Literary Chicago


Archive for October, 2011

Write Club Returns

October 07, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Summer is officially over. No more soaking up the sun from the comfort of your lawn chair or gobbling up ice cream cones before they melt. No more flip flops under your feet and light, gauzy fabrics against your skin. No more alfresco dinners, backyard barbecues, farmers’ markets, or fresh summer fruit. Before you curse the changing of the seasons, however, keep this in mind: NO MORE WAITING FOR WRITE CLUB.

After a grueling two-and-a-half-month hiatus, Write Club returned to The Hideout on Tuesday, September 27th for Chapter 18. This time, in addition to the large clock and the boxing ring bell, there were signs announcing the contestants:

Dina Walters vs. Scott Whitehair

Susan Karp vs. Patrick Carberry

Ian Belknap vs. Don Hall

“We took a couple of months off and we now have production value,” said Belknap, series founder, host, and “overlord.” The man didn’t spend his entire summer printing signs at his local Kinko’s, though. He also helped to start Write Club Atlanta, the second branch in what will undoubtedly be a popular national franchise. (San Francisco, Athens, Los Angeles, and New York are next). The format is the same: three bouts of two opposing writers, seven minutes apiece, the order in which they read determined by games of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But they’ve got their work cut out for them, these newbies. Write Club Chicago has set the bar high. Last Tuesday, every performance displayed such humor, passion, and vulnerability that I recused myself from voting.

ROUND 1: Revenge vs. Mercy

On behalf of Revenge, Dina Walters started the night off by telling us about Desiree, a girl who tormented her for smelling badly when she was a freshman at Maria Catholic High School in 1992 — “Rachel McAdams in Mean Girls, but Latino.” Remember culottes? Shorts designed to look like skirts? Well, instead of getting a “pantsing,” Walters underwent a culottesing at the hands of this ruthless Desiree. “I had been condemned to let her rake playfully at my soul.” Her reprieve came when her father suggested the unthinkable: Revenge. “It was like my father gave me permission to date the bad boy.” To this day, twenty years later, she still has the can of fart spray she used on her tormentor’s locker — her “first trophy.”

On behalf of Mercy, Scott Whitehair took the slacker’s approach. To him, it’s not about right or wrong — it’s about easy. “Revenge is exhausting . . . the gears of revenge are lubricated with sweat.” Like Walters, Whitehair, too, had a high school tormentor. He did nothing and, years later, found the bully selling scratch-off tickets in a gas station. Sometimes the universe has a way of dishing out justice itself. Whitehair suggested that the real tragedy of The Count of Monte Cristo is not that he’s wrongfully imprisoned but, rather, that he made it his life’s mission to get revenge. “It’s a waste of time and resources,” said Whitehair. “Mercy, on the other hand, is effortless.”

Scott Whitehair for Mercy
Proceeds go to Inspiration Corporation

ROUND 2: Roots vs. Branches

On behalf of Branches, Patrick Carberry shared a narrative prose poem. Fans of the Encyclopedia Show recognized Carberry as “Patrick the Intern.” In a way, Carberry is like Columbo. It’s easy to underestimate him. At Write Club, he shambled onto stage in his trademark suspenders and straw fedora, and botched his first game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, crying, “My hands were not ready!” He is the most lovable sort of manchild. Given his antics, the audience was set for light, breezy entertainment. What he delivered instead was a delicate and revealing poem that starts and ends at the spot where he watched his father “tie one end of a rope to a branch and the other to a tire,” from the time he was eight years old to the time of his future death. In his view, branches provide you with just what you need “when you know everything grows down and you want something to grow up.” Talking about the old tire swing at the end of his poem, Carberry said, “. . . it hung like something dead,” and something magical happened: one of his suspender straps slipped off his shoulder. It may seem like a small thing on paper, or on a computer screen, but in person it seemed like the planets had all aligned and were listening breathlessly to this man’s quiet acceptance of mortality. From the audience, Belknap couldn’t help but respond, saying, “Now that’s stagecraft.”

On behalf of Roots, Susan Karp did an impersonation of Alfre Woodard in A Mother’s Courage: The Mary Thomas Story. “You see this match?” she asked in an overly dramatic Southern accent. “One match is easy to break. But together we are strong.” Matches are to branches as matchboxes are to roots, I suppose. The connection was never made very clear and Karp herself admitted that she could have come up with a better analogy, that this one was based more on a “feeling” rather than any logical argument. But that’s part of her charm: despite the Lifetime-channel-spoofing theatrics, her reading seemed impromptu, as though she was as surprised by her own thought process as anyone else. During her seven minutes, roots and branches became increasingly anthropomorphized. Whereas “it’s in the very nature of branches to divide, to reach for the sun, to break because they’ve overextended themselves,” roots “strive to put dinner on the table . . . they live to serve, like butlers.” Karp also compared branches to TCBY yogurt, which, for some strange reason, caused some members of the audience to act as though they’d just won the Illinois Mega Millions Lotto.

