Literary Boroughs #7: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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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 seventh post on Philadelphia, Pennsylvania by Hannah Karena Jones. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

The official “birthplace of America,” and home to the most historic square mile in the nation, Philadelphia sits in the southeast corner of Pennsylvania, directly across the river from New Jersey. The largest city in the state and the fifth largest in the country, Philadelphia is home to an eclectic and diverse crowd who have long maintained a tradition of staunchly supporting the arts. An almost guaranteed pit stop for band, Broadway, and author tours alike, Philadelphia is a cultural and architectural hodgepodge of the contemporary and the classic. Oversized art installations are scattered throughout Center City while colorful murals adorn brick walls on nearly every block. It is physically impossible, even for a life-long resident such as myself, to exhaust all the exhibits, shows, and events that the city museums, theaters, universities, and bookstores offer; it is similarly impossible to provide more than a taste of the literary scene.

Quick Info:

City: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (aka the City of Brotherly Love)

What the city is known for (at least, what we’d like to think we’re known for):

The Liberty Bell and Independence Hall (where the Declaration of Independence was adopted in 1776 and the US Constitution was written in 1787); cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, and soft pretzels; Rocky’s epic run up the Philadelphia Art Museum steps; the LOVE sculpture; the Philly Phanatic; Benjamin Franklin; Mummers

Resident literary writers (a very incomplete list):

Edgar Allen Poe's House

Fond of laying claim to everyone who was born in, lived in, or passed through as at least partially ours (such as Grace Kelly, Noam Chomsky, and Bill Cosby, among others) Philadelphians lay claim to Louisa May Alcott who, having spent the first two years of her infancy in the Germantown district, rightfully earned herself a historic marker, and Edgar Allan Poe who, having enjoyed the six most productive and happy years of his life within the city limits, was honored by having one of his Philadelphia homes preserved as a National Historic Landmark. (I’ve recently heard tell that, due to a rivalry between Baltimore and Philadelphia concerning who “owns” Poe, there was a movement intending to dig up his Baltimore grave and bring him “home” to Philadelphia. You didn’t hear it from me.)

Contemporary resident writers include: CA Conrad, Lisa Sewell, Don Lee, Ru Freeman, Robin Black, Elizabeth Scanlon, Scott McClanahan (Ed: actually a West Virginian), Mike Ingram, Joan Mellen, Jena Osman, Alan Singer, Brian Teare, Aimee LaBrie, Courtney Bambrick, Randall Brown, Carla Spataro, Christine Weiser, Josh Emmons, Lee Klein, Tom McAllister, Christian Tebordo, Katherine Hill, Samuel R. Delany, Jennifer Weiner, JC Todd, Anne Kaier, Laura Spagnoli, Sarah Rose Etter, Dan Torday, Tamara Oakman, Debrah Morkun, Frank Sherlock, Kim Gek Lin Short, Pattie McCarthy, Eileen D’Angelo, Ryan Eckes, Jane Cassady, Aleysha Wise, Denice Frohman, Yellow Rage, Autumn Konopka, and many more. ETA: Allison Hedge Coke kindly reminded us that Sonia Sanchez is the current (and first!) poet laureate of Philadelphia. Thank you!

Literary references:

National Book Award nominee Beth Kephart’s novel Dangerous Neighbors is set during the 1876 Centennial Exhibition, Fever 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson occurs during the upheaval of an epidemic, and In Her Shoes by Philadelphia resident-writer Jennifer Weiner offers a more contemporary view of city life. Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold takes place in a nearby Philadelphia suburb.  In poetry, both Ryan Eckes’ Old News and Debra Morkun’s The Ida Pingala are written and set in Philadelphia.

I’m particularly fond of reading local, so I’m looking forward to a few other forthcoming works: Unbuilt Projects, a hybrid collected narrative (Four Way, October 2012) and The Narrow Door, a memoir (Graywolf, 2014) both by Paul Lisicky, are partially set in Philadelphia. Something Strange and Deadly by Susan Dennard (HarperTeen, July 2012) will be set in 1876 Philadelphia.

Where to learn:

If you’re going for long-term instruction, Rosemont College, Temple University, and Arcadia University all offer MFA programs in Creative Writing.

