Mapping the New Literary City

“Show us your ghosts,” Rachel Hyman pleads in the opening manifesto of her upcoming “Anthology of Chicago” project, an online literary journal which seeks to collect stories representing new perspectives on Chicago’s various well-defined territories. “Show us the essence of your neighborhood; tell us something we don’t already know.” The undertaking seeks to undo old stereotypes and truisms about the “City of Neighborhoods.” It has yet to be launched, but is currently gathering stories on the editor’s “home territory” of Hyde Park.  Hyman hopes the project will foster new images of Chicago’s fractures and borders, re-imagining neighborhoods as “crucibles for architecture and lovers and fighters” and as “sandbox and springboard” for new literary projects focused on Chicago.

Hyman, a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago, is no stranger when it comes to overturning worn out literary clichés. As a co-founder and editor of the online blog “Banango Lit,” Hyman has become a prominent promoter and chronicler of the movement known as “alt lit,” a loosely connected group of avant-garde writers who seek to reverse traditional notions about the relationship between the literary world and the Internet. In Hyman’s words, “alt lit gravitates toward the Internet as a space for community-building and promotion.” Social media sites, in particular, become fertile creative grounds, allowing “writers to place emphasis on their own personality, which is often used as a focal point of creative output.” Yet the Internet, in Hyman’s view, is not merely a marketing tool, but an important element in new prose and poetry, with “image macros, found and/or appropriated text, misspellings, commonplace language” all appearing  as important tropes.

With Banango Lit, which debuted in June 2011, Hyman has helped to give a critical backbone to the “alt lit” scene. Banango is by no means the first or the only review site of alt lit writers–Blake Butler’s HTMLGIANT has, since 2008, provided a space for contentious debate over the nature of what Internet literature should and shouldn’t be. Yet Banango has managed to carve out a distinctive niche for itself. As Hyman explained when I met with her, the blog was meant “to start a conversation. A lot of things are changing in literature right now, so we really need to take a step back and examine what’s going on.”

While Banango Lit is not necessarily opposed to discussing more mainstream or established authors–the editors of the blog unanimously share a love of David Foster Wallace, and reviews often draw connections to literary traditions stretching back to T.S. Elliot and Vladimir Nabokov–Hyman says that Banango “focuses on writers who are not so well known and who don’t necessarily have a chance to be read by a broad audience.” The tension between canonical authors and the emergent community of mostly unrecognized writers has been a part of the blog since its inception. Banango itself evolved out of a collaborative poetry project headed by Steve Roggenbuck, the travelling poet and blogger who was recently profiled in a New York Times Magazine article titled “The Prophet.” His project, called Poetry by Emily Dickinson had, in fact, very little to do with the 19th century Amherst poet. It was rather “an effort to steal Google traffic from a dead writer and redirect it to living writers collaborating online.” Hyman and her future Banango Lit co-founder, Justin Carter, met through the project, where they both helped Roggenbuck to tweak and “remix” found text and poems sent in by contributors. Despite the project’s tongue-in-cheek premise, it was not meant to mock the dead writer, but instead to celebrate and build a new community that is alive and thriving through Helvetica text.

Within the first year of its existence, Banango has built up a wide-ranging network of participants. From her residence in Hyde Park, Hyman has established partnerships not only with her site’s co-founder, who currently resides in Bowling Green, Ohio, but with her various editors and guest writers, whose locales range from Austin, Texas to Wellington, New Zealand. Her blog has also spawned a literary journal, Banango Street, which will be publishing its third issue online this December. Additionally, Banango recently unveiled an “alt lit promo train,” a promotional bulletin board of sorts that advertises upcoming releases and new works from writers in the alt lit scene. Banango has helped to tie together disparate threads of the alt lit web by merging publishing, criticism, and advertising into one cohesive whole.

Hyman’s latest project, the Anthology of Chicago, is, in a sense, the opposite of Banango–rather than building a new literary city in a virtual world, the anthology seeks to deconstruct the City of Chicago, breaking down its “well-defined neighborhoods” into collections of contrasting perspectives, told through stories and poems. According to Hyman, “I’ve always been concerned with questions of space and the ways in which people interact with the space around them.” Submissions are not limited to Hyde Park residents or writers, and Hyman will slowly open up submissions to new neighborhoods.

The project will hopefully spark new literary interest in other South Side neighborhoods. At the moment, the de facto “IRL” headquarters for the lit community in Chicago remains Logan Square. In Hyman’s opinion, however, it only takes “a little initiative” to set up new readings and attract readers and writers. As the Anthology of Chicago project grows, it will be seen if such initiative can translate into a world of brick and concrete.