Fred Sasaki, the poetry promoter | Lit Feature | Chicago Reader

Fred Sasaki, the poetry promoter 

'It seemed to me the perfect scene of a literary fantasy'

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Sasaki, 35, is associate editor of Poetry magazine and founder of the Printers' Ball.

I grew up along the Chicago lakefront, on Roscoe Street—born in the morning at Saint Joseph's Hospital. The family business was Barry Regent Dry Cleaners. I worked there some and always had my pants hemmed. College was somewhere in Boston. I got lost in the clouds to say the least. After graduating I cut keys at True Value Hardware, sliced sushi, made 16-millimeter movies, and landed back in Chicago as a lackey for WTTW and the CSO. After that I was lucky to find work as a page at the Newberry Library, in the general reading room among some of the best people I've known. There I was engaged for what felt like the first time, reading hours on end, talking about books, and being excited about everything. I definitely had busy hands, making figures out of paper clips and working in heaven (the conservation lab). It was dreamy.

My first day on the job at the Newberry I waited in the bookstore for my boss to escort me into the library. I picked off a copy of Poetry magazine from the tower display and flipped its pages. I noticed that it was published from the building I was standing in and thought, "I'd love to work for them."

At that time Poetry was housed in a small room on floor 2A of the closed stacks building of the library. It seemed to me the perfect scene of a literary fantasy. I'd pass the consumed editors in the stairwell, poke around their books in the stacks, and see them poring over manuscripts in the corner cafe amid espresso and cigarettes. Three years later I just asked if I could file papers for them and it was, turns out, the perfect time. I sealed envelopes with a ceramic tongue, shelved books, and logged the thousands of poems that came by mail bins. In one little office with a sliver of a window I got a crash course on small literary publishing. [Ruth Lilly's $100 million bequest to Poetry in 2002] was announced shortly thereafter and a great ride began. The staff has always been and continues to be the bee's knees. As for me, I do a little of everything: layout, proofreading, art direction and design, copyediting and soliciting, events and collaborations, and as much mischief as can be managed.

I love the Printers' Ball for being a completely unique, largely improvised, full-tilt orchestration of literary arts. The organizations and artists of the Printers' Ball harness the wonders of publishing, performing, and process for a one-night turnout of thousands of books, magazines, and more before three to four thousand of our town's art citizens—free for everyone. It's endless fun and about so much more than local interest.

There are many opportunities to work creatively in Chicago. Sure, there's no money but it's fun. Other work I love is being a curator for Homeroom's "101" series of show-and-tell introductions to assorted subjects, helping the Stop Smiling and Chicagoan projects, being involved with the Japanese American Service Committee, and keeping the spirit of the Dil Pickle Club alive with the nuts of this city. —As told to Jerome Ludwig

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