For decades, poetry played an invaluable role in Chicago’s literature and arts scenes. The city produced and published some of the genre’s most famous authors before they became household names. Poets in the Windy City continue to redefine the art of written and spoken-word poetry. The scene still thrives and evolves today. Whether an expert in verse or a poetry novice, these are the hot spots every poet must visit while in Chicago.
After Harriet Monroe created Poetry magazine in 1912 as a way to celebrate poets and their craft, the Modern Poetry Association emerged in 1941 to support publication and circulation. Then, thanks to a generous donation from philanthropist Ruth Lilly in 2003, the MPA became the Poetry Foundation. Located in River North in a gorgeous building with large windows and a garden “room,” visitors can read from the Foundation’s library, attend poetry events, view exhibitions and more.
One of Carl Sandburg’s most notable poems is aptly titled “Chicago.” It first appeared in the March 1914 issue of Poetry magazine and quickly became an iconic representation of working-class life in the city, earning Chicago the nickname of “City of Big Shoulders.” The apartment in which Sandburg wrote these words still stands in a home in Ravenswood, on the north side. In 2006, the site earned landmark status. Sandburg only spent three years living in this home, and since that time, it’s been privately owned. While not open to the public, it’s still a terrific, historic photo op for poets.
Farther west, in Oak Park, visitors can tour the childhood home and birthplace of author Ernest Hemingway. A 1992 renovation restored the Queen Anne Victorian, built in 1890, to provide a more authentic Victorian-era experience to visitors. Hemingway’s Birthplace also hosts book lectures, film screenings, and a cocktail social event on the third Friday of every month. Though Hemingway only lived in the house until he was six years old, the building is a gorgeous slice of literary history, right in Chicago’s backyard.
It’s impossible to consider poetry in Chicago without acknowledging the Chicago Defender. A newspaper founded by Robert Abbott and written for the African-American community in Chicago, the Defender encouraged black Americans in the South to migrate north during the 1910s. Many children of the people who subsequently settled in the Bronzeville neighborhood became instrumental in Chicago’s Black Renaissance during the ’30s and ’40s. Poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Fenton Johnson met with other artists around Bronzeville in places like the Hall Branch of the Chicago Public Library, which opened in 1932 and was named after Dr. George Cleveland Hall, an African-American surgeon, civic leader, and social activist. In 2007, the library became a literary landmark for its continued support of African-American writers, poets, and activists.
Historical sites are definitely worth the trip, but nothing beats a heat-of-the-moment artistic interaction. Poets Kathleen Rooney, Eric Plattner, and Dave Landsberger co-founded Poems While You Wait in 2011. The three still write poetry for the group and have since added more writers to their crew. Here’s how it works: patrons offer up a specific topic to a poet, along with a suggested $5 donation. After leaving the poet to his or her typewriter for 15 to 20 minutes, patrons come back to receive their one-of-a-kind, brand-spankin’ new poem. Be sure to check the team’s schedule to know where to find them next.
Recently voted the Best Illinois Attraction by The USA Today/10 Best Reader’s Choice Awards, the American Writers Museum is full of literary history. The museum opened its doors in 2017 after nearly a decade of planning. Its mission is to engage audiences in the world of literature and the spoken word, exposing visitors to a wide variety of artists from around America. The Surprise Bookshelf Series is a poetry enthusiast’s best bet; these events celebrate the many forms writing takes, including journalism, poetry, and graphic art. Visitors can also participate in a collective storytelling exhibit in which anyone can add a new line of text to one giant piece of writing.
If you’re lucky enough to be in Chicago during the world’s largest youth poetry festival, you’ve hit the jackpot. Louder Than a Bomb features 120 teams of slam poets from high schools, middle schools and communities around the country over the course of several weeks. Part of the Young Chicago Authors organization, LTAB is continuously one of the most hyped and electric arts events that the city has to offer. According to poet and YCA’s marketing manager José Olivarez, it’s also a place where one can end up with young people from all over Chicago in the same room, bonding over a single art form. If you miss LTAB, have no fear. YCA hosts a weekly open mic and poetry performance perfect for poetry enthusiasts. Every Tuesday night, a workshop takes place at 6 pm, followed by an open mic at 7 pm when students and young adults perform their work. At 8:15 pm, featured artists take the stage. Some big names (Chance the Rapper, anyone?) have come through this open mic, and each week features brand-new material from a diverse range of poets. Do not miss this.