Last November, Gretchen Kalwinski and Eugenia Williamson were among a crowd of local writers and editors bundled into the California Clipper for the Guild Complex's monthly Palabra Pura event. On the bill were poets Ada Limon and Jorge Sanchez, but for many the real draw was New Yorker writer Dana Goodyear, in town to research a piece on the Poetry Foundation and its new president, John Barr. "It was a bit sad," says Kalwinski, 31. "Everyone was lurking around, trying to get a chance to talk to her." Williamson, 27 and fresh out of the University of Chicago's Master of Arts Program in the Humanities, puts a more theoretical spin on things. "It was almost Lacanian--it was like, 'Look at me! If the eyes of the New Yorker do not validate me, I do not exist.'"
Kalwinski says she started thinking: "If people felt like their own experience was being validated--if they felt more like they were getting attention and had a thing of their own--then they wouldn't need to be validated by someone from New York, because they would have confidence in their own scene."
The two women talk about validation a lot. As writers and editors, between the two of them they've worked at or freelanced for more Chicago literary organizations and publications than you can shake a mouse at, including the University of Chicago Press, the Newberry Library, the American Library Association, the Tribune, the Reader, Time Out Chicago, Stop Smiling, and Venus Zine; currently Kalwinski handles permissions part-time for the Poetry Foundation. They belong to a writers' group that includes fiction writer Patrick Somerville (profiled in the Reader last fall) and TOC books editor Jonathan Messinger, who also runs the Dollar Store reading series. Both women say they attend anywhere from three to eight literary events a month. But despite, or perhaps because of, their connections and broad experience, they think Chicago doesn't get enough respect. Not enough authors stop here on tour--and if they do, not that many people show up to see them. All the elite publishing jobs are in New York, and Williamson (who's working on a book project) says she and her peers feel constant pressure to move. "I was out to dinner with Gary Shteyngart about a year ago," she says, "and he told me I needed to move to New York because 'all writers' live in New York." This despite the fact that he'd been hanging out with Jeffrey Eugenides and Aleksandar Hemon the night before.
Kalwinski and Williamson are hoping their new Web site, Literago (literago.org), will be one small force for change. After the Guild Complex event, Kalwinski thought about starting a blog devoted to reviews of readings (documentation is another word she comes back to repeatedly). One night in February, on the way home from their writers' group, she and Williamson, who'd been thinking about a literary site of her own, decided to partner up to prove to the world that "Chicago isn't an illiterate sinkhole."
That statement may speak more to internalized second city-ism than to any real crisis. Writers of national and international prominence call Chicago home, and multiple writing programs churn out scads of new scribes every year. Chicago's hardly some culture-starved cow town. (And with the eyes of the New Yorker focused on entities like the Poetry Foundation, one of the largest and wealthiest private literary organizations in the world, Chicago's not being ignored, even if Goodyear's article was less than flattering.) But it's true that Chicago doesn't have the professional infrastructure of New York, so community-building efforts always seem to have legs. Take, for instance, the inaugural Printers' Ball at HotHouse in 2005--this mixer for local publishing types drew 800 and left a line of would-be community members outside in the cold for hours. Last year's, at the Double Door, drew just under 1,000. People who spend lots of time alone, staring at pages of text, are primed for face time and, yes, validation.
With the help of some design- and coding-savvy friends, Literago went from concept to reality in three whirlwind months. A clearinghouse for information on local lit, with listings highlights and a comprehensive calendar, commentary, a blog, and archived reviews of readings, it had a soft launch in early May. The initial response was positive and a little overwhelming: independent publications around town have offered support and free advertising and Literago has been tapped by organizer Fred Sasaki to manage this year's Printers' Ball (July 20, at the Zhou B. Arts Center). "We're having trouble keeping up with our own pace," says Kalwinski.
The site launched formally this week and will celebrate with a party on June 22. The next challenge is figuring out how to grow beyond the natural audience of Kalwinski and Williamson's friends and peers; so far their promotional strategy is a MySpace page. "I would love it if this was a self-sustaining entity," says Williamson, "if we could take a curatorial role and other people could contribute--not to shirk the work but to truly reflect the community."
That community is decidedly diverse, encompassing old-guard Goliaths like the University of Chicago Press, local stalwarts like Third World Press, and indie success stories like Bookslut.com. But Kalwinski and Williamson say it can also be frustratingly insular, even forbidding, to outsiders. Their prime objectives are to provide informed guidance to the local scene, encouraging readers to go out who wouldn't ordinarily hit a reading at Barbara's, let alone Danny's or the Charleston, and to foster pride of place through features like a Literago discussion board (still in the works). "We want to take something that seems inaccessible and boys-clubby and sceney and open it up to the world," says Kalwinski. "One of my friends called the Chicago lit scene a giant circle jerk," adds Williamson. "I don't want to contribute to that."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Gretchen Kalwinski and Eugenia Williamson photo by Robert Drea.