Good Grammar

Rebecca Stoner

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“Did you bring anything to read?” author Brendan Detzner asked as guests walk into Bad Grammar Theater, which also happens to be his home. Detzner and fellow author Mike Penkas were standing behind a table where their books and T-shirts are displayed for sale. Behind them was an unmade futon with a partially eaten pepperoni pizza nearby, and Macbook Air perched on a desk.

Bad Grammar hosts the only reading series that is part of Second Fridays in Pilsen. But the DIY appeal of Bad Grammar sets it apart from the chic vintage stores and funky, polished galleries that participate in the monthly art crawl. Detzner welcomes strangers into the top floor of his home, encouraging them to add their own stories to the evening’s program. Stories are read every half hour. They usually last 15-20 minutes, and then the audience disperses to chat. People tend to stay for a few stories, and then wander out for snacks or to visit other Second Fridays events. Many return later to hear more.

Bad Grammar does not require its authors to bring in fully polished finished products, so it’s easy for newcomers to walk right in. The work presented is far from amateurish, but the best way to describe the reading group is rough around the edges: they haven’t quite yet mastered the Chicago literary scene, but that doesn’t mean they don’t show promise.

As Penkas introduced the first story, he peered at the audience and asked, “How many of you are new here tonight?” Several of the guests seated in mismatched chairs around him raise their hands. “Shoot,” he said, and joked, “If I’d known, I would have just read some of my old stuff.” Although popular belief indicates that readings tailor the intellectual elite, the atmosphere in Detzner’s home was comfortable and inviting, a stage where storytelling is the focus and elaborate pomp is unnecessary.

Detzner got the idea for the monthly series after meeting talented Chicago authors through reading events at the former Edgewater bookstore Kate the Great’s. When a few of his favorite readings shut down earlier this year, Detzner decided, “It’s my turn to hold the football.”

Since many established readings are held in the Lincoln Park area, Detzner liked the idea of having an authors’ hub south of Roosevelt. He found this angular duplex in Pilsen, in the heart of the Chicago Arts District, and thought, “Hey, maybe some people will want to stop in and hear a story.” The location has a few distinct advantages, he says. “Most events have to persuade people to leave their homes and come across town. All we have to do is entice some of the hundreds of people who’ve already decided to come out to Second Fridays to walk fifteen feet.”

Detzner hopes the event will improve the visibility of local authors. He feels that he and many of the readers at Bad Grammar have been “screwed over by small presses,” who are quick to reject work from fledgling writers and provide little support to help promote and distribute their work. Having written two novels, Detzner says he wouldn’t mind selling some copies through the readings.

But Bad Grammar is about more than selling books. Detzner sees the value in reading before an audience, and believes it can actually improve the quality of the writing. He claims that reading his own work “makes me raise my standards when I’m writing,” and appreciates feedback from “people who don’t have any particular expectations or theory, and just know if they like what they heard or not.” He wants to extend the opportunity for this kind of productive criticism to other writers, in part because he thinks it can “provide a good incentive to not be self-indulgent or boring.”

The subject matter of the stories to follow ranged from zombies to the guilt faced by a drug dealer who believes he killed Kurt Cobain. Many of the pieces were humorous, shading into the realm of the absurd. The first story, for instance, featured a misanthropic nursing home attendant who described a knife fight between two residents as an impromptu production of West Side Story.

That night, the sparse turnout required Detzner to shoulder the responsibility of most of the reading. Penkas contributed one story, and an audience member named Brandon Sichling read his poem called, “Let’s Hear it For Menstruation.” Detzner seemed surprised by the low attendance. “I don’t know what’s up with tonight,” he said, “I’ve had like five readers before.”

Like many of the stories presented at the reading, Bad Grammar is still in development. Detzner hopes to attract more authors and a larger crowd, and to establish a warmer, more inviting atmosphere. Despite the Facebook event’s assertion that this is an event for both established and emerging authors, it seems that Detzner and his friends are still trying to establish their own niche in Chicago’s literary world. It’s a hard scene to break into, but it is, fortunately, willing to embrace authors who lack the benefit of a big name. Detzner admits that many of them are “still trying to make it work.” Bad Grammar’s a good start.

Bad Grammar Theater. 1743 S. Halsted St. Every second Friday of the month, 6-10pm.