Hip-hop poetry confessional(from the Chicago Tribune 11/20/11)

Kevin Coval offers rhythmic guide to racial landscape in ‘L-Vis Lives!’

It is an extraordinary experience to watch a poet grow before your eyes, and that is what Kevin Coval has been doing ever since a meeting on an “L” platform in 2004. He was then, like many young poets (he was not yet 30), filled with enthusiasm, as expressed when he said: “The power of the spoken word enables us to see beyond the traditional distinctions of race.”

He has performed his work and published at a steady pace since, exploring that idea in such collections as “Slingshots: A Hip-Hop Poetica” and “Everyday People.”

His latest is the wildly ambitious, thought-provoking and tremendously satisfying “L-Vis Lives! Race Music Poems,” which also contains some prose pieces. It is, Coval writes, “a representation of artists who have used and misused Black music.” It is a trip into what he calls “post-racial America,” a place “where Black art is still at times only accepted in a white face.”

Coval is white, as you can tell from the photo nearby, a product of Northbrook, not known as a hotbed for hip-hop poets or black culture. He is keenly aware of this and he has created in the title in “L-Vis!” a persona melded from of such real-life characters as Elvis Presley, Vanilla Ice, Eminem and, naturally, himself; an imagined person who proves a forceful and forthright tour guide through our complex racial landscape.

At once appealingly self-effacing and acutely self-aware, as in this from the poem “Posing,” “nose still too big/ for my face. chin hair/ I’d call a go-tee/ struggling for articulation,” “L-Vis Lives!” is funny and honest, a confession of sorts.

In the book’s final section, “whiteboy I could have been: a suite for John Walker Lindh,” he tackles the wildly complex and confounding motivations of Lindh, the young U.S. citizen captured during the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan where he was fighting with the Taliban, and his own feelings about him in searing and haunting words.

One of the astonishing things about this poet’s life, and his accomplishment in this volume, is that he has been increasingly devoting time and energy to things other than writing. In this way he resembles his friend and mentor, Marc Smith, who might have sacrificed many more poems than have already come from his own pen by creating and running the internationally known concept of the Poetry Slam.

Coval teaches at the School of the Art Institute and at various public high schools. As the co-founder and artistic director of Louder Than A Bomb: The Chicago Teen Poetry Festival, he is charged with organizing that annual event. He is also starting to spread the word worldwide with the help of a brilliant film about the event produced by local documentarians Jon Siskel and Greg Jacobs and airing in early January on the Oprah Winfrey Network. He does some radio work for NPR, performs frequently around the country and has a steady girlfriend.

That’s a full poet’s plate, which makes this new collection an even greater wonder than it is.