Remixing the Narratives: A Conversation with Kevin Coval

Did that style develop as you were teaching, trying to get kids into poetry, or did you come to poetry with that style? Did you ever try your hand at rapping? It is also the birthplace of some of the most progressive social and political movements in the country’s history. We’re going to put something from our lives on a pedestal, give it the kind of shine it deserves, and sing its praises. A lot of cultures do that, but I feel particularly Jewish. So what do we do?” You invent in the house party. APRIL 27, 2017

KEVIN COVAL IS A POET, but more importantly, he’s a proud Chicagoan who makes art about and for the city that he loves. We’re in tune with a lot of the same things. The rest of the book is about these big societal events, and this one’s about this very personally important event. I was also just appalled at the sheer amount of lies in the textbooks, and I knew that because of this incredible writer and historian Howard Zinn. I’m writing that book because so goes Chicago, so goes the country in a lot of ways. Yeah, that is finding my audience. Chicago also happens to be one of the most segregated cities in the country, where racism, xenophobia, and resentment run deep. A lot of people are kind of scared off from poetry because it’s seen as this ossified, florid, hard-to-understand, and pretentious art, but your poems are not like that at all. I came up with a generation of poets who were in the same spaces and at the same open mics as rappers. Art in Chicago is really a working person’s craft. A poetics emblematic of the language around you, and the people right in front of you, that tries to locate and tell the story of a place. Of course, it was created by black and Latin queer men who were really trying to carve out a space for their own bodies, but ultimately it was a space that welcomed and championed everybody. I read it very thankfully when I was a sophomore or junior in high school. It still kind of amazes me. This doesn’t have much to do with the book, but I interviewed RP Boo a while ago, and it was amazing to hear the story of how footwork came to be, and how for years and years it was underground and held together by teenagers. I wrote this book with my students in high school and college in mind. How did you discover that music? People weren’t willing to do that, and now they do it in the thousands. Yeah, that’s why I take culture very seriously. Is that how you see your poetry? i was listening to the young & the working, black & unemployed & Queer & radical imaginations dreaming narrating the city they see & fear.”  
I talked to Kevin over the phone about his new book, hip-hop, and the connection between dance music and social and political movements. A rapper has to dance with, and over, and in between a beat, and also is charged with the ability to make a club shut the fuck up and pay attention. They were referential. Marc is a genius and a great writer, and I think he’s created something that’s changed the city, and youth culture in the city, but for me, myself, slam is a form and a game. Like physical public space in Chicago is at a premium. I slammed for maybe two years and left because it didn’t vibe with me. I asked him if he would, and he said yes. That has everything to do with the public expression of hip-hop culture. In the realm of culture, that’s like, “I can’t afford to go to the Art Institute because it’s 18 dollars. In terms of the language, I hated poetry in high school because it was ossified, as you said, and also because of the way that they taught it. I wanted to write something that would be interesting and engaging for someone 13, 15, 27, 30, and beyond. Only a little bit, huh? In “I Wasn’t in Grant Park when obama Was Elected,” Coval writes, “i was on the ave listening to the only democracy i believe in. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like a lot of the book was written as a way to teach the history of Chicago to kids, through poetry. We all have an essential story to tell, and the poem is a beautiful way to relay that story. Hip-hop has traditionally been about the poetics of place and putting on for that block, that corner, that school, that area code, that zip code, that city. Yeah, definitely. Chicago was a house community at that time. To throw an event like a party, you have to organize a community, which is community organizing. If you want to be an MC you have to be able to dance with language in a way that a poet isn’t charged with. I mean, I don’t put out rap records, but I feel like my whole life has been about trying to understand the aesthetics of the most vibrant youth cultural practice in the history of the planet, and how it can infect and affect the page of a poet. It’s easy to see history as this far-off reality you could have never experienced, but you write about the past in the book from the point of view of lived experience. [Laughs.] Yeah. No, I don’t. In this order, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Before the Mayflower, and A People’s History of the United States. I wrote because of the hundreds of rappers I listened to. Well, I think the Carl Sandburg Village was important because it represented this thing in Chicago that was like gentrification before they were calling it gentrification. In his new book of poems, A People’s History of Chicago, including a preface from Chance the Rapper, Coval makes his passion known. That’s implicit in Midrash Talmudic stories. I was not a good student, but I became hungry to pursue my own education. That’s a Western European notion. Seeing that, I was put out and on by the vibrancy of that music and culture, the beautiful notion of radical inclusivity. That’s the real intelligence of the pedagogy of the slam. Poetry is utilitarian in a lot of ways, and certainly it’s a populist art form. Even by saying the name of someone on a record, I wanted to know the reference. Of course they