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 www.guildcomplex.org.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
Coupling an “arts” workshop with a “literary” event was a pragmatic vehicle to propel citizens into thinking about the community in which they live and how to develop a more desirable public space. Together, Katherine Darnstadt’s “Placemaking” workshop and the Guild’s “Applied Words” event, created a space within the Polish Triangle that was provisional and historical. Like-minded architects, poets, designers, and artists were able to share perspectives of what is, views of what was, and ideas driven toward improving their community through urban design.
The architectural and interactive place built and designed by Katherine Darnstadt of Latent Design was a temporary, inflatable, and colorfully caterpillar-shaped space. Its unconventional and unique shape and color patterns reflected both the historical and present Wicker Park creative and hip aura. Inviting pedestrians, passerbys, and regulars, the design promoted fun, curiosity, and playfulness to all ages and cultures. Supplementing the visual with an auditory outlook, the triangle was shared with highly-gifted and appreciated writers that read their work. Participants were able interact with both the words and triangle’s surroundings, which further developed the ideas of space, sharing, and community.
Such an event, free of charge, and located within a highly-active environment was an opportunity to directly observe, visualize, listen to and connect with a diverse culture. Whether it was the buildings, broken windows, corporations, transportation, trash, or pigeons, each individual had a view to begin, to cease, or to change something about that triangle. The design and literature manifested discussions created a synergy of what would otherwise be, on any other day, strangers. However, the “art” workshop and “literature” event brought together citizens and influenced inspiration and creative possibilities within a space.
(Louie Capozzoli is a Chicago artist and a student at DePaul.)
Yesterday was busy. In addition to my daily Guild work, I gave a walking tour of Uptown to a group of freshmen from DePaul, and ended the day at a performance by Silk Road Rising.
The school talk was meant to introduce the cultural history of Uptown and provide a literary lens into the neighborhood. To kick off, I had three separate groups respond to three separate writing prompts:
1. What makes a resort town different from other towns?
2. Is cultural production important? Why?
3. Tell a story of human migration, either from personal experience or from history.
Uptown really began as a resort town when the railroads north from the Loop ended at Lawrence, and the first question was meant to inspire a historical picture of escape and relaxation on a grand scale. The second question was meant to create conversation about our roles as consumers and makers of culture high and low, and the general value of such roles and subsequent artifacts.
But it was the third question we were really building towards, because Uptown – and Chicago – is a location for 20th (and now 21st) century migration stories. In Uptown, it was first a wave of affluent city dwellers looking to escape urbanity (industry) and dive deep into vaudeville, music, and early cinema in stylish venues modeled after New York or Parisian hot spots (the famous Green Mill, for example, was really a version of Paris’ Moulin Rouge, and in its early days occupied half of the block). During the Depression, Lake Shore Drive extended further north, and those who had the means began to frequent spots in Edgewater. The film industry had mostly left for California, and while the music and dance halls were still popular, the hotels didn’t fill. Many of them started the conversion to SROs, or Single Room Occupancy facilities, that, because of their low cost, primarily served transient, migrant, immigrant, and working poor populations. Social services started to grow in the area, including services for immigrants—many from Southeast Asia—and now as a result Uptown boasts one of the more diverse populations in Chicago.
While we did talk about Chicago authors connected to Uptown, from Carl Sandburg to Audrey Niffenegger and Alexsander Hemon, it was the story of migration and transformation that I had most hoped to share, the idea that a place has many peoples, and many stories. Sometimes those stories become lost, like the counter urban plan of the Appalachian transplants in Uptown who wanted to develop a “village” with community centers and democratic decision making rather than the then increasingly common renewal plan of dropping colleges in any “troubled” district. The latter won out, and 3,000 people were displaced. Meanwhile, Hank Williams Village, which was to be planned by community action, is only a footnote to Chicago history.
And sometimes the true person is lost, which was a theme of Invasion!, the play by Jonas Hassen Khemiri I attended at Silk Road Rising. In Invasion!, the predominate Western media image of the Arab male is deconstructed in an energetic production that engages audience members’ biases, acknowledged or not. As a commentator after the performance so clearly put it, the play entangles both the invisible and the visible. The visible is what we most often see portrayed through media, creating a much documented negative cultural bias towards Arab and Arab-looking men. The visible is what remains, the implication of “brownness” as bad. In contrast, the invisible is the actual individual truth of any one person. That person is lost.
The ancient Greeks held a notion that truth was only found in dialogue, in the exchange between people. It meant that you never got anywhere on your own. This is one of the many reasons I appreciate Silk Road Rising: they make space (and time!) for conversation, and they do it with generosity. Last night there was a panel talk, for example. Hosted by the Public Square, it was called “Invasion! Racial Profiling, Counter-stereotyping, and the Media,” and included Jamil Khoury, the Founding Artist Director of Silk Road Rising. He spoke briefly about a controversy regarding this production, one where a reviewer made a comment that suggested racial profiling was okay, or at least the best option we have. In speaking on the matter, Khoury said his intention in publicly confronting the issue was not to have the line or two of the review expunged from record (which it was), but to create a safe place of discourse where the underlying assumptions of such statements could be debated.
The discussion with the audience led to an attendee asking if such theatrical work is just “preaching to a choir” of progressive thinkers (which as a statement is somewhat problematic because it assumes that anyone attending an art event self-identifies as a “liberal” or likeminded). But I think that what Silk Road Rising actually does is present amazing theater, and then looks for ways to connect that work to the larger world outside the auditorium through dialogue. And that is not preaching to a choir even if your entire audience shares your opinion.
And that’s why I think back to what one DePaul student said on the Uptown walk yesterday. In response to why cultural production might be important, she said, “It’s how we learn more about ourselves, and better understand others.”
[Invasion! plays at Silk Road Rising until September 15.]