More of Day 2 Chicago

There’s sunlight frosted in smog, a horn honking approximately once every minute, and from this eagle’s perch overlooking Grant Park and Lake Michigan, it feels as though I should be looking for something to happen. After showering in the floor-to-ceiling marble bathroom and drying off with a towel that is—behold—large enough for the human figure, I prepare for my day and hop onto the elevator.

The Poetry Foundation has formed some connection with the Hilton for this weekend, and every time you step into an elevator a poem is read over the speakers and a small television (yes, in the elevator) displays an animated interpretation of the words. We’re sinking down, down to the Lobby, squeezed in with so many black suits and white nametags but there is Roberty Hayden loud and clear, his voice filling the brass walls of our tiny elevator ship with his famous dirge: “What did I know? What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices…”

The park at this early hour is nearly abandoned. I walk for almost half and hour and only see a few others crossing the grass. All other pedestrians are making their morning commute with no time to stop and roam the grounds or sidle through the public art. It’s a balmy 32 degrees, warm compared to my last two weeks on the mountain, and I’m filled with a notion that yes, I could live in a city. I wonder – how long would it take before I started to become irritated by the lack of personal space? Would I, too, push and shove on the L, up escalators, into elevators? Would I stop smiling at strangers in the street? Take caution on late night walks (or worse, skip them altogether)? Would it be harder to find the silence when the world around me sounded so loud?

The morning muse takes her leave and I hustle back into the Hilton for the start of another jam packed day of sessions. Picking up from yesterday, however, here goes another marathon of reporting. If you’re not interested in reading about the craft, you’ll probably want to stop here.

R130. Hip-hop and the Future of the Black Writer. (Jessica Young, Avery R. Young, Toni Asante Lightfoot, Tacuma Roeback, Alexis Pride, Cynthium Johnson-Woodfolk) If hip-hop is a way artists reach young people to influence thinking, what is to become of the black writer? Must we all turn ourselves into Li’l Kim and 50 Cent, or are we free to further the legacies of James Baldwin, Phyllis Wheatley, and Toni Morrison? This panel seeks to answer these and other questions. Writers, musicians, and hip-hop artists will discuss the role of hip-hop in our current popular culture, and how it affects the craft and identity of the contemporary black writer.

This panel focused more on teaching than I thought it would, but being in the roughly 10% of white people in the room of a few hundred, they could have talked about anything and I would have stayed all day. Damn, do I need more diversity in my life. One speaker made a call for local bookstores and chains to rearrange the black literature sections of their stores. Hip hop is an extension of the discourses we see on these shelves, he argued, and it is just as rich. It relates to place, culture, condition, the economy, etc.

The next speaker began singing two lines from a gospel. The room feel silent save a few hollers and amen’s. Then she spoke the same lines she had just sung. Then she repeated the lines with inflection, as if in verse. Then she rapped the same lines. “It’s not what you say,” she said, “but how you say it.” She went on to explain that every subject in the classroom can be taught with the hip hop sensibility and if your students learn best in that way, it is your duty as a teacher to “teach every last son of a bitch in there.” “I teach science as a metaphor, for instance. The breaking point of metal is the moral breaking point of science. If you break your mettle, you break your morals.”

The third speaker announced, “I will speak to you in two ways so that everyone can understand.” Then she approached the podium and read from a prepared academic speech on the subject. But as the speech went on, her language morphed until she was rapping the conclusion of her essay into the mic, singing and stomping her feet. After much applause, she continued speaking: “To teach hip hop is to teach our children how to live,” she said. “When we here a child say ‘I hate my goddamned mother and I hate my goddammed father,’ what are we going to say to that child? If we listen, we may just save a life.”

The conclusion of the panel was that hip hop has an amazing ability to both mirror contemporary life and flip the conventional on its head, and its power lies in both.

R142. The City—Real and Imagined. (Reginald Gibbons, Stuart Dybek, Aleksandar Hemon, John Keene, Alex Kotlowitz) Poe, Baudelaire, Bruno Schulz, Proust, Calvino, Ellison, Grace Paley, Toni Morrison, and many others see in cities both human encounter and anonymity, both gritty realities and fantastical but emotionally true impossibilities. In fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, this panel has written about Chicago, Houston, St. Louis, and Sarajevo and will discuss ghost cityscapes, fleeting human life amidst historical urban spaces, and the city and literary form.

