This week on “Meet the Philosophers,” we talk with NWA writer Donna Pecore.
If you had to give yourself a title, what would it be?
I have been called many names and some I like and some we won’t discuss. The ones I prefer are Mom, Gama, sister, good friend, and teacher (one that I am still trying to earn).
On my business cards: Donna Rae of Sunshine and D. R. Pecore (to inspire my academic endeavors).
How long have you lived in Chicago?
Lived here in this city of the “big shoulders” most of my life. (I like using Sandburg’s name for our town because I resemble my football player dad—he had big shoulders.)
Tell us something about your neighborhood.
I live on the Northwest side, near Harlem and Higgins. My neighborhood does not have a name. To the south is my post office and it is called Harwood Heights. I have been here longer then the expressway has been. When they excavated the Kennedy, snakes were everywhere. My father would cut their heads off, and we would watch their wiggling death throes while sun glistened on the cinder alley.
There is not much around here. Like the rest of Chicago, it is dotted with churches, but it is also different—there are not too many apartments. A little way that-a-way is a cemetery, and nearby is a funeral home. Just down Higgins is Dino’s Pizza (great greasy crisp thin crust), Parse’s Hot Dogs (chips no fries), and Mather’s Café—a community center for seniors with education and exercise programs, computers, and good food (specials everyday). It’s discounted for members. (I belong.)
My street once had humongous trees lining the block. You couldn’t reach your arms around their trunks, and they formed an arch from one side to the other, limbs trembling as they touched each other. We lost the trees to Dutch Elm disease, and the city replaced them with some slim saplings. These newbies are now as tall as the street lamps, but they have yet to reach across the street.
This slice of Chicago without a name stretches along the Kennedy Expressway to O’Hare. The first Mayor Daily was a wily ole’ fox when he planned the city boundaries: he chose to keep this parcel of land part of Chicago so he could claim the taxes from the airport. I like to tell people that this was his way of giving the finger to the ’burbs. I guess you could call this sliver of a neighborhood “the Finger.”
Why do you live there?
I once ran from the quiet of this neighborhood; my first apartment was in Uptown, then Rogers Park, and then Edgewater. I moved north to Wisconsin to the Menominee Reservation. (My Mom’s side of the family are “cheese heads,” and I married a Native American.) Then I came back to Ravenswood. (No jobs for my hubby on the rez.)
Things happened and life demanded that I get a divorce. I was always resourceful (a MacGyver really), but I found that a single mother with three kids has a hard time making ends meet. I found a cheaper apartment around Grand and Central. I also found a job waitressing by Milwaukee and Devon, where Elston crosses Milwaukee on the north end. (I think these two streets are the only streets in Chicago that cross each other twice.) Found a store front conversion, the backdoor opened onto a park, and I could walk to work.
Then my Dad passed. My Mom, after fifty years of marriage, did not want to be alone. She turned the basement into my present day lair. We were finally in a position where we didn’t have to struggle. I thought this would be my opportunity to go back to school. I had tried to once, when the kids were young, but my son forgot how to breathe. (Turns out he had apnea.) I had completed one semester. Now twenty-five years later, I had another chance to be more than a high school and college dropout. My years back in school flew by; I have entered a Master’s program at UIC. I am doing it!
Not too long ago, Mom took a turn, and I was grateful to be there for her until we lost her too. I still wake up wanting to make her coffee and crush her morning meds. She left this house to me and my grown kids. I am content. The quiet neighborhood seems like a safe place for my family, not a place to escape.
It seems that way even though John Wayne Gacy once lived near here and hung out at the corner bar where my dad placed his off-track bets with the Greek: his winnings paid for our summer vacations. I only mention this because even the nicest neighborhoods have their horrors. Regardless this is Home, with a capital H.
How are you affiliated with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA)? How long have you been involved with NWA?
Mayi [Ojisua, another NWA writer] first told me about the NWA Uptown workshop (Wednesdays at Bezazian Library) at a Weeds’ open mike. Weeds still holds open mikes every Monday at 10pm at 1555 N. Dayton. I found poetry at Weeds about fifteen years ago. It is my fertile crescent. Then I became a student at Columbia College, where my advisor, after hearing about how poetry had changed my life, said, “There is a woman you should know.”
That woman was Donna Kiser [former NWA writer/ workshop leader/ tech professional extraordinaire]. She was in one of my classes. She invited me to a JOT journal release party. Pennie Brinson was one of the writers that made an impression, moving me with her words at that reading five years ago. She still makes me laugh and cry when she shares her life with us, but she was just one of many that caused my heart to thump that day. The room was filled. Dan Godston played his sax as background music for the philosophers. I told Donna I wanted to join. She showed me JOT, and I was hooked. NWA first published me the summer of 2006.
Why are you involved with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance?
First it was to be published.
The ego likes to be fed
I was accepted
I was applauded
Then it became so much more
My friends there feel like family
I like to workshop
I want their ideas
I want their help
And I want to help
Then the philosophy behind the org started to seep into me
Every person is a philosopher
Yes I have an opinion
And they gave me a vehicle to share it
But it is more
I had to flesh out my opinion
I have to think
To do that
And it takes on a life of its own
It is empowerment
It is possibility
It is change
And they have changed me
I still like to be applauded
I still like to have my ego fed
But it is not
All about me
It is about
Has an idea
In small increments
Beginning in the neighborhood
Spreading to the city
It leads to social justice
A global consciousness
A different world
A better world
What does NWA’s motto, “Every Person Is a Philosopher,” mean to you?
To a poet, each word is important, so to me “Every” means all, the whole group, each individual in that group deserves the same respect and attention for their philosophy. The term “Person” allows for our own uniqueness, and it celebrates our humanity. “Is” is in the present tense, our state of being. “Is” gives us our status right now, not some degree we are going to earn in the future, not the titles received or tragedies experienced in the past. “Is” is where we are right now and what we have to say about it.
This brings us to the term “Philosopher”—that identity that means so much to me. It means we are thinkers, people who wrestle with theories and thoughts. I checked the thesaurus, and another word for philosopher is dreamer; I like that.
We invited Donna to write her own question and answer it. Donna asked, “What do you want your work to do?”
I want to make a difference, just as those poets at Weeds did for me. Gregorio Gomez, the MC, and the late Maria McCray, were just a couple of the poets who expanded my outlook and helped me develop into the person I am now. NWA and my education have led me to the realization that I have something worthwhile to say and that I can change another’s life for the better. Spinning a yarn—spinning the world.
For more information about Donna, please visit her website. She would like to add: Now you know me, so I ask you, what do you think? You’re a Philosopher too!
In keeping with the Neighborhood Writing Alliance’s motto, “Every Person Is a Philosopher,” Meet the Philosophers is a column featuring profiles of members of the Neighborhood Writing Alliance community. Here, we survey their role in our organization and pick their brains about writing, social justice, art, and Chicago.