Chicago | November 15, 2017 9:00 am

5 Books That Changed My Life: Kevin Coval

The beloved poet delivers a history of blue-collar Chicago

Studs Terkel called him a “glowing voice in the world of literature.”

Chance the Rapper once said, “He made me understand what it is to be a poet, what it is to be an artist, and what it is to serve the people.”  

The man in question?

Writer, educator and poet-at-large Kevin Coval, who’s been helping young Chicagoans speak their truth and build better communities for the better part of two decades.

Artistic director of Young Chicago Authors (YSA), co-founder of Louder Than A Bomb and professor of hip-hop aesthetics at the University of Illinois-Chicago, Coval has mentored and championed such talents as Jamila Woods, Noname and Taylor Bennett.

Coval hit the spoken-word scene after college, taught in city schools and hooked up with YSA as a volunteer. He’s got a passion for originality, authenticity and empowerment. The author and editor of 10 books — including his latest volume of poetry, A People’s History of Chicago — Coval shares the five books that shaped his career below.

The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X and Alex Haley
“Malcolm had the humility to change his name and worldview three times. And even though I was living in a white working class household in the Chicagoland area in the early ‘90s, the book resonated as an opportunity toward freedom, to chart your own course outside and counter anything proscribed. Malcolm also seemed to me like a disciplined student, constantly learning throughout the brevity of his life.”


A People’s History of the United States of America by Howard Zinn
“The book armed me in my U.S. history class in high school to do battle with the white supremacist and elitist way history is told. I felt powerful reading working class narratives of people who countered dominant systems. Groups of workers and individuals at the vanguard of culture and thought, alongside regular everyday people who believed more was possible.” 


House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros  
“Cisneros’ lush vignettes of a Chicago neighborhood defied genre and elevated mundane minutiae to a pedestal. It’s a classic, realist working-class portraiture, an important contribution to Chicago literature that impacted the planet. In my mind, Cisneros was inspired by Ms. Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maude Martha and these two women hold an essential place in the Chicago tradition.”


City on the Make by Nelson Algren
“The greatest and most heartbreaking love letters ever written to city. Algren calls out the powerful center and champions the underdog, recalls the forgotten, puts a face and old coat on the heroes of this place sitting at the end of a long bar trying to make their day better. A manifesto of the blue collar and  working class ethos. Algren as a writer of poetic prose arguably at his best.”


Brutal Imagination by Cornelius Eady
“A book of poems that is a novel, that taught me how to write a book of poems. A non-linear, horrific & bitingly funny exploration of the American psyche from the fictional perspective of an character invented by Susan Smith, a North Carolinian white women who drowned her kids in car and blamed it on a black man she created to throw off police. The book darts through history and white supremacist tropes and narrates a moment from a shadow character present yet imaginary in the center of the country.”


Main Photo: Bryan Allen Lamb