Sunday, April 20, 2008

Chicago Poetry Symposium 08

Ring the bells and sound the trumpets! Fire up the timpani and sackbutts in celebration: the University of Chicago has finally made a full-on commitment to the poetry of its own city! Yes, it's true. The U of C has, of course, supported poetry in many ways, and the Chicago Review has rarely been as strong as it is now, but the university has often seemed to function as a kind of Island of Laputa out of Gulliver's Travels, floating serenely through the air, wreathed in abstraction, and bound to no place in particular. The institution of a new annual symposium on Chicago Poetry, though, seems to indicate that things have changed, with the university catching a whiff of what's been cooking in the local scene. David Pavelich, who works with the Special Collections Research Center at the Regenstein Library, put together the first symposium, bringing Devin Johnston, Michael O'Leary, and Michael Anania to campus to celebrate the library's acquisition of the papers from Anania's Swallow Press years and the archives from Johnston and O'Leary's Flood Editions. The symposium, an afternoon-long series of discussions with a full house in attendance, provided a good occasion to look back on what lies behind the current flurry of poetic activity in our city — and a good occasion, it turned out, for debating the inclusiveness and exclusiveness of the city's evolving poetic scene.

The Autonomous Life

Pavelich kicked things off by quoting Kevin Killian's comment about how, when young poets ask him where to go, he tells them "Chicago is the most exciting scene around. Years from now we'll be looking back at the early 21st century and wishing we'd all relocated there at this time in poetry history." Ruminating on whether the current scene is an unprecedented flowering, or the latest of a series of periodic renaissances, Pavelich seemed to take the latter position, mentioning the Modernist era of Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay; the Henry Rago-Karl Shapiro years, the era of Michael Anania, Ralph Mills, Sterling Plumpp, Lisel Mueller, Haki Madhubuti, and above all Gwendolyn Brooks; the Paul Hoover-Maxine Chernoff-Yellow Press scene, the Paul Carroll circle, the birth of Slam, and much else besides. He then quoted Basil Buntings' observations about Chicago poetry, including the interesting claim that poetry in Chicago had "an autonomous life," unlike the European-inflected literary scene in New York. "If it's an autonomous life," said Pavelich, "it's an autonomy with a history," and with this he introduced Devin Johnston and Michael O'Leary, who took the podium to talk about one of the more recent chapters in that history, the rise of Flood Editions.

The Poetry Adventure

Michael and Devin talked about the conditions necessary for Flood to thrive, reflecting on the immensely empowering lack of authority or hierarchy in Chicago's literary scene. But the more I listened to them, the more it seemed to me that the most enabling and empowering thing in the Flood story was the shared sense of friendship and adventure among the core group of poets — Devin, Michael, Michael's brother Peter, John Tipton, and others — affiliated with the press. When Michael talked about the road-trip over a flooded Mississippi River to visit Ronald Johnson in San Francisco, and when Devin talked about a later trip with Michael and Joel Felix to see the aging Johnson and put his papers in order, everything they said (and, most especially, the way they said it) indicated that this wasn't some dry editorial collective, these were the boys and the boys were having a fantastic time, racing around the country on pilgrimages to see forgotten poets, arguing about how to set up a press and make it break even over their plates of cabbage at Scruffy's Irish Diner, and looking to old issues of BLAST, old copies of City Lights books, and to the publications of the Jargon Society for inspiration. "When I read those City Lights books," said Michael at one point, "I had some vague sense that the poets all knew each other, and wrote for each other." When Michael ended with the exhortation to "find a friend and start a press," the thing that came through, more than anything else, was the romance of group endeavor, and specifically of young, male group endeavor, with all its wayward, road-trippy, cocky splendors (long may it wave). Which isn't to say Flood is all about the guys (Lisa Jarnot and Pam Rehm are important for Flood, for example), but the energy seemed very much of a piece with the Guy Debord Situationist crew, say, or with the pile-in-the-car-guys Beat vibe. Or that's the way it sounded at the symposium.


