Tuesday, May 10, 2016

The Rock River Literary Series

There's a lot of talk by Chamber of Commerce types and community cheerleaders about accentuating the positive things that happen in Rockford, instead of emphasizing the steady stream of awful national news stories and polls showing how violent, fat, dumb, and miserable the city is, and that's why I'm constantly mystified that while so many good things are going on in the arts, music, small business, and food industry. that those civic cheerleaders seem to have no desire to talk about those people actually doing what they say we need more of. If you're not in their small circle of people, places, and things THEY find significant, you might as well be one of the homeless people they so assiduously avoid while Downtown partying it up. 

BUT those good things do exist right here in Rockford, even if the media, the Chamber of Commerce, and the myriad small business groups and associations don't have any desire to talk about it. One of those things is the Rock River Literary Series. The creation of publisher Thomas L. Vaultonburg of Zombie Logic Press, located in the virtual geographic center of the city, the series is an effort to find, publish, and promote the most accomplished writers in the Rockford area, and expose them to a local and national audience. The third book in the series, The Blood Dark Sea, was published in May. It is available at Phoenix Traders and at the Zombie Logic Press  website.

Dennis Gulling is a nationally published poet with a thirty year career of being recognized as one of the nation's top Outlaw Poets. He edited the literary review crawlspace from 1990-1999, and has appeared in dozens of magazines and periodicals, but in Rockford he is virtually anonymous, and likes it that way. Although he prefers to take a low key approach to his work, I feel he deserves a great deal of accolades for writing what I consider one of the best poetry books that will be released this year in America, bar none. As the publisher of this book I bear the brunt of the responsibility for promoting it, but this is the third time I have encountered substantial media apathy when trying to promote a book locally that is every bit on par with the books being released at a national level. Shaming the devil is one approach that has born some success, but I really don't want to have to do that eternally. It's a huge effort for me. 

The civic minded leaders of Rockford are free not to promote whatever they want, but when they do I wish they'd also quit bitching about nothing good happening in Rockford, or people consistently pointing out the problems that are happening. Do they expect us all to just be quiet while the ship is going down unless we just so happen to be supporting the handful of venues, businesses, and events they consider worthwhile? I actually think that's exactly what they expect, but it ain't happenin'.

Iced Cream by Jesus Abraham Correa VII was the first book in the Rock River Literary Series. Jesus is a magnificent, innovative, and multi-talented artist who many remember as running for mayor as a Green Party candidate in 2009. He is also a stand-up comic, visual artist, parade leader, spoken word artist, and the front man of various bands, including King of the Demons. I am extremely proud of this book, which contains poems, short stories, and eight works of art by a local artist who has shown nationally. I am also proud to say the Rockford arts community gave this book a great reception, and I consider it a huge success. It went out to five continents, but here in Rockford there wasn't much talk about it outside of the arts community that knew what was what. 

The Zen of Beard Trimming by C.J. Campbell is the 2nd book in the Rock River Literary Series. It is the memoir of a young activist with cerebral palsy trying to find his place in the evangelical Christian community, and the misadventures he gets involved in along the way. It is at times a funny and depressing book written from the point of view of a writer who witnesses the best and worst of humanity in his travels. The cover artwork was done by my creative partner Jenny Mathews of Rockford Illustrating. I am proud of this book because this is one of the people in Rockford working hard to do good things, and although he encounters resistance and apathy, soldiers on. 

All three of these books are available at our local retail partner, Phoenix Traders. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Underrated Things From Rockford

Dennis Gulling has been a very respected poet nationally for a very long time. Even just doing a cursory search about him on Google I found entries in places as important as the Los Angeles Times. If you were to talk to someone in the know about poetry in any city in America they would probably know the name Dennis Gulling as one of the first generation Outlaw Poets. But here in Rockford he is relatively unknown. Why?

More on that later.

Xen Kingsley just won his first RAMI Award. He's a talented spoken word artist, writer, and musician. But that's only part of what he does. Right here in Rockford he lays down some mighty truths about life, wisdom, and race. Check out the line of Tshirts he helps create.

Travis Legge is a filmmaker, role playing game developer, and he does about fifty other things I can't even keep track of he is so prolific. He shot his first feature film, Raymond Did It, in the Rockford area. The sad thing is that he left the state to make his next film. The city, and it's decision makers and movers and shakers really need to do a better job keeping people like Travis Legge doing what they do right here in the Screw City, because we're all better for it.

