Poetry Slam/Royko Walks Out | Media | Chicago Reader

Poetry Slam/Royko Walks Out 

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By Michael Miner

Poetry Slam

If the Northwestern football team hadn't gone to the Rose Bowl this year, the upheaval at TriQuarterly magazine might be easier to take. But some readers find the university's literary journal at the short end of the syllogism: The Wildcats suddenly started selling out Dyche Stadium, therefore the university enjoyed a windfall, therefore it wanted to cut costs at TriQuarterly. Doesn't make sense.

"Suddenly Northwestern has a fantastic sports success," said alumnus Barry Silesky, mulling the irony. "It costs so little money to support significant literature in a significant way. It seems to me [TriQuarterly] ought to be one of the primary recipients of these tiny amounts--percentagewise--of the dollars that other kinds of success bring in. That's what a university ought to be interested in--supporting the arts. If not that, what?"

TriQuarterly needs more from the university because it's getting less from other funders, a predicament Silesky can identify with only too well. He's editor and publisher of the literary journal ACM (Another Chicago Magazine), which, like TriQuarterly, has been sent packing by the National Endowment for the Arts. Staffed entirely by volunteers, the Lakeview-based ACM is now so strapped for cash it's skipping its fall issue.

The first rumors about the upheaval at TriQuarterly sounded dire indeed. Editor Reginald Gibbons was on the way out; likewise coeditor Susan Hahn. Autonomy was being stripped away. And worse: Northwestern intended to drive a stake through the soul of one of the nation's most distinguished venues for new fiction and poetry by turning it into a lit-crit forum for Northwestern faculty. "It seems such a strange, unthinking move on their part. So unreflective," said a disconsolate contributor. "If they start another magazine why don't they find another name? What do they need 'TriQuarterly' for?"

Fortunately, this strange and unthinking move may be one the university actually has no intention of making. "The last thing they'd do is change the nature of TriQuarterly," Gibbons told me. "The world doesn't need another critical magazine." Yes, he said, there was a "confrontation" a few years back with professors in the College of Arts and Sciences who believed the world did. But he held them off. And the changes now impending would shift jurisdiction over TriQuarterly from Arts and Sciences to the Northwestern University Press, "which is not subject to faculty pressure in that way."

Gibbons said he advised the university administration more than a year ago that because of soaring postal and paper costs and the loss of about $10,000 a year from the disemboweled NEA, "we were coming to a crisis. I figured it would be in the year 1996-'97. I could see a hole as big as $40,000 in the road I didn't know how we'd fill."

But now Gibbons says the situation warrants "guarded optimism that the magazine will be OK." The optimism springs from conversations he initiated late last year with Nicholas Weir-Williams, director of the university press. Eventually the two of them submitted a business plan to provost Lawrence Dumas that would have the press take over the journal in September '97, consolidate staffs, and save enough in production and marketing costs to even the books.

"The only substantive changes that we're considering would have to do with distribution," Weir-Williams told me. "The current distribution system for journals and their returns is so crazy it's costing TriQuarterly a fortune. We're considering a situation where distribution would be closer to what we do with books, which is in fact what Antaeus did a few years ago when Ecco Press took them on. But we don't plan any alteration in focus. If Reg steps down as editor--or rather up as editor, because he'll probably be executive editor--he or she [the new editor] would bring a new focus to the magazine. But that change is some ways off."

Why not leave Gibbons where he is? I asked.

"He's tired of doing it. He's tired of trying to fund-raise. I think he wants to devote more time to writing and more time to teaching. I'm not moving him. He's moving himself."

True enough, said Gibbons, who's been at TriQuarterly 15 years. In the past few years he's published the highly praised novel Sweetbitter and a prizewinning collection of his poetry. "I think I've given the magazine everything I've had. I think Susan Hahn has more to give."

Will Hahn, the coeditor, get the chance? I asked.

"All that's up in the air. I'm reasonably optimistic," Gibbons said. "If this works out, this would be in business terms a good thing to do, a smart thing to do. It would save some money. The bad part is the people who work for the magazine now are not guaranteed they'll have jobs at the press. So in human terms it's a sad moment. In artistic terms things could work out OK."

I called Provost Dumas, who turned me over to Northwestern media liaison Chuck Loebbaka. "Discussions are under way," he said, and no more on that. But he wanted to be sure I understood the facts about the so-called Wildcat windfall. Rose Bowl revenue was split evenly among the 11 Big Ten schools, he said, so the only bonus to speak of is "a few hundred thousand dollars from royalties on T-shirts and sweatshirts."

That trifling few hundred thou could balance the books at TriQuarterly for years to come. "Could be. I don't know what their budget is," said Loebbaka. And what of the multitudes who filled Dyche Stadium? "There was more revenue from seats. But that's the athletic budget. Nobody else's budget."

