When I first read Kevin Coval’s poetry, I was worried that he might be a schmuck. The way he interrogated and explored his Jewish identity in all lowercase on the pages of his new book, “Schtick,” came off as somehow meek. However, when I met Coval at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore thirty minutes before he was to give a reading from “Schtick,” the first words to come out of his mouth were not schmuck, but Chuck—specifically, Chuck D, the rapper Coval cites as the inspiration for the name of Louder Than A Bomb, the teen hip-hop poetry festival he co-founded in 2001.
I was shocked by the force and vivacity of Coval’s poetry when read aloud, as well as the intensity of his person: he maintains eye contact for several minutes at a time and swears liberally. When I re-read “Schtick” after speaking to him, the poems seemed to shout where they had once whispered. These poems are not just about being “playful with language” (per Coval’s characterization). They’re also, fundamentally, about the identity of the poet.
The poetics of identity—particularly, the unusual identity of someone influenced by both Jewish heritage and hip-hop culture—is a defining idea for Coval. He has been influenced by both cultures, especially the latter. Chicago is (in his opinion) the greatest city in the world because its people are “hustlers.” His snapback hat reads “DOPE.” He can (and does) talk extensively about Chance the Rapper. When he reads his poetry to his rapt audience, his voice rises and falls in a way that recalls Aesop Rock; his are poems that feel like they would not suffer from the addition of a beat.
“I’m a poet who tries to understand and wrestle with on paper the aesthetic foundations of a culture that I was reared in,” explains Coval. “Inevitably, it’s going to read as hip-hop.”
This relationship between black identity and Jewish identity is explored a great deal in “Schtick.” The book both adores and maligns its author’s heritage; when I told him I was Jewish too, Coval said, “Sorry about that.”
Coval, however, has been exploring his Jewish identity in poetry since the early 2000s. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d had a yarmulke under his snapback. Many of his poems recall Passover Seders and dive unabashedly into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On this and many other issues Coval is unapologetically polemical. He describes himself as an “anti-colonialist anti-imperialist anti-Zionist;” after the reading, he tells the audience the story of how he was fired from a brief artist’s residency at the UofC Newberger Hillel Center down the street. Literature is another subject on which he and the University of Chicago might not see eye to eye. “The Western Canon is dull and wack as fuck,” he tells me. ”Leave that dusty ass shit on the shelf.”
In expressing all of his opinions, Coval is never anything but passionate. He reads to twenty-five people as if he were reading to 25,000. Plenty of people claim they don’t care what other people think of them, but in talking to Coval, one gets the startling sense that in his case this might actually be true. There is nothing about him that suggests a need for others’ approval. He is entirely self-motivated, which is a desirable quality for a man whose day job is to give teens from Chicago’s disparate and desperate backgrounds a way to define and express themselves in opposition to what Coval considers an oppressive whiteness.
Coval’s bio names Louder Than A Bomb “one of the largest youth gatherings on the planet.” Young Chicago Authors, the organization that puts on the month-long festival (and of which Coval is artistic director), hosts not just Louder Than A Bomb but also year-round open mic events and high school arts programs and residencies.
“Because Chicago is as segregated as it is, the students I was meeting who were doing incredible work all over the city wouldn’t get to meet each other unless there was a central space created,” said Coval. “Myself and a group of teaching artists and poets and classroom teachers who were using this new canon [of] hip-hop poetry to re-engage on people in their own education wanted to offer this counter-narrative.”
It is when Coval talks about this work, more than when he talks about his own poetry, that his passion is most visible. “Building solidarity and community in these schools is the most powerful experience for me,” he says from beneath the brim of his snapback. “I didn’t know much about poetry until I started teaching it, to be honest.”