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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 ChicagoPublishes.com. 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.
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.
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.