Literary Chicago


Write Club Returns

October 07, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Summer is officially over. No more soaking up the sun from the comfort of your lawn chair or gobbling up ice cream cones before they melt. No more flip flops under your feet and light, gauzy fabrics against your skin. No more alfresco dinners, backyard barbecues, farmers’ markets, or fresh summer fruit. Before you curse the changing of the seasons, however, keep this in mind: NO MORE WAITING FOR WRITE CLUB.

After a grueling two-and-a-half-month hiatus, Write Club returned to The Hideout on Tuesday, September 27th for Chapter 18. This time, in addition to the large clock and the boxing ring bell, there were signs announcing the contestants:

Dina Walters vs. Scott Whitehair

Susan Karp vs. Patrick Carberry

Ian Belknap vs. Don Hall

“We took a couple of months off and we now have production value,” said Belknap, series founder, host, and “overlord.” The man didn’t spend his entire summer printing signs at his local Kinko’s, though. He also helped to start Write Club Atlanta, the second branch in what will undoubtedly be a popular national franchise. (San Francisco, Athens, Los Angeles, and New York are next). The format is the same: three bouts of two opposing writers, seven minutes apiece, the order in which they read determined by games of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But they’ve got their work cut out for them, these newbies. Write Club Chicago has set the bar high. Last Tuesday, every performance displayed such humor, passion, and vulnerability that I recused myself from voting.

ROUND 1: Revenge vs. Mercy

On behalf of Revenge, Dina Walters started the night off by telling us about Desiree, a girl who tormented her for smelling badly when she was a freshman at Maria Catholic High School in 1992 — “Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, but Latino.” Remember culottes? Shorts designed to look like skirts? Well, instead of getting a “pantsing,” Walters underwent a culottesing at the hands of this ruthless Desiree. “I had been condemned to let her rake playfully at my soul.” Her reprieve came when her father suggested the unthinkable: Revenge. “It was like my father gave me permission to date the bad boy.” To this day, twenty years later, she still has the can of fart spray she used on her tormentor’s locker — her “first trophy.”

On behalf of Mercy, Scott Whitehair took the slacker’s approach. To him, it’s not about right or wrong — it’s about easy. “Revenge is exhausting . . . the gears of revenge are lubricated with sweat.” Like Walters, Whitehair, too, had a high school tormentor. He did nothing and, years later, found the bully selling scratch-off tickets in a gas station. Sometimes the universe has a way of dishing out justice itself. Whitehair suggested that the real tragedy of The Count of Monte Cristo is not that he’s wrongfully imprisoned but, rather, that he made it his life’s mission to get revenge. “It’s a waste of time and resources,” said Whitehair. “Mercy, on the other hand, is effortless.”

Scott Whitehair for Mercy
Proceeds go to Inspiration Corporation

ROUND 2: Roots vs. Branches

On behalf of Branches, Patrick Carberry shared a narrative prose poem. Fans of the Encyclopedia Show recognized Carberry as “Patrick the Intern.” In a way, Carberry is like Columbo. It’s easy to underestimate him. At Write Club, he shambled onto stage in his trademark suspenders and straw fedora, and botched his first game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, crying, “My hands were not ready!” He is the most lovable sort of manchild. Given his antics, the audience was set for light, breezy entertainment. What he delivered instead was a delicate and revealing poem that starts and ends at the spot where he watched his father “tie one end of a rope to a branch and the other to a tire,” from the time he was eight years old to the time of his future death. In his view, branches provide you with just what you need “when you know everything grows down and you want something to grow up.” Talking about the old tire swing at the end of his poem, Carberry said, “. . . it hung like something dead,” and something magical happened: one of his suspender straps slipped off his shoulder. It may seem like a small thing on paper, or on a computer screen, but in person it seemed like the planets had all aligned and were listening breathlessly to this man’s quiet acceptance of mortality. From the audience, Belknap couldn’t help but respond, saying, “Now that’s stagecraft.”

On behalf of Roots, Susan Karp did an impersonation of Alfre Woodard in A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story. “You see this match?” she asked in an overly dramatic Southern accent. “One match is easy to break. But together we are strong.” Matches are to branches as matchboxes are to roots, I suppose. The connection was never made very clear and Karp herself admitted that she could have come up with a better analogy, that this one was based more on a “feeling” rather than any logical argument. But that’s part of her charm: despite the Lifetime-channel-spoofing theatrics, her reading seemed impromptu, as though she was as surprised by her own thought process as anyone else. During her seven minutes, roots and branches became increasingly anthropomorphized. Whereas “it’s in the very nature of branches to divide, to reach for the sun, to break because they’ve overextended themselves,” roots “strive to put dinner on the table . . . they live to serve, like butlers.” Karp also compared branches to TCBY yogurt, which, for some strange reason, caused some members of the audience to act as though they’d just won the Illinois Mega Millions Lotto.

Susan Karp for Roots
Proceeds go to Autism Home Support Services

ROUND 3: Order vs. Chaos

On behalf of Order, Ian Belknap presented a perfectly structured compare-and-contrast essay that could fit neatly into a t-chart — as much his modus operandi as it was an appropriate approach to the topic at hand. Belknap’s work is like an enormous skyscraper. Even though its steel skeleton is simple and apparent, you can’t help but marvel at its height and power. Perhaps it’s this rigid framework that allows him to be so playful with the language he places between the beams: “Order is a ladybug. Chaos is one of those gigantic centipedes with those sickening feathery legs that make you want to burn your house down and start over somewhere new. Order is table manners. Chaos is trying to eat soup on a fucking trampoline.” Given his instincts as a performer and his background in theater, Belknap could probably illicit a greater emotional response with a phone book than most readers could with Shakespeare. But he doesn’t rely solely on his stage presence, tone, timing, or body language. There is real substance in his writing — real anger, insight, hilarity, and lyricism. Consider his defense of Work in the September 2010 installment of Write Club:

Written transcript available here.

On behalf of Chaos, Don Hall gave Belknap a real run for his money. His essay was divided into eight sections of varying length, arbitrarily numbered. In one of these sections, he shared the story of a man who did everything he was supposed to do and was living the American dream until unforeseen expenses forced him to take out a mortgage on his house. The banks foreclosed on his property, his wife divorced him, he turned to alcohol and then lost his job. “Control is an illusion,” Hall said.  ”We build houses on fault lines and on beach fronts and then wonder what happened when nature decides to crush them or blow them away.  We place our faith in institutions that do not, cannot, have our interest in mind and blow a gasket when it becomes known that we were just grist for their particular profit driven mill.  We think that if we fall in line, keep our heads down, and live an orderly life that we’ll live forever and then chaos strikes and we can’t fathom it.” Although he describes himself on his website, AWG (“Angry White Guy”), as a “smartass” and “loudmouth,” Hall showed a great deal of restraint in this essay, allowing the weight of his subject to be felt without the distraction of a tantrum. It’s a good thing, too, in light of the fact that he makes reference to a gruesome real-life incident from the late 1990s, when a glass window fell out of the CNA building in downtown and decapitated a woman. “I wonder what her thoughts were in her final seconds. Death was instantaneous and she didn’t see it coming. I suspect, like most of us, she was worried about bills or petty slights at the office or the dishes that needed to be done. I suspect she was thinking about keeping her life in ORDER. Just like the rest of us.” This essay could be read in its entirety at

Ian Belknap for Order
Proceeds go to Open Books

Up Next: Write Club Does Halloween

After such an outstanding season premiere, we’re already looking forward to the next installment of Write Club. Billed as the “Super Scary Limited Halloween Edition,” Chapter 19 is set to take place on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 from 7pm to 8:30pm at the Hideout Inn. It will feature the following bouts:

Emily Rose vs. Samantha Irby

David Isaacson vs. Noelle Krimm

Ian Belknap vs. Whit Nelson




Down-to-Earth Verse

October 06, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Book Reviews, Poetry

a review of James Payne’s poetry collection, Austerity Pleasures

Aw, man! Poetry?! LAME.

Just kidding!

But seriously, poetry kinda sucks.

James Payne’s collection of poems, Austerity Pleasures, does not suck though. Before you start screaming, “BUT MASON THAT’S CRAZY,” just hear me out. And please, for the love of God, keep your finger away from the caps lock.

Payne’s poems have all the intellect many similar poetry and chapbook collections contain, the kind of intellect you find in books that may as well come with a required reading list of boring, old, dead dudes, but with more wit and honesty, and therefore, less douche-baggery. It’s really nice to see something so well put together that, at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And Austerity Pleasures, by the way, is in fact well put together. Literally. A well constructed, little chapbook that’s nice to hold in your hands.

The poems inside encompass that mid-twenties angst that all of us youths are getting sick of. They’re self aware enough to entertain you though, to pull you in, instead of doing the opposite. The book combines all those worries – petty and legitimate – that freeze your mind and turn you into an insomniac. “Poem For Sitting in Panera,”  for example, tackles the future. Throwing worries like “where will I be in fifteen years” into a loudspeaker that exaggerates them comically while, simultaneously, keeping that keen sense of anxiety they initially cause intact. It’s a nice duality.

“Our Rattails” does the opposite, focusing on a better past:

Make my hair
back to when you were punk.
we had rattails, sure
things were fun.

Yeah, everything was fun, but if you read the rest of the poem, you’ll find a subtle undertone of what it’s like to look back: like the bad aftertaste of a great meal. It’s kind of pathetic. And depressing. That’s the impression I got, at least. Buy the damn book to read the whole poem and tell me if I’m wrong.

Many of James’ poems are quite small, practically one liners. He really excels here.  “Books of Love” examines a myriad of things (dating, pleasure, money, class…) in just two sentences. Also, it’s funny.

As a whole, much of Austerity Pleasures feels like it specifically rebels against pretension.  Against the significant others and peers in our lives that measure a person’s worth by the amount of books they’ve read and how smart they sound when they speak about them. Sometimes this rebellion is subtle, other times blatant, but always well written.

Regardless of the writing, battling pretentious jag-offs and heart-breakers is something I can get on board with – especially when it’s funny.

Austerity Pleasures is out from Monster House Press. Check out what James Payne himself has to say at

Mason Johnson and James Payne

World, Meet CCLaP. CCLaP, World.

August 06, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Independent Publishing

Jason Pettus, the founder of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, is throwing a huge party on August 10th at Beauty Bar to celebrate the release of the first four paper books published by the CCLaP. There’s hardly anything we love more than a big book party, and we have every intention of plying you to attend by whatever means necessary before the end of this article, but it is not the only reason Literary Chicago is taking a page or two to talk about CCLaP’s artistic mission and the man behind it; we happen to feel both are pretty damn special. How so, you ask? Well, CCLaP takes a wholistic and cooperative approach to publishing, is committed to utilizing all available publishing tools, and investigates all avenues of publicity, press, and marketing. Jason’s editorial approach spans extremes: he would like to publish your novel in every available e-format; he would also like to bind every copy of your book by hand. If editors like Jason Pettus are a rare breed, an organization like CCLaP is even more so.

Pettus recently shared his story on the Chicago Artists Resource website. Here are some highlights:

“From day one, I’ve seen the Center as more of a partner to hardworking artists, with both of us putting in an equal amount of effort towards getting projects distributed and promoted, and each keeping half of the profits in return…. I should point out, however, that ‘equal work’ here actually means ‘separate but equal,’ which is another policy that has guided CCLaP since its formation. The Center handles all the crappy little things that self-publishing artists hate the most—things that, if left undone, can keep these artists from being truly successful: responding to daily email; sending out review copies and press releases; setting up Paypal buttons for each project; creating specialty websites; licking stamps; and fundraising for production budgets. When we handle these tasks, we give artists the opportunity to do the most fun part of the ‘business’ side of things, the part that used to be the job of gatekeeper-style groups but now rests more in the direct relationship between artists and audience members: convincing these people to be fans in the first place. This is accomplished through such modern conveniences as blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, plus such old-school activities as tours, exhibitions and festivals.

“In a world where money is becoming tighter by the day, where traditional nonprofit resources for cultural institutions are disappearing at an alarming rate, and where technology is rapidly eliminating the need for authority figures to tell us what to consume in the first place, it only makes sense that the entire industry of the arts will switch to a ‘federation’ model. In this model, an author here, a distributor there, and a venue owner over there will team up for an endless series of temporary alliances regarding each artistic project that gets released to the public. This is different from the old paradigm of an artist getting handed a ‘golden key’ by an all-powerful arts-based company.”

Jason is actively seeking new manuscripts and encourages any writer open to the idea of experimental writing and publishing to submit through the CCLaP website. And, as promised, here is some more information pertaining to The CCLaP Quadruple Book Release Party and Performance Extravaganza:

From CCLaP:

The Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, or CCLaP, is proud to announce their latest local live event, a large-scale party to celebrate the release of their first four paper books this summer. An electronic publisher since 2007, CCLaP has been quietly releasing new special-edition, handmade “Hypermodern” paper editions of its four titles throughout the summer; and on August 10th the group will be gathering at the popular Beauty Bar in the Bucktown neighborhood for drinks, free food, and a half-hour reading from all four featured authors, as well as a few surprise guests. Beauty Bar is located at 1444 West Chicago Avenue, and the free event will take place from 7 to 9 p.m., the reading itself from 8:00 to 8:30. All four books will be for sale individually for $20 apiece; or for one night only, attendees can purchase all four in a bundle for only $50.

Books and performers being featured that night include the novella Too Young to Fall Asleep by SALLY WEIGEL, about a Radiohead-listening “emo” high-school student who volunteers for the Iraq War (originally published in 2009); 99 Problems by BEN TANZER, essays about the mental intersection between running and writing (originally published in 2010); Life After Sleep by MARK R. BRAND, a day-after-tomorrow tale concerning a device that allows people to only need two hours of sleep a night (originally published this past winter); and Salt Creek Anthology by JASON FISK, a collection of linked “micro-stories” regarding four trashy couples in the far Chicago suburbs (published this summer).CCLaP’s “Hypermodern” series is an attempt to create special collector-worthy editions of all the center’s electronic books, reasonably priced yet expertly made; they feature handmade hardbound covers, including a color photo of the ebook’s original cover adhered to the front, external Coptic stitching, whimsical decorative endpapers, a special signature/provenance page for collectors, and a full Colophon in the back listing all materials used. CCLaP itself has been open online since 2007, and with a handful of local live events held in varying venues across the city each year; the center also produces a semi-weekly podcast, sells general giftstore-style merchandise, and publishes over 150 book reviews a year at its popular website. Among other accolades, it’s been featured twice at respected arts guide, and its blog is followed by almost ten thousand unique monthly visitors.

For questions or more information, please contact executive director Jason Pettus at, or visit [].

See you there, Chicago! And be sure to check back next week when Literary Chicago talks with Jason Fisk, author of the hyper-fiction collection, Salt Creek Anthology, just released by CCLaP.

A Time for Laughter

August 03, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Funny Ha-Ha Presents: “Hot Stuff” at the Hideout

Photos courtesy of Danette Chavez, staff photographer.

Someone once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Depending on who you ask, it might have been Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, or someone else altogether. “Tragedy” might be a strong word to describe the subjects of tonight’s readings at this installment of Funny Ha-Ha, but they were all certainly preoccupied with time—the test of time, time gone by, time wasted, and time spent peeing on an African man’s face. You know, stuff we could all relate to. The event is hosted, as always, by WBEZ blogger and TV critic for the LA Times and the A.V. Club Claire Zulkey, who is quick to turn the spotlight over to each of the funny people in tonight’s lineup.

Comedy Central’s Indecision blogger Dennis DiClaudio shares two pieces, one a relatively serious exhortation that you “Do Not Bring a Tree Into the House” and the other a series of brief open letters from the DiClaudio of today, or “Nowadays Me,” to his former selves. The advice he repeats three times, to three of his younger selves, seems personally relevant to many in the audience: “Look, I know this girl broke your heart. I know you thought she was the one . . .” The advice he gives to the DiClaudio of the year 2000 seems even more so: “Do NOT vote for Ralph Nader.”

“Ask Amy” columnist Amy Dickinson talks about how she “became an icon.” After the death of Ann Landers, she knew the Chicago Tribune would be on the lookout for a new advice columnist. Knowing that her New England background would be a liability in applying for this job, she decided to emulate one of our local celebrities, Bonnie Hunt. “I was going to have to be Judge Judy on the page and Bonnie Hunt in real life.” Her plan worked. She hit one major snag along the way, though: during the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which was supposed to be her grand coming out, her “Sally Field moment,” she neglected to replace “root, root, root for the home team” with “root, root, root for the Cubbies,” and consequently suffered the venomous scorn of loyal Cubs fans throughout the city. Having long since overcome that major stumbling block, though, she can now laugh at it and wear the Cubs jersey that she earned from the debacle with pride.

Write Club “Overlord” Ian Belknap pretends that being one of the most adored personalities in the Chicago literary scene detracts from, rather than adds to, his sex appeal. In characteristically histrionic tones, he bemoans his fate, saying, “I am a formerly attractive man.” We’re supposed to believe that when he worked minimum-wage-paying jobs, when he couldn’t bring himself to approach a cougar who’s into him, and when he cheated girlfriends out of money so that he could buy pot and liquor—that was the peak of his hotness. But now that he’s a master of both page and stage, a responsible breadwinner, and a husband and father—he’s unattractive. “Look at me,” he says. “I’m horrible. I should work in a dungeon or under a bridge. I should only hang out with moles and cave salamanders – the kind that have evolved to be eyeless and translucent.” Right. The only real evidence Belknap has to prove that he was once more attractive than he is now is that Uma Thurman once had a crush on him and, for obvious reasons, that evidence is suspect. He means well, I’m sure, telling us all to “carpe the fucking diem.” But he needs to stop obsessing about how, in his view, his gut has become a “marsupial repository for [his] self-loathing,” the bags under his eyes are “satchels stuffed with [his] thwarted ambitions,” and his double chin is a “pelican pouch of [his] poor choices.” He needs to get it together and prepare to be the “Minister of Veracity” for tomorrow’s Encyclopedia Show. I’ll be there with two more of his groupies—because, apparently, formerly attractive men have groupies nowadays.

Unlike Belknap, Bearded comedian (as he’s billed) James Fritz doesn’t claim to be unattractive, only angry, sad, and short. Because of his beard, build, and the sadness, some call him “Zach Galifian-sadness.” He traces back his emotional problems to his parents, saying, “A lot of people stay together for their kids. My parents are staying together for Jesus. And he’s never going away to college.” In describing their marriage, he tells us about how, once, when his mother was taking longer in the bathroom than a good Christian woman should, his father punched a hole through the bathroom door. Instead of replacing the door, his mom covered it with a pretty piece of fabric. That “hate doily,” he says, is “the perfect metaphor for a Christian marriage.”

Jezebel blogger Erin Gloria Ryan is the only one of tonight’s readers who doesn’t dig too far into the past. Her piece is about the last four years of her life, years spent working a job she hates for a company she hates. She started out with a number of various positions before she settled on being a receptionist. “I’m a corporate geisha,” she says, “a captive lady audience.” She copes with the trials and tribulations of what she calls the “stress-terarium” by taking numerous bathroom and vending machine breaks, fantasizing about quitting with a sheet cake that reads “Fuck all y’all motherfuckers,” and gathering observations to share at readings like this one. Among the characters she encounters in her “conversational cage” are Republicans who “say that Obama wants to raise the debt ceiling to pay for ‘illegals’ to have abortions,” and Mitzy, a corporate queen who “loves to see her stocks go up because that means they’re getting closer to Jesus.”

Filmmaker extraordinaire Joe Avella shares his campy movie, Chinese Star Cop, which is about a police officer who fails to bring his gun to the scene of a crime because he’s a Chinese star cop, not a gun cop. And he’s not even Chinese. Other, even shorter films are interspersed throughout this short film, including a commercial for the Chicago Park District that contains the line “ideal for soccer, jogging, and blood rituals,” and the saga of a guy who travels to Africa and drinks a bottle of AIDS in order to meet Bono.

Finally, we have Samantha Irby. It’s probably a good idea to save her for last. She’s a contributor to the Sunday Night Sex Show and the tag line for her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, is: “I write about tacos, hot dudes, garbage-ass dudes, sexy lesbians, good music, and diarrhea. And sometimes other stuff.” This is a woman who gets jaws to drop. Anyone who reads after her is pretty much guaranteed to sound like a prude, ridiculously tame. She opens with a warning: “White people, it’s okay to laugh at this piece.” Then she proceeds to explain the very complicated relationship she’s had with African men over the years—not African American men, but African men. They seem to love her. She represents the “endless bounty” to them. But it never works out. One of them will say to her, “In my country, I have much land and woman like you would bow to me.” And she’ll respond, “Well, in my country, you park cars and wash windows, and dude, you missed a spot.” Despite her vow, she once succumbed to the charms of a freakishly smart African who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. She calls him “Amistad.” This is where it gets, well, jaw-dropping. Turns out, the man was a piss fetishist. That, in and of itself, of course, is no real cause for gasps and shudders. (We’ve all read Savage Love, right?) It’s Irby’s absolute candidness in describing the details of her sexual experimentation that takes you by surprise. Her first real foray into “golden showers” was a violent, albeit consensual affair that took place in a bathtub. She ripped the shower curtains, shattered a bottle of shampoo, and cut her face on the faucet. “I didn’t even know black people did that shit. We’re always like, ‘That’s the kind of weird shit that white people do.’” This all leads up to a horrifying incident of “piss-snowballing” that you’ll have to seek out on Irby’s website, if you dare. I’m not one for spoilers.

A riot in her own right, Zulkey has done a fine job of bringing together an incredibly funny group of people. If only we were all so adept at mining our past for nuggets of comedy gold.


