On one of the first warm and sunny days of the Chicago spring, while clusters of galloping children and strolling adults soak in the long-awaited rays, a group of poetry aficionados gather in the friendly confines of Sulzer Regional Library. The event they’ve assembled to see is entitled “Not-Your-Grandma’s Poetry,” part of a month-long initiative by the Chicago Public Libraries to celebrate National Poetry Month. The series of events will culminate in the April 30th Poetry Fest at Harold Washington Library, where attendees can take advantage of a variety of free offerings, such as writing workshops, readings, and open mics.
But for now the Poetry Fest is still a couple of weeks away, and the audience currently gathered has come to see Emily Thornton Calvo, a Chicago-based multimedia poet who exhibits her watercolors—many of them with poems inscribed into the paintings—while reading her original verses. The group isn’t exactly diverse or youthful—indeed one could gamble that most of the listening parties are in fact grandmothers explicitly excluded in the event’s title—but the resultant atmosphere is decidedly welcoming and thoughtful, with audience members listening carefully to Calvo’s engaging oratory while examining her corresponding paintings.
Calvo’s poems and paintings span from topics deeply personal and profound to ones light and humorous, moving seamlessly from smiling, frivolous observation, to wincing memories of family and painful personal crises. Her first poem, for example, is called “Hunting Down Dinner on Highway 13,” a light-hearted recollection of dinner at a Missouri café called the Beefmaster. After speculating cheerfully that the restaurant’s patriarch—presumably the Beefmaster himself—has “a past as checkered as the tablecloths,” she turns her eye on the rest of the diner’s supporting cast: Mrs. Beefmaster, Junior Beefmaster, and the ever-attendant swarms of flies making the rounds of the tables. Ever insightful and good-natured, Calvo’s eye transforms a decidedly prosaic event and setting into an engaging character study and contemplation on the universal experience—part awkwardness and part adventure, part drudgery and part curiosity—of traveling the countryside.
After this carefree jaunt down Highway 13, Calvo changes gears to contemplate her father’s legacy in her life and childhood. In “Daddy’s Gay and I Don’t Mean Happy,” she reflects on how her father’s later-in-life coming-out affected their friendship and her perception of him as a good father and husband. Though he always kept part of himself hidden—the gay man separate from his family, the family man discrete from his friends—Calvo concludes that he was ultimately a wonderful father whose parenting she couldn’t fault: “whatever half of him was a husband,” she writes, “all of him was always my father.”
From such deeply personal reminiscences of her parents and children, Calvo proceeds to reflections on her own battle with cancer, thoughtful observations of African art exhibits at the Art Institute of Chicago, travels in France and the delights of the French cafe, and life-changing conversations with a Holocaust survivor. Despite this disparity, no topic seems out of place or jarring to the general flow of the reading, each shift in tone and content creating a resilient smoothness—which must in part be owed to Calvo’s artless delivery and openness—rather than a sense of unevenness or lack of context. Indeed, while wall-to-wall personal subjects might have left everyone feeling claustrophobic and uncomfortably vulnerable, the alternating somber and buoyant tones produce an admirable balance.
Calvo closes her reading with an unconventional ode to Chicago, a hometown she loves but one which she perceives as mishandled or romanticized by fellow poets. “Chicago is not a woman,” she objects to the implied voices of these mischaracterizing peers, “he’s your cousin who borrows money from you and pays you back with a wink.” This sneaky but lovable persona, she elaborates, trundles through winter “drunk on snow, high on blow” while boasting multiple character flaws—including its notoriously segregated neighborhoods—overlooked by poets attributing Sophian, gendered wisdom and gentleness to the gigantic and complex metropolis. Ultimately, though, it’s an ode all the same, a loving gesture to the bright lights big city made all the more intimate and affectionate by the acknowledgement of its avuncular charm, weaknesses, cruelties, and anomalous features.
This off-beat depiction of Chicago seems a fitting farewell to Chicago’s celebration of National Poetry Month, as it reflects not just Calvo’s unique perception of the Windy City, but the quirky nature of the readings I’ve attended this month and even, in some ways, the Chicago Public Libraries system as a whole. For anyone who has stumbled into a busy CPL branch on a warm weekend or a chilly workday, you’re familiar with the motley crew of fellow patrons that greets you, a crowd as diverse as the buildings, neighborhoods, and industries of the city that cradles them. They’re not all angels, as you’ll quickly discover when a cranky senior citizen grumbles at you for speaking above the meekest whisper—ironically using a decidedly audible and un-blushing tone to do so—but they’re nevertheless part of Chicago’s “treasure,” a few cantankerous frowns to match the “magnificent smiles, all colors all shapes” that make up this city.
Call to Action
While this year’s National Poetry Month is now over, interested readers can attend a variety of ongoing poetry events across the city of Chicago. The Poetry Foundation hosts year-long readings and workshops at various venues in Chicago and Chicagoland, including two upcoming events in May celebrating the works of Gwendolyn Brooks, a mid-twentieth-century Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whom Emily Calvo claims as one of her main literary influences.
If you’d like to support Chicago arts and poetry with more than your attendance and participation in said events, you can also make a donation to the Poetry Foundation, or to the Chicago Public Library Foundation.
You can also become a volunteer for the Homework Help Program through the CPL and assist local elementary and high school students with after-school assignments.