Volunteer Bomb Squad

Last Friday morning Beth Finke, Whitney the Seeing Eye dog, and I met at one of Columbia College’s Michigan Avenue buildings in Chicago to volunteer for this year’s Louder Than A Bomb poetry slam. In the elevator, DJ Ca$hera gave us a hearty hello. She’s Louder Than A Bomb’s famous house DJ, working the entire six-week competition.

Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB) is Chicago’s annual youth poetry slam. Sponsored by Young Chicago Authors, the slam hosts over 1,000 youth poets in tournament-style bouts, all open to the public. Students representing Chicago area high schools stand on stage performing their own original poems to an audience of spoken word coaches, teachers, peers and strangers.

LTAB requires an army of volunteers for the events to run smoothly. Beth and I could have been check-in/greeters, merchandise sellers, timekeepers, social

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DJ Ca$hera in action #LTAB19

media ambassadors or judges. Judges! What could be more perfect for Beth, who teaches writing by listening to student recitations in her five weekly classes, than to be a judge for a spoken word competition? When I offered to be at her side for the first round, she agreed to sign up.

So there we were Friday morning, seated ten feet from the stage in the front row with lap-size white boards and markers. This was one of the first rounds of the five-week competition. Before the bout began, MC Tim “Toaster” Henderson briefed us on how to judge.

“Write numbers on the board from 7-10. Use decimals,” he said.

“A ten means the student is so good you’d pay their college tuition.” Translation: don’t give tens out too freely.

I sat next to Beth thinking I’d help her write on the board. But guess what? Beth didn’t need help. I was at least able to handle the eraser, cleaning Beth’s white board for each new poet.

On stage, DJ Ca$hera fired out bouncy hip-hop tunes. I even recognized a few. A “sacrificial” poet came first to get the ball rolling, make the room competition-ready, and give the judges a practice round. Then one after the other, poets from five different high schools kicked up onto the stage, introducing themselves by giving their names and the name of their poem before starting their reading. Many poets read from their phones, beating out words that particularized a slice of their lives: hard-bitten parents, bullies, sisters getting raped, and “fear of falling off a mountain of success.” One girl pushed through tears throwing down bars about her mother’s drinking, “her cheeks deflated like old birthday balloons.”

DJ Ca$hera turntabled tunes that artfully reflected the poets’ words. MC Toaster shouted out the numbers we wrote on our boards, and his playful comebacks to some of our scores encouraged the audience to shout LISTEN TO THE POEM whenever a poet got a score of 9.0 or lower.

Next we judged the entire team of poets from each school. Each group performed one poem together, succinct, snappy and sophisticated.

In the end all of the young poets hopped onto the stage to hear the winners. While waiting for their scores to be tallied, they hugged and jammed to DJ Ca$hera’s rousing wind-up. When the winners were announced, they all cheered for each other.

Whitney, unharnessed, made friends with the high schoolers sitting behind us,

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LTAB Judge Beth Finke and Whitney

squirreling her way under Beth’s chair, encouraging them to rub her ears. We had to dig her out from under there when it was time to leave.

On the way out we met Eric Coval, a suburban high school spoken word coach. Eric’s brother, Kevin Coval, Chicago’s unofficial poet laureate, created LTAB 19 years ago.

It was only 1:00 in the afternoon when we breezed back onto Michigan Avenue, fully entertained and far too stimulated. Now we’re checking the online schedule to see if we can find a time slot to come back and judge again.

#LTAB19 is still looking for volunteers, no experience necessary, The slam continues through March 17, 2019.  2-hour shifts are available weekdays and weekends, and you can sign up here.

Tickets still available for the final rounds of Louder Than A Bomb at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater on Sunday, March 17, 2019. Look for me there.

Writing the Body with Beth Finke

Last Friday night author Beth Finke and I participated in an event called “Body Language—Reading and Discussions about Writing the Body.”The event was held at Access Living, a non-profit advocacy organization in Chicago that delivers programs and services to people with disabilities.

As a writer in one of Beth’s memoir-writing classes, I’m included in her latest book, Writing Out Loud. The book tells Beth’s story about teaching memoir to older adults, and I gladly accepted the invitation to get on stage with Beth and interview her about her writing and teaching. After introductions, I asked some of the obvious questions most people want to know:

  • What was it like to get fired from your job when you lost your sight?
  • How did you get started leading memoir-writing classes?

The shocker came when I asked, “What other jobs have you had since going blind?” Beth answered by “reading” a passage from her book about auditioning to pose in the nude for an art class. She pulled out a phone-size gadget with her passage teed up, put in earplugs and flipped the switch that talked the words in her ear as she perfectly mouthed these words out loud to the audience:

My robe was still on when I backed up to the table and hitched myself up. Crouching down, I felt the tabletop’s edges to be sure I wouldn’t fall off, then stood up and unbuttoned my robe.

I’d been told to strike six poses, eventually ending up in a reclining position. Had I been able to see that first model do her audition, I might have had a better idea of what was expected. I was suddenly so concerned with coming up with six different poses that I forgot I was naked.

I posed.

The department must have been pretty desperate for models, especially ones middle-aged or older and willing to work mornings. Most models are students who liked sleeping in.

I passed the audition.

Access Living is a leading force in the national disability advocacy community. The audience included people from their extensive list of volunteers, clients, personal assistants, board members and friends. Executive Vice President Jim Charlton even brought students from his classes at the University of Illinois Institute on Disability and Human Development.

