dateline: Chicago, June 2002
e-poets' shape-shift summary
e-poets.net's transition is mostly in complete. Veteran web surfers realize that no website is ever finished, since publishers are always making changes and updating features. But the time came for some overhauls here. So we've gone to a dynamic content publishing format, as you may be able to tell. Our new format is a bit more printer-friendly. (Click print on your browser now to see what we mean.) What's more, it doesn't oblige readers to rack up clicks on our site just to find the menu page that leads to the next menu page.
If you were accustomed to visiting e-poets.net and finding particular departments, some of the major ones have been broken out into subdomains. Here's how our new architecture works:
A big shout to Greg Kotis!
Joy is winning a Tony Award and while many are called, few are chosen. Imagine the delight of former Chicago writer and actor Greg Kotis as he won Tony Awards for "Urinetown, the musical," an oblique and pointed send-up of corporate monoculturalism and pay toilets that became the hottest ticket in NYC. The show took prizes for Best Book of a Musical (Greg Kotis), Best Original Score (Mark Hollmann & Greg Kotis), and Best Direction of a Musical (John Rando).
Kotis and his wife Ayun Halliday are old Chicago neighbors, having done years of theater in Chicago as monologuists, writers and performers in the Neo-Futurists, among other companies. (The Neos' banner has been in rotation here at e-poets for a while.) Now the limelight is finally hitting a target that's talking our language. Hooray! Dare to be heinie, visit Ayun's popular website, and give 'em a shout of congratulations!
Please allow us to echo news of laurels recently passed to one of our own here at e-poets.net, Brenda Cárdenas. This message, found in our in-box the first week of June, 2002:
Cheers to Brenda Cárdenas for her outstanding editorial work. And a cheer to MARCH/Abrazo Press for publishing the anthology.
While we're on Hispanic authors...
e-poets.net was a proud partner with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) this spring in a project called Voces y Lugares: Hispanic Poets in Chicago. The project placed poets in classrooms where their workshops were videoconferenced across the city among three different public high schools: Kelly, Von Steuben, and Payton. Poets included Brenda Cárdenas, Elizabeth Marino, and Frank Varela.
The poets' chapters in the Book of Voices were built as support materials for the workshops, allowing students to study not only the text but the spoken qualities of the poetry. This was key in understanding interlingual poetry, such as Cárdenas', where English and Spanish speech mingle fluidly. e-poets provided audio recordings of the poets to Von Steuben High School, who distributed audio CDs to partner schools along with printed study guides for each poet. Where available, the poets' published work was provided in book form.
The project, while economical, nevertheless brought living poetry to Chicago high school students in an accessible and interactive format. The initiative was put together by Lisa Perez of VCEducation.org and Kurt Heintz of e-poets.net. For more about the project, and to get in on next year's Voces y Lugares Project, click to the Voces website.
Queer language arts flourish
It's in play: a flourishing of queer literature in Chicago. One could say that so much LGBT writing has been percolating all along. Various writers' circles have sprouted up since the 1970s, some doing a good job of advancing their authors' work, others just as a backbeat to their contributors' own strong effects. However, much new culture has grown in this area lately, and other segments of the culture have matured. Today one can make a strong case for a minor renaissance of queer writing in Chicago.
Consider the present environment. It is the single best index of the community's growth and sophistication. Not more than two years ago, LGBT open mikes and regular literary venues simply did not exist. There were spot venues at bookstores, such as Women & Children First Books and Unabridged Books who produced events for LGBT authors on tour with new publications. The tradition of "rap circles" from the 1970s and readings by out authors has enjoyed some continuity through them. (For an example, see the Pride 2000 readings documented at Women & Children First, in the Book of Voices.) Much as these venues raise consciousness of queer writing and sustain an enduring sense of literary continuity, it's hard to impress a deep feeling of community through them alone. But now the landscape has changed, possibly for good.
Scott Free's Grinder, a weekly Thursday night venue featuring "queer words and music" is the ignition point for the current queer lit/arts wave. It's well into its second year of programming, and draws sufficient audiences to merit the re-opening of a once-closed hangout for North Side literati, The No Exit Café. (Yours truly was featured there with Ripley Caine on music for Grinder on its re-opening night in February 2002.) Grinder is queer-friendly in the broadest terms, accepting women and men alike, and this has given a good boost to the community on its own. It's one of only a few places where you'll find gay men going out to see lesbians read and perform, and vice versa. The gender barrier at Grinder is not nearly as significant as it has historically been between men's versus women's LGBT venues for the last couple decades.
