In the Heartland: tBtW explores poetry and place in new exhibit on Midwestern life

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by Eric Mcmillan

"What begins as undifferentiated space becomes place as we get to know it better and endow it with values."
            --Yi Fu Tuan, Space and Place

Today I learned something I didn't know before about Chicago. Did you know that there wasn't a single conviction for murder in connection with organized crime in Chicago until 1997? That means no one in Al Capone's era or for a long time afterwards ever spent a day in prison on a murder conviction. This was not what I expected to learn at a poetry discussion.

Chances are good that if you are at the University of Chicago, you probably come from somewhere else. Chicago is not your home, which is to say that you are not from Chicago. You may go so far as to say that you are not of the city, precluding the chance that you might ever give your heart over to it, no matter how long you reside here. But let's face it--you chose to come to school here.

Even in a bubble, even in a microcosm like a university, there is still a tie to the community that informs it, nurtures it, and supports it. If that relationship is functional, than it is almost symbiotic. The university benefits from bringing the community into its walls. Conversely, the community benefits from having students and faculty interact with a community's neighborhoods.  A place is, after all, to a certain extent what you make of it. But, "what has that got to do with poetry?" you might ask.

Questions about shared values, particularly about what it means to be in America's "heartland," are central to the project of the Heartland Exhibit at the Smart Museum. Bill Savage, an English professor from Northwestern University, gave an insightful inaugural lunchtime discussion, the first in a series of such discussions, on Friday, 16 October 2006.

Mr. Savage, a native author as well as academic, charted a course in Chicago's lyric idiom that ranged from Carl Sandburg's eponymous "Chicago" to Tony Fitzpatrick's poem "Pimp Dog" with its companion collage.

Location is important in literature. If the "heartland" is supposed to be a metaphor for how America attempts to re-center its values, argued the guest speaker, than it is important to understand how Chicago writers have been deeply involved with this effort. He cited a tradition that includes authors examining tough, realistic moral and ethical quandaries, writers like Theodore Dreiser, Nelson Algren, and Saul Bellow.

For poets as part of that tradition, Chicago provides rich subject matter, a place to explore the city's inherent identity conflicts. In the course of an hour, we saw how Carl Sandburg eschewed high-minded diction to sound more like the man on the street. We saw how Gwendolyn Brooks explored Chicago spaces in poems like "kitchenette building" and "vacant lot," spaces that are not only physical locations but also expressions of the psyche and temporal distance.

In the poems "Mowing" and "kitty-corner," Stuart Dybek mused on how the city's spaces are continually changing. In the ever-transforming urban landscape, the poet sees the disappearance of public phones and newspaper kiosks as signs of communal disintegration. He begs the question, "what will become of us?"

Tony Fitzpatrick paired word and image to provide a moving meditation on the murder of Fred Hampton, a leader in the Black Panther movement, in 1969, an event that spurred the poet's family to flee their neighborhood.  These poems have a hard edge because they ask tough questions. An artist of integrity takes that scrutiny of the world surrounding her. It is a starting place in an ongoing dialogue about making ours the kind of place we want for a community.

So even if you missed the talk, you have plenty of chances to make an engagement with those kinds of questions. All you have to do is walk over to the Smart Museum and spend an hour or so with the exhibit. Their next talk will be at noon on October 30th when Martin Marty, professor emeritus with the Divinity School, and Daniel Block will speak on religion, nature, and food. Who knows--you might learn something interesting.

Click here to learn more about the Smart Museum's Heartland, and here to learn more about the Chicago Studies-sponsored creative writing contest.

Eric Mcmillan is a graduate student in the Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities


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