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It Could Be Verse : Performance Poets Liven an Old Art

Times Staff Writer

If Al Capone and his buddy Machine Gun Jack McGurn knew that their old speak-easy hangout had become one of the Windy City’s hottest poetry houses, they’d probably have an adverse reaction.

But, on any Sunday night, their former haunt, the Green Mill, an art deco showplace that barely recalls its grand past, is jammed by poets and their fans. The crowd gets so big that sometimes it’s SRO--Stanza Room Only.

Audiences come to hear an eclectic band of bards: a professional model, a high school Latin teacher, a janitor, a street-wise painter and uncounted waiters and waitresses--poets have to eat, too.

Stands Like a Thug

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For example, Tony Fitzpatrick, the son of a prize fighter and a burly product of all-night beer joints and 24-hour chili parlors, stands like a thug at the microphone to read the first of 30 poems he has written about Coney Island:

“First there were the sailors/ and the bathers/ and over one million light bulbs screaming on an ocean corner/ a jazz for the eyes.”

Across the country, there is a flurry of interest in poetry. Crowds are showing up at bookstores, libraries, coffeehouses and art galleries. But in Chicago they are packing taverns, where they pay a cover charge to hear free verse.

“There is enormous interest in poetry, and the turnouts are wonderful,” says novelist and National Book Award-winning poet James Dickey.

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“It’s come back pretty strong in the ‘80s,” says George Tysh, who runs a poetry program for the Detroit Institute of Arts.

Poetry Has ‘Come Alive’

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in activity, a revival,” says Lou Rosenbaum, buyer and program coordinator for Santa Monica’s Midnight Special bookstore. “Poetry was dormant in L. A. for quite a while. People were bewailing the fact that you couldn’t get an audience. Within the last two years, it’s come alive.”

It is also alive in Chicago, Carl Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling, City of the Big Shoulders.” This Midwest capital of finance, industry and corruption is also one of the hottest poetry towns in the country, providing friendly audiences and ample forums for a new generation of writers, just as San Francisco gave Beat Generation poets and writers a home in the 1950s.

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“Poetry is becoming much more of a social act,” says Richard Bray, whose Guild bookstore is at the hub of Chicago’s artist community. “This is the liveliest (poetry) scene I’ve seen ever.”

In Chicago, and a few other cities, audiences are coming to see and hear not just poetry, but poetry with a theatrical flourish.

Diversity is a hallmark of this theater. Performances can range from a single costumed poet giving dramatic presentations of his or her works, to groups of poets using minimal stage settings actually acting out poems, to elaborate multimedia presentations with slides, video tape and music.

And then there are the “Poetry Slams.” These feature two poets taking turns reading and performing their work as a panel of judges keeps score. Slams are divided into rounds. Verses are occasionally improvised or written between rounds and often inspire cheering and shouting from the audience, the performance resembling some bizarre literary version of the Friday night fights more than a celebration of the craft and art of Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot and e. e. cummings.

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“I once suggested to my opponent that we show up in shorts, wear robes and towels around our necks and have managers in our corners,” says Doug Rand, a poet, actor, songwriter, improvisational comedian, part-time waiter and recent slam contestant.

‘Shows’ and ‘Acts’

Poet and poetry event promoter Marc Smith calls poetry nights at taverns “shows” and talks about individual poets as “acts.”

“I look at it as entertainment,” says Smith, who gave up a career in the construction trades to devote himself full time to his poetry and to his poetry newsletter, Open Mike. “Maybe its more variety show than theater, but I don’t find anything wrong with calling poetry entertaining or entertainment.”

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“More and more poets are starting to merge their acts with performance,” says Eileen Myles, director of the Poetry Project in New York City, “throwing away the line between poetry and performance.”

“In some cases, the poetry is incidental to the theatrical dimension of their work,” says Jan Ponchalek, owner of Sheffields, another Chicago tavern that features poets. “One fairly well-known poet and performance artist wore a strange outer-space headgear and took Polaroid pictures of people and declaimed his poetry as he walked around the bar.”

And Brigid Murphy, 22, dresses like an old vaudevillian to act out her “approximately 40 two-inch cookies,” a biting commentary on male stereotypes of women built almost entirely on burlesque jokes about females. She gives life to her words with exaggerated, carefully choreographed body movements and hand gestures. And, in a surprise ending, she drops her trousers to display layers of petticoats while she switches to verses about female stereotypes of men.

‘We’ll Reach More People’

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“Performance art takes poetry out of that precious, precious place where poetry has always been,” says Murphy, who is trained as a dancer. “We’ll reach more people with performances, more people will hear it than will ever read it.”

