Over the last few years, in between managing an adult education center on 18th Street and developing youth-education programs for Mayor Daley, Gabriele Strohschen ran a series of what she calls “cross-cultural exchanges”: educators from around the globe came to swap teaching strategies with their counterparts in Chicago.
Last month Strohschen brought cross-culturalism and performance poetry together, leading seven Chicago poets on a nine-day poetry mission to her native Germany, a trip the group dubbed the “Urban Metaphor Tour.”
Strohschen says she got her first taste of saloon poetry at the Borderline Cafe on Damen Avenue–and was hooked. “It touched something in me,” she says. “It was a nonthreatening way to share some very political things, things that I tried to say in my education work but nobody would listen–because you had to come up with some sort of study, or something scientific.”
She gave her first reading at Chicago’s Underground Wonder Bar on Walton. “Once I’d done this one little reading onstage,” Strohschen recalls, “I said, man, wouldn’t this be great to share with other cultures?” Several months, many long-distance calls, and one fund-raiser later, the Uberlyriker (tongue-in-cheek German for “superpoets”)–a group of black, white, and Hispanic novice and veteran poetry writers–arrived in Frankfurt.
The poets read in cultural centers in what was once East Berlin and in the formerly East German town of Erfurt, where, in each case, Strohschen estimates that less than a fourth of the audience knew English. “It wasn’t a language they learned in school,” she says. “They learned Russian.”
Since they all planned to read in English, Strohschen had each poet summarize their piece for her. “I said, give me a poem in essence, what do you want me to say about it? And everybody had to really think about what they were trying to get across, because you can’t literally translate it–it just wouldn’t fly.
“So then I would introduce each poem in German, and the poet would come up and do it . . . and two, three people actually started performing. People who would normally just stand there and read all of a sudden tossed the paper aside and shared–I was one of them–’cause the language itself wouldn’t do it.”
Their East German audiences, Strohschen says, were overwhelmed. “They would come up and say, man, how do you do this, how do you get to say these things? Because they haven’t had the opportunity to speak freely, or paint freely, or show freely what they really feel or think.
“I talked to a 30-year-old guy–he was born just after the Wall, right? I asked him the usual question: how do you feel, what’s changed? And he said I lost my job; I’ve studied computers, but it has nothing to do with what they have in the West.
“But, he said, the hardest thing for me is to learn how to make choices. I’ve always been told by society, by government, or by the school, what to do. And I said, well, what do you do? And he said I don’t know, I’m just waiting.”
Back in the States, Strohschen questions the choices she sees artists making here. “I notice everyone is charging,” she says. “You wanna read your poetry–two bucks. You wanna listen to other poets–five bucks. All of a sudden, it’s like, some people are making a little money on it–some of the emcees and bar owners are raking it in.”
The night after the poets returned, Strohschen went to the Borderline Cafe’s weekly poetry reading, which she has cohosted, and was disappointed to find the bar featuring “sex” as the evening’s theme. “I thought, we just exchanged with East European artists who weren’t allowed to express what they felt and thought–while we here have always had that opportunity. They never had it and were just blown away at what we said.” Performing poetry “is not about . . . listening to somebody talk about their hard penis; it’s about sharing other notions like freedom of choice.”
Strohschen says those notions, which should be a given on Chicago’s poetry scene, almost seem like an intrusion these days what with the scene’s creeping commercialism. But they’re notions that she and her cohorts pursue now in their own poetry. “Some of them have told me that they look at things differently,” she says. “We’re on kind of a mission now–renewed of why we’re doing this. I don’t know how long it’ll last.”
The Uberlyriker are Strohschen, Tony Aguilera, Jose Chavez, Jim Banks, Tom Mladic, Cindy Salach, Larry Winfield, and Tina Wright. You can catch one of their few scheduled group readings this Saturday. There is a cover charge (of $5), but it’s a benefit for the Chicago Peace and Music Festival. It starts at 9 PM at 1151 W. Grand; call 243-6113 for more.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Loren Santow, Joe Doria.