For this year’s list, we kept our overall ranking numbers but organized everything by category.
Lit 50 2022: Who Really Books in Chicago (Introduction)
Lit 50 2022: Booksellers and Allies
Lit 50 2022: Publishers, Services and Other Media
Lit 50 2022: Institutions and Programmers
+ Literati of the Moment: Michelle Boone, Adrian Matejka and Fred Sasaki of the Poetry Foundation
Here are Chicago’s Advocates, Educators and Changemakers.
Host, Weeds Live Poetry Open Mic
Gregorio Gomez hosted a weekly Monday night poetry event at the bar Weeds for thirty years before retiring it not long after the bar’s owner, Sergio Mayora, sold the place about seven years ago. In June, he hosted a reunion and clearly the magic is still potent. In its heyday, Weeds was a capital-S scene: “It was not for the weak. No, that’s for sure,” Gomez recalls. “’Cause once I got rolling, once I became the host and people were accepting that I was the one running the show, I created this character. It’s as all artists do, you know, create a persona that goes above and beyond who you are on a regular basis. So this character was a fire-whip, you know, speaking fast, returning comments, tough, tough guy. In those days, we had gentlemen that would come in and call us names, because poets were ‘gay’ and so I said, ‘Hey, man, you don’t mess with us. ‘Cause you know what I’ll kick your ass.’ And so the reputation developed as a no-nonsense poetry venue.” When he wasn’t hosting Weeds, Gomez was the managing director of Latino Chicago Theater Company, the producer of two feature films, and an actively publishing poet, which remains his focus. But don’t rule out future Weeds reunions, either.
Chicago Ambassador, Authors Guild
The lawyer, playwright and producer Charles Grippo took on the role of Chicago ambassador for the national writer’s advocacy organization, the Authors Guild, from Arnie Bernstein and Alta Price, and guided the organization through the pandemic. Bernstein says, “After a year of COVID shutting down so much, Charles has taken on an ambitious agenda on behalf of Chicago-area Authors Guild members.” This agenda includes an array of events, both live and virtual, about business and financial aspects of writing, including estate planning for intellectual property, agents, social media and tax planning. “Increasing our membership is also a priority,” Grippo says.
Founder, Mercy Street Reading Series
Dr. Ruben Quesada is an editor, poet and translator whose writing has appeared in “Best American Poetry,” Kenyon Review and American Poetry Review. His many accomplishments include running Mercy Street, a live monthly reading series that features poets from across the world. At Mercy Street, Quesada seeks poets promoting new work, and he is dedicated to creating an enjoyable experience for both participants and online attendees. Quesada also ran Logan’s Run in Logan Square, a reading series featuring Latinx poets and writers. He is the editor of “Latinx Poetics: Essays on the Art of Poetry,” available in November from University of New Mexico Press. He serves on the board of the National Book Critics Circle.
Emily Hooper Lansana
Storyteller and Senior Director of Community Arts, Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts, University of Chicago
3Arts winner Emily Hooper Lansana is one of those multihyphenates whose work permeates multiple spaces and communities, ranging from being a founding member of Ase: The Chicago Association of Black Storytellers, to her work at the Logan Center. Not to mention that she is a founder of Rebirth Poetry Ensemble and often performs with Zahra Glenda Baker as the performance duo In the Spirit. She has just published a story in Gravy that tells about the “great migration of my family a little bit,” and has completed a project that will be the subject of a documentary through the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture at the University of Chicago, which she describes as “a project to explore storytelling in an interdisciplinary way.” Her personal work, she says, focuses on “celebrating the journey of Black people, especially Black women,” including Nobel Peace Prize winners Wangari Maathai and Leymah Gbowee.
Director, Social Justice Initiative, University of Illinois at Chicago
As a professor, author and activist, Barbara Ransby has long found ways to combine academic efforts with justice in her writings and lectures, and as director of the UIC’s campus-wide Social Justice Initiative, she has guided the energies of literary Chicago toward activism. SJI’s events, many held at the campus’ Chicago Justice Gallery, have hosted many writer-activists, including Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Albert Woodfox and Angela Davis. Ransby’s influence on the events in literary Chicago extends beyond UIC’s campus, such as a July discussion at Haymarket House with Lorgia García Peña about her book, “Community as Rebellion.” Summing her crossover influence and activism, Ransby says that “We ALL have a responsibility toward social justice, especially in these dangerous times. So we cannot afford to be morally neutral or ethically agnostic… We also have to be activists in addition to whatever other hats we wear in our work lives.”
Nora Brooks Blakely
President, Brooks Permissions
A well-known steward of her mother Gwendolyn Brooks’ legacy, Nora Brooks Blakely is equally dedicated to helping young people discover their voices through writing and drama. “It’s amazing what children and teens will come up with if you give them the space in which to do it,” she says. As an elementary school teacher, she challenged her students to write about topics like “What does blue taste like?” In 1982, she founded the Chocolate Chips Theatre Company, for which she served as principal playwright. She published her first picture book, “Moyenda and The Golden Heart,” in 2021; “Moyenda’s Cookbook” is due out next year. “Sometimes I wake up in the morning into an idea,” Blakely says, laughing, “like my mother.” Winners of the Sixth Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Youth Poetry Awards, which Blakely helps judge, will be announced in early August.
Anne K. Ream
Founder, The Voices and Faces Project
More than a decade ago, Anne Ream was an executive at Leo Burnett working on her book, “Lived Through This,” a chronicle of gender-based-violence survivors around the world that sprang from her own experience with sexual violence, when she realized how valuable it was for others like her to have a way to get their stories told. And so she left advertising and launched The Voices and Faces Project, which in ten years has conducted more than a hundred writing workshops all over North America and Africa, with more than 1,200 students, and has expanded to include refugees and incarcerated women as well as survivors of gender-based violence and human rights violations. Alumni of the workshops have gone on to write plays, publish essays, op-eds and even books like Linda Key Klein’s “Pure” and Christa Desir’s “Fault Line.” This December, the organization will scale up, transforming into the Chicago-based Center for Story & Witness, where its scope will expand to include both programming and training, allowing the mission to scale beyond its core group of founders. “The stories we tell allow us to make sense of the world, and to define our place in the world,” says Ream. “But they are also our most powerful tools for challenging and changing the world.”
Gerard Plecki and Thomas Frisbie
President and Membership Secretary, Society of Midland Authors
Writing books is a solitary business, but even writers have to come out of their rooms sometimes for pizza with friends. Since 1915, the Society of Midland Authors has provided local writers with opportunities to meet, talk shop and honor each other for their work. The Society provides free, open-to-the-public programming almost every month at the Cliff Dwellers club or the Harold Washington Library. After the start of the pandemic, it kept things going over Zoom, and restarted in-person programming as well as its in-person awards dinner this past spring. “People really appreciate an opportunity to connect to other authors and feel support, share stories and lean on each other,” says Thomas Frisbie, who also edits the Society’s monthly newsletter.
Vice President, Off-Campus Writers’ Workshop
Paco Aramburu, author of multiple books, is the vice president of the Off-Campus Writers’ Workshop in Winnetka. Founded in 1946, The OCWW, the longest continuously-running program of its kind, is a resource for writers at all levels of experience. Aramburu, born in Buenos Aires, trained in cinema and directing before immigrating to the United States. With the OCWW, he hopes to keep sharing resources and keep the writing community engaged, without barriers to entry, talking and telling stories. Feedback and active engagement happens through programming like writing prompts on the Facebook page, a summer speaker series, generative workshops, in-house anthologies, manuscript consultation, sharing calls for writers, agent recommendations and publishing tools. From September to May, the OCWW offers programming almost every Thursday morning.
President, Chicago Writers Association
Randy Richardson is a founding member and the president of Chicago Writers Association. A lawyer as well as a writer, Richardson joined the group back when it was a loosely affiliated Yahoo group and was responsible for spinning it into a proper 501(c)(3) organization and Chicago literary institution, one that has supported other Chicago institutions, including Hypertext Magazine and Studio and the Literary Hall of Fame. Richardson says that while the pandemic curtailed in-person events, such as its popular conference, CWA’s roots as an online organization have helped avoid it being slowed down in the Zoom era, as reflected by its current roster of over 900 members (up by 200 from the last time he made our list in 2019). It’s also allowed the CWA to go in new directions, such as a new podcast.
Poetry Editor, The Langston Hughes Review
Poet Tara Betts knows the importance of creating space for creativity, especially in this “interesting time” in history. A teaching artist at universities including DePaul, Northwestern and the University of Illinois-Chicago, Betts has also taught poetry at Stateville Correctional Center. Poetry editor at The Langston Hughes Review, Betts is the founder of “The Whirlwind Learning Center,” a nonprofit on Chicago’s South Side. She’s looking to buy a building for the center, but in the meantime is holding poetry and comedy classes for teens through the Chicago Park District. She says young people, especially, need outlets for self-expression. “You need a place to articulate some of what you’re witnessing, sometimes just to make sense of the world, or to vent.” Her new book is “Refuse to Disappear.”
Executive Director, Open Books
Eric Johnson joined Open Books just over three-and-a-half years ago as executive director after a career in education and nonprofit management. The literacy organization is best known for its chain of well-organized used bookstores that channel store proceeds into funds for what Johnson describes as “a suite of reading and writing programs that pair books with experiences that help support children and families to become lifelong readers,” mostly on the South and West Sides. With established stores in the West Loop and Pilsen, Open Books is building out its third location, in Logan Square at 2068 North Milwaukee. “We’re also the official partner of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library for the Chicagoland area,” Johnson adds. “It’s a program model in which we do the enrollment and fundraising on the ground… Once we enroll kids, between prenatal to five years old, kids enrolled in the program receive one free, brand-new book mailed to their homes every month in order to give them a head start on building home libraries.”
