Chicago’s First Poet Laureate Celebrated at Harold Washington Library

Chicago’s first-ever poet laureate, avery r young, is poetry, music and possibilities. Even before he carried that title of eminence, young had actively worked to expand our understanding of where poetry can exist — beyond the usual spaces.

Yet, that continues to be one of his objectives as Poet Laureate.

“I would really like to just figure out the ways in which poetry just happens, not just in open mics or poetry readings or books,” young told The Chicago Defender back when he was first selected. “I’m living proof that poems can take up room and space in various spaces.”

Indubitably. 

The Poetry Foundation is honoring young with its “Chicago Poet Laureate Celebration” at the Harold Washington Library tonight. He will perform alongside fellow poet laureates E’mon Lauren Black (Chicago Youth Poet Laureate), Nandi Comer (Michigan), Angela Jackson (Illinois), Amanda Johnston (Texas) and Airea D. Matthews (Philadelphia).

It’s a fitting tribute to an artist and educator who cites visionary creatives such as Oscar Brown Jr., Nina Simone, James Brown and Gil Scott-Heron. young also named the Baptist church a foundational influence, where he saw firsthand how the oral tradition could transform a space and people. 

And the man has been busy doing just that, transforming rooms, minds and perceptions.  

During Mayor Brandon Johnson’s inauguration, he delivered a poem akin to a sermon that depicted the travails and dreams of those like us who migrated to the city long ago, drawing rapturous applause from the audience and dignitaries such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Karen Clark Sheard.   

He also comfortably exists in mediums beyond the written word, having served as a composer for the Red Clay Dance Company’s “Rest.Rise.Move.Nourish.Heal” dance exhibition. young was also named composer and librettist for “safronia,” which The Lyric Opera of Chicago commissioned.

In his interview with The Defender, young spoke about the responsibility of his role and the work he is setting out to do for himself and poets and artists in the city. Get to know the man who creates poetry for book pages and libraries, recording studios and galleries, and sanctuaries and stages.

And it’s likely he’ll take it to other spaces not readily fathomable. 

Chicago Defender: How does it feel to be named the city’s first ever Poet Laureate?

avery r young: It’s surreal. You know what poet laureateship is, but to be the first one of a city such as Chicago. Chicago hasn’t had a poet laureate, and being as entangled in the poetry community as I am, it could have been any one of a whole bunch of really fabulous human beings. And then it’s me. And it’s like, woooow.

I just immediately think about work that has to be done, to do a lot of figuring out about the ways in which people don’t think poetry is just this real kind of scary monster or this stuffy teacher. It’s cool. It’s fun. It’s accessible. It’s immediate. It’s necessary. It’s important. It’s transformative. It’s a lot of things, but boring and hard is none of it. Right? So, it’s just like work. Work to do, not just necessarily for me, but for poetry in the city and surrounding suburbs.

Chicago Defender: Demystifying what poetry really is.

avery r young: Yes, right. And there’s a lot of things about me that are very poetic, and then there are some things about me that I don’t think are poetic at all. (Laughter). I’m not one of those recluse, “leave me alone” kind of writers. I don’t like people, the ones who don’t like to talk. I’m not one of those poets, right? I’m very kind of sociable, and I like to hang out. 

I definitely prefer a house party before I would a poetry slam. I’m gonna go to the house party, and then I’m coming to the poetry slam. I’m a little bit more kin to a boogie and a house party. I get some life to write a poem for the poetry slam. So that’s just how that works. 

I grew up on the West Side of Chicago, the North Austin community. Grew up on the block where people cut their lawns, trim the shrubs, go to church on Sunday and come home from work.


Chicago Defender: So, where were you when you first heard that you got selected? 

avery r young: I was driving. I had a phone call. I picked up the phone. “Hello.” [Impersonating the caller] “Avery, we just want you to know you’ve been vetted to be the poet laureate.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” (Laughter)

They were like, “It’s basically gonna be you if everything works out.” They sent over some papers that I had to fill out and sign, and everything kind of checked itself on out.

You know what they say in the song with Tony! Toni! Toné! — “They worked it out” — damn, I forgot the lyrics. But it was something like, “They worked out and they worked it in and Tony! Toni! Toné!  has done it again. Something like that.

I was just driving, and I just happened to have had lunch with Eve Ewing. It was like right after we said, “Hey, see you later, love you,” and all that good stuff, I get this phone call. And I was like, This is wild style. Eve Ewing could definitely have been the first poet laureate of Chicago.

