Literary Chicago


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.


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.

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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?”


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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