“You’re good,” I said to Tim Stafford, passing him at the bar at the Green Mill on my way out after two hours of listening to poetry the last Sunday in November.
I didn’t have to say that. But I’m a nice guy — shhh, my little secret — and Stafford was indeed good, the standout of the first Uptown Poetry Slam in 18 months. He recited his “The Patron Saint of Making Curfew,” a funny travelogue about being young and racing back from the delights of the city to his unnamed, uncool suburb.
Some readers might not know about the Slam. Marc Kelly Smith began the competition in 1984, and the shortest way to describe it is as performative poetry. Not poetry as you might remember from school, read in a plummy voice from a lectern, but verse delivered free form, with bonus points for anger and spittle.
To me, the Slam is an essential Chicago event, like a Cubs game, with a $7 cover, a jazz combo noodling on stage and Smith your sometimes genial septuagenarian host, the crusty master of ceremonies at a nightclub in hell. The next Slam is Jan. 16; Stafford will be the featured poet.
My compliment to Stafford resulted in a copy of “The Patron Saint of Making Curfew,” his newly published collected works, showing up in the mail. No kindness goes unpunished. I immediately decided, before opening the pink and lemon yellow cover, what my criterion for writing about it would be. I flipped the book over: $10. I’d write something only if it contains a thought worth 10 bucks. Otherwise, a shrugging toss into the deep, chill waters of Lake Oblivion.
Because most poetry is crap. Truly. I say that as lover of poetry, a subscriber to Poetry Magazine. Forgettable, overwrought, bland. The poor editors of Poetry; what they must wade through.
That’s harsh. To be generous, most poetry is written for someone other than myself. Maybe I like Stafford merely because he’s like me. His “Like Oz,” is an ode to Chicago from a distance, “a mountain range of glass and steel/that I was neither encouraged nor discouraged to climb./It simply existed as an elaborate backdrop/to my childhood.”
Stafford finally gets there, carrying “A fear based off someone else’s experiences/a joy based on my own.” He doesn’t wait for someone to denounce him as inauthentic but leaps to the task himself, the self-own that people like us must become good at: “... who was I to claim this city? I was an interloper/picking and choosing my experiences/and retreating back outside.”
OK, not Carl Sandburg. But Stafford passes the first requirement of a poet: Be who you are.
It was “Exit Wounds,” a kiss-off to the screwed-up family on the block, that got him into today’s paper. On the bottom of page 25, Stafford writes ... ho ho, not so fast. If I tell you, then you won’t pony up the 10 bucks. Actually, only $6, on sale online, straight from the publisher, Haymarket Books.
I don’t want to oversell the book, which won’t take you 15 minutes to read. How much you might appreciate poems like “The Beards of Logan Square” depends on how much you really hate hipsters.
“Your beard is not a beard at all./It is a shame blanket.”
I plugged “shame blanket” into Google and came up with nothing. Which means Stafford coined the phrase. Not bad for a guy you never heard of from the suburbs.
One core Slam value is the importance of negative feedback. Poets might get booed, a good thing, since nobody learns from praise. They learn from criticism This is Stafford’s first collection, and I would suggest next time he dig deeper. His teenage memories are astoundingly chaste, and as fun as “The Beards of Logan Square” is, he’s also aiming at a target the size of a barn.
Poetry is relevant when it tells hard truths, even daring to offend. Slam founder Marc Smith knows all about that. The Slam itself has been hooted down in recent years, by angry young poets who can’t forgive Smith, recasting him as slam poetry’s “Public Enemy No. 1” after jabbing his progeny at a collegiate slam competition in 2017.
To me, the whole point of having an identity is to make yourself strong and expansive and generous and forgiving, not touchy and narrow and self-oriented and vengeful. But that’s me.