Monday, June 14, 2010


This past weekend, I got to participate again in the annual Chicago Tribune Printers Row Lit Fest. Back in the days when print was more, as they say, viable, many book publishers and printing firms made their home in the impressively redbricked Printers Row; now, needless to say, publishing yields some of Chicago's greatest job losses. Indeed, the Lit Fest was rather smaller this year than it has been in the past, yet it was lively and extremely well-attended - even during the rainy hours, and despite so much energy already having been devoted on to all the Blackhawks festivities in town.

I was on a panel held at the Arts & Poetry Stage (i.e., the small venue in the corner next to the generator): “Chicago’s Multicultural Publishing Pioneers." We discussed what local publishers are doing to bring literature, news, and ideas from around the world to audiences in Chicago and beyond. On the panel with me were Fernando Diaz, an investigative reporter and Managing Director of Hoy, Chicago’s only daily Spanish-language newspaper; Jochy Herrera, essayist and founding member of contratiempo; Martin Riker, Associate Editor of Dalkey Archive Press, a premier publisher of international literature in the U.S.; and me. Danielle Chapman skilfully moderated. I think the audio from the panel will go online soon; if so, I'll post a link. We recently held a Poetry event in collaboration with contratiempo which Hoy helped us publicize - and there's no doubt much more to work together on.

This year's fest (motto: GET LIT!) featured the likes of Christopher Hitchens, Colson Whitehead, Travis Nichols, Eula Biss, and other exciting literary, well, lights; but what was also lots of fun was browsing all the used book and other vendors, this year augmented by folks selling furniture, of all things, for instance a lounge chair with a massage thingy in it. Well, if print isn't dead I guess you still need a nice chair to read it in! There was also the Trib Living Room, a space decked out, yes, like a living room, in which you could meet your favorite Tribute writers. I didn't go, but the idea reminded me a little of the Marina Abramović's "The Artist at Present," in which you kinda sit around with an artist. But I browsed and browsed, and managed to pick up some nice pre-owned books (can't do that in the iBook store!).

My haul included a bound facsimile reprint of the first volume, ca. 1924, of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan's legendary American Mercury, published almost a hundred years ago (during the heyday of Printers Row, come to think of it.) When I was a kiddo, growing up in the Sahara of the Bozart, i.e., Tennessee, I worshiped these guys, and even thought that all writers had a kind of Smart Set tone; I guess it wasn't until I went to college that I learned otherwise. Anyway, what a treat this thing is. The very first thing that caught my eye was a swell full-page ad for something called AMMO - "ammonia in powdered form." It was "a refreshing bath aid for keen out-of-door fellows" that promised to make you "fit as a fiddle." You dump this "man's bath aid" into your bath and it "vanishes all odors" and gives your tired feet a "new lease of life." "Refreshing -- O'boy!" I don't suppose they make it anymore, and ammo means something rather different these days.

Obviously, the tome is full of literary treasure, as well. Mencken famously advocated the writing of Sherwood Anderson, and there's a terrific story of his in one issue called "Caught." Here's a strange little bit from it:

I was walking in the streets of the city, that evening of November. There was snow on the roofs of buildings, but it had all been scraped off the roadways. There is a thing happens to American men. It is pitiful. One walks along, going slowly in the streets, and when one looks sharply at one's fellows something dreadful comes into the mind. There is a thing happens to the backs of the necks of American men. There is this sense of something drying, getting old without having ripened. The skin does something. One becomes conscious of the back of one's own neck and is worried. "Might not all our lives ripen like fruit - drop at the end, full-skinned and rich with color, from the tree of life, eh?" When one is in the country one looks at a tree. "Can a tree be a dead dried-up thing while it is still young? Can a tree be a neurotic?" one asks.

And then there are things like the editors' swell "Clinical Notes," e.g., "Criticism in America has always suffered from ward politics."

All a bit laddish, to be sure. Well, it only cost me $6.50 - cheaper than an e-book.

It was extremely nice of Steven Fama to blog about Ron Silliman's return to the pages of Poetry. I would like to thank him - and want to add that our July/August issue will not feature, as Steven says, a portfolio of work by Robert Pinsky, but a libretto he wrote for a performance piece about, well, meat and machines. It is rather different from what you might expect. Oh, and I think Steven's being a bit hard on Coach Wooden. In any case, these are cavils, and I am always grateful for Steven's thoughts; he really keeps folks honest like nobody else!

Pictured: Destruction of the shed at Dearborn Station, near Printers Row, Chicago


knott said...

Fama's gloating and his slanted canted history not to mention his sneers at the letters from readers who naively expect some real poetry in Poetry (sic) Magazine


is pretty much why i let my subscription lapse


(or was it the Po-Viz issues that drove me off)


whatever Fama's for i-m against


Don Share said...

Sorry to have injured your sensibilities yet again, Bill!

Steven Fama said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the kind words, and I've added a parenthetical (actually, a bracketed phrase) to my post, regarding what the Pinsky work will be.

I held my tongue on Coach Wooden by keeping the focus on his views of poetry.

His motivational "Pyramid of Success" strikes me as hugely hypocritical, in that it elides any mention of "Intimidation," which was one of Wooden's most relied on techniques (he talked at opposing players during games, a lot, insisting they were playing unfair).

On the top of that, he either knew exactly what was going on between the big UCLA booster (Sam Gilbert) and his players, or he was willfully or grossly ignorant (buried his head in the sand). "Cheating" should be in his Pyramid too.

Amy Guth said...

Thanks for joining us this year, Don. Hopefully, we'll see you again next year!

Very best,
Amy Guth
Digital News Editor for Books
Chicago Tribune

Don Share said...

It was a real pleasure, Amy! Thanks so much to everyone at the Trib who kept the Lit Fest going even in hard times.