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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




A Time for Laughter

August 03, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Funny Ha-Ha Presents: “Hot Stuff” at the Hideout

Photos courtesy of Danette Chavez, staff photographer.

Someone once said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Depending on who you ask, it might have been Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Carol Burnett, or someone else altogether. “Tragedy” might be a strong word to describe the subjects of tonight’s readings at this installment of Funny Ha-Ha, but they were all certainly preoccupied with time—the test of time, time gone by, time wasted, and time spent peeing on an African man’s face. You know, stuff we could all relate to. The event is hosted, as always, by WBEZ blogger and TV critic for the LA Times and the A.V. Club Claire Zulkey, who is quick to turn the spotlight over to each of the funny people in tonight’s lineup.

Comedy Central’s Indecision blogger Dennis DiClaudio shares two pieces, one a relatively serious exhortation that you “Do Not Bring a Tree Into the House” and the other a series of brief open letters from the DiClaudio of today, or “Nowadays Me,” to his former selves. The advice he repeats three times, to three of his younger selves, seems personally relevant to many in the audience: “Look, I know this girl broke your heart. I know you thought she was the one . . .” The advice he gives to the DiClaudio of the year 2000 seems even more so: “Do NOT vote for Ralph Nader.”

“Ask Amy” columnist Amy Dickinson talks about how she “became an icon.” After the death of Ann Landers, she knew the Chicago Tribune would be on the lookout for a new advice columnist. Knowing that her New England background would be a liability in applying for this job, she decided to emulate one of our local celebrities, Bonnie Hunt. “I was going to have to be Judge Judy on the page and Bonnie Hunt in real life.” Her plan worked. She hit one major snag along the way, though: during the singing of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” which was supposed to be her grand coming out, her “Sally Field moment,” she neglected to replace “root, root, root for the home team” with “root, root, root for the Cubbies,” and consequently suffered the venomous scorn of loyal Cubs fans throughout the city. Having long since overcome that major stumbling block, though, she can now laugh at it and wear the Cubs jersey that she earned from the debacle with pride.

Write Club “Overlord” Ian Belknap pretends that being one of the most adored personalities in the Chicago literary scene detracts from, rather than adds to, his sex appeal. In characteristically histrionic tones, he bemoans his fate, saying, “I am a formerly attractive man.” We’re supposed to believe that when he worked minimum-wage-paying jobs, when he couldn’t bring himself to approach a cougar who’s into him, and when he cheated girlfriends out of money so that he could buy pot and liquor—that was the peak of his hotness. But now that he’s a master of both page and stage, a responsible breadwinner, and a husband and father—he’s unattractive. “Look at me,” he says. “I’m horrible. I should work in a dungeon or under a bridge. I should only hang out with moles and cave salamanders – the kind that have evolved to be eyeless and translucent.” Right. The only real evidence Belknap has to prove that he was once more attractive than he is now is that Uma Thurman once had a crush on him and, for obvious reasons, that evidence is suspect. He means well, I’m sure, telling us all to “carpe the fucking diem.” But he needs to stop obsessing about how, in his view, his gut has become a “marsupial repository for [his] self-loathing,” the bags under his eyes are “satchels stuffed with [his] thwarted ambitions,” and his double chin is a “pelican pouch of [his] poor choices.” He needs to get it together and prepare to be the “Minister of Veracity” for tomorrow’s Encyclopedia Show. I’ll be there with two more of his groupies—because, apparently, formerly attractive men have groupies nowadays.

Unlike Belknap, Bearded comedian (as he’s billed) James Fritz doesn’t claim to be unattractive, only angry, sad, and short. Because of his beard, build, and the sadness, some call him “Zach Galifian-sadness.” He traces back his emotional problems to his parents, saying, “A lot of people stay together for their kids. My parents are staying together for Jesus. And he’s never going away to college.” In describing their marriage, he tells us about how, once, when his mother was taking longer in the bathroom than a good Christian woman should, his father punched a hole through the bathroom door. Instead of replacing the door, his mom covered it with a pretty piece of fabric. That “hate doily,” he says, is “the perfect metaphor for a Christian marriage.”

Jezebel blogger Erin Gloria Ryan is the only one of tonight’s readers who doesn’t dig too far into the past. Her piece is about the last four years of her life, years spent working a job she hates for a company she hates. She started out with a number of various positions before she settled on being a receptionist. “I’m a corporate geisha,” she says, “a captive lady audience.” She copes with the trials and tribulations of what she calls the “stress-terarium” by taking numerous bathroom and vending machine breaks, fantasizing about quitting with a sheet cake that reads “Fuck all y’all motherfuckers,” and gathering observations to share at readings like this one. Among the characters she encounters in her “conversational cage” are Republicans who “say that Obama wants to raise the debt ceiling to pay for ‘illegals’ to have abortions,” and Mitzy, a corporate queen who “loves to see her stocks go up because that means they’re getting closer to Jesus.”

Filmmaker extraordinaire Joe Avella shares his campy movie, Chinese Star Cop, which is about a police officer who fails to bring his gun to the scene of a crime because he’s a Chinese star cop, not a gun cop. And he’s not even Chinese. Other, even shorter films are interspersed throughout this short film, including a commercial for the Chicago Park District that contains the line “ideal for soccer, jogging, and blood rituals,” and the saga of a guy who travels to Africa and drinks a bottle of AIDS in order to meet Bono.

Finally, we have Samantha Irby. It’s probably a good idea to save her for last. She’s a contributor to the Sunday Night Sex Show and the tag line for her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, is: “I write about tacos, hot dudes, garbage-ass dudes, sexy lesbians, good music, and diarrhea. And sometimes other stuff.” This is a woman who gets jaws to drop. Anyone who reads after her is pretty much guaranteed to sound like a prude, ridiculously tame. She opens with a warning: “White people, it’s okay to laugh at this piece.” Then she proceeds to explain the very complicated relationship she’s had with African men over the years—not African American men, but African men. They seem to love her. She represents the “endless bounty” to them. But it never works out. One of them will say to her, “In my country, I have much land and woman like you would bow to me.” And she’ll respond, “Well, in my country, you park cars and wash windows, and dude, you missed a spot.” Despite her vow, she once succumbed to the charms of a freakishly smart African who was educated in a Swiss boarding school. She calls him “Amistad.” This is where it gets, well, jaw-dropping. Turns out, the man was a piss fetishist. That, in and of itself, of course, is no real cause for gasps and shudders. (We’ve all read Savage Love, right?) It’s Irby’s absolute candidness in describing the details of her sexual experimentation that takes you by surprise. Her first real foray into “golden showers” was a violent, albeit consensual affair that took place in a bathtub. She ripped the shower curtains, shattered a bottle of shampoo, and cut her face on the faucet. “I didn’t even know black people did that shit. We’re always like, ‘That’s the kind of weird shit that white people do.’” This all leads up to a horrifying incident of “piss-snowballing” that you’ll have to seek out on Irby’s website, if you dare. I’m not one for spoilers.

