By D'Arcy Briggs
Spring Magazine’s D’Arcy Briggs had the chance to interview poet, Kevin Coval, regarding his upcoming illustrated poetry collection, “Everything Must Go”
Kevin Coval is a Chicago poet, author, and activist. He is the cofounder of Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Youth Poetry Festival and the Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors, a nonprofit promoting self-expression and literacy among Chicago youth. He is the author and editor of 10 books, including The BreakBeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip-Hop and Schtick, and co-author of the play, This is Modern Art.
Hi there! To start, can you give readers a little background on yourself as well as the Breakbeat Poet series?
I’m a poet in Chicago and see the work that I do as very much in a Chicago tradition of literature. This tradition is one that I think of as a kind of a realist working class portraiture. And all of those Chicago writers that I love and admire have been in pretty robust and leftist communities and have been intimately wound in politics and community organizing. I see myself in that tradition. And so part of the notes I’m taking are from other writers that I admire, like Gwendolyn Brooks and Nelson Algren. Taking that lens and selecting, and seeing and trying to record what’s happening in front of me. And so this book is part of that process.
And all of it is done through a hip-hop generation, a static framework. So the Breakbeat poetry series emerges around that idea that, you know, we’re probably four or five generations in of writers and artists that have been influenced by the aesthetics of hip-hop cultural practice. The series was an idea that was long in the making, but influenced by some of the anthologies that existed in the black arts movement. Particularly, there was an anthology that Donald Allen had edited, called New American Poetry in the 50s. It was one of the first places that Frank O’Hara and Allen Ginsberg and LeRoi Jones who then became Amiri Baraka were published. It was kind of a moment of time of what was happening, like a kind of a portrait of that era. And I wanted to do something similar. And that’s sort of what we’re doing and what we’re after here. we’re going into five years of that imprint on Haymarket, and I’m really excited about it.
Where did the inspiration for “Everything Must Go” come from?
You know, my last collection was A People’s History of Chicago, and I was writing, essentially, two books at the same time that I thought was one book. As I was writing the book, I was getting deeper into trying to understand some of what preceded gentrification in the contemporary way that I knew and experienced it. In doing that research, I started to think a lot more about my first hand knowledge of that experience to the neighborhood that I lived in, and then I saw it happen rapidly. I started to write all these poems, and one of my colleagues and homies and part of the Breakbeat poetry editorial board, Nate Marshall, was reading People’s History. He told me that I actually had these two book series and I should really just go into research mode and write this history book, but then you should take these Wicker Park poems, and have these pieces become something else.
That’s when I started to think about my desire to maybe do a graphic novel, and so that the idea kind of began to weave together. It was right around the time of publication for History that I met illustrator, Langston Allston. I knew that I wanted to have some sort of graphic representation. His work was reflecting on gentrification of a different moment and a different neighborhood in Chicago, but I said to myself “Yo, this is the dude.”
That actually goes right into the next question, so thank you for that. How did you decide to work with Langston Allston to create an illustrated collection of poems? How did that influence what you were doing and how did your work influence Allston?
It was a kind of a realist, comic book, lyrical art that I envisioned for the book. He’s an incredibly talented artist, and he was down to collaborate on the project. And we went back and forth a lot. Langston isn’t from Chicago and he spent a lot of time here. He’s from Champaign-Urbana and lives in New Orleans. So in some ways, I think he was able to take my narratives and portraits of what was happening in Wicker in the 90s, and connect that with the rabid gentrification that is happening in New Orleans. We got to this point where it would be, in an odd way, he would illustrate the places I was talking about, but they worked for his imagination in terms of what was happening and what is happening in New Orleans, and what was also happening in Chicago, now going 20 some odd years ago.
There is this synchronicity to the point that gentrification and the processes that create it are complex, and deal with global economic history, and they are, unfortunately, rearing their ugly head in cities around the planet. Even though I might be talking specifically about a neighborhood named Wicker Park in the 90s, my hope is that it will resonate with what’s happening in Cincinnati, and Memphis, and Toronto, and other cities around the planet. I think Langston understands that. And I think that’s where we began to have a real nice working relationship. We went for a lot of walks in Wicker Park. I would just do some storytelling. In the research process for the book I would send them old pictures of the neighborhood that I had or were online and that allowed him to get a visual sense of what was happening in that moment too.
The collection covers gentrification and displacement in a very personal way. You cover establishments like bowling alleys, barber shops, and apartments like living people with their own agency, hopes, and dreams. Can you expand on some of these concepts?
I often wonder about what makes a city. These places and these people, for me, is what made the neighborhoods so great, and so important for my maturation as a young person, and a young artist. What I worry about is that the character and characters that compose the neighborhood, are being pushed out of the neighborhood, and the neighborhood becomes monotonous. It becomes a hegemonic terror. Gentrification is, you know, something chronic that is about the continued erasure of working people. The irony is that the working people made the neighborhood what it was, is what drew the attention in the first place.
