Chicago is a writer’s town, from top to bottom. We have an excellent public library system, many great independent booksellers, and enough Sturm und Drang in every corner of the city to inspire pens to paper. Fans and fellow writers alike can make their way to reading events for poetry, fiction, and slice-of-life storytelling year-round, and 2019 brought us consistently interesting and dynamic work from writers at a myriad of venues. Here are some of my favorites from this year (with a special nod to several that have been going strong for more than ten years).
Tuesday Funk Reading Series happens on the first Tuesday of each month at the Hopleaf Bar in Andersonville. It features a mix of poets, essayists, fiction, and genre writers interspersed with regular features (a highlight: a topical haiku by host Andrew Huff). The Hopleaf’s upstairs lounge gives both the readers and the audience a chance to focus on the words, but you can’t be that close to one of the best arrays of craft beer in the city without some breaks—the evening includes a quick intermission to head downstairs to imbibe. The series was started in 2008 and highlights five writers each night, making for a solid list of alumni (including Elizabeth Tamny, Joe Meno, and Megan Milks). The next event takes place on Tuesday, January 7, and will feature Reader contributor Dmitry Samarov, Darshita Jain, Michael Palmer, Maggie Queeney, and Cameron McGill.
Miss Spoken describes themselves as a “Lady Live Lit Show,” and they’ve given space to writers, bloggers, and comedians to tell their tales—sometimes sordid, sometimes inspiring, always engaging—on the stage on the last Wednesday of the month at the Gallery Cabaret bar and elsewhere since 2014. Each month covers a theme (this year’s included “Miss Manners,” “War Paint,” and “Family Feud”) and the storytellers are given free rein to deliver their interpretations of the theme while mining their personal moments. In September, the theme was “Show ‘n’ Tell,” which allowed for the performers to include visual aids via slideshow, resulting in a party-in-your-living-room salon feel. Miss Spoken is one of the few regular series in the city devoted to featuring only female-identifying and nonbinary performers. The next event is scheduled for Wednesday, January 29, at the Gallery Cabaret.
Red Rover Reading Series is a boon for experimental writers and poets. The series toys with the ideas of what can happen in a reading event, and past nights have included fairy tales, people reading in costume, concrete poetry, and more. Red Rover has consistently taken place in nonbar venues: starting in 2005 at the now-gone Humboldt Park arts space the Spareroom, and continuing these days at similar art and performance spots like Outer Space (above Volumes Bookcafe) and Tritriangle, both in Wicker Park. Current curators Laura Goldstein and Jennifer Karmin have taken Red Rover on the road, creating large-scale improvisational collaborations with writers at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the New Orleans Poetry Festival. Though the series may not always feature the expected, the performances can veer toward the extraordinary: past shows have included diverse performers including musician Jaap Blonk and Philadelphia poet Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué. Red Rover happens almost every month, usually on Saturdays, but they’re taking a winter break until February 2020.
The Uptown Poetry Slam is the grandfather of slam poetry events, and we’ve been lucky in Chicago to have it available to us for most Sunday nights since 1987 at the Green Mill on Broadway and Lawrence. Marc Smith (“so what!” is always screamed by the audience after he introduces himself) has been hosting this open mike with a feature slam the entire time, and I’m happy to report that it never gets old. It would be impossible to have a staid poetry reading in a bar like the Green Mill, and the poets and writers on stage are anything but quiet—past nights have included published professors and sometimes bartenders from the Green Mill taking a break to share their poetic wares. I have a sweet memory of an early 90s Sunday show where Marc borrowed some of the feature time to call a buddy in prison and put him on the microphone via landline. (“It’s Christmas in prison,” his friend’s poem started.) It’s thrilling that we have a regular series devoted to loudmouths delivering poems that has been going strong for more than 30 years, but then again, that’s what Chicago is all about. v