Kirk Williamson cultivated quarterly readings by well-known local and national queer writers at High Risk Gallery for over a year, starting in 2001. Williamson's curatorial work was an offshoot of Grinder's, in the sense that his series borrowed from Grinder's stable of writers. But he included significant poets from outside Chicago. For example, Alix Olson and Regie Cabico were part of Williamson's series last year, side-by-side with hometown Cin Salach and C.C. Carter.
While open to women and men alike, the above two series are curated by men and therefore do not necessarily create a purely feminist space. However, wimmin are not lacking in representation in this queer literary rebirth. Elon Cameron, the young veteran poetry programmer for last year's Ladyfest Midwest, is embarking on her own monthly series of readings. Her first, held 6 June, gathered a very strong and diverse revue of performers, poets, and monloguists. The featured artists were mostly female, though all were queer in some significant way, not just as a lifestyle but as a point of political and aesthetic constitution.
It's clear by observation that Cameron has something else in mind with her curatorial work, besides just assembling a queer group reading. The range of the performances at this first show suggests that poets, in Cameron's mind, must know how to keep up with actors, dramatists, and other performance professionals if any new artistic ground is to be won by queer literature. In other words, no more slacking off; if you read your poetry, you must invest yourself as a performer for the audience's sake, and not just for the benefit of your own ego and the edification of the usual suspects. Everybody on the bill had to work well side-by-side, and (for what it's worth) in a random order.
Happily enough, the poets functioned just fine in this mode, and so implicated a possible aesthetic beyond the stock-in-trade open mike spiel that Chicagoans have grown accustomed to (or bored of, depending on whether your poetry glass is half-full or -empty). I do not expect Cameron's series to dwindle into a "preaching to the converted" phenomenon; all the work I saw was sophisticated enough to merit its own stand-alone feature. The revue moved on-time, too, and with a sense of real direction, which are achievements in themselves for this genre of show. Big points to Elon Cameron!
But Cameron's series is hardly alone, and has significant -- and for now, a much larger -- precedent on Chicago's queer literary landscape. Last winter and spring, Dyke Mike convened weekly at Bailiwick Theater, and was MC'd by poet and web columnist J.T. Newman of dykediva.com. Dyke Mike became a regular fixture for Friday night poetry junkies, and did much to stir the creative juices of a new generation of lesbian performer/writers.
In a way, this young generation, presently anywhere from high-school age through college, discovered themselves through Dyke Mike. The community around Dyke Mike is remarkable on its own merits for crossing race and class in Chicago, a city that is sometimes notorious for celebrating its segregations. In this case, however, one tribe's pursuit of gender identity hit a transcendental mark. Dyke Mike built community by doing those things best that any open mike series can do: clearly define an audience and art base; curate the best talents available who can instruct by example as featured artists; develop a free but directed environment for the presentation of open mike work; and encourage networking among its devotees. The series created a positive but competitive space in which to show and test craft, both in staging and writing, so essential to a generation who are just learning what their voices can achieve. No wonder Dyke Mike has defined a generation of new writers.
The implications of Dyke Mike for lesbian writing in Chicago, after this thorough energizing, are not totally clear. But a critical mass of performance poets have certainly formed where once there were none, suggesting that Chicago is in for a durable change in the way new queer writing will be cultivated, critiqued, and then shared with the public. One simply cannot turn loose upwards of 30 competent poetry voices on a city the size of Chicago and expect no permanent impact. The community is certainly endebted to J.T. Newman for her work, and is clearly stronger for it, both critically and creatively. And speaking as a witness to it at close range, I can say the creative buzz around Dyke Mike is fantastic.
