Chicago poets reflect on the city’s unique poetry scene

Avery r young wbez community news article

Community News
By Max Lubbers

Read Time 3 minutes
April 15, 2024

This story was originally published in WBEZ Chicago.

You could argue that Chicago is the poetry capital of the nation. Slam poetry got its start here in the 1980s, since becoming a genre with competitions all over the country. We are home to the largest youth poetry festival in the world. And Chicago has plenty of institutions and community groups dedicated to the craft.

But what is it about Chicago that makes our poetry scene so unique? And how has the power of poetry been passed down across generations?

Reset sat down with a panel of poets: Regina Harris Baiocchi, the founder of Haiku Fest; avery r. young, Chicago’s first-ever Poet Laureate; and Angela Jackson, the fifth Illinois Poet Laureate.

Here are highlights from our conversation.

What stands out to you when we talk about the rich history of poetry in Chicago?

avery r. young: 

The first person I’m thinking about is with Gwendolyn Brooks, who is like “the muthaaa” of poetry. 

But you think about the people who also have close ties to Chicago – Langston Hughes. (You think about) the poetry slam created by Marc Smith at the Green Mill. You think about Louder than a Bomb…and those youth that came out of that (festival), they have a unique experience with poetry that I didn’t have. At 14 or 15, I did not have a huge festival to go to.

Ms. Jackson, you are following in the footsteps of Gwendolyn Brooks, as an Illinois Poet Laureate. What do you think is her legacy in Chicago?

Angela Jackson: 

Her legacy is a supreme legacy. Miss Brooks could do anything with language. She made language new.

Another feature of her work was her accurate and lovely depiction of her community – the entire African American community. I should say Black, because she preferred the term Black, because it was all-encompassing, global in its use and meaning.

She also was a poet of love. You can tell that her spirit was a loving and generous one and she passed that along to the people who would call her their their mentor.

What is the importance of creating spaces for youth to participate in poetry?

Regina Harris Baiocchi: 

When I was seven years old, my mom took me to the Museum of Science and Industry. Gwendolyn Brooks, who was the poet laureate of Illinois, had a poetry festival, and I was one of the kids who went to read.

I wrote her a thank you note… She did a dangerous thing – she wrote me back. We became pen pals (and) wrote each other religiously… 

So in December 2000, when she passed, I…said, “Is anyone going to take up where she left off with youth?” And long story short, everyone was busy. (So I founded) Haiku Festival – she inspired me to do it.

What’s your advice to young poets?

Ms. Jackson: 

Try to read as much poetry as you can. But even more than that, listen. Because there is poetry in everyday language, and you just happen to be open to it. 

My father spoke in metaphor. There was poetry in the blues. There was poetry in the gospel songs. So if you can’t get a hold of poetry books, just listen to what’s around you. And you will hear poetry and it will finetune you.