As an English Major and Chicagoan, I am ashamed to say I was unaware that Lit Fest existed (until a few weeks ago). Determined not to let another summer go by sans Lit Fest, I checked the Lit Fest website, saw the schedule, and made a tentative itinerary.
For those of you who don’t know, Printers Row Lit Fest is the Midwest’s largest free outdoor literary event. It takes place in the Printers Row neighborhood on the blocks surrounding Dearborn and Polk streets, which is easily accessible via the CTA. Each June, Printers Row Lit Fest packs more 200 authors, performers, and presenters into one incredible weekend. As well as over 200 booksellers into 5 city blocks.
Day 1 highlights
For me, Lit Fest began with The 90-Second Newbery Film Festival presented by James Kennedy. This was a “ticketed event” but what’s great about Lit Fest is that the tickets are free! It’s basically just an RSVP on their website. If tickets “sell out” you can arrive to the event 15 minutes early and you’re let in if they have space (i.e if the people with tickets haven’t show up, usually space is available). Lit Fest’s ticketed events take place in buildings that are walking distance from Printers Row. This one was in Jones College Prep’s auditorium.
The 90 second Newbery is fairly new film contest for all ages (though it seems to appeal to K-12), in which you tell the entire story of a Newbery award-winning book in 90 seconds or less (it can be a bit over if its really good). The deadline for the 3rd annual 90-Second Newbery Film Festival is December 10, 2013. Vist James Kennedy’s website for a full list of rules, tips, and Newbery winning books. As a prospective educator, I love projects like this so I really enjoyed seeing the silly video compressions of Newbery winners.
During the presentation James Kennedy also played a mock game show called Newbery Secrets with an audience member which revealed fun facts like how Newbery winner Paula Fox described her granddaughter, Courtney Love, as a psychopath during an interview with the School Library Journal. And that William Steig would sit inside a home energy accumulator, bathing himself in cosmic rays (we all work differently I guess).
After the film festival I walked into printers row and was instantaneously overwhelmed and overjoyed. There was something to satisfy every literary palette: comic books, posters, books for chefs, books for revolutionaries, feminist books, books on architecture, books on history, vintage books, chapbooks, handmade notebooks, and jerseys for renowned literary characters & authors.
After quickly browsing through these booksellers’ tents, I made my way over to the Mash Stage for some slam poetry via Young Chicago Authors (YCA). I was thrilled to see Essie Linzy, a slam poet who I had the privilege to compete against during Louder Than A Bomb (LTAB), Chicago’s largest teen poetry slam. I sat front row, snapping my fingers during my favorite lines in “Rosie“–one of my favorite LTAB pieces from my 5 years of competing.
Before heading over the Art Institute to reconnect with friends and old bosses, I had to stop at John Warner’s Biblioracle reading, give him the last five books you’ve read and he’ll give you a personalized recommendation for what you should read next. I just gave him 5 favorites from the recent books I read since I don’t finish every book satisfied (case and point: You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers). I gave him: Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris, Bee season by Myla Goldberg, A visit from the goon squad by Jennifer Egan (a book I’ve been meaning to reread), Extremely loud and incredibly close by Johnathan Safran Foer, and Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. He advised I check out Fraud by David Rakoff, an author who is (allegedly) as humorous as David Sedaris.
As someone who performs and listens to Slam Poetry, I was a little put off to hearing a poet perform with a band. I’ve seen it done a few times and its always seemed gimmicky or worse, sloppy. Still, I like trying things out of my comfort zone so I figured I’d check out Marty McConell and the EM Press Band. And my perspective completely changed. This was one of the best slam performances I’ve ever seen. Before Marty McConell performed Roger Bonair-Agard opened with the EM Press Band. Both of these poets’ words were elevated by the music. The volume level was also perfect, it didn’t feel like the poet nor the musicians were overwhelming my ear. Rather, they complimented each other perfectly. Unlike other music/slam performances I’ve seen, the EM Press Band didn’t just play music. They listened and responded to these poets’ words, it reminded of Jazz. Unfortunately I couldn’t find footage of either of these poets performing with the band but here is a poem I had the privledge to hear live by Roger Bonair-Agard: “The Day Biggie Died“. I am definitely buying his book, Bury my clothes, as soon as possible. And here is a poem by Marty McConell (not performed at lit fest but at Def Poetry Jam) “Give Me One Good Reason to Die“. Her words at Lit Fest moved me so deeply I let my bank account drop to $1.37 just to buy her book Wine for a shotgun and get her autograph.
Day 2 highlights
Kevin Coval was one of the few names I knew on the Lit Fest schedule. I anticipated that’d I’d be hearing some good poetry and I was completely right. What really sets Kevin Coval apart from other Slam Poets I heard is his delivery. He is rhythmic but not in the exaggerated way people outside of the slam community expect. When Kevin Coval recites poetry as if he is educating the masses and in many ways he is. His latest book Schtick discusses Jewish American Culture, they’re assimilation (i.e now being seen as white rather than a minority group) and its discontents.
After listening to Kevin Coval recite, I headed over to the good eats stage to catch the last few minutes of Doug Sohn’s interview for his new book Hot Doug’s. For those chicagoans who are not familiar with the restaurant its home of some of the best hot dogs you will probably have in your life. The menu features a foie gras dog I am dying to try and french fries cooked in duck fat (available Friday & Saturday). Their line usually goes out the door and around the corner but it is entirely worth the wait. In fact, chef/Author Anthony Bourdain listed Hot Doug’s on his top 13 places to eat before you die. Hot Doug’s: The Book is currently available for preorder and includes stories, pictures, anecdotes and lessons learned as this eatery flourished.
My next event was a Q&A panel called the state of publishing featuring those in the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC). Unfortunately, I felt like this panel tended to drone on when asked a question, often adding in things like “how they’re different than the pulitzer prize” despite how irrelevant it was to the questions posed. However, they did a solid job explaining who they were and what they did. The NBCC consists of 600 members. In order to become a member you must apply and have written several quality book reviews. Within that, there are 24 board members that serve 3 year terms and can serve up to 2 consecutive terms. Each march the award goes to one book in each of the six categories which include: Fiction, General Nonfiction, Biography, Autobiography, Criticism, and Poetry. The NBCC board members suggested we look at the finalists just as much as we look at the winners of this award.
Here are two questions I posed to the panel:
Q: Besides considering the (social) context of a book, what other things are hallmarks of criticism? If I wanted to sit down and write a book criticism what things do I need to consider?
A: I’d don’t completely agree with everything he says but look at John Updike’s 6 Rules of Criticism. Be sure to review the book in front of you, not the book you would’ve written.
Q: How do you put your own biases, as individual readers, aside when you evaluate books? Or do you just embrace them/steer into the skid of your own biases?
A: The books always read you… It’s not this platonic idea of objectivity. [Criticism] requires a lot of self knowledge, [you have to] know when a book grabs you for the right reasons.
I ended my final day at lit fest watching the slam poet, Robbie Q. Telfer perform. Robbie Q is definitely an acquired taste but its a taste I urge all of you to acquire. To me, Robbie Q’s quirkiness is a prime example of how slam poetry is whatever you want it to be. My favorite piece was his hate poem to a hypothetical person, which included this phenomenal line: “I had a dream that you and I were having sex and you were really enjoying it but I was bored and I faked all my orgasms!”. Before his set even began he told a Lit Fest volunteer:”I wrote a poem in the voice of a garbage can whose predecessor was thrown away inside him”. Robbie Q’s unique style and writing topics, like all of slam poetry, turns the mundane into something interesting.
Other Lit Fest Noteables
CAKE: chicago’s alternative comic expo: a celebration of indie comics happening June 15th and 16th. I won’t be able to make it this year but its on my Summer 2014 itinerary.
Neighborhood Writing Alliance: offers free writing workshops and the opportunity to get published in the alliance’s Journal Of Ordinary Thought. They’re spread across the city in Albany Park, Bronzeville, Humboldt Park, the Near West Side, and Uptown. I encourage everyone to check this out; never underestimate the power of taking time out of your week to write, share, and peer edit.
Guild Literary Complex: “a community- based literary organization presenting and supporting diverse, divergent, and emerging voices through innovative programs including performances and readings”. Check out their calendar of events which includes bilingual poetry readins and architecture inspired writing. You can also participate in their contests, you can win $500 in their upcoming Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Contest by submitting a poem by June 28th; the 20 finalists compete for the cash prize on July 23rd.
If Lit Fest has taught/reminded me of anything it’s that literature does not sit behind a velvet rope. Literature, like many things in life, is about community. It’s about talking to people who are passionate about what they are doing. It’s about challenging your preconceived notions. It’s about delving into the genres you love and learning about genres you’ve never heard of. At its core literature is words and we use words to communicate. Be in the audience, get on stage, read blogs, go to expos, and attend workshops; be a part of the conversation and keep these literary subcultures thriving.