By Patrick Lohier

Three nights a week Michael O’Leary sits in a back room at Reckless Records on Broadway and searches for scratches on vintage vinyl. If he doesn’t see any he puts the records in a cleaning machine that gurgles as it spits out years of grime. He has a second job working at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, and he bikes between the two jobs and his Wicker Park apartment, up to 30 miles a day. “Look at this,” he says, pointing to well-toned quadriceps.

O’Leary, who’s 24, also paints and occasionally writes prose, but he considers himself first and foremost a poet. His main preoccupation for the last few years has been developing the literary magazine LVNG, (pronounced “lung”), a name inspired by a favorite song.

As a classics major at Kenyon College, O’Leary had wanted to start a literary magazine. The first issue, put out with his friend Jay Sullivan, was “a kind of response to other literary magazines on campus. One of the things that we wanted to do was to acknowledge and feature art being done outside of the college.” Published in fall of 1990, it was a kelly green, 50-page, photocopied pamphlet of stories, poetry, and black-and-white art created by a dozen of their friends. “There was just this great feeling of excitement about putting out literature and connecting with people through literature,” says O’Leary.

He put out the second issue by himself the next spring. “It was basically a flop. I put it together in one or two nights during finals. The two issues had come out fairly quickly, and while they weren’t good, they weren’t bad.”

The little magazine started getting attention, and more friends at Kenyon began offering to help out. But most of the responsibility for the third issue belonged to O’Leary and his older brother Peter, who lived in Chicago. They made editorial decisions together, but Michael took care of production, and Peter, once an editor at the Chicago Review, used the connections he’d made in the Chicago literary world to get submissions from a wider circle of writers, poets, and visual artists.

Michael got a childhood friend’s father who owned a printing press in Detroit to print 1,000 copies of the 70-page issue. “The third issue really changed a lot of things,” Michael says. “It was the first time we ever had 1,000 printed. It was with that edition that I realized LVNG could become something.”

Influenced by a professor who’d written about “gift-giving cultures,” Michael decided LVNG should be distributed free. “I was interested in the role of an artistic community in a capitalistic society. I decided to try to keep this thing as open as possible and try to keep new ideas and new writing available to people who don’t always have access, whether it’s some guy who works in the Loop or some kid in high school. It’s gotten a little bit better in the last couple of years, but four years ago the public had no expressed interest in poetry. This was at about the time that Joseph Brodsky was trying to get Whitman and Dickinson into hotel-room dressers alongside Gideon Bibles, and that really made an impact on my decision as well.”

O’Leary met poet August Kleinzahler at a reading at Kenyon and told the poet about LVNG. Kleinzahler bummed some cigarettes from him, and later that evening he handed O’Leary five drafts of poems. “That definitely changed the tone–it upped the ante,” says O’Leary. “The idea of publishing a very well known writer like August Kleinzahler along with younger writers became very appealing. It was like I was setting up a dialogue, seeing the distinctions, presenting local artists within the context of better-known artists. If people pick up LVNG because a famous name gets their attention, they might read on and look into other things that are in the magazine.”

When O’Leary graduated in 1993 he came to Chicago, and for two years he worked for Morningstar entering data. Last fall he worked briefly as a landscaper, and he still toys with the idea of graduate school. But the two brothers have continued to publish one issue of LVNG a year, each one drawing more contributors and more readers.

At Morningstar Michael met Rob Davis, a painter who became one of the magazine’s art editors, and Philip Burton, an influential artist and professor at the University of Illinois who offered to design the cover of the sixth issue. A longtime friend, poet John Tipton, did the inside design and layout. More than 1,000 copies of that issue were published last February.

Recent contributors have included Burton; Kleinzahler, who in May won an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; San Francisco-based poet Ron Johnson; Chicago-area artists Ray Yoshida and Holly Rittenhouse; poets Lewis Hyde and Jim Powell, both winners of MacArthur grants; Acme Novelty Company artist Chris Ware; and British novelist Lawrence Norfolk, author of Lempriere’s Dictionary and the forthcoming The Pope’s Rhinoceros and winner of a Somerset Maugham Award. (I’ve also had three short fiction pieces published.)

Norfolk, who now lives in Chicago but will soon return to London, says, “LVNG provides a venue for writers outside of both the commercial-publishing and the university-publishing consortia. As such it can avoid foisting upon the writer the obligation of earning a penny for the company or, in the case of academic journals, of conforming to a specific ideological bent.”

Terry Winters, a well-known abstract painter who lives in New York, has sent 20 pages of his work in progress, a visual text titled Ocular Proofs. “When we got them and I saw them, I was really excited,” says O’Leary. “I think they’re great.” He plans to publish them in the next issue of LVNG, which should be out in December.

“For now we’re just trying to distribute LVNG to a lot of places so a lot of people have access,” says O’Leary. “We’ve really improved on the production of the art, and I think people notice that. The whole idea of this is about opening an audience, getting a wider audience.”

But the cost of production is becoming an issue. “We’re trying to keep it free, but we’ve gotta figure out something about money,” says O’Leary. Donations of $5 and $10 from friends and family, and even occasional larger donations from generous patrons aren’t enough. Nor is O’Leary’s 401 (k) program, which helped subsidize the sixth issue.

“Making it free hasn’t affected its quality, but it has affected its frequency,” says Rob Davis. “We can’t really say LVNG is an annual or biannual magazine, because we really don’t know when we’ll have the money to put it out. The barrier of cost is a significant barrier. I think it does, or will, need some kind of patronage in order to survive.”

The O’Leary brothers have a plan: a series of LVNG “supplementals,” experimental single-work publications with a price tag. The first will be a Ron Johnson poem, “Blocks to Be Arranged in a Pyramid,” a memorial to AIDS victims that they hope to sell as a poster-size broadside for about $10 in area book and record stores. They plan to have 300 to 400 published at the same time Johnson’s monumental poem ARK is published by Living Batch Press.

They also want to try printing handwritten texts and to experiment with novel ways of distribution. Past issues of LVNG have been left in batches nearly anywhere they thought people might notice it and pick it up. Peter wants to set up a subscription service. “A subscription service might sound a little oxymoronic given the fact that LVNG is free,” he says. “But our hope is that it might generate a consistent base of money.” Michael is thinking about leaving copies in unexpected places. “Leaving them as things that people might find. I’m basically open to anything. I’ll try anything as a way of featuring artists and getting outside of the traditional magazine format.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J.B. Spector.