A history lesson.
Giving Birth To Letter eX
(I finally found a copy of this, the last issue of the print version of Letter eX. I am reprinting this letter which I found in it, as an example of how things have not really changed from then until now. Some have claimed that the former Letter eX didn't publish gossip, didn't publish "scathing reviews," and had a different tone than we have today. One person even went as far as to contact one of our former staff members, Debbie Pintonelli, behind our backs and to "inform" her about what we are "doing" with "her" magazine. Even after she wrote to the Letter eX offering her full support for what we are "doing," the person in question (who runs a similar project which, in its passive-aggressive way, antagonizes us by refusing to even acknowledge that Letter eX exists) still was not satisfied that this new Letter eX is keeping with tradition. Suggesting that I am trying to "pick a fight" is simply a way of avoiding this issue. I put my name on the things I say. I don't say them behind the back of the subject I am referring to. Yet when things are said behind my back they have a mysterious way of finding their way into my ears eventually. So, with the hopes of opening dialogue again [this time real dialogue, not just the false promise of it, from the person in question who's name is KURT HEINTZ], here's more of Debbie Pintonelli's version of the history of Letter eX.)
(written in 1995)
When I moved to New York five years ago one of the first things I had to do was make amends with my former fellow Letter eX editors and good friends Carl Watson and Sharon Mesmer. Part of the reason for my having to do that was that it was quite painful giving birth to Letter eX. It created havoc in our friendship, even though I think that in some ways it was well worth it. But it only caused problems in the end; the beginning was filled with cheap beer, spirited discussions, juvenile passions and more cheap beer. We sat on Carl's back porch in New Town watching the subway speed by and we made many grand statements about how we were going to make things happen in Chicago. We hated the Poetry Letter News, a newsletter then edited by Chris Holda. We were mad, and we weren't afraid to name names. We wanted to stir things up.
We got our friend Matt Straub to do design of a broadside based somewhat on the kind James Joyce used to print up to defame or inflame his literary friends in much the same way. We used six point type, and jammed as much information as we could onto that 11 x 17 format. Carl wrote scathing reviews, Sharon did great interviews and I did the gossip column. I believed that gossip in the form of literary tidbits could help to bring a disparate group of writers together, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Our first calendar was miniscule. Then it grew. And grew.
When Carl and Shron moved to New York I was left alone with the newsletter. I did my best, but I floundered. I am much better at generating ideas than bringing people together, which is what an editor must do. I found a way out: Barry Cassilly. I couldn't have made a more perfect choice, since Barry made the paper what it is today.
What Letter eX was and what if finally became gave me, I realized after moving here, a false sense of security; because we did manage to change things. I thought that when I came to New York the same rules would apply, that efforts in that direction would be appreciated. Well, it doesn't quite work that way here. I got over it, but it makes me sad as well. Both my naivete and circumstances had provided an opportunity that probably will never present itself again.
Some things, however, haven't changed. Carl, Sharon and I are loosely part of a beer-swilling, pool-playing group of writers called the Unbearables. They recently staged a sit-in at the New Yorker which resulted in the publication of a poem by a poet named Sparrow. This Spring the Unbearable Anthology will come out with Semiotext(e).
I was at a lecture recently by bell hooks, who spoke of cynicism as being counter-revolutionary. I believe that with all my heart. I think that what happened with poetry in the last decade was a bet against all odds that the thing that no one was supposed to be interested in turned out to be quite interesting indeed. MTV likes poetry. The Lincoln Center likes it, too. I think that the music scene in Chicago owes a lot to poetry as well. We were reading poetry at house parties in Wicker Park way before anyone named Liz Phair even stepped in amongst the winos and the stray dogs.
Michael War was at the Poet's Center this winter and, while speaking at an event there, he pointed out that the reason Luis Rodriguez stared Tia Chucha Press is because poets like himself could not get an equal chance elsewhere. Writers, probably more than everybody else, need to do things for themselves. Which is what we did with Letter eX. I say that we devote the nex decade not just to getting attention or respect, but to getting paid for what we do. If illiterate screenwriters can get million dollar advances for books about whispering horses, then we poets and novelists should be able to make at least a humble living from our books. IT'S TIME TO STOP WORKING FOR FREE!
Letter eX was a revolutionary thing. A positive thing. It still is. I miss you all.
. . .lots of love, --D
(. . .AND IT STILL IS! There have been a lot of efforts to copy it's style of combining criticism and poetry calendar, but though such efforts have always been appreciated, nobody has ever been able to match the energy of the real thing. The poetry scene was dead for several years, and trying to maintain a newsmagazine when there was little news to cover was pointless, but now the Chicago Poetry Scene is alive again. And there is the real need for the rebirth of the Letter eX.
So, if someone who was never even on the staff of Letter eX ever tries to tell you about its philosophy, how it used to be something different, how it used to be serious and wasn't run by a beer drinker, how it doesn't deserve support becasue it tends to inflame people--look that person right in the face with this bit of advice: WITH ALL DUE RESPECT, WE DON'T HAVE TIME FOR HARD FEELINGS WITHIN THIS COMMUNITY. WE'RE IN THE MIDDLE OF A REVOLUTION HERE! YOU'RE INVITED TO JOIN US IF YOU LIKE.
--C. J. Laity
The founder of ChicagoPoetry.com, the poet C. J. Laity has been a writer for and a staff member of Letter eX since 1991. Through the poetry shows he himself has curated, he has featured several hundred of Chicago's poets and has had the pleasure to contribute a combined several thousand dollars to them. Each August he hosts Chicago's largest show of featured poets, at the Bucktown Arts Fest.
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