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Inauguration sensation: Poets express feelings about Obama at reading on campus

Published: Friday, January 23, 2009

Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08

A gentle crowd of poetry lovers gathered in the spacious third-floor conference room of DePaul's Lincoln Park Student Center on Tuesday night, Jan. 20, to celebrate in spoken word the inauguration of President Barack Obama. As they filtered into the room, filling the rows of green chairs that stretched before the front podium, they snacked on light refreshments and admired free copies of the book that commemorated the night. A projection of the cover of the anthology "A Writers' Congress: Chicago Poets on Barack Obama's Inauguration" illuminated the wall beside the vacant podium while the assembly waited patiently for the first speaker to take his place.The polite and reserved crowd could not disguise the passion that fueled the event. It had only been a few short weeks since Chris Green contacted via e-mail the 20 poets who filled the first two rows of chairs, inviting them to contribute to a poetry anthology celebrating Obama's presidency; here they were on inauguration night, ready to read their work to a room of eager listeners.


After Green visited the DePaul Art Museum's exhibit on the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, he knew he wanted to compile "A Writers' Congress."


"I was just sort of struck by the images from the Democratic National Convention" in contrast to the positive images of "beauty and peace" in Grant Park on election night, he said. From there, he contacted 90 Chicago poets and invited them to contribute to his conceived anthology; 50 poets responded.


"I like th symmetry and poetry of 50 poets in a book called 'A Writers' Congress,'" Green said. He solicited support from the DePaul Poetry Institute and the DePaul Humanities Center and the project was underway. A month-and-a-half later, on the evening of Obama's inauguration, the poets read from Green's collection to celebrate the historic night.


In an opening speech for the event, Jonathan Gross, director of DePaul's Humanities Center, declared the poets the "unacknowledged legislators of the world" and cited their duty to help Obama reclaim the world. He turned the podium over to Green, who read from his compilation's preface.


"If poets are the world's emotional historians, then these poems are of the moment," he said. "Inspired by Barack Obama's inauguration, they sing of strength, tenderness, joy, of our true nature. Politics is cruel but poetry is pure and each poem here is naked as an eagle."


One by one, the poets approached the podium, introduced themselves and read their poems. They were a mixture of expressions and experiences, emotions and impressions that were as diverse as Obama's supporters-as diverse as the people of our country. Some of the poems were funny, some sad; some poems were explicit addresses to Obama himself while others disguised an overt message within subtle, beautiful prose.


The room listened, captived and united in a collective celebration of the nation's accomplishment. They laughed together, applauded together and sat in silence together. The air was effervescent. Before reading his poem, Irish immigrant Liam Heneghan said, "I feel something that almost feels like the swelling of a new patriotism."


It is the passion behind that "new patriotism" that brought the crowd into the room that night. "Obama's election is an opening of a very close-minded, close-spirited place and poetry seemed like a very clear celebration of that opening up to me," said Steve Perkins, who heard about the event through a mailing.


The evening's readings were recorded by Chicago Public Radio and will be archived on http://www.Universeofpoetry.org. Anyone interested in experiencing the poetry can also find copies of "A Writers' Congress" at the Humanities Center.

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