I’m strolling through Washington Park when he walks up to me. I try to dodge him, but he’s persistent.
“Hi, my name is Virgil Killebrew. I’m a wandering poet. I have a poem for you.”
He hands over a 32-line verse called “Woman Absolute.” It’s on a pink sheet of paper, and the words are surrounded by drawings of flowers and flecks of gold color. He starts to read it out loud.
“She is a fast-paced woman / versed in the high-tech of the Internet. / She’s on the cutting edge of the millennium / and she’s pushing the envelope / of man-made boundaries / expanding her horizons / through her own bold initiatives.”
My smile is all he needs to start reciting other poems–a verse about his rage, a phrase about his crack addiction, words about love. You can’t get a word in once he’s onstage.
“I wrote this one when a woman wrote a letter complaining about me in StreetWise,” he says, waving a yellow booklet. “I don’t know, though. It might be a little too rough for your ears.” He opens a folder labeled “Wrath!”
“You heap scorn upon me / with eyes like hardened steel / and snub me with cruel wit / taking my disease for your pleasure. / You castrate me / with Wilkinson-Sword sharp rebukes / and condemn me to Dante’s Inferno. / I HATE YOU / with the vigorous energy of a mudslide / carrying hill dwellers’ homes / down a California mountainside / I hate the neurons and synapses / that create the pathways for impulses / that make thought possible for you. / In short / I HATE YOUR FUNKY ASS!”
He flashes a gap-toothed grin, basking in his words. I had planned to buy one poem for $1, but ended up with six lavishly illustrated poems by Virgil, the wandering poet.
“I decided a long time ago that it’s better to own the business rather than be owned by the business,” he says. “Of course, I wouldn’t go to school to get the education to become self-sufficient. I became like a rolling stone, a wandering gypsy.” He sits on the steps of the DuSable Museum with a copy of the Aeneid under his arm. “I just picked it up from the library. I figured I’d learn about this guy I’m named after. I thought it would be interesting to see what he accomplished. Lo and behold, he’s influenced Dante and people thousands of years after.”
Virgil says he’s been fascinated by words ever since his older sister taught him how to read when he was six years old. Now, at 44, he likes Robert Ludlum for “lighter” reading and anything on sociology, philosophy, and history. “I always loved reading, just for the sake of knowledge,” he says. “I was a voracious reader, but I didn’t like the imposition on my freedom that school put on me. I felt they were holding me back. I felt like I could learn better on my own. I admired Abraham Lincoln because he was a self-taught scholar.”
Virgil dropped out of high school at 15. “I’ve been in trouble all my life. They labeled me incorrigible. I looked it up, and they were right,” he says. After a stint working at a Kankakee chicken shack, Virgil landed a job in 1967 at an army ammunition plant in Joliet. Making big money for a teen, he “did the conspicuous consumption move.”
“Lou Rawls was my favorite, and he had a verse that says, ‘Yeah, I’ll go, but I got to keep me front straight,’ meaning that it doesn’t matter if you don’t have money as long as you look presentable.” Virgil bought lots of clothes, jewelry, and shoes. After about a year, he got into a fight on the job and was asked to take a leave of absence, “one of those smooth firings,” he says. He then attended Waubonsee Community College outside of Aurora until they discovered he didn’t have a high school diploma. “I was almost elected to the student council, but they put me on probation when they found out I didn’t finish high school. I finished out the year with OK grades.”
He says he later snared a job as a lab assistant trainee under a brand-new affirmative action program at Bell Labs. But it was at this point that Virgil decided he didn’t want to work for anybody else. “They just wanted us to be there. Nobody talked to us. Nobody taught us anything. I created a little noise and they let me go to all these conferences. I saw how the other half lived, and they lived well.”
In 1969, Virgil and a cousin started buying stylish men’s clothes on Maxwell Street and selling them to Chicago students at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. “We were the purveyors of style to the student body. We probably didn’t make much profit, but we had the clothes so they invited us to all the functions, the Greek shows, dinner dances.
“I was meeting a lot of new people, and I saw that life extended beyond Chicago and Kankakee,” he says. Virgil moved to Aurora and lived with his uncle, a landlord and former pro player in the Canadian Football League. “Aurora was primarily a white, Republican community, and my uncle came in buying up buildings. One day, I was in the kitchen and I saw this glow. I looked out the window and there was a cross burning on the lawn. I chased the guys but didn’t catch them. It didn’t make any major impact. It was just some white boys doing what white boys did when they thought they could get away with it.”
Virgil stayed in Aurora and started working as a bricklayer. He was using heroin regularly but says he broke the addiction by drinking a bottle of vodka every morning until he passed out. He went to a party in Detroit where he was introduced to cocaine. While Virgil says heroin “wasn’t for me,” he was “in love again” once he used cocaine.
“I did robberies to supply my habit,” he says. “I was offered four to six years at Statesville for robbery. I did three years and eight months.” When he got out in the mid-70s he drifted between “snortin’ and skin-poppin’,” but he had never smoked cocaine. “Once I started smoking, it was on. I smoked until I went into treatment in March of ’94.”
After he got out of a Salvation Army drug-treatment program, Virgil wondered if he could make money by selling his poetry. “I had $7 to my name when I got out,” he recalls. “I sold peanuts, but I realized everybody did that. I thought, Wouldn’t it be great to sell something unique? I had started writing as part of rehab. They tell you to write down your feelings. I had sold a couple casually. Then I thought about selling them for a living. I’m an aspiring poet by default. I’m a poetry salesman by desperation.”
Virgil sells more than 30 different poems printed on brightly colored paper. When he’s not at street fairs or festivals, he targets small businesses. He says you might find him in Evanston or Logan Square, or on South Pulaski, South Cicero, or Belmont west of Ashland. Virgil estimates he makes $30 on an average day, saying he needs at least $25–$7.50 for the room he rents and the rest to eat three meals. He just got a job developing leads on the phone for a home-equity loan company, but he doesn’t know how long it will last. Yet Virgil says his talent is in his sales ability and not necessarily in his poetry.
“I’m not a poet,” he says. “I’m an aspiring poet. I’ve never gotten into reading poetry and I don’t care for open mikes. I’d rather people buy my poetry and read it themselves. But I do want to know poetry. I want to read Teasdale and Dante. I’m setting a curriculum for myself.”
In the meantime, Virgil markets his poetry everywhere. “If I can get past the no solicitation sign, I’m in,” he says. His bestsellers are “Woman Absolute” and “This Must Be,” a spiritual paean to love.
“One day, my poems will be nationally and internationally recognized, so I encourage people to get in on it with an autographed copy before I’ve arrived.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnell.