It was the first open mic that I had ever attended that began with a speed dating icebreaker, ostensibly to “get in the Valentine’s Day mood” after the fact. The surprise reveal was that all of the speed dating contestants turned out to be literary villains. The emcee, Erin Hoffman, does short readings between each of the featured writers—both at this and at previous readings. Hoffman’s work tends toward the literary and referential: selections from The Art of Arousal (Erotic Love Poems by Erin Hoffman) features a wealth of parodies of Shakespeare, plus one of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and a later sketch imagines two people trading literary puns and book-themed pick-up lines. Surrounded by shelves of books, stickers, and literary paraphernalia, the puns elicit a few extra laughs. Here is a crowd that knows the bookish stock characters she trades in and has come to see them onstage again
Drew Jennings, Isaac Willis and Chris Vajonjack each read from their chosen material, rescheduled from their previous pre-Valentine’s Day reading. All three are third-year MFA students in creative writing at The University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign.
Jennings read “Ride With Me,” a short story that begins with a setup to fit the original romantic theme for Valentine’s Day but spirals into a road trip. A woman invites the Papa John’s delivery guy on his last run of the night in to smoke a bowl, and they end up listening to episodes of Serial. The closest to “romance” it gets is the narrator projecting moments in a relationship onto the man she has invited in: “I can tell that he wants to stay” and “This is our first fight” in a relationship that he doesn’t seem to know is happening. There was a general laugh from the crowd when the main character breaks out her cocaine stash from her underwear drawer. The image, if not the action, felt like some kind of inside joke. In a similar style to Stuart Dybek, there is plenty of ambiguity in Jennings’s imagery and little concrete resolution, but “Ride With Me” is not a story that set out to declare any message it might carry.
Isaac Willis read poems— “Notes Toward a Comprehensive Philosophy of Road Signs” “Ode to Miss Uniroyal” and “The Ballad of Jerry Davis”—and all three reflect his description of his work as “a reclamation of flyover country.” These poems trade in what ought to be mundane details and features of a Midwest “flyover” landscape, but instead become arresting in their specificity: a seventeen-foot fiberglass statue of a woman in a red bikini; a misfit teenager who becomes a folk hero in his feud with the neighborhood dads. There’s little romantic love in these poems—Valentine’s Day is over, and the theme is not mandatory—but a love of place comes through that could only be translated well by someone who has lived and been educated in west central Illinois. The statue, affectionately “Miss Uniroyal,” advertises for Peoria Plaza Tires, and is both a physical landmark and a marker of home. When she was removed for repairs after being hit by a drunk driver, navigation became strange and uncomfortable; when she was returned, fully repaired, she temporarily wore a cast. The title character of “The Ballad of Jerry Davis” is less beloved in his locale. Any outcast character in a small town can feel a little like an homage to Boo Radley, but whether Willis intends this or not it serves him well.
Chris Vajonjack read “A Survey of the Landscape” about the designation of the Urbana Legacy Tree American Sycamore #237. The roots of the essay began during the COVID-19 lockdown, which he describes as spent “going on walks, getting high and looking at trees.” The flatness of the Midwest came as a shock after the mountain of his home in Colorado, but eventually the features that he was used to seeing that weren’t there gave way to the distinctive trees. He recalls his girlfriend saying that so many of these trees are there because some professor got bored one hundred years ago and planted them all over town, but that she just remembers reading it in an article in the archive (which is closed) and could be wrong. Now, as he sits in a meeting hearing the results of a vote to designate one a legacy, that one man’s boredom has become a way to keep going. All three writers seem to follow a muse that demands intense images and specific details. Where these three writers are at their most expressive is when they disappear into those details— the landscapes, the communities, the mundane-yet-eccentric local fact—and allow them to take center stage. If the original theme of the evening began with romance, then it ended with a love letter to central Illinois.