Playing the Word Saxophone

July 24, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Poetry, Young Authors

an interview with poets Kathleen Rooney and David Landsberger about Poems While You Wait, their impromptu poetry event

In the midst of the pounding music and the drunken laughter at yesterday’s Wicker Park Fest, there was the tap-tap-tapping of an antique typewriter. Chicago poets Kathleen Rooney and David Landsberger were on hand to create original, customized poems for anyone with a topic in mind and $5 to donate to Rose Metal Press and 826 CHI. They called it Poems While You Wait, and they didn’t make you wait long, either.

I visited their tent with one of my BFFs, Monica. We wrote our topics into a spiral notebook, paid our donations, and spent half an hour walking around and chatting. When we returned, we were astonished to find that Monica’s poem, “Labyrinth,” wasn’t written by either Rooney or Landsberger, but rather, by a 12-year-old poet named Phillip Ramey (the poem is included in its entirety, as typed, below the interview). Turns out, there were three students from 826 CHI present to lend their considerable talent to the event. It was a fantastic start to what I’m hoping will be a fantastic tradition. I’m looking forward to the day when I’ll be able to say that I’m going to the market to pick up a poem and, since Curbside Splendor already sells its books, along with others by indie presses, at the Logan Square Farmer’s Market, I imagine that day is not so far away.

You might think that one would want to follow up a poetry-writing marathon with, say, a mind-numbing-reality-TV marathon. Not so for Rooney and Landsberger. They took the time to answer a few questions for us here at Literary Chicago, making us squeal with delight like kids after a ride on a roller coaster: “Again! Again! Again!”

Did you really need to come up with a way to make poetry writing more challenging? Isn’t it enough that poetry slam has made it necessary for good poets to be good performers, too? But now timeless works of art get developed in an hour or less, like photos at Walgreen’s? What’s next? Poets on both stilts and roller skates, balancing bowls of grenades on their heads while they chisel poems onto the sides of buildings?

KR: Oh my god, are you eavesdropping on us or something? Dave and I are totally doing the stilts/skates/grenades/chisel thing at another street fest next weekend! J/K.

But that’s a great question. To answer it, to a degree, all poetry IS difficulty; all poetry consists of setting up artificial impediments to normal communication. Like: Let’s take this highly specific thing that I want to express and force it to be strictly rhymed and metered, extremely compressed, and written with line breaks—those prohibitive conventions are where a lot of poetry comes from. So it’s not so weird to do poetry on demand if you think of it that way. And I don’t think there’s any risk of Poetry on Demand putting other types of poetry out of business so to speak—neither Dave nor I would want to ONLY write poetry this way. But it’s always interesting, if you’re feeling blocked or uninspired or want to take your work in a new direction, to add restrictions—to make poetry harder. And adding an audience participation component and a time limit certainly pushed us in ways we wouldn’t have gone otherwise.

But that’s not primarily why we did this. We did it for charity, of course, but also we did it to interact with a wider and more diverse audience than poetry often receives. So much hand-wringing goes on in poetry reviews and criticism about how “People don’t like poetry; poetry doesn’t speak to the People,” but doing Poetry on Demand at Wicker Park Fest seemed to reveal that once you stop talking about the “appreciation” of “poetry” by “people” in the abstract and let people experience poetry as part of their weekend entertainment, plenty of them end up appreciating it a ton, and they end up doing so in a way that’s actually fun and sincere, not in a dutiful do-this-because-it’s-good-for-you sort of way. Also, having people pay for the poems was a key part of the experience too—when people get something for free, as most poetry is, they MIGHT appreciate it, but when they’ve given you a request and backed that up with five bucks, they’re going to read and re-read and hopefully really think about whatever it is you’ve tried to give them.

DL: Charity was the origin of the event.  It made perfect sense since I’m an afterschool tutor at 826CHI and Kathleen is one of the powers that be at Rose Metal Press.

I kind of want to steal your ideas? Is that ok? I’ve always wanted to write a poem as I free fall out of a plane and deliver it when I land.  I’ve always wanted to hang glide and drop poems on a city.  I tried to get a crowd sourced poem going at Pitchfork this year but the higher ups deemed it not worthy. I’ve shouted poems out of a megaphone while driving a Ferrari 360 GT Spyder convertible.  Kathleen and I both are participants in The Chicago Poetry Brothel.  I think it’s safe to say we enjoy decontextualizing poetry.

Kathleen’s right, it’s odd how the 5 bucks legitimizes the poetry.  Poetry as enterprise/commerce is a weird, fragile thing.  In my opinion poetry isn’t broken, but the business model of poetry is broken, which means in today’s world it’s broken in every way to a lot of people.  I kept scratching my head at how many people are willing to sardine together on a 95 degree day to hear a band they’ve never heard of at one of the stages, but our table wasn’t nearly as claustrophobic.  A lot of poets say “ah well, that’s the way it is,” but I don’t buy it.  You’ve got to make people care again, and I think writing poems on demand or for a commissioned event is a very viable and realistic way to get people interested.

It all comes back to David Blaine stuff.  A lot of magicians hate him, but that’s because he’s really a performance artist at this point.  And he’s too commercial for performance artists.  To me he’s like Evel Knievel, and that’s cool as all heck.  Are Kathleen and I like Evel Knievel? No, we’re just poets getting out of the comfy writing chair, out of the air conditioning. And that confuses a lot of people who walk by.  But confusion is way better than indifference.

I noticed that there was only one typewriter for a number of poets. Did that make it feel sort of like a relay race? How many poets were there at your tent? And how many poems did you all write today, in total?

KR: Yep. Dave brought his one and only typewriter, which he rescued from on top of a Dumpster. He and I were at the Fest on Saturday in two shifts, one from 2-5 and one from 6-9, with an hour break in between to eat dinner and rehydrate—banging out poems on a typewriter outdoors in July makes you work up a sweat and an appetite. For the majority of the time, it was just the two of us, but for about an hour early in the afternoon, we had help from three 826 CHI students, who wrote some really excellent material. By the time we closed up shop, we had written a total of 40 poems over the course of 7 or so hours, which in turn raised us a total of $202.50 in charitable donations. Half of the proceeds will go to 826 CHI and half will go to the non-profit, independent literary publishing company Rose Metal Press.

DL: I’m not sure if it felt like a relay race, but it was certainly mentally, and at times, physically taxing.  Maybe it was more like a poetry decathlon: you keep on switching your poetic hats.  One second you’re promoting on the street, the next you’re writing a funny poem, then you’re explaining what the heck you’re doing to a flabbergasted drunk person and then, poof, you’re writing an elegy.

How did you decide who would write each topic?

KR: It was essentially luck of the draw. We had a list where people could sign up with their name and poem topic/request, and then worked our way through that alternating: Dave, then me, then Dave, then me, and so on. We only had one occasion where a customer requested a specific poet—she saw a poem that I had written called “Magma-nificent” that was waiting for pick up, and liked it so much that she asked that I specifically write her piece. In general, I enjoyed the element of chance involved in just getting whatever topic was on deck when it was my turn at the typewriter, and I also found the restrictive component—maybe I would rather have written the poem about the romantic boss, but I had to write the poem about the South—compelling. In some regard, having to write at random to a subject of someone else’s choosing is not unlike any other poetic form or restriction, like an Oulipo game or a sonnet.

DL: I think there was only one moment where I asked Kathleen to write one instead of me, on the topic of “HEAT”, and that was because I had already written a poem with the topic “HEATWAVE BREAKING”.  Later when I looked at all the poem pictures on my phone I saw Kathleen wrote a heat-centric poem already, so, sorry dude.  It’s definitely best to switch back and forth, it’s more challenging and rewarding.  Maybe next go around, if we have the time, we can try an exquisite corpse or a renga.

How was your writing process affected by the pressure of having to deliver within an hour or so? Was the process the same, only hastened?

KR: For me, the process was totally different than composing poetry alone. When I write a solo poem, I think and plan and draft (and draft and draft, sometimes dozens of times), and often show these drafts to other poets for feedback and further revisions. Obviously, with Poems on Demand, there is no time whatsoever for that kind of multi-stage process, but the haste and spontaneity are what create the appeal and the challenge. Writing a whole poem in a 5-10 minute burst was closer to improv comedy or a jazz solo or an impromptu speech than it is to my “usual” writing process.

DL: I don’t draft as much as some poets, but I take notes and write little lines for a month before I even attempt a first draft. The poems on demand process is definitely like jazz or jam band solos in a way (man I would love to do this in a jazz club)…I think there’s a bit of vaudeville in it as well.  It’s almost as if the longer you take in this sort of situation, the worse the poem is.  Timing, timing, timing.  The typewriter, to me, as an instrument, feeds of off spontaneity and mistakes.  It has a rhythm that you feel, you hear, as you use it. It’s basically a word saxophone.

Did you keep copies of your poems?

KR: We discussed how, if we’d wanted to, we could have purposely kept no copies and considered that act of totally letting go part of the project and the process. In the end, though, we decided it was important to keep a record of our work (we plan on setting up a Tumblr) and although we had carbon paper just in case, we documented the poems with digital photographs.

DL: The Tumblr is actually up (  But it’s still in the process of being built.  I’m not sure if Tumblr is the best vehicle for poetry since it seems like there’s so much pornography, internet trolling, and negativity going on there, but I think it’s a worthwhile experiment, and well, those three things are basically the internet.  We’ll see how it goes. We’ll have most, if not all, of the poems up by the end of July. A lot of customers asked for additional copies of the poems since they were afraid to destroy their poems while attending the fest, drinking beer and being merry, but to me a giant beer stain on a poem artifact only makes it more special.  I really like how these poems are from a one time thing.  It’s a souvenir of your day.  Let it get crinkly and put your gum in it.

What were some of the most interesting topics suggested? Were any of them repeatedly requested, by different “customers”?

KR: We got asked to do an elegy for Amy Winehouse, which was both interesting and sad, and we also got asked to do a super-mean insult poem from a friend to another friend. A lot of our clients requested poems to commemorate specific occasions—engagement, wedding, and anniversary poems were popular, as were birthday poems (including one request from a German tourist for a poem in honor of his ex-wife’s birthday), and several people requested poems about the heat wave/weather. My favorite poem—and maybe the hardest one for me to write—was one where a woman asked for an elegy for her sister and sister’s partner who had both died recently and left a son behind. It can be easy to “go funny” with impromptu/improvisatory writing, but it’s less easy to go sad, and the variety of people’s requests really forced us to try to “make it new” as Ezra Pound said and not default to standard tropes or moves.

DL: So true, it’s much easier to do these quick poems as lighthearted affairs.  We had a gentleman write a paragraph of notes for a poem he planned on giving his fiancee: he had served a tour in Afghanistan with the Royal Army, had been sent to Chicago for a job, and was about to move back to the UK to move in with his fiancee for the first time.  His absolute affection and excitement sopped through the notes.  It was an honor to write that poem for him.

Do you think you will participate in another poems-while-you-wait event in the future? Do you recommend it to other poets?

KR: Yes, we’re already strategizing about where we could set up the typewriter next. The response to the project was so positive that it will be fun to see how it might go somewhere else. And I’d recommend it to other poets who are interested in conceptual writing and stunt poetry, especially since there was a certain David Blaine-style element of physical intensity and endurance to the experience of doing poems on demand, especially during the hottest parts of the day and the busiest times.  I’d also recommend it to poets who are into the idea of bringing poetry to places where people didn’t expect to encounter it, and who are intrigued at the prospect of writing not for some distant, imaginary, potential future reader, but of writing for an audience that is in many cases right there as you’re conceiving of the work. That said, in order to enjoy the experience as a poet, I suspect you’d have to be comfortable with not writing from the perspective of the “lyric I” and also with the idea that not every single word you set down will be “perfect.”

DL: I think David Blaine is the perfect way to categorize this event.  Say what you want about the dude, he’s captivating, and he pushes the human body to strange places.  Now, sweating in a chair writing rhyming quatrains isn’t exactly the same thing as suspending yourself above the Thames in a cage, but, y’know, to a writer’s physique it is.  I think it’s a great exercise for poets to see subconscious tendencies in their craft that can either be eliminated or amplified. I mean, out of the 20 or so I wrote, I have at least two I’m gonna give a spin in redrafting.  I used to do this same exercise in Miami with the Miami Poetry Collective ) and I’d say that the way to flourish while doing this is to not care about yourself or your work as a poet, but to care about your audience.  I don’t think poets ever consider an audience when they write, unless the poem is epistolary in nature.  Having an audience, a person who gives you 5 bucks and smiles at you, runs off to go tell their friends about these crazy poets…it gives you a nice perspective.  It always makes me feel like poems matter again.

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Orange Alert: Where’d the Readers Go?

July 24, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Reading Series

July 17th’s Orange Alert was a bit of a nightmare. For host Jason Brehends at least, after three of his five readers didn’t show up. This is enough to make anyone who plans a reading act like the priest from the beginning of The Exorcist. You know, the guy who jumps outta the window to impale himself on a spiked gate-thingy. I don’t care if you were busy at the casino, Lindsay Hunter. Just because you “felt in your loins” that the “God damn mother suckin’ coin-takin’ machine” was about to blow, that doesn’t mean you can miss a reading commitment. Nor do I care about the fact that you were gonna use your winnings to pay off those prostitutes you hired to pretend to be T-Boz and Chilli from TLC, all so you could pretend you were Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. You didn’t even do anything kinky with those working gals. What a waste.

I think I got off track.

And I’m joking. Lindsay Hunter does not have a gambling or a hooker problem (she’s actually a pretty decent person) and she probably had a good excuse for not being there (because she’s a decent person, so go read Daddy’s). My point is this: it’s impressive that Jason soldiered on with only forty percent of his readers. Even more impressive: that forty percent made it a pretty fun night.

The first (or second-to-last) reader of the night was Steve Himmer, who read from his novel, The Bee-Loud Glade. The piece he read details a man recently unemployed, wasting away in his apartment, and not giving a shit—until he becomes a decorative hermit that is, living in the yard of a rich man who wants to live vicariously through him, as long as he’s in the safety of his own home. Nature is, after all, gross. We never got to the part where he was a decorative hermit though, but only slowly built to it. Part of me wished we’d heard a part of the piece where more was going on, after he’d gotten his job; a guy sitting around unemployed and uncaring doesn’t interest me too much. But, on the other hand, this section he read DID make me want to read more. It was clever and did move at a good, steady pace. So the fact that it made me wish we’d heard more is probably a good thing.

Jesús Ángel García was the second (or last) reader that night. He read from his novel, Bad Bad Bad, an interesting experience for everyone present. His work seems to be sex-focused. Now, you might be thinking, “but all writing is about sex somehow.” You clearly have a one track mind. Even if that is true, Jesús takes that idea and pushes it further. He offers the reader sex-filled stories, exploited in every way possible. Maybe we won’t “see” everything, but exaggerated gestures help move the story along while giving us good sights. Sometimes what he does with language is impressive, especially with dialogue. Other times it all seems too much, and I just think about the fact that my fourteen-year-old self would probably enjoy his stories more than twenty-something Mason (though little has changed). Regardless, he knows how to entertain, as shown by his second piece where he pulled a female audience member up in front of the stage to read a passage from of one of his stories. This stranger from the crowd did a great job with Jesús’ sex driven material, putting on a fake accent and saying every lewd term with gusto. I could see this bit being less funny and more painfully awkward if a volunteer with less character (or more character?) and bravery did it. Thankfully, that night of Orange Alert offered up a great volunteer.

And I don’t just call her a great volunteer because she was my girlfriend.

One of the reasons I like to go to Orange Alert is that it’s exactly how I wouldn’t do a reading. Any readings I host, I want the stories to be quick and funny. I don’t need beautiful prose; I just need to be entertained. While Orange Alert definitely leaves room to be entertained, Jason also encourages his readers to pick longer pieces of work, pieces of novels, pieces that can stretch out a bit. Orange Alert is my monthly dose of medicine that forces me to slow down. Orange Alert may do something different than what I want from most readings, but it does it well, and I really appreciate that.

The cocktails at the Whistler ain’t all that bad either.

Orange Alert’s every third Sunday of the month. Check it out.


Secrets On the Web and Between the Covers

July 14, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Caught on the Web

Literary Chicago’s very own Lauryn Allison Lewis has just joined the ranks of William Faulkner, Edith Wharton, and George Orwell. Yes, she’s written an achingly beautiful book. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. She is now one of the writers featured in Patricia Ann McNair’s ongoing series, View From the Keyboard. Click here to get a peek inside Lauryn’s writing life, see the nest she built for robot-birds, and find out, among other things, one of the ways in which she is like a cat.

McNair is an associate professor in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago and the author of The Temple of Air, a collection of linked stories set to be released by Elephant Rock Books this September. She’s also a self-proclaimed voyeur. In the debut post of her series, she asks, “Is it because I am a writer, or am I just plain nosy?” Whatever the reason, it’s great to see where the magic happens for great writers, old and new—especially now that one of those great writers is Lauryn.

McNair will be celebrating the release of The Temple of Air at Women and Children First on Friday, September 9, 2011 at 7:30pm. The book has already gotten a good deal of praise from critics such as Leah Tallon, Assistant Editor of Fiction at The Nervous Breakdown, who describes New Hope, the town in which the stories take place, as “one person’s cell and another’s safe hiding spot.” “Small towns,” Tallon says, “are a catch-all for every type of person and McNair shows the variety, no two alike, contrary to the stereotypes. She reaches down deep into the cores of her characters, pulls out their secrets, the things that make them human, and presents them to you in this book.” From the secrets of writing to the secrets of everyday life, McNair seems to have a flair for pulling back veils and revealing what matters.

Religion with Nerves of Steel

July 06, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Patriotism, Reading Series, Religion

Lewis Ford draping a rattlesnake onto a member of his congregation (1945). Image taken from

It is the night of July 5th and we are toasting the birth of America. We are listening to gospel music while digging through our pockets for money to contribute to the circulating basket.

By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll  tell the story how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

But don’t worry. We haven’t joined the Tea Party or anything like that. (Sorry, Tia, my aggressively “born again” aunt.) We are at the Hungry Brain for So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?, the literary variety show which was originally conceived of by Todd Dills and others at The2ndhand, and it’s just the kind of religious experience we need. Series host Harold Ray is our kind of minister (he is played by Jacob Knabb, editor of Another Chicago Magazine). “We let you in for free,” he says, “because we’re low-rent like that. But we are trying to raise money for a projector so we can show pornographic images.” (That’s a joke, Tia. Well, sort of.)

Chicago Artist’s Resource (CAR) describes Harold as a “ruinous West Virginia janitor who secretly longs to become a famous country singer but who has no discernible talents other than the ability to drunkenly croon.” It also says that “he only hosts the show because he thinks it will lead to a record deal.” What it fails to mention is that he’s ferociously honest and immediately likeable. After a charming performance by folk rock band Good Evening that includes a fiddle, a ukulele, and tap dancing percussion, Harold introduces the first reader of the evening, James Kennedy, by saying, “I don’t know this motherfucker. But the last time I saw him, he was dressed like a wizard. So you can’t really respect him.”

Kennedy is the author of The Order of Odd-Fish, a hilarious, absurd, and challenging young adult fantasy novel about a 13-year-old girl who struggles against a horrifying destiny in a world where butlers are foppish talking cockroaches and an order of knights is wholly committed to the act of “dithering.” Part Monty Python and part Roald Dahl, it is the sort of book that can inspire in young and old alike both fits of laughter and deep philosophical thought. After taking the stage, Kennedy says, sheepishly, “I usually read at junior high schools, so this is a different vibe for me.” Then he launches into a surprisingly forceful and dynamic reading. It’s like he’s reading a bedtime story to a kid who got a concussion and therefore cannot be allowed to sleep. He is shouting and flailing his arms about. When one of his characters jumps out of a window, he leaps off the stage and into the audience. He’s talking about interplanetary olympics, a tear in a space suit, dragon wasps, and a vainglorious man by the name of Moot. “Does there exist a font noble enough to describe the history of the Moots?” he asks, in character. At one point, when he says, “Sweat gathers on your upper lip,” he actually approaches a member of the audience and wipes the sweat off the man’s upper lip.

By the time he’s finished, it seems Kennedy succeeds in earning a degree of respect from Harold. “Goddamn,” Harold declares. “Makes me wish I could read.”

Next up is Aaaaaaaaaaalice. That’s Alice with eleven A’s. Poet Jennifer Karmin is joined by two of her friends for an unrehearsed performance of her “text-sound epic.” She explains that it’s a sort of travelogue that starts in the United States, and then moves onto Asia and Russia. But as she and the women at her side each read from different parts of the collection, all at the same time, it’s not Rick Steves’ Europe that comes to mind but, rather, a play called Play by Samuel Beckett and a song called “The Murder Mystery” by the Velvet Underground. There is a lulling rhythm to the joint reading, almost like chanting. We can only catch certain words and phrases, those that are coincidentally spoken in unison or while the other readers are inhaling: “depending,” “waiting,” “we wish,” “bags look alike,” “a school house built in 1910,” “sometimes we go together.” Karmin leaves the stage on two separate occasions, marching to the rear of the space and back again, first yelling “Hello!” like she is lost, and then repeating, “practice, practice, practice.” We are made to feel like we ourselves are travelers in a distant land, grasping snippets of custom and conversation around us but unable to fully understand their significance. It is frustrating, unnerving, and fascinating, and just when we feel we cannot take anymore, Karmin says, “We reach the point where we understand a little,” and her performance is over.

