Wherever I’m At

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is publishing its first book.  Wherever I’m At is a fabulous collection of poetry, which officially launched just this past June 13th at the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago. There will be more events, like the panel I’m moderating at the Chicago History Museum on the evening of July 12th, where I’ll be talking to contributors Haki Madhubuti, Vida Cross, Yolanda Nieves and Virginia Bell.  Below is a one-minute/eight-second VIDEO ad I did for the book.  I say:

“Hello, I’m Richard Guzman, and I know a few things about Chicago anthologies because I did two big ones: Smokestacks and Skyscrapers with David Starkey, and Black Writing from Chicago on my own, and I’m here to tell you that you have to get the new anthology from the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame…All poetry, and as exhilarating a collection as I’ve ever read, by some of the most distinguished writers in America—all prized up with Pulitzers, all granted up by Fords and MacArthurs. One even wrote and read a poem for a Presidential Inauguration…But whatever they’ve won, wherever they’ve read, Wherever I’m At—that’s the book’s title—Wherever I’m At, they’re all in Chicago somehow, Chicago as a vibrating, planetary point, Chicago as a portal into the total, wide inner and outer universe…It’s for everyone, wherever you are, and every place you find yourself, but the book also returns you here to a city as real as steel and Lake Michigan and pedestrian tunnels under Lakeshore /slash/ DuSable Drive. It’s a beautiful, beautiful trip.” (Pieces of my video are incorporated into a six-minute-plus promo video you can watch HERE.)

Fragment of a photo by John Brzezinski.

I’ve been close to the CLHOF since the Hall’s founder and still-executive director, still all-everything-impresario Don Evans called me more than a dozen years ago and asked me to be on the first committee of people nominating great Chicago writers for induction.  I’ve done some of those induction speeches—for Fenton Johnson and Marita Bonner, for example—and after a few years of prodding, I joined the Board of Directors earlier this year, with the proviso that they can throw me out with no hard feelings if I fail to pull my weight…which I’m still not doing these first few months.

The book is co-edited by Don Evans and the late Robin Metz, who started the project many years ago, brought Don into it, and which Don finished after Robin’s death.  At least 15 wonderful photos and pieces of artwork adorn the book, two fragments of which you see at left.  And to end here are just a few fragments of poetry among many, many striking passages grabbing my attention the first time I read through Wherever I’m At, starting with the fragment that gave the entire book its name: “wherever I’m at that land is Chicago.” And “The neighborhood contains / The Midwest Mambo Club / and two stores named / Hosanna. The School of / Metaphysics used to be / located over Harry’s Bar….”

Fragment of a painting by Kerry James Marshall.

And “My memory is a soft cloth / rubbing the pieces together. / We still live inside this wound / on Division Street….” And “Here a spirit must yell / to be heard yet a bullet / need only whisper to make / its point—sometimes I imagine / you right before your death / with an entire city in your ears.” And “He’s a sucker for poets and writers, / hides his artistry behind lions, / spits poems in bars, / blows solid blues.”  And you’ve just got to parody Carl Sandburg: “Candy Maker for the World, / Deep Dish Pizza Baker, Seller of Futures, /Trader of Fortunes, Strider of the Magnificent Mile, / Soupy, Stalwart, Honking, / City of the Proud Suburbs.”  So many striking you on virtually every page, but for me none more than from one of my favorite poets, Mark Turcotte, whose poem “Hawk Hour” brings the anthology to a close.  His prose poem begins, “In this city time unwinds in unnatural ways.”  “It’s bad for the body,” he continues towards the middle of the first paragraph. “Even here at the corner of Sheridan and Pratt, the lake and its waves only a block away, I cannot measure my dying.”  The flows are all wrong. The city breaks his clock and all the natural clocks of nature. The poem ends with the speaker at the Loyola Station where he crawls up the escalator, but at 90 miles an hour!  Then at the top—spewed out at 95 mph—he suddenly lingers “in a shadow that drapes itself across my eyes. I catch my breath, I stand upright. Above me the shape of a hawk drowns out the rush of the next ten trains and with its beating wings reaches out to stop the sky.”  “Chicago” is the French version of “Stinky Onion,” Shikaakwa, in the Miami-Illinois language. What a great, spectacular choice to end with the Native-American sensibility Turcotte brings.

Don Evans always points people to this website as a great resource on Chicago literature. Go to the Chicago Writers list and the Black Writers list to most easily access much of my writing on this subject.

