Tales out of School: Relevancy and Change in Columbia College’s Annual Story Week Festival

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Audrey Petty and Mitchell S. Jackson/Photo: Ben Bowen

Audrey Petty and Mitchell S. Jackson/Photo: Ben Bowen

By Kim Steele

For a literary festival like Columbia College’s Story Week to remain relevant for nineteen years is quite an accomplishment. This year, it succeeded once again by emphasizing the important and unique relationship between literature and current events; demonstrating that literature is a catalyst for all of us to discuss what is happening in the world around us.

In fact, this year’s theme, “The Power of Words” is, in part, a reaction to the violence in our city and world in the past few months. Eric May, the artistic director of Story Week and an associate professor in creative writing at Columbia, notes how the desire to remain pertinent influences which authors they host as well as the focus of the various panels. In fact, the panel “Fighting Violence: The Power of Words” addressed the relationship between violence and literature head on. It featured Kevin Coval (the author of “The BreakBeat Poets” and the founder of Louder Than A Bomb), Mitchell S. Jackson (“The Residue Years”), Audrey Petty (editor, “High Rise Stories”) and Miles Harvey (editor, “How Long Will I Cry?”). Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50 2014: Who Really Books in Chicago

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Photo: Joe Mazza/BraveLux

When we began work on the 2012 version of Lit 50, there were some 200 published writers on our long list. This year, there were 437. As always, trimming the list to a mere fifty writers required a certain kind of agony (and a few sleepless nights), but we’re proud of the list we gathered here, and we feel it celebrates the wealth of talent and diversity of Chicago’s literary community.

Close followers of Lit 50 will know this year’s list celebrates writers across all forms: novelists, essayists, poets, graphic novelists, playwrights. Our call to local literary folk yielded a wealth of celebratory news: overseas teaching offers, sealed book deals, hard-earned fellowships and awards. It also introduced dozens of writers that were not already known to us. We’re proud that this year’s Lit 50 includes seventeen writers who are making their first appearance on this list, including Chris Abani, the Nigerian-born writer who escaped a death row sentence in 1991 and now teaches graduate students at Northwestern University. We’re thrilled to add Lindsay Hunter, Cristina Henriquez, and Kate Harding, women whose voices we’ve long admired and whose forthcoming books we’re impatient to read. We’re also eager to welcome a handful of poets, including Roger Reeves, Parneshia Jones, and Roger Bonair-Agard.  It’s our crazy hope that in 2016, the “short” list will have doubled once more. But someone’s going to have to bring us some whiskey. (Naomi Huffman)

Lit 50 was written by Liz Baudler, Brendan Buck, Brian Hieggelke, Alex Houston, Naomi Huffman, Megan Kirby, Micah McCrary and John Wilmes

All photos by Joe Mazza/Brave Lux on location at Spertus Institute/Venue SIX10
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Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2013

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NEWNEWCITYIt’s been a deadly year for Chicago writers, with the passing of Roger Ebert, Richard Stern, David Hernandez and, just last week, Father Andrew Greeley. Not to mention the dead-woman-walking status achieved by Rachel Shtier, whose ill-conceived New York Times Book Review takedown of Chicago turned her into this city’s most universally disliked resident since, perhaps, John Wayne Gacy. So a sense of what we’d lost pervaded the creation of this year’s Lit 50, this time around celebrating not so much the writers who occupy the center stage, but those who operate behind the scenes to make sure the stage itself exists. The process, as excruciating as it is, always renews our optimism for the literary Chicago that carries on, bigger and better every year, even diminished by its inevitable losses. This year’s increasingly long short-list reached new magnitudes, with 360 folks under consideration for just fifty nods. Needless to say, a slight tilt in another direction, and an entirely different Lit 50 could have been created. But so it goes. (Brian Hieggelke)

Written by Brian Hieggelke and Naomi Huffman, with Greg Baldino and Kathleen Caplis. See previous years here. Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2012

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Finishing the Lit 50 is always such a bittersweet ending for me. What starts out as such a pleasure of discovery—Chicago’s literary world now has more than 200 published writers!—ends in the sorrow of having to leave so many worthy names off the list. We do our best to reflect the sum of our knowledge and reporting, to add in diversity of style, medium and genre, and to constantly introduce new players to the mix. But we know that, in the end, many choices might appear capricious, that for every worthy individual honored, two have been overlooked. A day later, after the lingering effects of sleep, sunlight and exercise deprivation and an overdose of junk food and energy drinks abates, I know we’ll return to where we started: overjoyed at the growing literary abundance of our city.

