LAST NOVEMBER, GRETCHEN Kalwinski and Eugenia Williamson were among a host of local writers and editors gathered in the California Clipper for the Guild Complex’s monthly Palabra Pura event. On the program, the poets Ada Limon and Jorge Sanchez, but for many, the real draw was New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, in town to research an article on the Poetry Foundation and its new president, John Barr. âIt was a little sad,â says Kalwinski, 31. “Everyone was prowling around, trying to get a chance to talk to him.” Williamson, 27 and fresh out of the University of Chicago’s Master of Arts in Humanities program, puts a more theoretical twist on things. âIt was almost Lacanian, it was like, ‘Look at me! If the eyes of the New Yorker do not validate me, I do not exist.
Kalwinski says she started to think, “If people felt like their own experience was validated – if they felt more like attracting attention and having something of their own – then they would. would not need to be validated by someone from New York, because they would have confidence in their own scene.
The two women talk a lot about validation. As writers and editors, the two of them have worked or freelance for more Chicago literary organizations and publications than you can meet, including the University of Chicago Press, the Newberry Library. , the American Library Association, the Tribune, the Reader, Free time in Chicago, Stop smiling, and Venus Zine; Kalwinski currently manages part-time permissions for the Poetry Foundation. They belong to a group of writers which includes the fiction writer Patrick Somerville (profiled in the Reader last fall) and COT book editor Jonathan Messinger, who also runs the Dollar Store reading series. The two women say they attend three to eight literary events per month. But despite, or perhaps because of their connections and their vast experience, they feel that Chicago is not respected enough. Not enough writers stop here on tour – and if they do, few people show up to see them. All of the elite publishing jobs are in New York City, and Williamson (who’s working on a book project) says she and her peers feel constant pressure to relocate. âI was out for dinner with Gary Shteyngart about a year ago,â she says, âand he told me I had to move to New York becauseâ all the writers âlive in New York. This despite the fact that he had hung out with Jeffrey Eugenides and Aleksandar Hemon the night before.
Kalwinski and Williamson hope their new website, Literago (literago.org), will be a small force for change. After the Guild Complex event, Kalwinski thought about starting a blog dedicated to book reviews (documentation is another word she comes up to repeatedly). One night in February, on their way home from their group of writers, she and Williamson, who were thinking of her own literary site, decided to team up to prove to the world that “Chicago is not an illiterate chasm.” “
This statement may speak more of a second internalized cityism than of a real crisis. Nationally and internationally renowned writers have made Chicago their home, and several writing programs produce scores of new scribes each year. Chicago is hardly a city of cows hungry for culture. (And with the eyes of the New Yorker Focused on entities like the Poetry Foundation, one of the largest and richest private literary organizations in the world, Chicago isn’t ignored, even if Goodyear’s article was less than flattering.) But it’s true that Chicago lacks the professional infrastructure of New York City, so community building efforts still seem to have legs. Take, for example, the inaugural printers’ ball at HotHouse in 2005 – this blender for the local publishing types drew 800 people and left a line of potential community members out in the cold for hours on end. Last year at Double Door drew just under 1,000. People who spend a lot of time alone looking at pages of text are prepared for face time and, yes, validation.
With the help of friends knowledgeable in design and coding, Literago went from concept to reality in three lightning months. A clearinghouse for local lighting information, with list highlights and a full schedule, commentary, blog, and archived reviews of readings, it had a soft launch in early May. The initial response was positive and a bit overwhelming: independent city publications offered their support and free publicity, and Literago was approached by organizer Fred Sasaki to handle this year’s printing ball (July 20, at the Zhou B. Arts Center). âWe’re having a hard time keeping up with our pace,â said Kalwinski.
The site was officially launched this week and will be celebrated with a party on June 22. The next challenge is figuring out how to grow beyond the natural audience of Kalwinski and Williamson’s friends and peers; so far their promotional strategy is a MySpace page. âI would love it to be a stand-alone entity,â says Williamson, âif we could take a curatorial role and other people could contribute, not to shy away from work but to truly reflect the community. “
This community is decidedly diverse, encompassing old-guard Goliaths like the University of Chicago Press, local mainstays like Third World Press, and independent success stories like Bookslut.com. But Kalwinski and Williamson say it can also be frustrating, even off-putting, for foreigners. Their main goals are to provide expert advice to the local scene, to encourage readers to go out who might not be accustomed to reading at Barbara’s, let alone Danny or the Charleston, and to foster pride of place through features such as a Literago discussion forum (still under construction). âWe want to take something that seems unreachable, a boys’ club and a setting and open it up to the world,â says Kalwinski. âA friend of mine called the lit Chicago scene a giant circle,â adds Williamson. âI don’t want to contribute to this.