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 twenty-fourth post on Richmond, Virginia by Dave Sterner. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor
It’s a city dissected from itself, a place of conflict and repurposing that accidently immolated half of its urban core rather than capitulate to Confederate defeat. This once mighty capital city has played host to innumerable events and memorable characters throughout history. Once solidly the cultural center of Virginia, if not the South, it has faltered and lost its way a bit, but continues to redefine its own expectations and is experiencing yet another resurgence. The most Southern of East Coast cities, it has been home and incubator for some of the more interesting voices in American letters since Patrick Henry called for Death over the repeal of liberty at the Virginia Convention.
Richmond, Virginia (aka, Fist City, Cap City, RVA, Tha R.I.C, The River City)
An hour from the mountains, an hour from the beach and maybe an hour and a half on a good day from D.C.—It’s smack in the middle of most everything Virginia has on offer.
Former capital of the Confederate States, Monument Avenue (a well-kept avenue dotted with monuments to both celebrated and ignominious denizens), GWAR, VCU Ram’s basketball, the largest French Film Festival in the US, Arthur Ashe, Big Tobacco, reasonable rents and Edgar Allan Poe among other things.
Quick Note about Edgar:
The list of cities that hold claim to Edgar Allan Poe is long and cloying, but probably no city has a larger stake in his legacy than Richmond. I mean the town gave its blessing, in full public view, to the lawful union of Poe and his cousin in holy matrimony. It welcomed him each time he crawled back, tail tucked, never casting aspersions or vilifying his behavior. He was always welcome. Oh yeah, and he sort of grew up here and spent a good amount of his life working on his literary chops and paying the bills as both a contributor and editor of the Southern Literary Messenger out of Richmond. So in summation, Philly, Baltimore, Boston, New York it’s time to let him go, he’s always been an RVA man.
Richmond Writers (born, raised, lived, ensconced or buried within city limits (incomplete List)): Edgar A. Poe, Howard Owen, Patricia Cornwell (@1pcornwell), Tom Wolfe, Colleen Curran, Emyl Jenkins, Tom Robbins, Brian Henry, Dave Baldacci, Larry Levis, Tom De Haven, Ellen Glasgow (1942 Pulitzer), Dean King, William Tester, Gigi Amateau, Michele Young-Stone (@micheleyosot), David L. Robbins (@davidlrobbins), Bai T. Moore, Stacy Hawkins Adams, Susan Cokal, Rodney Lofton, Sheri Reynolds, David Stevens.
Henry Miller once wrote that he wanted to die in Richmond even with what little it had to offer. Tom Wolfe has spent a literary career desiccating the wellspring of southern gentility in the form of paper stand-ins for his hometown, Richmond. Akashic Books put out a whole collection of Richmond literary vignettes in Richmond Noir. The city has a way of burrowing in and surfacing in little ways throughout the work of most authors who have spent time here. It’s something you’ll notice, now that it’s been mentioned, you’ll see.
Places To Find Reading Material:
As a city, Richmond can feel pretty small, that’s why it’s a testament to the community of readers and writers that the former Confederate Capital supports so many Indy bookstores. While there are your share of chain bookstores and a pretty exquisite, rare book dispensary in Black Swan Books, to visit throughout the city. It’s the smaller shops that are buoys in Richmond’s cultural swell.
There’s West End favorite, Book People, proprietors of new and used books, who converted a standard half acre ranch home into a storage unit for literature and filled every room with books, but left just enough space for local authors readings, writing groups and book clubs. The staff is friendly and eager to discover what your needs are at the moment you arrive. The whole place is kind of like the fun aunt with clunky jewelry who lets you drink her wine coolers and always tells you to live, live!
Next, in no particular order, Chop Suey books. This scrappy DIY book store deals in new and used books, with a prominent selection of contemporary favorites and more obscure tomes. They came into existence at a time when downtown Richmond was bereft of locally owned places to sell a book, buy a book, see a book and became a literary oasis when they opened a few blocks away from Virginia Commonwealth University in a blown out retail corridor. The store inherited its name when it took up residence in an old Chinese take-out joint.
Following some unscheduled gentrification and VCU expansion, they now find themselves in a sweet, new location in the Carytown area of the City, but still maintain that community focused mission–providing readings, classes and lecturers regularly in their space. It’s a great place for the writer on a budget, with a wide selection of gently handled classic and contemporary literature, poetry and nonficiton–with a healthy selection of new works thrown in to round out the cultural buffet. Then we have the sleek downtown book boutique, Fountain Bookstore (@FountainBkstore). This is the place you go when you want to be turned in a new direction and read works recommended by a staff more than competent in providing you a road map to begin. They have definitely embraced the social media side of book selling. They have ties to the Book Lady (@RebeccaSchinsky), Dead White Guys (@deadwhiteguys), Book Riot (@bookriot) among others and helped inspire the Get in Bed with a Book Blogger initiative. They’re the newer kid on the block, but they seem to be holding their own and definitely deserve a browse the next time you’re drinking heavily in the Slip.