Perhaps it shouldn't have come as a surprise, then, that one of the first questions to follow Devin and Michael's talk came from a woman who seemed concerned about what she took to be the exclusivity of the vision of Chicago poetry being presented. She spoke a kind of grad-student-ese, but presented herself as an outsider, and expressed dissatisfaction with the "particular face" being put on Chicago poetry in the privileged context of a University of Chicago symposium. Though she didn't specify the nature of that particular face, I'm pretty sure she meant the white, male face: perhaps she'd taken her cue from Ron Silliman, who'd pointed out on his blog that none of the three speakers were women. It's not like she was wrong: almost all of the do-it-yourself, entrepreneurial, by-the-bootstraps anecdotage about Flood had been about a group of guys making something great happen on their own, out of the love of the group and the task (and make no mistake: Flood has been a great thing). And this first symposium did feature only white guys as speakers. When David Pavelich assured her that this first symposium wasn't to be the last word on Chicago poetry, she said she found the answer "unsatisfactory." I wish I'd had a chance to talk to her after Michael Anania's talk, though, since the picture he painted of Chicago poetry over the last few decades was one of the greatest possible diversity, in both aesthetic and social terms.

The Scene's Big Shoulders

"The thing about poetry in Chicago," said Michael Anania, "is that it's never where you think it is." With this, he introduced an anecdote about how he, as a promising student poet, was sent up to Chicago from Omaha in 1960 to attend a gala fund-raiser hosted by Poetry magazine. Michael approached W.H. Auden at the black-tie affair, saying "I owe it to the guy I borrowed this suit from to introduce myself." "Poet?" asked Auden. "Yes," replied Michael. "Then why don't you steal some champagne and we'll sneak off," suggested the great man, and sneak off they did, to talk for hours at the Allerton Hotel while the Great Poetry Establishment (consisting then of John Ciardi, X.J. Kennedy, and the anthology editors Louis Untermeyer and Oscar Williams) droned on at the gala. Unknown to both the gala's attendees and escapees, a far more interesting group of relatively unknown poets was meeting downtown under the tutelage of John Logan, a Notre Dame prof who'd come in to teach informal poetry seminars — a group including Bill Knott, Paul Carroll, and Charles Simic, among others.

This sense of multiple scenes, and a city big and broad enough to embrace them, pervaded Michael's story of his years in Chicago. As I listened to Michael talk about A.K. Ramanujan, Ralph Mills, and Lisel Mueller; and about Jennifer Moyer's invention of the Poetry in the Schools Program that supported Angela Jackson; and about the Obasi Workshop that launched the careers of so many African-American poets (notably Carolyn Rogers and Haki Madhubuti); and about the founding of Tia Chucha Press; and about the night Robert Bly was pelted with eggs by Evanston-based Trotskyite Surrealists (who were then counter-attacked by the Stone Soup crowd), and about Gwendolyn Brooks' integration of the white and black reading scenes, I got a real sense of the complexity, diversity, and depth of the scene over the decades.

Maybe it was the rarefied air of Hyde Park, but I left with a head full of Hegelianism, thinking about how the symposium I'd just left was not only a continuation of the city's poetic tradition, but also a kind of rising to self-consciousness of a scene that too often has had too little of a sense of its own history.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

The &NOW Awards and the the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize

After much work, with the kind help of the administration at Lake Forest College, and with the generous support of friends of the college, I and my colleagues Davis Schneiderman and Josh Corey are happy to unveil some new literary awards, and a new press. &NOW Books, an imprint of the just-founded Lake Forest College Press, will be publishing a series of anthologies called The &NOW Awards (affiliated with the &NOW Festival), and will also publish books of poetry and prose. In addition, Lake Forest's new Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize is a truly fantastic opportunity: two months to write, $10,000, and publication of a first book.

Soon Davis will be whisked off to this year's &NOW Festival in California to make the official announcements, but fret not if you can't be there for his stirring speech — here are the details as they'll appear in various print ads, and on our website.

