A COMPLEX MISSION:
KEEPING A LITERARY LEGACY ALIVE
C. J. Laity
(This article first appeared in the February, 2005 issue of Third Coast Press.)
One day, way back in 1989, I was coming out of the Biograph Theater (I was probably standing on the spot where Dillinger got shot), and I saw that something was going on across the street, behind the big window of an independent store called Guild Books. Through the glare of the glass, I could see a person at a microphone. A huge crowd was gathered around her. The crowd started cheering and applauding. I could hear it, muffled but rumbling, from the sidewalk, as I approached to look in. Curious, I wandered into the store and found people from all walks of life, crammed into the small room. The energy they shared captivated me. There was an intense silence as the woman at the microphone spoke, and then another roar of applause rattled the shelves. My God, I thought, this is cool. All these different types of people were there for a poetry reading. One like I've never seen before.
I had, on that day, discovered the Guild Complex, which was the invention of some poetry lovers who decided to form an "extension" to the bookstore. From that moment on, the Guild Complex became an important part of my writing career, and, over the years, I returned time and time again to see different authors.
This story takes place in the great city of Chicago. And in Chicago there is a beast called gentrification that runs amuck consuming neighborhoods like piles of jellybeans. As the 90s rolled in, the large chain bookstores stomped around like so many Goliaths, invading the literary market like ivy consuming the architecture. It is safe to say that Guild Books, that place where I discovered a safe haven for poets, understood that it wasn't going to survive for long. But its poetry reading series, the Guild Complex, had almost immediately become an entity of its own. It had a will of its own, a mission of its own. It refused to wither away with the dwindling profits.
An award-winning author, Michael Warr, ripped his shirt open to expose the P on his chest. He had learned the art of risk-taking by once working as a war correspondent for the media. Warr spent the next three years wearing that P, taking risk after risk, in order to keep the dream of the Guild Complex alive. He worked a second job, so that he could afford to work for the Guild without a salary. For the longest time, Warr had only one part-time administrative staff person helping him program the literary events. But the reading series survived on that shoestring, remaining small but becoming highly influential. It continued to present a steady and ambitious roster of literary programs to the public. Just about every poet in town would sooner or later grace the Guild's stage.
One of the reasons it survived was its uniqueness. The Guild Complex remained committed to promoting voices that had been historically placed on the margins: emerging writers, women writers and writers of color. It strived to create social change while weighing its artistic and social missions equally in its decisions. And it embraced the multiplicity of society and its voices.
As Chicago continued to change, the Guild Complex changed as well. Guild Books closed its doors for good, but the Guild Complex kept boogying. They packed their bags and moved from Lincoln Park to Wicker Park. This was when Wicker Park was still a little bit dangerous. Rent was cheap. Artists roamed the streets alongside the homeless. And every Wednesday, the Guild Complex graced the stage of a new club called HotHouse, when HotHouse was on Milwaukee Avenue, where The Note is now. It was a cabaret with tables, a real stage, a looming jazz mural. People could come and have a drink while watching a literary reading, and they did, in droves. The place would at times be packed shoulder to shoulder for events with titles like "The Funky Wordsmyths" or "The Musicality of Poetry".
Having achieved his goal, having kept the Guild Complex going despite impossible odds, and having brought the reading series to a point where it could sustain itself, Michael Warr stepped down. He was replaced by Julie Parson Nesbitt, who currently is the grants director for Young Chicago Authors. Nesbitt had some big shoes to fill, but she knew the history of the Guild Complex, intimately. She had worked at the bookstore, had helped to program readings there as well. Most importantly, as a fundraiser, she had the organizational skills necessary to move the Guild Complex to its next phase. The Guild became a non-profit with a board of directors. Nesbitt expanded the staff. She built the organization's infrastructure. These were better years, the Clinton years, and money wasn't as tight as it is today. So the Guild flourished.
Yet that beast called gentrification found its way to Wicker Park nonetheless. The corner stores were ousted. The Lumpens were screaming. The beast played musical chairs with the businesses, and the Guild Complex eventually moved from HotHouse to the Chopin Theatre at Division and Ashland. There they found a long-term home on the Chopin's professional stage, adapting each of their readings to whatever set the current theater company had up, and presenting literary events there for the next nine years.
Wow. Here it is, sixteen years after I stumbled upon Guild Books, and though the bookstore is gone with the wind like so many other chi-town independent bookstores, the Guild Complex is still going strong, sponsoring all sorts of literary programs. Yet the Guild still has that independent bookstore mindset. For example, a local, small poetry imprint called Tia Chucha Press, which was founded by Luis Rodriguez (author of Always Running: Gang Days in L.A.), complemented the Guild's mission so much that they made it part of their overall programming. The Guild helped Tia Chucha publish nearly 40 titles, until just recently when Rodriguez moved it back to California.
* * *
Recently I sat down and had a chat with Ellen Placey Wadey, the present Executive Director of the Guild Complex. Wadey first discovered the Guild exactly the way I had first discovered it. "I happened across Guild Books one day after going to a movie at the Biograph," she recalled. "Cyrus Colter was reading –- just sitting on a footstool next to one of the bookshelves toward the back of the bookstore. I'd never heard a voice like his before. I bought his book on the spot, and I kept going back to the Guild on a regular basis, because I knew cool stuff was going on there."
In 2002, Wadey returned to Chicago after three years of attending grad school in Pittsburgh. She was disappointed to realize Chicago was still a very segregated city. Chicago is, in fact, ranked third on the "most segregated cities" roster, surpassed only by Detroit and Gary. Wadey found Pittsburgh to also be a city of very distinct neighborhoods. But Wadey had observed that, even though people in Pittsburgh might live in a particular neighborhood, they would travel to anywhere in the city for a good art experience. When Wadey returned to Chicago, though thrilled to see the skyline again, she couldn't help feeling a sense of loss for that mobility, that collective support for the arts.
A light bulb came on in her head. She called the Guild Complex, to ask how she might be able to get involved, knowing the Guild was a place that had the desire to get disparate people together through the arts. She thought she might volunteer to work the door or something. Instead, she ended up being hired as the Guild Complex's third Executive Director, which didn't exactly preclude working the door, but which carried with it much more responsibilities. She took over the job for Nesbitt in May of 2002, finding herself sitting at her desk in a tiny room with three other people, keeping the dream alive. At times she would have to haul equipment or work the soundboard at the events. Most nights she could be seen at the microphone, introducing the poets.
A few months before, some planes were somehow allowed to crash into some buildings, giving Clinton's successor the green light to become the "war president" he had always dreamed of becoming. America went hysterical. To say that arts funding was shifting its landscape at that time would be the understatement of the century. Resources were diverted to homeland security on the national as well as the state levels. During 2002 and 2003, a number of state arts agencies across the country either ceased to be or were drastically cut. Many of the major foundations had their portfolios invested in the stock market, which had plummeted with the speculation of war. Some of them had lost up to one-third of their funding pool. Wadey's early days as Executive Director were met by waves upon waves of difficulty.
But Wadey stood firm. Though these troubling times were on a whole new scale, she had been a fundraiser during the N.E.A. retrenching in 1995, so she had an idea how to adjust. Some of what helped her survive the difficult times was the fact that she traded options and the New York markets from 1988 to 1991. In trading, she learned to anticipate trends and prepare without ever counting on anything. She was constantly assessing and adjusting. As a result of that experience, Wadey knew how to think on her feet, and she has kept the doors of the Guild Complex open to this day, despite the odds.
Wadey's experience as a fiction writer has also helped. "I look for the narrative line in things," Wadey explained. "If this happens, then these three things will happen. If that happens, then these two things will happen. I'm very interested in making the Guild resilient enough to handle any transition: personnel, funding, venues, whatever."
The Guild Complex may have changed staff as well as venues twice, but its primary mission has remained steadfast: to promote cross-cultural dialogue through the literary arts. "We define cross-cultural in the broadest sense," Wadey clarifies, "not just race or ethnicity, but also between generations, sexual identities, genders, educational experiences. Anywhere there can be an intersection of people and ideas, we're interested in those intersections.
"Silence is the biggest ally of this social plague. It's so much easier to discriminate against others when you don't know much about them. But when you hear their voices and listen to their stories, you start to open the possibilities for connection. I don't think there is anything more powerful in the world than the human voice. When you realize that you have something to say and that people are listening –- really listening –- to you, the world can never be the same again.
"People trust the Guild Complex to present provocative programs and create safe spaces for people who might not feel that poetry or literature have room for them. The Guild creates a space for all kinds of voices and honors them – particularly voices that have been historically silenced or ignored by society. This past October, for example, we held a reading honoring the voices of domestic violence."
Wadey explained to me that this mission is not a naive one: "It doesn't mean that everyone finds out that 'deep down we're all the same.' We're not all the same. People are complex and complicated and different. But when you can bring people together who are not like each other and open even a brief moment of dialogue, then the possibilities for how we deal with each other expand –- we can listen versus shout down; we can respect differences as well as similarities and not feel threatened; we can think and speak, even argue, versus hurt and kill."
Like the Guild's previous Executive Directors, a big part of the job for Wadey is simply keeping the faith. "It's not always easy," she admitted, "but then you get a phone call like the one I got the other day. A man named John called to tell me that he'd come to hear Stuart Dybek read for the Guild, and that he'd written him a letter telling him how much he loved his writing. Stuart wrote back. John read a paragraph from the letter to me. In it, Stuart said that he'd been on a year long, extensive book tour, and that of all the readings he'd given, his favorite was the one he gave for the Guild Complex. Stuart felt that the Guild and the people in the audience were Chicago.
"The Guild has all the issues and concerns of other grassroots organizations. Keeping those doors open is not for the feint of heart or for those who don't like to roll up their sleeves. Most mom-and-pop shops have been in a financial pressure cooker the last few years. We're competing against the big boys, the museums and large theaters. Our board of directors is not composed of industry leaders with deep pockets who can write big checks to fund programs. They're good-hearted, working people willing to use their extra time and energy on our behalf. The Guild is truly non-profit in that we don't have an endowment or a big chunk of cash in the bank. That makes us vulnerable. But I think we make miracles happen with our small budget. There is something immediate and heartfelt and true, an intimacy, a sincerity, to everything we do –- even when we flop. Nights like the Stuart Dybek reading and the people like John who call to say they were there and to thank us for what we do -- that keeps the light going."
Stuart Dybek is not the only international author who sings the praises of the Guild. Just one example is renowned poet and social activist Adrienne Rich, who mentions the Guild Complex in her book of essays Arts Of The Possible (W.W. Norton & Company, 2001) as an organization that forwards "the action for many beleaguered poets and poetries."
The future for the Guild Complex looks as challenging and as bright as ever. They are starting two new reading series –- curated fiction and non-fiction open mics -– which they think will work best if held at local taverns. They hope reaching out to the tavern scene will promote an intersection between saloon poets and academic writers -– a tough dialogue to negotiate. Indeed, over the years, the Guild has presented writers that have trained in some of the finest academic institutions and saloons in Chicago.
"Chicago has a strong tradition of presenting literary readings in its local taverns and clubs," Wadey emphasized. "One of the great things about the Chopin Theatre is the high quality presentation it offers –- the lights, the sound system –- but people don't generally happen into a theater space. In 2005, we want to reach back out into the community again. Many of the people who first found the Guild back in the old HotHouse days hadn't come purposefully for a reading. They'd just come for a night out and found us. We'd like to start meeting those people again."
This is why, though the Chopin Theatre has been its home base for nine years, the Guild has also presented events at various other venues, from the Museum of Contemporary Art to the darkroom in Ukrainian Village. And though many of their events may continue at the Chopin, in 2005 the Guild plans to expand out to even more venues.
"The Guild concentrates on the intersections possible in the Chicago literary scene," Wadey said. "We like working with other organizations. We're known for being good at collaborations. I don't think there are many places that do what we do. Different and dissident voices are not openly welcome in contemporary social discourse. I've never felt more strongly that we're needed now more than ever."
And so, as the years go by, the Guild Complex will continue to present writers who have never been on a stage before, alongside internationally respected writers. The intersection between Chicago voices and the rest of the world will remain a key focus for them. They will soon host the 12th Annual Gwendolyn Brooks Open Mic. Award, during which the audience gets to select the winner of a $500 prize. They're launching an incubator program to intensively develop new talent. And they plan to continue offering workshops for writers of all levels and genres.
The Guild Complex will no doubt continue to do all of this against all odds.
If you are interested in volunteering for the Guild Complex or if you would like to be put on their mailing list, leave a message at 773-227-6117 (mailbox 10) or visit guildcomplex.org.
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Note: Here is a reprint of the popular Third Coast Press article about the Guild Complex.