One of the big things I considered when I applied to MFA programs was the location. And since I ended up at Columbia College Chicago, you can bet that the Windy City had a lot to add in the pro column of my pro/con list.
I came from Texas, where boots and pastures and Ford trucks were daily staples. However, I went to undergrad in Austin, and while we’re still proud of our Texan roots there, it’s less hoedown and more urban; as expected from the state capital. So, coming to Chicago was both familiar and foreign for me. I’d been introduced to the city life, but not this city life. I could talk about the cold and the attractions and the transportation ’til the cows come home (hey, can’t get rid of my roots, right?), but what really sold me on this city as my home for the next few years was the Literary Scene.
I heard a professor refer to Chicago as a “literary hot spot” the other day, and I couldn’t agree more. As writers, we can’t just sit inside and read and write all day – we need to stimulate that creative spark with something else. And for me, it had to be more intellectually enriching than the parks and the skyline (not to knock those; I love them!). I’ve been pretty immersed in this scene as of late, and I’ve compiled a(n incomplete) list of events and spark-inducing activities that should not be missed.
1)The Chicago Humanities Festival. This is a foundation that organizes a series of lectures, panels and films each year in the Fall. From their website: “The Chicago Humanities Festival connects people to the ideas that shape and define us, and promotes the lifelong exploration of what it means to be human. CHF fosters curiosity, celebrates creativity, explores the boundaries of contemporary knowledge and culture, and challenges us to see ourselves and the world anew.” The short and sweet: you can go and hear some of your favorite artists speak and converse about their craft, newest projects, and humanities in general. It’s really awesome. I’ll be attending a few panels on October 29 and November 5.
2) Columbia’s own Reading Series. Hosted by the Creative Writing Department, the series attracts prestigious, award-winning fiction writers, poets and nonfiction writers who come to the college and engage with students about their work and writing process. Each semester there is a heavy-hitting list of names, and I go to as many readings as possible. (I even got to eat dinner with Adam Johnson, and interview Kelly Link after their respective readings here!) All readings are free and open to the public!
3) The Poetry Foundation. From their website: “We are an independent literary organization committed to a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture. It exists to discover and celebrate the best poetry and to place it before the largest possible audience.” Sitting in the heart of River North neighborhood, the Poetry Foundation hosts readings from some of the greatest poets of our time. Additionally, they give the opportunity for students to open for readers with their own work, creating a platform that extends past the program and into the literary community. They also curate a magazine Poetry, the oldest monthly published mag dedicated to verse, featuring some of the first work by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. It’s a wickedly gorgeous place, too.
4) If you like a cocktail with your culture, be sure to visit The Green Mill. It’s main purpose is a jazz bar, and that in itself is cool. But on Sunday evenings, you can catch the Uptown Poetry Slam being performed on stage while the band pipes in with their own little accompaniment. This, in fact, is the birth place of slam poetry – created by the one and only Marc Smith who still runs the Sunday shows today! And, if you’re into the mob history, you can cozy up in Al Capone’s favorite booth, still in use in the bar.
5) Finally, all of the independent bookstores are always hosting readings, trivia nights, and book launches – you could go to a different reading 8 nights a week, if there were that many days! Some of my favorites are the newly inducted Volumes Bookcafe, The Book Cellar, and Women & Children First. Then there’s Unabridged Books, 57th Street Books: The Seminary Co-op Bookstore, and RoscoeBooks, all of which I have yet to explore to my heart’s content, but are no less praised. I suggest getting on their emailing list to keep up to date on upcoming and new events. I also love Myopic, though since they’re a used bookstore, I don’t think they host many events – still, it’s a little piece of heaven for book lovers.
This is by no means an exhaustive list – I didn’t even touch on the libraries, museums, or historical writers’ old haunts. But it’s a start! Hopefully you feel culturally fulfilled and satisfied after attending or participating in one or all of these opportunities made possible by (and simultaneously contributing to) the vibrant and thriving Chicago literary scene.