Literary Boroughs #22: Madison, WI

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 twenty-second post on Madison, Wisconsin, by Angela Voras-Hills. – Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor


Madison is one of only two major cities on an isthmus.  The University of Wisconsin sits on the shore of one lake and Monona Terrace, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, on the other. Parks, libraries, and co-ops are abundant, and bike trails connect everything. For fun in winter, you can cut across the lake to get from one side of town to the other. Or you can stay inside and write.

According to Men’s Health, Madison is the best-educated city in the US.  (A cab driver once recited “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” to me when I told him I was a poet.)  And while the city is well known for its feisty political scene, the literary scene is worth getting excited about, too.  In addition to a growing number of literary events and readings, you can now find poems in relief on sidewalks, poems posted in buses, and an occasional piece of flash fiction stapled to a lamppost. There are Little Free Libraries in front yards, near bike paths,and in local businesses. Literature, like many things in Madison, seems to grow from the ground up.


(A Ridiculously Short List of the Many) Resident Writers:

If you know a few writers, chances are you know someone who has lived in Madison.  The faculty writers in the UW Creative Writing Program include: Amy Quan Barry, Amaud Jamaul Johnson, Jesse Lee Kercheval, Judith Claire Mitchell, Lorrie Moore, and Ronald Wallace.  Outside of the university, Madison’s Co-Poet Laureates, Sarah Busse and Wendy Vardaman do a lot to promote writing and literature in the community.  Resident novelist Susanna Daniel wrote this great article for Slate about being a writer in Madison.


Literary References:

According to some well-read friends, Madison has been mentioned in the following books: Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety, Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, Don DeLillo’s Underworld, Ann Packer’s The Dive from Clausen’s Pier, Michelle Wildgen’s But Not for Long, and The Almost Moon, by Alice Sebold.

Where to Learn:

The MFA program at University of Wisconsin- Madison ranks third in the nation according to Poets & Writers, and its post-MFA fellowships attract hundreds of applicants each year.  The Creative Writing Program has recently invited Mark Doty, Jonathan Franzen, Maurice Manning, and Lauren Groff to the city for readings.  If you are looking for less of a commitment, the UW-Madison Division of Continuing Studies offers online writing workshops and hosts events like the Writers’ Institute and Write by the Lake.  You can also find writing workshops for kids and adults at the Madison Public Library.

Where to Find Reading Material:

For years, Avol’s Books has been the independent go-to for books.  They recently merged with another independent bookstore, A Room of One’s Own, and together the stores sell a wide selection of new and used books downtown. In the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea, The Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative carries “progressive books, periodicals, crafts and related materials.”   If you’re interested in perusing the shelves for something cheap, Half-Price Books or Frugal Muse, both within biking or driving distance of downtown, are great options.

Beyond bookstores, Madison Public Library branches often sell books, and UW-Madison’s Memorial Library has a large and popular book sale each year.  If you don’t need to own a book, the selection at MPL is decent, but you may need to request a new book and wait a while to get it—especially if it was recently mentioned on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Where to Get Published:

If you’d like to keep your publications local, submit to Devil’s Lake, Verse Wisconsin, or Madison ReviewDevil’s Lake is an online journal created and edited by students in the MFA program.  Madison Review publishes fiction and poetry and is run by undergraduate students with faculty advisers.  Verse Wisconsin publishes poems and poetry book reviews in print and online, but their online issue is theme-based, so check the guidelines before submitting.  Poets with a local connection can also send their chapbooks to Parallel Press.  And don’t forget to submit your book-length manuscripts to The University of Wisconsin Press for the Brittingham and Pollack Poetry Prizes in September.

Where to Write:

If you ask a writer where they write in Madison, it’s likely indoors, where they can sit in a comfortable temperature near an outlet for their laptop.  There are cafés (Mother Fools, Espresso Royale, Barriques, Johnson Public House, Victory, and Café Zoma, to name the most popular), but there are also bedrooms, spare rooms, kitchen tables, and corner desks.  If you’re visiting and looking for a writer-friendly space, I recommend stopping at the recently revamped Chazen Museum of Art or the Madison Museum of Modern Art, where there are nice little nooks for writing.  If you’re here in summer, find a spot by the lake—there’s a pier at Tenney Park with a great view, quite a few beaches, and, if you’d like a brat and beer with your lake view, you can write at Memorial Union Terrace.

Events & Festivals:

The Wisconsin Book Festival is the largest literary festival in the state and draws thousands of book-lovers to the city for panels, presentations, discussions, and workshops each fall.  UW-Madison hosts a common book reading program, “Go Big Read,” to encourage students and community members to engage in discussions and share ideas.  If you’re around in May, stop by the Olbrich Botanical Gardens for the Annual Poetry Marathon hosted by the Wisconsin Fellowship of Poets.  In November, take a drive to Fort Atkinson to participate in the Lorine Niedecker Poetry Festival.

In addition to the annual events, there are quite a few regular reading series. UW-Madison hosts a variety of readings.  There are also a broad range of independently-run readings to keep all audiences happy, including: Cheap Reads, Urban Spoken Word, Bridge Poetry Series, Monsters of Poetry, and the ____ Shaped Reading Series.  Check out this article in The Isthmus to learn more about each one!

Angela Voras-Hills earned her MFA at UMass-Boston and was awarded the 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowship at the Writers’ Room of Boston. She currently lives in Madison, WI, where she teaches writing workshops through The Writers in Prison Project and UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. Her work has recently appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Cimarron Review, and Linebreak, among others.  More at  

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