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Folk Songs, Spirituals, and Jazz

This short article accompanies the release of excerpts from my radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz, based on my 1976 book of the same name.  The 16-part series played across the nation for five years in the late 70’s/early 80’ and holds its relevance—or is even more so—today than it was back then.  The excerpts present about 6 to 8 minutes of the original 30-minute broadcasts. The link above takes you to information about the book and our plans to re-release it and provide access to the full-length original shows. Go HERE for a complete list of shows.


The VIDEO below is mostly audio: it’s an excerpt of Show #2 of my sixteen-part radio series Voices and Freedoms: A History of Jazz.  This show is entitled “Hollers, Cries, Work Songs, Spirituals.” (The link just above takes you to a list of all the shows in the series.)

The spiritual depth of jazz has often been miscalculated, because jazz is so often associated with the low-down blues, with dance halls, with any number of excesses.  But John Coltrane’s very spiritual 1964 album A Love Supreme re-focused us on jazz’s spiritual depth, a depth anchored in the folk songs, spirituals, and gospel songs that had a profound influence on the music of jazz and on jazz’s relationship to life from its earliest moments. And it wasn’t just the more formal songs of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for example, or the many forms of gospel music that influenced jazz so deeply.  One critic said that the great jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman essentially played field hollers.  The fragments of music accompanying work as field hands or merchants have always been particularly moving to me as they speak of freedom, family, and the fleeting nature of life.  In the show excerpt below you’ll hear one man sing, “I want to see my wife and children / BIM! / Yes I do, do, buddy buddy yes I do.”  The “BIM!” comes from a hammer sound in the call’s roots as a railroad work song. And there’s this short song from a flower vendor: “Yes, Ma’am, I got flowers / You ask me how I sell ‘em / Yes, Ma’am three for a quarter / Oh come and buy now / For I’m here today / And tomorrow I’ll be gone / Flowers ‘a’ going by.”

If jazz is at all an affirmation of life, of wholeness and rebirth, if it still retains something akin to deep African religiosity, and if it still speaks—as I believe it does—about human freedom and identity, this is so largely because of having roots in a heritage of songs like hollers, calls, gospel music, and, of course, the spirituals, which came from slave times out of the souls of Black folk.

Go to the Training and Teaching Diversity main page.

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Cyrus Colter: “Small” Risks

This article is part of two continuing series on Chicago Writers, most of whom are contained in two of my Chicago books: Black Writing from Chicago, and, with David Starkey, Smokestacks and Skyscrapers.  Go to complete lists of Chicago and Black writers in this series.

Born in Noblesville, Indiana, in 1910, Cyrus Colter (1910-2002) received his law degree from Chicago-Kent College of Law in 1940 and began a successful career in business and government as a lawyer and, from 1950 to 1973, as commissioner of the Illinois Commerce Commission. He was 60 when his first collection of stories, The Beach Umbrella (1970), won the University of Iowa’s School of Letters fiction prize.  The success of his novels The River of Eros (1972) and The Hippodrome (1973) led to his appointment as the Chester D. Tripp Professor of Humanities at Northwestern University from 1973 to 1978.  Night Studies (1979) won the 1980 Carl Sandburg fiction prize.  In 1988, he published A Chocolate Soldier and his collected stories The Amoralist and Other Tales.  In 1993, he published City of Light.

The stories in The Amoralist explore Black life, or the reaction to it, from the ghetto to the anxiety-ridden world of the Black middle class. In “The March,” the book’s most spectacular, outgoing story, a mother sees her 18-year-old son Archie off to the Army and an almost certain assignment to Vietnam, then returns home to deal with the indifference and bitterness of her second husband and the protests sweeping the neighborhood. Leaflets for an anti-war march read, in part: “Join the thousands of protestors who will MARCH! Then hear speeches about the cruel hoax of our NEGRO BOYS fighting and dying in Vietnam…Why are we sending NEGRO BOYS thousands of miles across the seato fight for so-called DEMOCRACY when these same boys never shared it right here at home?” Other stories are quieter and powerfully indirect, as in “Chance Meeting,” where an elderly house servant’s identity and seeming closeness to his former high society employer is undermined by chance, unwelcomed revelations.

