CHICAGO — More than 1,200 people have been shot in Chicago so far this year, and there have been more than 220 homicides — a level similar to 2016 and 2017, the most violent years in the city since the 1990s, according to data kept by the Tribune. In the wake of this violence, Big Shoulders Books just released “American Gun: A Poem by 100 Chicagoans.”
The book, edited by poet and DePaul University English Department faculty member Chris Green, features the work of 100 local poets whose individual stanzas create one big poem about gun violence and its effect on our city. It’s a collective response to the individual suffering behind the statistics. The endeavor took about two years, but poets ranging in age, gender, race, ethnicity and experience contributed, including Haki R. Madhubuti, Ana Castillo, Kevin Coval and teen poets from Chicago’s alternative high schools.
Written in pantoum style, where two lines from a four-line stanza are repeated in the next stanza, Green said he chose this form because its repetitive structure mirrors the semi-automatic firing of a weapon and the seemingly endless cycle of shootings in Chicago.
“Before the pandemic, it was the epidemic of gun violence that so many people were worried about,” Green said. “I thought with Chicago and our problems here, a version with 100 poets writing together might be powerful. What is so special about the poem is that poets relied on someone else’s words to determine their words. So it’s kind of like poets are singing together in a communal voice, kind of like a chorus singing together. I think given everything that is happening now, the power of community is really evident.”
Dedicated to victims of violence and their loved ones, Green said the poets only saw the stanza before theirs, so that they were responding as directly and closely as they could to the previous poet. In the latter quarter of the book, Green allowed young poets the last word.
Epiphany Collins, 17, a new graduate of Community Christian Alternative Academy in the North Lawndale, wrote stanza #94:
Indifference. / Bullets fly that have no names — / it’s tragic being human. / Bodies drop, lie six feet below.
Collins, who has a passion for writing, rapping and poetry, said she wanted to contribute to the poem because she’s had family members who died from gun violence. She said she wants legislators and policy makers to read the book and know that some of the words are coming from children and adolescents.
“We shouldn’t know stuff like this,” Collins said. “We should be young; we should be looking at life in a totally different way. But there’s a lot going on. My cousin got killed in 2012, on Memorial Day. So, I don’t really celebrate it like that. It’s a lot.”
The Lansana family — Nile, 22, Onam, 21, and their mother Emily, — also contributed to “American Gun.” They are all coaches at the Rebirth Poetry Ensemble, a group that works with Chicago children in grades 3-12 on creative writing and performance while exploring social justice.
Nile Lansana wrote stanza #65:
Here, the earth should radish. There is a leak / polluting front porches & severing safety, / hanging on doors, splitting hearts like a red line. / We virtuosos of grief & grind, premature shrines.
And Onam Lansana wrote stanza #69:
A no-combat zone. St. Francis, believing / fewer brown angels would wait at his gates, so he / crossed Crusader & Muslim lines — and lived / to tell the story, of an urban ghost town.
Emily Hooper Lansana said being part of this pantoum was like adding a piece to a quilt.
“I think poetry, when it’s successful, is able to give voice to things that at other times you wouldn’t know how to talk about,” she said.
“I think being a young person who grew up in and experienced Chicago, offers us a unique voice and a unique perspective to talk about the problems that come with growing up on the South and West Sides of Chicago,” he said. “It’s an experience that can’t really be compared to anything else and that is both good and bad. I think that working on this project allowed us to have the space to confront the bad while hearing from a multiplicity of voices.”
“Having Chicago be my home, I love Chicago with my whole heart and yet I can’t ignore the issues and inequity that is rampant and that is enforced by a bunch of different systems,” Nile Lansana said. “I think as writers we have a responsibility to address those systems and address that darkness, but also find a light through all of it.”
Crystal Rudds, an emerging poet and former Rogers Park resident, contributed stanza #25 to the pantoum. She taught at Malcolm X College for eight years before moving to Salt Lake City in 2019. She was asked to add her voice to the project because she lost two students to gun violence.
“I can’t count how many students I had that would come to class upset about having lost someone over the weekend,” she said. “Or students that would not come to class, because they felt like their block was too hot to leave and get on the train … . That’s working through an atmosphere of both trauma and desensitization.”
Green hopes the poem personalizes the numbers behind the victims, numbers that might otherwise feel distant to those not impacted with violence directly. He said a link will be added to the publisher’s website, so more Chicagoans can add their voice to the poem on an ongoing basis.
“In my mind, high school teachers would use this book and teach the book and have their students add to the poem on the Big Shoulders website,” he said. “I know poetry can be intimidating to a lot of people. But I think in this case, it’s relatively direct and clear.”
The free e-book of “American Gun” is available for download at https://bigshouldersbooks.com/americangun. Hard copies can be ordered on the publisher’s site. The publisher’s goal is for individuals to take a copy and pass it on and for readers to support the resource groups listed in the back of the book with time or money.
©2020 Chicago Tribune