Perhaps realizing that we need to recover from our poetry-induced jet lag, Harold takes a moment to sing Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” before he announces the next act, the Puterbaugh Sisters. Formally trained in “American improvisation,” the sisters start off by taking suggestions for songs from the audience; every single one of them leads to the refrain of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” Not the whole song, just the refrain. Theirs is a comedy that combines old and new, sketch and stand-up, vaudeville and one-liners about oral sex. They sing an old-timey sounding jingle about The Container Store, talk about their upcoming “douchebags and casseroles” event, and explain that they are collecting scorpions so that they can drop them onto passersby from the rooftops of tall buildings just to be able to say, “Hey, guys, aren’t you glad it’s not raining scorpions every day?” They’re shameless flirts, too. One sister asks a member of the audience if she’s Native American, and when she says that yes, she is, the sister replies, “That is why I’ve been hearing your spirit guide telling me to go down on you.” They also perform 1940s film noir stars and 1950s B-horror movie actresses reacting to everyday questions like “Do you use Turbo Tax to do your taxes?” and improvise a song by Erykah Badu based on the audience suggestion of “Pants.” Someday, those pants are gonna get in your way . . . Back in the day, when I had some pants—gimme some pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants . . .”

Michael Czyzniejewski has the difficult task of following the Puterbaugh Sisters. But he doesn’t seem too worried about it. He is the author of an eclectic collection of short stories called Elephants in Our Bedroom, which has been praised by Aimee Bender as being “both wry-funny and absurd-funny, plunging into the everyday and the outrageous.” From the way he’s flipping through his stack of papers, it seems as though he’s printed out a random set of his works and is only now deciding what he will be reading to us. “What do you like? Oprah? Do you like Oprah? Is she still here or did she leave Chicago once her show ended?” As it turns out, though, these aren’t random, unrelated pieces; they’re all parody monologues of celebrities. There’s Rod Blagojevich negotiating his first tattoo at Joliet State Prison (“A basic symbol would be nice, like a clover or a heart . . . an outline of the state would be good for irony . . .”), Mr. T selling male enhancement pills (“Send a message to your brain. Heart: send blood down south now!”), and Ann Landers warning that the use of Twitter is the primary cause of teenage pregnancy (“What’s next? What’s after teenage pregnancy? Yes, crack babies.”). He also explains the ten simple rules that allow David Yow of The Jesus Lizards to keep a smile on his face, one of which is to always be honest with people, even if it makes them hate you, because then “you’ll be able to call yourself a straight shooter.”

Finally we reach the “experimental freakout with extended kazoo patriotics” portion of the evening, performed by the Post-Revolutionary Let Downs. Harold Ray, who’s in the band, says that it “believes in following up the 4th of July with a certain reverence.” So it performs its rendition of By and By and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, among others. He dares Weston Rose of Good Evening to return to the stage for an improvised piece of country gospel music set to passages of The Frugal Gourmet, asking for the first and only time this evening: “Do you have nerves of steel?” Rose accepts the challenge and The Frugal Gourmet has never sounded so cool. Appearing to be in his element, Harold says, “I know you northern socialists can appreciate the proletariat. It’s what led you not to vote in the last election.”

But wait, there’s more! Just when we think the evening has ended, Harold introduces “two random motherfuckers,” two men in tuxedos carrying a bugle bike horn and a silver flask. These two men look suspiciously like the Puterbaugh Sisters. One sits on the other’s lap and they do a live dummy bit, singing a mash-up that starts off with Judy Garland’s “Trolley Song” and Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” “We Googled what teens love these days and we found that they love mash-ups.” The last thing I remember about this installment of So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel? is the dudes who look like the Puterbaugh Sisters promoting their “orphan slinger,” a sling used to hurl chestnuts at orphans. “It says, ‘Hey orphans, you don’t have a lot of parents. But we sure have a lot of chestnuts.’” I remember that and also Harold Ray giving a shout-out to “Dangerous Dan, Bartender Man.” Hallelujah, this is how church should be.

Click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Related Blog Post
Spit is God’s Lube by Harold Ray, host of So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?


A Guide for the Grieving

June 28, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Book Reviews, Grief and Loss

a review of Ben Tanzer’s novella, My Father’s House

When a loved one dies unexpectedly, their sins are suddenly pardoned, lifelong points of contention are forever set aside, and those left behind to mourn huddle together, able to recount nothing but good times, the joyful highlights of the deceased person’s life. It is a common phenomenon.

But what happens when a person’s death is foretold in low blood platelet counts, a mysterious seizure, a trip to the hospital that ends in a diagnosis of cancer? What happens when a family is denied the grace of losing a loved one quickly, and instead must find a path toward making amends, finding closure, and saying goodbye, all while their father and spouse is suspended in the disquieting limbo between life and death?

Ben Tanzer’s latest novella, My Father’s House, soon to be released by Main Street Rag Publishing Company, examines this conflict and several others others often found in Tanzer’s fiction.

For instance, the narrator of My Father’s House is a social worker by profession:

“I am at work. I work at a drop-in center for the homeless. When people first walk in, there is a ping pong table to their right and a bunch of couches to the left crowded around a television. After that there is a desk where we greet people and I am sitting at that desk, trying to greet people as they come in for lunch and trying my best to answer their questions.”

An oxymoron of marital terms (deeply loving but not strictly monogamous):

“I’m in pain. I’ve got a dying father and this girl has something to offer, something almost medicinal, and it’s okay then, okay, okay, okay, something I keep telling myself as we have sex in the backseat of her car, legs everywhere, and then I walk back to my father’s house, stopping long enough to shower once there before climbing into bed with Kerri and drifting off to sleep, drunk and restless.”

A son driven to make his parents proud, but self-aware enough to admit that at times there were detrimental oversights in their parenting:

“I remember that he and my mom asked me to sit down in the kitchen so we could talk…they sat me down and told me how my father was moving out for a little while, but that things would be the same, and that I’s still see him as much as I ever did. I remember sitting there trying to look nonchalant and unbothered by the news, staring straight ahead the whole time, no emotions, no nothing. They asked if I had any questions but I didn’t say a word, choosing instead to casually shake my head no, focused on getting out and moving on before the tears came.”

Much of this is explored during the narrator’s therapy sessions, amid parallel, nearly-obsessive inner monologues concerning the therapist’s tiny hands. “I’m at the therapist’s. She is looking at me with that curly hair. And those hands, those tiny little hands that I want to suck on.”

Tanzer’s latest work will immediately strike a familiar chord in those who have had the great pleasure of reading his previous novels and collections. Still, My Father’s House is in many ways a stunning departure from the writer’s thematic repertoire. The writing here is incredibly direct, emotional, tender and honest. And again, Tanzer weaves in musical inspiration throughout the novella via Bruce Springsteen, but does not hide behind these references or use them as a catch-all to articulate what his characters are feeling.

Lastly and perhaps most importantly, I beg you not to be deterred by Tanzer’s exploration of one family’s medical crisis. Heavy though the subject may be, this writer is one of very few who possess the ability to balance sadness with humor; dry and self-deprecating, and understated so as not to seem incongruent, his humor is thoroughly appreciated and at times much needed.

My Father’s House is a novella brave enough to strip itself bare and stand before its audience, vulnerable but unashamed. It is one you’ll hold to your heart after reading; a literary light capable of illuminating a story familiar to so many with nothing but utmost respect, love, and understanding.

Quickies! Says, “Good Riddance”

June 27, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: End of an Era, Reading Series

Let’s make this quick(ies), I got shit to do.

Heh, get it? Quickies. Like the reading series that just said goodbye to co-host Mary Hamilton cause that ho is moving to LA? Like the reading series I’m reviewing right now, at this very moment?

Oh, go to hell. Puns are cool.


Goodbyes can get awkward. They can be teary-eyed catastrophes where people turn into miserable, blubbering messes. If you’re a pussy, that is. Thankfully, Mary Hamilton ain’t no pussy. She’s one tough broad. She kept the waterworks at bay, which helped her last Chicago Quickies! stand out as something to remember (and not be embarrassed about).

Quickies!, the reading where participants must read their entire story in four minutes or less, had a few differences this time around. Firstly, Lindsay Hunter (1), Mary’s other half, had instructed all the writers involved to read something that had to do with Mary. The topics and themes were quite varied. Robbie Q. Telfer’s honored the Hamilton by speaking about Night Court’s Bull Shannon. (3) Most interesting was Jacob Knabb, who is typically loathed for singing at readings, I mean, really hated, but outdid himself with his extremely enjoyable rendition of Boys II Men’s “End of the Road” (4). What stood out most was Theo Huxtable (5), mentioned in practically every piece, exemplifying Mary’s apparent “perfect man.” (Dyslexic, but handsome, amirite? High five!)

The most entertaining parts of the night came from Mary Hamilton’s whistle (not a euphemism). Typically, whenever a reader hits the four minute mark, Mary blows a whistle to signify that they should get the hell away from the mic. Rules were different this night though. She was free to whistle whenever she wanted to. For example: through all of Patrick Somerville’s piece. I have no idea what it was about, but boy is he a tough li’l soldier for continuing through Mary’s sonic onslaught. Mostly the whistle was used to keep our emotions in check, lest we turn into a buncha fourteen-year-old girls leaking salty water from our eye sockets (Dave Snyder and I turned into fourteen year old girls once, it was awful). If Robyn Pennacchia tried to profess her love to Mary while she read, then she’d get the whistle to put her in place. If Lindsay started to read something she wrote that was actually somewhat sentimental, BAM, whistle. She should know better anyways. The whistle really exemplified what Mary Hamilton is to everyone: a chick who keeps everyone in line. And everyone lets her because everyone loves her. Without Mary Hamilton, where exactly will Chicago be? I don’t quite know, but it’s gonna be real damn depressing, that’s for sure. Thanks for leaving, Mary. You asshole. (6)


  1. Originally, I wrote “Lindsay Hamilton,” combining Lindsay Hunter
    and Mary Hamilton into one person. Big mistake, especially because
    this real life combination would be disastrous. Like the perfect
    serial killer. Our hobo population would disappear. I don’t care what
    you say about hobos, I like them.
  2. This comment has nothing to do with Mary (not everything’s about
    you, Hamilton), I just wanted to point out that footnotes really don’t
    work well in WordPress. Sorry.
  3. This guy! Ugh…
  4. Originally, I thought he had performed “I’ll Make Love To You,”
    which is another great B2Men song. I was wrong. Again. I was wrong a
    lot in this review. Also, Jacob’s real high point that night was when
    he and I picked up two glasses of beer, both from strangers, and drank
    them down. The story to that exists below in the comments section.
    Matt Rowan corrected my use of “peaked,” pointing out that I was
    looking for “piqued.” He’s peaked my interest in punching him in the
  5. I originally wrote “Huxely” instead of “Huxtable.” As if the
    handsome dyslexic were really a lame sci-fi writer who liked LSD.
  6. Nothing has been pointed out as incorrect in this paragraph… yet.
    Give it time I suppose. I think I learned something from writing this
    review. Mainly, writing a review of a reading two weeks after it
    happened, on your smart phone as you ride the train, is a bad idea.
    Especially when you were half sick / half tipsy at said reading,
    sitting in the back where you couldn’t see the readers and could only
    hear half of what they said. Whoops. Sorry for being a failure. <3


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Quintessentially American

June 16, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Book Reviews

a review of Alan Heathcock’s new collection of short stories, Volt

If you haven’t yet read Alan Heathcock’s debut book, Volt, published recently by Graywolf Press, it’s about time you do. Volt is a stunning collection of stories linked by one prominent commonality: the imagined town of Krafton, a place wholly unto itself in terms of geographical features, as well as the type of person Krafton seems to produce—hard-working, hard-earning, hold-no-punches, and God-fearing. They are coarse, weather worn at times, yes, but the characters of Volt also express an overwhelming capacity for emotional insight and depth, psychological complexity and poignant tenderness.

Take for example this excerpt from the collection’s opening story, “Staying the Freight,”

“But the grace of Krafton came with the seasons, sowing, reaping, breeding an understanding that last year has no bearing on this one; this crop might be better, or worse, and regardless there’ll be another and then another. In this there was only the future and diligent work, and not emotion but movement, just as the rain falling or crops sprouting was not emotion.”

“Staying the Freight” tracks the panicked, fleeing movement of Winslow, a man desperate to escape a memory he cannot bear to confront. He is haunted along his journey away from home by a “freight man.” Whether this man is a spectral manifestation of Winslow’s unexplored pain, or an actual being, Heathcock’s delivery leaves pinhole openings in which readers must settle many of the collection’s gripping mysteries for themselves.

Like “Staying the Freight,” each of the stories included here is written in a beautifully sincere, wide-eyed and open-faced manner. Heathcock wastes no time mincing words or meanings; his style is beautifully unfettered, quintessentially American. Volt is a novel woven of nature’s elements, human nuance, and heartrending honesty.

Volt sets a new standard to which all other fiction collections must now measure themselves. I sense it will be a long time before readers find anything worthy of close comparison, unless Alan Heathcock decides to publish another book, and soon.

Related Blog Post
An Interview with Alan Heathcock by Weston Cutter at Bookslut

Two Cookie Minimum (With No Maximum!)

June 14, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Reading Series

Like Clark Kent, John Warzazek has an alter ego. Unlike Clark Kent, John doesn’t find his way into a phone booth to change costumes, or take his glasses on or off, or really do anything to disguise his true identity while acting as alter ego Johnny Misfit. He just kind of switches names at will, never bothering to protect his true identity from enemies that might hurt his family, which makes sense. I can’t see John having any enemies. He’s a nice guy, and what’s more, a decent host for the stomach-filling reading Two Cookie Minimum.

The first thing you should know about Two Cookie Minimum is that there are, in fact, cookies. Usually held in a bakery, they tend to be plentiful. June 7th’s reading took place at the Hungry Brain, a great bar for readings; the kind of place where people both listen attentively to stories, but also feel comfortable enough to playfully heckle anyone on stage, which is a nice combination. Plus, one of the bartenders, Dan, knows me by name now. A positive peak of alcoholism.

Mr. Misfit opened up the night by reading a piece he wrote that was both quick and clever. The story, about a man taking a good, ol’ fashioned poop, really showed how vulnerable we can be as human beings. (Not really, but it was funny.) This piece was a good start for the night, setting a tone of great stories from both zinesters and writers alike (as if a distinction needs to be made between the two). Georgi Johnston charmed the crowd next with her innocent act, claiming to have never done a reading before as she read a letter she “received” from a pen-pal who lives in a cave and is totally real. This was one of the high points of the night, watching as Georgi played with form and genuinely made everyone laugh. Another high point of the night was Chris Terry, who also made everyone laugh. Chris’ story, Hairzilla, took the audience on a trip through adolescence with a well written 2nd person narrator. The night continued to be a blast with Dave Snyder pondering about Jesus’ virgin birth as compared to a turkey, Behnam Riahi reading what one might describe as a shitty story (in a good, albeit disgusting, kinda way), Ben Spies not being afraid to end his story on a sad note, and Dave Roche entertaining us with his asides as much as he did with his piece (about Penguins!!!).

The part about Two Cookie that inspires me most, which John was nice enough to point out, is that it’s a combination of writers and zinesters. This wouldn’t seem significant, in that, well, a writer is a writer, except for the fact that all too often, especially in a city like Chicago, we tend to divide ourselves into as many groups as possible. Too many damn cliques. Which seems a bit off when you consider the fact that, despite the great amount of readings, writers are kind of a minority. While I like my friends, I get tired of going to readings and knowing the majority of everyone there. It’s nice to have events like Two Cookie Minimum where artists from circles I might not typically interact with show up. Makes me feel all good inside. Thanks, Johnny Misfit, for making me feel good inside.


Literary Death Match Returns to Chicago

June 08, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Hosts Todd Zuniga (foreground) and Dennis DiClaudio (background).

In April of 2010, I saw Todd Zuniga give a lecture on the future of publishing at Columbia College Chicago (see “How to Trick People into Reading”). The founding editor of a stylish, funny, and cutting-edge literary magazine called Opium, Zuniga was scheduled later that day to host an installment of his popular reading series, Literary Death Match. I’d never been, but I opted instead for an evening in front of my computer, writing about his lecture. I thought, I’ll catch Literary Death Match next time. Big mistake. Because Chicago shares Literary Death Match with 33 other cities around the world, including Beijing, Edinburgh, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam, it wouldn’t return to us until over a year later.

At long last, Zuniga is back at the Hide Out for Literary Death Match’s 152nd show. Sporting a black bow tie and a shiny, elaborately-patterned blazer, he stands beside his co-host, Comedy Central’s Dennis DiClaudio, and says apologetically, “We haven’t been in Chicago in fourteen months because you guys have the most amazing reading series in the world.” He has a point. Each of tonight’s contestants and judges has participated in one local reading series or another. In fact, Ian Belknap, tonight’s champion, has developed a degree of notoriety by regularly being the “Minister of Veracity” or “Fact Checker” at The Encyclopedia Show, the “Dean of Mean” at The Paper Machete, and “The Overlord” at Write Club – a series he himself created and hosts (see “Fighting Words at Write Club”). These excellent reading series are listed among others in Literary Chicago’s left-hand sidebar (see “A Year of Essay Fiesta” and “Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic”). Zuniga is right to suggest that we have not lacked for good literary entertainment and enlightenment in his show’s absence, but it’s still great to have it back.

Literary Death Match’s “about” page says that it “marries the literary and performative aspects of Def Poetry Jam, rapier-witted quips of American Idol’s judging (without any meanness), and the ridiculousness and hilarity of Double Dare.” Alan Black, author of Kick the Balls, calls it “the magic mushroom of Planet Lit,” and who among us on Planet Lit doesn’t need a good magic mushroom from time to time?

Judges from left to right: Steve Gadlin, Kate James, and Claire Zulkey.

Tonight, the magic mushroom consists of readings by Johanna Stein, Samantha Irby, Amy Guth, and the aforementioned Ian Belknap; and judging by Claire Zulkey, Kate James, and Steve Gadlin. Zuniga determines the order of readings by throwing “projectiles” into the audience (tiny rolled-up pieces of paper that resemble spit balls) and by flipping a toy gun. Following is an overview of each of the readings and highlights of the judging.

Round 1:

Johanna Stein versus Samantha Irby


After lamenting the fact that no school has invited her to give a commencement address to its graduates, JOHANNA STEIN cues the Pomp and Circumstance and delivers one to us, beginning by saying, “If I can impart one piece of advice to you, it is this: don’t be an asshole.” People who are assholes include those who ask, “So, what do you do?”  and Stein’s dog — who’s gay, in love with her husband, and hypercritical of her lovemaking. She ends her speech by flipping onto her back, legs in the air, and squealing, “We represent the lollipop guild!” (It totally makes sense in context.)


Claire Zulkey: I like the timeliness of Johanna’s piece. I went to a school full of assholes, so I appreciated that.

Kate James: You flipped and we saw nothing — except magic.

Steve Gadlin: Hearing you talk about assholes, all I felt was shame for me. But I liked that feeling.


Cheered on by fans of her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, SAMANTHA IRBY explains why and how she wanted and then, subsequently, didn’t want to “fuck a midget.” “When I saw 5’2″, I thought, ‘Finally, my opportunity to legally fuck someone who’s not allowed to ride on a roller coaster . . . ‘I thought you’d be slimmer,’ he said. Yeah. The midget.” In the end, Irby decides that she can’t “in good conscience make love to a human the size of a My Buddy doll.” There isn’t a moment free of laughter throughout Irby’s entire reading.


Claire Zulkey: We knew right away that this was going to be about fucking a midget.

Kate James: I don’t know you, but I already like you. Based on what you said and based on the fact that someone back there is holding up a Bitches Gotta Eat sign.

Steve Gadlin: Roller coaster. There’s a vaudeville routine that sums this up for me: “Would you like a Hershey bar?” “Yes, I would like a Hershey bar.” “Well, I don’t have a Hershey bar.”

Samantha Irby

• • 

Round 2

Amy Guth versus Ian Belknap

Now a Chicago writer, AMY GUTH paints a vivid picture of herself as the cool New Yorker, unimpressed by celebrity sitings such as that of Cyd Charisse – until the day she spots Morrissey holding up a Squeeze album at a music store. “Let’s be very clear about this. I love The Smiths . . . I planned a couple of dates on my book tour around where Morrissey would be touring . . . Despite everything I’d been taught my entire life (about being a cool New Yorker), I wanted – nay, NEEDED, to talk to Morrissey.” While she may stand by her decision to approach him, she will forever regret her decision to “wing it.” Without a plan, she ended up holding her finger out to the Squeeze album “like E.T. reaching for Eliot” and making a sound “something between a pterodactyl and a horn.” Years later, an editor would deny her the opportunity to interview Morrissey because of this moment.

Claire Zulkey: I love stories about celebrity sitings. One time I got in line behind Jon Stewart in an airport McDonald’s, even though I didn’t want to buy anything.

Kate James: You’re a storyteller, not a performer . . . I love that you rested on Morrissey – that, of all people, it was him that made you lose your cool. This is a story your children will tell your grandchildren, and your grandchildren will say, “What’s a CD?”

Steve Gadlin: Who’s Cyd Charisse? Wonderful. Fifty percent of us had no fucking idea who you were talking about.

Entitled “My Persistent Difficulty in Obtaining Corporate Sponsorship,” IAN BELKNAP’S reading is an open letter to Nell Newman, daughter of late Hollywood legend, philanthropist, and organic foodstuff extraordinaire, Paul Newman. After requisite condolences, Belknap proposes that Newman’s Own Championship Cookies serve as sole corporate sponsor for his one-man show. In return, he will demonstrate his enthusiasm for their product by eating it on stage, then “pooping into a bowl,” then eating the resulting poop “while they’re still warm.” Because Nell’s father had “a real bug up his butt about helping sick kids,” Belknap also offers to fake the disease of her choice. “For a thousand bucks, I’ll throw up whenever you want.” His voice cracking wildly, he explains that such measures have become necessary for “hardworking Americans.” “I hate my job like syphilis . . . Every hour I don’t kill myself is a miracle.”


Claire Zulkey: Wow, Ian, you really took me on a journey tonight. Sometimes…I resented you. I don’t like thinking about eating poop. But I understand why you did that and there was not a word wasted. You talked a lot about cookies and that made me hungry.