Next up after Beth’s interview was a reading from artist Riva Lehrer’s upcoming memoir, Golem Girl. Riva read a riveting account from her magnificently written manuscript about growing up at the Condon School for Crippled Children in Cincinnati. A slide show moved from photo to photo behind her as she read. It showed lovely old black and white yearbook pictures of the school, the students and the teachers.

Riva works at Access Living, is an adjunct professor in Medical Humanities at Northwestern University, and was born with spina bifida. Her paintings focus on physical and cultural representations of hers and others disabilities. Golem Girl will be published by Penguin/Random House next year.

The most startling part of the evening came as questions from the audience started flying. An audience member said she’d read Beth’s book Writing Out Loud and asked if she was writing another. Jessica said she writes, too and asked if Beth ever would start a class for younger people near where she lives, in Skokie. Then, Kapow! Someone asked Riva how she was able to accomplish so much after being ridiculed relentlessly as a child because of her disability.

“I’ve been called crip, gimp, freak, retard, midget, you-name-it,” she acknowledged. “In the Condon school, because we all had something, I felt safe, not so different. Outside of school I was always scared.”

She said that when she first started working alongside so many other people with disabilities at Access Living, she felt safe at work like she always had at school. “I was afraid to go out the door at the end of the workday.” She credited Susan Nussbaum, her friend and colleague at Access Living, for helping her navigate the outside world. “You just have to rely on others.”

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Jessica, Beth Finke and Whitney

Afterwards I walked around the room to chit-chat. When I returned to Beth she was leaning into Jessica showing her how to work the reading gadget so Jessica, who uses a wheelchair and has limited sight, could read her own stories out loud to her own audience.

Just before we left, Beth’s guide dog, Whitney, uncharacteristically stood up and lifted her head high enough for Jessica to pet her.

 

Thank You Alcoholic Writers

After my first few writing sessions in Beth Finke’s Memoir Writing Class, I asked her why there weren’t more stories about alcoholism. It seemed I was the only one reporting on this particular form of family madness in our weekly writing group. Beth assured me that alcoholism has been a common theme in several of her memoir writing classes over the years.

Ok, so that helped, to know that I’m not the only one. As an alcoholic myself who grew up with two alcoholic parents, I always start from a position of feeling like I don’t belong, like I’m too different to belong. The stigma of alcoholism and addiction doesn’t help. I’ve been sober for 42 years and I still feel like it’s a shameful condition, even after years of knowing it’s a medical condition, a mind-body disease.

Last week Beth sent me an essay by author Leslie Schwartz whose latest memoir is about her relapse and jail time. She writes, “In my case, addiction and the mental illness that 51MsewjwbIL._AC_US218_ 2
follows has been one source of my creativity for a long time. I was able to use my experience of relapse and its devastating outcomes – I nearly lost my life – as fodder for my memoir The Lost Chapters: Finding Recovery and Renewal One Book at a Time.”

Leslie spent her 37-day jail time immersed in reading the work of fellow writers who suffered from alcoholism/addiction (Raymond Carver, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Wolff). She studied the recent research about the link between mental illness and creativity by Nancy Andreasen and Kay Redfield Jamison. Plenty has been written about expressive writing as a form of release from mood disorders—James Pennebaker, Dr. Howard Schubiner and others. Indeed, the Fourth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ 12 steps suggests writing a “searching and fearless moral inventory” as a way to shake the yoke of guilt and shame. It works. After writing a few Fourth Steps, I continue to write memoirs to be free from the chronic pain of fibromyalgia as prescribed by Chicago doctor John Stracks. It works for that too.

I love that Leslie Schwartz uses the words “addiction” and “mental illness” interchangeability in her essay.  “When I write, I feel sane,” she writes. “When I don’t write, I am lost.”

We desperately need addiction/alcoholism and mental illness to be thought of in new ways. Senator Ted Kennedy’s son Patrick (the one who very publicly slammed his car into the U. S. Capitol under the influence), founded the Kennedy Forum in an effort to wipe out the stigma of alcoholism and mental health. By promoting the medical evidence verifying that alcoholism/addiction/mental illness are brain disorders, the Kennedy Forum hopes to reduce the shame induced by the stigma that keeps alcoholics/addicts from getting help, keeps teens from telling their parents, keeps employees from using their medical insurance for rehab. I’ve been sober since 1976 and it seems to me that the stigma is worse than it was 40 years ago. How do we break this? One way is for people in recovery programs like AA to stop acting like they are in a secret society and to open their meetings to those who are simply searching for information on how it works. Another way is for writers like Leslie Schwartz, Anne Lamott, Mary Karr and Brene Brown to keep writing their stories so people like me feel free to write ours.

 

You read that out loud in class?

Safe & Sound blog

Regan-Burke That’s Regan, today’s guest blogger, peaking out of her hood at a Chicago bus stop.

It was a lucky day for me when Regan Burke turned up for one of my memoir-writing classes. A civil rights activist, Regan was a White House staffer during the Clinton presidency and has colorful – and moving – stories to tell. She files away unusual words she hears and cleverly shoehorns one or two of them into each essay – you’ll find one here in her guest post about the value of honesty in memoir-writing.

There’s a Lacuna in My Story

by Regan Burke

Sometimes I email the essays I write for my memoir classes to a good friend.

She tends to find my work imprudent and irresponsible.

”You read that aloud in class?” she’ll ask. “Yep,” I answer. “I did.”

I have a strong motivation for writing the truth. A book by Dr…

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