As a survivor of poetry open mikes over two decades in Chicago, I have a couple remaining observations on the queer literary renaissance in this town. For one, while the service of open mikes in the renaissance is key, it is widely regarded as a means and not an end, and is therefore not at center stage. This echoes wisdom I've heard first-hand, outside queerdom, from renowned slam maestras such as Maria McCray and Patricia Smith. They learned much from open mikes, but always took their poetry beyond such venues to more critical and discriminating audiences. Their success as poets is significant, and their example now seems to be taken up en masse by the present generation of queer writers in Chicago.
Consider Grinder: It has no open mike and never will have one. Scott Free has quietly gone on the record as disliking them intensely. But to get featured at Grinder, one has to pass muster as a qualified poet. The same applies to Elon Cameron's reading/performance series -- it's all about the quality of the show, and not testing the audience's tolerance of wannabe poets. There is no organized, collective press for this raising of the bar. And yet there is a collective wisdom in play, saying clearly that there are higher grades of achievement that need recognition. This is contrary to early slam dogma which asserts that poetry pugilism is the ideal way to instill competitiveness in the poets and critical thought in the audience. Instead, competitiveness seems to be built into the culture. Overt competition isn't necessary. Flash for a moment on the film "Paris Is Burning", and you'll understand that it is never wise assume you can outshine a diva, let alone eclipse her golden prose. She'll come back stronger every time.
Another queer departure from the typical local performance poetry format is a strong and persistent contexualization between poetry and other arts. It's not all poetry, all the time, but a consciously cultivated dialogue between writers and a broader audience than the usual poetry habitués. Kirk Williamson enjoyed a venue at High Risk Gallery that supported LGBT visual arts, and got community recognition and institutional support thanks to close ties with local newspaper editor Tracy Baim. Scott Free has always cast Grinder as "queer words and music," and his particularly strong reach into queer music has kept expectations up for the writers he features, too. Newman and her colleagues installed Dyke Mike at Bailiwick Repertory Theater, and followed a cabaret format that regularly included music, theater, stand-up comedy, and performance art. Cameron's new series, as noted, embraces stagecraft as easily as wordcraft, and insists upon competency in both.
So a flexible but critical yardstick is in place. For good artists, this is a welcome challenge. Small wonder, then, that the "usual suspects" of poetry open mikes are all but totally absent from this scene (and this would include reviewers and wannabe journalists of the form, too). The audience ranks above the artists in importance in this environment, and the audience expects something new with the turn of each show. This is an active culture, and proudly so. May it live long, vigrously, and well.
UK sounds and visions
Visitors from from Newcastle, England, representing New Writing North had a chance to meet and network with local e-lit' authors and critics, such as Joe Tabbi of Electronic Book Review, and Rob Wittig, from Tank20 Literary Studio. Claire Malcolm heads up New Writing North, which is a literary development agency for northern England. She distributed copies of her group's new poetry CD-ROM among Chicago's "digerati."
The disc is quite visual, and is full of poetry in many forms -- poetry video, animated text, audiopoetry, interactive works. It is a tour de force of how to take a community's poetry and condense it to electronic form. From the samples on the disc, it's clear that Newcastle has a solid and active writing community. e-poets.net hopes to bridge our online community to Newcastle's in the coming year. Claire Malcolm said it's clear through such works as the Book of Voices that our communities are interested in many of the same goals. The format for the Book of Voices, while distinct, certainly echoes the Newcastle CD-ROM's format, titled "Book of the North".
Malcolm's visit to Chicago explored the potential of reciprocally networking Newcastle poets with poets from one American city and at least one other European city. The hope is to initiate a critical exchange of writers, much as has been done in the past with the Hamburg/Chicago Literary Expedition. Click to newwritingnorth.com to see more about "Book of the North" and other literary and community-building projects by New Writing North.
Melancholy from e-lit to print
Shelley Jackson's "Melancholy of Anatomy" (Anchor Books, April 2002) may have sneaked under your new reading radar lately, but if it has it should not remain there for long. Jackson got her rep' as a pioneering e-lit' author when most people were (or perhaps are?) still coming to terms with the idea that real literature can be published electronically with no apologies. Among the many speakers at the recent Electronic Literature Organization's State of the Arts Symposium, there was wide agreement that Jackson's hypertext "Patchwork Girl," a kind of feminist re-interpretation of the Frankenstein monster myth but with many original depatures on the idea, should be part of the germinal e-lit' canon. "Patchwork Girl" is available on disc from Eastgate Systems.
