Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic
by Alba Machado

While figuring out how best to present sixth graders with poems last year, I discovered that the fear of poetry had become so common that a medical term was coined for it by the American Psychiatric Association: metrophobia. Many people feel that you have to be highly educated to understand poetry and highly pretentious to appreciate it. Its themes seem too lofty, its language grandiose, its structure complex and confusing.

Tonight at the Vittum Theatre, it’s apparent that no one in Chicago need suffer from metrophobia any longer. It’s nothing a single treatment of The Encyclopedia Show can’t fix.

Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney created this unique reading series only two years ago in response to the limitations of slam poetry competitions. In a recent issue of Time Out Chicago, Telfer tells Jonathan Messinger, “It’s exhausting to perform in a competition and be heckled by the audience and judged by other poets to maybe win $10. It’s a really finite goal. The slam is just this tiny speck in what you can do in spoken word, but for some reason it’s dominated the genre in terms of what you can do.” In addition to poetry, however, this variety extravaganza features spoken word in all forms, as well as music, visual arts, and pretty much anything else that makes artistic expression come alive on stage. Messinger calls it “the most artful sideshow in the city.”

Most nights, a number of artists from different disciplines will each contribute a short performance related to a particular theme. Together, these performances constitute a “verbal encyclopedia entry.” But because tonight’s show is an anthology that showcases the best of season 2, there are as many topics as there are performers.

“Cordyceps,” program artwork created by Lana Crooks and Max Bare for the April 2010 theme of The Encyclopedia Show, Insects.

After the house band, The Encartagans, plays its rendition of the Laverne and Shirley theme song, Rachel Claff uses props such as inflatable palm trees, the Chicago Cubs and Bears logos, and empty McDonald’s fries containers to explain what she imagines is the story behind Sue, the largest dinosaur at the Field Museum, then attaches these props to a standing microphone so that it resembles a dinosaur’s skeleton (see photo at the top of this post). Lindsay Hunter shares a disturbing story about a woman who seems to relish both pregnancy and miscarriage. Jill Summers and Susie Kirkwood create the atmosphere of the planetarium with intricately detailed shadow puppets and a brief recorded lecture on Capricorns. Dan Sullivan and Tim Stafford tell the tale of how a “weird hippy Buddhist” pretended to see visions so that he could change the name of a hockey team from the Pirates to the Quakers, in the name of the “oatmeal god.” Joel Chmara explores the theme of obsolete diseases by parodying Trent Reznor, singing “You necrotize me!” in tattered fishnet stockings. Cin Salach inspires the audience to wander by sharing the story of the greatest female explorer of all time, a woman named Gergergerderbenyaht (spelling?!?). Amy Johnson presents the winners of the White Castle slider haiku competition, but not before she strikes a hefty blow against the fast food industry with her nauseating White Castle slider casserole recipe. Mike Argol plays guitar and harmonica in honor of the dung beetle, singing “I got a duty to doo / don’t be a snooty magoo” and explaining that “dung beetles are responsible for cleaning up 85 percent of cattle dung in the state of Texas.” Diana Slickman talks about how she (or the character she is portraying?) became a beauty queen simply by announcing herself to be one. And Roger Bonair-Agard reads his hilarious and powerful poem, “The Poetic Analysis of the Socio-Cultural Relevance of the Flea in the Classical Period through the Industrial Revolution.”

Throughout the show, Telfer and Maney provide entertaining commentary, and Ian Belknap, resident “Fact Checker,” interrupts to evaluate each encyclopedia entry’s factual accuracy, questioning, for example, the dinosaur’s skeletal structure and whether or not dung beetles actually clean up 85 percent of cattle dung in the state of Texas. Belknap also keeps a tally of Truths to Untruths on an old-fashioned blackboard. The final score is 27-11, Untruths. As you might imagine, that doesn’t bother either Telfer or Maney at all. According to The Encyclopedia Show’s website, it is their “ongoing mission to chafe against logic and proof, find meaning in obfuscation, and wrest truth from fact once and for all.” Not bad for $6. And since it’s an all-ages show, it can help even kids overcome metrophobia once and for all.

The next show will take place on Wednesday, September 1stat the Vittum Theatre. Its theme will be the Periodic Table of Elements and it will feature an interview with Sam Kean. Don’t miss it!

Related Blog Posts
Mojdeh Stoakley Blogs About Performing for The Encyclopedia Show


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4 thoughts on “Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic
by Alba Machado

  1. […] The Encyclopedia Show on Literary Chicago! 08.22.2010 // 0 Last night was The Encyclopedia Show‘s grand Anthology Show–a sampling of some of the best work of Season 2.  A grand time was had by all, including folks at Literary Chicago!  LC was in the audience, and had a fabulous time!  Check out their review! […]

  2. RQT says:


    also, i believe you meant to lead readers to this sam kean: http://samkean.com/


  3. Grace says:

    I hate poetry, not because it’s pretentious or obfuscating, but because most of it is just pretty horrible. But you’ve peaked my curiousity! I’m interested in the September 1st event. Maybe I just haven’t heard the right poetry…

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