Write on

Connecting writers, publishers and readers is key to kick-starting Louisville’s literary scene

Mar 23, 2011 at 5:00 am
Write on

There’s no doubt Louisville embraces the arts: vibrant local music scene, a ballet that boasts a yearly audience of 100,000, a theater company that claims twice that many patrons, as well as a visual arts district blooming at the edge of downtown.

This city is overflowing with culture — both on stage and in galleries. But what about writing?

Across the country, contemporary literature culture is booming, and not just the ubiquitous open mics; poetry, fiction and nonfiction writers are pouring out of colleges and landing in bustling cities, from Chicago and New York to Portland and Denver. Writers in such cities have access to myriad reading series, along with small presses to print their work, resulting in hand-bound, letter-pressed and saddle-stitched books.

But where does Louisville fit into this evolving scene? We certainly have our share of great writers, many of them young: Nickole Brown, Adam Day and Kyle Thomspson. We have two major reading series and several publications, some national in scope. Literary Louisville is catching up with the rest of the culture this city has to offer. The only problem, it seems, is that most locals don’t know this burgeoning world of words exists. It’s something a handful of Louisville wordsmiths — both professional and aspiring — are hoping to change.

There is a need, says Lynnell Edwards, for professional conversations about writing in Louisville, more classes for emerging writers, and a literary festival. As president and associate director of the InKY Reading Series, Edwards envisions just that.

“What InKY wants to be, for lack of a better term, is a full-service literary arts organization,” she says. The poet and Spalding University professor points to Lexington’s Carnegie Center for Literacy — an all-inclusive facility aimed at promoting literacy and learning — as an ideal model. The organization hosts everything from writing contests and workshops to the Kentucky Women Writers Conference and the Kentucky Great Writers Series.

“I think there’s a model in every city,” Edwards says. “There’s the Writing Center in D.C., there’s the Loft in Minneapolis, the Mountain Writers Center in Portland,” she says. There’s also Inktank in Cincinnati and Grub Tank in Boston. “All of them draw their strength from the character of the community.”

But Louisville has no such place, just a ragtag culture of organizations struggling to get the word out, literally. Case in point: InKY does not have an office, instead existing primarily as a monthly literature and music event, now being held the second Friday of each month at The Bard’s Town in the Highlands.

During last year’s Idea Festival, Edwards was part of a panel that attempted to answer the question: What is “Literary Louisville”? For a short time, Louisville boasted a Festival of the Written Word, which featured events including writing workshops for teens. The festival has since fizzled, and though the panel suggested there is interest in restarting it, Edwards admits it has “a very uncertain future.”

Although the InKY Reading Series is successful, Edwards says there is room for more programming, including another brand of literary festival. Having something akin to the Carnegie Center here in Louisville would help make that a reality, in addition to paving the way for increased educational opportunities, book fairs for regional publishers, and professional conversations about the business of writing.

Louisville already is a writer-friendly town — in addition to boasting a low cost of living, Carmichael’s carries the books of homegrown writers, and both The Courier-Journal and this publication frequently review their works. When Edwards arrived here years ago, she found the community sympathetic to writers. “You can get local press, and that feels nice to know that the hometown folks are paying attention,” she says. “I mean, how hard must it be for a writer to get noticed in Chicago or Los Angeles … or New York, for Pete’s sake?”

Portland, Ore., is one of those cities where it can be hard to get a foothold, despite the many resources available. There are countless reading series and too many publications to list. While young writers are pouring into the city, others have chosen to move away to avoid getting lost in the crowd.

Patrick Wensink, a fiction writer, moved from Portland to Louisville upon the completion of his new book of short stories, “Sex Dungeon for Sale!” His first novel, “The Big Twang Theory,” will be out this year.

“I moved here from other cities where you go to a sterile bookstore to hear readings and it never is all that good of a time, no matter the reader,” Wensink says. “My first experience with Louisville’s scene was attending the Sarabande readings at 21c, which is a great location. Me, personally, I’ve never read in a bookstore here in town. Instead, I’ve performed everywhere from a lit-themed house party to the Late Seating variety show at Actors (Theatre). I like that we find innovative ways to make literary things happen.”

Wensink thinks of Louisville as a “freewheeling place” where anything goes. The library system is terrific, he thinks, but also “underutilized.” Consider the Bingham Poetry Room at the University of Louisville, or the rows of modern literature at the main branch downtown. There also are numerous used bookstores that offer up treasures. All of this is even better in an affordable town like Louisville.

“I used to live in Portland and had to work a day job and squeeze in writing whenever I could, because the cost of living was high,” Wensink says. “Since moving to Louisville, I’ve been able to support myself by living simply, freelancing, and focusing on fiction writing, which I couldn’t do anywhere else. Louisville gives me time and Louisville gives me focus because I don’t have to worry as much about day-to-day headaches. And for that simple fact, Louisville has made me a much better writer.”

