This Saturday, July 28, the third annual Chicago Poetry Block Party descends upon the Austin neighborhood on the West Side. In my opinion, it’s one of Chicago’s top-three, can’t-miss literary events of the year, alongside the youth poetry festival Louder Than A Bomb and Printers Row Lit Fest.
Co-hosted by the Poetry Foundation, Chicago Park District, and Crescendo Literary, this year’s festivities will unfold at the Austin Town Hall and will include writing workshops, poetry readings, and other activities to stoke your creativity. There will also be live music from some of the Midwest’s most exciting recording artists.
To learn about how the block party came together and what’s special about it this year, I spoke with the Chicago poets behind it, Nate Marshall and Eve Ewing (both of whom co-founded Crescendo Literary).
Where did the idea for the Poetry Block Party first come from?
Marshall:Me and Eve have been friends for years, and we’d been talking about building something together. One day we said, “There should be some kind of party for poetry.” Something like the Blues Festival that gets both hardcore blues fans and people who don’t really know the genre, but like to be outside, experiencing live culture in the city.
Ewing:We both grew up with the belief that poetry was something that everyone can enjoy. I had this experience of my first time attending the annual meeting of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, and I sat in a poetry reading in a huge ballroom. These really famous poets were reading this astounding work and everyone in the room was dead silent. We had grown up in a very loud, rambunctious poetry culture oriented around performance, so I found that experience really alienating. This was also around the time AfroPunk was evolving and popping off, and I was like, man, what if we could have something like that, but literary?
At the same time, Nate had been thinking about creating some sort of conference for poets to talk about building community, so we ended up combining the two ideas. The Emerging Poets Incubator brings together a cohort of poets who identify as community-engaged artists, and they come work with us for three days and share ideas about what it means to use poetry in community. And then we throw this big public party, which they help us staff and run. We tried to think of a catchy name and failed so … it's just the Chicago Poetry Block Party. Descriptive!
Why the West Side this year?
Marshall:We’ve had an eye on the West Side for a while. I’m from the very far South Side, and when I was a kid, it felt like I always had to travel downtown or to the North Side to take part in large-scale cultural programs. For us, it’s been really important to put this work in neighborhoods, and to partner with organizations that are already there.
Ewing:Our first year the block party was in Bronzeville, and at the end of the day multiple people came up to us and said, "Please, do this on the West Side, come to the West Side." We just believe that cultural events should belong to everyone. This year we've been meeting and talking with different organizations around the West Side to get some ideas together, and it made it clear how much great work is being done that deserves the spotlight. We want to change people's assumptions about where art lives.
Who is performing this year?
Marshall:Danez Smith is one of our poets. Eve will be doing some poems [for her first block party set]. Avery R. Young is performing with a band. A few more poets we’ll be ready to announce soon. Brandon Markell Holmes and Tasha, who are musicians. Joseph Chilliams, who’s a local rapper, will be one of our hosts. I can’t give away everything, but we’re looking to do some interesting things with poetry and music this year.
Why is it important for you to include music every year?
Marshall: You don’t do something outside in Chicago in the summer and not have music. That’s just a bad idea and a wasted opportunity. But also, from our experiences coming up in places like Young Chicago Authors and Gallery 37 and other youth-centric spaces, there’s always a closeness and a conversation between music and poetry.
Ewing:It's fun! Music and poetry always have a symbiotic relationship, which can be really cool if you play it right. Plus, we've had a chance to uplift some artists we believe in. Our musical acts have gone on to play Mamby and Pitchfork … but we spotted them first!
Other than the move to the West Side, is there anything different about this year’s party that you’re excited about?
Marshall:We’ll have a lot of community partners. Working Bikes will be out there giving away children’s bikes and doing free repairs. I’m excited for some of the stuff we’re doing with music and poetry that we haven’t done before. We’re trying to engage some talented West Side poets and young people to be a part of our open mic.
Ewing:Our vision for this has always been to make the event a community resource hub, and the more we nail down the logistics of the actual poetry and the show and the venue, the more we have capacity to bring in great community partners. We only get better at that. So not only will you hear great poetry, but you can also register to vote, get a free bike repair, or learn about health resources for queer youth.
What does this event mean to you personally, now that it’s happened a few times?
Marshall:The idea of the incubator is to give poets time and space to think about their practice as community builders and organizers, and to give them the tools to level up those skills. So for me, the block party is putting that practice on its feet for our community and for these poets.
Ewing:Honestly, this is one of the things in life that I'm most proud of. We are so grateful for the people who came before us who built the institutions that shaped our lives, and the fact that we've been able to successfully pull this off as we try to do the same is kind of a miracle. We just want to keep building something that is sustainable beyond us and that provides people with an entry into poetry that is fun, accessible, meaningful, and right in their backyard.
Go: Saturday, July 28, 3 to 8 p.m., Austin Town Hall, 5620 West Lake Street. Free.