Executive Director, 826CHI
Aside from her own literary achievements as a poet and Ragdale fellow, which landed her on our list previously, Jennifer Steele is now also the executive director of 826CHI. It’s a natural fit for Steele, who has a decade-plus history of engaging or partnering with Chicago-based nonprofit literary education efforts, including Revolving Door Arts and ChiTeen Lit Fest, both efforts she co-founded. Under Steele, 826CHI has sustained its mission of blending youth literary education with activism, by providing and promoting resources in moments as varied as the 2020 election, the George Floyd protests, and the recent mass shooting in Uvalde.
Principal, Greater Reach Consulting
Barry Benson is a leading nonprofit consultant in literary Chicago. The Story Week Festival of Writers introduced him to Chicago’s vibrant literary community in 2003, and he has since served as the permanent or interim executive director of venerable literary and arts organizations including 826CHI, StoryStudio Chicago and Ragdale Foundation. His current passion is the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, which celebrates Chicago writers and the city’s rich and diverse literary history. Benson is devoting more time to his own writing, and he is working on a fictitious biography of Nancy Drew’s housekeeper, Hannah Gruen.
Director, Creative Writing, University of Chicago
John Wilkinson, the director of University of Chicago’s creative writing program since 2013, has just stepped down from his role, which has seen his department grow from three to eighteen faculty members. Since “Useful Reforms,” his first publication of poetry, was published in 1976, Wilkinson has distinguished himself as both a poet and critical scholar. He describes himself as a rationalist in love with the irrational in poetry. His most recent publications include “Wood Circle,” a poetry sequence, and “Lyric in Its Times: Temporalities in Verse, Breath, and Stone,” a critical examination of lyric poetry. At UChicago, he focuses on building a world-class undergraduate program that introduces students to new possibilities in the use of language.
History Department Chair, Northwestern University
The faculty of Northwestern University’s history department is on a tear. This year Kate Masur was a Pulitzer finalist in history for her book “Until Justice Be Done,” while last year Amy Stanley was a finalist in the biography category for “Stranger in The Shogun’s City.” Deborah Cohen, department chair and Richard W. Leopold Professor of History, while clearly cognizant of “the magic going on in Harris Hall,” denies having any editorial process or department house style. But she credits her colleagues’ success to an excellent hiring process, a spirit of academic freedom, and a shared belief in the common good. Cohen herself has a release with national attention: “Last Call at the Hotel Imperial,” a book that covers the careers of the journalists who predicted the outbreak of World War II. Perhaps the chair herself might make the department threepeat.
President, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame
Amy Danzer is a fast-moving blur of literary activity. Besides being president of the board for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, she manages multiple master’s programs at Northwestern University, including the MA in Writing and MFA in Prose and Poetry, and directs the university’s Summer Writers’ Conference. She reviews books, writes stories, and is directing programming for the upcoming Printers Row Lit Fest. Why does she do it all, at the risk of aggravating friends and losing sleep? “I’m just so grateful for what literature has done for me, in terms of shaping my worldview and helping me understand things and connect with people better,” Danzer says. She also wants to promote literary Chicago—“The world needs to know what treasures we have here in the second city.”
Author and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz Chair, Latin American and Latino Studies Department, DePaul University
A native of Cicero and the daughter of Mexican immigrants, Erika Sánchez is a fearless writer uninhibited by genre. Her debut poetry collection, “Lessons on Expulsion,” was published in July 2017, and a few months later, it was followed by the young adult novel “I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter,” a National Book Award Finalist and New York Times bestseller that is being directed by America Ferrera for Netflix. Sánchez’s memoir, “Crying in the Bathroom,” was published in July. Sánchez is a writer-in-residence and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz chair at DePaul University in the Latin American and Latino Studies Department.
The Hall of Fame
These folks, or the roles they inhabit, are so well-established and foundational to the literary world of Chicago that they are always near the top of the list.
*= new this year
Novelist, Poet, Professor of English and Director of Graduate Studies, Creative Writing, Northwestern University
Founding Producer, Story Week Festival of Writers and Chair Emeritus of Fiction Writing, Columbia College Chicago
Author and Professor, English Language and Literature, University of Chicago
Eve L. Ewing
Sociologist, Educator, Poet, Writer, Playwright, Public Speaker
Professor, English and Classics, Northwestern University
Author and Poet
Author and Journalist
Author and Founder, Artists Book House
Founder, Open Books and Co-Founder, Chicago Literacy Alliance
Founder and Executive Director, Read/Write Library Chicago