Literary Boroughs #37: Baltimore, MD

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 thirty-seventh post on Baltimore, Maryland, by Laura van den Berg. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

I moved to Baltimore in 2010 and was heartened to find a flourishing, friendly literary scene that vastly exceeded my expectations of the city I had previously only known from David Simon’s The Wire. In short: good things are happening here.

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

The Wire, John Waters, Hons, The Orioles, Berger Cookies, Natty Boh, crabcakes.

Resident writers (an incomplete list):

David Simon, Madison Smartt Bell, Elizabeth Spires, John Waters, Michael Kimball, Lia Purpura, James Magruder, Jane Delury, Jen Michalski, Paul Yoon, John Rowell, Jessica Anya Blau, Geoff Becker, Mary Jo Salter, Dave Smith, Michael Downs, Stephen Dixon, Anne Tyler, Kathy Flann, Susi Wyss, Ron Tanner, Joseph Young, Marion Winik, Laura Lippman, Adam Robinson, Justin Sirios.

Literary references:

David Simon’s Homicide: Life on the Street and The Corner. Anne Tyler’s The Accident Tourist. Benjamin Button, of the F. Scott Fitzgerald story, is born in Baltimore. Before being outed as a mass murderer, Hannibal Lecter practiced psychiatry in Baltimore. Lara Lippman’s Tess Monaghan novels are set in Baltimore. Charm City is also the locale for the films of John Waters, who has described the city thusly: “I would never want to live anywhere but Baltimore. You can look far and wide, but you’ll never discover a stranger city with such extreme style. It’s as if every eccentric in the South decided to move north, ran out of gas in Baltimore, and decided to stay.”

Where to learn:

Baltimore is home to several MFA programs, including the Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins (faculty includes Mary Jo Salter, Dave Smith, Matthew Klam, and Alice McDermott), the Creative Writing & Publishing Arts program at The University of Baltimore, The University of Maryland (faculty includes Michael Collier, Maud Casey, and Howard Norman) in nearby College Park, and the low-residency nonfiction MFA program at Goucher College, home to the Kratz Center for Creative Writing. For non-degree programs, The Creative Alliance regularly offers workshops and events, as does The Writer’s Center in Bethesda.

Where to find reading material:

“The City That Reads” is one of Baltimore’s many self-bestowed nicknames. Unlike some of the others—I love the place, but “The Greatest City in America” is a stretch—this one is pretty accurate. For my money, Normal’s Books & Music is one of the best. While rummaging through their labyrinth selection, I’ve turned up everything from vintage Nancy Drew to Thomas Bernhard first editions. John Waters is rumored to favor Atomic Books in Hampden, a cool space at the end of the Avenue. The Ivy in Mt. Washington is a beautifully curated independent. A bookstore tour would be incomplete without swinging by Red Emma’s Bookstore & Coffee House in Mt. Vernon and Cyclops on North Avenue. The central branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library—also located in Mt. Vernon—is a first-rate library and home to the annual CityLit Festival. Though not a dedicated bookstore, treasures of all kinds—literary and otherwise—can be turned up at the American Visionary Art Museum’s crazy awesome gift shop. The Book Thing seeks to “put unwanted books into the hands of those who want them,” which means you can walk in and take whatever books you want for free. For real.

Where to get published:

Baltimore is home to a thriving indie lit ecosystem. Adam Robinson operates Publishing Genius Press, which gained national attention when one of their titles, Light Boxes by Shane Jones, was optioned by Spike Jonze. The PGP empire also includes the online magazine Everyday Genius and Chapbook Genius. Narrow House, The Baltimore Review, Espresso Ink, The Shattered Wig Review, The Hopkins Review, Smartish Pace, JMWW, and Artichoke Haircut are all local staples, while The Baltimore Fishbowl dishes “fun, factual and sometimes controversial scoop” on Baltimorean goings on.

Where to write:

I head over to One World in Charles Village or Milk & Honey in Mt. Vernon to get caffeine in the system and words on the page. Just as often, I head to the Baltimore Museum of Art—it’s free!—and stake out a bench in the sculpture garden, or the Cone Collection. Other Baltimore writes are routinely spotted working at Spro in Hampden and The Evergreen Café in Roland Park. If it were legal, I would do all my writing in The Patterson Park pagoda.

If you need to get inspired, visit the Edgar Allan Poe House on North Amity Street and H.L. Mencken’s former home on Hollins Street. You can even visit Dorothy Parker’s ashes, which were claimed by the NAACP and placed in a memorial garden outside their Baltimore headquarters.


Every third Saturday, Michael Kimball and Jen Michalski host the 510 Reading Series at Minás Gallery in Hampden. Four readers do their thing and then everyone goes down the street to Frazier’s for drinks. Jen Michalski, along with Betsy Boyd, also co-hosts the bi-annual Lit Show. Artichoke Haircut hosts You’re Allowed, a monthly series at the Dionysus Lounge in Mount Vernon. Adam Robinson and Stephanie Barber always show people a good time at Say it With Writing. WORMS happens monthly at the Metro Gallery in Station North. Once a year, The CityLit Festival and The Baltimore Book Festival bring writers from near and far to be charmed by charm city.

Barbara DeCesare and the late, great poet Chris Toll ran the Benevolent Armchair series, which wins for best location: the thirteenth floor of the Bromo Seltzer Arts Tower, a castle-like structure in the middle of downtown Baltimore, built in 1911 by Captain Isaac E. Emerson. The Arts Tower was, for a time, the tallest building in the city. Baltimore was devastated by the recent loss of Chris, but heartened to know that Barbara will keep the Benevolent Armchair going.

Thanks to local colleges and universities, Colm Tóibín, Teju Cole, Amy Hempel, Nick Flynn, Eileen Myles, Junot Díaz, Jamie Gordon, Anne Patchett, and Sherman Alexie have all recently visited the city.

Baltimore also makes good use of the great outdoors. Espresso Ink plans to begin a reading series that hosts events in outdoor spaces, and this summer a reading happened around a traffic circle in Charles Village. Sadly, I was out of town, but I read all about it here.

Laura van den Berg’s debut collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009), was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection and shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Award. Her second collection,The Isle of Youth, is forthcoming from FSG in November 2013. She currently teaches creative writing at George Washington University and lives in Baltimore.

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