Stuart Dybek spoke first on this panel, and he is the author of a chapter titled “We Didn’t” in the novel I Sailed With Magellan. “We Didn’t” is on my all time top ten list of favorite lyric pieces of writing. It was a pleasure to finally meet him and hear him speak. He said that when we write about cities, we really write about the neighborhoods within them and use the city as an excuse to explore the urban landscape both physically and metaphorically. “My allegiance is to the imagination so I write fiction first,” he said. “When I write about the city, I am writing about excavation. If a character is standing on a street, it’s a multi-level street.” Dybek writes in a sort of urban animism, evoking a city of gods to recreate mythological categories within the urban landscape. Cities provide excellent physical settings in terms of their machinery, too: viaducts and bridges and construction sites and sewer systems and abandoned lots and haunted buildings. “By definition, a writer of place is a haunted writer.”

The second speaker noted that we can use cities to tell non-linear stories because of their multi-level landscapes. There is no single point of view that must be used to tell a story of a city or a story in a city. A city is multi-faceted and many-voiced. You can enter a city from any point, any artery, and so a story with a city as central can be entered from any point as well.

The third speaker talked about the spacial features of the city as a chance for a writer to present simultaneous experiences within a single story. How do the social relations of a city’s inhabitants show up on the physical landscape of the city itself? And vice versa?

The fourth speaker said that the city has all the fissures of society and it is a place where all the extremes can mingle and play off of each other. It is a stew of contradictions, the best and the worst, and often the richest stories come from not the people who leave the city, but from those who have stayed behind. “The city is a product of man’s endless war against himself,” (Augden?).

The final speaker focused on the richness of a city’s own life and history. Writers can use the history of even a single building as metaphor or foundation for a story. We can employ characters who were alive during times that the novel or story does not take place in, yet those characters can offer the richness of history through their experiences in that city, for instance.

R168. Must a Memoir Read Like a Novel? (Thomas Larson, Bob Shacochis, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Dale Rigby, Robert Root) We all know good narrative memoirs: Angela’s Ashes, The Glass Castle, Cherry. But what about all the memoirs that don’t fit the definition of a strict story-centered form? Books like The Year of Magical Thinking, The Elusive Embrace, The Story of My Father. Is it important that the memoir be classified as a nonfiction narrative? Can it be more and, if so, what do we call it? How do we help our students do more with their writing than merely “applying” fictional techniques to nonfiction narrative? What sorts of hybrids or new imaginative creations—forms like the braided, the essayistic, the historical, the witness, the meditative memoir, not to mention new video, audio, and graphic forms of life writing—are memoirists exploring? This panel of writers and critics will explore the world that includes and goes beyond the narrative memoir.

If the memoir must read like a novel, it is only because the market is determining it as such. When we say novel, most of us mean a straight ahead narrative. However, some of the most famous novels of our time have narrators who have become, as Vonnegut wrote, “unstuck in time.” Other forms, such as lyrical novels, transcend the temporal and seek to combine people and the world in a strangely inward and subjective manner.

Panelists suggested reading Autobiography of a Face, an essayistic memoir. Also, see Sue Silverman’s essay “The Meandering River” in The Writer’s Chronicle, read Phillip Lopate’s latest essay in 4th Genre, Eileen Pollack’s “Interplay of Form and Content,” Phillip Gerard’s craft essays, Pegg Schumacher’s craft essay in Brevity, and more. Of course, there is Dinty W. Moore’s lyric memoir, Between Panic and Desire, Spiegleman’s graphic novel (really a graphic memoir) called Maus, A Family of Strangers, Green Alaska, The Last True Story I’ll Ever Tell, and Lia Purpura’s book written like journal entries.

Memoir is blessing us with a new sensitivity to formlessness. Writers should enjoy this unique period in our literary history where the genre is resisting definition, and write our hearts out while we can.

R183. Editing—The Business of Writing. (Anthony Caleshu, Jeanne Leiby, Mark Drew, Mindy Wilson, Christopher Chambers) This event brings together five editors of esteemed literary journals: The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Gettysburg Review, New Orleans Review, and Short Fiction. All editors are former editors of Black Warrior Review and will discuss how their editorial practice has developed over the past ten years. Of interest to fellow editors and writers alike, topics will include the “business” of editing, editor/writer relations, the selection process, and the future of the literary journal.

I’ve received rejection letters from over half the panelists. This room was so packed that people had to sit behind the panelists. It was absolutely informative to me, as a young editor of two literary journals. The most useful quote came from Jeanne Leiby, who I am now uber curious about what makes her tick. She said: “You evolve with your slushpile.”

That, my friends, sums up THURSDAY’S event. Whew!

Showing 2 comments
  • Anonymous

    About “Hip Hop and the Future…” – I read a fascinating article this week, actually a lecture given by the amazing Zadie Smith, that somewhat relates to your synopsis on the Hip Hop talk. It’s about an individual’s many voices, shaped by their life’s experiences, and a reflection on Obama’s voices. And so much more… check it out:


  • Jeanne Leiby


    What makes me tick? Batteries.

    Thanks for coming to the panels. You have a very nice blog here. Keep it up.

    All best,

    Jeanne Leiby

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