In Smokestacks and Skyscrapers, the Chicago anthology I edited with David Starkey, David chose “Beach Umbrella,” the famous story that launched Colter’s writing career.  It explores one of Chicago literature’s most enduring themes, class consciousness, as we watch the main character, Elijah, juggle the reality of his blue-collar existence and the fantasy world he has created at the 31st Street Beach. He feels constant pressure from his wife Myrtle to find another job and make more money, but at the warehouse where he works he’s worked his way up from a freight handler to doing inventories and a little paperwork. He wears a tie to work, and, though the pay is low, speaks of it as a white-collar job. He thinks of moving on, but won’t risk it. What he does risk is borrowing $15 from his more enterprising son Randall to help him buy a beach umbrella.  He’s fascinated by the variety of them at the beach, and the way they seem to attract people who have the most fun.  In the end, though, his one day of attracting people seems hollow, and wondering how he’s going to pay his son back, he tries unsuccessfully to sell it.

In Black Writing from Chicago I chose the story “Overnight Trip,” one of Colter’s most quiet, interior stories.  After Amos, the main character, gets a job as a linotype machine operator and marries Penny, he thinks he’s made it. “He breathed easier, confiding to himself that he was finally ‘out of the woods.’ But now he realized you never were…His mother, now long dead, used to say to him, ‘Keep agoin’ fou-werd, Amos, and look to Jesus an’ everything will come out all right.’ It was a mild shock to regard this as possibly untrue.” He wonders “what it was about life that made it so risky,” why trouble seems to be always around the corner. This is especially true about his life with Penny.  She wants children, but because he thinks of her as a child needing his constant protection against life’s risks, their love making is infrequent and awkward. He senses, rightfully, a growing distance between them, which only elevates his feeling of riskiness.  Everything seems absolutely upended when her friend Bobbie invites her for an overnight trip to St. Louis.  Though she demurs to Amos, she’s obviously excited to go. The story builds so quietly, so deep inside Amos’ mind, that the last line often strikes me as one of the most powerful quiet lines in literature and a signal of the enduring power of Colter’s writing: “He knew she’d return tomorrow night, but that really she was gone.”

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The Quiet After Easter

Where are the pockets of quiet in our year?  Not now, as end of school year events—graduations, concerts, parties, summer planning—crowd our days and nights.  On March 26th this year, I held a Becoming the Beloved Community workshop and was supposed to follow up with participants in two weeks, but Holy Week and Easter and tax season intervened.  And the Sunday after Easter Sunday I delivered the sermon you can see in the VIDEO below.

“And what was your weekend like?”  That’s how Chris Rock opened his first comedy show the week after Will Smith slapped him in front of the whole world at this year’s Oscars.  But Christians have a corner on that question because no matter what you did on any particular weekend, no one had a bigger weekend than what we celebrate on Easter Sunday.  In The Book of Revelations the risen Christ is revealed as “…the Alpha and Omega…who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty” (verse 1:8). He is the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world.  But ironically the days and weeks after Easter are one of the quietest times in our year.

I’ve wondered why Jesus didn’t leave Christians an easier job and just appear to thousands of people all at once in a series of big coliseum events.  Instead, he appears in mostly quiet moments: to two people on the road to Emmaus, for example.  They’re referred to as disciples but remain unnamed and certainly aren’t two of the remaining eleven.  Those disciples were hiding out in fear.  And Emmaus?  We don’t know exactly where that is.  He first appears to women—four of them Mary’s—whose testimonies would not have been respected in that day, and when he does he does not announce that he is the Alpha and Omega.  He simply says, “Mary,” to the first Mary.  He’s so quiet and unpresuming the two women think he’s just the gardener.  My favorite after-Easter incident is when Peter spies him on shore from a boat.  “It’s the Lord,” he says, and jumps out of the boat to swim towards him.  And what is Jesus doing? He’s cooking them breakfast.  He’s going to eat with them just as he does with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.

In these meetings, Jesus often gives those he meets the so-called “Great Commission:” to spread the gospel—the Good News—throughout the world.  The sermon below contrasts the big ways we approach this—preaching, building churches and other institutions, etc.—but it focuses on three quieter ways we do this, ways suggested by what Jesus does during the quiet days after Easter.  We eat together, we walk through doors, we share where we’ve been hurt.

Because I speak about the road to “Emmaus” quite a bit, I play my composition “Emmaus” right before I begin the sermon.

OTHER SERMONS (most with VIDEO):  “Pentecost Means No ‘Supremacies,’” “Sacred Doing,” “It’s Not What You Know But Who You Know,” “Elijah: The Growth of a Prophet,” “Searching for Prophets,” “Three Things to Stop Saying,” “How Holy Was Jesus?” “Who Do You Stand With?”  “Servants Know First,” “Everything’s OK?” “Theology and Race.”

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