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Active Cultures: a dead night at Joy-Blue

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"Posthumous fame is a ridiculous concept," says poet Lisa Hemminger. "You can almost pick out people who will be famous after they're dead, so why not appreciate their work now while they're here?"

Hemminger is the founder and host of "Yammer: A Night of Poetry, Open Mike, and Entropy," a weekly showcase at the Lakeview bar Joy Blue. On Wednesday, Hemminger will host a mock seance for Emily Dickinson to commemorate the May 15 anniversary of the poet's death. With ghost stories, tarot readings, and tales from Digger the Cemetery Man, the event promises to be memorable even if the Belle of Amherst declines the invitation.

The seance kicks off Hemminger's new Dead Poet Channeling Series, which will attempt to contact Jack Kerouac, E.E. Cummings, Charles Bukowski, Dorothy Parker, and Sylvia Plath. Hemminger also wants the series to spotlight the Yammer regulars, a group she calls the We Should Be Famous Club. Over the past two years Yammer has given a forum to spoken-word talents who might once have stayed at home like Dickinson. "Emily ties in with the We Should Be Famous Club because she never received fame when she was alive, and I think people often miss the fact that she was very witty," says Hemminger. "We end every show by singing one of her poems to the tune of 'The Yellow Rose of Texas.' Eighty-seven percent of her poems can be sung to it, but we usually sing 'Because I Could Not Stop for Death' because it's her most famous poem."

Hemminger herself might have been a closet visionary if not for a former coworker at Screen, the weekly advertising industry magazine where Hemminger is a senior editor (and where this writer is employed as well). An Ohio native, she'd graduated from Miami University in 1982 with a degree in English literature, but succumbed to an "innate slackerism" that bounced her through countless jobs, including a six-year stint managing a gas station. In 1991 she moved to Wheaton to live near a sister, and soon after that she summoned the courage to take the stage at a poetry open mike. After 18 months of writing privately she showed her coworker a batch of poems and he challenged her to perform at the Uptown Poetry Slam, promising to read his own poetry just before her.

Hemminger was a hit, and in November 1996 she was named the Winter Grand Slam Champion of the Uptown slam. Hemminger created Yammer to give poets and other spoken-word artists a stage without competition. A typical evening features at least 20 performers playing to a crowd about double that size, with Hemminger leaping, howling, and shaking her fists, playing host to what she describes as a "chaotic free fall of entertainment." Ironically Yammer has brought Hemminger some measure of fame: recently she was invited to host the Gay and Lesbian Open Mike Show at the National Poetry Slam in Chicago this August.

"It's a strange show for me to be hosting, because I'm not really PC," she says. "But if they want the Mike Royko of the lesbian community, they've got the right gal. This seance isn't exactly normal either. It would be great if Emily would channel into me and visit for a while, because I could write some great poetry, but if she stayed too long, I'd always have to wear white and I may not be able to go out in public again."

The Dead Poet Channeling Series begins at 9:30 this Wednesday at Joy Blue, 1403 W. Irving Park. Admission is free; for more information call 773-477-3330. --Carl Kozlowski

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

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