Guild Literary Complex

We look at literary culture
and ask - what’s missing?

New posts on the way!

Hello. It’s been a spell. We are currently blogging on our sister site: Pop over and check out the stories from six writers attending an international festival on literature and freedom of expression.

The Project

Greetings, Guild followers.

Since 2012, the Guild Literary Complex has been working on a project to raise awareness of the trials and tribulations faced by exiled authors.

Today, we hear constantly about journalists being persecuted (and often tortured and executed) by governments—both their own and those foreign to them. However, writers of all genres—poets, fiction writers, comic artists—face these threats every day. 

In 2014, the Guild received funds from the MacArthur Foundation International Connections Fund to bring Manal Al-Sheik and Mazen Maarouf to Chicago for our Voices of Protest event. These are two persecuted writers whom have sought refuge through the incredible efforts of the International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN), who work tirelessly to ensure that persecuted writers might seek asylum in other countries. Al-Sheik and Maarouf are just two of many who are able to establish residency and receive a small living stipend to help them continue their work.

The Guild believes endlessly in the power of literature: To raise awareness of pressing issues, question existing power structures, and provide space for criticality. This is only possible when individuals and organizations work together to ensure the freedom of speech is preserved and cherished as a human right. 

The six writers whose voices you will read in the upcoming weeks have, within their own individual practices, addressed issues of race, gender, immigration, politics, women’s issues, and other topics that have helped to give voices to previously-unheard communities and ask crucial questions about society at-large. 

We welcome your comments throughout their journey to Norway; most will post daily on their experiences at this conference. We hope they will bring their experiences back to help achieve our ultimate goal: To make Chicago a City of Refuge, enabling persecuted writers to live, work, and change the world in the the Windy City.

Little Versus Big (or, What’s The Big Idea, Anyway), by John Rich

All kinds of adages exist about this binary opposition, but why the fuss? Can’t a little thing also be a big thing?

Start with a small idea, something that you really like or are genuinely curious about. And then tend to it. Or as I tell my students, pursue it.

I began thinking about the little things earlier this week, probably because of how much I’ve been missing the early morning light. People say little things matter. Or the simple things, like the taste of a tomato straight off the plant, the easy laughter of a child, crisp autumn air, family, or health. We all have our lists.

At the same time, the world is inherently complex. It can bear big ideas. And it needs them. But good ideas don’t have to start big. Small ideas, if well tended, can expand their best intentions.

Today I am having conversations with two people I’ve never met: Susan Harris from Words Without Borders, and Helge Lunde from International Cities of Refuge Network (ICORN). We are coming together because of a small idea about screening documentary films in Chicago.

The films are part of Poets of Protest, a series of short, artful documentaries about six Middle Eastern authors whose work has had significant cultural impact in their countries.

It was Narimon Safavi who first introduced the films to Guild president Mike Puican. The initial dreaming was simply, Can we present these films in Chicago, and maybe have the poets attend? The first part was easy. Facets Multimedia agreed to show the films, and Al Jazeera, the producer of the series, agreed to provide copies for the screenings. The rest required more work, more dreaming, and patience.

In dreams, the narratives don’t always make sense. We drift through landscapes and among people that may be simultaneously familiar and strange, at times linked and unlinked from what we know (or think we know). I’m no dream expert, but there seems to be a quality of searching present in most tales of dreaming, a pursuing of something that matters. Or that is a way to interpret it. When we awake, meaning is attached to symbols, but pursuit remains tied to the dream narrative. What are we chasing? What’s the big idea?

For the Guild’s 2014-2015 project Voices of Protest*, it wasn’t enough to screen the films. We wanted the poets in Chicago, to have their live voice in the room, to build dialogue. This had immediate obstacles, but we pursued the possibility and invited three of the poets. Only two were able to accept our offer, and then the work of finding the means to make it happen began in earnest. We drifted through scenarios, talked to funders, and continued to learn about the poets. In the cases of Manal al Sheikh and Mazen Maarouf, their writings forced them into exile. (Confronted by this reality, I am reminded how people—myself included—take small things for granted: words, poetry, stories, home.)

By the process of drifting (call it research), that wandering for a narrative fix, it was discovered both poets had been supported by ICORN, an organization committed to aiding authors facing political persecution in their home countries. After more research and an exchange with Manal al Sheikh, I wrote to Helge Lunde, Executive Director of ICORN to discuss a partnership. He was immediately supportive of the project, which had evolved to include not only the visit to Chicago by Manal and Mazen, but also a trip by Chicago authors to Norway, where ICORN is currently based, for an international conference on literature and freedom of speech.

It was this version of the project that ultimately received funding from the MacArthur Foundation. An international exchange with many angles: contemporary Middle Eastern poetry, protest, suppression of speech, exile, words bearing witness, and words as agents of change.

The project has also grown to have many goals: increase awareness of the plight of threatened authors; cultivate a fellowship between international writers in exile and writers in Chicago; develop audience for Middle Eastern writing as part of a shared global literature; inspire civic engagement on free speech and human rights issues; and build cultural bridges between the emerging democracies of the Middle East and the democratic institutions of the United States.

