Literary Boroughs #19: Kansas City, Missouri

The Literary Boroughs series will explore little-known and well-known literary communities across the country and world and show that while literary culture can exist online without regard to geographic location, it also continues to thrive locally. Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the nineteenth post on Kansas City, Missouri by Annie Fischer. – Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

City: Kansas City, Mo.

One of the earliest adopters of the City Beautiful movement, Kansas City enacted an 1893 plan for a parks-and-boulevards system that began at the bluffs overlooking the Missouri River and wound gracefully through the neighborhoods south. Then: World War I. And then: World War II. Nudged by nefarious forces, the city then flat-out sprawled.

In recent years, community arts leadership has been crucial to Kansas City’s downtown revival. Two decades ago, empty warehouses filled the Crossroads District, now comprised of galleries, restaurants and lofts. Construction of the $326 million Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts, which opened in the Crossroads last year, was paid for by entirely by private donations; it’s now home to the symphony, opera and ballet. This summer, University of Missouri-Kansas City officials announced a plan to relocate their fine arts efforts to downtown, too. In the same spirit of creative support, many of the resources listed here are located in KC’s urban core.

What the City is known for/what makes it unique:

Now and then: jazz, barbecue and fountains; Prohibition-era speakeasies and Wild West saloons.

Resident writers:

Non-fiction writers Shirley Christian, David von Drehle, J. Malcolm Garcia, Candice Millard; novelists Matthew Eck, Christie Hodgen, Clancy Martin, Michael Pritchett, Linda Rodriguez, Philip Stephens, Whitney Terrell; poets Hadara Bar-Nadav, Xanath Caraza, Michelle Boisseau, José Faus, Wayne Miller.

Literary references:

In a classic pair of episodic novels, Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969), native son Evan S. Connell examines the unfulfilled lives of an upper-middle-class couple living in the Mission Hills neighborhood. Sci-fi lion Robert A. Heinlein betrays his KC childhood in the book cycle featuring Lazarus Long (fictional Kansas Citian, oldest member of the human race). Nearly a century ago, in 1917, a six-month stint at the Kansas City Star introduced Ernest Hemingway to the style sheet whose writing rules he famously espoused for life.

More recently, Whitney Terrell’s novels explore the city’s most disgraceful dynamics: the explicit racial divide, in The Huntsman; in The King of Kings County, municipal corruption and greed. Journalist Thomas Frank’s KC upbringing anchors his investigation of conservatism in the Great Plains, in the 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas?, while Gillian Flynn imparts her local roots with the Missouri settings of her troubling thrillers (Sharp Objects, Dark Places and 2012 mega-hit Gone Girl).

Where to learn:

The University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC) offers an MFA in Creative Writing and Media Arts, a multidisciplinary program with coursework in fiction, nonfiction, screenwriting, playwriting and poetry. In conjunction, two summer conferences – the three-week-long Mark Twain Writers Workshop and the New Letters Weekend Writers Conference – are open both to students and the general public.

At the Kansas City Art Institute (KCAI), undergrads can take less conventional workshops in experimental writing and minute fiction, and seminars on magical realism, Japanese novels and Absurdist lit. The annual student-produced lit journal, Sprung Formal, is noted for its design.

Teachers of writing explore classroom practices, new strategies and current research during the Greater Kansas City Writing Project’s Summer Institute, a collaborative four-week workshop.

Led by president José Faus, who won the 2011 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for Poetry, the Latino Writers Collective meets bi-weekly for creative support and to coordinate learning circles, reading series, and anthologies of poetry and prose. Its Migrant Youth Writers Workshop was the subject of a 2012 AWP panel, and members will present another in 2013 – this time on LWC’s five-years-strong “Breaking Piñatas,” a mentored performance series in the tradition of Mexican carpas.

In 1992, Bill Hickok and Gloria Vando founded the Writers Place as the operations hub for the Center for the Midwest Literary Arts. The three-story limestone mansion acts as community center, library and gallery, with professional workshops that offer instruction on how to craft op-eds or write stronger introductions, on historical playwriting and bookbinding techniques. Writers Place devotees who like a good story will recognize this one: A ghost smelling strongly of perfume supposedly haunts the former brothel.

Where to find reading material:

At the Kansas City Public Library’s downtown branch, the fifth-floor Missouri Valley Room houses the library’s special collections – an invaluable resource for historical archives and genealogical materials, but where visitors can also study lovely hand-drawn maps or a collection of local zines, mail art and mini-comics.

