“American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans” – In Conversation with Chris Green

"American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans" (out now from Big Shoulders Books).
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When an e-mail regarding American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans (Big Shoulders Books, 2020) — in which the gun violence plaguing the city is addressed — landed in my inbox in early May, I was immediately intrigued and knew that this is one book that is undeniably important, one that is undeniably timely, and one that I absolutely needed to share with our readers. As anyone who has paid any attention to the news — either at the local or national level — is aware, gun violence has been (and, unfortunately, continues to be) a major problem in the United States — particularly in certain major cities, Chicago among them. Even in the midst of a pandemic that has itself claimed over 134,000 lives in the past few months alone, gun violence continues to be a major issue and, indeed, continues to increase. Last week, I finally had the chance to speak with Chris Green, editor of American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans. Read on to see what he had to say about how the book came to be, why the specific form in which it is written was chosen, some of the contributors to poem, the importance of art (particularly when politics seem to have failed us), what we (as individuals and as a community) can do, and much more.

Chris Green, editor of “American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans” and Founding Editor of Big Shoulders Books (Photo: Courtesy of Chris Green)

Andrew DeCanniere: To begin at the beginning, how did American Gun come about in the first place? What’s the story behind it. 

Chris Green: Sure. I think it’s probably threefold. One is I started this group called the Poetic Justice League, which was a poetry collective where I organize poets to write about various social issues. The first issue we tackled was the national gun violence. Before I was thinking about Chicago’s gun violence, I was mainly preoccupied with the school shootings and mass shootings across the country. So, at one point I had groups of four poets writing pantoums about the national gun violence. Then, the more I thought about Chicago’s issue, I felt like one larger communal pantoum would be in order. The other factor at play is the fact that I am the Founding Editor of the press that published this book, Big Shoulders Books. It is run out of DePaul University’s English department. The mission of the press is to basically give voice to communities and issues in the city that don’t normally have one, and then we give the books away for free. So, this idea of literary service inherent in that press sort of gives me permission to put books together that wouldn’t normally be publishable by a lot of mainstream presses. Then, the third thing is just being in the city and hearing about all of these horrific stories of almost random gun violence, or that 100 people are shot in a weekend. It is routine that 15 people are killed in a weekend — many children killed by accident. I was hoping that, at some point, I would get the opportunity to try and put something together in this regard. I’ve edited other anthologies and I figured if I had 100 separate poems about gun violence, that probably wouldn’t get the kind of attention that 100 poets all writing together would — all working on the same poem together. 

DeCanniere: And for those who may not be familiar with poetry — or who may not know the ins and outs — I was wondering if you could perhaps talk a bit about what a pantoum is and, for that matter, why you chose that particular form for this book.

Green: Not that this is directly relevant, but it’s an ancient Malaysian form that I think first appeared in the 15th century, and then somehow worked its way to America when John Ashbery published a pantoum in the fifties. Basically, a pantoum is a form where every line in the poem is repeated twice. So, the second and fourth line of a previous stanza becomes the first and third line in the next stanza. It’s not necessarily meant to be a group exercise, but it seemed like it lends itself to that. I think that the repetition, on the one hand, sort of mirrors the semi-automatic firing of a weapon. I think the repetition also evokes the seemingly endless cycle of violence in Chicago. Those two things sort of resonated with me. I also think about Alan Ginsburg’s definition of poetry — that it’s a rhythmic articulation of feeling. I think that the inherent repetition rhythm imposed on the form carries its own emotion, and I think that just listening to how different people represent that rhythm kind of drives the poem forward and keeps you interested. 

DeCanniere: I have to say that it also seems extremely timely. I was just watching Cuomo Primetime last night, and Mayor Lori Lightfoot was on the show, speaking about the violence in Chicago. It seems like things have really just escalated in parts of Chicago in the past few months alone. In any case, they certainly don’t seem to have gotten any better.

Green: Yeah. Unfortunately, the book is getting a lot of attention. Personally, I felt as though the gun violence would go down during the quarantine but, in fact, it has gone up. I’m glad the book is getting attention, but I wish the book were about something else. 

DeCanniere: As do I. As do we all, I’m sure. 

Green: Before the pandemic, it really was gun violence that I think everybody was worried about. I know that there are young people on the south and west side of our city, and that’s what they expect to die of. Gun violence is the virus that plagues that part of our city. It’s been this way for so long that we’ve just avoided really looking at it. However, it does seem that with the current protests, people are finally starting to really want to look at it in an honest way now. 

