VOICE: MFA students in creative writing continue open mics at The Literary: Arts: Smile Politely
It was the first open mic I’d attended that started with an ice-breaking speed dating, supposedly 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 during this reading and previous readings. Hoffman’s work tends toward the literary and the referential: selections from The art of excitement (Erotic Love Poems by Erin Hoffman) features a slew of Shakespeare parodies, plus one by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and a later sketch imagines two people exchanging literary puns and book-themed lines. Surrounded by shelves of books, stickers, and literary paraphernalia, the puns elicit a few more laughs. Here’s A Crowd Who Knows The Bookish Characters They Swap And Came To See Them On Stage Again
Drew Jennings, Isaac Willis and Chris Vajonjack each read material of their choice, carried over from their previous reading before Valentine’s Day. 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 suited to the original romantic Valentine’s Day theme, but turns into a road trip. A woman invites the Papa John’s delivery guy on his last errand of the night to smoke a bowl, and they end up listening to episodes of Serial. Closest to ‘romance’ is the narrator projecting moments from a relationship onto the man she invited: ‘I can tell he wants to stay’ and ‘It’s our first fight’ in a relationship that he doesn’t seem to know what’s going on. There was general laughter from the crowd as the main character pulled out his stash of cocaine from his underwear drawer. The image, if not the action, looked like some sort of inside joke. In a style similar to Stuart Dybek, there’s a lot of ambiguity in Jennings’ imagery and little concrete resolution, but “Ride With Me” isn’t a story that aims to declare the message it might convey. .
Isaac Willis has read poems – “Notes to a Complete 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 recovery of the country flown over “. These poems swap what should be mundane details and features of a Midwestern “flyover” landscape, but become rather 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 fathers. There is little romantic love in these poems – Valentine’s Day has passed and the theme is not obligatory – but a love of place shines through that can only be translated well by someone who has lived and been educated in west-central Illinois. The statue, affectionately “Miss Uniroyal”, advertises Peoria Plaza Tires, and is both a physical landmark and a marker of the home. When removed for repair after being hit by a drunk driver, navigation became strange and uncomfortable; when she returned, fully repaired, she temporarily wore a cast. The main character of “The Ballad of Jerry Davis” is less popular in his region. Any outcast character in a small town can feel a bit like a Boo Radley homage, but whether Willis likes it or not, it serves him well.
Chris Vajonjack read “A Survey of the Landscape” on the designation of Urbana Legacy Tree American Sycamore #237. The trial’s roots began during the COVID-19 lockdown, which he describes as spent “walking around, getting high and staring at the trees”. The flatness of the Midwest came as a shock after the mountain of his home in Colorado, but eventually the features he was used to seeing that weren’t there gave way to distinctive trees. He remembers his girlfriend saying that so many of these trees are there because a teacher got bored a hundred years ago and planted them all over town, but she just remembers having it read in an article from the archive (which is closed) and could be wrong. Now, as he attends a meeting and hears the results of a vote to designate one as his legacy, this man’s boredom has become a way to go on. The three writers seem to follow a muse that demands intense imagery and specific detail. Where these three writers are most expressive is when they disappear into these details – the landscapes, the communities, the mundane but eccentric local fact – and allow them to take center stage. If the original theme of the evening began with romance, it ended with a love letter to central Illinois.
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