Poetry at a distance | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

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Poetry at a distance

Poets come together to share the joy, pain, and hope from the pandemic in a new video project.

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Open mikes have gone dark amid the pandemic, but creativity has taken to a virtual stage. For local poet Caroline Watson, who runs the monthly poetry open mike Grandma's House at the Martin, sharing work from the poetry community feels essential to this moment.

Since late March, Watson has visited various Chicago neighborhoods to record poets reading new material from their porch for her new Grandma's House video series that debuted in April. With help from her boyfriend, Watson has recorded, edited, and produced six episodes so far, honoring the six-foot-distance rule by way of a large boom mike that separates them to catch the outside sound. "The idea of me with this giant boom mike, which visually shows the distance, was the best option," Watson laughs. "It's been fun to be my little one-man sound crew, and I'm learning I do not have the arm strength to be a boom-mike operator."

Watson says her project provides a creative space and serves the community in a time when artists are struggling and can't perform in public. It's transformed Grandma's House into each poet's house, giving them the stage to share their work, much like the physical open mike would. In a time when creatives are taking to social media and Zoom calls to host virtual shows, she wanted to make sure her project didn't add chaos to digital quarantine-related content but instead be in person as much as possible to maintain the spirit of her open mike.

The poets in the series have been featured at Watson's shows in the past, but she says getting to see where they live has been a special experience. "Getting to go to their homes and seeing a little slice of their lives, in a way that I would otherwise not have done, has been a warm and joyful spot in all of this nonsense and madness," she says.

Watson, who lives in Uptown, has traveled to the west, south, and north sides of the city to spotlight poets such as Billy Tuggle, who lives in Park Manor in Greater Grand Crossing. Also a teaching and performance artist, Tuggle shared his untitled poem for his daughter Carmendy on the fourth episode of the video series. Carmendy, whom her father calls "a performance kid" and who is on a competitive dance team, is in the video, sitting at the window listening to the poem.

Tuggle's poem, which he wrote the first day that Chicago Public Schools closed in March, is a response to the current moment and how it has affected him and his daughter. She is finishing first grade and coming to grips with not seeing her friends, not performing, and not going to the Disney store.

"To look at family, to look at community, and to look at the person first—because everything is happening to the person first—was the most appropriate piece to read," says Tuggle, who has been in creation mode since the shutdown, writing 63 poems over 35 consecutive days.

He calls Watson's project a great creative distraction that helps people stay balanced, as well as a display of pandemic thoughts percolating from all over the city that go beyond health and money. "This is a rare time in society, in my almost 50 years on this planet, where we are in this together, and here is the chance for people to acknowledge it," he says.

Creating space for diversity and these feelings is why Kwyn Townsend Riley was privileged to be part of Watson's project. Townsend Riley, who performs as Kwynology and lives in Roseland, was featured in episode five and shared her poem about the heaviness the pandemic has brought to the west and south sides, highlighting longtime racial injustices. While she says she initially felt vulnerable reading on her porch and sharing her intimate space with the camera, Watson's project reminded Townsend Riley that her neighborhood is just as important as more popular neighborhoods.

"I felt proud of where I come from," the poet says. "Roseland is beautiful if you take the time to actually see it."

Being part of this series has encouraged Townsend Riley to be creative without feeling guilty if she can't produce as much. The poet, author, and speaker had a big lineup of events ready until the pandemic cut it down; now, she's leaning into balancing creation with reflection. "Caroline gave me a visual to reflect on for years to come, and I am honored to have that," she says.

Watson says the poets represent the resilience that lives in the community and their individual beauty. "I am just a piece of the puzzle in the Chicago poetry community, and I am grateful to be part of the puzzle," she says.

Episodes are released on the Grandma's House Instagram, and Watson plans to publish at least six more between now and July. She asks for donations via Venmo to keep the videos going and to support the poets in the series.   v

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