The poet is on vacation until April, that “cruelest month” of T.S. Eliot’s, and so was to be found one afternoon in early December sitting at the bar at the Billy Goat Tavern and drinking a beer.
His name is J.J. Tindall (James Joseph) and he works from April to November as a tour guide for Shoreline Sightseeing, one of the companies that ferries people by boat up and down the river and out into the lake. Poets having “real” jobs is not unusual — Eliot (Thomas Stearns) worked as a schoolteacher and banker, Carl Sandburg as a movie critic for the Chicago Daily News — because, as goes the common refrain, there’s no money in poetry.
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But Tindall is not one to complain. He knows the score and loves his "real job." "It is as poetic a job as you can have," he says. "There is a lot of freedom within certain limits. I write what I say, and the four- to six-hour-long tours I do every day also satisfy certain performance desires."
Born in Minneapolis, Tindall was raised in Naperville, the son of an insurance man and a mother who was the longtime humor columnist for the Naperville Sun. He attended Illinois State University and Northeastern Illinois University (he has a master's degree in English literature), aspiring to be a songwriter, and he has played drums and guitar in various bands.
Moving to Chicago in 1986, he worked for a financial trade publication and also began working as a guide for a couple of bus-tour operations before landing at Shoreline two years ago. And he wrote and wrote, with the realization that poetry "is difficult to do well. But I have to do it, or, put another way, I cannot not do it."
His work was first published in book form in 1990 with "Joe the Dream" from Bagman Press, and over the years his poems eventually found an audience in Europe. Tindall has made many international appearances and performed with local bands. (He has also taught in some colleges, including teaching English at Wright College).
He is 52 and has lived alone in Oak Park for the last couple of years after decades in the city. Since 2007 he has been the poet in residence for the provocative, smart and entertaining political/cultural website beachwood
reporter.com, run by journalist Steve Rhodes.
In the foreword to Tindall's 2010 collection "Ballots from the Dead: Poems by J.J. Tindall selected from the Beachwood Reporter," Rhodes writes, "J.J.'s dreams are heavy, but must they be so? No reader with any depth of soul could think so. His poetry is about the constant interference by outside forces of those things which we — he — really cherish. Or ought to. A life of dreams shouldn't be so hard when the dreams are so real."
Tindall's work is conversational and direct, clear-eyed and less wistful than palpably in love with Chicago's past and, more guardedly, its present. Here is a short sample, "Get the Lions," which is the very poem that intrigued Rhodes enough to make Tindall part of his Beachwood team.
Get the lions
In New Soldier Field
(like putting aluminum siding
On the Roman Coliseum)
And feed them
He plans to spend the holidays with family and friends, plans to spend his lengthy vacation writing. I am sure Tindall has some dark sides and black moods — don't all poets? — but in conversation, his enthusiasm for life seems genuine, his outlook sunny.
He inhabits a world where rewards don't come easy: "The best thing is when people write or tell me, 'I don't like poetry, but I like your poetry.'"
That may not be much, and it doesn't pay the bills, but "it's enough for me," Tindall says.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
"Ballots From the Dead"
By J.J. Tindall, Beachwood Media Co., 92 pages, $14.99