If you’re old and hip enough, you might remember Kevin Coval from Russell Simmons’s Def Poetry Jam on HBO. If you’re just now tuning in, you might know him as a mentor to Chancelor Bennett (a.k.a. Chance the Rapper) or the Artistic Director of Young Chicago Authors. But if you’re active within Chicago’s diverse arts, hip-hop, or writing communities, you likely know Coval as a voice to be trusted. He speaks truth.
In A People’s History of Chicago, Coval’s writing shifts between spoken-word and rhyme, all of it brash and brave. His collection is a history lesson, but also a cultural call-out — his poems are angry, honest love letters written by a lifelong Chicagoan from place-long-gone to a future city that must be better. Coval knits together tales of folks forgotten and written-out, of peoples displaced, and of dreams deferred—into a narrative that traverses through each neighborhood in Chicago. Sure, he weaves in some of his own story, too, but never simply to serve himself. Coval’s poetry speaks for the the city, for all its people. He seeks justice.
(Since this interview was conducted via email, we’ve preserved Coval’s signature writing style.)
Mark Magoon: Who is the audience for the teaching you’re laying down in A People’s History of Chicago? Do you aim to give voice and pay respect to people too often forgotten, and to educate people of privilege that are found within the city itself—or is it more intended for flyover folks who think Chicago is Cubs baseball, deep dish pizza, cold weather, and violent news?
Kevin Coval: it’s for everyone. all the people. it’s for us here who don’t claim our own, who forget we come from a working people who have won, a reminder of a tradition of those who grind in the long haul toward justice. and yea, it’s to counter the wack & problematic notions that folk have when they hold our city in their mouths. truth be told, the country follows Chicago. these are some of the receipts.
Mark Magoon: The Chicago you write towards is decidedly two-sided and you get at that explicitly with a poem like “Two Cities Celebrate Independence Day,” which explores the dichotomy between Midwest weekenders on Lake Michigan and folks who live in neighborhoods where guns are going off. You do so a bit more subtly—while showing how great the divide really is—in a poem like “I Wasn’t in Grant Park when bama Was Elected.” Many might think it odd that there were city goers that weren’t celebrating that evening back in 2008. How important is it for Chicagoans to understand that separation and for outsiders around the country to realize that everyone isn’t always feeling the party the same way?
Kevin Coval: We live in a city of neighborhoods and those hoods are cities within cities. a hyper-segregated city intentionally designed to keep working people away from one another. we know that separation deeply here and need to create inter-hood solidarities to counter the dominant hold of the elite who urban plan us outta here.
Mark Magoon: You start with a lot of epigraphs, include a number of footnotes, and refer to people and places that have big history or have been erased from history all together—it seems like an awful lot of work went into the writing that goes around your poems. What was your research process like? How much of it was shifting through memory (your own and others) and actually picking up a book or scouring the web?
Kevin Coval: i dig thru history like producers do records trying to find the fresh bits to re-contextualize and make new sense of in the present tense. i love the library and rabbit holes on google. i love you tube surfing and stacks of books near my reading chair. most of all i love the people and the stories they’ve told me, the gems they share with me on the daily to elucidate the city and its deep complexities and contradictions.
Mark Magoon: One of the poems that hit me the hardest was “The Assassination of Chairman Fred Hampton,” partially because I had to spend, embarrassingly, some time on the Internet learning about his tragic, bloody tale (which says a lot about my whiteness and how we teach history here in America). But also because of the artwork that’s paired with the piece. The poem is bracketed by two illustrations—a drawing of Hampton on the previous page, and on the page opposite, a hyper-realistic drawing of Haki Madhubuti with hurt, maybe even disappointment in his eyes. He seems to be staring right back at the reader. Can you speak a bit about this artwork?
Kevin Coval: that’s a really beautiful read & im grateful for that insight… there are 6 Chicago artists i asked to contribute 3 illustrations each in the book. i sent folks the manuscript and they choose what they were most drawn to. i am so grateful for their contributions to bring to the life the portraits of some of our greatest Chicagoans.
Mark Magoon: As I said before, at times I had to put the book down—the poems certainly stand on their own, but to a point, the book, like any good work of history, calls for folks to do some additional research of their own—re-watch some old hip-hop videos on YouTube or read Gwendolyn Brooks. Is that part of the intent when crafting a book like this one?
Kevin Coval: hip-hop sent me to the library. books became a companion to the boom box. i think i intend that as well, that the poem is a jump off and a hope to send the reader into a self-directed frenzy of learning about themselves and their city and the people around them. that is pauses us for a moment to ask how we got here and where we are going.
Mark Magoon: I found it interesting that when you tend to show up within your poems—when you’re not dissecting or describing a person, place, or event—you’re often tied to the presence of your parents. How much of your understanding or your sense of place comes from your parents?
Kevin Coval: again a beautiful read & insight i am grateful for, thank you… i think that makes sense. i am a son of the city and the son of my parents. i used to think my dad was the mayor cuz he’d talk to everyone on the block. he loves people and can’t walk around with out saying hello and asking people about themselves. his heart has been broken by this city since 1943 and yet he continues to be one of its biggest boosters. we are all suckers and fighters and poets. i think my pops & Nelson Algren taught me that.
Mark Magoon: There’s so much music in A People’s History of Chicago—mentions of blues and jazz and house and hip-hop and DJ’s spinning. In “Molemen Beat Tapes” you write, “there was a time when hip-hop felt like a secret / society of wizards & wordsmiths.” Can you pinpoint the watershed moment in your life when music or poetry first began to really resonate in you?
Kevin Coval: Doug Collins basketball camp. Cory Anders had a mega mix of KRS-ONE, we listened in the dorms long after the coaches said to sleep. Black & white kids from the city and suburbs and KRS said Moses was Black, Abraham was Black. & that countered the whitewashed notion of my Hebrew school education and i knew then there was a power in telling the truth, in countering the dominant narrative.
Mark Magoon: Why Chicago and why now?
Kevin Coval: Chicago is the most brilliant and beautiful and brutal place in the country and i am writing in the fall of empire. It is no surprise we are in a renaissance then. one of the richest times for letters and music and culture and resistance. Chicago stays at the vanguard. i hope this book is ammunition.
A People’s History of Chicago by Kevin Coval
Published March 20, 2017
KEVIN COVAL is a Chicago native and author of ALA “Book of the Year” finalist, Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica and Everyday People. He is also the Artistic Director and co-founder of Louder Than a Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival. A regular contributor to Chicago Public Radio and a four-time HBO Def Poet, Coval is former poet-in-residence at The Jane Addams’ Hull House Museum and is currently faculty at The School of the Art Institute.
Help the Chicago Review of Books and Arcturus make the literary world more inclusive by becoming a member, patron, or sponsor. Each option comes with its own perks and exclusive content. Click here to learn more.
Mark Magoon is a poet, writer, and educator. He is the author of The Upper Peninsula Misses You (ELJ Editions, 2015) and his work--which has been nominated for Best of the Net and the Pushcart Prize--has appeared in Burrow Press, DIAGRAM, Midwestern Gothic, The Nervous Breakdown and elsewhere. Magoon teaches writing at University of Illinois at Chicago and makes home in the Windy City along with his wife and their bulldog. Follow him on Twitter @MarkPMagoon and on his website www.markmagoon.com.