Places to Learn:
VCU: Virginia Commonwealth University is the top ranked public art school in the US and has made major investments in its engineering and biologic science schools providing for an eclectic learning environment. It also has one of the top rated creative writing MFA programs in the country, if you believe the people who make such assertions. Its alumni have strong ties to the local scene, thanks to its varied relationships with JAMES RIVER WRITERS, Blackbird literary Journal, Stand Magazine, Make-Out Creek, RVA mag, Richmond Magazine among others.
VUU: Virginia Union University is a historically underappreciated university in the city’s North Side–but its contributions to the evolution of Richmond as a forward thinking city have been great. Its storied alumni include Governor Doug Wilder, the first African-American Governor of Virginia; Current Richmond City Mayor Dwight Jones; Journalist and Jet Magazine DC Chief Simeon Booker, who’s coverage of the Emmett Till murder scandalized the nation; and Bai T. Moore, Liberian poet and novelist who came to the university to study Agriculture–to name a few.
James River Writers (@jamesrvrwriters): This all-purpose lit factory was created to support and champion the community of writer’s in central Virginia. They hold an annual conference, bring editors, agents and speakers to town, provide workshops and panels and coordinate with community stakeholders to bring attention to the City.
University of Richmond: As far as schools go, it gets the job done. They occupy a grey area concerning geography, not quite in the city but considered by many of the city’s old guard to be undeniably of the city. They have a strong English program and bring in some capable resident writers. They are also home to Verse, a literary journal of some esteem.
Places to Publish:
Blackbird (@vcublackbird): An online journal headquartered out of VCU and staffed by MFA candidates, they have been putting out award winning fiction and poetry since 2000
VQR (@vqr): This little gem, the Virginia Quarterly Review, is put together just up the road a spell in Charlottesville, VA. It helps extoll the virtues of Southern Literature and is only 45 minutes away, making it ripe for cross pollination by RVA writers and voices.
Makeout Creek: This scrappy, beautifully laid out and stunningly put together little journal has been publishing strong work with an eye toward local writers and their accomplishments first, while seeking to live up to the expectations of a nationally distributed magazine.
Stand Magazine: This UK journal, with editorial offices in Richmond, started out in 1952 when Jon Silkin used his £5 redundancy money after being booted for labor organizing and decided to found a magazine to stand against injustice and oppression.It is focused on the role that the arts, poetry and fiction in particular plays in the fight against those aligned against the righteous. Its Richmond office is headed by VCU professor, David Latané.
Richmond Magazine (@richmondmag): A glossy lifestyle magazine that partners with JAMES RIVER WRITERS to publish selected first chapters of Richmond Writer’s work culled from submissions and has expanded to include poetry.
RVA Mag (@RVAmag): A hyper-local magazine that covers the arts, music and cultural scene emerging in the city. They have not published a fiction issue yet, but a rumor has just started that there’s plans in the work. But for those looking to get a byline, they are definitely approachable and tapped into the mainline pulse of the town.
Verse: It focuses on contemporary English-language poetry, poetry in translation, innovative fiction and cross-genre writing, interviews with writers, and criticism (book reviews, essay/reviews, and essays). Work from the magazine has gone on to win Pushcart Prizes and appeared in The Norton Anthology of Contemporary Poetry and numerous editions of the Best American Poetry.
Places to work:
There’s a good chance that if you live there, you are in one of the crazy cut-up Queen Anne Victorian style homes they turned into apartments when Richmond was a murder capital contender, or at the least you have a sweet porch or veranda on which to sit and work, so the question is why would you want to work anywhere else? But for those times when you need to put distance between where you sleep and where you work, Richmond can feel like one big shady park.
The neighborhoods all clearly know the value of trees and a shady place to sit and unwind, with parks and benches popping up all over and small local cafes and coffee shops in abundance in this surprisingly food conscious town. But for a more off the grid places to work, I recommend Hollywood Cemetery. It’s on a hill just up from downtown and overlooking the James River. The whole place was designed to be a quiet park that just happens to be filled with the dead. And not just any Dead, besides the ornate and cryptic monuments that fill the pre-civil war cemetery, there are hard to kill tales about a vampire that beds down not too far from our 5th and 10th Presidents Monroe and Tyler respectively.
Confederate infamy, walking dead, punk-metal horror core, Class 4 rapids, a thriving transgender prostitution scene, writers, poets, Richmond has it all. I hope you find the time to bring your family and explore Virginia’s cultural gem. It really is one of the scariest, sanest, friendliest, dirtiest literary Boroughs on the East Coast.
Dave Sterner is a Derry born Irishman, who grew up in a military family in places all over. He was lucky enough to live in Richmond, VA and attended VCU. He worked as a copywriter in Richmond and was on staff when Richmond icon, Circuit City, started its death rattle. His fiction has appeared mostly on paper and in the in-boxes of editors and agents who have wished him the best of luck in finding it a home. He lives in Brooklyn, NY with his native Richmonder wife and son. Stalk him on Twitter @davesterner or read some of his work here.
(All photos are by the author.)
Posts are by no means exhaustive and we encourage our readers to contribute in the comment section!