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Poet Jeffrey McDaniel brings his raw truth to the Uptown Poetry Slam

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, 4802 N. Broadway, is home to the Uptown Poetry Slam, a Chicago creation that turns verse into a spectator sport.

The Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, 4802 N. Broadway, is home to the Uptown Poetry Slam, a Chicago creation that turns verse into a spectator sport.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

A good poem messes with your head. Or should. It sneaks in there, starts grabbing fistfuls of wires, yanking out some, jamming in others, making new connections like the operator at a telephone switchboard. You come away not quite thinking the same as before.

Not every poem for every person, of course. That’s why there are so many poets and so many poems. Even a poet you love can leave you cold. I’ve read T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets” again and again. The cat poems? Once is plenty.

And as much as I love some of Jeffrey McDaniel’s previous books, his new one, “Thin Ice Olympics” wasn’t really registering with me until page 67 when I got to “Dad Museum,” which begins:

‘You live and work in a room filled with your dead father’s memories,’ my wife says as I lean over to write...

You too? I mean, my dad’s still alive, sort of, but I sit writing this in my office with the framed photo of my father’s ship, the Empire State, sailing past St. Mark’s Square in Venice, and his chrome-plated Vibroplex telegraph key and crested Turner microphone and tubes of Winsor & Newton paint ... there’s more, but you get the idea.

“Dad museum.” How could I have not thought of that before? Maybe because I’m not a poet.

COVID-19 stalks McDaniel’s new book — it’s odd to see celebrated in verse.

“This is the year we all lived like Emily Dickinson,” McDaniel writes. Well, maybe poets did. The rest of us were just isolated and bored.

Marc Kelly Smith, founder of the Uptown Poetry Slam, shares a joke with the band when the Chicago institution returned last year from its COVID-19 hibernation.

Marc Kelly Smith, founder of the Uptown Poetry Slam, shares a joke with the band when the Chicago institution returned last year from its COVID-19 hibernation.

Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

In “Dad Museum,” a city — OK, New York, McDaniel lives in the Hudson Valley — manifests itself after being down for the count like a battered boxer:

This city ... that took such a beating/for fifteen months, shook off the ref and staggered/ back to its feet. This city of moxie and glitter.

While McDaniel isn’t doing as well.

I felt like a washed-up shoe/on a beach no one goes to ...

Been there, pal.

I’m writing about McDaniel because he’s coming to Chicago to do the Uptown Poetry Slam at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge this Sunday. I’ll be there too.

When Marc Kelly Smith, who founded the Slam in 1984, first asked me to be a featured speaker, his idea was for me to read my columns as poetry. I was smart enough to refuse that. I also know authenticity is key, and while my authentic self — white, male, Jewish, late middle-aged, lower-upper-middle class noodnik — has undergone a devaluation in the cultural market in recent years, you still have to dance with who brung ya. So I followed my No. 1 dictum for writers: “Be Who You Are,” and began with a recitation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Block City,” a poem I loved as a child. But I did it in that angry, confrontational, Slam style:

“WHAT are you able to build with your blocks?!?” I hissed, my eyes angrily darting from face to face, challenging them to hoot me down. They bought it.

The second time I read was a year ago, when the Slam came back from its COVID-19 hibernation. Time that I used, along with two long surgical recoveries, to laboriously memorize the first part of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” — poems work better if you deliver rather than read them:

Time is always time/And place is always and only place...

I would have happily cashed in my chips and retired from my Slam career. But I’d corresponded with McDaniel; he let me quote two of his poems in “Out of the Wreck I Rise,” my literary companion to recovery, and asked if I could connect him with Smith. I did, but in the process somehow committed myself to being there, reading something, and introducing him, the main event. I’ve seen Jeffrey McDaniel recite his poetry before, and he’s the real thing.

The next Uptown Poetry Slam is 3 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 20 at the Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway. Cover is $7, with music provided by the Futz band. If you can’t wait until then, or Uptown isn’t convenient, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, I’ll be joined by Sun-Times architecture critic Lee Bey and former Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin, talking about and signing our new books at Bookends and Beginnings, 1712 Sherman Ave., in Evanston from 6 to 7 p.m. There’s food too.

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