By Cara Jepsen

It was an unusual scene. Burly artist, poet, and onetime burp-and-fart radio-talk-show host Tony Fitzpatrick took the arm of diminutive poet laureate Gwendolyn Brooks and gingerly helped her onto the stage at the Chicago Historical Society. They were there to read their poems as part of the Guild Complex’s tenth-anniversary benefit. The November 16 event was also a party celebrating the release of Power Lines, an anthology of poems by more than 100 writers who’ve read at the Guild over the years. And it was a going-away party for the Guild’s executive director, Michael Warr.

The writers onstage that night included Reginald Gibbons, Angela Jackson, Li-Young Lee, Lisel Mueller, Marvin Tate, Jean Howard, Cin Salach, and Warr. Many dedicated poems to Warr, who helped found the Guild Complex ten years ago and turn it into an organization that sponsors 130 to 150 events a year, including the Women Writers Conference and the National Poetry Video Festival. Patricia Smith read a long stream-of-consciousness poem calling Warr “the boy who would bless me with a second throat.”

The scene has changed a lot since 1976, when Warr first came to Chicago. He remembers reading his poems at someone’s house in Pilsen. “I think Weeds was doing readings at the time,” he says. “Definitely the Green Mill, and the Organization of Black American Culture writing group on the south side. Things existed, but none of them were connected. There was a tendency for artists to stay in their neighborhoods. That was the thing that was kind of unique about Guild Books. It was one of the few places where people from the south side of Chicago came and read to people from the north side of Chicago.”

Warr had come to Chicago from San Francisco. When he was small his family lived in the Hunters Point projects, and he’d been raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. “We were always reading,” he says. “We had home Bible study Monday night, public study Tuesday, home study Wednesday, and theocratic school Thursday, where we were trained in public speaking and how to go from door to door and respond to objections. Friday nights we studied Awake! magazine, and Saturday morning we distributed from door to door. I say that’s where I got my marketing skills.”

In high school in the late 1960s and early ’70s Warr read Brooks, Langston Hughes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar in black-studies courses. “There was also poetry on the radio because of the Last Poets, who were very political in outlook, and the Black Panthers were passing papers out in front of my high school–there was poetry in there too. From the very beginning there was a very direct relationship between poetry and politics and history and education.”

Inspired by Malcolm X, Warr carried around a dictionary–his siblings teasingly called him “the professor.” He started writing poetry and often cut classes to read it on the UC Berkeley campus. He was also in charge of his high school’s black student union. “But I was in a religion where it was a sin to be political,” he says. “I think that kind of constant contradiction in life where opposites were coexisting in just about everything kind of prepared me for dealing with conflict. I think it influenced my art, and I think it gave me a sense of tolerance for things that are different.”

Warr, who’d come to Chicago largely because Brooks lived here, left the city’s blossoming literary scene behind in 1978 to work as a journalist in Ethiopia. He’d studied photography briefly after high school but had taken only one college course in English composition. So he learned journalism the hard way, by covering wars in Ethiopia and Rhodesia for the BBC, the Economist, and other news organizations. “I had a lot to learn,” he says. “One editor sent back an article and said it took a lot of poetic license. I took that as a compliment.” He wrote under the name Mezegebe Worku.

Warr spent a lot of time talking to leaders on both sides of the conflicts in Ethiopia and Rhodesia. “I had remarkable access to people there,” he recalls. He met his wife Lydia in Ethiopia.

In 1984 he was arrested in Addis Ababa after the police found his name in the notes of a source who’d been taken into custody. “I remember dropping my wife off at the Economic Committee for Africa at the UN,” he says. He soon noticed that he was being followed. “They arrested me and took me to the Jubilee Palace, where they interrogated me for two nights. What was really scary was that I didn’t know what was up with my wife. I talked my way out of it, just like I talked my way out of fights in Hunters Point.”

He took the incident as a sign to return to Chicago, where he quickly reconnected with his friends at Guild Books. He helped coordinate readings at the Red Lion Pub, and when the bookstore acquired the space next door in 1986 he helped organize readings there too.

At first most of the readings at the Guild Complex annex were from fiction and new book releases. James Baldwin read there in 1987. Some neo-Nazi skinheads had threatened both Baldwin’s life and the Guild, so Fitzpatrick and his hockey-playing buddies from Villa Park provided security. When it was decided to make the Guild Complex a separate nonprofit arts organization devoted to readings and other events, says Warr, responsibility for it “fell in my lap. There was no real discussion about it.”

