The Chicago poetry world was in shock this week after learning David Hernandez - who was called the "unofficial poet laureate of Chicago" and wrote the inauguration poem for Mayor Harold Washington - had died Monday of a heart attack.
Mr. Hernandez was also commissioned by the city to write and perform an original poem commemorating the city' s sesquicentennial birthday. He was the first recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Outstanding Poet of Illinois award and also won the Illinois State Library Patron' s Choice award. In 1971, he founded Street Sounds, a poetry music group that former Illinois Poet Laureate Kevin Stein said "blends ... lyricism with expert musicianship, bridging the chasm between so-called page and performance poetries." He also was a former board member of the Society of Midland Authors.
Here's a Q&A with Mr. Hernandez that ran in 2009 in Literary License, the newsletter of the Society of Midland Authors.
Literary License: Chicago is the home of the poetry slam, and recently Chicago poets helped set up a reading at the White House. What does this say about the vitality of poetry in Chicago?
David Hernandez: There' s always been an extremely vital poetry scene in Chicago. This city is a neon lady that nurtures quiet or introspective, loud and brassy poets. There isn't one given day in this city that a poetry event isn't happening. In both Ivy and Beer Halls, the park, the schools, cafes, you name it and the word-dealers are there. Poetry slams, performance poetry and recitals make poetry accessible to the public. It encourages people from all walks of life to listen and most importantly to participate. It validates that creativity in all of us and we have fun with it.
The slam is an international event now and Chicago is the Mecca of it all. Chicago poetry is the product of her vitality, and her poems have reached the four corners of the world. The city sponsors after-school programs and summer jobs for our youth where they get paid to do art, music and write poetry. How great is that? Also, it' s not only Chicago that' s hopping with poetry, it' s also the whole state. Our poet laureate of Illinois, Kevin Stein, is putting us on the map and bringing us all together. That's powerful stuff. He's a great poet.
Literary License: Do you prefer performing your own poetry or publishing it for others to read?
David Hernandez: Both. I love performing and publishing poetry for others to read. I write poetry for the page and for the stage because I love the intimate challenge of the craft.
Literary License: How did you get started as a poet?
David Hernandez: I began writing poetry 53 years ago at the age of 11, and I never stopped. I knew then that I was going to be a poet for the rest of my life. Ms. Greenspan, my sixth-grade teacher, during a poetry session stated that "poets have a creative license, they can create their own language." I asked, "Does this mean poets don't have to worry about spelling or being grammatically correct?" She answered, "theoretically yes." I said, "Bingo! I'm a poet!" Of course, once I discovered the language of poetry and the craft of writing a poem, I fell in love with it. One of my masters was a sculptor who told me "you give form to formlessness," and that stuck with me.
Literary License: Do you have a favorite among the poems you have written?
David Hernandez: Two things
happened to me in 1971. My first book of poems titled Despertando/Waking Up was published, and I founded my poetry/music ensemble "Street Sounds."
Since then I have written, published, performed and recorded many poems. Some of my favorite poems are about this neon lady I grew up with called Chicago and the people who live here. Sometimes I would lock myself up so I could write more introspective poems, but I got bored with myself. I found out that deep down inside, I'm really superficial and I need the people sights and sounds in order to create.
Literary License: What are you working on now?
David Hernandez: Right now I am working on programming some shows in my Blue Line Studio, preparing some prose and poetry manuscripts including writing plays. I am also writing poems and songs for my group "Street Sounds" and teaching my 11-year-old daughter the family business.
She plays violin with the Chicago Youth Symphony, and once in a while she plays with my group. Recently, she noticed that I pay my musicians, and now she wants money plus her name on the flyers. Imagine that! That' s learning the family business.
Read Achy Obejas' remembrance here.
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