Kate James: Big fan, first time caller. You are the most ridiculous person I know and I know a lot of people. I’m scared of you. I never know what to expect. When you started, I thought, “What is this about?” And then here we go, we’re shitting in a bowl. The levels are Escher-like. Lots of cookie imagery. Tonight we’ve had two celebrity encounters — our first two readings were sexy time and the second two were celebrity fucking.

Steve Gadlin: I’m surprised that cookies stand out for you two. Most of us will be haunted by the bowl of shit. That was beautiful . . . I just wish you send that letter to Nell Newman and that there will be a second piece about her response.

Ian Belknap

• • 


Samantha Irby versus Ian Belknap

In keeping with the series’ commitment to absurd physical contests that are only peripherally literary — or maybe, as Zuniga points out, “more literary than anything” — our finalists must face off in a game of Down with Book Burners! DiClaudio holds a small basketball hoop and Belknap and Irby throw as many crumpled-up photographs of known book burners into it as they can. In a 5-4 win, Belnap becomes the champion of the 152nd Literary Death Match by dunking a picture of Max Brod.

Ian Belknap

Let’s hope that the next Literary Death Match for Chicago is not fourteen months away. We need it about one-tenth as much as Amy Guth needs to talk to Morrissey, which is saying a lot.

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The Beauty of Losing Someone

June 05, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Grief and Loss

“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina

Something similar to déjà vu occurs when I return to the Loop Room at University Center for a second panel discussion during this Saturday’s Printers Row Lit Fest. It’s not just that the room is the same or that both of its discussions are conducted by women –  four in the first, three in the second. It’s that all of these women are talking about loss. In “Missing in Action,” moderator Mairead Case talks with Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen – novelists whose books each revolve around the disappearance of someone important, someone close. In “My Family, My Memoir,” moderator Kathleen Rooney talks with Zoe Fitzgerald Carter and Cornelia Maude Spelman – memoir writers whose books center on the unusual deaths of their mothers. The two discussions could have been called “Loss, Part 1: Fiction” and “Loss, Part 2: Nonfiction.” One might imagine that with so much talk of loss, the air would be heavy with grief and sadness. It’s not.

Certainly, there is a great deal of gravity in the room when Cornelia Maude Spelman begins “My Family, My Memoir” by holding up a copy of her book, entitled Missing, and declaring, “This is my mother at the age of sixteen, and this [on the cover] is her diary writing. She was not missing, but she did die when I was 28 years old. Witnessing her decline was like watching her lower herself into boiling oil.” Like her mother, Spelman herself is a diary writer, as well as a meticulous archivist, and she quickly reveals to us how research and writing for this book helped her to investigate the mystery of her mother’s death. Her voice is somewhat clinical, perhaps reflective of her background as a therapist, as she describes her first forays into the hospital records that describe her mother’s mental illness: “The prognosis is extremely grave. No potential for rehabilitation.” But the tough exterior cracks a bit as Spelman considers the possibility that her mother may have been right and not “delusional” in believing that Frank, her brother and her mother’s son, was intent on killing her. Later, in answer to an audience member’s question about research, the author says, “In every family, there are those untold stories, or hints of stories, and those are often the most interesting . . . You can go on a marvelous treasure hunt.” Although hers was a search that may have been too painful to describe as a “marvelous treasure hunt,” one does get the sense that it yielded a great wealth of insight and resolution.

“Even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty,” says Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, by way of introduction to the passage she reads from her book, Imperfect Endings. It is about how her mother, after having struggled with Parkinson’s for 20 years, decides to end her own life and have her daughters at her side when she goes. Few situations could be more difficult. As anyone who’s experienced the passing of a loved one knows, reality itself can appear to take on different shapes and colors in the moments before, during, and after death. But Carter’s work suggests that these shapes and colors needn’t all be sharp angles and icy grays. She doesn’t read to us about needles and bedpans and hospital gowns, though these things may indeed be mentioned in her book; she reads to us instead about the memory of a stormy Fourth of July. Her mother lay in bed, and she and her children wait for the rains to pass so that they could light fireworks. When the noise of the storm convinces one of her kids that their house is falling down, she says, “That’s what thunder sounds like, like something breaking. But it’s really just two clouds crashing into each other.” Carter tries to get her mom to corroborate, but she’s begun to doze off. Finally, the storm passes and she’s lighting fireworks, “each an ephemeral umbrella of light.”  In a line reminiscent of Dylan Thomas’ “rage against the dying of the light,” she says, “I’m so intent on keeping the sky alive with light and color and glory.”

Despite her strength and success as a memoir writer, Carter herself doesn’t enjoy reading memoirs much. “I like novels better. I don’t really understand the importance of it being truthful. There can be just as much truth in a novel, only it can be more free-wheeling.” She may have appreciated the “Missing in Action” panel discussion, then, because the more “free-wheeling” approach of the novel is exactly what its authors have each taken with regards to the subject of loss.

As a matter of fact, “free-wheeling” may be a good word to describe Hannah Pittard’s approach to life, and not just literature. She explains during the discussion that she has a habit of rewriting history, telling her own life’s stories to herself and to others for maximum effect rather than accuracy. Her revisions are often so vivid that she herself sometimes has trouble remembering whether or not they are true. A case in point: in her book, The Fates Will Find Their Way, she writes a scene in which boys get in trouble for masturbating in their school auditorium. She hesitated to include this scene, not because of its obscenity, but rather, because she believed it to be based on a true story from her childhood. When she shared her work with former fellow classmates, however, none of them recognized the scene, and it wasn’t until a former teacher came forward to substantiate it that she stopped questioning her own memory. The Fates will Find Their Way is actually about the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl from an unnamed mid-Atlantic town and, more specifically, the effect that her disappearance has on her family and friends – those who never completely let her go, even after graduating, getting married, and having children. It is written in the very unusual first-person plural point of view (“we believe”), which may lend it a sense of otherworldliness.

Anna North’s book, America Pacifica, goes to far greater lengths in establishing otherworldliness. It takes place after a second ice age, on the title island, which is one of the last places on Earth to be habitable. Loss here is epic. The lines that stand out in North’s reading include “I’m sorry that it’s come to this but we’re going to have to eat the children” and “Wait, Daddy, don’t eat us. I have an idea . . . ” Despite the extreme, fantastic, and far-removed setting of this book, however (maybe not that far-removed, given global warming), she explores issues of an ordinary and universal theme: coming of age. “I was interested in this process of making a new self, an adult self.”

Lesley Kagen shares this interest, although her characters are set in 1950s America. “It was beautiful and not in the way that many people think it was. There was a stillness . . . a tactileness and a sensuality.” Perhaps it is Kagen’s attention to the five senses that allows her to imagine worlds so precisely that she develops actual affection for her characters and is sad to stop “seeing” them once she’s finished writing her novels. Jokingly, she says, “People ask me, ‘So what happens after the book ends?’ And I go, ‘Really? It’s pretend.” But she’s moved to tears when she recounts the time during a reading in “Podunk, Wisconsin” that she spotted a woman in the audience crying and holding up a tape recorder. This woman told her that she and a friend both loved her work because it was set in the 1950s, when they grew up, and that she was recording the event because her friend was dying. The two of them would lay next to each other on a hospital bed the next day, listening together. Kagen’s tears are the only ones that surface during the two events about loss. Maybe that’s partly because in this memory she is able to see that, as Carter puts it, “even in the midst of difficult situations there are often moments of beauty.”

From Left to Right: Mairead Case, Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen.

Mairead Case is a member of the Dil Pickle Club, nonfiction editor at Another Chicago Magazine, and volunteer coordinator for the Louder Than a Bomb youth poetry festival.

Hannah Pittard is the author of The Fates Will Find Their Way and the recipient of the 2006 Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award. She teaches fiction at DePaul University.

Anna North is the author of America Pacifica and a staff writer for Jezebel. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, where it was nominated for a National Magazine Award.

Lesley Kagen is an actress, restauranteur, and the author of Whistling in the Dark and two other novels.

From Left to Right: Zoe Fitzgerald Carter, Kathleen Rooney, and Cornelia Maude Spelman

Zoe Fitzgerald Carter is the author of the memoir Imperfect Endings: A Daughter’s Story of Love, Loss, and Letting Go. She has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Salon, and Vogue.

Kathleen Rooney is the founding editor of Rose Metal Press. Her most recent books include the essay collection For You, For You I Am Trilling These Songs and the poetry chapbook After Robinson Has Gone.

Cornelia Maude Spelman is a writer, an artist, and a former social worker. She is the author of the memoir Missing, as well as picture books for children.


Literary Dynamite

May 31, 2011 By: Lauryn Allison Lewis Category: Book Reviews

a review of Ryan W. Bradley’s new collection of short stories, Prize Winners

Ryan W. Bradley has fronted a punk band, done construction in the Arctic Circle, and managed an independent children’s bookstore. He is the author of three chapbooks and a novel, Code for Failure, which will be published in 2012 by Black Coffee Press. He is now a freelance book designer and lives in Oregon with his wife and two sons.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that Ryan W. Bradley is a friend of mine. I will also tell you that I am stone-cold and impenetrable to favoritism and flattery. So if I didn’t think his newest creation, Prize Winners, was literary dynamite, I would not be reviewing it and concurrently insisting you make it your own.

Prize Winners is the first of Artistically Declined Press’ Pop Up Release series, which will, according to Mr. Bradley, “bring fun and surprise to publishing. It’s a project I’m really hoping works out because ideally it will allow us to publish a few more books a year, which would be awesome.” The man speaks golden truths. It certainly would be awesome; Artistically Declined Press has a Midas touch and a keen eye for stellar manuscripts.

Prize Winners is a 112-page collection of eighteen mostly flash-length stories, which is just right, considering the punch each packs – considering the unwavering gaze each levels at its reader, daring one to flinch, daring one to sync up one’s heartbeat with its own pounding pulse.

Several of the stories are preceded by dedications, one to Chicago’s own Lindsay Hunter. “Pubes” begins, “Girls were shaving their pubes now, Donnie knew from his friends and from the internet. And guys were doing it, too. His friend Jeremy said he’d done it. That girls went crazy for it. ‘Plus it makes you look huge,’ Jeremy said. Donnie was standing in the shower running his fingers through his mane of pubic hair. He pulled strands straight, thought why not. After all, tonight he had his first date in months and he wanted it to go well. If his dry spell lasted any longer he might just lose it altogether.”

Yes, sex is a sticky thread winding itself through every story here: awkward sex, hate sex, scared sex, underage sex, even Tom Selleck sex. But do not be fooled, gentle reader, there’s much more to this collection than meets the loins. These stories capture the best and worst of what it means to be a human who slips and sputters along the path toward being. Loneliness, sure, but forgiveness, joy, fear, boredom, and at times, many times, inexplicable love.

Prize Winners wins it. All eighteen rounds. All in a row.

Pre-order your copy at Artistically Declined Press. Ryan promises to sign your copy, and might even draw you a little cartoon.

Related Blog Post
Ryan W. Bradley


It’s Time for Printers Row

May 27, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Event Listing

The Chicago Tribune released the schedule for its 27th Annual Printers Row Lit Fest today. Featuring more than 200 authors and 150 booksellers, the Fest will be held in the South Loop from 10am to 6pm on Saturday, June 4th, and Sunday, June 5th. A map and a lengthy schedule of events is available on the Tribune’s website. As always, there seems to be something for everyone. Here are some highlights:



The Art of Biography with Patricia Albers, Jonathan Eig, Louise Knight, and Adrian Burgos Jr., moderated by Sam Weller | Saturday at 11:15am | Hotel Blake

Urban Wilderness with Tom Montgomery Fate and Chris Green in conversation with Donna Seaman | Saturday at 11:15am | Grace Place, 2nd Floor

Missing in Action with Hannah Pittard, Anna North, and Lesley Kagen, moderated by Mairead Case | Saturday at 11:45am | University Center, Loop Room

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Fighting Words at Write Club

May 18, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Photographs below courtesy of Danette Chavez

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are here at The Hideout for the three big fights of Write Club, Chapter 16. The place is packed. Clearly, previous audiences have honored the first rule of Write Club: those who attend Write Club must tell five to seven people about Write Club. If this keeps up, Ian Belknap, the host and “Overlord” of this “bare-knuckled lit” reading series will have to consider either taking its fights to another, larger venue, or amending the first rule of Write Club. The latter is unlikely, given Belknap’s penchant for rules. Since his first public match in January of 2010, when, at Prop Thtr, as part of Rhino Fest, he fought on behalf of Light in a match against fellow local writer Jenny Magnus (who represented Dark), he has come to insist that each bout conform to the following format: two opposing writers, two opposing ideas, seven minutes apiece, audience picks a winner, and winners compete for cash going to a charity of their choosing. With a large clock and bell to signal the end of each round, he begins the show by roaring, “ARE YOU READY TO WRITE CLUB?”

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Life After the Creative Writing Program

April 22, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Mason Johnson

So you’ve earned a degree in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Now what? If you’re Mason Johnson, you start your own monthly reading series which presents writing on a theme of your choice. You call this series Piss Fanatics in honor of an inside joke, and perhaps to signal your predilection for bawdy talk. You arrange for your series to take place in a tavern called Moe’s, a place that’s no stranger to off-color language, a place with a pool table and a foosball table, two widescreen TVs and, during your second event, a large brown rottweiler. This demonstrates your belief that writing should not be confined to academic settings, or to cafes, theaters, libraries and bookstores. You make the theme of your second reading “Hair,” which is only natural, since your own hair seems to have taken on a life of its own, much like David Axelrod’s mustache (as revealed by Dan Sinker in his legendary Rahm Emanual Twitter saga). Also: certain types of hair can make for an awful lot of bawdy talk. Finally, you gather together a group of talented Chicago writers: Mairead Case, founding editor of Proximity Magazine; Mary Hamilton, winner of Rose Metal Press’ 4th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest; Matt Rowan, editor-in-chief of Untoward Magazine; Samantha Irby, author of the Bitches Gotta Eat blog; Ian Dick Jones, co-host of Columbia College’s SilverTongue reading series; Mark Schettler, co-editor of the School of the Art Institute’s In Preparation magazine; and Dan Shapiro, Columbia College student.

All graduates of creative writing programs should be as industrious as you, Mason Johnson. But they should not all have manga/anime hair.

Mairead Case

Related Blog Post
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Introducing a Weird New Literary Journal

March 29, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Literary Journals

Anobium punctatum DeGeer larva, courtesy of Megan O'Donnell and Andrew Cline, California Department of Food and Agriculture and USDA/APHIS/PPQ Center for Plant Health Science and Technology.

When you consider the works of authors like Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Lorraine Hansberry, and Nelson Algren, it’s clear that Chicago literature has historically been known for its gritty realism. These days, however, a number of talented local writers regularly approach their subjects with a sense of wonder, magic, and otherworldliness—Patrick Somerville, Joe Meno, and Audrey Niffenegger, to name a few. That’s good news for Benjamin van Loon and Mary J. Levine, Chicago-based editors who have made it their mission to seek out such authors for their new literary journal, Anobium. Named after Anobium punctatum, the bookworm, their magazine will be published in print twice a year, each time providing between 15 and 20 writers, both unknown and established, the opportunity to share prose and poetry that is “strange, surreal and exceptional.” Anobium’s first issue is due out in July, and being, myself, a fan of the weird, I’ll certainly be in line for a copy. In the meantime, van Loon was gracious enough to grant me an interview.

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PRINT & DIGITAL: So Happy Together

March 17, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: The Future of Publishing

Film Row Cinema is packed, so much so that Randall Albers instructs members of the audience, twice, to squeeze together more closely to allow others to sit. The chairperson of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College, founder of Story Week Festival of Writers, and host of today’s Story Week panel discussion, “The Future of Publishing,” Albers has to get the crowd ready for the big fight. After all, at the center of any discussion about the future of publishing lies the “great debate” between print and digital media—and few topics can ruffle the feathers of academic types more than the possible extinction of The Book as We Know It.

Book reviewer Donna Seaman (Booklist) and book artist/designer Craig Jobson (A Field Guide to Urban Fowl) both seem ready to defend the endangered animal, while Dan Sinker seems poised to attack, having created a “mobile storytelling initiative” called and, more recently, become famous for impersonating Rahm Emanuel in a Twitter account. But the positions of the other panelists are not quite so easy to guess at. Joe Meno (The Great Perhaps) and Steve May (One Chance) are both award-winning fiction writers and playwrights, the former having once regularly contributed to Sinker’s influential underground culture magazine, Punk Planet. So which side of the great debate will they support? And will the gloves come off after positions are declared?

“We are in the midst of a revolution,” says Albers. This year’s Story Week Festival is a particularly appropriate place for the word “revolution” to come up, not simply because of changes in publishing, but also because of the fact that the festival’s theme is “Class Acts.” In the program’s letter of introduction, Albers writes:

In an age when it has become increasingly difficult for Americans to think of themselves as living in a classless society where upward mobility is a possibility—even a right—for all people, when the income disparity between the rich and poor has widened to staggering proportions, and when education, race, culture, gender, and other factors interact with class in such a way as to harden boundaries rather than erase them, we might well ask what insights writers have to offer about such a world.

Needless to say, whispers of revolution have always accompanied drastic polarization of the rich and poor. But the way we think about revolution and the way we conduct revolution, actual government-takeover revolution, seems to be changing. In Egypt, revolutionary whispers were exchanged in an unprecedented manner, via Facebook posts, and the very technology that has come to threaten the printed word has served to liberate an entire nation. My theory is this: we fear revolution, or change, until we need it, whether in technology or in social, political, and economic life.

Returning to Albers’ statement, that “we are in the midst of a revolution,” the question for the panel becomes: Do we need this revolution?

That answer depends, of course, on who we mean when we say “we.”

Karen Schmidt approaches two of our panelists in a program article entitled “E-Readers vs. Books: The Great Debate”—Seaman advocating for the printed word and Sinker for the electronic form. Seaman argues that

Print books involve the skill, conviction, and effort of many different people beyond the writing and editorial work. The art of book design is a lustrous tradition, from fonts to layout to paper selection, trim size, and, of course, those all-important covers. On to everyone involved in manufacturing, from the making of paper and ink to printing, binding, boxing, on to warehousing, transportation, and distribution. Think of all the jobs.

There is no denying that all those who make their living creating and distributing printed publications would be devastated by their elimination, and they are not alone. During the debate, Seaman goes on to express her concern for those who may not have access to computers and other digital technology, or the training needed to use them, saying, “What I’m concerned with has to do with class. When I started out in art school, I found that I could write. All I needed was a BIC pen. The more technology we have, the more we have to wonder who has access to it . . . I don’t think the future of publishing should leave anyone out.” According to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), twenty-two percent of adults already read below the “basic” level of quantitative literacy and one child in four grows up not learning how to read. To what extent would these numbers increase if a portion of the population had neither books nor e-readers? What effect would that have on society at large? Should we care about this “we” that’s harmed by the digital revolution?

These are all important questions, and I’m tempted to root for Seaman’s underdogs, especially since Steve May also talks about how there are publicists out there, professional bloggers, who are pretending to be specific authors for the sake of sales. But we still haven’t considered the other side of the debate. We haven’t thought about those who benefit from electronic books. Surprisingly, the most compelling arguments for the advancement of digital publishing come not from Sinker but from Jobson, the artist/designer whose recent work consists of a 64-page, fully illustrated, three-color letterpress, printed abecedarian that required over 13,000 pressings—in other words, someone who really, really loves the bound book. Even more surprisingly, those who are benefited by electronic books are bigger underdogs that those who are harmed by them. In Jobson’s opinion, the greatest beneficiary of this revolution is the third world. Jobson invites us to imagine that we live in a place where even the most basic necessities like food, water, and shelter are in short supply, saying, “Someone comes up to you and says, ‘Here’s this book’—that’s great. But when someone says, ‘Here’s this device that has 13,000 books. Which one do you want?’ That’s something.” Comedian Stephen Colbert interviewed just such a person last October, a man named Nicholas Negroponte, who has made it his mission to provide children in third-world countries with durable, low-maintenance laptops. (Click here to view the video clip.)

In a sense, it seems as though history is repeating itself. Before the Gutenberg press was invented 571 years ago, books were either copied out by hand on scrolls and paper or they were printed from hand-carved wooden blocks. The woodwork was extremely time-consuming; carved blocks were very fragile and, over time, damaged beyond usefulness by ink. Only the wealthiest of people could afford to purchase books printed in this fashion. Thankfully, with his replaceable/moveable letters, Gutenberg opened a door to the first revolution in publishing and communication, making books available to the masses of the first world. Today, digital technology promises to open that door even wider, expanding accessibility to the third world—and if laptops crammed with libraries can make it to Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan, then, surely, they can also make it to those who struggle financially in the United States and other first-world countries. These are the people who really need the revolution.

Digital technology isn’t only beneficial to readers, either. Writers suddenly have instant, direct access to their readers. They can create their own blogs and websites, get immediate feedback in the form of comments, and make connections using Facebook. While establishing a solid readership is by no means easy, it’s possible—one no longer need wait on a literary agent or publisher for validation and support. Sinker began his fake Rahm Emanuel account one night, anonymously, as a way to make some friends laugh and, by the next morning, he had 1,000 followers. Coincidentally, like the guy who wants to distribute laptops in third-world countries, Sinker was also interviewed by Colbert. (Click here to view the video clip.)

This is an unusual accomplishment, to be sure, but Sinker points out that, in Japan, five of the ten bestselling books of 2006 were originally written on cell phones by teenage girls who also started out by simply trying to entertain their friends. For the first time in history, writers can truly circumvent major publishers. As Sinker puts it, “You can scratch that itch and not be told all your life that you can’t do that.”

