Dear Chicago Poetry Scene,
Today, on Facebook, the newborn Chicago Literary Hall of Fame posted a link to a Huffington Post review of their recent Induction Ceremony. The review is written by Donald Evans, who is the Hall's own Executive Director. I commented in response to the link, since that is what Facebook is there for, after all, and I suggested that next year he lower the $45 ticket price so that more members of Chicago’s literary community could actually attend the induction ceremony. What resulted was a back and forth exchange of words that came to a climax with a message from Mr. Evans himself, in which he told me that if I can’t afford the price, I would need to do volunteer work for him, or else I would need to talk a group of six or more of my friends into attending his event and then he'd give me an unspecified discount. He did tell me that if I had requested a press pass he would have probably offered one, but even then he was missing the point. I really wasn‘t talking only for myself but also for others who couldn’t afford the ticket and who didn’t qualify for press passes, and anyway, usually press passes are offered to me, not requested from me.
Mr. Evans went on to say that my views are “pure ignorance.” When I suggested the Hall of Fame find a balance between cronyism and bohemianism, he totally went ballistic and said “what the fuck you mean by cronyism” and then he dropped a lot of names and put a lot of words into my mouth that I never actually said. I'm still trying to figure out why he thinks the "bohemian community" likes to go to baseball games. When I asked if any actual writers attended his event, he accused me of being “libelous.” Finally, he once again hinted that I should do volunteer work for him and then he accused me of having a "STICK UP MY ASS!"
This abuse was served to me by the main guy in charge of deciding for us who belongs and who does not belong in the self-proclaimed Literary Hall of Fame. And to think, this all came about simply because I informed him that, nothing personal, but I can't afford to purchase a $45 ticket from him--heck, $90 if I bring a date (a simple fact that he still can't seem to grasp). It didn’t seem to matter to him that I gave kind words to his project in the past (see this article); the very nerve of me, that I would suggest a more reasonable admission fee, seems to have set the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame into a state of pure crisis. LOL.
Just for laughs and to be fair (since the Hall did raise several interesting points), below is an archive of the entire exchange, unedited.
Cj Laity: This all sounds swell and I bet everyone had a great time but do you think next year you might not exclude the majority of the Lit Scene by charging $45 a seat? As the publisher of ChicagoPoetry.com I really wanted to go to this and do a write up about it, but I wasn't about to starve for a week just to do it.
Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: CJ, an event like the induction ceremony costs money. We don't have corporate sponsors or large private donors. We wish we did. The only way we could finance it was by ticket sales and we didn't sell enough to even cover all the costs. We k...ept the ticket prices as low as we possibly could and gave discounts for members and students. We didn't hear any complaints about the price from anyone other than you.
The reality is that we tried to accommodate every one as best we possibly could. When a CPS principal asked if she could bring a group of students from low-income families, we said yes, they could come for free, because we thought it important that they be there.
The other reality is that if you had simply sent an email to the event hosts and explained that you wanted to cover the event for ChicagoPoetry.com, you would have been offered a press pass. Complaining on a public forum doesn't get you anywhere.
Cj Laity: Oh no? I don't want to hear excuses, just get it done. Whatever it takes, next year ticket prices should range from $15 to $35 tops. You can't claim to be the most exciting Lit event of the year when 90% of the Lit community can't afford to attend. Do whatever it takes.
Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: Again, CJ, you're the only one I hear complaining. I don't know where you're pulling your numbers from. We're a nonprofit. We rely on volunteers and donations. Nobody made a penny on the event. Our goal is obviously to attract corporate spo...nsorships and large private donors, but those are hard to come by when you're starting something new. Hopefully they'll come and we can lower ticket prices next year. If you know of any corporate sponsors or large private donors that would want to help us finance it, our ears are wide open.
And, for the record, tickets were $35, if you were a member of the Chicago Writers Association or a student.
Cj Laity: Listen, if I'm the only one you hear complaining that suggests indifference, both on the part of the literary community toward your event, and your part for not making any real effort to listen to that community. I'm trying to tell you that... your event is too expensive. I'm not accusing you of bankrolling any money, I'm just telling you plain and simple that few struggling writers have $45 to fork up like that. So if you want to pander to semi-wealthjy folks and isolate the lit community like that, just keep doing what you're doing and see how long the momentum lasts, but if you can't brainstorm a way to make the Hall of Fame accessible to those who hope to some day be honored by it, then what makes you entitled to claim the authority to represent this community? The bottom line is you need our support more than we need yours. So stop with the excuses. You have an entire year to figure out a better way to do it, so hopefully I'll see you next year at the big event.
Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: Well, there were about 250 members of the literary community at the ceremony. That's not what I would call indifference.
The bottom line is the project needs money. It will die a quick death without money. We didn't want to charge $45 a tic...ket. We'd love for it to be a $15 a ticket event. Heck, we'd love for it to be free. But if we had charged $15 a ticket for the ceremony, there would not be another one because the project would be bankrupt. And that's not because we haven't tried. We've begged and pleaded to corporate sponsors and private donors and have largely been ignored. We're doing the best we can with the little we've got. I'm not making excuses; I'm telling you like it is. We do need people like you to rally around the project, in a positive and not a negative way, and help us bring in that financial support it needs to grow. We aren't doing this because we need to do it - we're doing it because we believe it is something this city should have. A lot of people put in a lot of time and energy into this project. We don't want to see it crumble. But it can't survive without money. I promise you that if you and others in the lit community help us pull in the money, we'll have the kind of ceremony you want next year.
Cj Laity: 250 people may have attended the event but are you sure they were from the lit community? Did you keep a record of how many publishers and editors of small presses were there, how many actual writers were there? Or how many students took you up on that ten dollar discount? I'm not trying to rip on what you are doing, in fact I hope you can come to some balance between the bohemian and the cronysm, but you need to see this from an outsider's perspective. When I look at the photo that you posted of the audience at the event it looks to me like a rally at the New York Stock Exchange, not a lit event. Would Carl Sandburg, in his day, have been able to afford to attend your event? What your position seems to be is that there is no possible way to host a Hall of Fame inauguration for under $10,000, and I say that's bull. Your other position seems to be, because nobody other than myself has blatantly expressed to you that they can't afford to attend your event, that they don't exist. Certainly they do exist, otherwise you'd be posting review after review from lit community blogs instead of a review written by your own Executive Director. For years I held an annual two day poetry fest on a budget of about $200, and although I certainly am not suggesting you are capable of surviving off that, if I can do that, you certainly can find a way to put together a ceremony for three or four grand.
Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: For the record, about half of those who bought tickets were members of the Chicago Writers Association. Some of those are writers. Some of those are publishers and editors of small presses.
Also for the record, we invited many lit bloggers to attend, with the offer of complementary press passes. Some took us up on that and wrote very nice reviews, like Rebecca Hyland for Gapers Block Book club (you should read it, it's a terrific piece of reporting). Many others simply didn't attend. We were actively seeking press for the event and as I mentioned we would have made the same offer to you had you made the request.
A Message From Donald Evans, Executive Director, Chicago Literary Hall of Fame: CJ, I don't know what to say about the price of the ceremony anymore, except that I've always been more than happy to discuss this with you in a private forum. Instead, I hear your complaints only when somebody forwards me your public posts. In your original Facebook post, I replied that you should email me privately and I would work out a group rate. Had you gotten together a group of six or more, I would have been happy to give you a rate well under $35. Rather than complaining, you could easily have gathered together all the people you feel were excluded from this event and gotten them in at dramatically discounted rates. But you never responded. Had you requested a press pass, we would have given you one.
When those of us involved in putting this thing together first met, we all agreed we wanted to keep the ticket prices as low as possible in order to include as many representatives of the literary community as possible. For the very reasons you mention. We considered holding the event at the Portage Theater for this very reason, but it is an 1,100 seat venue and unless we filled it the occasion would feel dead. Northeastern Illinois University gave us the space for free, which still means nearly $1,500 in various fees, including insurance, technical support and so forth. The caterer gave us dramatically reduced rates, which still meant $3,000. Coke, water, wine: we paid for that. Incidentals like ice....we paid for that. All the costs for the exhibit, banners, marketing materials and so forth...we paid for that. I'm sure your poetry fest was fantastic in its own right, but it's not an intelligent comparison. All kinds of things can be done for $200--backyard barbecues, for example--but it doesn't mean that ALL EVENTS OF ANY TYPE can be done with almost no money.
$45 was, for this event, as low as possible.
The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is only as strong as the support it gets in our community, which means not just buying tickets but participating in the whole process. Every single person who has volunteered to help with this project has been given roles to play, and all of them attended the induction ceremony for free, unless they voluntarily bought a ticket. Every person who participated in the induction ceremony obviously was invited to attend for free. All the families and friends of participants (including large contingents from the Bellow, Wright and Hansberry families) attended for free. Special requests for free admission, such as one we got from a Chicago Public School principal for a group of 10 kids, were all honored. In fact, less than half the people in attendance paid anything at all for a ticket.
If you or somebody like you did not have the price of admission, you had options. You could have volunteered. You could have asked for a press pass--as long as a person was in some way going to cover the event (and most everybody there was a writer) we said okay. You could have gotten together a group and received discounted tickets (we did that for a number of groups).
And by the way...out of our entire guest list, we had about 40 no-shows, and all were on the complimentary list. Those forty people, all from the literary community, decided, at the last minute, not to come--for an event like this, we need a precise head count. In my experience, free and cheap is good on one level, but for a lot of people it decreases the value they place on the event. I don't know what price, exactly, ensures participation, but that's clearly a factor. It's one thing to say you're going to attend and another to actually attend, and all those people who paid for their tickets showed up.
We've heard your objections. Yes, we want to keep prices low and will strive to do that. We'll continue to try and get other financial support to make future ceremonies more affordable. But what you say about who was in attendance at the ceremony is pure ignorance. You weren't there, obviously. You haven't seen the guest list. Small publishers? Yes--many. Editors? A ton. Writers? God, yes. Students. Yes, again, though relatively few. Teachers, creative writing directors, librarians? Yes, yes and yes. Photographers, sculptors, painters, fimmakers? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Book clubs and critique groups? Yes and yes. This is not speculation, this is fact. I was there--I talked to all these people and in many cases have exchanged emails with them afterward. We've recorded their payment transactions and they were all checked in at the door. The documented people in attendance includes everybody you claim were excluded from the event, and your last posting, on that level, is if not libelous at least grossly inaccurate.
Could Carl Sandburg have afforded a ticket? Yes, though he likely would have been one of the free participants.
I don't know how you define elitism, but check your calendar and your local pub prices. How many of those that you call the bohemian community find the spare change to go to a baseball game or a concert or buy $7 pints at the local pub? And what the fuck you mean by cronyism? Do you mean to imply that Marc Smith, Rick Kogan, Stuart Dybek, Audrey Niffengger, Sara Paretsky, Jan Schwarz, Bill Savage, Art Shay, Haki Madhubuti, Gary Houston, Jackie Taylor and so forth were unqualified to fulfill their roles, but got them because they're our friends? Or that acceptors such Dan Terkell, Nora Brooks Blakely, Mamie Hansberry, Dana Smith and Greg Bellow were ill-suited to perform their functions? Please.
If you want to participate in the future of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, we welcome your voice and your time. E-mail me. Call me. We'll figure out a way for you to be involved. I extend this to anybody with genuine interest in the project--there are many that have already jumped in feet first. Those are the people who are helping shape the vision of the Hall of Fame and helping make all the decisions, big and little. You can be a part of that, if you want.
But if you want to continue to complain without an educated basis in modern-day realities, and to do so exclusively in public forums, then I don't see much point in continuing this discussion. Shout as loud as you want, and see who will listen. All I hear so far is, "I"VE GOT A STICK UP MY ASS!" I don't see anything productive coming from that tact, but you're obviously entitled. Yours, Don 773.XXX.XXXX
And yet, even after all of that bullshit, I still can’t afford the $45 admission fee. And, by the way, for the record, I can't afford to buy $7 pints of beer, either.
Donald Evans has pointed out that the Huffington Post comments are actually those of the Chicago Writers Association president, Randy Richardson, even though Evans' photo and name appear at the top of the page. Since the Writers Association is the sponsor of the Hall, I don't see what difference it makes, but I am pointing it out just to be fair.
Note: The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame Executive Director, Donald Evans, goes ballistic when I suggest he lower the ticket price for next year's Induction Ceremony. Click here for the scoop.