If you’re looking for a more short-term creative reboot, the 65th annual Philadelphia Writers’ Conference in June and the Push to Publish Conference in October both offer the opportunity to meet other writers, attend workshops, listen to keynote speakers, get manuscript critics, and pitch to agents and editors alike. There’s also the Philadelphia Writers’ Workshop and a frequently-offered eight-week Philadelphia Stories Fiction Workshop with Aimee LaBrie.

Where to findreading material:

Miscellanea Libri

The Book Trader is a fabulous, densely-shelved used bookstore that decorates with piles of books in every pathway. Miscellanea Libri, another option for used book aficionados, is a stand in the famous Reading Terminal Market, thereby streamlining my concurrent desires for a Nutella-stuffed crepe, more books, and some additional luck (you have to rub the pig statue’s nose, for good luck, whenever you visit).

I’m particularly fond of the Free Library of Philadelphia, mostly for the atmosphere and architecture, and my heart breaks every time I’m in the area on a dreaded Sunday and it’s closed.

Other popular independent bookstores include

Joseph Fox Bookshop Storefront

Joseph Fox Bookshop in downtown Philadelphia, the bookstore for author events and signings, and I’ve heard good things about the selection at the Penn Bookstore.

Where to get published:

Writers who live or once lived in Pennsylvania, Delaware, or New Jersey should definitely consider submitting their writing to Philadelphia Stories. Apiary Magazine, an all-volunteer literary organization dedicated to nurturing the literary arts and fostering cross-cultural understanding in Philadelphia, similarly prefers Philadelphia-area writers (they’re big fans of live reading events, so they want local writers who can attend).

Joseph Fox Bookshop

Though located in Philadelphia, Painted Bride Quarterly, one of the country’s longest running literary magazines, accepts submissions from all regions. Community-based, independent, and non-profit, PBQ publishes quarterly online and annually in print. The online Journal of Compressed Creative Arts is interested in only the best and briefest (sub-600 words) of writing. TINGE Magazine, an online literary publication staffed by the Temple University MFA students, also has an open submission policy.

For book publications, Philadelphia is home to Quirk Books, Running Press, PS Books—a division of Philadelphia Stories—and Matter Press who, like its partner the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, is solely interested in the compressed literary form and expresses this love in the publication of prose poetry and compressed fiction print chapbooks.

Where to write:

Rittenhouse Square Park

Of course, Philly has its fair share of coffee shops to flock to, but personally I favor outdoor settings when not writing at my own home office. Rittenhouse Square Park, one of the five original open-space parks planned by William Penn himself, offers an abundance of park benches, grassy lawns, sunshine, and people watching and is only a short walk from some of the finer city restaurants (and from Joseph Fox Bookshop). Fairmount Park offers 9,200 acres of space to find an inspirational and quiet writing nook.

Events/Festivals:

City Hall and Sculptures

There is a never ending stream of festivities that cater to literary lovers. Philadelphia Stories annually hosts the Spring Fling & Poetry Celebration at the American Swedish Historical Museum. Painted Bride Quarterly hosts Slam Bam Thank You Ma’am, an interactive slam event on the last Thursday of every month. Partnering with PBQ, Literary Death Match, an internationally traveling literary event, makes semi-regular stops in Philadelphia to wide popularity (in front of judges and an audience, four writers read and battle until the death!)

Specifically for poets, the New Philadelphia Poets hosts an ongoing reading series; the Jubilant Thicket Literary Series is held the second Sunday of every month at 7 PM at The Walking Fish Theatre; and the Mad Poets Society offers an abundance of events every week.

If that isn’t enough, Apiary offers an all-inclusive Philly Lit Calendar, complete with listings for poetry readings, fiction performances, writing workshops, performance poetry slams, and open mics. There’s never a dull evening for Philadelphia writers! (Which gives me plenty of opportunity to put off finishing that novel of mine . . . )

Next post: July 13 | Buffalo, New York …

Bio: Hannah Karena Jones is an Assistant Editor at Transaction Publishers and, reluctantly, admits that she’s recently gone to the other side: New Jersey. Her writing has appeared in The Susquehanna Review and Weave Magazine, among others, and her book, Byberry State Hospital, is forthcoming from Arcadia Publishing. She maintains a blog at thewwaitingroom.wordpress.com.

Photo Credits: All butchering of the photographic art and of the Philadelphia scenery was done by yours truly, the author.