  • &NOW Books (an imprint of Lake Forest College Press) and the &NOW Awards

    The newly formed Lake Forest College Press is pleased to announce the formation of its imprint, &NOW Books. Every two years, &NOW Books will publish The &NOW Awards: The Best Innovative Writing — a collection of the most provocative, hardest-hitting, deadly serious, patently absurd, cutting-edge, avant-everything-and-nothing work. Distribution of &NOW books will be through Northwestern University Press.

    Attendees at &NOW 2009 (Fall, SUNY Buffalo) will receive a complementary copy of the debut anthology, but writers need not attend &NOW to be included in the collection.

    The contents of the &NOW Awards will be chosen through a nomination process and we need your help. Attendees of the &NOW conference, and friends of the organization, can send up to four nominations of published creative pieces (print or online) to with the subject line: “&NOW Nominations.” Please briefly tell us why we should consider a particular piece, and, whenever possible, send us relevant author bibliography and/or web links. Nominated works must have been published since 2004 (the year of the first &NOW conference), and the first anthology will cover the period from 2004 through 2009.

    We’ll send email notification of this process after this year’s conference.

  • &NOW/Lake Forest College the Madeleine P. Plonsker Emerging Writer’s Residency Prize

    Lake Forest College, in conjunction with the &NOW Festival of Innovative Writing and Art, invites applications for an emerging writer under forty years old, with no major book publication (chapbooks and the like excepted), to spend two months (February-March or March-April 2009) in residence at our campus in Chicago’s northern suburbs on the shores of Lake Michigan. There are no formal teaching duties attached to the residency. Time is to be spent completing a manuscript, participating in the Lake Forest Literary Festival, and giving two public presentations.

    After the residency, the completed manuscript will be published, upon approval, by the new Lake Forest College Press &NOW Books imprint. The stipend is $10,000, with a housing suite and campus meals provided by the college. The position will be offered on alternate years to writers of prose and poetry, with the 2009 residency going to a poet. Hybrid genre and non-classifiable applications are welcome during either year. Send curriculum vita, manuscript in progress, and a statement of plans for the completion of the manuscript to Plonsker Residency, Department of English Lake Forest College, 555 N. Sheridan Road, Lake Forest, IL 60045. Review of manuscripts by judges Robert Archambeau, Davis Schneiderman, and Joshua Corey will begin May 15, 2008 and continue until the position is filled.

    I don't have an exterior picture of the Glen Rowan House handy, but lest you think we're planning on putting the visiting writer up in some dingy room, here are a couple of shots of the place — one of the library, and one of the view over the main terrace. It's the Lake Forest College guest house, and the visiting writer will have a suite of rooms there.

    Since we have a lot of our visiting speakers stay there, there should be plenty of opportunities to meet interesting people as they pass through.

  • Monday, April 07, 2008

    Reading with Barbara Goldberg

    What's that you say? You want to hear about Raymond Federman's triumphant reading at the Lake Forest Literary Festival? I'd love to tell all, people, but I'm off to the dentist, and only have time to give you a last-minute head's up about the Archambeau/Barbara Goldberg reading tonight at 7:00 p.m. at The Book Stall at Chestnut Court (811 Elm Street, in Winnetka IL 60093). Winnetka's a short ride up from the city of Chicago, just north of Evanston. I know some city dwellers in Chicago think of the north shore suburbs as about as accessible as Alaska, but Google Maps will show you how short a trip it is, and it's only a block or two from the Metra train station on the Metra.

    Here's the official scoop on Barbara Goldberg, with whom I'm stoked to be reading:

    Barbara Goldberg, a senior speechwriter for a large, nonprofit organization in D.C., is the recipient of many grants and awards, including two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and four Maryland State Arts Council grants. She is the author of six books of poetry, most recently the prize-winning Marvelous Pursuits (Snake Nation Press, 1995). She is translator, along with Israeli poet Moshe Dor, of The Fire Stays in Red: Poems by Ronny Someck (University of Wisconsin/Dryad Press, 2002), and After the First Rain: Israeli Poems on War and Peace (University of Syracuse/Dryad Press, 1997). Her work appears in such magazines as Gettysburg Review, Paris Review, and Poetry. She lives in Chevy Chase, MD.

    Here's a poem and short profile from her reading at Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee.