Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2011

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Power in Chicago has been passed on. No, we’re not talking about that little office in City Hall, but that Oprah, she of the book club that long perched her atop this list, has flown the coop. So now it’s official. The City of Big Shoulders is Poetry’s town. It’s unlikely that Carl Sandburg would have ever imagined such an unlikely outcome when he crafted the city’s calling card, in verse, but it’s not even debatable. Not only can we claim Poetry magazine, the premier publication of its kind anywhere, but its wealthy sibling the Poetry Foundation will open a whole building dedicated to the form later this month. Plus, this is the town that created the Poetry Slam as well as Louder Than a Bomb, the largest teen slam anywhere. Talk about poetic justice.

Lit 50 was written by Alex Baumgardner, Brian Hieggelke, Benjamin Rossi and Rachel Sugar, with additional contributions by Sarah Alo, Ella Christoph and John Wawrzasek

John Barr
President, Poetry Foundation
A few weeks from now, in a development most unlikely, Poetry will have its very own edifice in Chicago. And while you can thank Ruth Lilly and her colossal gift for this, it’s John Barr, a retired investment banker (who always mixed business with verse as a poet himself), who’s turned her bag of money into something lasting under his leadership as the first and so far only president of the Poetry Foundation. Poetry’s building is handsome yet humble, tucked away from the bustle of Michigan Avenue on Dearborn Street, with a public-minded elegant but inconspicuous design from architect John Ronan. It’s a safe bet that this soon-to-be literary destination will change the dynamic of the Foundation and its flagship magazine for good, but don’t expect Barr to kick back and, well, lie around reading poetry when it’s finished. The Foundation has a full slate of initiatives as part of its mission to create a “vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.” And next year, before the concrete in the new edifice has time to settle, Poetry magazine will celebrate its 100th anniversary in lively style.

Mary Dempsey
Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
You can breathe a sigh of relief now, Chicago. New mayor Rahm Emanuel has sent the message loud and clear that the primacy of the library, and the written word, will not be diminished on his watch, by re-appointing the city’s legendary Library Commissioner, Mary Dempsey. In an era of the supposed death of the book and ever-tightening municipal budgets, Dempsey has built CPL into a model for the digital future that leans heavily on the brick-and-mortar “read local” heritage of the past, by expanding the operation of the three largest facilities to seven days a week and opening or renovating forty-four branches, including two this spring and two this summer. Add to that her nationally imitated “One Book Chicago” program, her computerization of library systems and services and a robust author events program, and you’ll understand why so many of us were holding our breath and looking in her direction after Mayor Daley, who appointed her in 1994, announced his retirement.

Garrett Kiely
Director, University of Chicago Press
It’s the 120th anniversary of the University of Chicago Press, and “the pace of change has never been greater,” says Kiely—and he’s not just referring to the new edition of the press’ iconic “The Chicago Manual of Style,” which made waves (in certain circles) upon its release last summer. As director of UCP, he’s at the helm of the nation’s largest academic publishing house, overseeing the release of 250 new titles a year, a back-list of thousands more, and a bustling journals division. His latest project? Ushering it all into the digital age. Getting the texts into e-ready form is just one prong of the challenge. In recent months, the press has experimented with “free E-Books of the Month,” re-released classics in purely digital format and developed their inaugural iPad app. But while technology changes, Kiely assures us one thing stays the same: above all else, “we remain committed to publishing—in print and electronic—the finest scholarship in the world.”

Dominique Raccah
Founder, President and Publisher, Sourcebooks

Who knew that the future of publishing would be mastered in Naperville? That’s where Sourcebooks, the independent publishing company based in that Chicago suburb, crafted an early and leading role in the e-book revolution. In 1987, Dominique Raccah left her career with advertising giant Leo Burnett and started a publishing house in her bedroom with a $17,000 stake from her 401K. Just over two decades later, Sourcebooks employs seventy-five people and publishes more than 300 titles a year, making it the largest woman-owned trade-book publisher in the country. A pet project? Her passion for poetry has made the company the leading publisher of poetry in book-and-audio form.