It's off the table.

Royko Walks Out

Either the Chicago Tribune is marching boldly into a multicultural future inconceivable to its late master Colonel Robert McCormick, or PC values have sapped its spirit and cracked its spine.

Either Mike Royko is an erratic shadow of the towering columnist of the 60s and 70s, or he's stayed the same while the world has changed around him.

And if Royko's the same, that's either too bad for the world or it's simply too bad for Royko.

Last week Royko almost quit the Tribune over a trivial matter. Half the Tribune would have been heartsick at such an enormous loss. And half would have been glad to see the old dinosaur go.

On Monday, June 24, Royko returned from vacation in a terrific mood. It lasted until evening, when he read the notes of two staff meetings that had been held while he was gone. He stormed out of the Tower and didn't come back all week.

The subject of the meetings was the paper's gang files. These are the files of sources' names and phone numbers that are indispensable to a newsroom's reporters. Editor Howard Tyner wanted the gang files expanded so that more voices and a broader perspective would show up in the paper's stories. Chicago bureau chief Dahleen Glanton ran the meetings.

In Glanton's memo to the staffers who took part in the meetings the old gang files became "our new source directory"--certainly a cloying example to some veterans of new speech driving out old. Glanton thanked them for participating and attached five pages of notes of "general issues" and "specific suggestions" raised at the sessions.

These were comments jotted down as they were tossed off. For example:

"Whitebread zoning. City-type stories of diversity don't get played in suburban editions.

"Stereotyping: In city, there are African-Americans; in the suburbs, people are white. Wrong.

"Mainstream sources. It's one thing to do features on minority issues, another to find sources on traditional coverage issues who are not white.

"Having different voices is key. More than race, gender, age. It is having something else to say, to give more dimensions to coverage.

"Even as we change, trust takes time. People still bring up Col. McCormick. Mike Royko."

And that's where Royko exploded. What the hell was this? McCormick met his maker 41 years ago. To name him as today's problem was preposterous. So that left Royko to take the fall by his lonesome for every Mexican-American cook and lesbian cabdriver who won't shell out 50 cents for a Tribune.

Apparently Royko wasn't sure what Glanton's memo represented. Was this official? Was this management's list of deeds to accomplish and obstacles to get past on the road to an enlightened tomorrow? Or was management simply willing to watch Royko pecked to death by mice? He screamed at Tyner and spent the rest of the week playing golf, while his friends at the paper tried to persuade him--successfully, it turned out--that he couldn't afford to quit.

"He's in a fine mood," Tyner told me Monday morning, after he'd talked to Royko by phone. "He took some time off. He had to work off some personal things. He got mad, and it was largely because he mis-understood what [Glanton's memo] was. When he did understand, the problem went away. This was not the Mexicans stomping around. This was not the gays stomping around."

No, this was Royko, sick of all the stomping around, stomping around.

The problem at the Tribune, said a writer in Royko's corner, "is this whole making everything bigger than it has to be." People don't talk, they don't storm up to Royko's desk and tell him his last column on Mexicans was bullshit. Instead, criticism oozes out as "goof-ass memos of goof-ass meetings" where reporters lay claim to victimhood. "Any reporter who can't do his job because of Colonel McCormick and Mike Royko isn't a reporter."

Not that anyone at the meeting actually went so far as to say he can't. The point here is to communicate some newsmen's perception of Royko's latest travails.

It's not the only perception. A writer too old and white to easily tar with a PC brush reminded me of Royko's last column before he went on vacation. The subject was Marge Schott, owner of the Cincinnati Reds. Royko began by reminiscing about Charlie Finley, the late owner of the Oakland A's. "I'm probably gonna sell the team," Finley said one night at the Billy Goat.

No you won't, said Royko. But Finley had his reasons. "Besides, I'm tired of dealing with all those coons."

Royko protested Finley's indiscretion.

"With a look of innocent confusion on his face, he said: 'Why can't I call them coons? They always call me mother f------.'"

No one at the Tribune but Royko could conceivably get anything so tasteless in the paper, the writer said. And look at how Royko ended the column!

"So I'm on Marge Schott's side. I hope she goes to court and sues the other owners (including the Tribune Co., which owns the Cubs) for violating the inalienable right of all Americans to occasionally say something dumb."

This is vintage Royko. It also can be read as a furious, reckless Royko who doesn't much care what he writes. His colleague at the Tribune doesn't watch with awe and admiration.

Royko was expected back in the paper on Wednesday. If for some reason he didn't show up--God knows what happened this time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Nicholas Weir-Williams by Randy Tunnell.

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