Smile Politely

Pygmalion Lit Crawl recap

I’d been waiting for this year’s Pygmalion Lit Fest since I managed to catch a couple of the readings last year. It opened my eyes to the culture of writers and literary readings in public places — something I hadn’t experienced up to that point. This year, I was even more stoked, making sure I had work off for the entire weekend to see as many readings as I could, if not all of them. I am happy to report that I only missed the readings on Sunday, so I ample opportunity to “get lit.”

What really got my attention this year was the addition of something called a “Lit Crawl.” Upon closer inspection and inquiry, I was told that a lit crawl is just a bar crawl, but with readings. SOLD, said a voice in my head. After experiencing it for myself, I can safely say that it was the centerpiece of the Lit Fest this year, and it was definitely a lot of fun.

The crawl began on Saturday at 4pm, just after the book fair at Esquire. Audience members had the choice of starting out at Esquire or Brass Rail. As I had already spent the day working one of the book fair tables at Esquire, I felt it was better to stay put and start out there. This decision paid off beautifully.

I’m a U of I student, but I’m also a Champaign native. I was amused to see that among the other readers was William Gillespie, another local. I have seen his face appearing on the sides of MTD buses for years. “Why are you so obsessed with my bus ad?” he asked me when I followed up with him on his poetry reading. It’s not so much that I’m obsessed with his ad as it is I was just never expecting to see the person from that poster reading poems in Esquire. He probably didn’t expect me to find an MTD commercial he was in on YouTube either — after some investigative research, of course.

I asked about Gillespie’s reading and how he chose the poems he read, to which he replied:

“Thing is, I came up as a stage performer, working open mikes and Chicago poetry slams in places like the Green Mill or Weeds. And at the former Blind Pig in Champaign, I opened for bands like Alice Donut and Reverend Horton Heat. I’m comfortable with the idea that, if I’m boring, somebody will throw a bottle at my head. I think that’s fair. When I started getting degrees, I discovered that most poetry readings aren’t like rock shows. I’ve been domesticated by higher education, and have the utmost respect for the people I share a stage with, but I still want to rip it up. Just because I had a bottle thrown at my head. Well, Bill from Bad Flannel said that it was a full pitcher of beer that was thrown at my head. I didn’t see what hit me. I just felt a knock, my sunglasses went blurry, and I kept reading. And the Reverend Heat’s girlfriend told me he was going to kick me in the face. So I’m scared of what will happen if I’m boring. Plus it’s more fun when I can see people in the back row smile because I’ve projected my voice properly, enunciated, looked up from the page now and then, and chosen brisk, engaging material.”

Gillespie also described the differences between reading at Esquire from his other readings and said, “I liked that guy Jim, the MC from Quiddity. He was cool and nice. Better than I’m used to. The Esquire as a venue was surprisingly good for a bar I didn’t think had any stage or focal point. Really decent PA for those who had a grasp of basic microphone technique. Thanks to whoever rigged that. I brought in my own water. I hate when I get charged for water at a bar where I’m performing for free. You know? $4 one time at the Iron Post. Screw that. So that’s the main difference. I brought my own water.”

Gillespie called the reading amazing. “I felt super-charged,” he said. “And after soaring on a meth-like euphoria for two hours, I plunged into a rocky tailspin depression. Totally hit bottom. I couldn’t write for about 12 hours afterward. Now I’m okay, the adrenalin has subsided, and I’m back to the essentially flavorless work of typing drafts every day in my basement without social media. Which is not for every writer, obviously, but it’s the path I’ve chosen.”

Aside from this reading, Gillespie also considers himself a fan of the Pyg Lit Fest, and attended every reading this year, calling the event top-notch. “Sometimes these hybrid music/lit festivals borrow the cool of a rock concert as a sort of leather jacket to wear over the khaki slacks of what boils down to an academic networking event. But not the Pyg Lit. Readers are local and chosen for their ability to rock a crowd, not their CVs. The organizers of the festival know we’re an audience, not a tenure committee. Otherwise we’d just stay home and read, right? Pyg Lit is a testament to the power of the Urbana underground every time. We’re the new Iowa City flipping the east coast the bird.”

The first series of readings took up the whole hour, with the next half of the crawl taking place at 5 p.m. Crawlers could choose either The Blind Pig Co. or Mike ‘n Molly’s where the crawl would culminate with readings from several more of the headlining readers. I chose The Blind Pig. Here, another series of readers included John Rubins, a New York native who currently teaches writing courses at the U of I. He didn’t read for one of the presses, but was specifically chosen as one of the writers to represent the area during the event.

He read a piece from an untitled novella he’s currently working on, a story set sometime in the future. The distinguishing point was a distinct use of language. “The novella is told in a somewhat different form of English,” Rubins said. “It shares some similar grammatical elements with pidgin languages which are abbreviated languages.” He chose to read it because some students have accused him of being too conservative when it comes to writing and writing techniques. “I wanted to read something that demonstrated that well-written, very experimental work doesn’t mean that it abandons such notions as logical and narrative integrity, and unity of purpose.”

Rubins said he enjoys reading his work and thought the reading went well. “I think the audience was really attentive and eager to hear the readers,” he said. “As good as I could ever hope for in an audience. Personally, the notion of there being more readers reading for shorter periods of time is really appealing to me. I like to hear different approaches, and that contrast between readers keeps it lively.”

Asked for his thoughts on the other readings over the weekend, he admitted he missed some but was able to stay when the lit crawl culminated at Mike ‘n Molly’s at 6pm. He said he enjoyed the Scott McClanahan reading most. “Scott McClanahan was really fantastic, a writer after my own heart, probably because of my fascination with the musicality of language.”

From the perspective of this lucky Crawler, the event was a major success. The three locations I was at — Esquire, The Blind Pig, and Mike ‘N Molly’s — were all packed houses with plenty of people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the back while supporting the people behind the microphones. Let’s hope this event returns next year.

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