Still, we humans are creatures of habit and, as I mentioned earlier, afraid of change. Although Seaman nods at the mention of the third world, as do all the panelists, she continues to worry about the effect e-readers will have on the reading experience itself, on the atmosphere of a home, and on the process of “hunting and gathering” in a library or bookstore:

Gadgets make a person hurry. Devices breed impatience, restlessness. You don’t pause and gaze up thoughtfully from a screen, you keep scrolling and clicking. Gadgets instill a craving for movement rather than concentration . . . Books allow one to slow down. Time is stilled; story is all. Printed language has presence, weight, and timbre. It is the sentences that move, not your fingers . . . Books are sensuous, and their physicality—the texture of paper, the hardness or pliability of covers, their good smell and gentle displacement of air when pages turn, their heft and solidity, all deepen the reading experience.

In the end, she arrives at a conclusion that seems to please everyone. “There needs to be a sorting process,” she says. “Some books need to be digital and some need to be print.” Perhaps, as technologies become more stable and familiar, authors will come to regard them as simply alternative media with which to present stories—one that has its own specific techniques, implications, limitations, and possibilities. In addition to making decisions about form and genre, they will also consider whether or not each of their stories works best in the print or digital realm, or in both. Moreover, it is possible that once e-readers become more common, a paper book’s physicality will seem all the more pronounced, and the arts of designing and binding them will be elevated as a result—experimentation in these forms more supported by readers and publishers alike.

All of these will become moot points, of course, if the printed word ceases to exist altogether. But Jobson assures us this is not what the future of publishing holds. He explains that digital technology has actually made the printing of “real” books easier and more affordable, by way of machines that are “euphemistically called digital offset printers.” Before recent advancements, book printers, like computers, were gigantic and elaborate machines that could only be funded and housed by wealthy institutions (computers were reserved for the military and printers for large publishing houses). So Jobson was thrilled when he discovered that Thumbs and Knuckles/Dreaded Biscuits, a literary journal that publishes “flash fiction,” or mini-stories, at Columbia College, purchased one of these machines and no longer had to rely on out-of-house printers—especially since it took over a month for the most affordable printers, being in China, to deliver. It stands to reason that, just as personal computers become more common, so, too, will these smaller, more affordable printers, once would-be independent presses get wind of them. Maybe, thumbing their noses at the commercially-driven major publishing houses, they’ll print their own paper books on their digital offset printers and work on promoting and distributing them on the Internet. As the title of last year’s Printer’s Ball insisted, “Print Loves Digital.” Or, if it doesn’t love it yet, it thinks it’s really cute and is taking it out for dinner and a movie.

Related Article:
McSweeney’s: Some Good News From the World of Books (2/7/2011)


Story Week’s Class Act

February 27, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Breaking into Publishing, Event Listing, Story Week, Working Class Fiction

And Many More!

Starting Sunday, March 13th, Columbia College Chicago will be hosting its 15th annual Story Week Festival of Writers, themed “Class Acts.” That means six days of readings, interviews, performances, workshops, Q&As, and panel discussions, all aimed at exploring ”how issues of class manifest themselves in creative works and the rapidly changing world of publishing.” Featured authors include nationally recognized novelists Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting), Karen Tei Yamashita (I Hotel), and Jennifer Egan (A Visit From the Goon Squad), as well as local favorites Joe Meno (The Great Perhaps), Gina Frangello (Slut Lullabies), Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry), and Sam Weller (Listen to the Echoes: The Ray Bradbury Interviews). Consult our Calendar for an overview of event highlights or click on one of the following links for details:

Sunday, March 13th
2nd Story (6:30pm)

Monday, March 14th
Jennifer Egan and Joe Meno (2:30pm)
Jennifer Egan and Donna Seaman (6pm)

Tuesday, March 15th
Audrey Niffenegger, Gerard Woodward, and Karen Tei Yamashita

Wednesday, March 16th
Karen Tei Yamashita (1pm)
Future of Publishing (2:30pm)
Literary Rock & Roll (6pm)

Thursday, March 17th
Make-Ready: Manuscript to Book Publishing (11am)
Conversation with Playwrights (1pm)
Preston L. Allen (2:30pm)
Story and the Arts (4pm)

Reflections on Writing Process (11am)

Story Week is one of the most highly anticipated literary events in Chicago. In fact, it was in anticipation of last year’s festival that Literary Chicago was born. So read your work at one of its open mics, meet an author or two, attend a workshop, listen to an interview, discussion, or reading, or just dance to one of the musical performances. Be inspired. Such a concentration of talent and creativity cannot afford to be missed.


Beyond the Festival

February 17, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Event Listing, Youth Authors

an open message to the poets of this year’s Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry festival (since I can’t talk to my teenage self)

I would like to have a word with my teenage self. She lacks foresight, that one. She spends hours carefully cutting and layering brightly-colored construction paper to create faux relief “paintings” in honor of Aztec gods, only to leave them behind in the band room or computer lab. She accumulates 5-subject spiral notebooks of ideas, sketches, essays, plays, short stories, and diary entries, only to rip them up in violent, yet fleeting,  fits of self-doubt and self-loathing. And through weekly workshops at the Chicago Dramatists theatre, she writes a three-act play that is performed at her school by professional actors, only to discard it after it is misinterpreted by her friends. On the eve of my 35th birthday, I’d like nothing more than to spend an evening looking through the creative projects of my youth – the good, the bad, and the mortifying. It would be like opening up a time capsule. Of course, there’s no penetrating the thick wall of years between me and that girl, no stopping her from emptying out the time capsule until it’s left with little more than the awkward family photos our dad used to make us take during special occasions.

That’s why, instead of talking to my teenage self, I’m aiming for a more accessible audience: the teenagers participating in this year’s Louder Than A Bomb youth poetry festival. I’m speaking to you on behalf of your 35-year-old selves. My message is simple: KEEP EVERYTHING. Be a packrat, a hoarder – not like those people on TV who have trouble moving around their homes and need interventions, but more like those kids who collect Pokémon cards. Thanks to modern technology, your time capsule has no space restrictions; you can fit into one jump drive more than I could have fit into dozens of spiral notebooks. Use the technology at your command and become chroniclers of your own lives, collectors of your own art. Trust me, your 35-year-old selves will thank you.

And to everyone who is not performing in this year’s LTAB? ATTEND THIS YEAR’S LTAB. It sounds awesome. It’s the largest youth poetry festival in the world. In its eleventh year, it will present the work of over 500 students divided into 70 teams and feature poetry readings by spoken-word masters as well as competitive events like the Haiku Slam and the Duo Slam. There will even be freestyling at an Emcee Olympics. Louder Than A Bomb has drawn so much attention that, in 2008, four of its teams were filmed, their stories made into an award-winning documentary of the same name, directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel. In his review of the film, Roger Ebert writes, “If these kids and others like them were programmed against ‘American Idol’ or ‘Dancing With the Stars,’ the shabbiness of those shows would be placed in dramatic context. Here are real performers with real feelings and important things to say.” Let’s all listen, shall we?

Schedule of Events

Related Article in Time Out Chicago (by Robbie Q. Telfer)

The Science of Understanding

November 13, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Book Reviews, Event Listing

Last July, the Chicago Underground Library hosted its second annual “Science of Obsurity,” a science fair for writers, complete with dioramas, posterboards, and interactive experiments. In it, local writers found playful ways to present their works in terms of science fair projects: a story about a cantankerous crab, for example, was accompanied by an apparatus for determining one’s level of crabbiness. It was a lot of fun, and eye-opening, too. Through an experiment involving handwriting analysis, I discovered that I was in danger of developing an unpleasant foot problem that could only be prevented by reading Mrs. Dalloway and Jaws simultaneously. This is the magic of mixing imaginative writers and science. As entertaining and enlightening as this year’s “Science of Obscurity” may have been, however, something was missing.

The event was sadly lacking in Patrick Somerville.

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Somerville’s third book and second collection of short stories, is just begging to be made into a dozen or more pseudo-science-fair projects, each the kind in which all of the data collected is inconclusive but still illuminating.

Its title story is about three students who are each working on a project for the School of Surreal Thought and Design. Rose, the story’s narrator, seems to have the least consequential, if most amusing, project: she builds models of young boys building models of the solar system–hence the title. Lucy’s project, on the other hand, seems to be far more serious: using eighteen spycams and a “gladiatorial” van, she spies on Ryan, a young man who suffered a fall that rendered him invalid, and she spies on his beleaguered parents, too, so that she can study the “wholesale collapse of a family following major trauma.” And then there’s Dylan, who is “writing a novel about scientists who accidentally destroy the planet earth while trying to devise the perfect carbonated beverage.”

As Rose reveals more about herself, we see that her thoughts are focused not so much on the rings of Saturn and the proportional distance of one planet to another, but on the inner lives of Ryan, his family, and her friends, and on what it means to connect with and understand others, and to be alone. She says, “I sometimes imagine myself totally alone and I enjoy the feeling. And I mean something by alone, something more than the word holds. I mean something black and pure and vacant, plus me.” Her solar system models, then, become more of a representation of her project than the project itself–a perfect symbol for the story and for the entire collection.

Although they seem disparate at first, the tales in The Universe are delicately tied together into a novel-in-stories by recurring themes and motifs, oddball characters, and delightful self-referential moments. As we tour a world in which the sun has gone away, the spirits of the dead fuse together to form monsters, Hitler may be operating UFOs, a man would pay $85,000 to undergo a life-threatening “follicle procedure,” and where extraterrestrials are not all-that-intelligent life forms but, rather, idiots, certain words, images, and incidents reverberate throughout the collection with the power that a butterfly’s flapping wings have in chaos theory. It may take a bit of vigilance on the part of the reader to recognize the subtlest of these echoes, but the overall effect is haunting.

Everything comes together in the collection’s final story, “The Machine of Understanding Other People,” in which a broken man inherits a helmet that allows him to inhabit others, psychically and emotionally. Built as a weapon to fight Germans during World War II, the helmet is fitted with elaborate antennae and sensors, and seems to be a Victorian imagining of futuristic inventions, fanciful and romantic, like H.G. Well’s time machine. It is another fitting symbol for the collection, merging old and new, magic and science, and although far more sophisticated than Rose’s solar system models, it too is a means of achieving perspective and understanding. And it would have made a spectacular artifact for the Science of Obscurity.

Thankfully, Somerville is a Chicago guy being published by one of Chicago’s most promising independent presses, featherproof, and that means that he will be celebrating the upcoming release of The Universe at our very own Hideout this Thursday, November 18th, from 8pm to 11:30pm. He will be joined by writers Benjamin Nugent (American Nerd: The Story of My People) and Hannah Pittard (The Fates Will Find Their Way), and there will be music provided by DJ Fabulette. This won’t be your typical release party, either. Guests are encouraged to come dressed as their favorite aliens. There will be a contest with prizes and the first fifteen aliens will each receive a free copy of Somerville’s book. It sounds like this release party will more than make up for the author’s conspicuous absence at the science fair. After all, what could possibly be more fun than Patrick Somerville and dancing aliens?

Related Blog Post
Largehearted Boy’s Book Notes about Somerville


A Year of Essay Fiesta

November 04, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

A staple of any good literary community is the reading series. If, as Tim Yelvington-Jones has suggested, “writers should be rock stars,” then the reading series is an opportunity for them to rock out, connect with readers, and celebrate the written–and spoken–word.

Luckily, there is no shortage of excellent reading series in Chicago. From simple and straightforward, author-with-book-in-hand readings to feisty debates and whimsical performances, there’s something for everyone who’s interested in expanding the literary experience beyond the book or screen.

Essay Fiesta is as good a place to start as any other. Bringing together some of Chicago’s top artistic talent, including comedians, playwrights, authors, and journalists, Essay Fiesta began at a dinner party when comedians Alyson Lyon and Keith Ecker decided that “Chicago needed a storytelling series that provided a platform for a cross-discipline of artists to share funny, poignant and thought-provoking stories from their lives.” It’s one of the Book Cellar’s most popular events, and although it’s free, it uses a raffle to raise money for the Howard Brown Health Center, a citywide community health organization that focuses on the GLBT community. In honor of the one-year anniversary that Essay Fiesta will be celebrating on November 15th, one of its co-founders, Keith Ecker, took time out of his busy life as comedian, theater critic, and freelance writer to answer some of Literary Chicago’s questions.

* * * * *

Why do you think Essay Fiesta is so popular?

In the age of social networking, a lot of interpersonal communication has become really detached. Instead of talking to our friends, we post something on their walls. Instead of sharing a story, we Tweet. Essay Fiesta gets back to the roots of what the social experience is all about. It allows people to connect in person through the sharing of personal stories. And no matter the content of the story, everyone can find something within the piece that speaks to them, which further fosters that social connection. 

How do you select your readers?

We accept submissions from anyone, regardless of experience or background. Prospective readers can e-mail us at We select readers based on who best fits the overall voice of our show. Usually that means someone who is able to temper the more somber, poignant moments of a story with humor. We also want readers to really read from the heart. By that I mean, we like personal stories that display some degree of vulnerability.

What are some of the highlights of your first year?

There are so many that it’s hard to pick a few. All the readers have been outstanding, and I’m so thrilled that so many wonderful, talented people have shared their stories in our forum. To pick out a few specifics, I’ve really enjoyed hearing the stories of former Neo-Futurist Andy Bayiates and stand-up comic Cameron Esposito. Both of them really know how to concoct that perfect mix of raw truth and humor. Oh, also I love that Alyson and I wrote a theme song that we play at the beginning of each show. It gives me a chance to show off my guitar skills.

In what ways would you like to see Essay Fiesta change or grow over time?

I’d like to start doing special events around the city and beyond. There’s a really wonderful scripted storytelling scene popping up on the North Side. It’d be nice to pool our talents and resources together to really create something. I’d also like to eventually add an outreach component. Essay Fiesta helped me realize that crafting a personal essay is really a form of self therapy. In fact, this form of writing has been proven to have positive psychological and physiological effects on those who suffer from stress and anxiety. I would love to teach others how to tell their own stories so that they can reap these benefits.

Are there any other reading series in Chicago that you would recommend to your fans?

Absolutely. Please check out This Much Is True at Hopleaf, Story Club at Uncommon Ground and Stories at the Store at The Store on Halsted.

What has EF done for you, Keith Ecker, personally and professionally?

Professionally, Essay Fiesta has given me a home in this city as an artist. I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I’ve been an improviser, a sketch comic and a stand-up comic. But writing has always been my passion. And in a city where it’s easy to get lost among the other many talented people, it’s nice to have carved out a niche for myself, one that can give back to the community in so many ways. We benefit Howard Brown Health Center (having raised nearly $1,500 since our inception), we are a platform for a variety of local artists and we get to entertain 50-60 people every month. All these positive things help me know I’m on the right path.

Personally, Essay Fiesta has made me a stronger, more confident writer. An artist’s worst enemy is always himself. Regardless of the discipline, we always seem to doubt whether we’re any good at what we’re doing, likely because there’s no real benchmark. If you’re in the corporate world, a salary or a job title helps tell you whether you’re “succeeding” or not. But if you’re a writer or a musician or a painter, there’s no real way of knowing. The feedback I have received from the audience and from my fellow artists has helped embolden me for sure. Also, my work ethic I’ve developed is amazing. I write several hours every day, whether it’s the freelance work I do to make money, a new essay or a random piece of comedy.

What do you and Alyson have planned for the big one-year anniversary celebration?

We have an all-star line-up. Stand-up comics Cameron Esposito and Beth Stelling, playwright Andy Bayiates, This Much Is True founder Deanna Moffitt and Stories at the Store producer Jen Bosworth will all be sharing some amazing pieces. Also, as always, we’re going to have a raffle. Prizes will include a $25 gift certificate to Threadless, a gift certificate to the Book Cellar and tickets to the Chicago Underground Showcase. As always, all money goes to benefit Howard Brown Health Center. Finally, we just found out that the Book Cellar will be offering a special promotion. For those that donate $10 to the raffle, you’ll get 10% off in-store purchases that night. $20 will get you 20% off and $30 will get you 30% off (that’s as high as they’re going). So it’s just an added incentive to come on out, hear some great stories and give to a very worthy cause.


Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic

August 22, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Dinosaur skeleton created by Rachel Claff.

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


Making Your Audience Squirm

July 29, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Theatrical Author Readings

Tim Jones-Yelvington at Open Books in Chicago.

One way to heighten the tension at a reading? Well, if you’re reading a story called “Slime Me,” and it’s about a boy who passionately longs to be slimed, then one way to make your listeners squirm is to open up a plastic container of neon-green slime and hold it at a slight angle, just enough so that a tiny bit starts to ooze out. It helps if you have purple sequins glued to your face. That tells your listeners that you are more theatrical than most and that maybe, just maybe, you will draw them into your story by giving them what your protagonist wants most of all, the thrill (or horror, depending on your point of view) of being slimed. Tim Jones-Yelvington takes this approach tonight at Open Books. There’s a ripple of apprehensive laughter as he tilts his little cup o’goop and reads, “He hungered for the spread of slime across his skin, his favorite the viscous kind that crept to cover, coat, encase.”

Jones-Yelvington is one of five authors brought to us this evening by Rose Metal Press and Barrelhouse Magazine. We also have Mary Hamilton reading from We know what we are, the winner of Rose Metal’s fourth annual Short Short Chapbook Contest; James Tadd Adcox reading three stories published in Barrelhouse, including “No One in the Office Knows What the Work Is”; and Simone Muench and Phil Jenks reading from a collection of poems they wrote and published collaboratively, Little Visceral Carnival. All in all, excellent prose and poetry–and no one is getting slimed.

Related Blog Posts
Open Books: Not Your Average Bookstore
Last Night at Open Books in Chicago

Peter Venkman Gets Slimed


The Rigelians are here! (And they are not Jewish)

June 29, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Book Reviews

Some people have reacted to the cataclysms of the last ten years by reexamining their understanding of international policy, religious fanaticism, nuclear proliferation, global warming, and the depletion of our natural resources. Others have taken refuge in the pages of popular series fiction, especially that involving vampires. The magic of Evan Mandery’s second novel, First Contact: Or, It’s Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded), is that it will make you feel like you have gotten far, far away from it all even as it leads you to ponder the most profound and complex questions of the day, all without the benefit of sexy bloodsuckers.

Ralph Bailey is the attaché to the president of the United States, which is really just a fancy way of saying that he fetches sandwiches and searches the globe for the perfect pair of underwear. His job becomes considerably more exciting, however, when he’s charged with the task of announcing to the president that aliens from the planet Rigel-Rigel have made contact with Earth. Failing to understand the historic importance of this communication, the president, believing the aliens to be Jewish, decides that hosting a Jewish-themed dinner party to welcome them to Earth might help him demonstrate his commitment to Israel—and, consequently, get him reelected. Ralph has his work cut out for him when he discovers the real purpose of the Rigelians’ interest in Earth: they want to prevent the Earthlings from destroying their planet. While he does what he can to save the Earth, he also falls in love, and we meet a diverse array of colorful characters, both human and Rigelian.

As others have pointed out, Mandery does an excellent job of channeling Kurt Vonnegut, presenting readers with a barrage of jokes that run the gamut from wacky and juvenile to graceful and sophisticated. His narrator indulges in a good number of digressions, too, as when, after a passage that describes the many ways in which Theodore Roosevelt “sucked the juice out of life” (itself a digression), he says, “By coincidence I am eating an orange right now, which I am doing by sucking out the juice but discarding the remains. This is how I like to eat oranges, though it seems like a waste and gives me some pause about the whole live-life-to-the-fullest thing. Any physician worth his salt will tell you the pulp is where the fiber is.” But Mandery’s wit and charm make readers oscillate between wanting to know what happens next in the story and wanting to hear more of the narrator’s wandering thoughts.

Take this book to the beach for a light, entertaining read or introduce it to your book club for a spirited discussion on ethics, objectivity, and existentialism. This is serious literature that reads like guilty pleasure.

Related Post
Interview with Evan Mandery

Guest Feature: Joseph Kirkland, Pioneer of American Literary Realism (1830-1894)

June 28, 2010 By: Carlos Martinez Category: Guides

–Contributed by Carlos Martinez–

Born in Geneva, New York, Joseph Kirkland migrated to the Midwest to pursue a career in law. He helped to pioneer the genre of American literary realism in Chicago during the Victorian Era, a time and place whose people, fearing anarchy, viewed anything new with great suspicion. Though living in an industry-obsessed milieu, his mother Carolyn Kirkland nurtured his literary ambitions and inspired him to write more than just legal statements and articles for The Dial and The New England Magazine (see “Indie Publishing in Chicago”). 

Zury: The Meanest Man in Spring County (1887) created his reputation and was picked up by a major eastern publisher, rare for Chicago authors in those days. It was followed by two sequels, his only other long works of fiction.

In Chicago in Fiction, Clarence A. Andrews explains that Kirkland’s philosophy was to “deal no more with the unbridled vagaries of romanticism, webs as foolish and purposeless as the gossamer,” and to “Let only truth be told.” Breaking with old conventions was not easy, however, and he “wove a sometimes unbelievable romantic plot into the realistic fabric of the account of the rise of Usury “Zury” Prouder from youthful poverty on the Illinois prairie to a state of power, affluence and influence”—in effect presaging Horatio Alger. According to Andrews, Kirkland also admits that Zury was “a palpable imitation of Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, an attempt to reproduce on American soil a realism of the picture given by that remarkable work, of English low life”—no small feat in a Chicago seething in the cauldron of labor unrest.  

To his credit, Kirkland ignored the bourgeois panic in response to the Haymarket Riot and the Pullman Strike, and made “low life” prominent in his work. Of the small number of Chicago authors in the 19th Century, Kirkland was the one who pointed the way for those novelists who made Chicago synonymous with literary realism, including Theodore Dreiser and Nelson Algren. By escaping the drawing rooms of middle class society, Kirkland was among the first to give the Midwestern public a taste of the raw reality of American life. For the modern reader, overcoming Kirkland’s extant sentimental maudlin and the stiff, stilted verbiage of late Victorian literature can yield rewards, not least of which is in the thrill of seeing the dawn of an epoch, as the florid Victorian literary kaleidoscope suddenly opens up to unexplored nobilities of life.  