Wayland Anderson. I was very impressed by a spoken word piece Wayland Anderson did at the Earth Day Poetry reading Richard Vargas organized at J.R. Kortman Gallery. He has a real passion and dedication to teaching ballet, and his studio is exactly what is needed in a neighborhood like Midtown trying to emerge from decades of neglect. The repeated refrain from his poem "ballet is in town" resonates at The Wayland Anderson Project  on 4th Avenue. My five year old loves to take dance class from this motivated and skilled teacher who displays an enthusiasm that his students can't help but learn from. 

Micky Rosenquist is another example of a dedicated and passionate teacher whose love of his art, music, rubs off on his students. His Rock and Roll Institute allows aspiring rockers to "Start a band on Monday…Play a show on Friday." An aspect of the Rock and Roll Institute I really admire is all the musicians from local bands that dedicate their time to teaching these kids how to play a rock and roll concert, which they do the same week, and as someone who has been in attendance, they do rock. 

Michael Whyte is a singer/songwriter/guitar player who is probably most notably known for his band The Blind Robins. He has co-written songs with bands like E-I-E-I-O and one of his songs is on the soundtrack of the movie Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Before there was this new resurgence in Americana/roots/alternative country there was Michael Whyte, right here in Rockford.

Dennis Gulling has been here in Rockford all along, for over thirty years publishing his poetry on a national level, but remaining almost completely unknown locally. This week his first full-length book of poetry, The Blood Dark Sea, is available from local publisher Zombie Logic Press. You can order a copy here

I would like to expand this blog to include many more artists, musicians, teachers, restaurant owners etc that just aren't getting the kind of credit they deserve here in Rockford. Please do not consider this list anything but a first pass, to be added to, and updated. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

Hot N Heavy Hot Sauces Burning Up the Shelves In Rockford

If you're out and about for Spring Art Scene tomorrow you can unlock the elusive triple buy local achievement by buying some Hot N Heavy Hot Sauces at Olive Oil Experience or Culture Shock when you're also browsing the racks at Record Store Day. Wow, if you bought a Cheap Trick record it might actually count as a quadruple buy it now experience. 

Hot N Heavy comes in three varieties.

Our premium Cajun Cayenne sauce comes straight from the swamp to bring fresh flavor and hollerin’ heat to whatever you’ve got a mind to eat! We mix together garlic, onion and vinegar and then spike it with Cayenne and Habanero Chile to bite your tail! Nice complex flavor goes good with just about anything, but it’s great on eggs and fried food…especially gator! Headbangers, hillbillies and everyone in between needs some Bayou in a Bottle!

This angel will kick you right in the pants and SLAY you with a fiery blast that’s heavy on the garlic. A green elixir made with the purest ingredients…garlic, vinegar, salt, lime and a combo of Serrano and Habanero Chile. That’s it! A little dash of this and it will be RAINING GARLIC…from a lacerated sky! BANG ON!

Only the bravest souls will dare to sample this infernal brew that comes straight from the depths of a black metal hell! There’s also a nice smoky long lasting finish to this brimstone brew so you get maximum flavor as well as maximum heat. A pure mixture of Naga Jolokia Chile with salt and vinegar is all it takes to burn this sucker to the ground. HAIL BEEZLEBUB and pass the hot sauce!

I say triple buy local bonus because these awesome labels were designed by Jenny Mathews of Rockford Illustrating. Making this a rare opportunity to support three different local entrepeneurs at the same time, and get some atomic hot sauce in the bargain. Get them now at both Olive Oil Experience locations and Culture Shock.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Rockford Poetry Is Alive Again

Suddenly the poetry scene in Rockford is alive again. With the hosting of the prestigious Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam, and the Wednesday night event planned at CNVR to discuss poetry and hold an open mic reading, the long dormant poetry scene seems to be awaking from hibernation.

Will it last? There have been short-lived attempts to create a poetry revival before, including the Bookworm Cafe, The Poetic Justice League, and a successful, well-attended series of reading at Cafe Esperanto in the early 1990's, but for some reason no one was able to maintain the energy level of the first couple of events.

Rockford poetry was front and center on NPR this winter when Jesus Correa's first book of poetry, Iced Cream, was featured on NPR's Winter Book Series. 

Iced Cream, by Jesus Abraham Correa VII, Zombie Logic Press 2014
One of the stalwarts of the Rockford poetry scene is Zombie Logic Press, in business since 1997. Recently they have begun publishing books exclusively by Rockford writers, and plan to publish books by Dennis Gulling and David Pedersen in the coming year. 