And that is why I am talking to Susan Harris, editorial director of Words Without Borders. Words Without Borders is an online publication that promotes cultural understanding through translation. As their website states, they “open doors for readers of English around the world to the multiplicity of viewpoints, richness of experience, and literary perspective on world events offered by writers in other languages.” Susan and I are discussing how we might collaborate, again enlarging that first small idea even further.

The small idea has grown organically as the Guild has come to understand (and pursue) the project’s potential (and meaning). And we still aren’t done. There will be other collaborators and partners, volunteers and funders, authors and audience. Maybe you.

I mean this all as a kind of encouragement. Big ideas are possible, even when some people might not agree, and others might not understand. There is nothing amiss to either side of the equation. But I happen to believe it’s okay not to understand where you are going at every turn. Generally, that’s how good stories are written.

The world needs good ideas, big and small. Plant your ideas and tend to them. Pursue your curiosities. Find the compelling narratives that impact others. Share your ideas. Listen to others. Seek common ground. Keep sharing your ideas. You may be surprised where your dreaming lands you.

*Voices of Protest is being scheduled to begin in April 2014 with film screenings and readings in Chicago. To stay updated, sign up for Guild news at

J.H. Palmer’s “How-To” Essay Wins 2013 Non-Fiction Prose Award

If you missed JH read at the Guild Prose Awards, you can see a video of the night below. I encourage you to check her out live, though, maybe at the reading series she co-produces every month, or at various other story nights. But right now you are on the Guild blog, so you’re all set to read an excerpt of her story, which had our judge Miles Harvey overcoming his dislike of cats and people who write about cats. He wrote: “What won me over was not, needless to say, the creepy cats themselves but the way the author uses them to explore the darkness and wildness of her own soul, especially in the essay’s haunting final line.”

Here’s an except from “How To Rescue A Feral Cat” by J.H. Palmer. Enjoy.

At home with mama kitty, resent her for being feral, for not allowing you to pick her up and hold her like the kittens did, for being difficult. Notice the only evidence that she lives in your office: the food in her dish disappears, and like a scatological miracle of transubstantiation, small turds appear in the litter box. Wonder if you will ever see her. Spend time in the office reading and doing paperwork in the hopes that she will grow used to your presence, and become impatient when she doesn’t. Contact a cat shelter for advice, and spend time drawing her out from under the bed with a cat toy that looks like a fishing rod with a feather at the end of it, which she follows with her eyes, but nothing else. Wonder about the parallels between mama kitty and yourself; you are also hard to reach and slow to trust. It takes months for you to feel comfortable at a new job, sometimes years, and coworkers are always surprised to find out that you perform in front of people, reading your material onstage in front of strangers, because they can’t picture it. The day she first reaches a paw up to bat the feather at the end of the toy, feel as proud as if you’d just watched your own child perform in a piano recital. Decide to keep her.

Note that your half-grown grey and white cat has connected with her: he still needs a mother, she’s been separated from her babies and needs someone to look after. Protect her from your tabby, who hisses at her mercilessly, even through closed doors. Try to reason with your tabby, say things like “you were once just like her, we found you in a shelter.” Note the first time she lets you pet her, the first time you hear her purr, the first time she’s brave enough to cross the threshold of your office into the kitchen, the first time she dares to peer out the kitchen window. Become more attached to her than you thought was possible - worry about her when you are at work, and look forward to seeing her when you come home. Come to understand that she represents your secret self; the one you leave at home when you enter the world, the one nobody else ever sees, the one that if released back into the wild, would never return.

J.H. Palmer co-produces the live lit series That’s All She Wrote, and has appeared at a number of live lit venues including: Story Club, Guts & Glory, 2nd Story, SKALD, Mortified, WRITE CLUB! and The Moth GrandSLAM. She is pursuing a Certificate in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Chicago.

2013 Prose Awards Winners Announced! Today’s Spotlight: Fiction Winner Cyn Vargas

On Wednesday night, after spectacular readings by all six finalists, the Guild announced this year’s winners in the 2013 Prose Awards: J.H. Palmer won in the non-fiction category, and Cyn Vargas won in the fiction category. Benjamin Capps and Gina P. Vozenilek were runner-ups in non-fiction, and Joe Arzac and Rebecca Keller were runner-ups in fiction.

(Pictured left to right: Rebecca Keller, Benjamin Capps, J.H. Palmer, Cyn Vargas, Gina P. Vozenilek, Joe Arzac.)

Over the next two weeks, we will post highlights from the event and excerpts from the winning stories. Today we share part of Cyn Vargas’ collection of narrative snapshots called “That Girl.” Here’s what Cristina Henríquez, our fiction judge, said about Cyn’s winning submission:

"This deceptively simple story vividly evoked the dynamics of a friendship between two girls. I admired how full and rich the story felt and how much time the author was able to cover in only a few pages. There was an energy pulsing beneath the writing, too, that stuck with me long after I finished reading."

