The essay, as we all know, is an attempt. It’s a way of telling about, relating to, examining, delineating, and explaining things: big things and small; elephants and moths; individual human lives and families; a neighborhood, a whole city; a state or a whole damn, glacially-ironed region.
The Illinois essay, and the essayists who call Illinois home, are concerned and consumed by delineations, with explaining themselves and the state(s) they now find themselves in: Northshore vs. South Side; Chicago vs. the ‘burbs; Chicagoland vs. Downstate; corn and soybean futures vs. the actual plants themselves; mile-long parcels of flatness vs. many-storeyed city blocks; staying vs. leaving.
The Illinois essays that follow are indebted to many that came before (Chief Blackhawk, Eliza Farnham, Honest Abe, Upton Sinclair, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko, John Hughes, and David Foster Wallace, to name a few) but are trying real hard not to live in the past.
The essays that follow are curious about how many minutes it took you to get here. They are here to warn you that if a white boy in a Patagonia fleece tells you he’s from Chicago that he’s actually from Oak Brook or Highland Park. —David Griffith, Illinois #Midwessay Coordinator
Lucia Cordell Getsi: Somewhere, despite the tall / Protection of skyscrapers (or mountains)/ You’ve learned what these farmers know. / To stay here, you’ve got to be tied /to something.
Wendell Berry: There are no unsacred places; /there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places.
Gwendolyn Brooks: Art hurts. Art urges voyages -/ and it is easier to stay at home / the nice beer ready. / In commonrooms / we belch, or sniff, or scratch/ Are raw.
David Foster Wallace: But mostly wind. The biggest single factor in Central Illinois' quality of outdoor life is wind. . . The wind had a personality, a (poor) temper, and, apparently, agendas. . . . a Central Illinois "blizzard" starts only when the snowfall stops and the wind begins.
Sons of the Never Wrong: So clear your mind and close your eyes, be quiet and pretend. / It looks like Illinois, but sounds like Ireland.
Allison Joseph: I'm a big city girl and a small town woman, / able to speak patois in a drawl.
At Least One Parent’s Illinois Birthplace: Hinckley, IllinoisWriter’s Birthplace: UrbanaParents’ Zip Code When They Met: 61064Remembered Zip Codes Before College: 61571Zip Codes During College: 62521Zip Codes Since College: 62521,62522, 63501, 60645, 61764,Collected Area Codes: 309, 217, 660, 312, 217, 847, 815, 217 (forever, now, you no longer outrunthose digits any more)Number of Illinois Places Mentioned on Sufjan Stevens’ “Come on Feel the Illinoise” and“The Avalanche” Where You’ve Actually Visited and/or Lived: No Fewer than 12 andup to 15 (Check out this map by Jonah Adkins).Interstates and State Highways Committed to Memory While Commuting for 30+ Years forWork and/or Love (in Order of Familiarity) while Composing Poems/Sentences on Various Recording Devices: 74, 55, 24, 72, 80, 88, 294, 94, 290, 57, 51, 34, 47, 67, 116.
Illinois Colleges Where Writer Has Studied: 2/4 (hey, you go where you have to)Illinois Colleges Where Writer Has Taught: 7/ 8 (not including mercenary online teaching)Serious Writing Mentors Originally from Midwest: Maybe 2 out of 8? A Cajun, a guy fromCincinnati, and a dude from Queens taught me the most about how to see and writethis region.Grade School/High School Field Trip Destinations: Lincoln’s Springfield Home; New Salem;Lincoln’s Tomb; Lincoln’s Law Office; Lincoln, Lincoln, Lincoln on Every Damned Sign in Front of a Courthouse or Home Where He Practiced Law, Slept, or Shat; Dixon Mounds, Cahokia Mounds, Starved Rock (And All Manner of Other Appropriated Names and Places of Peoples with Deep Histories but “Look, Now We Made a Park and It’s Fine”); Yordy’s Turkey Farm, The Field Museum of Science and Industry and Art Institutes and Bus Rides to Chicago; Wildlife Prairie Park because your dad made you get up and gather seeds of native grasses and plants when you were 7 that were used to restore this wonder; Niabi/Glenn Oak/Brookfield/Lincoln Park Zoos; Six Flags over Great Gurnee; Caterpillar Factory Floor in Yellow Plastic Hard Hats, Sears Tower; Superman Statue in Metropolis; Various Arsenals; Wrigley Field; Disney World by Bus (because to really have fun you must always leave); Local Historical Society where you are NOT allowed to touch things but you do anyhow; Various music camps/competitions at Eastern, Western, and other directional branches of IL universities.
Mentions of Illinois Towns/Cities/Rivers/Streets in Published Poems & Essays: 78Favorite Name of a Body of Water in Illinois: Vermillion River (which is not, in fact, Vermillion)Town Names Concerned Primarily about Fields and Creeks: Deerfield, Deer Creek,Springfield, Fairfield, Brookfield, Long Creek, Goodfield (why is there no Short Creek orBadfield?)Place and Street Names Pronounced Alternately to Their Pronunciations Elsewhere: Versailles, Vienna, Viola, Tehran, La Grange, Goethe, Joliet, Cairo, Eldorado.Titles and Authors of Books by/or About Illinois Writers/Writing/Literature on Visible Shelves in Current Room: Writing Illinois (James Hurt); Illinois Voices (G. E. Murray & Kevin Stein); Benchmark: An Anthology of Illinois Poetry (Ray Bial); 1919 (Eve Ewing); Lemon Jelly Cake (Madeline Smith); Coyote Sun (Carlos Cumpian); Looking for Lincoln (Dan Guillory); Native Son (Richard Wright); Poems from the Sangaman (John Knoepfle); River Songs (Michael Anania); Blacks (Gwendolyn Brooks); Spoon River Anthology (Edgar Lee Masters); Alliance, Illinois (Dave Etter); If They Come for Us (Fatimah Asghar); In the Middle of the Middlewest: Literary Nonfiction from the Heartland (Becky Bradway); Finna (Nate Marshall); Iced (Robert Grindy; Life in Prairieland (Eliza Farnham); A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (David Foster Wallace); Five Days of Bleeding (Ricardo Cortez Cruz); Second Sky (Tania Runyan); Illinois Literature: The 19th Century (John Hallwas); Scared Violent Like Horses (John McCarthy).
Stay in one region or place or neighborhood, in my case, a small town in Illinois, long enough to know it well enough to know that I can’t inhabit or care for it fully without at least trying to stay put and see and think and discern some pretty beautiful and possibly terrifying stuff buried in that very particular dirt, some of which was imported or simply arrived on the wind from a lot of other places that don’t give two shits about this specific, flawed spot that is, against all outside appearances, home to some meaningfully complex people, and plenty of assholes. They are my neighbors. I might be the ass. To see and know this, folks may need to go away for a while. In Illinois, you probably at least need to do a few sojourns to Chicago so you understand that it is not one place but dozens of places. To save ourselves, some of us will need to go away altogether. If you come back, or listen to someone who just got to town, you’ll see familiar streets and houses and schools and churches in new ways. Trust some of what you remember from before and pay attention to what you see now and in the days to come. Write it down, again and again. You will lose and gain friends doing this. Read what others have written down. There is no Illinois Writer. There are Illinois writers, maybe even Chicago, Upstate, Downstate, Western, Central, Southern, and University Town Illinois writers. The thing that makes them Illinois writers is not a resume. It is their language, stolen, invented, written, or told to others out of love or fury for a place here long before it was called Illinois. Summon those ghosts that whisper and sing. Become one.
Favorite Illinois Bird: Red-tailed hawks along interstates.
What is the #Midwessay? What is the Midwest? What are the characteristics, if any, of the #Midwessay (the Midwest essay)? What gathers us together? What pulls us apart? Springing from a twitter conversation, we started asking writers and readers what they imagine (or would like to reimagine) as the Midwest and the Midwessay. The #Midwessay is a series of reports from the Midwest (whatever that is) by and/or about Midwestern essay and essayists (whatever those are). Essay Daily will be publishing these, sorted (loosely) by state, in February 2021 and beyond. These #Midwessays will be collected here and on a separate site at a later date. If you'd like to submit a report / essay, send it our way. Details and coordinators for each state are listed here. You can also ping Ander (link at the upper right) if we don't list a coordinator yet for your state. —The Editors