Diz’ sits with his mother, Barbara J. Archer, at the West End Market this summer, book-signing and book-selling.

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The Book

Evanstonian Winston “Diz” Shelby’s collection of spoken word poems, with a CD of selected pieces, is a mixed bag, well worth checking out – both reading and listening. This reviewer is new to the genre of hip hop/spoken word, so the suggestion doubly stands for readers already in the know.

More than 50 poems, long and short, ranging from sexy, perturbing or sad, to strongly, stubbornly determined are contained in the volume, divided into five themes: “Thug Love,” “In-2-Me-C,” “Love Sick,” “Street Vernacular” and “Poetic Affirmations.” Mr. Shelby uses intense, evocative language, sometimes uniquely powerful, that makes it clear to the reader/listener that Mr. Shelby’s feelings are deeply bona-fide. The rhythmic understructure and characteristic rhyming convinces as well – the reader hears it in his head even before hearing it out loud.

The writer’s experience of prison is distilled in the two-page poem, “Gotta Utilize My Time, Street Vernacular,” Chapter 4: 

Hard time, could be made into doin’
            time hard/

As I glance up at them towers and
            them fences ‘round that yard/

Metal barz and barb wire, steel doors
            and grey cement/

To keep you out and keep us in which
            was the architects intent/

New personas, diff’rent views,
            hardened convicts all accused/

The choice is yours, you’re free
            to choose.

   To just serve time, or let time
            serve you/

   Drug units, voc school, G.E.D. and
            work crews/

   Ain’t no way I can’t improve when
            my time is wisely used/

Close my eyes and then I pray
            fo’ my higher powers help/

Look deeper inside of myself and
            others that know how I’ve felt/

   As the stillness of the Lord lies
            within my heart and mind/

   To keep my vision focused, daily,
            gotta utilize my time.

The writer’s strength of feeling and
of purpose comes through clearly and
with muscle.

“Cookie” and “Cappuccino Sista,” are short poems admiring the attributes of a woman of color with affection and humor, differing from the extended “A Sista’s Elegance.” “When Mommi Braidz My Buttaz” is a favorite from this section:

The simple words evoke quietly, but vividly, the woman’s focus on her lover as she puts braids in his hair. The reader/listener feels the pleasure of the writer, the recipient of her attention. The second half of the poem moves through time to 30 years later – and the best things are still like that.

Mr. Shelby has self-published “Poems from the Pen.” While this is the faster route to reaching an appreciative audience, readers may wish for some editorial polishing – a detailed table of contents, for example, and proofreading for consistent spelling. Fortunately, Mr. Shelby’s book is of a length that will allow the reader to find a particular poem with relative ease.

The Writer

Winston “Diz” Shelby has experienced a lot in his 39 years, much here in Evanston. He was, he says, “born and raised in Evanston,” and went to Dewey, Nichols and Chute schools. He attended Evanston Township High School for a year before dropping out. He shakes his head at that, saying, “[I thought] only nerds go to school, cool kids were on the street.”

Mr. Shelby’s parents and sisters live locally, he says, and he has five kids – all girls – and is in a relationship he speaks of warmly. Outside of his writing, he works at Castwell Products Inc., a steel plant not far from Niles West High School. Things are much better now, he says, but he did a lot that made him “so remorseful – burglaries, alcoholism, drugs,” that he will “never do again.” He expresses this in his writing.

He wrote as a child, winning first place in a writing competition in first grade with a poem about his parents’ divorce that he called “Anger.” “Even at a young age,” he says, “I knew emotions and words went together.” A seventh-grade teacher, Mr. Willis, says Mr. Shelby, gave him a book on “urban literature” that contained works by Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou, and “Black Renaissance stuff.” From then, Mr. Shelby wrote off and on, staying in touch with music as well. Then, one year into high school, despite his abilities, it all fell apart. He calls that time “when I was in my madness.”

Going to jail, Mr. Shelby says, was in a way the best thing that could have happened to him. He got his GED and started tutoring there. He wrote and edited a prison newsletter, he says; they had had nothing like that before him. While on work release he attended South Suburban College in Liberal Arts. He is now at Oakton, and, he says, he would like to go on to Columbia to earn a B.A. With the same intensity of feeling he puts into his writing, he says, “I’m doing everything I told them [in prison] I was going to do – with perseverance.”

“Poems from the Pen” is “edited down a lot from hundreds of poems,” Mr. Shelby says. “I wanted to have at last one poem in there that every [different kind of person] could relate to.” He says he wanted to give people a push to “get your life together”: “If I can do it,” they can.

That Diz Shelby has “utilized his time,” and continues to do so with poetry, people and work is abundantly, impressively clear.

He says of his town, “I love Evanston. It’s a good place to live and work. There’s so much beauty around. … Lots of times I just listen to some jazz and drive around. The beauty of Evanston is suburban, but Chicago’s right there across the street.”

Mr. Shelby performs his spoken word poetry at public venues, and signs and sells his books in person. A couple of local spots are the Heartland Café and Kafein, and this past summer, the West End Market.

To purchase a copy of “Poems from the Pen,” or to find out more about Mr. Shelby’s work, e-mail the writer at poemsfromthepen@yahoo.com.