DeCanniere: Another thing that I feel is so great about the book, aside from how it addresses an important issue, is how it also seems to represent a diverse array of people who are local. 

Green: Yeah. I sort of went out of my way to try to find poets who are different ages, ethnicities, with different poetic experience. I probably know around 20 poets in the city, and those are basically the first 20 poets in the poem. Then I had to reach out beyond my people. One thing that I think makes Chicago unique is that it does have a number of different poetry communities. So, the poem is populated by a number of well-known — even nationally known — poets like Haki Madhubuti, Ed Hirsch, Ed Roberson, Kevin Coval, Ana Castillo. I also especially wanted to save the last quarter of the poem for young poets who are living on the west and south side of Chicago. I wanted to give them the last word. So, there are a number of young poets who are in this organization called Young Chicago Authors, which Kevin Coval runs, and he gave me their names. 

I also wanted to reach out specifically to some kids in the alternative high schools in Chicago, which statistically experience the most gun violence in the city. So, the last nine stanzas of the poem are written by students in a few of those alternative schools. Honestly, those are some of my favorite stanzas, because I think it’s the first time in a poem where they start using the first person. They actually put themselves in scenes of violence. So, you are right. There really is a diversity of voices and I think that’s part of the magic of the poem. It’s individual poets but also a community, all kind of relying on each individual to sing this one song together. 

DeCanniere: Right. While I, personally, would prefer that no one experiences gun violence, things being what they are, I do think it is important to include people who have been touched by it. Unfortunately, as long as this is going on, there will be people who do experience gun violence firsthand and, as you say, it is important that their voices are heard. 

Green: I hope that maybe, in the future, I could do another project where I am just focused on young people. I thought their voices, in particular, were so fresh. The other poets, too — even the poets that I know — also sounded unfamiliar to me. I think everybody, given the topic at hand, was really reaching for something more than how they normally speak in a poem. You know, there’s a certain kind of formality to a lot of the rhetoric in the poem — kind of an elegiac, ancient voice. You just don’t get grand, occasional poems anymore. So, it was really curious just to see the lines from people that I know and to be surprised by the sort of solemnness of their voice in the poem. 

DeCanniere: And, as you say, I think it does tend to disproportionately be certain areas of Chicago — and certain other parts of the country, as well — that experience the bulk of the violence. But I think it does point to a larger epidemic in this country, if I can use that term while we are in the midst of a literal pandemic — an epidemic of gun violence, here in America.

Green: Yeah. I mean gun violence truly is an epidemic in our country, and I purposely made the main title of the poem American Gun, because I think that we have this problem because of the national problem. In the introduction, I do mention that [in 2019] the police confiscated 10,000 guns during routine arrests in the city. God knows how many more there are, and those guns could flow in and out of the city from other states as well. Obviously, the gun violence on the south and west side is most apparent, but simply having this many guns around also leads to a lot of gun violence in domestic abuse situations and in suicides. It makes a whole realm of gun crime more probable through the sheer number of available guns. 

DeCanniere: Right. And I think it’s pretty obvious that this country is extremely divided in so many ways. Look at what is going on with face masks right now. Evidence suggests that the most common way in which COVID-19 spreads from person to person is via droplets that you expel — whether you are expelling them while you are breathing, coughing, talking, yelling, singing, or any other number of ways. Basically, the virus is transmitted via the air — though there also seems to be some suggestion you could infect yourself by touching a surface contaminated with the virus and subsequently touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Evidence also suggests, therefore, that the best way to protect yourself and others is by adhering to social distancing guidelines and by wearing a face mask when you are out in public. However, many people have gone on to politicize social distancing and the wearing of face masks, making adhering to the guidelines and the wearing of a mask into some sort of symbol of being on the left, while refusing to adhere to social distancing guidelines and not wearing a face mask means you are on the right. 