I understand that these are complex issues. I’m not an economist, and although I’m pointing to issues of superstructure, part of what I’m trying to do is also memorialize, lament, and honour the people that made a difference in my life. These are pictures and were pictures of those people that, frankly, have been lost. I mean, no one I know from the neighborhood in the day is currently there anymore. They’ve either been pushed out and forced out. They had to move elsewhere for a different job, or they’re in prison, or have been killed, or have died. This collection is a way for me to also remember and honour them.
You also show a lot of love to a wide cast of people. Are these real people who’ve been in your life, or a collection of individuals that represent a whole?
It’s generally pretty specific to the individual, but then those individuals represent, I think, a larger, young, Bohemia artistic community. It was something of a hodgepodge working class communities. It was Latinx families, and Ukrainian, and Polish, and black art spaces and hip-hop cultural spaces that I was a part of. It was in these spaces and these people that, when I was younger and made the decision to become an artist, they were the people that encouraged and inspired me. I did change some names, but the people that I name individually, for the most part, are the ones who made an impact in my life as a young man and a young artist.
One poem specifically covers you first meeting Idris Goodwin, a fellow Breakbeat poet. What was that experience like and how have you grown together?
I had heard of Idris at that time because he was a rapper that was hanging out on Milwaukee Ave and going to all of the same open mics that I was going to. I didn’t know him, but I’d heard of them. From what I had heard, I was a fan of his art. We had a home girl in common, Mariah Neuroth, who for a long time now has worked at Young Chicago Authors in some of the youth organizing that I do. She was like “Yeah, yeah, you should meet him.” And I think, like any hip-hop dude of that era was like “Nah, I’m good. Dude’s probably corny.” You know? You’re just, for no reason other than toxic masculinity, like that. One night we were at the same party and our homie was DJ, DJ Itch 13. He put on a record, which was, I forgot to talk about it in the poem, a remix to “Flava in Ya Ear” by Craig Mack. So when he put that on, Idris and I both lift our head up at the party. So I recognize that he can’t be 1,000% corny, because he likes the song, yeah? We really started to vibe very quickly. We would collaborate. We pretty quickly wound up writing a two man show that we did at Free Street Theater, in Wicker Park.
At some point he moved into the place I was staying on Damen Ave. Since then he’s been my main writing partner, my main artistic, aesthetic, collaborator, cooperator, and comrade. He and I talk damn near daily, and really kind of go over everything. He coined the term Breakbeat Poets. It was in a phone conversation we were having, maybe eight years ago, or longer. It was about what the aesthetics of our generation are and what what we were doing. We would talk about this kind of thing a lot. One day, just very passively, he said “Yeah, we’re the breakbeat poets.” and I said “Fuck, what?!” Since then we’ve worked together in a lot of different capacities, and have written a play together, a chapbook together, and continue to collaborate on other things to this day, including the Breakbeat series. We’re about to grow as kind of an editorial advisory board and Idris about to become a formal part of that process.
Finally, I think it’s worth noting that this collection feels timeless, like a historical account of the nightly news. How do you feel “Everything Must go” fits into what’s going on in America right now?
I appreciate that note. I hope it does speak to one moment, but I hope it speaks to the moment we find ourselves in now. Chicago is still going through this process. The city itself is constantly changing, and overturning. In my travels, I also recognize similar processes in other cities around the country. And I’ve spent a lot of time in Detroit over the last 15 years, time in Miami, Los Angeles, and all of Brooklyn. These are very similar things that are occurring in this country now. And I think it really begs the question, well, what kind of city do we want to live in? Do we want a space where working people can go, where they can have affordable housing, where they can have access to grocery stores, and just have spaces to gather and receive the various necessities of being a human being. I think we’ve done a good job of trying to advocate for these spaces, and these people. This book, hopefully, makes us wonder in a different way, about the preservation of the cities that we love, and who’s there and who comprises these cities, these spaces, and also honours and recognizes the contribution of working people.
Any final thoughts? Other artists or projects to check out and support?
Well, I’m hoping people check out the book and buy the book. Idris also has a book coming out on Haymarket in the Breakbeat Poet series, “Can I Kick it?” It’s a really funny and painful, kind of tragic, comic examination of American pop culture in this moment. And I think there’s a lot in that collection that speaks to what’s happening in terms of race and class and some identity issues in the States and around the world right now. Idris is just kind of master. He’s so funny, and so specific. And there’s so much life in in all of his writings. So I’m a big fan and I’m excited about him. I’m excited about the Breakbeat series in general. In the spring, will have a new anthology, “Latinx,” which is Edited by Falicia R. Chavez and Jose Olivarez with Willie Perdomo. I’ll just say that it’s already super phenomenal and it’s a really powerful collection. We’re just kind of finalizing it right now, but it should be out by April 2020.