Careful readers will remember that we alternate lists each year, between the behind-the-scenes influencers and the on-the-page creators; this year belongs to the latter. Which is why you won’t see represented the two most talked-about new endeavors in literary Chicago: J.C. Gabel’s magnificent revival of The Chicagoan, and Elizabeth Taylor’s noble undertaking, Printers Row. We are confidently hopeful, or perhaps hopefully confident, that they’ll still be around to have their day a year from now. (Brian Hieggelke)

Lit 50 was written by Greg Baldino, Ella Christoph, Brian Hieggelke, Naomi Huffman and Micah McCrary. See previous years here.
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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. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bomb Dropper: Kevin Coval’s unlikely journey from popular suburban jock to iconoclastic def poet

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Photo: Colleeen Durkin/colleendurkin.com

By Michael Volpe

When Kevin Coval and I attended Glenbrook North in the early 1990s, two cars were exceedingly popular among students: the Chevy Blazer SUV and the Toyota Celica. In fact, a license plate on one of those shiny red Celicas back then summed up life at high school in Northbrook pretty well: “THNKUDAD.” Though alumni of Glenbrook North include late filmmaker John Hughes, former Cub Scott Sanderson and former WFLD reporter Lilia Chacon, most graduates wind up in a boardroom or courtroom or on a trading floor.

Nobody expected Kevin Coval to end up on stage, especially as a hip-hop artist. After all, hip-hop was born and bred in the inner city, where violence, poverty and misery created a tempestuous story line for many of its most successful artists. The closest thing to violence in Northbrook usually happened on the straightaway from that infamous scene in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” when Matthew Broderick, pretending to be his girlfriend Sloane’s dad, picks her up in his friend Cameron’s dad’s car. At GBN, as the natives call it, all the light poles are on the right side of the street except one. As the straightaway turns into a curve, though, there’s one pole on the left. Those slick Blazers and Celicas that got going too fast on the straightaway used to crash into the pole as they cruised around the curve, back when it was on the right side of the street. If things really got crazy in Northbrook, teenagers might find a fake ID, get some beer, and head to Gilson Beach to cause havoc. Not exactly thug life. In Northbrook, there aren’t many drive-bys—only drive-thrus. Coval says he was first inspired by hip-hop in the early 1980s. I like to think there was some inspiration from the Business Administration class we all had to take to graduate from GBN. After all, that’s where we learned the value of cornering a niche. Being a white Jewish kid from the uber-wealthy North Shore of Chicago obsessed with hip-hop is a niche of one.
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Lit 50: Who really books in Chicago 2010

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Illustration: Pamela Wishbow

A strange and unpleasant wind blows through the literary land. Our obsession with technocultural toys, whether iPhones, iPads or Kindles, makes the foundation of thought almost since thought was recorded, that is ink on paper, seem increasingly destined to be twittered into obsolescence. And it’s not just mere media frenzy, either. Massive upheaval among major publishers these last few years has left some of Chicago’s finest writers stranded in a strange land: that is, the work is finished, but no one is around to put it out. Who knows, maybe in two years when this version of Lit 50 returns, some, if not all, of our authors will be publishing mostly, if not entirely, in the digital realm. If that’s the case, let’s enjoy an old-fashioned book or two while we can. Read the rest of this entry »

411: Out of the Shel

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In honor of its fifth anniversary, Millennium Park will host an evening honoring one of Chicago’s own on July 13. “SHELebration: A Tribute to Shel Silverstein” will feature works by the famous poet, author, illustrator and songwriter. Various performers, friends and collaborators of Silverstein’s—including Kevin Coval, Bobby Bare, Bobby Bare Jr., Pat Dailey and Tim Kazurinsky—will feature works from his books and poetry collections. The evening will include the world debut of a Silverstein poem and illustration, “Birthday,” one of twelve new poems to be released in the fall reissuing of “A Light in the Attic.” The poem is being given to Millennium Park by the Shel Silverstein estate in honor of the park’s birthday, says Brian Keigher, program manager with the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. “I always thought it was fascinating that he was a renaissance man,” says Keigher, who came up with the event idea three years ago. “He did illustrations for Playboy before he was a children’s author.” Silverstein was born in Chicago in 1930 and grew up on Palmer Street; he continued spending time here until his death in 1999. “Many people forget that he’s a Chicagoan, so I thought it was a good idea to acknowledge him,” Keigher says. “This is a way to showcase the multifaceted stuff he does.”

411: Straight Outta Northbrook with Kevin Coval

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Hip-hop poet Kevin Coval appeared on the cover of the Chicago Tribune magazine last December wearing all white, possibly to accentuate his already considerable whiteness. Coval, a 33-year-old of Jewish extraction from Northbrook, fell in love with hip-hop culture during high school, where he tangled with teachers over Eurocentric curricula. Read the rest of this entry »

Lit 50: Who Really Books in Chicago 2008

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Chicago’s book world can be a quiet place. In part due to the solitary nature of the work, and in part due to the void of publishing parties that keep New York’s assorted gawkers journaling away, it’s easy to think nothing new is happening. Jeffrey Eugenides moves to town, Jeffrey Eugenides moves away, and no one seems to notice. Then, bam!, Aleksandar Hemon publishes “The Lazarus Project,” the comparisons to Nabokov resume and suddenly we’re the center of the universe again, if only for a moment.
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