Kerri Sancomb remembers when she discovered her friend's secret. She and Millicent Souris were part of a group of young artists and musicians living--not entirely legally--and working in a four-story industrial warehouse in the West Loop. In the summer of 1998 the group decided it was time for a party. The Butcher Shop, a gallery housed on the third floor, would sponsor the event, which would double as a showcase for the gallery's artists. Souris said she could read some of her poems.
"She didn't seem like the poet type, she seemed a little tough," Sancomb remembers. "Maybe because she's a really social, talking person, and then finding out she's just as intense a writing person."
"A lot of people I know, if I said I wrote poetry, it'd just make them laugh," Souris says. "It's hard to believe that what you can do is any good, or special, but you've still got to do it. It's hard to say, 'Listen to me, I'm important.'"
Sancomb listened, and now she's at work on a letterpress edition of six of Souris's poems.
Souris grew up just north of Baltimore and studied English at Oberlin College; upon graduation in 1995 she joined friends in Chicago and eventually began working as a buyer and sales manager at the music distributor and label Carrot Top. She'd known Sancomb for about a year when they moved into the West Lake Street building, where they joined other residents in a more or less communal life, constructing art studios and rehearsal spaces for themselves. Souris just needed a place to live. Sancomb, who had studied printmaking at the Kansas City Art Institute and printmaking and book arts at Philadelphia's University of the Arts, arrived in Chicago in 1996 after a year in Minneapolis. She needed space for her printmaking and other projects; she and her husband, Jeff Mueller (guitarist for June of '44, Rodan, and, currently, the Shipping News), now own and operate Dexterity Press in a space on the fourth floor. (The building is no longer used as a residence.)
At first it might seem that Souris, who describes her approach to writing as "just trying to find the perfect words for things without being sentimental or really flowery," wouldn't be likely to go for the "art book" approach to publishing, but, she says, "I just think our aesthetics match really well. Kerri has an antique, an aged feeling about things rather than, like, lavender butterflies."
"More weathered," Sancomb suggests.
"Yeah, weathered. I think weathered is the word for both of us," Souris says with a laugh. "The format is sturdy, it's strong."
"You're not afraid to handle it," Sancomb adds.
"Yeah, it's not fragile or something you have to be scared of . . ."
". . . messing up. The other books I've done, they're art books, you make sure the table's clean," Sancomb says.
This Heat will be a "flutter book," consisting of several sheets of paper opening like an accordion. The cover will be made of thick, heavy paper, a good match for Souris's flinty, image-spiked verse. Souris, who doesn't read out much, will take the stage at the Hideout this week to drum up interest. Sancomb will be in the audience.
"I lived with her for a whole year," Sancomb says of her friend. "I partied with her, cooked dinner with her, hung out with her. She was 110 percent part of the community and nobody knew. When I heard her read those poems that night, I thought, this is already this person I love . . ."
"This is already turning uncomfortable," Souris mutters.
"You can't make this sappy," Sancomb says, "but it's genuine."
Souris reads Wednesday, June 9, at 10 PM at the Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia. Admission is free, but $15 gets you an eight-and-a-half-by-five-and-a-half-inch broadside of Souris's poem "The Randy and the Damned" and a copy of This Heat when it comes out. Call 773-227-4433 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.