Jack Cella
General Manager, Seminary Co-op Bookstores
More than any other single person, Jack Cella is responsible for Hyde Park’s status as a destination for book buyers. His Seminary Co-op Bookstores, which have two locations in Hyde Park and one downtown, boast some of the most interesting inventories in the city. The flagship location on the University of Chicago campus, in particular, has achieved an almost mythical stature in the minds of generations of Chicago students as much for its wildly fluctuating temperatures and labyrinthine, almost dreamlike layout as for its book collection (it boasts the largest collection of academic titles in the country). And at a time when many brick-and-mortar booksellers are struggling to keep afloat, the Sem Co-op is on the up and rising. In the summer of 2012, the store is moving into a new space a block from its current home. The revamped store will have double the floor space, better heating and cooling, and a cafe. Cella hopes that the larger, more inviting space will help make the Sem Co-op an “interesting, lively literary spot” with readings and other events.

Randall Albers
Chair, Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago
Randy Albers’ brainchild, Story Week, celebrated its fifteenth birthday this spring, culminating in a “Chicago Classics” event where various local literary personages (including Newcity editor Brian Hieggelke) read passages from their favorite work by a Chicago author. The event was quintessentially Chicago, with bestsellers and literary celebrities sharing the stage with relative unknowns. And overseeing it all was Albers, who has become perhaps Chicago’s best-loved literary academic, a species not typically known outside its own institutional walls. And speaking of institutions, Albers has done far more than create an acclaimed event; more noteworthy is that he has built Columbia into a bona fide literary player, assembling a faculty that reads like a who’s who of local literati.


Mark Suchomel
President, Independent Publishers Group
Mark Suchomel has made a career of looking out for the underdog. In his quarter of a century with IPG, the company—which distributes books for independent publishers across the nation—has remained in the driver’s seat of the bullet train of innovation. Suchomel took IPG virtual long before the age of the eReader, having distributed eBooks for the last decade through online retailers like Amazon. Soon, they will begin selling them direct from their revamped website, which goes live mid-June, allowing readers to find and consume content that otherwise wouldn’t have the legs to reach them.

Danielle Chapman
Director of Publishing Industry Programs, Chicago Tourism Fund
When the city decided it was time for a champion for its growing publishing industry, Danielle Chapman got the call and has directed the City of Chicago’s Publishing Industry Programs since their inception in 2007. In addition to a regular spate of events, she oversaw the creation of and continues to manage the Chicago Publishers Gallery and She’s also a poet and, as the wife of Poetry magazine’s Christian Wiman, one half of Chicago Lit’s It Couple, which resulted in a brief maternity leave during all this development in order to give birth to twins.

Elizabeth Taylor
Literary Editor, Chicago Tribune
As overseer of all things books at the Tribune, Elizabeth Taylor is responsible for the programming of the Printers Row Lit Fest, the various literary prizes awarded by the newspaper and, more recently, the “Author Talks” series, which have featured the likes of Amy Chua and Kathryn Stockett. That the latter has sold out every event to date might even send a message to the bean counters who now run what was once one of the nation’s mightiest bastions of writing; that message being “Duh, gee, apparently folks are interested in books after all.” For Taylor’s role has been increasingly channeled in the direction of event producer and away from editor—she now assigns but four original reviews a week, and those mostly run online only. With the success of the New York Times and, more recently, the Wall Street Journal in penetrating the most demographically desirable Chicago households, you’d think someone in the Tower might notice the serious approach to books that sets these two apart and decide, “hey, we’re in the business of creating things to read; maybe we should get serious about books.” If and when they do, we have no doubt that Taylor, who continues to fight the good fight, will stand ready to lead the charge.

Christian Wiman
Editor, Poetry
If John Barr oversees Poetry’s body, then Christian Wiman tends to its soul. And a good shepherd he has been, leading the magazine to the National Magazine Award for General Excellence, Print this year along with one for its podcast. And though its resources have soared from its not-long-ago spartan days, the intellectual challenges have grown too, with more than 90,000 submissions a year from which Wiman and his small team of editors must make a magazine. Fortunately, Wiman’s a skilled poet in his own right, with “Every Riven Thing” a particular highlight of the last year. He’ll help lead the magazine into its centennial in 2012 with one of two books he’s slated to author next year being “The Open Door: A Hundred Years of Poetry Magazine,” to be published by the University of Chicago Press. Wiman’s personal life has become something of a public fascination, with his self-documented whirlwind romance and marriage to fellow Lit 50 lister Danielle Chapman, his bout with cancer and rekindling of his Christian faith being the foundation of a widely read essay as well as the raw material for much of his recent poetry.

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12 Responses to “Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2011”

  1. CJ Laity Says:

    Dear Chicago Poetry Scene,

    Once again (days before the Printers Row Lit Fest) it is that one time of the year that anyone I know cares about what that little free magazine that you line your bird cages with, New City, has to say. I’m sure everyone on the “Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2011” list is fully deserving in their own way, and I’m not trying to take anything away from them, but my criticism will upset some of them regardless and they will continue to treat my work as being trivial. Who cares; what else is new?

    This year’s Lit 50 is simply a generic list of just about every editor, publisher, bookstore owner, academic chair and organizational head that the folks at New City could think of. It is a list of 47 Caucasians, two African Americans (and if you guessed the obvious, Haki Madhubuti and Quraysh Ali Lansana, you’re right), and one single Latino / Hispanic (Moira Pujols of Contratiempo). I find it especially shocking that Erika Hilton of Poetry Center of Chicago–an organization that has barely hosted a half dozen events in the last three years–is included on this list, but Kimberly Dixon of Guild Complex–an organization that for decades has consistently sponsored lit programming, including a monthly bilingual poetry series–is not included on the list. It couldn’t be that a few years back, the previous chair of the Guild criticized the very same list for not being inclusive, could it? Of course it could! And the fact that I’ve never been included on the list couldn’t date back some eighteen years to when the publication I worked for, Letter eX criticized New City, could it? Well, let me stop there unless Ray Bianchi accuses me of being nothing but a self promoting hack again. Instead, let’s look at what is on the list.

    The New City list is a clear representation of how Chicago’s lit scene has been gentrified and whitewashed. It is truly a racist list that concentrates entirely on an “industry” and ignores Chicago’s neighborhoods and grassroots scene. It’s not surprising that, in the opening statement, The Poetry Foundation is hailed in a paragraph that begins with the word “power.” “Not only can we claim Poetry magazine, the premier publication of its kind anywhere, but its wealthy sibling the Poetry Foundation will open a whole building dedicated to the form later this month,” New City says. As an afterthought, it continues, “Plus, this is the town that created the Poetry Slam as well as Louder Than a Bomb, the largest teen slam anywhere.”

    The new “power players” in today’s lit scene love to throw the poetry slam a bone once in a while, because they recognize the “power” that the slam has, but if you want to know what the “powers that be” truly think of the slam, just look at their list. Out of 50 people who “really book” in Chicago, two of them might be looked at as representing the slam (if you guessed the obvious, Kevin Coval and Robbie Q. Telfter, you’re right). In the year that the Poetry Slam is celebrating its 25th anniversary, even Marc Smith himself is not worthy of being on that list. The opening paragraph to this list can be translated as follows: we have a two hundred million dollar foundation now that supports the academic, downtown Chicago scene, so we don’t need the rest of you jerks and we won’t even pretend to be diverse or inclusive anymore. In case you didn’t get it the first time, to shove that message home, who is number one on the list of people who really book in Chicago? An author of a bestselling title? Someone who has worked diligently and selflessly as a volunteer for decades? Why, no, of course not, it’s John Barr, ex-Wall Street mogul who once did work for Enron, who was hired to manage the Poetry Foundation not because he “books” (in fact one of his books of poetry was even criticized as being racist) but because he knows how to manage large sums of money (and probably spends quite a bit of it buying advertising from publications like New City). And if two nods to the Poetry Foundation weren’t enough, Christian Wiman (Barr’s editor) and Fred Sazaki (Barr’s Printer’s Ball man) are both on the list as well!

