one of the best reasons to have a poetry scene at all.