Bad to Verse

The official press release for the Bucktown Arts Festival on August 24 and 25 lists its “acclaimed poetry program” as one of the major attractions. But if C.J. Laity has his way there won’t be a poet in sight. Laity, who’s recruited bards for the event for the last eight years and takes credit for building it into Chicago’s largest outdoor poetry reading, has called for a boycott. He’s pointing an angry finger at festival cochair Maria Mariottini and has resigned from the board after a run-in during another festival–last month’s Sam Adams Summer Jam in Wicker Park. According to Laity, Mariottini, who was also working on the Adams event, wanted to censor poets and exclude those with an aggressive tone from the Bucktown program. “It just so happens that those people with that tone are primarily black and Latino,” he says.

The Sam Adams incident took place on the sweltering weekend of July 20 and 21; Mariottini, who was responsible for the art vendors, says crowds were thin and tempers short. The poetry stage, at Division and Wolcott, situated between booths selling art and two loud music stages, was equipped with its own speakers. Not all the vendors were thrilled. In an account E-mailed to his roster of poets, Laity says they “continuously heckled us throughout Saturday’s poetry showcase.” When Kent Foreman took the stage and began reading “‘You frigid bitch!’ / ‘You whore’ / ‘Mistress of the rich'” from his poem “Chicago,” witnesses heard one vendor shout, “Why don’t you go back to the west side?”

A couple of youths in the crowd began making monkeylike gestures and noises and shouting, “Shut the fuck up….Go back where you belong….We don’t want to hear you.” Poet Josi Hannon Madera, who was waiting in the audience to go on, says she and her husband asked them to stop, and another responded with “I could kick your ass right now.” Meanwhile, a second vendor took the side of the hecklers, telling Madera, “Leave the boys alone. I’ve had to listen to this shit all day long.” Madera says, “My husband and I got swallowed up in a crowd of people who were supporting the boys’ actions. Several friends of the youths had joined them, and comments like ‘Why do I have to listen to the nigger complain?’ and ‘Why do you care?’ started flying about my head.” When two cops showed up, Madera flagged them; after a tete-a-tete with the police, the kids split.

Laity says things went from bad to worse when he brought the incident to Mariottini’s attention the next day. According to him, instead of being concerned about the insult to the poets, she told him to tone down the attitude on the poetry stage, turn down the volume on the speakers, and leave the poets who were heckled behind when it came time for the Bucktown festival. Laity says she then either lowered the volume herself or had it lowered, though he turned it right back up and “every last poet was allowed to get up on that microphone uncensored.” Mariottini says if she’d known about the racial slurs when they happened, she’d have called security and had the hecklers ousted. She says she asked Laity to turn down the volume but didn’t do it herself. She denies telling him to leave certain poets out of the Bucktown festival (and says she’s always championed poetry there), but admits she might have said something like, “‘Maybe they’re not the best poets for this situation.’ I keep trying to get him to think about context. I may have said, ‘Could you watch the tone a bit.’ It’s a hard line to walk, but my personal opinion is, it’s a street fest. Let’s make it as acceptable as possible.”

“There’s a part of C.J. that really enjoys a good fight,” says Bucktown Arts Festival curator Effie Mihopoulos. “Which is not to say that the fest coordinators can’t be difficult to deal with themselves….It could also have been the fact that the fest coordinators were upset from past fests when there was a big controversy over obscene and inappropriate imagery in Adam Swinford-Wasem’s poetry, which…was broadcast over the loudspeaker throughout the fest.”

Foreman, who’s read his work at venues like Steppenwolf and the Art Institute, was in Minneapolis this week performing with the Green Mill team in a national poetry slam. He says most of what was shouted at him on that hot Saturday in Wicker Park was indistinct, though he did hear “Go back to the west side.” “I assumed it was someone in their cups who could no longer resist the impulse to be bigoted,” he says. “I went on with my reading. White people are always a lot more surprised when something like that happens than black people.”

Madera is organizing an on-site protest next weekend and has a warning for poets thinking about breaking the boycott. “We’re gonna be there with cameras. The people going up there to perform are pretty much going to have their faces up on Wanted posters.”

Final Curtain

Former tenants of the recently sold Jane Addams Center Hull House will be back to say goodbye this week: companies including Steppenwolf, Bailiwick, Famous Door, and current resident About Face will reprise work they did at the center’s little Hattie Callner Memorial Theater. According to Robert Sickinger, Hattie Callner was a Hull House kid in the years when Jane Addams presided over the settlement house; her daughter donated money to carve the theater out of what had been an American Legion post bowling alley. Sickinger not only convinced Callner’s daughter to make the donation but also served as the theater’s director during its most influential years–from its opening in 1963 to 1969, the year the Hull House board announced his resignation before he knew about it. In a profile published in 1989, Reader critic Albert Williams described the desolate Chicago theater scene when Sickinger arrived–mostly Broadway road shows and community-theater chestnuts–and the explosive new work he introduced: plays by Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, Athol Fugard, Leroi Jones, and Samuel Beckett. According to Williams, Sickinger “turned community theater into the theater community” by inspiring the creation of Chicago’s many off-Loop companies. Williams and the Tribune’s Rick Kogan will host “The House That Jane Built: A Living History of Hattie Callner Memorial Theater” Monday night. Laurie Metcalf has pulled out of the lineup, but it will include composer Rokko Jans, whose father, former Hull House executive director Paul Jans, hired Sickinger. (The former director himself will not be present.) The tribute starts at 7:30 PM on Monday, August 19, at 3212 N. Broadway. Tickets are $15-$30; call 773-784-8565, ext. 124.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Robert Drea.