Susan Karp for Roots
Proceeds go to Autism Home Support Services

ROUND 3: Order vs. Chaos

On behalf of Order, Ian Belknap presented a perfectly structured compare-and-contrast essay that could fit neatly into a t-chart — as much his modus operandi as it was an appropriate approach to the topic at hand. Belknap’s work is like an enormous skyscraper. Even though its steel skeleton is simple and apparent, you can’t help but marvel at its height and power. Perhaps it’s this rigid framework that allows him to be so playful with the language he places between the beams: “Order is a ladybug. Chaos is one of those gigantic centipedes with those sickening feathery legs that make you want to burn your house down and start over somewhere new. Order is table manners. Chaos is trying to eat soup on a fucking trampoline.” Given his instincts as a performer and his background in theater, Belknap could probably illicit a greater emotional response with a phone book than most readers could with Shakespeare. But he doesn’t rely solely on his stage presence, tone, timing, or body language. There is real substance in his writing — real anger, insight, hilarity, and lyricism. Consider his defense of Work in the September 2010 installment of Write Club:

Written transcript available here.

On behalf of Chaos, Don Hall gave Belknap a real run for his money. His essay was divided into eight sections of varying length, arbitrarily numbered. In one of these sections, he shared the story of a man who did everything he was supposed to do and was living the American dream until unforeseen expenses forced him to take out a mortgage on his house. The banks foreclosed on his property, his wife divorced him, he turned to alcohol and then lost his job. “Control is an illusion,” Hall said.  ”We build houses on fault lines and on beach fronts and then wonder what happened when nature decides to crush them or blow them away.  We place our faith in institutions that do not, cannot, have our interest in mind and blow a gasket when it becomes known that we were just grist for their particular profit driven mill.  We think that if we fall in line, keep our heads down, and live an orderly life that we’ll live forever and then chaos strikes and we can’t fathom it.” Although he describes himself on his website, AWG (“Angry White Guy”), as a “smartass” and “loudmouth,” Hall showed a great deal of restraint in this essay, allowing the weight of his subject to be felt without the distraction of a tantrum. It’s a good thing, too, in light of the fact that he makes reference to a gruesome real-life incident from the late 1990s, when a glass window fell out of the CNA building in downtown and decapitated a woman. “I wonder what her thoughts were in her final seconds. Death was instantaneous and she didn’t see it coming. I suspect, like most of us, she was worried about bills or petty slights at the office or the dishes that needed to be done. I suspect she was thinking about keeping her life in ORDER. Just like the rest of us.” This essay could be read in its entirety at

Ian Belknap for Order
Proceeds go to Open Books

Up Next: Write Club Does Halloween

After such an outstanding season premiere, we’re already looking forward to the next installment of Write Club. Billed as the “Super Scary Limited Halloween Edition,” Chapter 19 is set to take place on Tuesday, October 25, 2011 from 7pm to 8:30pm at the Hideout Inn. It will feature the following bouts:

Emily Rose vs. Samantha Irby

David Isaacson vs. Noelle Krimm

Ian Belknap vs. Whit Nelson




Down-to-Earth Verse

October 06, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Book Reviews, Poetry

a review of James Payne’s poetry collection, Austerity Pleasures

Aw, man! Poetry?! LAME.

Just kidding!

But seriously, poetry kinda sucks.

James Payne’s collection of poems, Austerity Pleasures, does not suck though. Before you start screaming, “BUT MASON THAT’S CRAZY,” just hear me out. And please, for the love of God, keep your finger away from the caps lock.

Payne’s poems have all the intellect many similar poetry and chapbook collections contain, the kind of intellect you find in books that may as well come with a required reading list of boring, old, dead dudes, but with more wit and honesty, and therefore, less douche-baggery. It’s really nice to see something so well put together that, at the same time, doesn’t take itself too seriously. And Austerity Pleasures, by the way, is in fact well put together. Literally. A well constructed, little chapbook that’s nice to hold in your hands.

The poems inside encompass that mid-twenties angst that all of us youths are getting sick of. They’re self aware enough to entertain you though, to pull you in, instead of doing the opposite. The book combines all those worries – petty and legitimate – that freeze your mind and turn you into an insomniac. “Poem For Sitting in Panera,”  for example, tackles the future. Throwing worries like “where will I be in fifteen years” into a loudspeaker that exaggerates them comically while, simultaneously, keeping that keen sense of anxiety they initially cause intact. It’s a nice duality.

“Our Rattails” does the opposite, focusing on a better past:

Make my hair
back to when you were punk.
we had rattails, sure
things were fun.

Yeah, everything was fun, but if you read the rest of the poem, you’ll find a subtle undertone of what it’s like to look back: like the bad aftertaste of a great meal. It’s kind of pathetic. And depressing. That’s the impression I got, at least. Buy the damn book to read the whole poem and tell me if I’m wrong.

Many of James’ poems are quite small, practically one liners. He really excels here.  “Books of Love” examines a myriad of things (dating, pleasure, money, class…) in just two sentences. Also, it’s funny.

As a whole, much of Austerity Pleasures feels like it specifically rebels against pretension.  Against the significant others and peers in our lives that measure a person’s worth by the amount of books they’ve read and how smart they sound when they speak about them. Sometimes this rebellion is subtle, other times blatant, but always well written.

Regardless of the writing, battling pretentious jag-offs and heart-breakers is something I can get on board with – especially when it’s funny.

Austerity Pleasures is out from Monster House Press. Check out what James Payne himself has to say at

Mason Johnson and James Payne