Other reasons for optimism in the Rockford poetry scene are young poets like Emily Sipiora, and the ferocious voice of Xen Kingsley, but ultimately it is always the audience that is the essential ingredient in creating a maintaining a vital literary scene. So, how can the literary community best foster interest in those who are not so inclined to attend literary events or buy the books local authors write? These are the eternal questions that plague anyone trying to sell people what they don't seem to want. I wish I could trust in the cliche answer that education is the key to creating new readers, but how can that be done when the teachers themselves are reading at a remedial level?

Is all lost for the poetry scene? Maybe not. In a forsaken literary outpost like Rockford there will always be those who make a valiant attempt to raise up the standard of literacy for others to see, but that struggle will almost always seem like a losing battle, and we'll lose most of our promising writers, like David Ensminger, to other places, but those who stay behind have always been a brave and noble bunch, even if their efforts have largely been in vain. I recommend Wednesday night at CNVR for those who'd like to get the ball rolling again, and Zombie Logic Press for those who want to see how it is already done.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Outsider Poetry Depot To Open In Rockford

The Outsider Poetry Depot opened today in Rockford, Illinois to an assembled crowd on hand that had camped out overnight waiting for doorbuster deals on haikus, narrative, and confessional poems by Outsider Poet Thomas L. Vaultonburg.

"The response from the community has been very heartening," stated Vaultonburg, who has been writing poetry since he was sixteen, and had the idea to open a storefront to sell individual poems in a dream. "At first I thought maybe another Portillo's location had opened up, or maybe I had forgotten it was Black Friday, so I was shocked when I learned they were here for poetry." 

Chad Onderdonk was first in line. He had camped out overnight specifically for one poem he had read in Zombie Logic Review. "I knew there was a going to be a lot of competition for this poem, so I got here early," Onderdonk said. 

Vaultonburg, a notoriously late riser, did not realize the crowd had gathered, and did not open the doors of The Outsider Poetry Depot until three in the afternoon, but it didn't matter, as the crown had begun to entertain themselves, playing hacky sack and selling homemade tuna fish sandwiches. True to his word, Chad Onderdonk was right there when the door opened and bought this poem for $1.99:


You were our first lesson
In rage and greed,
Possibly love.
Our smiling guardian
Put the stick
In our small hands,
Blindfolded us,
And whispered
Unspeakable treasures
Awaited us when we
Destroyed you.
Spun around and
Drunken with images
Of unimaginable trinkets
We became whirling dervishes
Of lust and anger,
Whacking and thumping away
At your broken smile
Way past nap time,
Until frustrated with
Our lack of killer instinct,
Our teacher sawed you
In half, spilling
Far less enticing bounty
Than we had dreamed of.
Some rushed forward and
Grabbed and devoured,
Others stood back and 
Cried over the carnage.
Either way we all learned
Who we would become that day.
-Thomas L. Vaultonburg

After Onderdonk made his purchase, the line moved in an orderly and steady fashion as Vaultonburg served poems of all lengths and subject matter to a grateful and informed audience willing to show their gratitude by giving him United States currency, or in one case a corned beef sandwich. Asked if The Outsider Poetry Depot would become an ongoing part of the burgeoning Downtown community Vaultonburg just sort of yawned and said he thought he might be out of poetry and have to think of 
something else to do.  

Rockford CSI

An ant crawled 
Into the bottle of Grolsch 
I left on the counter last night 
And drowned like an American 
Tourist in a Dutch brothel. 
I notified the Coroner’s Office 
And they have deemed it 
Death by misadventure 
Though no one is sure 
Who to notify. 

The Outsider Poetry Depot

Buy this Rockford poem for only .99. Act now, supplies dwindling. Or come on down to the Outsider Poetry Depot for all your poetry needs today.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Is Volunteerism In Rockford Hurting Jobs?

In October 2010 Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan fell to his death when a strong wind caused the scaffolding he was filming a Notre Dame football practice from to fall to the ground. As with the rape cover-up and eventual suicide of student Lizzy Seeberg, Notre Dame immediately tried to go into cover-up mode, but the outrage at such a stupid and thoughtless act as allowing a student to fall to his death in a storm that was predicted by the National Weather Service ensured that Notre Dame wouldn't just be able to sweep it under the rug this time. 

After an investigation IOSHA fined Notre Dame $77,500 in March, 2011 for five violations, including not maintaining safe working conditions, and failing to properly train Sullivan in operating the lift. A multi-million dollar civil suit would certainly have been easily winnable by Sullivan's family, who fortunately for the university declined to seek legal action. I was reminded of this senseless tragedy this afternoon when I returned to my Downtown apartment and saw this...