The story is written in seven scenarios. Because the work is currently being considered for publication, we can only print an excerpt here. Enjoy this glimpse of “That Girl,” by Cyn Vargas.

That Girl with her Mom

It wasn’t hard for the wind to carry her yells into my house: “You’re too fat. A size six is two sizes too big. Look at me. I lost forty- five pounds eating fruit for five months. Your breasts are too big. Don’t wear tight shirts or boys will think you’re a whore. I already see lines around your mouth. Don’t laugh so wide and don’t laugh all wild. Laugh like me. You know? Pretty. Be pretty and life will be easier. Only hang out with the pretty girls. Ditch the one next door. It doesn’t look good you hanging with her. If ugly girls don’t like you that’s a good sign. And those curls. The ones with the frizz at the ends like they want to attack passerby’s, the ones like your father. At least he had to shave his head to go over there. I’ll buy you a straightener. Your curls don’t know which way they want to go. I’ve seen better hair on a clown. Fix it or what will the other girls think?”

That Girl in Class

I had to tell you: “I’m sorry. I didn’t know whether I should say anything, but I heard your ma yelling at you yesterday. Again. I think she forgets that her kitchen window faces ours and my ma never closes the window because she doesn’t believe in artificial air. Anyway, I know we aren’t close anymore like in grammar school, but I want you to know that the way she talks to you is wrong. I remember her always being a little mean. I heard about your dad being over there. My uncle is deployed too. Your dad will be back soon, you’ll see. Anyway, I wanted you to know that you shouldn’t listen to your ma. You’ve always been the pretty one and you’re not fat and if you just stopped hanging out with those phony kids I think you would be happier. Yes, Mrs. Hutchinson. I was just talking to her about homework. I better get back to my seat. If you want to come over later, you know you can. I miss us hanging out.”

Cyn Vargas holds an MFA in Creative Writing-Fiction from Columbia College Chicago. She received two top citations from Glimmer Train in their Short Story Award for New Writers contests. Her work has appeared in Word Riot, Curbside Splendor, and elsewhere. According to Cyn, writing is her way of legally exposing herself in public.

For more photos of the event, visit our Facebook page.

Round Up: Where Our Family Is by John Rich

Here is but a small sample of what people connected to the Guild are doing and where they are popping up. We love seeing our “family” in other places.

  • Nate Marshall, our 2013 winner of the Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award, appears in the October issue of Poetry Magazine, available online here.
  • Palabra Pura poet Xánath Caraza blogs about her recent experience in Chicago reading at La Bruquena on a stormy night.
  • Board member Debbie Carlson recently contributed to the Chicago Tribune and gave travel tips for enjoying Michigan hard cider on site.
  • Miles Harvey, 2013 non-fiction judge for our Prose Awards, receives commendation from Rick Kogan for How Long Will I Cry? Voices of Youth Violence, a volume of first-person Chicago narratives edited by Miles.

A tally like this could go on and on. We are proud of the work, achievements, and activism of our Guild family. You can share more of your news with us as a member of our Facebook group.

As for what the Guild is doing this week, we have three programs in the next six days. Check them out on our calendar, and stay connected by joining our email list. It all starts Saturday with playwright Sandra Seaton featured as part of “Re-Built” in Homan Square, an event in a tower that will also house chamber music.

Poetry Performance Incubator: Unnatural Spaces, 2012

Applied Words: Broken Windows, September, 2013

Writers Write (& Submit), by John Rich

I was talking to Mike Puican (poet and Guild president) about a writing life, and he shared a great quote from poet Barry Silesky. Barry is also a teacher and long-time editor of Another Chicago Magazine. When writers in Barry’s workshops complain they never have time to write Barry says, “The difference between writers and other people is that writers write.”

 Good point. We talk about saving money, putting a little bit away when possible, and the same can be said of writing time. Save some time, because saving time is making time.

 Deadlines help. Or a regular class time. Workshops abound. Here’s just one example, a FREE workshop taught by Maya Marshall, one of our Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic Award semi-finalists. Maya is a Chicago-based teaching artist. Her poems have appeared in The Legendary and Poetic Hustles in the Era of Hope and Change as well as other publications. She is a co-facilitator of the Vox Ferus After Dark workshop series, and has led workshops for people ages 8-80 in the Midwest, Southwest, and South America. (Email to register or ask questions.)

(This image has been updated to reflect revised start-end dates. JR)

 And writers submit. After making time to write, writers also make time to get their stuff in front of an audience. The Guild can help. Our annual Prose Awards deadline is October 1. You can read all the guidelines on our website, but here’s the skinny: $250 cash prizes for no more than 1000 words in fiction and non-fiction. And semi-finalists read to an audience during an awards and recognition night.

 Don’t delay. You probably already have that short piece written, because writers write.

 P.S. Our 2013 final judges are awesome: Cristina Henríquez for fiction, and Miles Harvey for non-fiction! So send something already. We are hungry for your words!


Palabra Pura, June 2013, Dinorah Cortés-Vélez