When Kevin Coval’s poetry collection, Slingshots: (A Hip-Hop Poetica), came out 11 years ago, Booklist was full of praise: “Potent metaphors, muscular turns of phrase, a keen political conscience, and a Studs Terkelesque openness to humankind’s countless stories fuel Coval’s percussive calls for compassion and connection.” In our review of his next collection, Everyday People (2008), we noted his “affinity for Chicago’s crazy-quilt of ethnicities and races, the dreams of immigrants and seekers.” Further explorations into his own Jewish heritage, racial and cultural divides and commonalties, and social challenges followed in L-vis Lives! Racemusic Poems (2011), and Schtick (2013), inspiring us to identify him as a “line-crosser and bridge-builder.” Coval also coedited, with Nate Marshall, BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop (2015).
Now that National Poetry Month has delivered Coval’s powerful new collection, A People’s History of Chicago, complete with a foreword by Chance the Rapper, we felt prompted to seek Kevin Coval’s thoughts on his city, on poetry, and on the poet’s role in society.
DONNA SEAMAN: Chicago, your hometown, has always been a factor in your poems, but the city is the main focus of your new collection. Was this prompted at all by the tragic rise in gun violence? And/or by the corresponding bad rap Chicago gets in the national media?
KEVIN COVAL: Chicago is my great love, and one which constantly disappoints. I am frustrated when someone uses the name to disparage and know not of what they speak. Chicago is the greatest and most problematic city in the world, and I imagine many inhabitants must feel that way in these times of grand inequity. Chicago is my focus because of the ingenuity of the people. We are a working people who at times have come together to topple the will of the owners. I wanted to explore and learn more and remind us of some of those victories.
Did you feel the need to provide a succinct historical context for the struggles of the Chicago communities suffering the most from violence?
I feel a desire to uplift narratives and moments and people who are often left out of the stories we tell. Too often, Chicago does not put on for its own, and in some ways this book is also a love letter to some of my heroes and heroines who have made Chicago great and created culture and resistance for the world to model and admire.
You cite Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States as an influence. When did you first come across Zinn’s seminal work, and what impact did it have on you?
I first read Howard Zinn during my junior year of high school after hip-hop led me to the library to read (in this order): The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Before the Mayflower by Lerone Bennett Jr., A People’s History of The United States of America by Howard Zinn, and The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randell. These books forever changed and formed my life.
Was the great Chicago writer Nelson Algren’s indicting prose poem, Chicago: City on the Make, also an influence on your collection?
City on the Make is my favorite love letter, and Algren and his gaze into the city and what he choose to write and report on is a tremendous influence on my work. I stalk Milwaukee Ave in his footsteps.
You call out both social reformers and musicians and writers and other artists in your poems. Are you equating activism and art? Are both important to the well-being of a city?
I think if you transform the culture, you can transform the politics, and then the policies. Chicago artists have sat close to the activists and organizers, and increasingly many are the same people in the same communities. I am most inspired by the work of the Black Arts Movement, and particularly the creation of counter-canonical and institutional spaces, thanks to my mentor, Haki Madhubuti, and his mentors, Gwendolyn Brooks and Margaret Burroughs. I think all art is political, but not all is for the upliftment of the people. Some art is used to maintain the status quo. I like art at the vanguard of culture and politics, art that pushes us forward as a city to be more awake and aware and inclusive of the spectrum of experiences our city holds, but often does not represent, particularly in cultural spaces. The culture-maker is also a community organizer, and people in communion with one another can learn a lot and turn a lot of things upside-down.
You’ve dedicated your life to bringing poetry to young people, confounding Louder than a Bomb, the largest youth poetry slam in the country. Chance the Rapper provided the book’s foreword. You two met when, as a student, he participated in a writing workshop for Louder than a Bomb. Chance describes you as his “artistic father,” and writes that you made him “understand what it is to be a poet, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to serve the people.” Is “serving the people” a poet’s calling?
I think so, and I take notes from my elders, Baba Haki, Bill Ayers, Luis Rodriguez, Patricia Smith, Angela Jackson, and KRS-One—all artists whose work has inspired me to serve, to speak to an audience directly, and use the tools of storytelling to create space for others to share their stories. These writers are what Cornel West calls small “d” democrats, who practice a socially engaged poetics. I have learned from them and many others and hope to do their names and work justice, as well as be a servant to the communities I am privileged to be a part of. An artist is a worker in Chicago, especially; our job is to tell the truths as we see and experience them, to report and record and remix and remake and radically re-imagine the world and city in front of our nose, to paraphrase Ms. Brooks.