KILLING IN THE NAME OF: Notes From the Chicago Indie Lit Sceneby Ben Tanzer
The questions are as follows: what makes for an indie lit scene, and does Chicago have one? The first person I ask is Zach Dodson from Featherproof publishing, because this is Chicago, and you sort of have to start with Featherproof. Zach responds by saying, “I’m not sure there is a definable scene, and if there were, defining it in any real way would either miss the point, or maybe kill it. Quote David Berman, ‘Punk Rock died when the first kid said ‘Punk’s not dead!’” To which I say, fine, but I still need to figure out whether there is a Chicago indie literary scene occurring right now, and if so, how might we define it?
Pete Anderson of the Pete Lit Blog tells me that:
An indie lit scene requires a vibrant mix of journals, book publishers, reading/performance venues, and bookstores. If all those things exist, writers will gravitate towards them and inevitably form a literary community. Chicago definitely has all of those things, and has a thriving indie community as a result.
This is good, because Pete has provided me with a blueprint, and if I follow his blueprint, albeit in reverse, then one component of any indie lit scene will be writers, writers you know, or wish you knew. Writers you’ve slept with, read with, smoked with, traveled with, hugged, kissed, and drank with until you stumbled down Chicago’s crumbling and snowy streets. Chicago definitely has writers, many of whom have gained much wider recognition, including Kyle Beachy, Joe Meno, Gina Frangello, Marcus Sakey, Billy Lombardo, Sam Weller, Don DeGrazia, and Elizabeth Crane (even if the latter has fled for Austin against our will).
Of course, a scene is more than its supernovas. A scene also requires some kind of collective mass, writers knocking at the door—some door, any door—and reminding us that there can’t be a scene without hunger, and spew, and work, always work, and wanting something bigger, and believing something greater is waiting, always waiting, if you keep pushing, and wanting it. Chicago has those writers in droves, so many good writers in so many parts of the city that you can barely throw a rock in any direction and not hit one of them in the head. Talent alone though isn’t enough to make the argument for a scene here in our beloved Second City, especially when you could argue that just as many writers, per capita anyway, reside in New York City, Los Angeles, and Ann Arbor.
No, scenes may evolve in a bubble, their weird, at times off-putting alchemy resulting in a dynamic tension fraught with creativity, originality, and an indefinable cutting-edgeness, but as Pete points out there are other pivotal elements beyond talent in any scene that are crucial to their emergence, even if the fantasy is that scenes somehow emerge whole cloth and fully formed.
There are the writing programs of course at Columbia College, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois at Chicago, but there are also the places where the words themselves are twisted, lifted, expanded, morphed, and stretched. Regularly scheduled readings, performances, and festivals such as the Orange Alert Reading Series, QUICKIES!, RUI: Reading Under the Influence, The Parlor, the Danny’s Reading Series, So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?, Windy City Story Slam, the Myopic Poetry Series, Columbia College’s annual Story Week Festival of Writers, Printers Ball, TWW Rx Reading Series, 2nd Story, Reconstruction Room, Uncalled-For Readings, and The Sunday Night Sex Show among others, all of whom compete for air time and calendar space, but all of whom are just unique enough to be thriving, as are the spaces that host them, and any number of one-off readings as well, the Book Cellar, Quimby’s, the Hideout, the Hungry Brain, the Innertown Pub, Myopic Books, Open Books, the Whistler, the Beauty Bar, the Green Lantern Gallery and Revolution Books.
So many places to do so many great things with so many people, and as Kathleen Rooney from Rose Metal Press says:
An unusual (and fortunate) thing about Chicago: its scene is not particularly clannish. Although you don’t see as much cross-pollination as you might between younger and older people on the scene, the younger crowd is fairly catholic in its affiliations: there’s the sense that everybody should have some degree of appreciation and respect for—and familiarity with—the projects of others, even if they’re radically different. It’s not unheard-of to see stuff that’s avant-garde and theoretical sharing a bill with a slam poet or an oral historian or a comedian.”
Still, writers and readings, collaborations, and the venues that love them may create the foundation for a scene, but where do the rumors of a scene begin, and who are the messengers who assure this happens? Because no scene is complete without vehicles that carry that scene’s creations out of the wilderness they previously, and mostly, exclusively existed in.
This starts with the blogosphere. It has to, it’s the new millennium, and so there are the bloggers, the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com), What to Wear During an Orange Alert? (orangealert.net), Pete Lit (petelit.com), Gapers Block (gapersblock.com), and the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row (chicagotribune.com/features/books/printersrow/), with their book reviews, podcasts, and interviews, welcoming any and all interlopers, carpetbaggers, and literary squatters along the way, but never failing to remind the rest of the world that things, literary things, are going on, and it’s real and true and something you want to be part of, right? Right, of course you do, it’s a scene.
Yet, even in the dawn of the still new millennium, we need more than words floating in the air, or clouds. We need something concrete, or at least that which aspires to be concrete, offering permanence, and realness. Something you can actually hang your hat on, hold in your hands and heart, and cram in your pocket, or at least your backpack.
With that I offer you the publishers, intrepid warriors fighting a battle against not just the death, as we are to understand it, of print media, but the omnipotence of the Kindle and its ilk as well, which when pushed we all have to admit is pretty cool. To begin, there is Featherproof, who may require no introduction at all, but gets one here anyway, because Featherproof still belongs to us, its efforts at world domination be damned.
But it doesn’t stop with them. This is a scene mind you, and in this scene you also find Rose Metal Press, Other Voices Books, Curbside Splendor, Green Lantern Press, Another New Calligraphy, publishers all, and all full of literary upstarts and fanatics, as are their brethren, the zinesters and lit journals, Knee-Jerk, MAKE, THE2NDHAND, Criminal Class Press, Artifice, CellStories and Another Chicago Magazine, all in the thrall of words, the wonder of writing, and the need to be greater than just great enough, regardless of whether anyone is paying attention or not.
So, okay, we have a scene, we do, and yet what remains unsaid is that any scene, even Chicago’s, will reek of exclusivity. As Tim Jones-Yelvington of Uncalled-For Readings says:
I do think our scene is really shaped by the racial, geographic, and class divides that shape our city as a whole—for instance, I think there’s whole networks of writers of color like Proyecta Latina or folks involved in the GUILD COMPLEX— that most of us who call ourselves the indie lit scene have zero connection to. Or like geographically, I know pretty much nobody at U.C. [University of Chicago], and I think they have a regular poetry reading series that I’ve never been to and few people I know have ever read at.”
Maybe this is the place to leave off then, the idea that any scene that exists is to some extent in the eye of the beholder, the participant, the outsider, or in this case, the reporter. Or maybe not. Maybe we should leave where we started, with an acknowledgement that as soon as you report on a scene, or even name it as such, you just may kill it, which maybe I have, assuming of course that those of you who live outside of the Midwest even knew that a city called Chicago existed before reading this. For as Tim Hall of Undie Press says:
“The great charm of Chicago’s indie lit scene is that it has no idea how fantastic it is. It’s got middle-child syndrome, always playing second fiddle to its screaming, attention-seeking siblings on the coasts. To be truly legendary a scene needs a healthy ego and a bit of insanity. I hope the local scenesters figure out that they are surrounded by some of the best indie writers in the country, and that we deserve to be recognized for that. But that doesn’t happen through simple merit; we could use a bit more madness—not suicidal, wrist-slitting stuff, just more people getting stupid in the creative sense of the word. Make more noise, break more plates, scream a little louder.”
If you will, please assume then that I’ve killed something here, but please also receive this missive from the heartland as a scream, or at least a shout, and in turn we promise to continue working on the loudness.