Jackson has kept writing in electronic form. Her website, Ineradicable Stain, captures new features from time to time. For example, The Doll Games is a creepy but sardonic melodrama of dolls reconstructed with similarly grotesque relationships, drawn from the childhood toybox shared between Shelley Jackson and her sister Pamela. The dolls' sexual relationships are a hoot, and more than just a little unnerving given the ages of the Jackson sisters when they gave the dolls their lives.
Shelley Jackson's writing never loses a certain biological connection with hyperbole, whether that is the real scaled up to the fantastic, or what is naturally fantastic or grotesque in real life merely framed in an appropriate way. Body parts, natural fluids, human nature, and the need to categorize and theorize... these play off each other in classic Jackson writing. To me, Jackson seems to have a fascination with organic things dissected, laid out bare, and allowed to play against the perceptions of society that revile or revere, often both at the same time.
In "The Melancholy of Anatomy," Jackson takes dumb substances and objects and elevates them to surreal and mythic proportions, chapter by chapter... blood, fat, foetus, phlegm, egg, cancer, and so on. The book has an organization like a naturalist's guide, and sometimes plays off that antique pseudoscience, as it does in the dildo chapter. As readers, we're left wondering whether the myth we've just read was made by Jackson, or was ripe for exploiting in us all along but only mirrored back to us in an unexpected way. Chapters follow arcs of individual short stories, but are easily read as sharp social critique. There's more than a little Jonathan Swift at work. For reading on the el (subway, metro, or commuter rail), you will want to be discreet; this book may make you laugh out loud, to yourself, with its edgey satori. If so, good for you. Enjoy it! And good for this excellent book. It's doing its job.
Chicagoans should be familiar with Jackson, as she's been a guest here at UIC and Quimby's Books, is a frequent Chicago visitor, and has close ties to the local e-lit' body politic. "The Melancholy of Anatomy," however, looks like a break-out book, a way for the public-at-large to get into a new, young writer as just she's reaching for her prime form. This is recommended reading. For more info on "The Melancholy of Anatomy", click for the book's web page, or click into the road journal from the author's recent book tour.
A Bridge to home
Bridge magazine is on a subscription drive. We think this is a good idea, since Bridge's editorial contributors are top-flight. They're earning recognition for it with a recent Pushcart Prize nod for Aimee Bender's short story "Jinx." Subscriptions will keep Bridge's (and Chicago and Illinois) writers in circulation. $15 gets you subscribed, a rate that makes no profit for the magazine, but does keep the presses going. Says Michael Workman, Bridge editor-in-chief, "By taking advantage of our offer, you'll personally be helping us to continue with Bridge in these times when funding sources are slim to none." Given the recent draconian cuts in arts funding in Springfield, IL, now is the time to support quality literature in print.
Start your subscription to Bridge. Contact:
Michael Workman Editor-in-chief, Bridge 1357 North Ashland Avenue, #3A Chicago, IL 60622 Phone/Fax: 773-395-8454 www.bridgemagazine.org
On the zine front
Some URLs that we'd like to share with you... N-th Position, edited by Todd Swift... Simon Geraghty's Jacket Magazine... Soulspeak, overseen by Justin Spring... Erik Pihel's Clickable Poems has been updated...
Links we like:
Some sites we think will give you something to think about: Poetry video in Italy, thanks to Caterina Davinio... a cluster of African-American interest websites in/around the University of Illinois at Chicago for poetry and culture: Mosi Ifatunji's homepage, Mojo's Pen, weekly poetry series, and the Black Student Union... echoing queer culture, Velvet Mafia - Dangerous Queer Fiction... Catherine Jenkins, a particularly good Ontario poet on tour with her new book "Swimming in the Ocean"... Chicago poet and dramatist Dave Awl, and his forthcoming book What the Sea Means... poetry from India at Cyberwit... Sky Fabric... Pierre Sutton's Soul Rebuttals... audio art with the Sospeso ensemble, and poetry from the Bowery Poetry Club, New York City... and from Washington, DC, Illpoets.com.
Our next dispatch when more news accumulates worth sharing... Thanks for reading!
- Kurt Heintz, founder
previous newswire editions: