Despite ridiculous reports that Chicago is a city of misery, I've had the wonderful opportunity to return to my mother city and retrace the concrete cracks of my youth by attending the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference, hosted by my alma mater, Columbia College Chicago. I never even knew about the conference 'til I was asked to attend, by our generous funders, to promote the literary journal I edit, The Sagebrush Review (a journal fully run by undergraduate and graduate students at UTSA). I didn't even have a chance to think about the conference until a few days before I was set to leave, my work schedule being so incredibly hectic. I had qualifying exam committee meetings, Master Teaching Fellowship meetings, interns to direct, poetry/short story readings to plan in absentia, classes to grade papers for, and, oh yeah, clothes to pack and a plane to catch.
Thankfully, despite bad weather, my plane was only delayed a little over an hour. Vincent and I, along with Michelle, the Head Officer of the Sagebrush, checked in to our hotel, The Palmer House Hilton, on Wednesday at around 5 p.m. or so. The plan was to get freshened up (shower) and meet for a nice meal. I'd passed the Palmer House a million times growing up in Chicago, and I knew it was where Tom Cruise met Guido the Killer Pimp in "Risky Business," but I other than using its hallway to get from Wabash to State on cold days, I'd never really stepped inside. The lobby and its bar are incredible. Really regal, old school decadence, or at least that's how they're promoting the place right now. They aren't too far off. The ballrooms and larger spaces are a photographer's dream, but the actual rooms are remodeled spaces that harken back to a time when we were smaller people and when plumbing wasn't so good. Either way, you can't complain about free. I feel very taken care of. So I was happy to look all around at the gilded fixtures and mirrored chandeliers before walking down the street to have good Italian (something which doesn't exist in San Antonio). We went to Italian Village, which is Chicago's oldest Italian restaurant. The pasta and sauces were amazing and Michelle had an excellent moscato. The waiter was super nice, too. After dinner, we talked into the wee hours under the dim lights of the Palmer House bar. I had a sweet pear brandy and took pictures galore.
The next day, an overpriced breakfast in bed and then off to the conference. WOW. There are A LOT of people here from all over the world! I've heard Spanish and English in a variety of accents, some Eastern languages I unfortunately have not been schooled in, and definitely some European ones I can grasp a little of. Vincent and I went to a panel called, "Revising Modernisms: Innovative Latino Writing in the 21st Century," which featured J. Michael Martinez, Antonio Viego, John-Michael Rivera, Gabriel Gomez, and Jennifer Reimer. The last speaker had some interesting things to say about his experience at UCLA, I believe. Something about only being given one Latino author to read in his four years, even though the population of the state and school is majority Latino. However, the panel itself was...dry. I was also disappointed when one female poet rearranged a T.S. Eliot quote and said that for her poetry is the negation of identity. Her statement was meant to reveal how poetry is "fake" or a distortion of what is real. She went on to say that she does not want to write from a racialized identity because it is problematic and she inevitably feels forced to represent. While I understand the need to not be pigeonholed, I personally find it impossible to write from a place completely devoid of racial bias or influence.
The panel titled, "Hip Hop and the Future of the Black Writer," was more of what I was looking for. It featured Jessica Young, Avery R. Young, Toni Assante Lightfoot, Tacuma Roeback, Alexis Pride, and Cynthium Johnson-Woodfolk. We were only able to catch the tail end of this panel, but boy were we happy we did. The energy in the too small space for all the people who wanted to be there was dynamic! Instead of just reading from papers, the writers were speaking from the heart and also taking questions from the chair of the panel and the audience. This was an interactive panel. Some statements that stood out to me included but were by no means limited to: "People who criticize current commercial hip hop and say that it is bad are people who are criticizing America because the medium very accurately reflects what America values and what we are giving power to. If you don't like what you see, then you need to change it. If you don't like it, get up and dance."; someone quoted Nas, referring to the Black community - "We are the slave and the master" - in terms of the oppressed but also the ones who create the culture that the master ends up using; for better or worse, hip hop has created a new space for the independent Black businessperson and Sean Combs was brought up, particularly for how he had the original Declaration of Independence at one of his Long Island parties and how he stayed home to watch the Inauguration with his son so that his son could see something he did not ever have the chance to see as a young Black child; and finally, education and our failure to make it successful for the past 15 or so years was brought up, especially in terms of not being good communicators and readers of what our children are bringing to the table (because we just bluntly correct them instead of trying to understand what they are trying to communicate and helping them with their communication).
Vincent and I loved the hip hop panel and, over lunch at George Mitchell's Artists Cafe, lamented that the same vibe was not found in the Latino panel we attended. It turns out not all the Latino panels were as stuffy, so maybe we just hit a crowd that hadn't had enough sleep.
After lunch, we wanted to take advantage of Chicago style. We took the Blue Line up to Damen and I showed Vincent all the spots on the buildings as we came up out of the tunnel that were painted over by Daley in the early 1990s because the city decided the gorgeous graffiti murals were bad. Bucktown is crazy gentrified. It is complete. The basement loft where Billy Wimsatt (Upski) and Alex (of Stoney Island fame) used to live is now a jewelry shop. The I.D. Under house I think got leveled. Still, we had a good time. I got a $29 dress at Akira, the new (to me) fashion empire, apparently. And Vincent had an excellent time digging the stacks at Reckless Records.
We took the train back to our home base and by now it was time for dinner. Since we are doing conference stuff and seeing friends the rest of the time, we decided to have a Valentine's Day date early. Pops for Champagne and a jazz show in its basement club was what we decided on. I'd heard Rose Colella on her myspace page and fell in love with her sweet voice, so it was perfectly romantic. We stayed for her early set and part of her second set, and held hands while dipping into fondue. But we wanted more writing. Poetry, specifically.
So, we ran back to the Chicago Hilton and Towers and caught the last hour of the poetry slam, which featured a lot of young dudes. Not a lot of ladies, but alas, all the judges were male, too. Still, it was nice to hear the young voices. And, what's really cool is that tomorrow's slam is a flash fiction slam, which I've never heard of, so it looks like the form is branching, which is great.
After walking around the rooms of the stunning Towers, we decided to walk back to the Palmer House, taking in the desolate city streets at night. Across the way, sculptors are creating ice art for a blues festival, it appears. Not exactly sure what it's all about, but it looks like the final product is going to be amazing. The moon was 3/4 full. And the doormen were hosing off the streets. It was a nice walk.
Tomorrow, the goal is to actually be able to set up our book table, which will offer free copies of the Sagebrush Review (not the issue I've edited, but good previous ones). Holla!