Zury: The Meanest Man in  Spring County (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1887)
The McVeys (Boston, 1888)
The Captain of Company K (Boston, 1891)  


Andrews, Clarence A. Chicago in Fiction: A Literary History. Iowa City, IA: Midwest Heritage Publishing Co., 1982.

Burke, W.J. American Authors and Books. New York: Crown Publishers, 1962.

Indie Publishing in Chicago

June 14, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Independent Publishing

My best find at this weekend’s Printers Row Lit Fest is an 1893 issue of New England Magazine that contains a 17-page illustrated article by William Morton Payne entitled “Literary Chicago.” (Thanks, Bibliodisia Books!) In it, he writes, “The Chicago of the present is, as the Chicago of the past has been, so overshadowed by the commercial spirit that the delicate plants of literary culture, even where they have taken root, have found it difficult to obtain the light and air necessary for continued existence.”

Today, 117 years later, it seems that the “plants of literary culture” here in Chicago have evolved, grown sturdier, and learned to thrive even in the shade of rampant commercialism. They’ve grown so sturdy, in fact, that the closing events of this year’s festival include a panel discussion called “Chicago, The New Indie Publishing Capital.” It’s a bold title, certainly, but one that the panelists are eager to defend. “In the last five years, there’s been an explosion of indie publishers in Chicago,” says Gina Frangello. The author of a collection of short stories called Slut Lullabies and the Executive Editor of OV Books, Frangello was recently featured in New City. She is joined on this panel by Zoe Zolbrod, the author of the novel Currency and the former Co-Publisher of the ”post-feminist” zine, Maxine; Davis Schneiderman, the author of four novels, including Drain, a professor at Lake Forest College, and the director of the Lake Forest College Press and &NOW Books; and Cris Mazza, the author of nine novels, including The Trickle-Down Timeline, and the Director of the Program for Writers at the University of Chicago. The discussion’s moderator is Jonathan Messinger, the author of a collection of short stories called Hiding Out, the Books Editor of Time Out Chicago, and the Co-publisher and Editor-in-Chief of featherproof books.

Here we have five different writers who have at least one thing in common: they did not wait for the large publishing houses to decide that their works were profitable. They each carved their own niche in the literary landscape and set down roots in Chicago’s independent publishing scene. Messinger says, “The culture of Chicago, for a while, was live reading with unpublished writers, but now these writers are published.”

 ”I did a zine in the ’90s,” Zolbrod tells us. “There was a strong zine presence here in the ’90s. Quimby’s Books just opened then and it was a hub for that type of publishing.” Since it was established in 1991, Quimby’s Books has provided talented unpublished authors with a platform from which to share their work. It is known for its comprehensive collection of zines and books published by small presses, as well as its commitment to promoting “the other” or, in the founder’s words, “something you never even knew could exist.” The support it offers new, unusual, and experimental authors has inspired a new generation of renegade independent publishers.

Joe Meno is a good example of an author who has risen in the ranks and has not forgotten the debt he owes to organizations like Quimby’s. The author of two short story collections and five novels, including The Great Perhaps, he is a faithful Quimby’s supporter and speaks positively about independent publishing, saying in a 2005 interview with Bookslut:

 I think in the last couple of years I’ve been more and more hopeful at how independent publishing has kind of risen to the challenge, and [is] filling the void that most big presses are only beginning to deal with. Likewise all these other agencies like indie bookstores and indie websites or blogs have nothing to do with money. These people are doing it because they love books. That’s the complete opposite reason why Harper Collins or Random House puts a book out. They put a book out purely because they think it’s going to make money. It’s been really amazing to see how supportive the indie community has been and [how] powerful it’s gotten really, really quick.

Even so, many writers are reluctant to approach independent publishers because they believe the major publishing houses, with bigger budgets, can provide far better promotion and distribution. It’s true. They can. But they don’t, not unless you’re Stephen King or J.K. Rowling. “Small publishers can offer more support,” Frangello says. “Big publishers push ‘front list’ authors, but everyone else is on their own. With small publishers, everyone is a front list author . . . Whatever book we publish, we live and breathe that book for six months.”

A smaller budget does mean that OV Books, featherproof books, and other independent presses cannot publish more than one or two titles a year, as opposed to Random House’s 120. But then, Random House won’t even consider authors without agents, and it’s also far less likely to publish their work if it doesn’t ultimately reinforce societal norms. “The books that we publish don’t try to make you feel good in the end,” Schneiderman says. According to him and the other panelists, one of the qualities that most characterizes independent publishers is an interest in work that is “daring” and “challenging,” unafraid to question assumptions and cross boundaries. Frangello explains that a great deal of what is published in Chicago today is a response to the popular, sales-driven writing that is coming out of the major New York publishing houses. But it seems that it is as much a response to the general ”commercial spirit” that threatens the very existence of a literary culture, the one that Payne described over a century ago.

Publishers, editors, booksellers, and writers in Chicago seem to be succeeding in cultivating a literary community that can withstand the shadow of commercialism. It’s encouraging to hear Frangello say, “Everyone here kind of knows each other and supports each other. Authors are really rooting for each other and not looking to knock each other off the top of the ladder . . . It’s a great place to be a writer.”

Maybe, in a poetic sense, it’s as Scheiderman puts it: “The lack of hills allows us to see each other.”

Related Blog Posts
Chicago’s aspirations to become a hub for independent publishing
Can Chicago be a hub for independent publishing?




Don’t Miss Printers Row

June 07, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Event Listing

We are fast approaching the happiest time of year for many Chicago book lovers. For two days every June, Dearborn between Congress and Polk is transformed into a veritable smorgasbord of literary delights: 200 dealers of new, used and antiquarian books and 100 free literary programs presented on seven stages.  This year, the Printers Row Lit Fest falls on Saturday, June 12th and Sunday, June 13th. A lengthy schedule of events is available on the Chicago Tribune’s website. Here’s my list of recommendations:


Audrey Niffenegger, author of “Her Fearful Symmetry,” introduced by Tim Bannon | Saturday at 11:45 am | Hotel Blake (Burnham Room)

Michael Koryta, author of “So Cold the River” and Michael Harvey, author of “the Third Rail” in conversation with Julia Keller | Saturday at Noon | Grace Place (2nd floor)

Barbara Ehrenreich in conversation with Rick Kogan | Saturday at noon | Digitally/Room Lit II

Past Tension: Steve Amick, Donald Lystra, Travis Nichols and Glenn Taylor, moderated by Donna Seaman | Saturday at 1pm | Hotel Blake (Burnham Room)

The Art of Biography: Jonathan Eig, Thomas Saler and Larry Tye, moderated by Louise Knight | Saturday at 1pm | Grace Place (2nd floor)

Lives Intertwined: Dan Chaon, Brigid Pasulka and Katharine Weber, moderated by Rosellen Brown | Saturday at 3pm | Grace Place (2nd floor)

The Craft of Writing: Stephen Markley, Jim Kokoris, and Jacqueline Carey in conversation with with Billy Lombardo | Saturday at 3:30pm | Hotel Blake (Burnham Room)

Windy City Story Slam (“Lit After Dark”) | Saturday at 5:30pm | Main Stage at Dearborn and Harrison

Second Story (“Lit After Dark”) | Saturday at 6:30pm | Main Stage at Dearborn and Harrison

RUI: Reading Under the Influence (“Lit After Dark”) | Saturday at 7:45pm | Main Stage at Dearborn and Harrison


Daniel Clowes, author of “Wilson” and “Ghost World” in conversation with Ray Pride | Sunday at 11am | Center Stage

Beyond Borders: Luis Alberto Urrea, Achy Obejas and Aaron Michael Morales moderated by Cristina Henriquez | Sunday at 3pm | Hotel Blake (Burnham Room)

Chicago, The New Indie Publishing Capital: Cris Mazza, Davis Schneiderman, Zoe Zolbrod and Gina Frnagello moderated by Jonathan Messinger | Sunday at 4pm | Center Stage

* * * * *

Please keep in mind that this list is subjective and that there may be a number of authors and events of interest to you that are not mentioned here. Again, the Trib’s website is the place to go for a full schedule of events. And don’t forget that the heart of this festival is the books and they will be available on Saturday from 10am to 5:30pm and on Sunday from 10am to 4:15pm. Many dealers offer great discounts near the end of the day on Sunday so that they will have fewer books to haul back to the shop. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed for sunshine!

The Power of Essays

May 19, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Essays, Reading Series

What kind of a fiesta is complete without a piñata? Without tequila, guacamole, and a mariachi band? An Essay Fiesta, that’s what kind. You might be skeptical, as I was, thinking that the name of this reading series is deceptively colorful packaging for what may turn out to be a dreadfully dull evening, a Tom Sawyer “look-how-fun-it-is-to-paint-a-fence” sort of thing. When I first heard about it, I was reminded of how the pastor of a local church used to invite members of his congregation over for “work parties,” the activities of which included vacuuming, mopping, and polishing furniture. He couldn’t have been fooling anyone. Contrary to these mockeries of pleasure and frivolity, the Essay Fiesta scheduled to take place at the Book Cellar at 7pm on the third Monday of every month is actually a lot of fun. According to its website, “Essay Fiesta’s mission is to bring together a cross-section of Chicago’s art and writing communities for a night of first-person, non-fiction essays and charity.” For those who insist on tequila for a proper fiesta, one of the wines or beers offered at the Book Cellar’s café would make a nice alternative. No luck on the guacamole, though.

Keith Ecker, one of the co-producers of Essay Fiesta, starts the night off with an unnamed essay about his quest to “become a free spirit.” A graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Ecker left the journalism industry when it “became a joke,” deciding to pursue comedy instead. Whether he was born funny or he was made funny by his tenure at the Second City, iO, the Annoyance Theatre, Armchair Showcase, or The Alliance’s “Gayrilla Warfare,” he doesn’t seem to have any trouble inducing roaring fits of laughter with his description of an outrageous hippie festival. In his essay, he tells us that someone who looked like “the Pringles man in drag” approached him at the festival and claimed to be ironic, and then, after a moment’s silence, explained that Ironic was actually his name. “In an act of conservative rebellion,” Ecker says, “I remain Keith.” Then there’s a giant disco ball effigy at camp fancy, a drink that tastes like “feet and mushrooms,” and a woman who is “hula hooping topless, her breasts jiggling like pudding cups.” (I want to be the kind of person who wants to be there!)

Next on the docket is Robbie Q. Telfer. Essay Fiesta’s website says he’s “not a guy you want to iambic pentameter with in a dark alley.” Aside from authoring a collection of poems called Spiking the Sucker Punch and placing in the top 10 at the National Poetry Slam, he is also the performance manager for Young Chicago Authors, organizer of Louder than a Bomb, and producer of the monthly Encyclopedia Show at the Chopin Theatre. Tonight he presents us with “Bear Baiting,” an essay about how the British got their kicks in the Early Modern Period by pitting bears against dogs and watching them destroy each other. According to Telfer, Parliament prohibited bear baiting on Sundays, not for any regard for the welfare of animals but, rather, because they disapproved of such enjoyable diversions on “the Lord’s day.” However, being an avid spectator of bear baiting, Queen Elizabeth lifted the ban and was consequently honored (or humiliated?) with one of the most hilarious titles ever: Master Bear Baiter. There is more to this essay, of course, and Telfer’s ear for poetry is apparent, but I am having a hard time getting past the fact that the man is capable of squeezing such hilarity out of a historical practice that I’ve always found to be so upsetting. Like water from a stone.


Mary Wagner is up next. She seems to have a bit of a thing for shoes. With essay collections entitled Running with Stilettos and Heck on Heels, I am expecting to find Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City—hair tousled, fabulous girlfriends in tow, and wallet stuffed with pictures of Manolo Blahniks. Instead, Wagner is casual in both attire and demeanor and has only one fabulous girlfriend in tow (as far as I can tell). She seems like an entirely down-to-earth Midwesterner. She reads to us from “Devil on Horseback,” an essay from her blog about when she encountered a novel she loved as a kid, a romantic mystery, and found herself absolutely appalled by it as an adult. Sigmund Freud’s essay, “The ‘Uncanny,’” comes to mind, the one in which he says that “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. How this is possible, in what circumstances the familiar can become uncanny and frightening, I shall show in what follows . . .” Similar phenomenon, I think, only where Freud illuminates it with doppelgangers and castration, Wagner uses a tawdry paperback romance. Pretty funny stuff.

As embarrassing as it might have been for Wagner to admit that she once enjoyed the kind of books that have Fabio on their covers, the night really starts to feel like a confessional when Dina Connolly of Neo-Futurist fame takes the microphone. She says, “Elementary school found me on Facebook,” and then goes on to describe her experience of returning home for her elementary school reunion—uncanny, indeed. I was particularly excited to hear Connolly’s essay because, like me, she is from the southwest side of Chicago, a place that is painfully lacking in bookstores, museums, galleries, theaters, and other cultural havens. (No more strip malls, please.) She could complain, but she doesn’t. At least not now. She’s too busy recalling other, more universal coming-of-age trials and tribulations. She’s remembering her childhood tormentor, Freddie Vasquez, and the way he’d make fun of her overbite by impersonating a beaver. For me, the highlight of the evening is when Wagner pumps herself up for the big reunion by recounting her accomplishments to an imaginary Freddie Vasquez, accomplishments which include a role in Oceans Eleven—“I’m still getting paid, bitch!” She seems all the more powerful and commanding for her vulnerability.

Adam Guerino also tells a sad tale in a way that makes us all laugh. Although he’s now a stand-up comic, as well as the producer of an art expo called Art Haus and a variety show called Nightcaps, he was once homeless. He talks about this experience as casually as he might a trip to the supermarket. By laying it out there early in the reading and saying, simply, that he slept on a beach, he seems to be suggesting that he might be joking, or exaggerating, that perhaps he wasn’t really homeless homeless, but maybe an overzealous surfing fanatic with a cool thatched-roof hut like in Gidget. When he was in third grade, he had a teacher, “Mrs. V,” who would read his class survival strategy guides. He’d take careful notes on how to “look for water under rocks at night.” Later, he would wonder why Mrs. V didn’t offer more useful advice, such as “How Not to Get Pregnant When You’re Thirteen” or “The Dangers of Inbreeding.” And even more later, he would wonder why she couldn’t prepare him for homelessness. “Waking up on the beach is much less romantic than you might think,” Guerino says. Even so, his essay is far more comedy than it is tragedy, filled with hilarious quips and descriptions, like when he shares the memory of waking up covered in crabs. “These weren’t the kind of crabs that lived on your crotch. I’d prefer those.” He even manages to squeeze in one final laugh after he’s finished reading; when an audience member asks him if he’s still homeless, he says without missing a beat, “No, but I still poop outside.”

Unfortunately, I have to leave before the final essayist gets to read. (Other obligations.) I am sorry to have to miss Alyson Lyon, the actress, musician, and writer. But I’m glad that she’s the co-producer of Essay Fiesta because that means that another chance to see her will come around in only a month.

For now, I’m happy to have been inspired by a group of incredibly reflective people. I want to go home and write about my own childhood bullies and embarrassing childhood favorites. I want to seek out euphemisms in history books, find the Pringles man in drag and drink peyote just so I can write about these things. And I even want to try and see if I can find the humor in my own painful memories. After all, as Socrates said all those many years ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s good to be reminded of the power of essays.


Jhumpa Lahiri’s Alchemy of the Ordinary

May 11, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Multicultural Fiction

Before reading an excerpt from one of the short stories in her latest book, Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri shares the memory of having been in this very room, the assembly hall of the University of Chicago’s International House, seven years before, reading from The Namesake as she listened to the sounds of her sister “wrangling” her then one-year-old son, Octavio, on the cold tiles of the echoing hallway. She speaks softly. If it weren’t for her light laughter, it would almost seem as though she’s talking about a ghost, one she’s maybe afraid to awaken. The slightest details of the smallest, most seemingly insignificant moments of our everyday lives, the ones that slip past unnoticed by most of us—like the sound of a boy playing on tiles—this is the stuff of which Lahiri spins her Pulitzer-prize-winning fiction.

In “Mrs. Sen’s,” one of the short stories from her prize-winning debut collection, Interpreter of Maladies, the title character is overwhelmed by the traffic of a main road and says, “Everyone, this people, too much in their world.” It seems that Lahiri would agree. The daughter of a librarian, she appears to have no interest in adjusting her voice or vision to accommodate readers whose attention spans have been diminished by sound bites, video games, and the internet. “A lot of things are happening in our culture that give me pause,” she says. “I can’t tell you how many times people read one of my stories that’s written in the first person and assume that it’s memoir. We’re losing the power of the imaginative world and our ability to read imaginatively and that concerns me . . . I would hate for writers to write in a way that’s more easily digested.” (Coincidentally, the opposing view is presented in my previous post, “How to Trick People into Reading.”)

In keeping with her uncompromising spirit, Lahiri not only shuns the thought of watering down her work for the sake of marketability in the digital age; she also denies any obligation to the groups of people she portrays in her books. She says, “Writing is the place I go to leave all obligations at the door. It’s a place of freedom and exploration. I’m not documenting Bengali immigrants in the U.S. I’m not a sociologist . . . I’m just one writer giving her own idiosyncratic version of the world and it’s not meant to be a definitive representation in any way.”

Whether she means to or not, she’s creating stories that are being gobbled up by critics and audiences alike, most of whom are undoubtedly afflicted with the psychological side effects of one technological device or another. Her work can’t be all that hard to digest, not when Interpreter of Maladies has sold more than 15 million copies worldwide and The Namesake was made into a movie. Its success may be partly due to the fact that her fiction is surprisingly lean for an author with a penchant for precise and thorough description. In a review of Unaccustomed Earth, Donna Seaman, the associate editor of Booklist and tonight’s interviewer, calls Lahiri an “inspired miniaturist.”

And whether she means to or not, she’s also doing justice to the Bengali Indian immigrants she represents by making her characters sympathetic and unforgettable and by building their realities from the details of those ordinary moments that slip past unnoticed by most of us. She grabs onto little things and holds onto them until she realizes how they’re special. Lahiri tells us that she came up with the title of Interpreter of Maladies when she encountered a friend of a friend on a sidewalk in a town just outside Boston, where she once lived. This friend of a friend was a man of Armenian descent and he explained to her that he worked in a doctor’s office, interpreting for the patients. “We parted ways and I went to my apartment and within thirty seconds I had ‘Interpreter of Maladies.’ I felt it was powerful enough to jot down. And many years went by and it was just ‘Interpreter of Maladies’ jotted down on a piece of paper. And then I was in a Shakespeare seminar and it came back to me.”

New York Times Review of Unaccustomed Earth


How to Trick People Into Reading

April 28, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Breaking into Publishing

Todd Zuniga at Litquake's Literary Death Match in San Francisco

Tonight at 7pm, emerging writers from Columbia College will descend on Conaway Center to participate in episode five of Literary Death Match (LDM). Like all contestants of this unique reading series, they will each read seven minutes of their “most electric writing” and then stand judgment before three designated celebrities on the basis of literary merit, performance, and intangibles. In the end, the episode’s two finalists face off in the LDM’s finale, which often involves absurd and hilarious physical contests, such as “lemonade-offs,” potato sack racing, and tossing crumpled manuscripts into the mouths of legendary authors. The LDM’s website tells us that “It may sound like a circus — and that’s half the point. Literary Death Match is passionate about inspecting new and innovative ways to present text off the page, and the most fascinating part about the LDM is how seriously attentive the audience is during each reading. We’ve called this the great literary ruse: an audacious and inviting title, a harebrained finale, but in-between the judging creates a relationship with the viewer as a judge themselves.”

How does the LDM’s co-creator and curator, Todd Zuniga, prepare for a match? Well, today he does so by helping others to create awesome reading series and literary journals of their own. Only hours before the big event, he is at Film Row Cinema sharing a comprehensive PowerPoint presentation entitled “The Future of Reading: Creating the Next, Great Literary Something.” While he is also the founder and editor of Opium Magazine,a humorous literary journal featuring fiction, poetry, and comics, Zuniga doesn’t see himself as being in competition with other publications and reading series but, rather, as being in competition with a multitude of other modern-day distractions—TV, video games, Internet, and so on. He asks a rhetorical question: “If two thousand people are reading Opium and four thousand people are reading McSweeney’s, and so on, that leaves how many people who aren’t reading at all?”

The aspiring publisher of literary journals, then, would do well to focus some time and energy on enticing the reluctant reader. Zuniga calls this the “pop-culturization of literature.” He says, “I’m convinced we can trick people into reading if we do it right.” Like a mom sneaking carrots and zucchini into her kid’s diet by shredding them into spaghetti sauce, he’s come up with a number of strategies to make the increasingly unpopular act of reading plain text more palatable. He works on accelerating what he calls the “narrative speed” of his journal, the rate at which readers move from one page to the next. “If you make readers flip the pages fast, it makes them feel like they’re getting something done.” Zuniga achieves this by increasing the margins and placing less text on each page of his journal. He even places an “estimated reading time” before each piece, acknowledging the value of his reader’s time with humor. If readers are busy—and, in this day and age, who isn’t?—they might see that a poem’s estimated reading time is only 0:57 seconds and say to themselves, “Well, I’ve got a minute.” Having gotten a taste of good literature, they may then decide to push themselves to try some of the longer pieces. For some, short poems and “sudden fiction” could turn out to be the gateway drugs to essays, stories, and even novels. Zuniga maintains an ample supply of short submissions in part by sponsoring a 250-Word Bookmark Contest, a 7-Line Story Contest, and a 500-Word Memoir Contest.  

