I rarely go out in Chicago on Sunday nights because I usually (always) have student work to reread, important meetings on Mondays and it's hell finding a parking space in Rogers Park after 8 pm on any day except for Friday (sometimes Saturday). But tonight I went down to Chicago's literary "crack house"--to use Toni Asante's apt term--Myopic Books, whose shelves are usually lined with at least 5-10 books you've either been looking for but couldn't find except online (via abe.com) or hadn't ever thought of but have to have, at half-rate prices. (Yes, I left with at least one new book.) I went down to Myopic, because the extraordinary Tyehimba Jess, author of the acclaimed volume Leadbelly, and now a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana, and Krista Franklin, whose collages and poems have transformed many a literary publication, were reading. I actually got there fashionably late, so I missed Krista (this time, though I've heard her read some of her amazing music-based poems, and await the chapbook and full-length volumes she'll publish soon, I hope), but did catch Jess reading from his collection.
I can remember some of Leadbelly poems from several years ago (and we finished up at CC together in 2001), so it's really marvelous to see the collection published and the praise he's getting for these poems that manage not only to animate the great blues musician's life and career, but also combine a profoundly grounded lyricism with what is one of the key African/American musical and poetic forms. Jess employs the blues though not as a strict form but as a thematic and aesthetic undercurrent and guide. The book is so outstanding it should have been nominated for a National Book Award, but I wasn't on that committee, unfortunately. A number of folks were at the reading, from as far away as Ohio and New York; the room was packed, which was great to see. Here are a few photos from tonight. (I didn't get any of Toni, who said that was fine; but this reminded me, it's a good idea to bring the extra camera battery!)
Krista Franklin, in conversation
Tyehimba Jess reading/conjuring from Leadbelly
Jess introducing a poem
Dr. Pomofunk, Duriel Harris, in from upstate New York for the holidays
Maverick poet Thomas Sayers Ellis, posing with Jess