Literary Boroughs #17: Great Falls, Montana

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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 seventeenth post on Great Falls, Montana by Sara Habein -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Audience at Word Jam (courtesy of Tyson Habein)

What’s that? You’ve never heard of Great Falls? It’s true, we don’t have the same name recognition as other Montana cities, but what we lack in Evel Knievel references and university football teams, we make up in DIY spirit. We’re not all cowboys, hunters, and ranchers either — though maybe our parents or our neighbors are — and we don’t all vote Republican. The literary scene is still growing, but it is doing so enthusiastically. Writers and artists here don’t wait for permission or recognition to come; they create their own show.

Quick info

City: Great Falls, Montana

What the City is known for/what makes it unique: Reggie Watts grew up here, Charlie Russell and Western Art, Lewis and Clark, the film The Slaughter Rule, excessive wind, mermaids and Piano Pat at the Sip n Dip Lounge.

Resident writers (By no means exhaustive):

Jamie Ford, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Jeffrey Scolley, Playground Swings and Yearning, Patrick E. Douglas, Game Seven, Tim Willey, poetry, Scott Clapp, In Praise of Mediocrity: A Teacher’s Survival Guide in the Age of Reform (with Tim Willey), Tyson Habein, poetry (full disclosure: we’re married.) Myself (Sara Habein), Infinite Disposable

Former Residents:

Brett Weldele, Southland Tales; Cyra McFadden, Rain or Shine: A Family Memoir; Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose;  A.B. Guthrie, Jr., The Way West; Joseph Kinsey Howard, Montana Margins: A State Anthology

Literary references:

As Cool As I Am and Dry Rain by Pete Fromm; Canada (and others) by Richard Ford; The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig

Where to learn:

University of Great Falls: English Undergraduate Program

Montana State University – Great Falls: English/Creative Writing courses

Montana Actors Theater – Great Falls: Performance Poetry/Spoken Word                       Workshops

Where to find reading material: Libraries/Bookstores:

Brady Berthelson performing at Word Jam (courtesy of Tyson Habein)

Unfortunately, Great Falls isn’t brimming with independent options. Barnes & Noble is the largest bookstore in the city, but we should probably be glad that we got them sometime during the late-90s and not Borders. Smaller, independent places and other chain stores have come and gone, but a few places remain.

Hastings is regional chain that sells books and music, and rents/sells video games and movies. They have a good-sized selection of used books and music, and their buyback policy extends to accepting just about any book that is in good condition. They are willing to take local writers’ work into their stock, even if the book is self-published or published by a very small press, and they often host readings in their cafe.

Paperback Jungle is a used bookstore that primarily stocks mass market paperbacks. Romance readers and fans of westerns, you’ll probably find all sorts of stuff here. It’s one of those places that smells delightfully of old pages and is worth poking around in to find some unexpected gem. Next door is a guitar shop, should one want to take their impulse-buying to a more expensive level.

Kelly’s Komix stocks comics, graphic novels and gaming materials. Despite being a small store, they have a good selection and the back issues are inexpensive. They are also very accommodating when it comes to special orders and they are supporters of Free Comic Book Day.

Homestead Treasures is actually an antiques shop, but they have a decent selection of old books ranging from mysteries (I once bought Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley’s Game there) to hardback histories to vintage travel guides. Really, you never know what you might find in there, so it’s worth looking. Reasonable prices, too.

Great Falls Public Library remains the one public library in the city, outside of the school system and the air force base. They provide plenty of space for reading and writing, including a room specifically for patrons between the ages of 12-18, and the book selection is very good. New release shelves even have offerings from independent presses like Graywolf and McSweeney’s, and the non-fiction section takes up almost the entirety of the second floor. With free wi-fi, there are plenty of outlets for laptops, and also extra computers for internet use. They offer lots of different programs with everything from children’s activities to guest speakers to foreign film festivals.

Where to get published:

Outside of the local newspaper and school-specific publications, Great Falls has yet to really dip into lit mag culture, though occasionally some artists and writers like GOO, Brady Berthelson and Gabriel Vasichek might produce one-off zines when the mood strikes them. Still, there are a few existing recurrent options:

Signatures from Big Sky is a literary and art magazine produced annually since 1990. It features work from students all over Montana who are as young as six years old and on through high school seniors.

Nouveau Nostalgia is a micro-press founded by myself and Tyson Habein. We produce limited edition books with handmade elements, specializing in found materials that are appropriate to the book’s content. Our first release in 2011, Flawed Machine, was entirely handmade and limited to an edition of 20. Infinite Disposable, published February 29, is limited to 125 and has a handmade cover. Though we have so far used the press to release our own small, arty projects, we hope to expand with other writers and artists.

Courtesy of Tyson Habein

Electric City Creative, if we’ll allow me to promote another self-created project, is an online arts and culture magazine that is supposed to publish quarterly, but more typically does so on a “When our staff of 2 can do it” basis. Basically, anything that falls under the word “creative” is fair game for coverage, and content pitches (including fiction and poetry) are encouraged. Seven issues exist so far — Bear with us while we get our act together.

Where to write:

The aforementioned Hastings Cafe and Public Library are well-populated with people on laptops typing away, in addition to the usual school study groups. Advice for Hastings: visit between 6-8pm and the drinks are Buy-1-Get-1, but bring your headphones. While the music playing is usually fine, they tend to get stuck on the same three albums for months on end.

Crooked Tree Coffee and Cakes is an excellent place to get some work done and the music is good. Morning Light Coffee and Faster Basset are also good coffee shops with plenty of seating, and Faster Basset shares their space with The Front, a recently opened brewpub, should you need inspiration of the alcoholic variety. Steinhaus is also a good, quiet bar with an impressive beer selection and thin crust Howard’s Pizza. They’ve even been known to host the occasional poetry reading.

Fans of the outdoors can lounge about Gibson Park, Giant Springs, and Ryan Dam (or any other scenic outlook along the Missouri River). I suppose if I were more outdoorsy, I could give better suggestions, but contrary to popular belief, not every Montana resident is One with the Wilderness.

Events/Festivals:

Every Spring, the library hosts the Festival of the Book, which typically features local and regional writers. 2012’s Festival featured Montana Poet Laureate Sheryl Noethe, who lives in Missoula. They also hosted a reading from WOW: Writing Our Way, a weekly writers’ group that now meets every Tuesday at the MSU-GF campus.

Jeff Scolley, hosting Step 2 the Mic

Step 2 The Mic is a poetry slam hosted by Jeff Scolley at the Montana Actors Theater, held the last Saturday of the month. At 7pm, the teenage poets compete, and after 9pm comes the adult round. Prizes will vary from month to month, but the winner from both competitions performs at the theater’s next First Friday art show. Past winners have included Allen Lanning, Krystine Wendt, and Kassie Procopio.

Word Jam, hosted by Tyson Habein, used to be a weekly event, but it has now evolved into a more spontaneous meeting about every other month. Recent venues include the Gibson Park band shell and the Riverside Railyard Skate Park. Word Jam features readers of “poetry/prose/essay/truth/bullshit.” Basically, anything a person has written is fair game, but it isn’t about musical performance, as there are other Open Mic-type events around the city which fill that need. What’s nice about some of those Open Mic nights, however, is that they welcome writers reading their work. Open Mic at Machinery Row (every Wednesday at 9pm) often has poets and other people performing without an instrument. For the most part, the creative community is supportive of each other across disciplines, and it is unusual to find a person who does only one thing. Musicians are painters are writers are actors, etc. — And that can make for a fun place to live.

Traci Rosenbaum performing at the last Step 2 the Mic poetry slam.

Next post: September 19 | Nottingham, UK

 

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus and Persephone Magazine, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the editor of Electric City Creative.