were like self-righteous garbage, but, in some sense, I’m still on that tip. How did getting Chance to write the intro for the book come together? We sometimes forget that working people have fought, and have won. I think, at least in Chicago, where we’ve shared the same spaces, we’ve really gleaned the innovation and style of one another, and we’ve influenced each other. I think it is a perfect tool for young people in a lot of ways. Oh yeah, that happened. Brooks talks about finding her material in the street, which is reminiscent of what Mos Def and Talib Kweli might say at the beginning of Black Star. She told me that house has this principle of radical inclusivity, and that’s something I saw as a young person. I usually start with a “where-I’m-from poem” or an ode, which could be anything from Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas” to Chance’s “Hey Ma,” coupled with something from Neruda. I just studied things along the way that I’ve taken an interest in. There is a performance aspect of slam poetry and rapping that doesn’t really exist in poetry though. ¤
Sam Ribakoff is a freelance writer who’s interested in everything and everyone, but if he had to be specific he’d say he’s interested in music and the communities and ideas it fosters, film, literature, how art interacts with social and political movements, science and math education, and environmental policy. You’re always working on that thing you’re trying to get good at. Sorry, I just get mad excited talking about Chicago shit. It was music. At the same time that I was reading Jayne Cortez, Carolyn Rodgers, and Angela Jackson, I was also listening to A Tribe Called Quest and The D.O.C. Even under the hardest, most roughneck type of circumstance, I see people smile and love their grandmother, or cut up with their homies, and that’s the approach I take in the classroom. It is this bifurcated city that Kevin Coval writes about in plainspoken and precisely worded language, filled with warm and knowing slang. Being a Chicago kid, I think I began to be most interested by hip-hop sonically, but, of course, hip-hop being composed of everything else gave me a palate and appreciation for all other music. Typically what happens is you have these creative artistic communities that influence one another, even across genres. It’s like, “Oh, this is the town hall. Jews have always made the past the present. Maybe these things don’t exactly mirror each other, but they do fuel and feed and bleed into each other. Which doesn’t mean a poet can’t dance or make you move. But being a kid seeking breaks in Chicago at my age meant I was going to house parties, so I became immersed and ingratiated, thankfully, in the culture of house music, even though I was in search of hip-hop music. A lot of poets and rappers of this, and now multiple generations, have been trading notes. The canon was closed. It’s interesting to think about the interracial and cross-cultural political movements that you describe in the book, and the sometimes parallel interracial and cross-cultural dance music communities in Chicago. I learned through repetition how to say the poems so they’d be heard. I’ve always been a listener of stories, and hip-hop really made me a digger of the record. Invoking past Chicago writers and artists like Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Common, Coval joins those who so engrossed themselves in their city that they found a mirror reflection of the beauty and horror of the entire country within its confines. What’s your method of getting kids into poetry? It doesn’t put on for youth culture. They both populated their prose and poems with language of the everyday. I’ve been influenced by them and inspired by them continuously. I teach young poets, and I also teach young rappers, and a lot of the time young poets want to be young rappers because there is more money, fame, and notoriety. And certainly have it be a roadmap back to these places, and people, that they may have heard of, or never heard of, and hopefully set people off on their own path, too. Yeah. In this collection, you write pretty beautifully about music, specifically the poems about house music and footwork music. It also doesn’t represent anything I’m interested in because it has a very narrow representation of who makes art. The city is selling it ad nauseam. I think the first thing I tried to do was write battle-rap essays to my English and history teachers in high school. Miraculously public libraries house these texts for free. I came up performing in bars and clubs as well, where oftentimes people weren’t necessarily there to listen to you. I think that the poets of this generation, who are both making traditional hip-hop music and maybe who are also publishing books, or not even publishing books, are all of the same aesthetic, cultural force. I didn’t know everyone that KRS-One and Chuck D and Big Daddy Kane and Rakim were talking about. I’m of the opinion that everyone’s got great poems inside of them, and I really mean everybody. I feel very Jewish. In Chicago, we have a very rich tradition of literature, and I see myself in the wave and lineage of Gwendolyn Brooks and her students, one of whom is my mentor, Haki Madhubuti. A friend, a relative, music? Marc always talks about it being a gimmick or a trick, a way to get his construction-worker friends to listen to people write and say poems. I’ve very much informally been trained to do that work. Sometimes your poetry gets put into the slam poetry movement. In part, that prepares me for the historical work I’ve tried to do as a writer. You invent in the basement of the community center, or in the basement of a church. I started to veer away from the intended curriculum and found my way into the public library. I was angry about the lack of inclusion of other voices. I think so. I mean, look, I still want to rap. I’ve been thinking about and researching this book my whole life in a lot of ways. I became friends with this woman named Boogie McClarin, an important figure in the house music community in Chicago. Was there something that made you go read on your own? I don’t think it’s happenstance that Chance is engaged in the civic space. As someone who has grown up in these various cultural spaces, I have this rich appreciation of Chicago-centric shit first, and then the various ways that we innovate. It doesn’t put on for Chicago. I’m excited for Chance, too, and all the things he’s done and will do. I come from a lineage and a community where the poets also had to move the crowd. It’s a way to get kids into poetry because it’s a kind of performance art. I’ve been interested in that question for a long time. ¤
