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Keeping the Lit Ball Rolling
Fred Sasaki and Sarah Dodson bring together Chicago's lit lovers at Printer's Ball.
Monday Jul 16, 2007.     By Robert Duffer
Centerstage Chicago Nightlife City Guide Arts

The multitude of readings in Chicago's lit scene range from the traditional—at libraries and commercial venues—to improvised events at hole-in-the-wall bars and grungy basements. But only one occasion joins all the disparate literary sects of Chicago: The Printer's Ball.

The month-long itinerant reading series culminated on July 20, with more than 90 lit organizations distributing their wares at the free, all-ages bonanza at Zhou B. Art Center. The man responsible for bringing together the gritty, the professional and the academic is Fred Sasaki, Assistant Editor at Poetry Magazine. This year, Sasaki also recruited Sarah Dodson, who edits the biannual magazine MAKE: A Chicago Literary Magazine. I met Sasaki and Dodson at Danny's Readings Series, one of the many series participating in Printer's Ball.

What is the history of the Printer's Ball, and what do you attribute to its popularity?
Fred: The whole thing started as literally an idea. I was just an editor and got to talking with two friends [who also edited the magazine] and I think we were looking at some old photos of parties of the Poetry past. One photo in particular that we all loved from a Poetry event was TS Elliot in a tuxedo looking very pleased and half asleep. And we were thinking how great it would be to participate in a literary culture and to have a party for people like us…I went to the editor of Poetry, Christian Wiman, with the two other editors who I talked about, with the idea of putting together this party with other literary magazines in the city. He said, "Sure, make it happen." So we had support from the Foundation from the start and kind of had free reign to make it happen…the community thought it was such a neat thing and they were saying that they've wanted something like this to happen for so long. All together we made it happen, and that's the beauty of the whole thing: It's the participants that drive it.

It built up in a way that surprised everyone. At the first Printer's Ball [at the HotHouse in 2005] we were expecting a conservative estimate of 300. I was hoping for 500, and then there were like 1,000 people, and we knew this was something that needed to be developed. It's been growing every year. New magazines have been popping up all over and we've drawing in all these different reading series.

How do you get funding for the ball?
Fred: We've been lucky in that venues like the project and want to take it on. The Poetry Foundation sponsors [it], but really the whole thing happens because everyone wants to cooperate and contribute. Everyone is giving away magazines; people are giving away thousands of dollars of product…Chicagoland Underground Library is helping support some magazines that can't afford to give any of their stuff away.

What are your favorite literary hangouts?
Sarah: Danny's—this is a good place in general.

Fred: The Hideout. They're one of the places that are so accommodating and generous to literary ventures. They're such a happy, nice place that embraces the community and makes it possible for people to have successful events there. The California Clipper has been wonderful to the Guild Complex, among other organizations, not to mention [it's] one of the most beautiful bars in the city. [The people of] Zhou B. Arts Center are unbelievable to be able to facilitate this kind of project. They've worked closely with a lot of other literary endeavors.

What is your opinion of the Chicago lit scene?
Fred: There's so much going on that's it impossible to say one thing about everything. There's so many generous and creative people who are willing to embrace new projects and open to new ideas.

Sarah: When I was working at a bar, a lot of the people I would talk to, who I wouldn't see at readings, were very supportive and knowledgeable of Chicago authors and wanting to put Chicago on the page. One thing about Chicago is people don't discount readings or performances. They're curious, and they'll go.

What's next?
Sarah: We're in production of issue #5 of MAKE, "City in Biography." It will knock your socks off. There will be a release party with readings from contributors and music at the end of August. We'll also be taking a September road trip with Featherproof books to Omaha for the Downtown Lit Fest.

Fred: With Poetry we're working on a reading tour with McSweeney's to celebrate their new publishing efforts. We're also launching a theater initiative bridging the theater and poetry communities at Links Hall from November 16-18 with Valerie Jean Johnson.

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