The city has such a rich tradition of poets and talent. It could have been a number of us. It’s cool. I’m settling with it. They got the right one. (Laughter).

Chicago Defender: That’s right. 

avery r young: So, it’s a whole bunch more laureates that’s gonna come after me. It’s space and room for everybody.

Chicago Defender: You alluded to this, but you said, there’s work to be done. Do you have any objectives right now that you want to accomplish through this role?

avery r young: Well, one of my main objectives is to realize how this is not just an opportunity for me. It can be an opportunity for other poets and urban artists, folk artists throughout the city and surrounding suburbs.  

I just don’t want it to be about me. I want to be able to have secured resources for programming that will allow several different residencies and put some resources into open mics and poetry showcases that happen throughout the city. So that we can guarantee some fairer stipends for featured poets and things of that nature. 

So, we have to figure out how this laureateship, as I’ve been calling it, can really, really, really, really just do the work of putting poems in a lot of other places for a lot of other poets, not just myself.

Chicago Defender: When we talk about your Chicago, what does that look like? What words, what images, what thoughts come to mind when we talk about your hometown?

avery r young: Storefront churches, barbecue, Vienna Beef signs, gravy ribs, Di Vinci Manor, Douglas Park, La Follette Park, um, currency exchanges. Good people, poets and communities, galleries. 

I’m a creative. I’m always gonna find myself at galleries, and I find myself at parties. I find myself at plays and operas and The Jazz Showcase or the Velvet Lounge, the Chopin Theatre. I find myself in all these spaces. The Arts Incubator, the Green Line theater. There are so many different places I find myself in. That’s my Chicago. That’s the Chicago I experience. The Bronzeville Winery, Silverroom. There’s a lot of spaces where a lot of other creatives convene, right?

I grew up on the West Side of Chicago, the North Austin community. Grew up on the block where people cut their lawns, trim the shrubs, go to church on Sunday and come home from work. That’s what they did on the 1400 block of Linder, you know what I’m saying?

I’ve worked with the teaching artists in neighborhoods where that wasn’t what was really going on, where there was a bunch of teddy bears wrapped around trees and things of that nature.

It’s not Shangri La, but it’s also not “Village at the Damned.” It is a very human space. Right? It’s a very textured space.

But somehow, it all kind of exists together. 

I feel like I’m not a person who is looking behind my back. I’m like a person, when you hear my name, you Don’t roll your eyes. I thank God for all of that, right. And I keep myself in the move and groove of creative Chi-town and things of that nature. 

Chicago Defender: Yeah.

avery r young: And you really get to experience a really full and textured and beautiful city, right? 

Chicago Defender: Mmm-hmm.

avery r young: I was just telling somebody earlier…I was teaching a class, and it was at Jenner [formerly the Edward Jenner School]. It was a group of students called the “Friday Boys.” And I think one day I gave them a writing prompt. I said, “Well go look at the window and list everything you see. And at the time, there was this dude swinging his child on the swing. And they list everything but this dude pushing this child (Laughter).

The poet in me was like, “Man, what a juxtaposition to be naming all this broken glass and needles and things that you all keep listing, right?  With his dude swinging his baby on the swing and the bulldozer just kind of laying still.

Chicago Defender: Wow.  

avery r young: A poet is gonna examine all of that. Again, that’s Chicago to me. 

Chicago Defender: Oh, man, that’s powerful.

avery r young: It was a bulldozer tearing down all of them buildings in Cabrini–Green. It was just this kind of urban playground with the bulldozer and the buildings that was being torn down behind it. And it’s like this dude swinging his baby. And I’m like, “That is Chicago.” 

But then again, all they kept talking about was broken glass that was on the ground and the dope needles and things of that nature.

The sun was shining, the sky was beautiful, and it was cold as f–k outside.

All of this texture. But that’s Chicago. 

For More Information

What: Chicago Poet Laureate Celebration in honor of avery r young, featuring poet laureates E’mon Lauren Black (Chicago Youth Poet Laureate), Nandi Comer (Michigan), Angela Jackson (Illinois), Amanda Johnston (Texas), and Airea D. Matthews (Philadelphia).

When: Thursday, September 7 from 6-7:30pm CDT

Where: Harold Washington Library (400 S State St, Chicago)

Cost: Free

What else: To secure free tickets, visit this link

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