Lynnell Edwards agrees the low cost of living is an advantage, and notes that Louisville also is centrally located in the eastern United States, as well as an ideal place to raise a family. Freelancing can be a viable source of income here if writers spread out to other venues for publication in other cities. Yet other opportunities for writers to thrive, she says, such as teaching, are sparse. In her mind, this is a “college-poor town” where a writer/teacher has to assemble a piecemeal academic life of mostly slim adjunct positions.

In addition, she says, “I think that what might be missing here that could be better for emerging writers is a stronger community among writers … and Louisville could be better for readers, people who love literature and want to hear about new writers.”

Despite this disconnect, Edwards sees the attendant hope in a growing culture of words. “InKY is a nonprofit organization, and all we’re missing is more money and more people,” she says. “InKY has a mission to grow the literary arts in Louisville and to bring readers and writers together for great literary programming … I don’t think it makes sense to wait around for the city of Louisville to commission an Office for Literature. So my work and my role as the director of InKY is to grow InKY into a literary arts organization that Louisville can be proud of.”

“Louisville is full of talent in the arts,” says Jennifer Woods, the mastermind behind Louisville-based Typecast Publishing. “We’re really blessed. As far as the literary element goes, I think there’s tons of energy and enthusiasm for the literary arts, but there’s lots of tiny pockets.”

The pockets she refers to are the patchwork of disparate groups, not solely writers, which make up the culture of literature in Louisville; the problem is, they don’t communicate. The University of Louisville, which puts on the Axton Reading Series, and Spalding University house the established academic set. Then there are the publishers: small journals like Louisville Review, major booksmiths like Sarabande, and on down to a thriving “zine” culture — the cut-and-paste-and-staple set burgeoning in Louisville and beyond.

If anything puts Louisville’s new scene on the map, it’s Typecast’s flagship publication, The Lumberyard. This unique literary magazine, hand-printed by Jennifer’s brother, Eric Woods, at Firecracker Press in St. Louis, recently got a positive review in The New York Times. Her contribution is to promote Louisville’s name with out-of-town audiences and to bring acclaimed writers (award-winning poet Matthew Dickman was in the headline-making issue) to town.

“Everybody is working individually, but all doing really good stuff,” Woods says. “I think we’re at a point now where it just makes sense for all those pockets to at least get to know one another and see what everybody’s up to and figure out ways that we can use our collective strength to raise the profile of literary arts in the city, because I don’t think the public at large realizes how many talented writers live here and how many award-winning publications come out of Louisville. Not just regionally acclaimed, but nationally acclaimed writers get published right here in the city, and that’s pretty amazing.”

Prior to launching Typecast, Woods worked for Sarabande Books for five years, during which time she started The Lumberyard, a zine aimed bringing contemporary writing to people who are used to reading “the old stuff.” It’s about exposure for both writer and audience.

In the past year, Typecast published two books: Matthew Lippman’s “Monkey Bars,” and “Oil and Water,” a collaboration with Holland Brown Books, another local publisher. In January 2010, Woods left Sarabande and made Typecast a full-fledged business. Today it is her livelihood.

“I think it’s so important that Typecast be a publishing company that is of the community that it comes from,” she says. “Honestly, I wouldn’t want the home of my business to be anywhere other than right here. I really don’t think you have to go to New York to do what we do and do it well.”

Woods also is a member of InKY and sees the potential of Louisville literature. “It’s a great town to meet other writers and to build a community of writers around yourself that are interested in the same thing because there are so many.”

And that’s exactly what she’s trying to do. Typecast is serving as an older sibling of sorts to smaller publications, like Goodwill, a local zine orchestrated by June Leffler. Typecast is helping to promote the publication. “If we can help them and keep them healthy,” Woods says, “it just grows the community, and it’s better to work in a community than a vacuum.”

But for the ordinary writer, Woods explains, “There is no community center for it. I think that’s the piece that we’re missing … I would love to see a writing center that offers the workshops, but then also has that community space where you can come and write, like the coffee shop without the baristas.”

In the meantime, Woods sees building community in a pure and simple way. “The answer is easy: Go. That’s the only issue holding the literary Louisville profile back — we just need some means to get everybody together.”

“There’s a real lack of communication,” says Caroline Casey, marketing and development director of Sarabande.

Armed with a master’s degree in fine arts in nonfiction from the University of Iowa, Casey has worked in acquisitions and publicity with publishers including Stanford University Press, Smithsonian Institution Press and Red Hen Press, and came to Louisville after 11 years in Los Angeles where, she says, getting people to come out to literary readings was just as hard as it is here. “I think it’s an issue with giving people here in the community a sense that they have a connection to this, and that it even exists,” she contends.

Sarah Gorham, president and editor-in-chief of Sarabande, agrees. Sarabande has struggled for recognition not on the national stage, but locally. It doesn’t help that the little house in which Sarabande nests is tucked back away from the main artery of Bardstown Road.

In 1994, Gorham founded Sarabande, which has gone on to publish award-winning books, some of which have been reviewed in The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times. That said, it took nearly a decade for Louisvillians to notice.

To enhance local visibility, Sarabande established the Kentucky Literature Prize. Though 75 percent of their writers are from outside the state, 25 percent — at least one title a year — are acquired through the Kentucky Series of Literature, sponsored by Linda Bruckheimer, a native Louisvillian married to Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Sarabande also offers internships and sponsors a Student Poetry Prize open to undergraduates throughout the state; the winner receives $500 and a broadside of their work.

“We work really hard to promote and raise our profile,” Gorham says. “Part of that is the 21c Reading Series and getting ourselves out into the community. But the other thing is communication. I think we communicate pretty energetically when there’s an event. People know about it. I’m not sure the reverse is happening.”

Which is to say, the public is not showing up; some blame the absence of a venue dedicated to fostering Louisville’s literary culture.

Consider Minneapolis, home of The Loft Literary Center. The Loft’s mission is this: “to foster a writing community, the artistic development of individual writers, and an audience for literature.” Which sounds pretty close to what InKY, Typecast and Sarabande are all trying to do, just without a central hub.

The Loft offers classes for all ages, writing conferences, readings, contests, writing studios, a well-stocked bookshelf and meeting spaces for book clubs. It also serves as home to Milkweed Editions, a national publisher roughly equal in scope to Sarabande. Most importantly, what The Loft provides is a tangible, physical structure.

“It was really an eye-opener for me to see … the Loft, which houses so many wonderful literary organizations,” Gorham says. “There were children running in and out for book-making classes, and there was a gift shop and a coffee shop, and studios for writers.”

The problem is, as always, support and money. So what would it take?

Gorham’s answer: “Basically, just one person and a salary for that person to get something moving, to start to talk to funders. I think there’s probably a number of good individuals in this city in particular who would love to do something like that.”

And according to Casey, Louisville already has a prime location for such a venue on East Market Street, where participation in the Friday Trolley Hops would bring needed exposure. “If you give people a nexus to associate with and to revolve around, to take advantage of, I think you create an appreciation in the community for what they have,” Casey says. “Having a really welcoming environment that brings people in, it makes you part of the landscape in a way that’s really essential.”

With so many organizations working toward a unified writing culture, it’s easy to lose sight of the smaller voices, like June Leffler, winner of a grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. Perhaps small isn’t the right word, though “small publishing” is an operative term in the case of what she calls her “outlier” zine, Goodwill.

Zine publishing has grown exponentially in recent years. That’s because publishers — including locals like Sarabande and Typecast — are so selective. For young writers trying to establish a voice, zines — diminutive, cheaply produced literary magazines — are easily assembled via DIY desktop publishing.

“Other cities, some even much smaller than Louisville, have a thriving zine community,” explains 21-year-old Leffler, who started making zines at the age of 14. “There are zines here, but not enough to be noticed. Even intellectual or artistic people might not know what a zine is, and that isn’t the case in bigger cities. I have to go to Chicago to meet people that make zines or to buy zines. Even in Bloomington, there is a bigger zine presence, and I don’t really feel good about that.”

Leffler, founder and editor of Goodwill, describes the project as both journalism and literature produced primarily by Louisvillians ranging in age from 18 to 30. The distribution is 300, and the publication is offered for free along Bardstown Road and Frankfort Avenue, and at local universities. Begun in June 2009, Goodwill is published four times a year, all while Leffler and fellow contributors go to school or work full time. Issue No. 8 recently came out with the help of Jennifer Woods and Typecast Publishing; a launch party is planned for 7:30 p.m. on April 2 at Quill’s Coffee in the Highlands.

“I think every successful collaboration that gets done will only lead to more,” says Woods, adding that she’d like to see other local publishers follow suit.

Leffler agrees: “In Louisville, there can’t be any snide competition … The literary scene, with all its different people, needs to partner up in any way they can. We all need to encourage literary awareness as a whole, make it known that our peers are out there. Once readers know that Louisville actually has a literary scene, they can go from there and seek out their particular interest.”

Sparking an interest among readers remains a challenge — someone needs to be there to read a local work, respond to it and, ultimately, support it.

This means appealing to a variety of audiences: Typecast recently produced an issue of The Lumberyard dedicated to truckers, and then went on to host a well-attended opening event in the South End — they even advertised over radio stations popular among truckers. It was a new audience to tap into, and it was a success.

“For some reason, we have a tendency to get and stay with our own until somebody makes an effort to reach out,” Woods says. “If we really want to be a city like Portland in terms of our literary profile, we’ve got all the tools to do it, we just need to use them. I think every successful collaboration will only lead to more … It would be really cool to see it grow.”

This will require writers being more involved as an audience, according to Sarabande editor Gorham. “I think if we could convince some of those writers to participate in literature in the larger sense,” she says, “to buy more books, to attend more readings, to put their money where their mouth is, to join some fundraising events, put their support out there rather than just be concerned with being published, that would be, for me, a priority.”