It’s Tuesday night, AWP starts tomorrow, and the literary happenings are starting to happen in Chicagoland. We just got back from a fabulous release party for the brand new book by Stacy Bierlein, A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends. There were beers and wine and goodies and books and t-shirts and people. Lots of folks gathered around a few rooms of a really gorgeous house in Evanston owned by Amy Davis (The Writers Workspace) and Lee Nagen (Fisheye) and we celebrated the new book, its author, and publisher (also mine) Elephant Rock Books. Stacy read the title story; we laughed and we sighed, and it was really a very, very good time.
And here’s the thing. Stacy Bierlein was a student at Columbia College Chicago in the Fiction Writing Department some years ago. We had a class together when we were both younger women. Amy Davis took classes there, too. In fact, Amy was involved in a really fine literary journal called Fish Stories, the first lit journal I was ever published in back in the day. Lee printed the journal. Jotham Burrello, the founding father of Elephant Rock Books, came to Columbia College as a graduate student in Fiction Writing after having worked for The Atlantic Monthly. Dan Prazer, editor for Elephant Rock Books was a graduate student in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College, too.
You might think that what I am getting at here is something akin to nepotism. But that is not my point. Not at all. My point is this: the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago grows great writers, publishers, editors, and literary folk. It was so very many years ago that I was in class with Stacy, years and years since Jotham and I became colleagues. Amy published me in the 1990s. But it isn’t like we’ve been all hanging out together smoking dope in a basement and putting out little newsprint paper zines full of a bunch of half-baked stories by our buddies. We’ve grown up. We teach and we write and we cultivate writing communities in Chicago, in California, in Connecticut. We make good and real product. Books that are reviewed well, work that we are all very proud of.
You may recently have become aware of some confusion around the future of the Fiction Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago; you may have heard that the long-time chair of the department, Randy Albers (a mentor to so many) recently was informed that his chair contract will not be renewed. There is no scandal here, by the way; Randy has been praised highly by the administration and by his colleagues and his students.
But I don’t really want to get into any of this right now. What I am really trying to say is that I sat in this living room with a bunch of folks I have known for a long time, and some I’ve only come to know recently (Bill Shunn of Tuesday Funk Reading Series, Mare Swallow of Chicago Publishes podcasts), and some I don’t know at all, and we all leaned in to listen to Stacy read, to hear her story, to witness this first book launch of a fine debut. And it dawned on me that we were all there because of the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago. We might have become teachers and writers and publishers even if we hadn’t gone to Columbia, but we did, and we are. And as Amy added to Stacy’s thanks to us all for coming, she mentioned this Fiction Writing connection, and really, I hadn’t thought of it before then. But then I thought how much I wished that Randy might have been there to celebrate with us (he had his own presentation going on at Columbia tonight) and how good it would have been if our college dean knew about all of this fine and important publishing stuff by past students, how good it would have been for the provost to hear, too, and the president. Because this is what happens when you have a good, strong, writing program. You help produce good, strong, writers, publishers, editors.
February 27, 2012: In the middle of the night…
Chicago is full of small and large literary delights, and on the eve of the AWP conference in our fair city, I thought it would be good to introduce you to a guy who had a hand in starting one of the truly great reading series held here, Come Home Chicago. Matt Martin is currently a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction at Columbia College Chicago who is also working a full-time job, and yet he feels compelled to make the time to help produce a highly entertaining and exceptional quality lit show; last month’s guests included Stuart Dybek, Rick Kogan, Christine Sneed, Don De Grazia (co-founder of Come Home Chicago) and many others.
Oh yeah, and the guy writes, too. And this is where he does it, along with a little taste of his work.
Matt: I live alone in a one bedroom apartment in Andersonville, and since I don’t do a lot of entertaining, this dining room table has turned into a desk. I picked this space because of its excellent view of my neighbor’s blinds, those things need some dusting! I try to spend at least an hour here a day. The books in the middle separate the table in half, because of my book shelf being over crowded. Radioactive Homer sits across from me (his head is chopped off a bit), but if I ever get really stuck, I look to him, and he usually has some pretty pertinent advice! “All right Brain, you don’t like me, and I don’t like you. But let’s just do this, and I can get back to killing you with beer.”
I wrote a piece about my experience with gout at this space and do a lot of reading here as well. One of my favorite books that people might not be able to see from the photo is Live From New York—a history of Saturday Night Live—so many of my memories of childhood can be found in that book! Also if you look hard—in the middle there—an autographed copy of The Temple Of Air is chillin out!
An excerpt from work in progress
It’s complicated. It usually is. There are extenuating circumstances that come into play. You’ll have to trust me on that. This was something that external influences caused. I mean, I am partially to blame, don’t get me wrong. I am ready to take the brunt of the criticism. They say somewhere in a 12-step program that acceptance is one of the steps. I’m not sure which one, because the one time I went to a meeting I didn’t really pay attention. I did it for her. To get her off my back.
Now things were getting bad. It was getting out of control. Now I found myself here. In a ground floor room in the same Vegas hotel that O.J. Simpson got arrested in, the Palace Station. The same hotel/casino that offered “Las Vegas’ Largest All Drag Revue.” I tried to open my eyes. A sliver of light had somehow managed to creep through the middle of the crusty shades and land directly on my eye lids. I peeked one eye open. I nearly threw up.
I rolled over and slammed the pillow over my head. I felt something on my cheek. It was sharp. I didn’t really care to move, so I went back to sleep.
I dreamt of things. I dreamt of home. My grandmother. My childhood. I slid down reflective slides. I smiled. I ran around the bases as grown men played 16 in. softball on a diamond at Oriole Park. I ran through the grass and ran up to a hot dog stand and looked up and my uncle was wearing a white paper hat and spinning bright blue cotton candy.