SAM RIBAKOFF: Considering the title of your book, was A People’s History of the United States an important book in your life? I’ve been really lucky to be around him and see him grow and develop. the longest-running youth open mic in America. With this book, I wanted to write a history book. When I was in high school and a teacher tried to introduce poetry to us by reading a 2Pac song, it was only a little corny, and super outdated. I also wanted to tell the story of a lot of working people. That’s how I teach it. It doesn’t put on for people of color. The book I’m writing right now is about gentrification in the 1960s and ’70s in Chicago and the destruction of working-class neighborhoods, specifically the neighborhood where the Young Lords were, which was the neighborhood that my parents moved into. I can be seen as a citizen in the town hall, talking about my life.” What spaces do we really have to do that in? He has an incredible family. I think it has a lot to do with the book. Channeling historian Howard Zinn’s working-class point of view, Coval recounts monumental, obscure, and personal events in the history of Chicago, including the founding of the city by Point du Sable; the founding of the Society for Human Rights; the assassination of Black Panther Fred Hampton; the development of electric blues music, jazz fusion, house, and footwork music; and a whole lot more. If you change the culture, you’ll change the politics; if you change the politics, ultimately you’ll change the policy. I wrote because of the Black Arts poets, and the Beat Generation poets, and the Nuyorican poets that I was reading as a young person. It’s kind of a Chicago tradition. One of my favorite poems in the book is “Carl Sandburg Village,” about when your mom and dad first met. There was no differentiation between the two. It’s a lot of remixing the narratives of the stories and the records in order to make sense of them in this moment in time. That’s interesting though, because they are my audience in many ways. I mean, this is my oral history, and I wanted to tell that story in part because I am, and my parents are, and their parents were, storytellers. In reading A People’s History of Chicago, one’s reminded of the impact that the city has had on the culture and politics of the entire country, from Chicagoans revolutionizing the blues, creating an electric monster that morphed into the rock music we know today, to disco-obsessed kids on the South Side creating soulful dance music that is now a multimillion-, if not billion-dollar industry, to kids fighting back against institutional racism, neglect, and poverty with the power of hip-hop music. I’m not a historian; I’m not trained in anything. It’s an exercise. Well, like any artist you develop and get better and better the more you work at it. and Ice Cube and Scarface and, later, Common and folks who influenced a kind of poetics that is very much alive. I think slam is a gateway and a trick. Cultural space in Chicago is at a premium. I really love his parents and his brother, Taylor. Like any art form, the myth of the artist as a lone thinker is played. In some ways I do, but I don’t obviously. That was the first impulse, maybe. The anthology was over. I’ve known him for probably 10 to 11 years now. Those three books sent me on a trajectory. I wanted to write a history book that would hopefully do for them what hip-hop did for me, you know? I take this from Zinn and Brooks and a lot of other people I’ve been influenced by. I think the creative, cultural, poetic folks need to unleash their imagination into the civic sphere, and I think we see that in Chicago a lot. In some ways hip-hop taught me and generations to contribute to and continue a tradition, or to make a new tradition, an alternative canon. Young people of color and working people are constantly contesting the notion of public space. Poets, in Chicago at least, are oftentimes charged with the same thing. I’m really excited about what Taylor, his brother, is doing as an artist and a writer and a person. Do you think people’s interest in slam poetry and rap trickles down into more people being interested in “literary” poetry? In some ways they teach history that way. It’s more like an exercise that poets do? I think we can be emboldened by those stories now. You have a very blunt style. That’s what propelled me to want to learn. We were taken by the same vibrancy and power of the musicality of language. Then I read Dudley Randall’s The Black Poets, an anthology of Black Arts poets. I didn’t start to write because of the slam. Send them into an orbit of their own self-interest in order for them to learn more about the world and history around them. There’s definitely a purpose for it, and I love Marc Smith. I know that you teach poetry to kids. KEVIN COVAL: Of course. What better place to start than to dig into the record and the text, which I was also doing sonically by looking at who was sampled? Working people in Chicago have created interracial solidarities and communities that have really brought the city to a standstill and changed power. Thank you, man. Those books really shaped my life and meant the world to me. That spurred me to pick up the pen and do the work.