Red lights illuminated the back of the stage of the Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, where an audience of high school students from all over the city sat on April 27. Many of the young students had taken the stage minutes before to recite their own poems or read some of their favorite poems as part of the Word is Rhythm Poetry Festival.
The first-ever Chicago poet laureate, avery r. young, a native of Austin cheered in the audience.
Young’s voice soon resonated in the performance hall, accompanied by jazz notes that transformed each of his poems into a vibrant and soulful musical and lyrical performance. Young’s work in performance, visual text, and sound design has been featured in exhibitions and theatre festivals like The Hip Hop Theatre Festival, The Museum of Contemporary Art and the American Jazz Museum.
After reading a poem about a father swinging his child, an experience he observed the day before, young told the young crowd, “I’m in the history books, can you believe that? And the fact that you read those poems and shared the stage with me today, the history of that moment is the first official reading of the Chicago Poet Laureate, so you’re all in the history books too.”
A multidisciplinary artist, performer and poet, young proudly embraces the potential of arts, something he discovered when he was in the third grade. For nearly 20 years, young has mentored youth in the Rebirth Youth Poetry Ensemble and worked as a teaching artist in school programs, community-based organizations programs and the University of Chicago’s Arts and Public Life Artist-In-Residence.
Young grew up in North Austin. For some years he lived in the 1400 block of N. Linder Avenue and went to Hanson Park Elementary School. In an interview with Austin Weekly News, avery said he recalls playing near the Austin Town Hall and spending countless hours at the Austin Public Library. Living and growing up in Austin have immensely influenced his art, he said.
“This journey’s really been a collection of stories that I get to share via poems or visual art or whatever,” he said, adding this work has prompted him to reflect on his role as a Black creative living in a world that “put a lot of injustice on people who look like me.”
A few minutes before, young had performed a song with musician Justin Dillard in honor of Emmett Till, a lively song that combined sound, poetry and dance.
“Resurrect free,” he said, urging the teenage crowd to get up and dance “Everybody on your feet.”
“There’s a value in growing up on the West Side of Chicago where you get a liquor store next to a church and the currency exchange right next to each other because it’s just an experience you don’t get anywhere else,” young said.
Young sees his art as a tool of transformation, something he will apply in the next two years as the city’s poet laureate to create and push for more resources to implement extensive arts programming, especially for youth. His appointment as Chicago Poet Laureate includes $50,000 from the city, yet young knows more resources are needed to create arts programming that is transformative and brings people together.
He wants to “use poetry beyond the page,” with plans to create a poetry festival, that is not just about poetry but includes music genres like hip hop, dance, R&B and House. In his experience, poetry and art are a door to other cultures and other people, a powerful tool against “the beautiful complication” of Chicago’s segregation.
“It doesn’t separate the city by genre, it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t,” he said. “The point of the festival would be that everybody is under this roof, well within these walls or this park, it’s diverse.”
“It’s been in the cultural spaces of Chicago where I really understand how people in the city really got down together, not apart,” young said.
For young, using poetry beyond the page is also teaching youth to embrace their humanity and love themselves.
“Enter every space your whole self,” he said. “You shouldn’t feel like you have to leave any adjective of yours at the door. Enter a space your whole self and spend time in that space demonstrating your humanity. And your humanity is not necessarily you just being you, but you being of service to someone else.”
As young — once a kid reading at the Austin Public Library — begins a two-year-journey as Chicago Poet Laureate, he will continue to take poetry beyond the page with plans of performing in theaters, in art gallery installations and projects that visually showcase poetry while telling Chicago stories.
“I’m interested in telling the stories of the city. I think Chicago is a city full of fascinating stories, some of them tragic, but a lot of them about triumph too,” young said, laughing.
“We just don’t get one thing,” he said, adding one needs to experience joy and sorrow to even begin to understand both. “Joy is never not the right move.”