Despite the gloom Wednesday’s weather cast on the city, the Performance Penthouse in Logan Center was aglow for a reading by the three winners of the Undergraduate Writing About Chicago contest, fourth-year Michael Lipkowitz, third-year Naseem Jamnia, and fourth-year Caroline O’Donovan. Introducing the winners, David Hays, an assistant director at the University Community Service Center, said they had been chosen from dozens of entrants. A whiteboard behind the podium read, “Where are the lights?” It could have been a line of poetry, or an honest question. When someone erased the board just before the beginning of the reading, the audience gave a collective sigh.
After arriving several minutes late, Lipkowitz read a story narrated by two different students at Von Steuben, a high school on the North Side. One narrator is a social outcast whose sister is mugged and shot in Lakeview. She loves relating strange and gruesome stories from around Chicago— “A pit bull ran onto a CTA bus in Bronzeville,” “They found a cat walking around with an arrow in its head downtown,” “They found a human foot in Lake Michigan.” Through the teens’ eyes, Lipkowitz finds the city’s effect on personal connections, a theme all three readers were interested in exploring.
Hays, who grew up in Oak Park, said, “The contest is a great way to encourage students to write about what’s around them in a broader way. People come to the University from all over the world, and the city presents them with amazing opportunities. The Logan Center has been so intentional about being a way for the arts to connect with a broader community—we’re excited to have it as a resource and as a symbol. We want to see what will come from that.”
Jamnia’s poems were a series of ghazals, rhyming couplets that originate from sixth century Arabic verse. Persian mystics and poets writing in Urdu popularized the obscure form, Jamnia explained. She composed seven poems called “Chicago Ghazals”.
“They make me feel connected to my heritage,” Jamnia said. “I wrote these last June in a Core creative writing class—they actually came out of a mimicry piece. I usually don’t submit poetry to contests. I’m really nervous!”
Jamnia’s poems tackled both childhood history and contemporary experience. Though she touched on early places and relationships, her lines also commented on life in Chicago. “They say the city is ripped in half. I’ve lived both sides,” she wrote, and, “In other cities, looking up is a sign you don’t belong.” The poems were ultimately enmeshed in a struggle to understand personal relationships and, fittingly, ended on this note: “I hoped she [a friend] would find someone to love beyond herself in me.”
O’Donovan, meanwhile, shared an excerpt from her BA thesis, a work of long- form journalism. An English and political science double major who interns at WBEZ, the local NPR station, she chose to focus on a friend of hers who, at age 24, decided to run for state legislature against an established seat holder in Cook County. “As I got more into writing, I started to learn that on Sunday morning you don’t just laze around, you get up and go into the city. It’s not always a pure joy, but reporting is very different from our traditional idea of scholarship, where you’re just in a library, absorbing a lot of text.” Of her thesis, O’Donovan commented, “I wanted to get to the bottom of notions about, well, why do you run for office? Why does a candidate win or lose? What is that world like?”
The novelty of the Logan Center instilled a feeling of slight disbelief in the audience. Nancy Gilpin, an advisor in the College, was excited. “I think it’s going to be an arts magnet for the city,” she said. Her husband Clark, a former Divinity School professor, said, “I’m purely here for the curiosity of the building.” The students who read were deeply interested and involved in Chicago. And along with the audience, they partook in the process of integrating the new space, story by story, into the city.