    Look. I tried to warn the poetry community about how the Poetry Foundation as well as the recent City’s “Chicago Publishes” (presently planning to showcase the “new Chicago style” of poetry at the Cultural Center) were threatening to whitewash the poetry scene. And instead of working together to keep the grassroots poetry scene alive, a lot of poets were simply played and were convinced to attack me for speaking my mind. And look at what we have now. Do you see the Guild Complex on the list? Do you see the Neighborhood Writers’ Alliance on the list? Proyecta Latina? How about you big shots from Waiting 4 The Bus or the Poets Club of Chicago or even Puddin’head Press–are any of you guys on the list? Where’s the gay/lesbian presses on the list for that matter? Where is anyone that represents the world of online publishing (other than Dan Sinker’s fictional twitter handle @MayorEmanuel). But, gee, Donald G. Evans, who last year compared the Chicago Poetry Fest to “a backyard barbecue” when I told him I couldn’t afford to pay $45 to attend the Lit Hall of Fame–he made it on the list. And Dominique Raccah, who runs a publishing house located in Naperville, she’s even on Chicago’s list.

    So, I hate to say I told you so, but I TOLD YOU SO!

    Never silent,

    CJ Laity

  2. From the grave of Nelson Algren Says:

    Don’t be such a whiny bitch, CJ.

  3. Anonymous Says:

    Hey CJ, remember when you got pissed at a mostly black college performance poetry organization for not being inclusive enough of white people poets in 2010? Congrats on being consistently the most butthurt and hypocritical writer in Chicago. No wonder you don’t get on these lists — you do a fantastic job at isolating everybody, from “grassroots” communities to “white people” poets.

  4. Mike Z Says:

    CJ Laity,

    On one hand…?”Planning kills literature too – the formation of cliques, the guild system, in-house criticism which writes ‘a few warm lines’ about the in-house sacred cow.” Kornél Esti by Kosztolányi Dezs?

    On the other…Of course, it is clear that you were trying to address the issue that business often determines the arch of publishing and that minority writers, organizers, and publishers are often underrepresented. As a latino, but not a “latino” educator or writer, I think it’s a valid and necessary point; however, instead of truly addressing the issue in a meaningful way, you spent quite some word space falling for old-school identity politics and handing out personalized disses to people on a non-authoritative and non-canonical list – people who are generally working hard to entertain and/or promote literature in Chicago, something the city needs since the publishing industry here went flat decades ago and since Chicago is a model that many, many cities look to.

    A lesson could be learned here by the great Latin American writers Ernesto Sabato and Roberto Bolaño, writers who for the majority of their lives were never silent but still stood outside of any lists or mentions (in societies, by the way, that promoted literature through fascists organizations and through a fascist statehood, literally). They continually assaulted the status quo and literary organizations, but they did so thoughtfully and with near perfect aim. There is no need to point fingers at specific people when you have the entire world of literature at your disposal.


  5. CJ Laity Says:

    I have no idea what ‘black college performance’ anonymous is talking about and suggest that anonymous person should stop making shit up that isn’t true. Here’s a link to a slightly rewritten version of the editorial, every word of which I stand by whole-heartedly.

  6. Esteban Says:

    In days when the world at large doesn’t seem to care about poetry, I’m happy that Newcity took the time to put this story together. I’m also glad that there’s so much going on in Chicago that it is impossible to capture the richness and diversity of publishers, editors and organizational leaders, and poets here in a Lit 50 list.

    I also think that if there are others you believe should be on this list but aren’t, then it is your responsibility to do everything within your power to promote or otherwise help them make a loud enough roar that leaving them off a list like this would be insane.

    This is a poetry city. It should always be about the poetry.

  7. Robert Klein Engler Says:

    When you care about writing, you care about getting quotes right. Please check you copy of Carl Sandburg’s poems. It is “City of THE Big Shoulders,” not “City of Big Shoulders.”

  8. sharon Says:

    hey, where’s Becky Anderson?

  9. Charles Wilson Says:

    How could you include Reginald Gibbons on your list? Everyone knows that he was largely responsible for the destruction of Northwestern’s TriQuarterly literary magazine – one of the premier literary magazines in the country – and replacing it with a student run website under his control, to the DETRIMENT of the literary community.

  10. Joe Montas Says:

    I´m very proud of your work and results. Keep it coming Moira Pujols!

  11. Newcity Lit50: Some familiar faces | MAKE Literary Productions, NFP Says:

    […] to those who made the list, but to all who make Chicago a great place for literature. See the full Lit50 List at New City‘s website. Posted on June 7, 2011 by MAKE | Leave a comment ← […]

  12. Jeremy Says:

    Oh, it’s another CJ Laity crybaby action. keep doing what you’re doing, New City and ignore Laity, who believes he is king of all poetry.

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