Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Remembering Chicago poet David Hernandez

When I first saw David Hernandez and Street Sounds perform in the 1970s, I hadn’t yet graduated from college as an undergrad. I had only written a handful of “contemporary” poems in school in addition to some sappy love poems I kept trying to get published in Glamour magazine (at one time, this fashion mag actually published poetry – and fiction!). Up until then, poets such as Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were pretty much my reading mainstay, though one of my mentor-like girlfriends had previously introduced me to Ginsberg’s “Howl” and Codrescu’s “License to Carry a Gun.”

Nothing had yet really hit me, or hipped me, to the notion that poetry was and could be more out-of-the-box than I’d imagined right here in Chicago until I went to a cultural extravaganza in what was then called the Midland Hotel on West Adams (now “W Chicago City Center”).

Someone or some group had transformed the hotel’s grand ballroom into an almost pitch black atmosphere. Here, they strung together nonexistent rooms or sections that each loosely housed a different genre – a two-sided film-screening room showed the latest in locally crafted short subject movies, a gallery of abstract and naïve and tribal-inspired paintings hung from temporary canvas banners, a bevy of women in multi-colored diaphanous outfits wound through the crowds performing modern dance movements to pan-pipe music, a collection of handcrafted books climbed the staircases, a magnificent array of mobiles suspended from the ceiling, a bar of headphones beckoned you listen to groundbreaking compositions by Chicago musicians. It was like a haunted house, but an enlightening instead of scary one. It was like a carnival, but full of earnest and eccentric art over cheap thrills.

Then, along the center wall, they fired up. The live band with horns and congas slowly drew every eye toward them as their Latino sound pierced the air like a pop-top then wrapped snake-like around the crowd’s previously distracted attention span. Then the guy in the straw fedora and sunglasses stood up. He was short and stocky like the Mayor Daley Sr. then in office. But this particular mayor was on a tropical vacation, complete with Hawaiian shirt and sandals. He had a few things of his own on his mind that he just had to get off his chest. And without reservation, he did, sparring with the air in front of him, shifting the paradigm of the room by the vibrato of his delivery. Each word was like a song, a truth, an invitation to agree with the urging of the easy-handed, smile-striking opinions of this powerful pontificator.

“Just who is that?” I asked my date. And surprisingly, my non-poet, photographer date knew. “That’s David Hernandez and his group Street Sounds,” he whispered to me as David piped on about pigeons and the Sun-Times and waking up. “They’re a poetry band and he’s the most popular poet in Chicago.”

A poetry band? There is such a thing as a poetry band? And before I could even question myself further, I was surrounded by the sights and sounds of these Street Sounds guys and another poem from this Chi-town Brown, this famous poet, this “unofficial poet laureate.” We stood spellbound until their set was through. I have no recollection what happened afterward that night. That night’s memory is frozen in that time and place and performance. My mind’s eye opened several f-stops during the experience. After seeing David Hernandez and Street Sounds that evening, I realized that you could do anything you wanted as a poet in Chicago...just as long as you were good. ##

David Hernandez passed away on February 25, 2013. My sincere condolences go out to his wife Batya, his daughter Matea, and his brother Eliud.

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