Sunday, March 20, 2005

How Catholic is Stuart Dybek? And Other Questions from the Lake Forest Literary Festival

I spent much of last Friday evening behind a martini glass, drafting an encyclopedia article about John Matthias and deep-chilling after a week of playing host to the first annual Lake Forest Literary Festival, an invention I dreamed up with my colleague Davis Schneiderman more than a year ago. We're calling it the "first annual" festival as an expression of faith, since we're still putting together the funding and participants for next year. I'm glad I waited a few days to blog the event, since in the middle of the battle I found myself swearing never to do it again. Misplaced writers, room-booking hijinks, the wounded egos of a number of writer-wannabes and people who mistake hosting a lit fest for something glamorous -- all the usual chickenshit had me down. In the end, though, the thing went off well, as I guess I knew it would.

Some highlights for me, in the form of questions:

1. How Catholic is Stuart Dybek?

Stuart was the BMOC for this year's festival (behold my naive, indeed touching, faith that we'll get our act together for another year, and another yet...), which focused on Illinois writers. One of the many flaming hoops he had to jump through during his stay at Lake Forest was a lunchtime faculty talk in the gray box we call, not without a sense of irony, the faculty lounge. In the course of his talk he mentioned a couple of things that redlined on my "Pious II signature series Catechism 3000 Catholometer": firstly, there was a strangely fond recollection of the infant Jesus in Prague, a statue elaborately dressed each day in beaded, bejewelled and embroidered outfits by local nuns; secondly, there was his statement about the nature of imagination and the writer's craft. This isn't usually the sort of thing that sets off the Catechism 3000, but the thing started bleeping uncontrollably about fifteen seconds into the discussion. Dybek was talking about teaching creative writing, and the resistance he (like everyone who teaches writing) encounters from the type of student who heard somewhere that Jack Kerouac just got hopped up on speed and typed all night on a scroll of paper so he wouldn't have to slow down and think. "The craft of writing," said Dybek, "can feel constraining -- those techniques can feel constraining, and they are, at first." But, he continued, "that craft is the only access, the -only- access, we have to the imagination." Okay. So I wasn't sure at first why this set off the Catholometer the same way the infant of Prague did. Then it occurred to me that this was the same sort of thing I'd heard over and over (I've got three degrees from Notre Dame) about the rituals and dogmas of the Catholic Church. "Yes," a broadminded priest might concede in the grotto outside the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, "all this ritual and hierarchy and tradition and dogma can seem artificial, even repressive, but this is how we have access to religion, and we don't have anything without it." I was never willing to concede jack to any grotto-haunting dogma-peddler, but I'm down with Dybek on this. And I'll bet you a pound of Friday fishsticks that the man goes to church.

2. Where does Reginald Gibbons get his Clothes?

Reg looked sharp, as he always does. He read in an interesting kind of back-and-forth way with Ricardo Cortez Cruz (best known for inventing the rap novel with his book "Straight Outta Compton"), trading poem for poem and prose passage for prose passage, each finding a way to link his piece to the other guy's writing. A highlight for me was when both read poems with quotations from one of Chicago's best African-American poets, Sterling Plumpp. It was cool, and they hadn't planned it. But I digress: my point was Reg's clothes. I kind of thought he'd be overwhelmed in that department by Cruz. I'd met Cruz the day before, and saw right a way that he was the kind of guy who knows how to wear a big cross medallion and make it work. But Reg showed up in a slick blazer and cleverly tied scarf. One of the poems he read was about meeting a guy in a diner late at night, a man who turned out to be an old tailor from eastern Europe. The old tailor praised the speaker of the poem (who, in a post-New Critical gesture, I'm going to call "Reg") for his clothes, and then told Reg he knew where he could get some really fine stuff on the cheap. I'm going to assume that Reg's autobiographical impulse is stronger than his desire to fabricate fictions, and work up the courage to ask him where he shops.

3. What's with the Cult of the Editors?

When Davis and I were planning this shindig, we added, at the last minute, a panel made up of the editors of some of Chicago's main literary magazines. I'm not sure why we did it, unless it had to do with how both Davis and I are unrepentant serial offenders in the world of little magazines, starting our own publications up from time to time and suffering the slings and arrows that all editors inevitably suffer (ever met a writer who loved his editor? You did? I got news for you, Chet, that dude was lying). Anyway -- we put the panel in a classroom, rather than an auditorium, since we thought hardly anyone would attend. We ended up with standing room only -- in fact, I ended up standing out in the hallway, bullshitting with Dybek and Cruz, becuase there wasn't even room for us to stand at the back.

Barry Silesky came from ACM, wearing the kind of cap Jack Kerouac wears in the picture on the Burkhardt-designed T-shirt you used to be able to get at the Aspidistra Bookshop on Chicago's Clark Street (if you got yours in the early nineties, you probably bought it from me -- I was the guy with the mangy ponytail, the one who'd had slightly less Guinness than the older guy who yelled at you about how Kerouac was a drunk and a hack). Marie Hays came from Story Quarterly, with a giant box of free samples for the audience. Eirik Steinhoff came from Chicago Review (on the train home that night I missed my stop, talking with him and with the painter David Schutter). And the crowd, all students, ate it all up. Maybe they showed up because I'd billed the event as "how to get published" (always an eye-catcher), but I wish I'd been able to squeeze in and see what happened.

Other questions remain unanswered, too: Did I drink the Chicago Tribune critic Patrick Reardon's cocktail at dinner by mistake? Why didn't David Park read his Bob Odenkirk piece at the open mike? Where will the money come from to pay for next year's much larger extravaganza? Where's my copy of "The Coast of Chicago"? But I do know this: I'm glad we got our act together, and I'll try to remember that midway through next year's festival, when some jackass writer has decided he needs the red M+Ms picked out from the bowl of candy in his dressing room and I'm telling myself I'll never do it again.