Scorned by much of the city’s established community and by many academics, saloon poetry is part of Chicago’s Everyman literary tradition, which provided a home to Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Nelson Algren (“Man with the Golden Arm”), James T. Farrell (the Studs Lonigan trilogy) and Studs Terkel (“Division Street: America.”).

“There’s a real connection between hip-hoppers (street dancers), taggers (graffiti artists) and performance poets,” says Bray. “They’re often people who may not have had access to the higher culture. Performance poetry is in the tradition of the street performers and the street artists.”

“In New York, they think poetry is a high art,” says poet and slam contestant Rand. “Here it’s closer to the bone, closer to the street.”

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“The academics will try to analyze something that took me five minutes to write with a hangover,” says performance poet David Hernandez, 40, who has been a literary fixture in Chicago for 20 years. “They’ll always find some symbolism when all I see is a headache,” adds Hernandez, who makes his living entirely from his art.

“Performance poetry is odd,” says Connie Deanovich, who helps run the Poetry Center at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and who is an editor of a small literary magazine. “It seems that the text they’re speaking is more of a filler for their performance . . . than that the performance is an aid toward understanding or illuminating the poetry.”

Hip Underground Scene

And, reflecting much of the established poetry community’s attitude about the Green Mill and other places featuring performance poetry, Deanovich says its popularity is “not any kind of sign except that people will come out to an event that will include poets, jugglers, strippers, musicians, performance artists and where there’s some kind of hip underground scene.

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“I think people are trying more to make a scene than trying to understand poetry,” she adds.

The debate is academic.

“There are about 10 people out there buying poetry books,” says tough Tony Fitzpatrick, pointing toward the trash-littered street in front of the Green Mill. “You have to read it to be heard,” adds Fitzpatrick, a 27-year-old artist and art gallery owner who just designed the cover for the sound-track album of Jonathan Demme’s film “Something Wild.”

“But I’m rattled all the time when I stand up there,” Fitzpatrick added.

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Clothing salesman Detmer Timberlake also is a regular reader at the Green Mill because “it gives writers a place to gauge and expose their works and to meet actors, painters, musicians.”

Dedicated to Ellington

In a piece dedicated to the memory of Duke Ellington, he reads: “To the song he plays/ he gives the gift of immortality/ In the distance a bird sings mournfully in solitude/ Youth is beautiful to aging eyes.”

There appears to be neither rhyme nor reason to the assortment of poets who gather at the Green Mill. All share the same stage.

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James Loverde, 40, describes himself as a “blue-collar worker.” He works as a janitor and says “my jobs give me a lot of material.” One recent night, he read a poem titled “Handy Andy.”

“I used to do some of my stuff at open comedy nights at comedy clubs, and I got killed, so I though I’d try it out here,” says Loverde, 40.

Jean Howard, 33, has been writing poetry since elementary school days. She earns her living as a model, sometimes posing in lingerie for catalogues. She has written a massive work called Tattoo Taboo, a dramatic recitation that graphically and often very sensuously talks about tattoos.

One begins: “I lay many hours/ My mind seeing the chisel/ The work of its sharp mouth/ Like a woman at my cheeks.”

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Wanted More Business

Green Mill owner David Jemilo says he agreed to stage poetry nights in the hope that it would increase business on Sunday nights, the one night his bar doesn’t feature jazz.

“Before we started, we had just a few regulars,” says Jemilo, whose Sunday night bar business has increased more than eightfold since the poetry began.

“I never was really interested in poetry. I was always a football player, a linebacker. You know, you have concepts in your head about poetry. I used to think some poets are thinking types who can’t talk to normal people,” says Jemilo in a heavy Chicago accent. “A lot of people like me wouldn’t go and tell their friends they like poetry because it’s not cool. I didn’t really know I liked it until we started.”

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Jemilo’s bar is a piece of Chicago and entertainment history. It was once partly owned by Machine Gun McGurn and was a speak-easy retreat for gangster Al Capone. Sophie Tucker, Al Jolson and Joe E. Lewis all performed here.

In fact, when Lewis, a comedian and singer, once tried to leave for a higher-paying job, the gangster owners had his throat slit, forcing him to take a three-year hiatus before returning to entertain--at the Green Mill. That episode is remembered in a little ditty carved in plywood behind the bar:

“Big Al was ingesting spaghetti/ Machine Gun McGurn strangely still/ told Joe E. ‘You’ll look like confetti/ If you try to quit the Green Mill.’ ”

Researchers Wendy Leopold in Chicago, Diana Rector in Atlanta, Joanne Harrison in Houston and Dallas Jamison in Denver contributed to this article.

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