Not since the great anthrax scare of 2001 has there been such anxiety about what could arrive in the mail. Poets Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean have started hitting the post office to send out “assignments” to fellow writers, the envelopes sealed with an image of an owl clad in commencement robes, beneath an insignia that reads (in Latin) “Book Hurt Brain.”
It’s all part of The Encyclopedia Show, Telfer and Jean’s new poetry showcase that asks its participants to craft a new piece based on an encyclopedia topic (sent to them in the mail). Telfer calls it a “broad limitation,” meaning the writer doesn’t have to hew to the facts. The first show will exhaust 11 poets’ collective knowledge of bears. Each received an ursine subcategory—Kodiak bear, bear meat, bear hugs and the Bear Flag Revolt, to name a few.
“We just want to have as much fun as possible in an hour-and-a-half,” says Telfer, a staple of the Chicago slam scene. “We saw a hole in the Chicago poetry scene that slam couldn’t fill. I think a lot more can be done with the form than just competition.”
Each show will canvass a different topic, and Telfer hopes to collect and publish each month’s entries into a sort of chapbook encyclopedia set.
And lest the hosts be accused of not pulling out all of the stops, a binturong, otherwise known as an Asian bearcat, will sit onstage while Tao Lin’s “Poem Written By a Bear” is read offstage. And poet Kurt Heintz will act as the show’s fact checker.
“He’ll be dressed in a stuffy outfit, sitting off to the side, consulting dusty books,” says Telfer. “At the end of the show, he’ll correct all of the entries, but his corrections will be even more confusing and flawed.”
But the show has more going for it than the intentionally absurd. Three of the participants in each of the shows will be teens, an aspect that can be traced back to Telfer’s job as performances manager of Young Chicago Authors.
“I really want this to be an age-integrated show,” he says. “I’m not saying that I have a deep desire to hang out with high-school kids, but, in terms of mentorship and ensuring the future of the community, it’s a great model.”
The first page turns on The Encyclopedia Show Wednesday 3.