While Opium itself is the most obvious model of his theories, Zuniga points to other literary magazines for examples of innovation that address the problem of shrinking attention spans. Hailing itself a “micro-magazine,” every issue of Abe’s Penny is “a series of four postcards featuring a narrative that unfolds in sequence, one part per week. The narrative is a combination of photographs and text, in the format of a traditional postcard.” One Story, as its title suggests, publishes only one story per issue, its mission being “to save the short story by publishing in a friendly format that allows readers to experience each story as a stand-alone work of art and a simple form of entertainment.” Quick Fiction only publishes fiction and poetry of 500 words or less.

And Electric Literature uses print-on-demand, eBook, Kindle, iPhone, and audio so that they can take the $5,000 they would have paid a printer and give it to five of the writers they publish, $1,000 each. In a powerful introduction to the magazine, editors Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum write that “Publishing is going through a revolution. There’s opportunity and danger. The danger lies in ignoring or resisting the transformation in media. New platforms present an opportunity to adapt. We believe the short story is particularly well-suited to our hectic age, and certainly for digital devices . . . People of our generation—with one foot in the past and one in the future—must make sure that the media gap is bridged in a way that preserves and honors literature. We don’t want to be sentimental old folks in a world where literary fiction is only read by an esoteric few.”

Besides suggesting that would-be publishers adapt their content and presentation to new media and new audiences, Zuniga presents them with a six-point checklist:

  1. Have a cool website.
  2. Set up a professional submission system. (Submishmash is free and good.)
  3. Keep video and audio recordings of all your events.
  4. Make commercials and get the word out. (Facebook, Twitter, the next big thing.)
  5. Consider developing an iPhone/iPad app
  6. Hand out promotional trinkets (floating heads, especially).


Of course, many of the basics of publishing still apply. Know your market, publish what matters to you, design a cool logo and business cards, and treat your authors like celebrities. “Be nice to everyone,” Zuniga advises. “If you’re a jerk, you’re not going to get very far.” This may sound simple and obvious. But being nice isn’t merely a matter of racking up karma points for people who aim to make their living with the written word. If you want to be successful, it’s also somewhere in the unwritten job description. Zuniga goes so far as to say, albeit jokingly, “You have to date people that do stuff—designers, public relations experts—someone who knows all eleven hundred of their Facebook friends.” He later says, more seriously, “Realize that publishing great literature isn’t enough.”

Also, it doesn’t hurt to have a popular reading series that has spread to 22 cities around the country as well as Ireland, England, and France. Zuniga admits that his reading series has had a profound effect on both Opium Magazine and his career in general. In talking about how it has grown to take on a life of its own, no longer requiring his presence at every event, he says, “Literary Death Match is my Fight Club.”

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Paper Darts on Literary Death Match
Women Rule Writer on Literary Death Match



Joe Meno and Company Make Me Love Chicago (and Hate Glenn Frey)

April 17, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Music in Literature

Every once in a while I’m reminded of how good it is to live in Chicago. In my neighborhood, it often seems like anything but “sweet home,” what with the persistent and unimaginative graffiti brigades, worrisome drug trafficking, abundant street litter, and incessant noise pollution. I can’t tell you how many nights I’ve been kept awake by the sound of an auto dealership’s alarm. Tonight, however, Jon Resh starts the evening off by reminding us that there’s at least one sound more offensive than a building alarm—and that’s the sound of Glenn Frey.

The author of a memoir called Amped: Notes from a Go-Nowhere Punk Band, Resh is one of three writers who open for the night’s headlining attraction, Joe Meno, and he takes this opportunity to make his hatred of Glenn Frey public in one of a series of short, funny rants he names “YOU SHITTY FUCKERS.” I use caps here because he does so in a sign he holds up to the audience. “It’s not the Eagles,” he says, “though I fucking hate the Eagles. The Eagles should be clubbed . . . But Glenn Frey’s solo stuff in the ‘80s . . . There’s one song that Glenn Frey did himself that makes me want to destroy myself: ‘The Heat Is On.’” Resh explains that this song is responsible for a percentage of the murders that occurred in the 1980s. “That shit gets in your head and it won’t get out.” After briefly imitating its saxophone refrain (“neh-neh-neh-neh-neh, neh-neh-neh-neh-neh, neh-neh”), Resh calls it “a crime against humanity” and “a knife in my ears.”

Hatred of Glenn Frey becomes a recurring theme of the event. Gretchen Kalwinski takes a moment to say that, while “it didn’t occur to [her] to hate Glenn Frey,” she did suffer when a former roommate of hers repeatedly sang “Hotel California,” and Joe Meno himself says, “I hadn’t realized how much I hated Glenn Frey.” I, too, silently wonder why I hadn’t noticed that “The Heat Is On” is so annoying and then I blush at the knowledge that even its off-putting sax nonsense won’t eliminate the soft spot I have for Beverly Hills Cop. In a YouTube interview with his editor, Joe Meno explains that “a number of [his] books have been direct responses to music that [he’d] fallen in love with at a particular time.” All this Glenn-Frey-Sucks talk makes me want to ask him if certain characters or settings in his work are tied to particularly bad songs, or if he might consider doing that in the future, and, if he did, which songs would he pick?

Of course, it isn’t the Glenn-Frey-Sucks talk that reminds me of how good it is to live in Chicago. It’s that in this city, we can go to a place like Quimby’s, a cool independent bookstore that showcases the books, zines, comics, manifestos and pamphlets of unknown writers alongside the works of established ones, and hear about, an online publication that features short fiction, interviews, and reviews of anything; we can laugh at Jon Resh’s grudges and vulgar, handwritten signs and at how a character in Patrick Somerville’s upcoming collection of short stories stole a car in order to seek out Hitler because he believed the leader of the Third Reich, and not aliens, was behind the UFOs; we can listen to a story that Gretchen Kalwinski, co-founder of Literago, says is about “how people, women in particular, adorn themselves and how that affects their behavior,” but is actually about so much more.

And we can hear Joe Meno read.

When the store clerk introduces him, he goes through the usual litany of accomplishments—that he’s the winner of the Algren award, the author of five novels and two short story collections, and so on. But then he adds that Meno is “the most encouraging and most motivating professor you could hope for.” I don’t doubt it. It was at a Story Week panel discussion on working class fiction that I first discovered Meno, years ago. Even then, he seemed more like a teacher than a writer to me. My memory’s a bit fuzzy on the specifics, but I can recall that he gave lengthy, thoughtful answers to all the questions he was asked, whether they came from the moderator or from one of the kids in the audience, and that he was full of sage advice and encouragement. Tonight, he undercuts the praise of his grand introduction by saying, “I feel like I died,” and he doesn’t even take the stage like all the other writers do, choosing instead to remove the distance between himself and his audience.

Meno reads a passage from his latest book, The Great Perhaps. It’s about a wonderfully strange family living in Hyde Park, a family consisting of one scientist on a desperate mission to find an ancient giant squid and another who conducts a disastrous experiment involving pigeons, one teenage girl who wants to blow up Starbucks and another who wants to find God, and a grandfather who speaks only eleven words a day so as to minimize his impact on the world. Ultimately, it’s about fear and the struggle people face to overcome it. By way of introduction, Meno explains that it was in the aftermath of the 2004 presidential election that The Great Perhaps was formed. “The country was just mired in this pervasive mood of fear,” he says. “So I wrote this book trying to figure out what was happening in the country at the time.”

During the reading, I forget about Glenn Frey and get completely caught up in the passage about a girl in trouble for writing incendiary things in her high school newspaper. But then, when Meno finishes, he admonishes us to support Quimby’s, saying, “There are not a lot of places you could go to on a Friday night and hear about the power of Glenn Frey.” In the end, I leave the bookstore filled with inspiration, pride in Chicago, and an annoying saxophone refrain in my head.

 Related Blog Post 
An Interview with Joe Meno (Bookslut)

Related Video


Heidi Durrow's Biracial Coming-of-Age Story

April 06, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Breaking into Publishing, Coming-of-Age, Race in Fiction

There is a girl with golden braids in the second-to-last row tonight. She is ten, maybe eleven years old. She listens attentively as Heidi Durrow reads from her first published book, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. Through a series of passages and asides, she learns that this book is about Rachel, the daughter of a Danish mother and a black father, a girl who is forced to struggle with issues of racial and cultural identity, along with loss, when her nuclear family is taken away from her as the result of an unthinkable tragedy and she must go to live with her old-fashioned African American grandmother. “When something starts to feel like hurt,” Durrow reads, “I put it in this imaginary bottle inside me. It’s blue glass with a cork stopper. My stomach tightens and my eyeballs get hot. I put all of that inside the bottle.”

After the reading, the girl with golden braids participates in the Q&A. She asks, “What made you want to write this book?”

Durrow seems to take this question just a bit more seriously than the others, as she should. It’s not every day that you see someone so young at a reading of this nature, one that promotes a book which most, if not all, middle school teachers would deem too mature for their students. “I wrote this book because I have always loved writing. My mother wrote. I remember when I was a kid and my mother sold her first story, back in the ‘70s. She got a check for ten dollars and she was beaming. You could see stars coming out of her head and all around her body. So whenever I think about being happy, I think about writing. And I wrote this book for people like you, for little girls to think about life and new things. So I wrote it for you.”

The braided girl’s back stiffens with what I imagine to be pride. I consider what it might have been like, at ten or eleven years old, to read a book after its author has told me, to my face, and publicly, that it had been written for me. It’s not much of a leap to suggest that Durrow has made a fan for life. (More importantly, she’s helped to make a reader for life.)

Her road to literary success wasn’t always so smooth. Although her novel was only published this January, she began writing it thirteen years ago. “One of the reasons it took such a long time,” she admits, “is because I didn’t know what I was doing.” Like most fiction writers, she attempted to get her foot in the door by submitting to literary journals. She had a master list with first and second “tiers” of publications and shaped each of the chapters in her novel into pieces that could stand alone as short stories. The sting of the negative responses she received seems fresh when she says, “Rejection after rejection. I even got a mean rejection . . . I’m sending her a free copy of the book, signed ‘compliments of the author.’”

So Durrow turned to contests. She stopped copying down contest entries by hand from magazine racks and finally subscribed to Poets & Writers. With persistence, a willingness to revise and to invest in postage and contest fees, participation in a marathon (the actual running kind), and a friend who knew agents, she found that before she had ever been published, she would win grants, fellowships, residencies, short fiction writing contests and, of course, the Bellwether Prize that led to the publication of The Girl Who Fell From the Sky. She tells the audience that she celebrates this success shortly after turning forty years old and then corrects herself, saying, “That’s not true. I just turned 41. But I wrote a coming-of-age story old because I had a lot of growing up to do and I feel like I still do.”

While Durrow limits herself to only two reasons when she answers the braided girl’s question, it becomes apparent in the course of the evening that she had a great many reasons for writing her novel. For starters, its inciting incident is taken from a newspaper article she came across long ago, about a mother who threw herself and her children from the top of a tall apartment building. It said that there was but one survivor, a daughter, and as Durrow puts it, “I just had this haunting obsession with this girl . . . What I hope will happen is that if she finds the book and realizes that, ‘Oh, that news clipping was about me,’ that she will see that Rachel is heroic, and that she’s okay. I hope she’s okay.”

As much as the book is about how Rachel copes with her loss and grief, it is also about how she negotiates the overlapping layers of her identity in a world that largely sees in only black and white. These are not details taken from the real life survivor’s experiences but, rather, from Durrow’s. She built her protagonist with the sometimes painful memories of being a biracial and bicultural girl who grew up overseas as the daughter of a military man. She always considered herself simply “American” until her family moved to Portland, Oregon. “People always wanted to know, ‘What are you?’ And they were never happy with my answer—‘I’m the best speller in my class.’”

Helping to cultivate a more honest, more sophisticated national discourse about race, then, is yet another of the reasons that Durrow had for writing this book. “We’re not supposed to talk about it. As we all saw, even President Obama checked ‘African American’ on his census form.” She was quick to add that she wasn’t “hating on him,” that she understood he had enough to think about right now, but also that she hoped he would reconsider the labels he accepts for himself in the future. Ideally, we would all start talking about race so much that we wouldn’t have to talk about race at all anymore. “People are connected to each other in all sorts of ways and maybe we will one day no longer have to have this conversation.”

Related Blog Posts
Light-skinned-ed Girl (Durrow’s Blog)
My American Melting Pot


Presenting Ordinary Thought as Philosophy

April 01, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Philosophy of the Ordinary, Working Class Fiction

When Donna Nunn takes the podium at the Chicago Author’s Room of the Harold Washington Library, she prefaces the reading of her short autobiographical essay entitled “This Land is My Land” with an impromptu rendition of the song itself, somewhat modified: “As I was walking, I saw a sign that said, ‘No Trespassing.’ But I looked across the street and there was nothing. This land was made for you and me.” Her bastardization of one of the most beloved songs of American patriotism seems to embody the unwavering defiance of exclusivity held by the collection of writers in the room, sometimes gentle and sometimes aggressive.

They each attend free workshops offered in low-income neighborhoods across the city by the Neighborhood Writing Alliance (NWA) and, in doing so, they seize on alternate spaces for reflection and expression, looking “across the street,” as it were, when those spaces traditionally reserved for philosophical explorations are clearly marked “No Trespassing.” They don’t wait around for major literary journals like the Georgia Review or TriQuarterly to notice that they have something to say, either. They gather up their work into the NWA’s quarterly publication, the Journal of Ordinary Thought. Nunn is one of more than two dozen authors reading at tonight’s event and one of 85 featured in the latest issue of the journal, an issue that explores the question, “Where are you from?”

A good-humored woman in black leather pants serves as the event’s moderator. Her name is Jeanette Jordan and she refers to the NWA as her “writing family,” offers funny and observant one-liners between readings, and introduces her fellow writers as “philosophers,” saying, for instance, “Our next philosopher comes to us from Albany Park.” At one point, Jordan calls out for John J. Quirk and, when no one makes a move to come forward, she assumes that he’s fallen asleep, and says as much to a laughing crowd. It turns out that Quirk was merely waiting for her to address him properly, as a philosopher. They take the title seriously in this organization. Given its slogan—“Every person is a philosopher”—it seems only natural that the members of the NWA would feel that one’s very humanity is called into question when he or she is denied the opportunity to approach life and art philosophically.

What, then, is this thing we all need to possess in order to be human? What do we mean when we say philosophy? Do we mean reason? The thing other than opposable thumbs that separates us from non-human animals? When we hear “live and let live; that’s my philosophy,” is that philosophy? And if it’s true that we are all philosophers, then what, if anything, distinguishes the likes of Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Kant, Hegel, and Kierkegaard from everybody else? Is it just that they were professional philosophers while we’re all amateurs? Does that make them more human than us?

By boldly presenting the “ordinary thought” of its journal as philosophy, and by introducing each of its contributors as philosophers, the NWA invites such questions, as well as a critical investigation of the philosophical underpinnings supporting each of its literary pieces. A gauntlet of sorts is laid down to the reader. We’re taking this seriously, so you damn well better take it seriously, too.

However serious the NWA may be about its mission, the ensemble reading is a fun, mostly casual affair filled with laughter and a few surprises. Jeanette Moton tells us that the homemade lye soap her mother made out of pork fat and other ingredients was “very good for tough stains, but not for bathing.” Marie G. Shelton explains that milk directly from a cow “is warm and tastes like grass.” CJ Martello teaches us how to say “sugar” in Italian (zucchero), and also how to swear using a “delightfully colored” Italian phrase (bruta putana). Barbara Banks reveals her unusual fascination with France. John J. Quirk shares a Champaign-Urbana saying—“There is no champagne served in Urbana and there is no urbanity in Champaign”—and warns us to watch out for wooden nickels. JP Marsch, Erin Moore, Donna Pecor, David Nekimken, Marita DeMarinis all offer poems that are at turns clever, funny, moving, and inspiring. Ron Yokley and Glenn Ford nearly turn their work into performance art pieces, the latter with bongo drum accompaniment. Jim Nowik, who sounds like an older, more gravelly Philip Seymour Hoffman, howls as impressively as any wolf could, twice. Leticia Jimenez explains briefly why, to her, this country is a “land of paradoxes.” And an unnamed woman with white hair and a white, crocheted shawl claps, whoops, and pumps her arm like a frat boy at a football game when a substitute reader tells us that an NWA poet named Larry Ambrose has recovered from a heart attack.

Does all of this add up to philosophy? Well, since even those who get paid to teach the subject in colleges and universities can’t agree on how to actually define the thing, I’m going to go with the ancient Greeks on this one. The word philosophy originally comes from two Greek words—philo, which means “loving,” and sophia, which means “wisdom.” So to be a philosopher means to love wisdom. When one considers the obstacles that members of the working class have to face in order to carve out their own rough trails to enlightenment, I don’t think there can be any doubt that the contributors of the Journal of Ordinary Thought love wisdom.


Audrey Niffenegger

March 31, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Text/Image Relationship


Audrey Niffenegger uses the word “wayward” to describe Chicago artists. Although there is only, as she puts it, a “smattering” of them represented in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, she feels that their work there is a good illustration of how windy city artists tend to wander, creatively speaking. She should know. Aside from her powerful and wildly popular novels, The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry, Niffenegger has created prints, paintings, drawings, comics, and “artist’s books” that she printed and bound by hand in editions of ten. (My own copy of The Adventuress is not one of these rare pieces of paper art but, rather, a commercially published replica that wears a sticker saying, “A Novel in Pictures by the Best-Selling Author . . .”)

On Wikipedia, Niffenegger is referred to first as a writer, then as an artist and academic. But during today’s conversation at Film Row Cinema, she says, “I never actually decided to be a novelist. I tell people it’s my hobby. At the moment, I’m headed toward ballet.” This is not impetuousness. Although her career may be as multifaceted as J-Lo’s, its progression seems to be a natural and lifelong unfolding of artistic and intellectual curiosity. She started out making prints as an apprentice to William Wimmer in 1978, began exhibiting her work at Printworks Gallery in 1987, got her MFA from Northwestern University’s Department of Art Theory and Practice in 1991, and only started writing her first novel in 1997. Even now, after getting a five-million-dollar advance on her second novel, Niffenegger still seems to consider herself first and foremost a visual artist and, at Columbia College Chicago, she only teaches writing courses that “specialize in text-image relationships” (

However wayward Niffenegger may be, it seems that she will forever be grounded in the visual. In a review of “The Night Bookmobile,” an illustrated short story due to be published in September, an unnamed New City critic writes:

“Niffenegger’s art has often been compared to Edward Gorey’s, and justifiably so: her work incorporates the same stark, haunting figures and her stories, like Gorey’s, are often dark and chimerical. Niffenegger’s drawings, however, are more intimate than Gorey’s and, even when dealing with death, they manage to be infused with life” (

Given her talent for both visual arts and storytelling, one cannot help but wonder what cinematic masterpiece would have resulted if New Line Cinema had consulted her in making the movie adaptation of The Time Traveler’s Wife, which one hopes would have been the case if, as IMDB asserts, the production company had succeeded in securing Steven Spielberg, Gus Van Sant, or David Fincher to direct it. According to Niffenegger, New Line refused to honor even three modest requests: that the movie be filmed in Chicago, that it “not have a sucky soundtrack,” and that its ending be faithful to the book. (SPOILER ALERT! Skip to the next paragraph if you haven’t yet read The Time Traveler’s Wife!) “Pretty early in the movie-making process,” she says, “it came down from on high that we could not cut off his feet.” She doesn’t seem bitter, however, perhaps understanding that, as a member of tonight’s audience pointed out, “The book and the movie are each playing to very different audiences.” Let’s just say the movie was aimed at audiences that love the soft focus.

Maybe after she’s put up her September exhibit at Printworks Gallery, and after she’s finished writing her third novel, The Chinchilla Girl in Exile, and after she’s had her fill of ballet, she will explore the medium of film and show them over at New Line how it’s done—or, rather, how it can be done when you are a wayward artist with a unique appreciation of human nature. She may tell them, as she tells us during the conversation today, “You cannot make false assertions about human nature because the reader will object.” Only she’ll say viewer instead of reader, which seems only natural for someone who is first and foremost a visual artist.


Not Hiding Behind Bookcases with Stephen Markley

March 27, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Breaking into Publishing

There are basically two kinds of authors whose readings I attend. The ones I love and admire and the ones I think I may end up someday loving and admiring. In either case, I like to disappear into an audience and observe in complete anonymity. This is because I don’t want the writers whose books already line my shelves to see me swoon like an idiot—I don’t have pride enough to keep from swooning, but I have pride enough to keep them from seeing me swoon—and because I don’t want the newer writers to notice me sniffing them out, sizing them up, and wondering whether or not I should be swooning for them, too. Of course, it’s harder to disappear into an audience when you’re going to see a newer writer because, obviously, their audiences are smaller.

I know there will be no hiding at tonight’s event. Stephen Markley reads from his first published book, Publish This Book, at the Book Cellar in Lincoln Square. On normal nights, I would call the bookstore cozy and charming. Tonight it’s microscopic. Before others begin showing up, I wonder if it would be weird for me to set up camp behind a bookcase, just out of sight, so that I could listen to the reading in secret. That way, I wouldn’t feel like I was either sitting in judgment, all smug and superior, or like I was a phony, a fake fan, smiling and nodding and feigning laughter. The whole business always makes me feel like I did when I sometimes only pretended to play my clarinet in the high school band. (Mr. Thompson could always tell, damn it! Could the authors tell when I’m faking it?) Unfortunately, my options are severely limited by the fact that I brought Pop Sabio along. He’s as big as a lumberjack and, at times, as loud as a jackhammer, which is peculiar given his bookishness, and he’s also unreasonably proud of his girls. He would make a huge nobody-puts-Baby-in-the-corner scene if I tried to hide. That’s just his way. So I sit at a table near the exit and hope for a full house.

