The Life Instinct: unification, the eternal return, the perpetuation and MAINTENANCE of the species, survival systems and operations, equilibrium.
– Mierle Laderman Ukeles, Manifesto for Maintenance Art, 1969!
Before we talk books, a call: submit your work to two local publications, AREA Chicago and Chicago Literati. AREA Chicago—the acronym is for Art, Research, Education, Activism—was founded by Daniel Tucker in 2005. Not only has AREA transitioned into a collectively-edited, distributed, and programmed publication and event series (no small feat!), but it’s consistently stood by its mission statement, which is to “create relationships across the boundaries that segregate our city and our minds”. That’s a tall order for a city like ours—practically, it’s impossible because there isn’t one language that everyone uses. (I’m not being precious: you don’t talk in Pilsen like you do in Bronzeville, or Rogers Park. I hear juke out the window at home sometimes, but never at work.)
Still, AREA gets close to filling that order, publishing work by people of all stripes, from all walks and all neighborhoods. (I’ve ridden all the CTA lines to get to AREA events. No other publication in our city asks that.) This is good and bad, sometimes of course the magazine will dovetail into generalizing language or get a little wide-eyed, but even at worst those moments are fail-betters, and most often AREA reps Chicago well.
Anyway, what I’m getting at is that they have a new call for work out—the next issue is themed KIDS. Send something if you have a kid, are a kid, work with them, or know one. Writing for AREA is one of the best ways to be a part of Chicago art and activism, whether you’re trying to find your place or ready to write its history.
Number two, Chicago Literati: an online literary and lit-focused publication—part of the Tribune’s blogroll—edited by recent Columbia College graduate Abby Sheaffer, who’s taking the baton from earlier catch-all local lit sites like Literago. Chicago Literati publishes features and interviews, as well as original work and heads-ups about cool series or events.
Abby is elegantly tireless, and I’m excited to see where she takes the publication. It’s an incredible amount of work and a noble goal, editing a project that covers all parts of our squid-like lit scene—plus Abby writes fiction in her own right. So let her know about your events, and your friends’ events, and hey: answer her call for original, summer-themed work.
Publications discussed here (an asterisk means it came out less than 365 days ago):
+ Triumph of the Ape: Stories by Todd Dills (THE2NDHAND, print edition 2013)*
+ nods by Carrie Lorig (Magic Helicopter Press, 2013)*
+ Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle (WAVE Books, 2012)
+ Tracy’s Tiger by William Saroyan (Doubleday, 1951; out of print)
+ The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2009)
+ Violence by Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch (Guillotine Press, 2012)*
Triumph of the Ape: Stories by Todd Dills
Todd Dills graduated from Columbia College’s MFA program, worked door at Skylark for years, and—even after moving to Nashville with his family—still publishes THE2NDHAND, a two-sided broadsheet featuring work by the likes of Lauren Pretnar, Scott Stealey, Rob Funderburk, and Kate Duva. It’s great, and it’s just long enough to enjoy during solo happy hour.
Triumph of the Ape, a short story collection, is Dills’s second book, not counting the two 2NDHAND anthologies he’s edited. I love it for its consistency—it is Of Dills in both style (he writes itineraries, romances, long musical Faulkner-y sentences), stakes (romance again, and death and making a living, and what to believe), and geography (Chicago and the South). It is a testament to his community too, how he’s published it while publishing everyone else at THE2NDHAND in the meanwhile. Dude isn’t messing around.
One of my favorite things about the writing here is that Dills is not a namedropper, in other words the guys with Morrissey haircuts actually want to be Morrissey, or at least wistfully sensitive and sexy and queering like Morrissey. They are not lazy shadows; these characters talk about race and God and money in their own voices, not as cyphers. Admittedly Ape is a pretty masculine book—I went on an Adrienne Rich binge after finishing it—but that’s just to say I identified with the characters as brothers or sons or lovers, not selves, and sometimes I wanted to slap them or hug them. Nothing wrong with that, though—it’s a fine book that makes you want to do that.
nods by Carrie Lorig
Carrie Lorig read at the last Dollhouse, a poetry reading series co-organized by Dolly Lemke, Holly Amos, and Ryan Spooner. (I worked with Dolly at Switchback Books and I work with Holly now, but I’d love their series anyway.) The Dollhouse Reading Series is free, salon-style BYOB, and super-comfy—the last time I came a little late, so tuned into the first reader while perched on Dolly’s porch, looking up at the sky and feeling at home.
Lorig read last that night, she said it was her biggest crowd ever and giggled a bit. She stood like a bass player—feet square to the crowd and squinting, like there was mist hanging over our heads. (Kate Greenstreet does this too.) Lorig’s work is first-chapbook-energetic, bright and sensory, half letter-to-the-poet’s-lover, half kid-explaining-a-nightmare-to-her-mom. There are cattle and rodeos and lust, twinning a bit with the cattle and farms and births of Kristen Stone’s Domestication Handbook.
After I bought the book I was surprised to see how its poems look on the page: not light but dense, low-caps and all caps, with drone repetition and Gertrude Stein valentines. Lines come up like music—“To my Aunt Zero Bones”, “PURPLE CURBS”, “oofprints in the face”—making this a book to dive into, not excerpt from. I’m excited for her next one too.
Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures by Mary Ruefle
I recommend Madness, Rack, and Honey, a book of lectures by poet, critic, and teacher Mary Ruefle, because I am still reading it. I read it like practicing free throws or covering songs. Ruefle begins with a quote from Gaston Bachelard (“We begin in admiration and we end by organizing our disappointment”), and continues with essay after wise essay about oh, secrets, thoughts, facts, time, and writing (the daily work of it—the endurance not the romance). I admire her excitement (she uses exclamation points!), her respect for youth (even as she draws on her experience), her taste, how she reads as she writes, and also her respect for form. These are essays written to writers, with established theses and language, not perzines in masquerade. Ruefle even convinced me that Richard Hugo was wrong, and I should start using semicolons. (Tip: listen to this song while reading “On Sentimentality”.)
Tracy’s Tiger by William Saroyan
Tracy’s Tiger was a gift—a loan—from a friend who is moving to Oregon to be an architect. We went to her apartment and there were colored balloons everywhere, and beer and dancing, and she said have you read this? And I said no, and she said here. You should. She opened it to show me Henry Koerner’s beautiful line drawings, fine enough to see heartbeats. My favorite I think is one of Tracy getting photobombed by pigeons and of course you can’t really have photobombs in a line drawing, but that’s how good these are.
Anyway then one day I grabbed Tracy’s Tiger for the bus. It’s a slim, clean book; I read it all on my way in to the Loop. I’ve read Saroyan before, West Coast high school teachers love The Human Comedy a lot, and also because I want to write strong, short episodic books like Saroyan does. I love how he writes about poverty and children without belittling or straw-manning anyone.
Still I was wary of Tracy’s Tiger, which is about a boy, Thomas Tracy, and how he grows up. Tracy has a tiger; it has white teeth and is actually a black panther. It follows him around like a shadow and is late for church sometimes, and sometimes it says “Eyeeej.” Boy and tiger met at the zoo in New York, and early on it is not clear whether the tiger is imaginary-but-not (a pooka like Harvey), or maybe a precious-er version of Cortazar’s axolotl, an easy mirror of Blake’s poem.
But then of course Saroyan quits my whining—Tracy starts to want things (jobs, kisses) and sometimes he gets them and sometimes he doesn’t. He messes up and he doesn’t always know why. He falls in love and he trusts it, and he even lands in Bellevue. (“He found the people there quite mad,” Saroyan says with a wink.) Towards the end there is a scene that made me cry like when Jason goes to the ocean in Miranda July’s The Future. Greatest of all, also towards the end Saryoan just takes the wheel and tells us what and how the tiger means. Sometimes that’s OK.
The Mere Future by Sarah Schulman
When I’m deciding whether I should read something, I usually look at the acknowledgements not the blurbs. Some names are lucky pennies, so if I see those people thanked I know I’ll probably love the book, that it will probably change my brain. Sarah Schulman—playwright, novelist, activist, professor—is one of those people. (Her book The Gentrification of the Mind is on my shelf for life.)
The Mere Future, her most recent novel, is a romantic satire about two lesbians living together in a future Manhattan. The first chapters are hilarious and dreamy (the political parties the couple can vote for include the Catholic Resumption Party, the Celebutante with Education Party, and the Seniors for Seniority Party), all eerily narrated in past tense. (After earning her postdoctrate in Placemats of the Moyen Age, the narrator works at a place called “THE MEDIA HUB”. “We were blinded by the fun of all having the same boss,” she explains, “while our units provided Identity.”) There is no hunger or homelessness; wealth, attention, and fame are redistributed; and everyday folks can meet up with their politicians to chat over rugelach. Anyone can live in a Bushwick brownstone with six bedrooms for $140 a month, though priority is given to people born in neighborhood.
As engaging as that beginning is, The Mere Future works not because it offers a fairy tale, but because it challenges this world after establishing it. With her usual fierce empathy, Schulman asks what if—what if we’re trapped where we want to be? “Hey you,” says the narrator. “Still here? Yoo-hoo.” How does death work now?
Violence by Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch
A while ago I wrote an essay because I kept rewriting a chapter instead of just cutting it, and Sarah McCarry read that essay and wrote to me. We both grew up around Seattle, and we both read, write, and wrote zines.
Today she publishes chapbooks too (and soon, a YA novel!). Guillotine offers “revolutionary nonfiction”, gorgeously letterpressed by McCarry herself. (Readers can buy the chapbooks solo or the Special Editions, which include limited-edition broadsides. My favorite so far is a tie between “Punk Is a Moving Target” and “No More Wire Hangers.”) I appreciate Guillotine’s chapbooks for their sincere diversity—in topic (book banning in occupied territory, writing and rage and madness, the politics of methodology; kerpow) and also in length. Each one could be 300 pages instead of 30 but McCarry keeps them short and sweet, so they spark discussion between readers instead of pointing fingers. The chapbooks are also honest and engaging—no posturing and no academic fog, but no weight sacrificed either.
Violence is the first in the series, it came out in October 2012 and is the transcript of a conversation between writers Vanessa Veselka and Lidia Yuknavitch. They talk about how female experience is restricted in art—how women can really (no, really) only be violent if it’s moral, or vengeful if it’s redemptive. “All conversations are preceded by violence,” writes Veselka in the introduction. “Without our consent, we are marked by the world.” (Consent! On the first page of a book about violence. I did a little fist-pump.) They talk about tears, dick, and desire versus hope—not just what to write but how to tell it.
This is a powerful chapbook that shone new light on Veselka and Yuknavitch’s work as well, and even at the end of some of my own tunnels. By the last page I felt like I’d drank a pot of coffee after a nap, and I was ready to get back out and work.