Those are what appear to be teenagers approximately twenty feet in the air doing maintenance work on a lampost in a municipal parking lot in Rockford. Initially I thought that's sorta nice. I've seen these same people Downtown doing landscaping work, picking up litter, and setting up holiday decorations. But immediately after that I was reminded of the death of Declan Sullivan and the aftermath. If these weren't trained city employees who were being paid to do a job they had some expertise in, what exactly was going on here? If indeed these were volunteers, as I suspect, I have two distinctly reasonable questions to ask: 1) In light of the aforementioned tragedy at Notre Dame, who in their right mind would allow volunteers, let alone minors, to mount a scaffolding on municipal property and engage in an activity that seems both dangerous and meant for paid workers, not volunteers. 

2) Given the astronomical unemployment rate in Rockford, why aren't people being paid a living wage to do this work?

In principle an effort like Sharefest  is a great thing, and of course community and business leaders, and the media love it, but the two previously mentioned objections seem valid to me. These are jobs these volunteers are doing, and in a city with an unemployment rate much higher than the national average, shouldn't we be paying someone to do them? The beautifying and maintenance are nice, and from my window I can see they are working, but couldn't this have been done by people getting a paycheck? The second, and much more concerning issue is the safety issue. The pictures document what I saw, and there's no justification for allowing volunteers of any age to mount a scaffolding and do this kind of work. 

Volunteers of Sharefest sign a legal waiver releasing both the city and Heartland CC from any legal responsibility should they be hurt while participating in Sharefest activities, but OSHA regulations on working on scaffoldings are spelled out pretty clearly, and I'm sure there are half a million lawyers out there who would shred those waivers in court should anyone be hurt in these volunteer actions.

These are just pictures. I'm not familiar enough with OSHA regulations to even know if they apply to volunteers, or if any of those regulations were broken in this case. I just think to the naked eye it looked like an asinine risk to put what looks like untrained teenagers into a position like this. I will repeat I generally support volunteer efforts to beautify the city, but at the same time I wonder why volunteers appear to be doing more than just planting flowers or picking up litter here. This looks like work better suited to professionals, dare I say even union laborers. 

Maybe we could get volunteers to run the city, the Chamber of Commerce, and half the businesses around here. 

I'm actually thankful to see everyone packed up and no one was hurt and they did leave the parking lot looking nicer than they found it. My one and only question here is was it worth the perceived risk? 

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Quality of Mercy

A tornado recently tore through Northern Illinois, devastating the tiny town of Fairdale, Illinois, and killing two of the 150 citizens. Here in Rockford, where most of us feel being in a valley gives us total immunity from tornados, the emergency siren sounded three times, sending most of us to the basement. It wasn't until later in the evening that it was confirmed a tornado had touched down in several locations. By night's end we knew the damage was severe. At one point a dozen people were trapped in the basement of a tavern that had been wiped out.

In typical fashion the recovery effort began right away. Everyone seemed to want to help rebuild the tiny town of Fairdale. Donations flooded in. To the point where recovery organizers told people donations of almost everything but money was no longer necessary. And the people came to rebuild Fairdale. 

It is a heartwarming confirmation of the goodness of people and their willingness to help each other out in times of crisis.

So why am I playing the abrupt record needle scratching sound effect that would indicate that I'm not completely on board with the goodness and decency bandwagon?

I'll tell you why.

A WIFR story recently reported that there are 43 homeless veterans in the city of Rockford. There are approximately 20,000 children in the area going hungry. A lot of the time Rockford seems like it was hit by a tornado. Homeless people freezing to death in parking garages, legions of the disabled and mentally ill wandering streets after being turned out of shelters and treatment facilities, a heroin epidemic claiming lives at an alarming rate, and the third highest rate of violence in America. 

Makes one wonder why local residents were so willing to help victims in a small town most of them will never even drive through, but most have never volunteered or donated to a cause here in Rockford. 

Truckloads of supplies were filled to help the people of Fairdale. But when similar appeals are made by food pantries and social service agencies here in Rockford donations are hard to come by. 


Instead of feeling the heartwarming confirmation of human goodness and decency the outpouring of generosity for the people of Fairdale has elicited in others, I'm left with a dose of the opposite reaction: if this type of effort can be mustered to help certain people in their time of need, why can't the helping hand be extended to so many others that need it desperately?

"The quality of mercy is not strained." I think I read that somewhere. One can't cajole others into caring about that which they are not inclined to care about, so one can only assume the refusal to show mercy for the less fortunate in  Rockford  speaks volumes about what certain people do and do not care about. After Fairdale has been restored to order, and all the volunteers go home feeling good about their good deeds, 43 veterans will still be homeless in Rockford every night, 20,000 children will go hungry, and no volunteers or truckloads of donations will arrive to change that.