At 7pm, when the event is scheduled to begin, there are only a handful of people in the shop who don’t work there. I am worried at first, as I imagine Markley must be. I text Skiddle and tell her it’s like on Flight of the Concords. (She LOLs and calls me Mel, making me fear that Sabio and I would have to compensate by playing ridiculous, die-hard groupies.) Of course, at about a quarter after seven, people start trickling into the store, ordering drinks, and making small talk. I should have known that someone who seems to project the quintessential slacker image would draw a crowd of latecomers.

While waiting for the reading to start, I keep thinking to myself please, please, please don’t let Stephen Markley be the one with the harsh, machine-gun laughter who’s introducing himself to everyone individually because that might somehow confirm my suspicion that he’s one of those obnoxious, drunk, smelly, in-your-face, loudmouth Cubs fans that can make a ride on the “L” so unpleasant. (For the record, I do know some nice Cubs fans.) The machine-gun laughter guy turns out to be a representative from the Literary Writers Network, a Chicago “organization dedicated to literary excellence through the advancement and promotion of emerging fiction and creative non-fiction writers” ( Go figure. It just goes to show that you can’t always judge someone based on the way they laugh.

Even more than the machine-gun laughter guy, Markley himself turns out to be something of a testament to why snap judgments should be avoided. I first encountered him in this winter’s fiction issue of the Chicago Reader, where he published a short story called “I Think the Company I’m Temping for May Be Masterminding a Plot for Global Domination” ( It’s hilarious. Like one of Judd Apatow’s slacker characters, its protagonist is gross, lazy, profane, lecherous, and somehow endearing, and the reader gets a real sense of intimacy and immediacy through the story’s string-of-Facebook-messages structure. Unfortunately, a great deal of experimental writing runs the risk of seeming “gimmicky” and when I heard that Markley had also written a self-referential book about writing a book that hadn’t yet been written, I couldn’t help but think that he was just a guy with a big bag of tricks. Oh, how pomo. This was my snap judgment. It didn’t help to find out that he’s a regular contributor to the RedEye. (I don’t know where I got the Cubs fan thing.)

You can see why I am tempted to hide behind a bookcase even more than usual tonight. I rode in on a high horse and am silently daring this poor guy to knock me off.

He does.

Markley himself is clearly aware and only tongue-in-cheek apologetic of the gimmicks he employs. During tonight’s reading, for example, he shares the reaction a friend has to his project, saying, “He sends me this email, which is too true to not include . . . Markley, you might be the first person ever to be publishing a book about his life as a writer before having ever actually published anything as a writer. That’s like running for president based on the executive experience you’ll have after your term is over.”

His acknowledgement of the gimmickry may to some extent excuse him from it, while at the same time making him seem clever and funny, but it may be his “fire” that ultimately makes him worthwhile. That’s his word, not mine. Again reading from Publish This Book, he says, “Jill [an ex-girlfriend] once wrote to me on a birthday card that she had never met anyone as passionate as me, but she wasn’t talking about romance. Rather, she was talking about the Fire, and she was the first person to ever point this out. Admittedly, this was in the throes of our unrequited love phase, when saying such things likely substituted for mauling each other in stairwells and alleys and other inappropriate places. That birthday card was bad news: as much as what she said touched me, how can anyone live up to that?”

Now, it may sound conceited of him to mention this so-called fire in his “premature memoir,” even though he qualifies the comment with a healthy dose of doubt. But you do get some sense of what Jill is talking about when you listen to the urgency with which he talks about needing to escape from the “soul-sucking” work at a staffing agency, the great adventure this memoir turned out to be, and the way his journey went from “dicking around” to becoming more genuinely “introspective.”

From my comfortable vantage point of not-behind-a-bookcase, I am also able to pick up on a quality one doesn’t typically associate with fire or with the kind of bravado it takes to “narrate your life as it unfolds”: modesty. Aside from the humorous self-deprecating remarks one might expect from any of today’s memoirists, Markley stumbles as he reads certain obscene passages, turning red and at one point, saying, “I get really embarrassed saying this stuff out loud, by the way.” (Maybe he sometimes wants to hide behind bookcases, too!) He talks reverently about Kurt Vonnegut and Hunter S. Thompson and says that the book that changed his life and made him see the world in a new way is Black Boy by Richard Wright.

I’m not swooning quite yet. But I’m buying his book.

And look—Sabio’s having him sign it!


Unapologetically Genre

March 18, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Genre, Story Week

Mark Twain has often been attributed as having said, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” It seems that every member of the Story Week panel entitled “Genre Bending—The Faces of Fiction” can make the same boast. Mort Castle, Maggie Estep, and David Morrell are all unapologetically writers of genre fiction, in the categories of horror, mystery, and thriller, respectively, and Kevin Nance, while not a creative writer himself but, rather, a contributing editor at Poets & Writers, preserved his childhood love of comic books, Lord of the Rings, science fiction, and mystery, even though, as he puts it in tonight’s discussion, “When I went to college, I learned that everything I thought I knew about writing was wrong.”

Like Nance, I, too, grew up blissfully unaware of the distinctions regularly made between “high brow” and “low brow” literature. Those who taught in the low-income neighborhoods where I was raised would have been happy to see us reading just about anything. It wasn’t until I took an education course at the college level that I heard teachers and future teachers debating about whether or not teenagers should be allowed to read genre fiction or even young adult fiction in their classes. Many believed in a strict adherence to the “classics” and were particularly averse to popular series books such as Harry Potter, Cirque du Freak, Twilight, and Midnighters. Even The Hobbit was called into question, a book that, according to Nance, is a “gateway drug for a lot of boys.” Quoting Ron Hansen, Castle says, “As a writer, my job is to educate and entertain, and I cannot educate if I don’t entertain.” Shouldn’t the same be true of teachers? Why, then, would many of them want to deny this kind of drug to their students?

David Morrell offers a somewhat surprising answer to this question. While some may argue that genre fiction is denigrated because it’s poorly written, or plot-driven, or formulaic, or calculating, or commercial, Morrell says it’s because we Americans are a bunch of Calvinists at heart. When he describes the deeply-ingrained American belief that “if we enjoy ourselves, it’s wrong,” I am reminded of H.L. Mencken’s definition of Puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” (After the event, I would wonder whether or not writers and critics in other countries shared our attitudes towards genre fiction. Any thoughts on this, dear readers???)

Although, as Joe Meno, the event’s moderator, mentions in his opening statements, the American literary establishment was “rending its garments” in reaction to the news that Stephen King had been awarded the National Book Award in 2003, and thereby joined the ranks of John Updike, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, and Philip Roth, it seems that the tide is turning in favor of genre fiction. In “Invasion of the Genre Snatchers,” an article originally published in Poets & Writers, Nance says, “Aspects of detective and crime novels, thrillers, science fiction and fantasy, horror, westerns, comics, and other subgenres are increasingly showing up in variously transmogrified forms, with and without quotation marks, in works of literary fiction.” Among the writers he cites as examples are Michael Chabon, Jonathan Lethem, Cormac McCarthy, and Joyce Carol Oates. If what Morrell says about Calvinist sensibilities being at the root of our distaste for popular literature is true, then maybe we’re having a collective religious awakening of sorts.

No one on the panel suggests that there isn’t bad writing out there, or that a lot of it isn’t genre, per se. Morrell even goes so far as to name names (David Baldacci). But he and his fellow panelists seem to agree that what distinguishes a good story from a bad one has nothing to do with genre and almost everything to do with honesty. (Almost.) They all warn against “chasing the market” as opposed to being true to your own voice and vision. Meno says “follow your curiosity” like it’s something he’s repeated a million times in the classroom. And Castle advises each of the aspiring writers in the audience to “be a first-rate version of yourself and not a second-rate version of someone else.” It’s advice well worth heeding, both in fiction writing and in life.


Is Cuban a Genre?

March 17, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Multicultural Fiction, Story Week

When I first saw the full-page ad in the Chicago Reader for this year’s Story Week, I must admit that I was as baffled as I was delighted to find a photograph of Achy Obejas in it, positioned above the theme of the festival, “Genre Bending: The Faces of Fiction.” Sure, she’d edited an anthology of stories by Cuban writers called Havana Noir, but, by and large, her own writing has never struck me as genre fiction. I couldn’t imagine that bookstores would shelve her explorations of ethnic, national, political, and sexual boundaries within the confines of romance, mystery, horror, fantasy, or science fiction and I wasn’t comfortable with the thought of her work being segregated from mainstream literature because she’s a woman, or gay, or Cuban. Is Cuban a genre? I think not. But the fact that many bookstores do, indeed, subscribe to such policies of exclusion prompted one of the many fascinating exchanges in the panel discussion that featured Obejas.

In it, we learned that she was marketed as a “queer writer” early in her career as a novelist. “At Women and Children First,” she said, “it’s the place to be. But at Barnes and Noble, where’s the queer section? Back there…behind the Marxist section.” Patricia Ann McNair, the event’s host, joined Obejas in riffing on The Wizard of Oz, Obejas saying “The Marxists, the queers, and the Jews,” and McNair answering, “Oh, my.” The failure of big chain bookstores to properly place and promote authors like Obejas led her, years ago, to partner with her girlfriend in what she playfully referred to as a “guerilla movement” to stealthily re-shelve books.

We can laugh at the futility of this prank, but there is no denying that one of the things that most characterizes this author is her spirit of rebellion. Although she expresses affection for “all three of her homes,” in Chicago, in Havana, and in Oakland, where her girlfriend lives, she doesn’t hesitate to raise questions in her work about the social and political landscapes of both America and Cuba, both capitalism and communism, all the while managing to resist oversimplifications.

In tonight’s discussion, we discovered that this same spirit of rebellion is at work behind the scenes, before and after publication. For example, it was particularly gratifying for her to publish Havana Noir because, when initially discussing the book with one of Cuba’s minor cultural officials, comparing lists of possible contributors, she was told that she wouldn’t be able to find any good crime fiction written by women and that black people really only liked to write poetry. Obejas remembers thinking at that time, “Did you just say that to me? In a country that’s overwhelmingly of color?”—and then later, after the book’s successful publication—“Half women. People of color. Fuck you, buddy.”

On another occasion, a representative of the Ministry of Culture explained why a segment of her novel, Ruins, would be censored. He said, “Well, it’s not political in the traditional sense. In one of your scenes, Fidel, 13-year-old Fidel, he looks at a boy’s penis.”

“But it wasn’t erotic,” she explained. “It was because he’s been circumcised and is horribly mangled.”

“I’m sorry. Fidel cannot look at a penis.”

Despite conversations such as this one, some censorship, and the controversial themes of her books, Obejas has succeeded in being touted in Cuba as a Cuban writer—not Cuban-American, but Cuban. “For me, there was kind of a perverse pride in that,” she said. Of course, meanings shift over time and space, and the phrase “Cuban writer” does not mean here in the States what it means on the island. Given her pride in that label, however, and the excitement with which she described the insatiable literary appetites of her fellow Cubans, their “black market” of books, and the cynicism that keeps them from appreciating romance novels, it does not seem like she would mind all that much if she walked into Barnes and Noble and found her work on shelves marked “Cuban.” She’d still do some re-shelving, no doubt, but maybe she’d do it with a smile on her face. I’d like to think so. I’m part Cuban, too.


Is Joyce Carol Oates Slumming It?

March 16, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Genre, Literary Legends, Story Week

When we think genre fiction, many of us often think of cheap, paperback novels that are quickly consumed and more quickly forgotten. It’s widely understood to be trite, formula fiction that’s manufactured for mass consumption—the stuff with which no “serious” author would ever want to be associated.

There is perhaps no better writer to challenge these assumptions than Joyce Carol Oates. The author of 58 novels, 34 collections of short stories, and more poems, plays, essays, and book reviews than anyone outside the Library of Congress can enumerate, Oates has garnered a great deal of critical acclaim and a slew of literary awards, including the National Book Award, the O. Henry Award, and the PEN/Malamud Lifetime Achievement Award. She also happens to teach at Princeton University. Writing doesn’t get more serious than Joyce Carol Oates, and yet, at the same time, her work is featured alongside the likes of Stephen King, Dean R. Koontz, and Robert Bloch in my copy of The Complete Masters of Darkness. Her status as a master of darkness was confirmed by the Horror Writer’s Association when, in 1996, she won their Bram Stoker Award for her novel, Zombie.

So what gives? Is she a literary genius who likes to go “slumming” once in a while? Or is she a horror and mystery hack who has managed to fool the literati into giving her undue recognition?

Randall Albers, the chairperson of Columbia College’s Fiction Writing Department, seems to think of her as the poster child of a literary movement that might just abolish such distinctions. By way of introducing the theme of this year’s Story Week event, “Genre Bending: The Faces of Fiction,” Albers writes that, “the borders between genre fiction and so-called ‘literary’ fiction seem to be growing more porous, with conventions of each interpenetrating and cross-pollinating in ways not seen previously” (

Although I got the sense that Oates herself is well aware of the challenge that her body of work represents to the supposedly great divide between literary and genre fiction, she didn’t mention it directly during tonight’s conversation at the Harold Washington Library. Instead, she read one of her short stories, “The Night,” which, like so many of her tales, is based on an incident of true crime, and she talked about the origins of several of her novels and collections of short stories. A number of social, political, and economic issues were touched on as well, such as the vast differences between our current economic crisis and the Great Depression, the changes in sexual mores, the unprecedented pressure placed on certain groups of young people to become overachievers, and what she refers to as the “narcotizing of American children.”

Even if she didn’t directly address the question of literary versus genre fiction, she did have a few things to say about genre writing in general. For example, one of the reasons that she finds it to be so appealing is that it presents its readers with a guarantee of closure; a complete, straight-forward resolution is integral to its structure. “If you want to read a literary novel,” she said, “you could read it all the way through and be moved by it but still not quite ‘get it’ because there isn’t that contract with the reader that you have with a mystery novel.”

For me, the highlight of the evening was when Oates explained how she came to secretly assume the first of her two pseudonyms, Rosamond Smith. “I wanted to escape my own identity,” she said, reiterating a statement quoted in The New York Times back in 1987 ( She seemed to feel that critics were bored and maybe even annoyed by her staggering prolificacy. With slumped shoulders, she mimicked them, saying, “Oh, look, Oates is back. She hasn’t even been away.” The way she told it, the relationship she had with critics at that time was very much like a marriage that’s lost its fire: “I wanted to get back to that feeling when you’re, like, sixteen and in high school writing something for the first time.” In pursuit of this feeling, Oates started seeing another agent behind her agent’s back. Over lunch, she handed this secret agent the manuscript of a suspense novel called The Lives of the Twins, saying, “Oh, just take this, show it around, don’t tell them who did it.” This form of literary adultery resulted in a modest sale, a movie starring Aiden Quinn and Isabella Rossellini and, upon discovery, a series of extremely unpleasant phone calls. “My agent said, ‘Joyce!? What have you done!? You published a novel under another name at Random House?’ I blacked out. You know, people commit these mass murders and they say, ‘I don’t remember.’ So that’s what I said. ‘I don’t remember.’”

As illuminating and entertaining as the event proved to be, Oates left us to ponder the tension between literary and genre fiction without her. So here’s my two cents: Isn’t it interesting that Oates and other writers of today are challenging literary rules by following the rules of genre convention? And isn’t it interesting that many, if not most, classic works of literature in the Western tradition can be understood as genre fiction? (The Iliad and the Odyssey, Beowulf, Morte Darther, The Faerie Queene, Hamlet, Paradise Lost, Frankenstein, “Rip Van Winkle,” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” “Young Goodman Brown,” the stories of Edgar Allan Poe, Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness, etc.) Maybe the revolution that Oates and company threaten is a revolution in the truest sense of the word. To quote Days of Awe by Achy Obejas:

The word itself is imbedded with a kind of circular logic that has at its core a contradiction. Revolutions are, after all, for the moment. The minute they cease to be the outside challenge, the moment they become the power inside, they shift more than their balance. They demand another upheaval, another ensanguined engagement. And they’re as regular as the seasons. Indeed, we measure time by the constant and sluggish turn of our own watery orb; nothing could be steadier and more predictable than these collective, planetary revolutions. Constant insurrection is in our system, in our programming, our cranial codes.

And now I’m looking forward to seeing Obejas tomorrow as Story Week continues…


My first encounter with Joyce Carol Oates

March 15, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Personal Anecdote

It wouldn’t feel right for me to post about tonight’s event without first mentioning how I came to discover Joyce Carol Oates in the first place. I know, I know. She’s not exactly obscure. But, hey, everybody has to have a first time, right? So I’ll start off by testifying about mine.

It was the year 2000. Fall semester at Roosevelt University, to be exact. That was hands down the best semester of college for me. Four of my favorite courses taught by four of my favorite professors. I had my mind blown on a daily basis. It was like these professors got a fabulous academic choreographer to synch them up for maximum enlightenment.

One of the books assigned in my American Gothic Literature course was an anthology of short stories by Joyce Carol Oates entitled The Collector of Hearts: New Tales of the Grotesque. “The Sepulchre” had such a tremendous impact on me that I made four different copies of it so that I could write four different sets of notes in the margins. (I’m a bit anal retentive, as my little sister, Skiddle, likes to point out from time to time.) I wrote an essay about it called “The Crossroads,” because, at that point in my life, I understood the story to be about woman’s conflicting desires to preserve the past and move beyond it. (And, damn it, I can’t find that essay in any of my files!)

Not long after I turned in the assignment, my professor told me that Joyce Carol Oates would be speaking at Women and Children First. She also told me that I should go and share my essay with the author. This is not something I would have ever thought to do on my own. But my professor suggested it and I didn’t think my debilitating shyness should keep me from simply listening to a reading, waiting in line, delivering a package, and saying a few words of praise and appreciation. I remember having to talk myself into this.

I won’t describe the reading here, because, after all, these posts are supposed to be about this year’s Story Week. But I will admit that I couldn’t bring myself to say a single word to Ms. Oates. I choked. I was completely star struck. I felt myself growing red and feverish as I approached the front of the line and, once there, I could do nothing more than fling my manila envelope in her general direction and make a very, very speedy exit.

A couple weeks later, I got a postcard from Joyce Carol Oates. It’s one of my most prized possessions.

More to come after the event…

See you at Story Week

March 13, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Event Listing

Chicago owes a great deal of its literary presence to Columbia College. Starting this Sunday, March 14th, the school will be hosting its 14th annual Story Week Festival of Writers, themed “Genre Bending: The Faces of Fiction.” I’ve marked my calendar for several of the festival’s readings, panels, and performances. Given the number of times that I have seen Joyce Carol Oates, and the number of books she’s written, I concluded long ago that she’s managed to successfully clone herself. Although it will still be good to see her again, I am particularly looking forward to attending the “Genres From Afar” event that features Achy Obejas. I have been following Obejas’ work since the beginning and I will, no doubt, have quite a bit to say about her when I blog about her reading and conversation. Others in attendance include Bonnie Jo Campbell, David Morrell, Aleksandar Hemon, Marcus Sakey, John Dale, and Maggie Estep. And there will be a special performance on Thursday by the Bread & Puppet Theater. A good time will be had by all. Visit for details.

Open Books: Not Your Average Bookstore

March 11, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Bookstores

A little over a year ago, I was complaining to a coworker about the fact that Raindog Books on Michigan Avenue had closed. It was located only a couple of businesses down from Roosevelt University, my alma mater, and, although it couldn’t compare to its predecessor, the loop incarnation of Bookseller’s Row, it nonetheless provided a place to pick up a good used book for a reasonable price. Prairie Avenue, Selected Works, Abraham Lincoln, Pauline, Brent, and Sandmeyer’s were too specialized and Printer’s Row Fine and Rare was too posh. Afterwords Bookstore on Illinois Street had a decent selection of both new and used books, but were Chicagoans supposed to content themselves with only one affordable, general interest, partially used bookstore in the downtown area?

My coworker tried to console me by saying there had been some buzz among her suburban friends about a place called Open Books. She described it then as merely a used bookstore and, at the time, the fact that it didn’t have a proper storefront or a listing in the Yellow Pages made even that moniker somewhat dubious. But the word of mouth that found its way to me that day and the determination of a social-media entrepreneur named Stacy Ratner quickly garnered a flurry of press coverage, both local and national, as well as some 3,000 volunteers.

Open Books isn’t your average bookstore. As its website indicates, it’s “a nonprofit social venture that operates an extraordinary bookstore, provides community programs, and mobilizes passionate volunteers to promote literacy in Chicago and beyond” and its mission is ”to enrich lives through reading, writing, and the power of used books.” Its headquarters are located in a renovated bicycle factory in River North, just off of Chicago and Franklin, and, yes, it now has a brick-and-mortar shop to call its own.

This NPO’s space rivals any of its commercial counterparts. When I visited for the first time, on Pulaski Day, I couldn’t help but pull out my camera phone. And this was before I had any intention of starting a blog. I snapped away at the giant, golden preying mantis dangling from the ceiling, the glass-blown octopus light fixtures, the huge tree in the children’s corner, the opulent purple chairs, the oversized red bench, and the hilarious painting of a Victorian dandy wearing funky, modern-day goggles. The bookcases were painted in primary colors and set on wheels, which, I suppose, means that they can reconfigure the store to accommodate its literary events. I was thrilled. And it didn’t hurt that they were playing Bjork and Belle and Sebastian.

I came away from Open Books with three literary journals, two Onion anthologies, a book by Nelson Algren, and a strong desire to support the efforts of literacy organizations in Chicago.

Upcoming events include a film screening of Storm (winner of the Amnesty International Film Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival), mural painting, craft night, poetry readings, and a zine-making workshop for teens. Please visit the store itself or its website at for more information or to find out about volunteer opportunities.