Similarly, people have taken the whole debate around guns and politicized it as well, despite ample evidence that having so many guns so easily available is causing many needless deaths and suffering — just as refusing to wear a face mask when out and about is causing needless death and suffering. It’s just all so bizarre and, ultimately, so harmful. It seems that so much has been exacerbated by this ever widening rift between those on the left and those on the right — including by certain politicians on the right who take note of the rift and only seek to make it bigger, to the detriment of all of us. When it comes to guns and gun violence, for instance, there are those who try to imply that an assault weapons ban is unnecessary for any number of reasons, whether it is because shootings have occurred while such a ban was in effect, or for any number of other reasons. And I’m sure it’s true. I’m sure that people have been shot while more restrictive legislation was in place. However, it is also true that the assault weapons ban helped stop many horrendous crimes from happening. To argue that an assault weapons ban is not necessary because it won’t stop all shootings is ridiculous. It’s like arguing we ought to remove all traffic lights and traffic signs from our streets, and all seat belts, airbags and other safety features from our cars because they do not prevent all accidents from occurring, and because they do not prevent all people from dying or protect them from serious injuries. No one in their right mind would do that. No one would remove traffic lights and signs, and no one would eliminate safety features from cars. Yet, that’s kind of what has been happening where guns are concerned.

Green: And I think that when politics fails us — which it so clearly has failed us and continues to do so — I think that’s when a lot of people turn to art. Especially with something like poetry — it doesn’t take sides. That’s not what its form is. It somehow speaks beyond duality. It speaks more to humanity than it does to any one particular side. There’s a famous quote by W.H. Auden where he says poetry makes nothing happen. It sort of gets to the profound openness you find in poems that go beyond politics. That’s why people have poems at funerals or weddings. They point to something beyond all of this prosaic speechifying and the taking of sides, I guess. 

DeCanniere: And while I feel like it takes more than one person to sort of solve the problem, if everybody thinks that they are just one person and so they are unable to solve the problem — or, quite honestly, any problem — nothing is going to get done. Precisely because politics has so often failed us where gun violence is concerned, and because you do have this sort of vehicle for individuals to come together and address these kinds of societal issues, I was wondering how you feel we might be able to come together and make real progress. 

Green: I’ll try to go at that in a couple of ways. On the one hand, I see the model of this poem kind of enacting the very thing you are talking about. Sometimes there are so many problems — there are so many things to worry about — that, as an individual, you almost feel paralyzed but you know the only way to build change is for an individual to act. So, in the framework of the poem, you are just one poet adding two lines to a hundred stanza poem — but we need those two lines as a community. As I moved the poem, day-to-day, it probably took over two years to finally get it done. I can’t remember if this is clear in the introduction or not, but basically the poem was done Exquisite Corpse-style. So, I would just send the previous stanza to each poet, and they would have 24 hours to reply to that stanza with their own next stanza. Every morning I would wake up hoping that the previous poet had sent their stanza to me, and then I could move it forward. This idea of a community depending upon its individuals — sort of all working together — is in the poem itself. I sort of experienced what a community is by editing the poem, basically. In terms of next steps — in terms of practical hope — I can only speak from a writerly, editorial perspective. One thing that is unique about Big Shoulders Books is that we put a resource guide in the back of each of our books. So, in this case, it’s a list of organizations in the city that are working on anti-violence efforts. We give all of our books away for free, but we do mention that we would hope that, in exchange, you might donate money or time to one of these anti-violence groups. So, that’s one very practical way in which the books try to help. 

There is also a discussion guide in the back of the book, which I hope will be helpful for high school teachers. I hope that high schools will use this book to get people talking about this issue. Another avenue for engaging with the public is that the poem is on the Big Shoulders website. It is kept alive and open there, so that you can actually add to the pantoum. If you are a reader, you can go to the website and add a stanza to the poem. I think, in part, what is important about this is that, in a time where our attention is so fragmented and fractured, this poem makes you look at something you would normally repress or not want to examine. Through all of these different ways of engaging with the readers, I hope that we keep this issue alive for people in the city — that they can keep it at the forefront of what is important to think about. 

DeCanniere: Right. I think that change only comes about through sustained efforts, focus and action. That’s the only way things like this can ever get better. 

Green: Yeah. It’s a lot of different things coming together. 

DeCanniere: Right. It’s kind of been the same thing with the recent protests as well. I think we see the power of people to come together and to make progress. I think that the Black Lives Matter movement is extremely important, because it is imperative that we are a free, fair and truly just society.

