Last month at 3030, a former Pentecostal church in Humboldt Park, a rapt audience of 50 sat in the pews of the red-walled chapel and listened intently as vocalist Jenny Walshe launched into her interpretation of Kurt Schwitters's dadaist poem Ursonate. "Fumms," she said. "Bo wo tŠŠ zŠŠ Uu, pog•ff, kwii Ee."
Walshe was one of three performers at the inaugural event in the Discrete Series, a monthly dose of experimental poetry and performance started by Kerri Sonnenberg and Jesse Seldess in the hope of opening up the rarefied world of avant-garde poetry to people who might find the form's emphasis on sound and language over content intimidating. "We thought of trying to find a niche that wasn't already filled in the city," says Sonnenberg. "Open mikes are plentiful and performance poetry is plentiful. Most people associate that readily with Chicago, so it just created more of an imperative to me that there be an alternative."
Sonnenberg and Seldess, poets themselves, wanted to create a casual environment where poets from insular university-based communities and general listeners could relax and mingle. The 3030 space, managed by a nine-member collective of musicians, is a small concert venue and recording studio that's been hosting improvisational jazz, hip-hop, and experimental music shows, as well as theatrical performances, for two years. Though the Discrete organizers want to focus primarily on poetry--with at least one local and one out-of-town poet per reading--they also plan to include musicians and sound artists in the mix, which could draw in 3030's music audience.
"I like an arrangement that asks the audience to receive what they're hearing in different ways," says Seldess. At the first event, Walshe's vocalizing shared the program with poet Mark Salerno's California surfer aesthetic--full of repetitions and casual interjections ("Idiot! Don't write that down!") that had the audience laughing in the pews--and New York avant-gardist Lisa Jarnot's shy, deadpan presentation of Whitmanesque lines loaded with quietly political content.
Sonnenberg and Seldess are optimistic about the reality of bringing experimental poetry to a broader audience. "I do think it's possible," says Seldess. "That's what we're trying to communicate. The conventions that are taught in a graduate writing program aren't a prerequisite for somehow engaging with the work."
"It's definitely open work that invites participation and misunderstanding," adds Sonnenberg, along with a message to would-be aficionados: "Poetry is not a riddle that you're a failure for not solving."
The Discrete Series presents poets Dawn Michelle Baude (Chicago) and Stacy Szymaszek (Milwaukee) at 9 PM on April 11 at 3030, 3030 W. Cortland. There's a $5 suggested donation; call 773-862-3616 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.