It must have been tempting for poet Kevin Coval to read from his own work during “Chicago Classics,” which took place one Friday night in late March in packed-with-people Preston Bradley Hall at the Chicago Cultural Center.
That is because his newest work may be his best work. It is a poetry collection titled "Schtick," which is, according to its book jacket, "a tale of Jewish assimilation and its discontents; a sweeping exposition on Jewish-American culture in all its bawdy, contradictory, and inventive glory."
Coval was the last of the 18 people speaking at the third annual "Chicago Classics," the event that closed a week of readings, seminars and other literary activities that make up Columbia College's Story Week Festival of Writers.
"CC" is a Kogan concoction, with the able collaborative efforts of Randy Albers, chair of the college's fiction writing department, who invented Story Week nearly 20 years ago. He chose to begin the latest "CC" proceedings — and, yes, I was surprised — by reading a short section from my book "A Chicago Tavern," a history of the Billy Goat.
"Short": that's the whole idea behind this event. Get a few local writers or other folks in the literary community to each select a writer who has influenced their lives or work and have them read a short — no longer than five minutes — selection from that author's work.
Some of those reading for the first time were Joe Shanahan, the owner of Metro, reading from Joe Meno's "Hairstyles of the Damned"; writer-historian Arnie Bernstein, offering a bit of Carl Sandburg's "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years"; and Alison Cuddy of WBEZ taking on some of Theodore Dreiser's "Sister Carrie." No one yet has had the chutzpah to read his own work, and Coval ended the "CC" evening by reading "I Used to Love H.E.R" by hip-hop artist Common. A few days later he read a lot of "Schtick" at the official release party for the book, at the UP Comedy Club, party of The Second City complex in Old Town.
My connection to Coval — I consider us now friends — goes back a long way, and I have watched him found and orchestrate "Louder Than a Bomb," the annual youth poetry competition that this year drew more than 1,000 participants from 100 area schools; serve as artistic director of Young Chicago Authors, and publish four poetry collections and two chapbooks. I have written about him, and he has performed in more than one edition of "Chicago Live!" the Tribune's stage show, which I host.
Nevertheless, when I tell you that "Schtick" is a sensational collection, alternately heartfelt, humorous and provocatively political, I mean it. Don't believe me?
Here is what Bernie Sahlins, the founder of Second City, had to say: "A poet once observed that 'poetry is the music of facts.' Kevin Coval's poetry rings with that music. From the grit and turmoil of everyday life, Coval constructs a new beauty that inspires and transforms."
Here is what Marc Maron, the Los Angeles-based comic and host of the radio show-podcast "WTF," had to say: "Coval does for Jews what Whitman did for America."
Coval, who has recently started sporting a beard that, to my eye, is more rabbinical than Whitmanesque, was in fine form at the book release party, displaying his newly acquired skills as a DJ and reading poems from his book. Again, some were heartfelt ("jewtown," about the old Maxwell Street market), some humorous ("ode to the schnozz," funny but also biting) and some political, provocatively so, as in "what will I tell my jewish kids," which includes these lines:
i will certainly tell my jewish kids
of Goodman and Schwerner who died
with their brother James Earl Chaney.
that for a time, we were freedom riders
along with others, we were central
in the movement. hated jim crow
ourselves, for a time in this country
we were the Others, now we are other
than our selves.
Coval has yet to have kids, but UP was packed with family and friends, admirers and other performers, among them young poet Malcolm London, powerfully reading a poem the title of which cannot be printed in a newspaper; Oakland-based writer/performer Josh Healey, hilariously detailing the differences between being Jewish and Goyish; the female rapper known as No Name, a budding star; a delightful piece from writer and Coval's YCA colleague Adam Levin; and music.
Before the show, Coval said, "I want to do something like an homage to the days of vaudeville." Those in the audience, as would have many of those featured in his book — Al Jolson, Don Rickles, Joan Rivers, Lenny Bruce, to name but a few — appreciated the effort and results.
Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.
By Kevin Coval, Haymarket Books, 200 pages, $16 (paperback)