The Poetic Prophetess, An Interview with M. Shelly Conner

Photos courtesy of M. Shelly Conner

Chicago’s very own M. Shelly Conner does not consider herself a poet. She’s a self described “writer that has worked in different mediums,” such as a poetry, essays and fiction.  That’s like calling the works of poet laureate Dr.  Maya Angelou, amateurish. As you listen to Conner it’s clear that she’s passionate about writing.  This fact becomes more evident as she describes her poetic style as the result of Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston’s child.

Conner speaks three languages – English,  Spanish and American Sign Language.  She’s a Ph.D. Candidate in English Literature, Creative Writing – Fiction and Gender and Women’s Studies. Earlier this year  Conner founded “Quare Square.” The term “quare” comes from Black Queer Studies scholar, performer and Esteem award honoree E. Patrick Johnson’s essay “Quare Studies.”  Conner created “Quare Square,” to maintain a nurturing performance space for queer women of color and their allies. Their open mic takes place on the second Tuesday of the month at Jeffery Pub located at 7041 S. Jeffery Blvd in Chicago at 7:30 PM.

PrideIndex recently chatted with Ms. Conner just as “Quare Square,” prepares to dedicate its November 12th show to its literary parent POWWOW Inc.  POWWOW, the long running open mic for black lesbians, is being inducted into the Chicago Gay and Lesbian Hall of Fame.  On November 19, Conner  will appear at Homolatte, a queer music and spoken word series hosted by Scott Free, at Big Chicks located at 5024 N. Sheridan.

PRIDEINDEX (PI): Tell us a little bit about yourself, where did you grow up?

M. SHELLY CONNER (MSC):  I grew up on the Southside of Chicago to parents who migrated north during the Great Migration. As such, my southern roots are strong – in my speech, in my mannerisms, and in my work.

PI: Why did you become a poet?

MSC: I don’t consider myself a poet.  I’m a writer and I’ve worked in different mediums – poetry, playwriting, essays, and fiction.

PI: Briefly describe your poetic style.

MSC: My poetry is very lyrical.  I like it to have a certain musicality to it.  My creative essays are hard-hitting and simply crafted. There’s more of a focus on humor and imagery.  My fiction is literary. Imagine if Toni Morrison and Zora Neale Hurston were gay married and had a child.  However, my writing isn’t simply a pastiche mash up. My voice is distinct, contemporary, and humorous.

PI: What was the first poem you’ve ever wrote? Under what circumstances did you first perform it in front of an audience? What was their reaction to it?

MSC: My first poem was entitled “The Rape of Africa” (I fancied myself a revolutionary poet in the mid-90’s).  I performed it at an open mic on the campus of Tuskegee University where I was an undergraduate student at the time. The response was pretty much “Power to the People” and “right on.”  All the reactions you’d expect while performing a poem titled “The Rape of Africa” at a historically black university.

PI: If you could go back in time and give yourself advice what would you say?

MSC:  Write more.

PI: What inspired you to start “Quare Sqaure?”

MSC: POWWOW open mic for black lesbians ran weekly for ten years.  When it ended last December, it was greatly missed.  POWWOW provided a space and a huge service to the LGBT community at large – and black queer community specifically.  Most LGBT events are held on the Northside, while the city’s African American populace is largely on the Southside.  There aren’t many options if one wants black queer space. I started Quare Square to continue the work of POWWOW, its literary foremother.

PI: Name some of the artist that has performed on the stage at “Quare Sqaure.”

MSC: Tim’m T. West; C.c. Carter; Niki Gee; Ken J. Martin

PI: What is the significance of the name “Quare Sqaure?” What do you hope to accomplish?

MSC: The term “quare” comes from Black Queer Studies scholar and performer E. Patrick Johnson’s essay “Quare Studies.”  He writes, “Quare…foregrounds the ways in which lesbians, bisexuals, gays and transgendered people of color come to sexual knowledge.” For me, it reminds me of Alice Walker’s term “womanist” to describe a feminist of color. We have to mindful of how language represents and reproduces racial, sexual, gender, and class inequalities.  Feminism and Queer have been words that largely reflected a mainstream identity and movement that often ignored the needs of people of color in their political agendas. Womanist is to Feminist as Quare is to Queer.  These re-conceptualized terms reflect the intersections of race and gender and sexuality and class.

I hope to create and maintain a nurturing performance space for queer women of color and our allies.

PI: I understand that “Quare Sqaure,” has dedicated its Nov 12 show to POWWOW, Why?

MSC: There would be no Quare Square if POWWOW had not paved the way for it.  Quare Square is the literary offspring of POWWOW and we pay homage to it every month with 5 Words (audience activity started by POWWOW). On Nov 12, POWWOW will be inducted into the Chicago Gay & Lesbian Hall of Fame.  It makes sense that Quare Square hosts the after party at the Jeffrey Pub, where POWWOW ended its open mic run.

PI: Name at least three people who have the most influence over your style as a performer.

MSC: I think artists are always influenced by others; but for all art forms, you eventually develop a style that is uniquely your own.  I have the most influence over my style as a performer.  When I write a performance piece (lately my creative non-fiction essays), it’s all about how I can use my established performance persona to convey these ideas, which is usually a blend of humor and poignancy. I do make considerations for different audiences though.

PI: What is your ultimate goal as a performer?

MSC: To entertain while informing. To make people feel…commiserate…laugh…and want more.

“Quare Square,”  takes place on the second Tuesday of the month at Jeffery Pub located at 7041 S. Jeffery Blvd in Chicago at 7:30PM. Cost $5.

For more information on Homolatte visit