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Brooks Open Mic Award Rolls On After 21 Years

By Staff in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 28, 2014 7:00PM

Toni Asante Lightfoot emcees the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, photo by Tamara Matthews

If you only attend one poetry reading a year, it might as well be the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award. In addition to honoring Chicago’s very own sadly missed poet, Gwendolyn Brooks, with readings of her poetry, the event presents living, breathing poets of diverse backgrounds who are at the top of their game. But this isn’t any old quiet poetry reading. The audience gets to vote for which poem and performance they like best, with the ultimate winner being the happy recipient of a $500 check.

The 21st annual edition of this event on July 23 played to a packed crowd where voting ballots were in short supply. Toni Asante Lightfoot, a past Open Mic Award winner, kept the crowd on task as MC, asking “Can we dig it?” as she laid out the rules.

The Guild Literary Complex, who curates the event, culls submissions down to a selection of 20 poems, with consideration to poets who represent an array of backgrounds and poetry styles. Voting was conducted in heats of five poets each with the winning poet from each heat going to the final round.

Those with performance poetry chops, not surprisingly, fared better with the crowd although the event at times represented a high school sports meet with friends/poetry colleagues cheering their support to the stage. After the four heats, poets Mojdeh Stoakley, Deepak Unnikrishnan, Kelly Reuter Raymundo, and a tied Erin Watson and Rachel Lena Slotnick went to the final round and read their poems one more time.

While the final votes were counted, Nora Brooks Blakely introduced the Aurora Performance Group, a newly formed troupe that seeks to explore ways to present and honor Gwendolyn Brooks’ legacy.

In the end, the audience voted for Deepak Unnikrishnan for his poem “Eduardo,” a unique distillation of name and identity that, under the conceit of having met over 100 Eduardos, explored how such a fixed point (like a name) cannot define a human being or their culture.

It was a fitting winner to honor a night that presented 20 different representations of poetry, in all the wonderful contexts and forms that it can exist.

By: Tamara Matthews