Literary Boroughs #39: Oneonta, NY

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-ninth post on Oneonta, New York, by April L. Ford. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

When people think of New York, they think of NYC, Buffalo, Ithaca, and even Syracuse; so in 2009, when I told my Montréal crew I was moving to Oneonta, they clapped my shoulders and exclaimed envy.  I explained that Oneonta is actually located in the northern foothills of the Catskill Mountains, about a four-hour drive from NYC, but my words fell on deaf ears.  Ever since Alec Baldwin mentioned SUNY Oneonta on an episode of NBC’s 30 Rock, however, more heads have turned toward this “City of the Hills.”  As they should!

In addition to being the childhood residence of the scandalous Paul Reubens (Pee-Wee Herman), Oneonta has an active community of emerging writers and mid-career authors who abandoned the craziness of city life in favor of all-you-can-see panoramas of nature.  Once an important stop along the Albany and Susquehanna Railroad (later known as the Delaware and Hudson Railroad) route, today Oneonta is a thriving college town and a place where artists come to work quietly and seriously.

What the City is known for:

Peepers; caving; locavores; famers’ markets; nature writing; eco-criticism; the Octagon House; baseball camp; pick-up trucks; the National Soccer Hall of Fame (now closed); the greatest number of bars in any northeast city (this isn’t exactly true, but locals claim it anyway).

Resident writers (and those who live or come from nearby):

Lauren Groff, Alice Lichtenstein, Michael Blaine, Mermer Blakeslee, Ginnah Howard, Adrienne Martini, Michael Popeck, Chuck D’Imperio, Irwin Gooen, Alicia Pagano, Sylvia Jorrín, Jim Mullen, Mary Bright Carr, Mary Ashwood, Thomas Pullyblank, Amanda Hoepker, Patricia Taub, David M. Hayes.

Literary references:

Michael Blaine’s The Desperate Season, Alice Lichtenstein’s Lost, Ginnah Howard’s Night Navigation, and Mermer Blakeslee’s When You Live by a River are among numerous contemporary novels set in renamed Oneontas of the Catskills.  George Saunders’s “My Flamboyant Grandson,” in the January 28, 2002 issue of The New Yorker, mentions Oneonta proper in the second sentence.  And we can’t overlook dead writers like James Fenimore Cooper (Last of the Mohicans) and John Burroughs (Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person), who made important contributions to literature to come out of the Catskills.

Where to learn:

Oneonta is a college town.  The influx of students between the months of August and May almost doubles the city’s population and transforms Main Street, the downtown area, into a freeway of foot traffic between pizza shops and bars.  Students come to Oneonta to study at either Hartwick College, which offers a liberal arts and sciences education with an emphasis on personalized teaching, or SUNY Oneonta, which offers competitive degrees in the increasingly popular fields of Music Industry and Performance, and Fashion Design and Merchandising.

Hartwick College invites writers each year to teach Master classes and offer free public readings.  Visiting writers in 2012 included Billy Collins, David Sloan Wilson, Marilynne Robinson, and Derek Walcott.  Past visiting writers include Pinckney Benedict, Joyce Carol Oates, Jamaica Kincaid, and Robert Pinsky.  Students may take a creative writing minor at Hartwick and work closely with regular faculty members Alice Lichtenstein, Robert R. Bensen, Brent DeLanoy, and Julia P. Suarez Hayes.

SUNY Oneonta is situated just down the hill from Hartwick; students from the two colleges are encouraged to take classes at their neighbor.  Those interested in creative writing may enroll in a minor through the Department of English, where they will have opportunities to study with full-time faculty members Roger Hecht (poetry), George Hovis (fiction), and Daniel Payne (screenwriting).  The Department hosts the Red Dragon Reading Series each year, and recently welcomed Daniel Anderson, Michael Martone, and Molly McGlennen.  Past visiting writers include Anne Waldman and Robert Olen Butler.  A point of pride: In 2011, the College’s slam poetry team won the Association of College Unions International regional championship—in other words, we beat Wesleyan!

Where to find reading material:

In 2009, against the odds of the economy—especially those of a small city like Oneonta—Green Toad Bookstore was born, a warm and cozy place to love books without being pressured to purchase what you read (though of course your patronage is welcome!).  The Green Toad offers a selection of best-sellers, classics, general interest books, a column of shelves dedicated to local writers, a children’s section with space for the kids to roam and play, as well as jewelry and other word-worthy accompaniments made by local artists.  If you can’t find a particular book, order it through the store and have it in a week or sooner.  The Green Toad hosts release parties, author signings, poetry readings, and book club meetings; all you have to do is make a friendly request.

People in search of obscure or out-of-print titles (many local and from around New York State) will want to visit Rose and Laurel Bookshop.  This little brick and mortar establishment opened in 1977 and is known for stocking first editions.  Also, try Popeck’s Used and Rare Books, where you can find more than 60,000 titles.

If you prefer to borrow books for a set time to make sure you actually read them, visit the Huntington Memorial Library.  Or perhaps you’re looking to do research on a scholarly topic, in which case you might try the Hartwick or SUNY Oneonta libraries.

Where to get published:

The Daily Star, Oneonta’s major local newspaper, is the most obvious place for writers interested in freelancing.  The O-Town Scene, a Daily Star imprint, is a great place for students to gain experience writing about the city’s alternative culture.  SUNY Oneonta’s Art and Scope magazine is another prime student venue; if you’re more ambitious, submit your fiction and poetry to SUNY Albany’s biannual journal, Fence, or SUNY Binghamton’s student-edited Harpur Palate.

For independent publishing aspirations, Bright Hill Press is interested writers, storytellers, and artists whose works benefit educational and public programs, and The Agrarian Press prints fine art books.

Where to write:

We writers love caffeine and pastries, friendly yet un-intrusive service staff, clean restrooms, and shop owners who know our names.  You can have all this and more at the Latté Lounge.  Or you might try Capresso, the friendly competition across the street.  Both locations provide free WiFi and napkins.  If you prefer an alcoholic beverage on your coaster as you write the next great American novel, Autumn Café and Bistro on Main can accommodate your needs.  The hours between peak times allow for tranquil, microbrew-inspired writing spells at reasonable prices—also, they’re wonderful jumpstarts to late-nighters at Jimmy T’s Cocktail Lounge, B Side Ballroom and Supper Club, or My Father’s Place Bar and Lounge.

Since nature is free, you will want to explore Gilbert National Park.  If you happen to have a friend with a boat, please convince that friend to take you out on Goodyear Lake, and then insist on staying a while so you can write about what you see—it might be the most beautiful writing prompt you’ll ever experience.  Closer to city central is Neawah Park, which offers a pretty stroll, benches, grilling stations in case you feel like a spontaneous barbecue, and a pond where not entirely unfriendly ducks and geese like to hang and receive food donations.

If, after a day of nature and a night of Frank Sinatra and martinis, you feel compelled to live the full Oneonta experience, why not ornament that somewhere special at Body Piercing by Lollipop?


Lovers and students and scholars of John Burroughs meet every June for the John Burroughs ConferenceOh-Fest, a weekend-long Hartwick-SUNY Oneonta event at the end of April each year, offers a street carnival, Battle of the Bands, and other live shows.  The Catskill Symphony Orchestra offers select performances free to the public through Hartwick and SUNY Oneonta, and Foothills Performing Arts and Civic Center hosts all sorts of events, like Oneonta’s Ultimate Idol competition.  For those seeking things more artistic and pure, the West Kortright Center in Meredith, NY, about a half-hour drive east of Oneonta, offers a May to October calendar of workshops on anything from fiction writing to Vinyasa Flow yoga, plus music performances, film screenings, and art exhibitions.

April L. Ford teaches creative writing at State University of New York at Oneonta. This February she will be a VCCA Robert Johnson Fellow, and in May she will be a Ucross Foundation Artist-in-Residence.  In her copious spare time, April reads creative non-fiction for r.kv.r.y. quarterly literary journal and serves as an editorial assistant for Unboxed Books.  Her stories have appeared in Short Story magazine and The Battered Suitcase, among others.  She recently completed a collection of fiction and is joyously close to the end of her first novel. 

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