Literary Boroughs #3: Omaha, NE

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. The series will run on our blog from May 2012 until AWP13 in Boston. Please enjoy the third post on Omaha, Nebraska by Katie Wudel. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Omaha, Nebraska is fueled by great food, financial smarts, and an optimistic entrepreneurial spirit. This trifecta has made it the ideal home for a seemingly motley crew: indie label Saddle Creek Records, the College World Series, Herman Cain, Warren Buffett, Omaha Steaks, and Alexander Payne. Omaha’s low-cost living and independent outlook have empowered a fast-growing, fiercely loyal tribe of innovative creative thinkers who care about where they live and constantly seek ways to make it better—whether that means improved public transit or a wider array of small presses and reading series. In recent years, Omaha’s topped practically every one of those “Best American Cities for Young Professionals” lists. It’s a terrific habitat for someone with a writerly sensibility, particularly in a recession: affordable housing, some quiet time, a culturally satisfying lifestyle, and a compassionate community willing to help you see your harebrained idea through to its fruition.

Quick info:

City: Omaha, Nebraska

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

The Oracle of Omaha, The Wild Kingdom, Conor Oberst’s haircut

Resident writers (Asterisks indicate they don’t currently reside there but have a strong association with the city):

Jonis Agee, Susan Aizenberg, **Dan Chaon, Richard Dooling, Richard Duggin, Benjamin Graber, **Ron Hansen, **Allison Hedge-Coke, Art Homer, Steve Langan, Kim Louise, Greg Kosmicki, Matt Mason, Sarah McKinstry-Brown, Anna Monardo, David Phillip Mullins, Todd Robinson, Lisa Sandlin, Timothy Schaffert, **Rachel Shukert, Brent Spencer, Mary Helen Stefaniak, **Terese Svoboda, Wendy Townley, **Chris Ware, Miles Waggener

Literary references:

Let’s get it out of the way: In On the Road, Jack Kerouac spots his first real cowboy in Omaha (though where the guy might’ve kept his cows is a bit of a mystery). Timothy Schaffert’s Devils in the Sugar Shop is a sly, sexy romp through a thinly veiled cavalcade of Omaha’s real-life glitterati. (Not to mention the beloved Jackson Street Booksellers in its star turn as Mermaids Singing, Used & Rare.) Michael RipsThe Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery is an odd and steamy little book purporting to be memoir, though if it’s all true, I feel sorry for the grandmother sucked up her kitchen chute by a tornado.

Where to learn: 

Creighton University and the University of Nebraska-Omaha Writer’s Workshop offer up fine writing programs. From The Nebraska Writers Collective( to poetry classes at the Omaha Creative Institute(, this literary borough offers plenty of opportunities to hone your craft. Of particular interest is poet Steve Langan’s Seven Doctors Project, founded on the near-spiritual proposition that he wanted to “give physicians back their imaginations.” Connecting driven doctors with local writer/mentors for intensive eight-week writing workshops, the project has helped raise money for poets in the schools, puts on public readings, and has even seen a few of its participants win prestigious prizes and book contracts.

Where to find reading material: 

In 2006, Omaha Public Library’s ( @OmahaLibrary) director Rivkah Sass was named Library Journal’s Librarian of the Year for her bold curation of the collection. She’s since moved on, but her legacy lingers. KANEKO-UNO Library (@KanekoLib) offers a vibrant array of books on art, architecture, and creative thought.


The Bookworm is Omaha’s only independent seller of contemporary books. Secondhand shop The Antiquarium, a legend in the region for its exquisite selection and scholarly curmudgeon of an owner—jumped ship for Brownville, a pretty terrific “book town” 70 miles south of Omaha. That’s left Jackson Street Booksellers as the reigning champion of the used and rare in Omaha, featuring pile after charming pile of rather loosely organized literary gems—first editions, obscure novelties, and used copies of the exact short story collection that’s been on your mind for months.

Where to get published: 

Fine Lines has been publishing emerging writers for years. Burntdistrict is a journal of contemporary poetry put out by Sparkwheel Press. Rogue Faculty Press releases revolutionary works of nonfiction for teachers, by teachers. And Strange Machine, run by poet Natasha Kessler, has been making waves with its impressive handbound chapbooks, a nationally renowned poetry journal, and a local reading series often held at Jake’s Cigars.

Where to write: 

The coffeeshop standbys have always been Blue Line (Dundee location) and Caffeine Dreams—the former renowned for its charmingly ramshackle furniture and progressive politics; the latter for its stimulating bright lights and blessedly late hours. If you like a little booze with your brainstorming, bars in Omaha are often amenable to writers.

Bring your open mic, your reading series, or (at the very least) your laptop to the Side Door Lounge, PS Collective, or the Slowdown. La Buvette—on its rare uncrowded afternoons—puts one in a 1920s Paris sort of mind. Order a rosé and a cheese plate and hunker down with your moleskin.


Wednesday Words (Braided River Series) at the Nebraska Arts Council is always lively and well-attended—approximately every second Wednesday of the month. The (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest, founded by Timothy Schaffert, has brought together celebrated regional and national writers to Omaha for readings and panels since 2005, with fantastic themes each year. This year, there’s a refreshing focus on women writers. Feels timely. Feels important. Plan a trip October 19-20 for Cheryl Strayed, Joy Castro, and more.

The Nebraska Writers Collective runs Louder Than a Bomb: Omaha Youth Poetry Festival (April 15-20, with events and workshops year round). This friendly competition brings teens together across racial and socio-economic lines to promote self-expression and community via poetry, oral storytelling, and hip-hop.

Next post: June 4 | Ithaca, New York…

BIO: Katie Wudel’s writing has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Prairie Schooner, The Rumpus, Monkeybicycle, and other publications. She’s taught creative writing at San Francisco’s School of the Arts and the University of Nebraska-Omaha Writer’s Workshop, and has been awarded scholarships and fellowships from Hedgebrook, the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, and Summer Literary Seminars. An Omaha ex-pat, Katie currently lives in Morningside Heights, Manhattan—the setting of Rivka Galchen’s novel Atmospheric Disturbances.

Photo credits:

  • Blue Line Coffee (Dundee location) by Laura Cady
  • Downtown Omaha (with Omaha Public Library in background) by Laura Cady
  • Jackson Street Booksellers (both options) by Brandon Pierce Geary
  • KANEKO-UNO Library by Brandon Pierce Geary
  • Katie Wudel Photo by Robert Monk Davis
  • La Buvette by Shawn Rossi
  • Louder Than a Bomb reading at PS Collective by Cindy Grady
  • Seven Doctors Project reading at Side Door Lounge by Nebraska Writers Collective
  • Strange Machine’s 2011 Chapbook Winner – Adrian Kien’s The Caress is a Letter of Instruction

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