A riot in her own right, Zulkey has done a fine job of bringing together an incredibly funny group of people. If only we were all so adept at mining our past for nuggets of comedy gold.


Orange Alert: Where’d the Readers Go?

July 24, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Reading Series

July 17th’s Orange Alert was a bit of a nightmare. For host Jason Brehends at least, after three of his five readers didn’t show up. This is enough to make anyone who plans a reading act like the priest from the beginning of The Exorcist. You know, the guy who jumps outta the window to impale himself on a spiked gate-thingy. I don’t care if you were busy at the casino, Lindsay Hunter. Just because you “felt in your loins” that the “God damn mother suckin’ coin-takin’ machine” was about to blow, that doesn’t mean you can miss a reading commitment. Nor do I care about the fact that you were gonna use your winnings to pay off those prostitutes you hired to pretend to be T-Boz and Chilli from TLC, all so you could pretend you were Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes. You didn’t even do anything kinky with those working gals. What a waste.

I think I got off track.

And I’m joking. Lindsay Hunter does not have a gambling or a hooker problem (she’s actually a pretty decent person) and she probably had a good excuse for not being there (because she’s a decent person, so go read Daddy’s). My point is this: it’s impressive that Jason soldiered on with only forty percent of his readers. Even more impressive: that forty percent made it a pretty fun night.

The first (or second-to-last) reader of the night was Steve Himmer, who read from his novel, The Bee-Loud Glade. The piece he read details a man recently unemployed, wasting away in his apartment, and not giving a shit—until he becomes a decorative hermit that is, living in the yard of a rich man who wants to live vicariously through him, as long as he’s in the safety of his own home. Nature is, after all, gross. We never got to the part where he was a decorative hermit though, but only slowly built to it. Part of me wished we’d heard a part of the piece where more was going on, after he’d gotten his job; a guy sitting around unemployed and uncaring doesn’t interest me too much. But, on the other hand, this section he read DID make me want to read more. It was clever and did move at a good, steady pace. So the fact that it made me wish we’d heard more is probably a good thing.

Jesús Ángel García was the second (or last) reader that night. He read from his novel, Bad Bad Bad, an interesting experience for everyone present. His work seems to be sex-focused. Now, you might be thinking, “but all writing is about sex somehow.” You clearly have a one track mind. Even if that is true, Jesús takes that idea and pushes it further. He offers the reader sex-filled stories, exploited in every way possible. Maybe we won’t “see” everything, but exaggerated gestures help move the story along while giving us good sights. Sometimes what he does with language is impressive, especially with dialogue. Other times it all seems too much, and I just think about the fact that my fourteen-year-old self would probably enjoy his stories more than twenty-something Mason (though little has changed). Regardless, he knows how to entertain, as shown by his second piece where he pulled a female audience member up in front of the stage to read a passage from of one of his stories. This stranger from the crowd did a great job with Jesús’ sex driven material, putting on a fake accent and saying every lewd term with gusto. I could see this bit being less funny and more painfully awkward if a volunteer with less character (or more character?) and bravery did it. Thankfully, that night of Orange Alert offered up a great volunteer.

And I don’t just call her a great volunteer because she was my girlfriend.

One of the reasons I like to go to Orange Alert is that it’s exactly how I wouldn’t do a reading. Any readings I host, I want the stories to be quick and funny. I don’t need beautiful prose; I just need to be entertained. While Orange Alert definitely leaves room to be entertained, Jason also encourages his readers to pick longer pieces of work, pieces of novels, pieces that can stretch out a bit. Orange Alert is my monthly dose of medicine that forces me to slow down. Orange Alert may do something different than what I want from most readings, but it does it well, and I really appreciate that.

The cocktails at the Whistler ain’t all that bad either.

Orange Alert’s every third Sunday of the month. Check it out.


Religion with Nerves of Steel

July 06, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Patriotism, Reading Series, Religion

Lewis Ford draping a rattlesnake onto a member of his congregation (1945). Image taken from

It is the night of July 5th and we are toasting the birth of America. We are listening to gospel music while digging through our pockets for money to contribute to the circulating basket.

By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll  tell the story how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

But don’t worry. We haven’t joined the Tea Party or anything like that. (Sorry, Tia, my aggressively “born again” aunt.) We are at the Hungry Brain for So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?, the literary variety show which was originally conceived of by Todd Dills and others at The2ndhand, and it’s just the kind of religious experience we need. Series host Harold Ray is our kind of minister (he is played by Jacob Knabb, editor of Another Chicago Magazine). “We let you in for free,” he says, “because we’re low-rent like that. But we are trying to raise money for a projector so we can show pornographic images.” (That’s a joke, Tia. Well, sort of.)

Chicago Artist’s Resource (CAR) describes Harold as a “ruinous West Virginia janitor who secretly longs to become a famous country singer but who has no discernible talents other than the ability to drunkenly croon.” It also says that “he only hosts the show because he thinks it will lead to a record deal.” What it fails to mention is that he’s ferociously honest and immediately likeable. After a charming performance by folk rock band Good Evening that includes a fiddle, a ukulele, and tap dancing percussion, Harold introduces the first reader of the evening, James Kennedy, by saying, “I don’t know this motherfucker. But the last time I saw him, he was dressed like a wizard. So you can’t really respect him.”

Kennedy is the author of The Order of Odd-Fish, a hilarious, absurd, and challenging young adult fantasy novel about a 13-year-old girl who struggles against a horrifying destiny in a world where butlers are foppish talking cockroaches and an order of knights is wholly committed to the act of “dithering.” Part Monty Python and part Roald Dahl, it is the sort of book that can inspire in young and old alike both fits of laughter and deep philosophical thought. After taking the stage, Kennedy says, sheepishly, “I usually read at junior high schools, so this is a different vibe for me.” Then he launches into a surprisingly forceful and dynamic reading. It’s like he’s reading a bedtime story to a kid who got a concussion and therefore cannot be allowed to sleep. He is shouting and flailing his arms about. When one of his characters jumps out of a window, he leaps off the stage and into the audience. He’s talking about interplanetary olympics, a tear in a space suit, dragon wasps, and a vainglorious man by the name of Moot. “Does there exist a font noble enough to describe the history of the Moots?” he asks, in character. At one point, when he says, “Sweat gathers on your upper lip,” he actually approaches a member of the audience and wipes the sweat off the man’s upper lip.

By the time he’s finished, it seems Kennedy succeeds in earning a degree of respect from Harold. “Goddamn,” Harold declares. “Makes me wish I could read.”

Next up is Aaaaaaaaaaalice. That’s Alice with eleven A’s. Poet Jennifer Karmin is joined by two of her friends for an unrehearsed performance of her “text-sound epic.” She explains that it’s a sort of travelogue that starts in the United States, and then moves onto Asia and Russia. But as she and the women at her side each read from different parts of the collection, all at the same time, it’s not Rick Steves’ Europe that comes to mind but, rather, a play called Play by Samuel Beckett and a song called “The Murder Mystery” by the Velvet Underground. There is a lulling rhythm to the joint reading, almost like chanting. We can only catch certain words and phrases, those that are coincidentally spoken in unison or while the other readers are inhaling: “depending,” “waiting,” “we wish,” “bags look alike,” “a school house built in 1910,” “sometimes we go together.” Karmin leaves the stage on two separate occasions, marching to the rear of the space and back again, first yelling “Hello!” like she is lost, and then repeating, “practice, practice, practice.” We are made to feel like we ourselves are travelers in a distant land, grasping snippets of custom and conversation around us but unable to fully understand their significance. It is frustrating, unnerving, and fascinating, and just when we feel we cannot take anymore, Karmin says, “We reach the point where we understand a little,” and her performance is over.

Perhaps realizing that we need to recover from our poetry-induced jet lag, Harold takes a moment to sing Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” before he announces the next act, the Puterbaugh Sisters. Formally trained in “American improvisation,” the sisters start off by taking suggestions for songs from the audience; every single one of them leads to the refrain of Neil Diamond’s “Coming to America.” Not the whole song, just the refrain. Theirs is a comedy that combines old and new, sketch and stand-up, vaudeville and one-liners about oral sex. They sing an old-timey sounding jingle about The Container Store, talk about their upcoming “douchebags and casseroles” event, and explain that they are collecting scorpions so that they can drop them onto passersby from the rooftops of tall buildings just to be able to say, “Hey, guys, aren’t you glad it’s not raining scorpions every day?” They’re shameless flirts, too. One sister asks a member of the audience if she’s Native American, and when she says that yes, she is, the sister replies, “That is why I’ve been hearing your spirit guide telling me to go down on you.” They also perform 1940s film noir stars and 1950s B-horror movie actresses reacting to everyday questions like “Do you use Turbo Tax to do your taxes?” and improvise a song by Erykah Badu based on the audience suggestion of “Pants.” Someday, those pants are gonna get in your way . . . Back in the day, when I had some pants—gimme some pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants, pants . . .”

Michael Czyzniejewski has the difficult task of following the Puterbaugh Sisters. But he doesn’t seem too worried about it. He is the author of an eclectic collection of short stories called Elephants in Our Bedroom, which has been praised by Aimee Bender as being “both wry-funny and absurd-funny, plunging into the everyday and the outrageous.” From the way he’s flipping through his stack of papers, it seems as though he’s printed out a random set of his works and is only now deciding what he will be reading to us. “What do you like? Oprah? Do you like Oprah? Is she still here or did she leave Chicago once her show ended?” As it turns out, though, these aren’t random, unrelated pieces; they’re all parody monologues of celebrities. There’s Rod Blagojevich negotiating his first tattoo at Joliet State Prison (“A basic symbol would be nice, like a clover or a heart . . . an outline of the state would be good for irony . . .”), Mr. T selling male enhancement pills (“Send a message to your brain. Heart: send blood down south now!”), and Ann Landers warning that the use of Twitter is the primary cause of teenage pregnancy (“What’s next? What’s after teenage pregnancy? Yes, crack babies.”). He also explains the ten simple rules that allow David Yow of The Jesus Lizards to keep a smile on his face, one of which is to always be honest with people, even if it makes them hate you, because then “you’ll be able to call yourself a straight shooter.”

Finally we reach the “experimental freakout with extended kazoo patriotics” portion of the evening, performed by the Post-Revolutionary Let Downs. Harold Ray, who’s in the band, says that it “believes in following up the 4th of July with a certain reverence.” So it performs its rendition of By and By and Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, among others. He dares Weston Rose of Good Evening to return to the stage for an improvised piece of country gospel music set to passages of The Frugal Gourmet, asking for the first and only time this evening: “Do you have nerves of steel?” Rose accepts the challenge and The Frugal Gourmet has never sounded so cool. Appearing to be in his element, Harold says, “I know you northern socialists can appreciate the proletariat. It’s what led you not to vote in the last election.”

But wait, there’s more! Just when we think the evening has ended, Harold introduces “two random motherfuckers,” two men in tuxedos carrying a bugle bike horn and a silver flask. These two men look suspiciously like the Puterbaugh Sisters. One sits on the other’s lap and they do a live dummy bit, singing a mash-up that starts off with Judy Garland’s “Trolley Song” and Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell.” “We Googled what teens love these days and we found that they love mash-ups.” The last thing I remember about this installment of So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel? is the dudes who look like the Puterbaugh Sisters promoting their “orphan slinger,” a sling used to hurl chestnuts at orphans. “It says, ‘Hey orphans, you don’t have a lot of parents. But we sure have a lot of chestnuts.’” I remember that and also Harold Ray giving a shout-out to “Dangerous Dan, Bartender Man.” Hallelujah, this is how church should be.

Click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Related Blog Post
Spit is God’s Lube by Harold Ray, host of So You Think You Have Nerves of Steel?


Quickies! Says, “Good Riddance”

June 27, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: End of an Era, Reading Series

Let’s make this quick(ies), I got shit to do.

Heh, get it? Quickies. Like the reading series that just said goodbye to co-host Mary Hamilton cause that ho is moving to LA? Like the reading series I’m reviewing right now, at this very moment?

Oh, go to hell. Puns are cool.


Goodbyes can get awkward. They can be teary-eyed catastrophes where people turn into miserable, blubbering messes. If you’re a pussy, that is. Thankfully, Mary Hamilton ain’t no pussy. She’s one tough broad. She kept the waterworks at bay, which helped her last Chicago Quickies! stand out as something to remember (and not be embarrassed about).

Quickies!, the reading where participants must read their entire story in four minutes or less, had a few differences this time around. Firstly, Lindsay Hunter (1), Mary’s other half, had instructed all the writers involved to read something that had to do with Mary. The topics and themes were quite varied. Robbie Q. Telfer’s honored the Hamilton by speaking about Night Court’s Bull Shannon. (3) Most interesting was Jacob Knabb, who is typically loathed for singing at readings, I mean, really hated, but outdid himself with his extremely enjoyable rendition of Boys II Men’s “End of the Road” (4). What stood out most was Theo Huxtable (5), mentioned in practically every piece, exemplifying Mary’s apparent “perfect man.” (Dyslexic, but handsome, amirite? High five!)

The most entertaining parts of the night came from Mary Hamilton’s whistle (not a euphemism). Typically, whenever a reader hits the four minute mark, Mary blows a whistle to signify that they should get the hell away from the mic. Rules were different this night though. She was free to whistle whenever she wanted to. For example: through all of Patrick Somerville’s piece. I have no idea what it was about, but boy is he a tough li’l soldier for continuing through Mary’s sonic onslaught. Mostly the whistle was used to keep our emotions in check, lest we turn into a buncha fourteen-year-old girls leaking salty water from our eye sockets (Dave Snyder and I turned into fourteen year old girls once, it was awful). If Robyn Pennacchia tried to profess her love to Mary while she read, then she’d get the whistle to put her in place. If Lindsay started to read something she wrote that was actually somewhat sentimental, BAM, whistle. She should know better anyways. The whistle really exemplified what Mary Hamilton is to everyone: a chick who keeps everyone in line. And everyone lets her because everyone loves her. Without Mary Hamilton, where exactly will Chicago be? I don’t quite know, but it’s gonna be real damn depressing, that’s for sure. Thanks for leaving, Mary. You asshole. (6)


  1. Originally, I wrote “Lindsay Hamilton,” combining Lindsay Hunter
    and Mary Hamilton into one person. Big mistake, especially because
    this real life combination would be disastrous. Like the perfect
    serial killer. Our hobo population would disappear. I don’t care what
    you say about hobos, I like them.
  2. This comment has nothing to do with Mary (not everything’s about
    you, Hamilton), I just wanted to point out that footnotes really don’t
    work well in WordPress. Sorry.
  3. This guy! Ugh…
  4. Originally, I thought he had performed “I’ll Make Love To You,”
    which is another great B2Men song. I was wrong. Again. I was wrong a
    lot in this review. Also, Jacob’s real high point that night was when
    he and I picked up two glasses of beer, both from strangers, and drank
    them down. The story to that exists below in the comments section.
    Matt Rowan corrected my use of “peaked,” pointing out that I was
    looking for “piqued.” He’s peaked my interest in punching him in the
  5. I originally wrote “Huxely” instead of “Huxtable.” As if the
    handsome dyslexic were really a lame sci-fi writer who liked LSD.
  6. Nothing has been pointed out as incorrect in this paragraph… yet.
    Give it time I suppose. I think I learned something from writing this
    review. Mainly, writing a review of a reading two weeks after it
    happened, on your smart phone as you ride the train, is a bad idea.
    Especially when you were half sick / half tipsy at said reading,
    sitting in the back where you couldn’t see the readers and could only
    hear half of what they said. Whoops. Sorry for being a failure. <3


Related Posts
You Don’t Know How It Feels To Be Pulled Inside Out: An Ode To Bull Shannon
(story by Mary Hamilton published in PANK Magazine)
Reader Meet Author (interview with Mary Hamilton in What to Wear During an Orange Alert?)


Two Cookie Minimum (With No Maximum!)

June 14, 2011 By: Mason Johnson Category: Reading Series

Like Clark Kent, John Warzazek has an alter ego. Unlike Clark Kent, John doesn’t find his way into a phone booth to change costumes, or take his glasses on or off, or really do anything to disguise his true identity while acting as alter ego Johnny Misfit. He just kind of switches names at will, never bothering to protect his true identity from enemies that might hurt his family, which makes sense. I can’t see John having any enemies. He’s a nice guy, and what’s more, a decent host for the stomach-filling reading Two Cookie Minimum.

The first thing you should know about Two Cookie Minimum is that there are, in fact, cookies. Usually held in a bakery, they tend to be plentiful. June 7th’s reading took place at the Hungry Brain, a great bar for readings; the kind of place where people both listen attentively to stories, but also feel comfortable enough to playfully heckle anyone on stage, which is a nice combination. Plus, one of the bartenders, Dan, knows me by name now. A positive peak of alcoholism.

Mr. Misfit opened up the night by reading a piece he wrote that was both quick and clever. The story, about a man taking a good, ol’ fashioned poop, really showed how vulnerable we can be as human beings. (Not really, but it was funny.) This piece was a good start for the night, setting a tone of great stories from both zinesters and writers alike (as if a distinction needs to be made between the two). Georgi Johnston charmed the crowd next with her innocent act, claiming to have never done a reading before as she read a letter she “received” from a pen-pal who lives in a cave and is totally real. This was one of the high points of the night, watching as Georgi played with form and genuinely made everyone laugh. Another high point of the night was Chris Terry, who also made everyone laugh. Chris’ story, Hairzilla, took the audience on a trip through adolescence with a well written 2nd person narrator. The night continued to be a blast with Dave Snyder pondering about Jesus’ virgin birth as compared to a turkey, Behnam Riahi reading what one might describe as a shitty story (in a good, albeit disgusting, kinda way), Ben Spies not being afraid to end his story on a sad note, and Dave Roche entertaining us with his asides as much as he did with his piece (about Penguins!!!).

The part about Two Cookie that inspires me most, which John was nice enough to point out, is that it’s a combination of writers and zinesters. This wouldn’t seem significant, in that, well, a writer is a writer, except for the fact that all too often, especially in a city like Chicago, we tend to divide ourselves into as many groups as possible. Too many damn cliques. Which seems a bit off when you consider the fact that, despite the great amount of readings, writers are kind of a minority. While I like my friends, I get tired of going to readings and knowing the majority of everyone there. It’s nice to have events like Two Cookie Minimum where artists from circles I might not typically interact with show up. Makes me feel all good inside. Thanks, Johnny Misfit, for making me feel good inside.


Literary Death Match Returns to Chicago

June 08, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Hosts Todd Zuniga (foreground) and Dennis DiClaudio (background).

In April of 2010, I saw Todd Zuniga give a lecture on the future of publishing at Columbia College Chicago (see “How to Trick People into Reading”). The founding editor of a stylish, funny, and cutting-edge literary magazine called Opium, Zuniga was scheduled later that day to host an installment of his popular reading series, Literary Death Match. I’d never been, but I opted instead for an evening in front of my computer, writing about his lecture. I thought, I’ll catch Literary Death Match next time. Big mistake. Because Chicago shares Literary Death Match with 33 other cities around the world, including Beijing, Edinburgh, Paris, Dublin, and Amsterdam, it wouldn’t return to us until over a year later.

At long last, Zuniga is back at the Hide Out for Literary Death Match’s 152nd show. Sporting a black bow tie and a shiny, elaborately-patterned blazer, he stands beside his co-host, Comedy Central’s Dennis DiClaudio, and says apologetically, “We haven’t been in Chicago in fourteen months because you guys have the most amazing reading series in the world.” He has a point. Each of tonight’s contestants and judges has participated in one local reading series or another. In fact, Ian Belknap, tonight’s champion, has developed a degree of notoriety by regularly being the “Minister of Veracity” or “Fact Checker” at The Encyclopedia Show, the “Dean of Mean” at The Paper Machete, and “The Overlord” at Write Club – a series he himself created and hosts (see “Fighting Words at Write Club”). These excellent reading series are listed among others in Literary Chicago’s left-hand sidebar (see “A Year of Essay Fiesta” and “Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic”). Zuniga is right to suggest that we have not lacked for good literary entertainment and enlightenment in his show’s absence, but it’s still great to have it back.

Literary Death Match’s “about” page says that it “marries the literary and performative aspects of Def Poetry Jam, rapier-witted quips of American Idol’s judging (without any meanness), and the ridiculousness and hilarity of Double Dare.” Alan Black, author of Kick the Balls, calls it “the magic mushroom of Planet Lit,” and who among us on Planet Lit doesn’t need a good magic mushroom from time to time?

Judges from left to right: Steve Gadlin, Kate James, and Claire Zulkey.

Tonight, the magic mushroom consists of readings by Johanna Stein, Samantha Irby, Amy Guth, and the aforementioned Ian Belknap; and judging by Claire Zulkey, Kate James, and Steve Gadlin. Zuniga determines the order of readings by throwing “projectiles” into the audience (tiny rolled-up pieces of paper that resemble spit balls) and by flipping a toy gun. Following is an overview of each of the readings and highlights of the judging.

Round 1:

Johanna Stein versus Samantha Irby


After lamenting the fact that no school has invited her to give a commencement address to its graduates, JOHANNA STEIN cues the Pomp and Circumstance and delivers one to us, beginning by saying, “If I can impart one piece of advice to you, it is this: don’t be an asshole.” People who are assholes include those who ask, “So, what do you do?”  and Stein’s dog — who’s gay, in love with her husband, and hypercritical of her lovemaking. She ends her speech by flipping onto her back, legs in the air, and squealing, “We represent the lollipop guild!” (It totally makes sense in context.)


Claire Zulkey: I like the timeliness of Johanna’s piece. I went to a school full of assholes, so I appreciated that.

Kate James: You flipped and we saw nothing — except magic.

Steve Gadlin: Hearing you talk about assholes, all I felt was shame for me. But I liked that feeling.


Cheered on by fans of her blog, Bitches Gotta Eat, SAMANTHA IRBY explains why and how she wanted and then, subsequently, didn’t want to “fuck a midget.” “When I saw 5’2″, I thought, ‘Finally, my opportunity to legally fuck someone who’s not allowed to ride on a roller coaster . . . ‘I thought you’d be slimmer,’ he said. Yeah. The midget.” In the end, Irby decides that she can’t “in good conscience make love to a human the size of a My Buddy doll.” There isn’t a moment free of laughter throughout Irby’s entire reading.


Claire Zulkey: We knew right away that this was going to be about fucking a midget.

Kate James: I don’t know you, but I already like you. Based on what you said and based on the fact that someone back there is holding up a Bitches Gotta Eat sign.

Steve Gadlin: Roller coaster. There’s a vaudeville routine that sums this up for me: “Would you like a Hershey bar?” “Yes, I would like a Hershey bar.” “Well, I don’t have a Hershey bar.”

Samantha Irby

• • 

Round 2

Amy Guth versus Ian Belknap

Now a Chicago writer, AMY GUTH paints a vivid picture of herself as the cool New Yorker, unimpressed by celebrity sitings such as that of Cyd Charisse – until the day she spots Morrissey holding up a Squeeze album at a music store. “Let’s be very clear about this. I love The Smiths . . . I planned a couple of dates on my book tour around where Morrissey would be touring . . . Despite everything I’d been taught my entire life (about being a cool New Yorker), I wanted – nay, NEEDED, to talk to Morrissey.” While she may stand by her decision to approach him, she will forever regret her decision to “wing it.” Without a plan, she ended up holding her finger out to the Squeeze album “like E.T. reaching for Eliot” and making a sound “something between a pterodactyl and a horn.” Years later, an editor would deny her the opportunity to interview Morrissey because of this moment.

Claire Zulkey: I love stories about celebrity sitings. One time I got in line behind Jon Stewart in an airport McDonald’s, even though I didn’t want to buy anything.

Kate James: You’re a storyteller, not a performer . . . I love that you rested on Morrissey – that, of all people, it was him that made you lose your cool. This is a story your children will tell your grandchildren, and your grandchildren will say, “What’s a CD?”

Steve Gadlin: Who’s Cyd Charisse? Wonderful. Fifty percent of us had no fucking idea who you were talking about.

Entitled “My Persistent Difficulty in Obtaining Corporate Sponsorship,” IAN BELKNAP’S reading is an open letter to Nell Newman, daughter of late Hollywood legend, philanthropist, and organic foodstuff extraordinaire, Paul Newman. After requisite condolences, Belknap proposes that Newman’s Own Championship Cookies serve as sole corporate sponsor for his one-man show. In return, he will demonstrate his enthusiasm for their product by eating it on stage, then “pooping into a bowl,” then eating the resulting poop “while they’re still warm.” Because Nell’s father had “a real bug up his butt about helping sick kids,” Belknap also offers to fake the disease of her choice. “For a thousand bucks, I’ll throw up whenever you want.” His voice cracking wildly, he explains that such measures have become necessary for “hardworking Americans.” “I hate my job like syphilis . . . Every hour I don’t kill myself is a miracle.”


Claire Zulkey: Wow, Ian, you really took me on a journey tonight. Sometimes…I resented you. I don’t like thinking about eating poop. But I understand why you did that and there was not a word wasted. You talked a lot about cookies and that made me hungry.

Kate James: Big fan, first time caller. You are the most ridiculous person I know and I know a lot of people. I’m scared of you. I never know what to expect. When you started, I thought, “What is this about?” And then here we go, we’re shitting in a bowl. The levels are Escher-like. Lots of cookie imagery. Tonight we’ve had two celebrity encounters — our first two readings were sexy time and the second two were celebrity fucking.

Steve Gadlin: I’m surprised that cookies stand out for you two. Most of us will be haunted by the bowl of shit. That was beautiful . . . I just wish you send that letter to Nell Newman and that there will be a second piece about her response.

Ian Belknap

• • 


Samantha Irby versus Ian Belknap

In keeping with the series’ commitment to absurd physical contests that are only peripherally literary — or maybe, as Zuniga points out, “more literary than anything” — our finalists must face off in a game of Down with Book Burners! DiClaudio holds a small basketball hoop and Belknap and Irby throw as many crumpled-up photographs of known book burners into it as they can. In a 5-4 win, Belnap becomes the champion of the 152nd Literary Death Match by dunking a picture of Max Brod.

Ian Belknap

Let’s hope that the next Literary Death Match for Chicago is not fourteen months away. We need it about one-tenth as much as Amy Guth needs to talk to Morrissey, which is saying a lot.

Related Blog Posts
How to Trick People into Reading by Alba Machado
33 Cities and Counting by Todd Zuniga


Fighting Words at Write Club

May 18, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Photographs below courtesy of Danette Chavez

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. We are here at The Hideout for the three big fights of Write Club, Chapter 16. The place is packed. Clearly, previous audiences have honored the first rule of Write Club: those who attend Write Club must tell five to seven people about Write Club. If this keeps up, Ian Belknap, the host and “Overlord” of this “bare-knuckled lit” reading series will have to consider either taking its fights to another, larger venue, or amending the first rule of Write Club. The latter is unlikely, given Belknap’s penchant for rules. Since his first public match in January of 2010, when, at Prop Thtr, as part of Rhino Fest, he fought on behalf of Light in a match against fellow local writer Jenny Magnus (who represented Dark), he has come to insist that each bout conform to the following format: two opposing writers, two opposing ideas, seven minutes apiece, audience picks a winner, and winners compete for cash going to a charity of their choosing. With a large clock and bell to signal the end of each round, he begins the show by roaring, “ARE YOU READY TO WRITE CLUB?”


Life After the Creative Writing Program

April 22, 2011 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Mason Johnson

So you’ve earned a degree in Fiction Writing from Columbia College Chicago. Now what? If you’re Mason Johnson, you start your own monthly reading series which presents writing on a theme of your choice. You call this series Piss Fanatics in honor of an inside joke, and perhaps to signal your predilection for bawdy talk. You arrange for your series to take place in a tavern called Moe’s, a place that’s no stranger to off-color language, a place with a pool table and a foosball table, two widescreen TVs and, during your second event, a large brown rottweiler. This demonstrates your belief that writing should not be confined to academic settings, or to cafes, theaters, libraries and bookstores. You make the theme of your second reading “Hair,” which is only natural, since your own hair seems to have taken on a life of its own, much like David Axelrod’s mustache (as revealed by Dan Sinker in his legendary Rahm Emanual Twitter saga). Also: certain types of hair can make for an awful lot of bawdy talk. Finally, you gather together a group of talented Chicago writers: Mairead Case, founding editor of Proximity Magazine; Mary Hamilton, winner of Rose Metal Press’ 4th Annual Short Short Chapbook Contest; Matt Rowan, editor-in-chief of Untoward Magazine; Samantha Irby, author of the Bitches Gotta Eat blog; Ian Dick Jones, co-host of Columbia College’s SilverTongue reading series; Mark Schettler, co-editor of the School of the Art Institute’s In Preparation magazine; and Dan Shapiro, Columbia College student.

All graduates of creative writing programs should be as industrious as you, Mason Johnson. But they should not all have manga/anime hair.

Mairead Case

Related Blog Post
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A Year of Essay Fiesta

November 04, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

A staple of any good literary community is the reading series. If, as Tim Yelvington-Jones has suggested, “writers should be rock stars,” then the reading series is an opportunity for them to rock out, connect with readers, and celebrate the written–and spoken–word.

Luckily, there is no shortage of excellent reading series in Chicago. From simple and straightforward, author-with-book-in-hand readings to feisty debates and whimsical performances, there’s something for everyone who’s interested in expanding the literary experience beyond the book or screen.

Essay Fiesta is as good a place to start as any other. Bringing together some of Chicago’s top artistic talent, including comedians, playwrights, authors, and journalists, Essay Fiesta began at a dinner party when comedians Alyson Lyon and Keith Ecker decided that “Chicago needed a storytelling series that provided a platform for a cross-discipline of artists to share funny, poignant and thought-provoking stories from their lives.” It’s one of the Book Cellar’s most popular events, and although it’s free, it uses a raffle to raise money for the Howard Brown Health Center, a citywide community health organization that focuses on the GLBT community. In honor of the one-year anniversary that Essay Fiesta will be celebrating on November 15th, one of its co-founders, Keith Ecker, took time out of his busy life as comedian, theater critic, and freelance writer to answer some of Literary Chicago’s questions.

* * * * *

Why do you think Essay Fiesta is so popular?

In the age of social networking, a lot of interpersonal communication has become really detached. Instead of talking to our friends, we post something on their walls. Instead of sharing a story, we Tweet. Essay Fiesta gets back to the roots of what the social experience is all about. It allows people to connect in person through the sharing of personal stories. And no matter the content of the story, everyone can find something within the piece that speaks to them, which further fosters that social connection. 

How do you select your readers?

We accept submissions from anyone, regardless of experience or background. Prospective readers can e-mail us at We select readers based on who best fits the overall voice of our show. Usually that means someone who is able to temper the more somber, poignant moments of a story with humor. We also want readers to really read from the heart. By that I mean, we like personal stories that display some degree of vulnerability.

What are some of the highlights of your first year?

There are so many that it’s hard to pick a few. All the readers have been outstanding, and I’m so thrilled that so many wonderful, talented people have shared their stories in our forum. To pick out a few specifics, I’ve really enjoyed hearing the stories of former Neo-Futurist Andy Bayiates and stand-up comic Cameron Esposito. Both of them really know how to concoct that perfect mix of raw truth and humor. Oh, also I love that Alyson and I wrote a theme song that we play at the beginning of each show. It gives me a chance to show off my guitar skills.

In what ways would you like to see Essay Fiesta change or grow over time?

I’d like to start doing special events around the city and beyond. There’s a really wonderful scripted storytelling scene popping up on the North Side. It’d be nice to pool our talents and resources together to really create something. I’d also like to eventually add an outreach component. Essay Fiesta helped me realize that crafting a personal essay is really a form of self therapy. In fact, this form of writing has been proven to have positive psychological and physiological effects on those who suffer from stress and anxiety. I would love to teach others how to tell their own stories so that they can reap these benefits.

Are there any other reading series in Chicago that you would recommend to your fans?

Absolutely. Please check out This Much Is True at Hopleaf, Story Club at Uncommon Ground and Stories at the Store at The Store on Halsted.

What has EF done for you, Keith Ecker, personally and professionally?

Professionally, Essay Fiesta has given me a home in this city as an artist. I’m kind of a jack of all trades. I’ve been an improviser, a sketch comic and a stand-up comic. But writing has always been my passion. And in a city where it’s easy to get lost among the other many talented people, it’s nice to have carved out a niche for myself, one that can give back to the community in so many ways. We benefit Howard Brown Health Center (having raised nearly $1,500 since our inception), we are a platform for a variety of local artists and we get to entertain 50-60 people every month. All these positive things help me know I’m on the right path.

Personally, Essay Fiesta has made me a stronger, more confident writer. An artist’s worst enemy is always himself. Regardless of the discipline, we always seem to doubt whether we’re any good at what we’re doing, likely because there’s no real benchmark. If you’re in the corporate world, a salary or a job title helps tell you whether you’re “succeeding” or not. But if you’re a writer or a musician or a painter, there’s no real way of knowing. The feedback I have received from the audience and from my fellow artists has helped embolden me for sure. Also, my work ethic I’ve developed is amazing. I write several hours every day, whether it’s the freelance work I do to make money, a new essay or a random piece of comedy.

What do you and Alyson have planned for the big one-year anniversary celebration?

We have an all-star line-up. Stand-up comics Cameron Esposito and Beth Stelling, playwright Andy Bayiates, This Much Is True founder Deanna Moffitt and Stories at the Store producer Jen Bosworth will all be sharing some amazing pieces. Also, as always, we’re going to have a raffle. Prizes will include a $25 gift certificate to Threadless, a gift certificate to the Book Cellar and tickets to the Chicago Underground Showcase. As always, all money goes to benefit Howard Brown Health Center. Finally, we just found out that the Book Cellar will be offering a special promotion. For those that donate $10 to the raffle, you’ll get 10% off in-store purchases that night. $20 will get you 20% off and $30 will get you 30% off (that’s as high as they’re going). So it’s just an added incentive to come on out, hear some great stories and give to a very worthy cause.


Encyclopedia Show for the Metrophobic

August 22, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Reading Series

Dinosaur skeleton created by Rachel Claff.

While figuring out how best to present sixth graders with poems last year, I discovered that the fear of poetry had become so common that a medical term was coined for it by the American Psychiatric Association: metrophobia. Many people feel that you have to be highly educated to understand poetry and highly pretentious to appreciate it. Its themes seem too lofty, its language grandiose, its structure complex and confusing.

Tonight at the Vittum Theatre, it’s apparent that no one in Chicago need suffer from metrophobia any longer. It’s nothing a single treatment of The Encyclopedia Show can’t fix.

Robbie Q. Telfer and Shanny Jean Maney created this unique reading series only two years ago in response to the limitations of slam poetry competitions. In a recent issue of Time Out Chicago, Telfer tells Jonathan Messinger, “It’s exhausting to perform in a competition and be heckled by the audience and judged by other poets to maybe win $10. It’s a really finite goal. The slam is just this tiny speck in what you can do in spoken word, but for some reason it’s dominated the genre in terms of what you can do.” In addition to poetry, however, this variety extravaganza features spoken word in all forms, as well as music, visual arts, and pretty much anything else that makes artistic expression come alive on stage. Messinger calls it “the most artful sideshow in the city.”

Most nights, a number of artists from different disciplines will each contribute a short performance related to a particular theme. Together, these performances constitute a “verbal encyclopedia entry.” But because tonight’s show is an anthology that showcases the best of season 2, there are as many topics as there are performers.

"Cordyceps," program artwork created by Lana Crooks and Max Bare for the April 2010 theme of The Encyclopedia Show, Insects.

After the house band, The Encartagans, plays its rendition of the Laverne and Shirley theme song, Rachel Claff uses props such as inflatable palm trees, the Chicago Cubs and Bears logos, and empty McDonald’s fries containers to explain what she imagines is the story behind Sue, the largest dinosaur at the Field Museum, then attaches these props to a standing microphone so that it resembles a dinosaur’s skeleton (see photo at the top of this post). Lindsay Hunter shares a disturbing story about a woman who seems to relish both pregnancy and miscarriage. Jill Summers and Susie Kirkwood create the atmosphere of the planetarium with intricately detailed shadow puppets and a brief recorded lecture on Capricorns. Dan Sullivan and Tim Stafford tell the tale of how a “weird hippy Buddhist” pretended to see visions so that he could change the name of a hockey team from the Pirates to the Quakers, in the name of the “oatmeal god.” Joel Chmara explores the theme of obsolete diseases by parodying Trent Reznor, singing “You necrotize me!” in tattered fishnet stockings. Cin Salach inspires the audience to wander by sharing the story of the greatest female explorer of all time, a woman named Gergergerderbenyaht (spelling?!?). Amy Johnson presents the winners of the White Castle slider haiku competition, but not before she strikes a hefty blow against the fast food industry with her nauseating White Castle slider casserole recipe. Mike Argol plays guitar and harmonica in honor of the dung beetle, singing “I got a duty to doo / don’t be a snooty magoo” and explaining that “dung beetles are responsible for cleaning up 85 percent of cattle dung in the state of Texas.” Diana Slickman talks about how she (or the character she is portraying?) became a beauty queen simply by announcing herself to be one. And Roger Bonair-Agard reads his hilarious and powerful poem, “The Poetic Analysis of the Socio-Cultural Relevance of the Flea in the Classical Period through the Industrial Revolution.”

Throughout the show, Telfer and Maney provide entertaining commentary, and Ian Belknap, resident “Fact Checker,” interrupts to evaluate each encyclopedia entry’s factual accuracy, questioning, for example, the dinosaur’s skeletal structure and whether or not dung beetles actually clean up 85 percent of cattle dung in the state of Texas. Belknap also keeps a tally of Truths to Untruths on an old-fashioned blackboard. The final score is 27-11, Untruths. As you might imagine, that doesn’t bother either Telfer or Maney at all. According to The Encyclopedia Show’s website, it is their “ongoing mission to chafe against logic and proof, find meaning in obfuscation, and wrest truth from fact once and for all.” Not bad for $6. And since it’s an all-ages show, it can help even kids overcome metrophobia once and for all.

The next show will take place on Wednesday, September 1stat the Vittum Theatre. Its theme will be the Periodic Table of Elements and it will feature an interview with Sam Kean. Don’t miss it!

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The Power of Essays

May 19, 2010 By: Alba Machado Category: Essays, Reading Series

What kind of a fiesta is complete without a piñata? Without tequila, guacamole, and a mariachi band? An Essay Fiesta, that’s what kind. You might be skeptical, as I was, thinking that the name of this reading series is deceptively colorful packaging for what may turn out to be a dreadfully dull evening, a Tom Sawyer “look-how-fun-it-is-to-paint-a-fence” sort of thing. When I first heard about it, I was reminded of how the pastor of a local church used to invite members of his congregation over for “work parties,” the activities of which included vacuuming, mopping, and polishing furniture. He couldn’t have been fooling anyone. Contrary to these mockeries of pleasure and frivolity, the Essay Fiesta scheduled to take place at the Book Cellar at 7pm on the third Monday of every month is actually a lot of fun. According to its website, “Essay Fiesta’s mission is to bring together a cross-section of Chicago’s art and writing communities for a night of first-person, non-fiction essays and charity.” For those who insist on tequila for a proper fiesta, one of the wines or beers offered at the Book Cellar’s café would make a nice alternative. No luck on the guacamole, though.

Keith Ecker, one of the co-producers of Essay Fiesta, starts the night off with an unnamed essay about his quest to “become a free spirit.” A graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Ecker left the journalism industry when it “became a joke,” deciding to pursue comedy instead. Whether he was born funny or he was made funny by his tenure at the Second City, iO, the Annoyance Theatre, Armchair Showcase, or The Alliance’s “Gayrilla Warfare,” he doesn’t seem to have any trouble inducing roaring fits of laughter with his description of an outrageous hippie festival. In his essay, he tells us that someone who looked like “the Pringles man in drag” approached him at the festival and claimed to be ironic, and then, after a moment’s silence, explained that Ironic was actually his name. “In an act of conservative rebellion,” Ecker says, “I remain Keith.” Then there’s a giant disco ball effigy at camp fancy, a drink that tastes like “feet and mushrooms,” and a woman who is “hula hooping topless, her breasts jiggling like pudding cups.” (I want to be the kind of person who wants to be there!)

Next on the docket is Robbie Q. Telfer. Essay Fiesta’s website says he’s “not a guy you want to iambic pentameter with in a dark alley.” Aside from authoring a collection of poems called Spiking the Sucker Punch and placing in the top 10 at the National Poetry Slam, he is also the performance manager for Young Chicago Authors, organizer of Louder than a Bomb, and producer of the monthly Encyclopedia Show at the Chopin Theatre. Tonight he presents us with “Bear Baiting,” an essay about how the British got their kicks in the Early Modern Period by pitting bears against dogs and watching them destroy each other. According to Telfer, Parliament prohibited bear baiting on Sundays, not for any regard for the welfare of animals but, rather, because they disapproved of such enjoyable diversions on “the Lord’s day.” However, being an avid spectator of bear baiting, Queen Elizabeth lifted the ban and was consequently honored (or humiliated?) with one of the most hilarious titles ever: Master Bear Baiter. There is more to this essay, of course, and Telfer’s ear for poetry is apparent, but I am having a hard time getting past the fact that the man is capable of squeezing such hilarity out of a historical practice that I’ve always found to be so upsetting. Like water from a stone.


Mary Wagner is up next. She seems to have a bit of a thing for shoes. With essay collections entitled Running with Stilettos and Heck on Heels, I am expecting to find Carrie Bradshaw from Sex in the City—hair tousled, fabulous girlfriends in tow, and wallet stuffed with pictures of Manolo Blahniks. Instead, Wagner is casual in both attire and demeanor and has only one fabulous girlfriend in tow (as far as I can tell). She seems like an entirely down-to-earth Midwesterner. She reads to us from “Devil on Horseback,” an essay from her blog about when she encountered a novel she loved as a kid, a romantic mystery, and found herself absolutely appalled by it as an adult. Sigmund Freud’s essay, “The ‘Uncanny,’” comes to mind, the one in which he says that “the ‘uncanny’ is that class of the terrifying which leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar. How this is possible, in what circumstances the familiar can become uncanny and frightening, I shall show in what follows . . .” Similar phenomenon, I think, only where Freud illuminates it with doppelgangers and castration, Wagner uses a tawdry paperback romance. Pretty funny stuff.

As embarrassing as it might have been for Wagner to admit that she once enjoyed the kind of books that have Fabio on their covers, the night really starts to feel like a confessional when Dina Connolly of Neo-Futurist fame takes the microphone. She says, “Elementary school found me on Facebook,” and then goes on to describe her experience of returning home for her elementary school reunion—uncanny, indeed. I was particularly excited to hear Connolly’s essay because, like me, she is from the southwest side of Chicago, a place that is painfully lacking in bookstores, museums, galleries, theaters, and other cultural havens. (No more strip malls, please.) She could complain, but she doesn’t. At least not now. She’s too busy recalling other, more universal coming-of-age trials and tribulations. She’s remembering her childhood tormentor, Freddie Vasquez, and the way he’d make fun of her overbite by impersonating a beaver. For me, the highlight of the evening is when Wagner pumps herself up for the big reunion by recounting her accomplishments to an imaginary Freddie Vasquez, accomplishments which include a role in Oceans Eleven—“I’m still getting paid, bitch!” She seems all the more powerful and commanding for her vulnerability.

Adam Guerino also tells a sad tale in a way that makes us all laugh. Although he’s now a stand-up comic, as well as the producer of an art expo called Art Haus and a variety show called Nightcaps, he was once homeless. He talks about this experience as casually as he might a trip to the supermarket. By laying it out there early in the reading and saying, simply, that he slept on a beach, he seems to be suggesting that he might be joking, or exaggerating, that perhaps he wasn’t really homeless homeless, but maybe an overzealous surfing fanatic with a cool thatched-roof hut like in Gidget. When he was in third grade, he had a teacher, “Mrs. V,” who would read his class survival strategy guides. He’d take careful notes on how to “look for water under rocks at night.” Later, he would wonder why Mrs. V didn’t offer more useful advice, such as “How Not to Get Pregnant When You’re Thirteen” or “The Dangers of Inbreeding.” And even more later, he would wonder why she couldn’t prepare him for homelessness. “Waking up on the beach is much less romantic than you might think,” Guerino says. Even so, his essay is far more comedy than it is tragedy, filled with hilarious quips and descriptions, like when he shares the memory of waking up covered in crabs. “These weren’t the kind of crabs that lived on your crotch. I’d prefer those.” He even manages to squeeze in one final laugh after he’s finished reading; when an audience member asks him if he’s still homeless, he says without missing a beat, “No, but I still poop outside.”

Unfortunately, I have to leave before the final essayist gets to read. (Other obligations.) I am sorry to have to miss Alyson Lyon, the actress, musician, and writer. But I’m glad that she’s the co-producer of Essay Fiesta because that means that another chance to see her will come around in only a month.

For now, I’m happy to have been inspired by a group of incredibly reflective people. I want to go home and write about my own childhood bullies and embarrassing childhood favorites. I want to seek out euphemisms in history books, find the Pringles man in drag and drink peyote just so I can write about these things. And I even want to try and see if I can find the humor in my own painful memories. After all, as Socrates said all those many years ago, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” It’s good to be reminded of the power of essays.