The city’s most established independent bookstore, Rainy Day Books, opened its doors in 1975 and regularly brings in best-selling authors for readings at Unity Temple on the Plaza. I Love a Mystery stocks some 25,000 new and used mystery titles – including Kansas City Noir, the latest installment in Akashic Books’ dark lit series. Surrounded by the independent restaurants on 39th Street, Prospero’s caters to a more bohemian set, with regular poetry readings and open-mic nights.


Reading Reptile, in Brookside, is a kids’ bookstore beloved among adults. Papier-mâché animals decorate the shop, which holds regular reading hours, book clubs and the annual DNA LitFest; co-owner Pete Cowdin writes excellent book reviews under the name A. Bitterman, cynical about all things except great children’s lit. A half-hour from downtown, in Leavenworth, Kan., the Book Barn sells children’s books and regional titles in an 1856 building that housed the first funeral parlor in the state.

Where to get published:

Annual anthologies of area writers’ work include Kansas City Voices, now in its tenth year, and I-70 Review. The latter is based in Lawrence, Kan., 40 miles west, where a new pair of smart, stylish literary magazines – Beecher’s and Parcel – have also recently cropped up.

Johnny America, which went on hiatus last year after publishing nine silkscreen-covered issues of short shorts and illustrations, resumed operations in August. (Look for it at Hammerpress, a letterpress and design studio in the Crossroads.)

Student-produced journals in the area include Number One, Sprung Formal and The Rockhurst Review.

From UMKC’s University House – former home of Clarence Decker, the school’s president from 1938-1953 – editor and poet Robert Stewart helms New Letters literary quarterly, New Letters on the Air and BkMk Press. Founded by Decker as The University Review in 1934, New Letters publishes fiction, poetry, essays, book reviews and art; the journal’s radio companion, hosted by Angela Elam, has aired more than 1,200 programs since 1977. Recent BkMk titles include Stephanie Powell-Watts’ We Are Taking Only What We Need (2012 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award finalist), Tony Barnstone’s Tongue of War (2011 Poets Prize winner) and Lorraine M. Lopez’s Homicide Survivors Picnic (2010 finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Prize for Fiction).

Andrews McMeel – the Kansas City-based international publisher of cookbooks, gift and humor books, and comic strip collections – grew out of Universal Press Syndicate, founded in 1970.

Smaller area presses include Helicon Nine Editions, Spartan Press, Quindaro Press and Two Trails Publishing.

Where to write:

In silence: Linda Hall Library is a privately funded research library for science, engineering and technology. Free and open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, it sits on a 14-acre arboretum. It is so quiet there.

On sunny days: The terraced mall on the south lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with its recognizable Shuttlecocks and the Henry Bloch sculpture park; the rose gardens at Loose Park.

At home: Space comes cheap. You could put your desk in a whole other room!

With coffee: Everyone loves Broadway Café. For days that require more anonymity, try the Filling Station, Roasterie Café or Coffee Girls.

With booze: Harry’s Bar and Tables, in Westport, or Harry’s Country Club, in the River Market (same namesake, different owners). Also: The beer garden at Westside Local; Chez Charlie’s on Friday nights; Manifesto, when you want to impress; the Brick.


Rockhurst University’s “Midwest Poets Series,” co-directed by Robert Stewart and Cynthia Cartwright, celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. The season launches Oct. 25, 2012, with 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner Tracy K. Smith, followed by Valzhyna Mort, Mark Doty and Les Murray.

The 2012 Longview Literary Festival takes place Oct. 12-13 at the Mel Aytes Education Center, with keynote speaker William Trowbridge, Missouri Poet Laureate.

Poet Phyllis Becker coordinates “Riverfront Readings,” which takes place the second Friday of the month at the Writers Place.

Showcasing poets both local and passing through (Ada Limón, Heather Christle, Chris Martin), Jordan Stempleman’s “A Common Sense Reading Series” occupies a revolving handful of downtown gallery spaces.

Prominent writers of fiction and nonfiction discuss craft and careers at the Kansas City Public Library’s “Writers At Work” series, organized by Whitney Terrell; recent guests include Jim Shepard, Daniel Woodrell and Joyce Carol Oates.

Of other public event series currently at the library (always free, always catered), “What Makes a Great City” is another of its best.

Next post: October 3  | Rockford, Illinois…


AUTHOR BIO: Annie Fischer is a fiction writer and freelance journalist whose work appears or is forthcoming in Canteen, Sonora Review, New Letters, the Village Voice and the Kansas City Star. She lives in Kansas City, Mo., and teaches composition at Rockhurst and Park universities.

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