His vision for the complex encompassed “visual art, panel discussions, performance, straight-up readings–just about everything.” It would be open to “poetry slams and Gwendolyn Brooks, adult and youth, light and dark. It was a way to raise the democracy level of the literary community to the point where all of these people could share the same stage.”

For the first five years Warr had no staff, but he could call on 50 to 80 volunteers. “He’s a great human conduit,” says Fitzpatrick. “He does a great job of keeping people involved with one another.”

Warr was then working full-time as a technical editor at a trade publication, Telephony magazine, and he estimates he’s worked 18-hour days for the past decade. For a couple years he was executive director of the Writer’s Voice series, a reading and writing program sponsored by the Duncan YMCA, and he completed two writing fellowships at the Ragdale Foundation (an artists’ retreat in Lake Forest), served on several boards, put together two collections of poems, and worked as a consultant for various arts organizations. He also got divorced and remarried, to Patricia Zamora.

Warr’s poems, which are both sophisticated and accessible, have been published in several anthologies, but he hasn’t published a collection of his own work since the 1991 We Are All the Black Boy. That book begins and ends with poems on race, class, and politics and has sections on music and women in between.

Warr calls Gwendolyn Brooks a major inspiration and the patron saint of the Guild. He met her in 1976. “I was in awe,” he says. “I think I told her that I became a poet because of her. I could read what she wrote–she was relevant to me. I could understand it, and I was arrogant enough to think that I could do it too. Now I tell her it’s her fault that I write poetry.” In 1989 he won the Gwendolyn Brooks Significant Illinois Poets Award. “It’s great because you don’t apply for it,” he says. “She selects you. If I never won another award I’d be happy.”

Many of the poets who’ve read at Guild credit Warr with encouraging them and with opening their minds. “If the Guild Complex didn’t exist, would I run into Quraysh [Ali Lansana] or Mario or Luis [Rodriguez]?” says Fitzpatrick. “We tend to get pigeonholed and exist in communities where people are more like us. Guild brought a lot of different people from different places together and created brand-new kinds of poetry.” Some of the more famous people to come through the door include Chuck D, Adrienne Rich, Kahil El’Zabar, Nikki Giovanni, Kurt Elling, Eduardo Galeano, and Leslie Marmon Silko.

Warr announced his intention to step down as executive director three years ago. He says he wasn’t burned out, but he wanted to write more. The organization was running well, and three years seemed plenty of time to make a smooth transition. A national search for a replacement followed, but the logical successor was poet Julie Parson-Nesbitt. She’d been the first assistant manager at Guild Books and had been involved with Guild Complex since it was created, as a volunteer, coordinator, and board member. She took over Guild Complex in October, though Warr will act as consultant until January.

Sometimes Warr still answers his phone “Guild Complex.” Looking back, he says Guild Complex’s success came in part from a combination of fiscal conservatism and artistic experimentation. “If you’re not keeping up with what’s new, or you’re missing out on what’s happening, you can stagnate,” he says. “The way to do that is by isolating yourself in a tower where what is new is not welcome. The way to avoid it is by mixing it up–by experimenting and having someone like Sara Paretsky reading with student mystery writers on the same stage.”

Warr has turned down offers to lead other organizations, though he will stay on the editorial board of the Guild’s Tia Chucha Press. And he’s started a research and consulting firm, InSight Enterprises, a deliberate play on the words “insight” and “incite.” He describes it as a for-profit consultancy aimed at helping nonprofit arts organizations “do big things with small resources and keep them from operating in isolation.”

But he insists he’s making more time for writing. “It’s hard for me to do one thing at a time,” he says. “I have promised myself I’ll try to do four or five things at a time, rather than 14 or 15. I’ve always written in the midst of chaos–I have written on the el, in a war.” Many of the places where he used to write in Chicago–Urbus Orbis, Scenes, Orphans–have disappeared. These days he writes at Lula cafe in Logan Square, where he and his wife moved two years ago.

Warr is now shopping around a collection called “Hero Worship.” He completed it in 1994, and it won him a National Endowment for the Arts creative-writing fellowship. But he never pushed to get it published. “I have no regrets,” he says. “It was a conscious thing. I put my writing on the back burner because of the Guild Complex. I’m sure if I hadn’t I’d have a couple more books out now.”

He’s also reworking some of the “Hero Worship” poems for a multimedia project he’s doing for the African Heritage Festival at the Field Museum in February. They’ll complement photos he took in Africa. He hopes eventually to use both to make a book “with color images on one side and poetry on the other.” And he plans to write some essays. “I’m not tied down to anything specific,” he says, “but am committed to working in a specific area–and to the arts as a means of social change. That’s what it’s all about.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.