Green: I’ve lived in the Chicago area for over 20 years, but I’m originally from Utah — which is notoriously conservative. Growing up, people in my family had hunting rifles but we never thought about guns as an issue in the way they’ve become one. That state is very reactive. Any time there is a shooting, they somehow liberalize their gun laws there. It’s crazy. So, I think that, in a way, people just want some semblance of sanity. I think the majority of the NRA members even want more sensible gun laws. It’s just this handful of psychopaths that think it is good if anyone can get a gun. 

DeCanniere: Right. There are a few people digging their heels in, rather than helping the situation. 

DeCanniere: As I say, I really do think that this is such an important and timely read, because it does address such an urgent issue. Is there anything else you wanted to add?

Green: I think I got most of it out there. Again, I just wanted to give a shout-out for Big Shoulders Books in general. I would encourage readers to go to the website and see some of our other books. Our very first book was called How Long Will I Cry?: Stories of Youth Violence in Chicago, and we’ve given away close to 80,000 copies of that book. I also edited a book called I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War. It’s 50 veterans of World War II through Afghanistan sharing their memories of war. We’ve probably given away close to 50,000 copies of that book. There’s another called Write Your Heart Out, which is about teens talking about relationships and sex. So, we have some really important books and give them away for free. The reason we can do that is we are funded by this amazing couple, Bill and Irene Beck. Irene used to teach Women and Gender Studies at DePaul. They basically fund our press and make it possible for us to give these books away for free. So, the books find people who don’t normally buy books. When people go to the website to order books, we ask that they just write a short description as to why they might need the book, and we get some amazing stories from all over the world about why these books are relevant to their situation. It’s just a really unique press and I’d just encourage readers to check it out. 

DeCanniere: And I think that’s just an excellent example, especially in these times, of just how important it is for those who are able to do so to continue to support the arts. It just really underscores why donating to and supporting the arts — whether it is a press like Big Shoulders Books, or perhaps many of the fine theaters here in the Chicagoland area, or whatever else it may be — is so critically important. It is important that the work of a press like Big Shoulders Books, and of these theaters, and of all of these other organizations continues to get out there, and continues to be seen and heard.

Green: Absolutely. Most of the world is busy entertaining itself to death, and so it’s nice to know that the arts are where it’s at. That is where people are wrestling with the important issues, and it keeps it on our minds. That’s what needs to happen, because there are so many other forces pulling our attention away from what is important. 

DeCanniere: Last, but not least, I was wondering if you might happen to have some recommendations — poetry or otherwise — for people who may be looking for their next great read. I know that I’m always on the lookout for what to read next, and I’m sure many other people are as well.

Green: Just thinking about the blurbers on the back of the book, have you read anything by Alex Kotlowitz? He wrote this book — I think it was in the late eighties — called There Are No Children Here, which is a non-fiction book about two brothers who grew up on the west side of Chicago. It’s a really powerful book. It sort of puts this issue in more personal terms and practical terms. So, that would be a book I would encourage anybody to read. I know it is assigned in some high schools, but There Are No Children Here is really powerful. He just wrote a book that came out not too long ago, which is kind of a follow-up to one of the brothers in the book. It’s called An American Summer: Love & Death in Chicago. Poetry-wise, if you don’t read a lot of poetry, one of the anthologies that I use in my classes is this Penguin edition of contemporary American poetry, and it is edited by Rita Dove. That would be a good broad picture of some great poets across the country. They are relatively friendly, direct poems that you could enjoy. People can also just go to the Big Shoulders website. The student workers who mail out the books should be allowed on the campus relatively soon, so if you do order a book like How Long Will I Cry? or I Remember or Write Your Heart Out, those can be sent to you for free relatively soon. Those might also be something to take a look at. I don’t know if you’ve read this book yet, but there’s a novel called Super Sad True Love Story. You should pick that up because it has a sort of sci-fi quality that, again, has come true. It’s by Gary Shteyngart. I think this is probably his best book. In it, the main character still reads physical books, but the people sitting next to him on an airplane look at him like he smells. Anything that is corporeal, or anything that’s of the physical world — like a book — reeks of decay and time and of aging, whereas they live in a youth cult where everything is about staying young and never dying, and everything is digital. You’d get some curious connections if you would check out that novel.

Chris Green is an English professor at DePaul University and a founding editor of Big Shoulders Books. His other works include Everywhere West (Mayapple Press, 2019) and I Remember: Chicago Veterans of War (2015). Chris has lived in Chicago for over 20 years and was one of one hundred authors to contribute to his newest book American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans. For more information, please visit the Big Shoulders Books website.

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