Literary Boroughs #8: Buffalo, New York

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 eighth post on Buffalo, New York by Josh Smith. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Local artist Michael Morgulis once described Buffalo, NY as “the City of No Illusions.” Since 1977, that moniker has stayed with Buffalo alongside its other names which include, “the Nickel City” and “the City of Good Neighbors.”

History buffs know it as the home of two U.S. presidents. Game show marathons might tell you that Buffalo produced both the electric chair and world’s first movie theater. And travelers know it as a border city that serves as the proverbial stargate between the United States and Canada.

Residents however, know it as one of the all-around most enjoyable cities to spend time in. Buffalo is home to the United States’ second-largest New Year’s ball drop, second-largest food festival; the Taste of Buffalo, as well as the world’s largest Dyngus Day celebration, and world’s largest Infringement Festival.

Buffalo harbors no illusions, but is home to plenty of innovations.

Quick Info:

City: Buffalo, NY, USA

What the city is known for: The Great Lakes, proximity to Niagara Falls, Olmstead Parks System, Frank Lloyd Wright architecture, the “bubble man,” Loganberry, Sponge Candy, the smell of Cheerios

Resident Writers (a partial list): Buffalo enjoys claiming anybody who spent part of their life within the city’s embrace. Current residents are listed in bold: Gary Earl Ross (Edgar award winner), Ross Runfola (Woodrow Wilson fellow), Carl Dennis (Pulitzer Prize winner), Lucille Clifton (National Book Award winner), Mark Twain (Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn), Wolf Blitzer (CNN), Mark C. Lloyd (Playwright, poet), F. Scott Fitzgerald (The Great Gatsby), Robert Creeley (Co-founder, UB POETICS program),Tim Russert (Meet The Press), Matt Taibbi (Buffalo Beast, Rolling Stone), Laura Pedersen (New York Times, novelist), Emanuel Fried (Playwright), Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), Ken Feltges (Poet)

Literary References (a partial list): Buffalo Gal and Buffalo Unbound by Laura Pedersen, City on the Edge by Mark Goldman

Where to Find Reading Material:

The city of Buffalo is comprised of dozens of defined neighborhoods, each with its own verve and je ne sais quoi. Many of these neighborhoods have independent bookstores that reflect the characteristics of their locale.

The neighborhood of Allentown is defined by a strong independent arts community, and at its nexus sits Rust Belt Books. The punk rock, do-it-yourself attitude of Allen St. resonates throughout the store from its front windows full of band flyers, to its backroom black box theater which plays host to everything from Shakespeare to a monthly poetry series. The books contained within the nest-like environment of the store range from local authors, to vintage magazines, to new releases. The store is always come-as-you-are, and if you come by on April 1st, each year there’s a not-so-secret bag sale that takes place, where literally hundreds of books are up for grabs.

Just a piece down the road from Rust Belt is the Elmwood Village location of Talking Leaves Books. In the heart of the Village, on Elmwood Avenue, Talking Leaves shares a building with the popular Caffe Aroma, making it a perfect destination for a few hours of personal amusement. To get the most out of a shopping trip, customers can find a bestseller, a scone, and a seat at the outdoor patio with a view of Bidwell Park. This year, readers of local newspaper Artvoice named Elmwood Avenue as the city’s Best People-Watching Spot.

Buffalo Central Library

Of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library system’s thirty-seven libraries, ten sit inside of the city limits, but the capstone of them all, is the Buffalo Central Library. In the heart of downtown resides two stories of literary stacks, media resource centers, meeting rooms, computer banks, and the people who love them. While other libraries in the B&ECPL may also have computers, or an auditorium, only the Central Library is home to the Rare Book Room, which dates back to 1871, and is one of only twenty such collections made available in a public library.

Many other neighborhoods have their own bookshops that reflect the personality of their surroundings, including; Dog Ears Bookstore in South Buffalo, a not-for-profit store that works tirelessly to strengthen the community through workshops, series, and events; Burning Books on Buffalo’s West Side, a radical reading room, specializing in not just selling books, but screening movies, and holding lectures and events that promote social consciousness; and North Buffalo is home to The Second Reader Bookshop, owned by local English teacher John Rigney.

No matter where you are in Buffalo, a good read is never far.

Where to Get Published:

Getting published in Buffalo can be as simple or as challenging as you like it, depending on what publication or method of publication you aim for.

Each week, The Buffalo News publishes one or two pieces of poetry in its Sunday edition. With the nation’s second-highest penetration rate of any news outlet today, earning a spot on the poetry page can certainly raise one’s profile. However with sometimes only one piece being published per week, the competition for that slot is great. Trends show that poets with great momentum have greater success in getting published.

 

While the News only publishes poetry in addition to the contents of a daily newspaper, literary journals such as NOMAD focus almost exclusively on creative writing. Established in 2009, NOMAD features poetry, prose and visual art on a di-annual basis. Made available to the public for free, the portable art galleries have proven so popular that they spawned a performance series, WAM: Writers, Artists and Musicians.

Here in Buffalo, not far-removed from Central New York; home of the American Women’s Rights movement, is Earth’s Daughters. Believed to be the oldest running feminist literary periodical in the United States, E.D. accepts submissions from all corners of the globe, although each Earth’s Daughters issue has a theme which provides an interesting twist on each submission period. The editing body of E.D. is comprised of over a handful of Buffalo women, whose own work needs the approval of a majority in order to gain entry into the latest issue. Many local authors have tried submitting to no avail, but those that succeed enjoy much praise from their peers.

For those interested in going beyond the poem and submitting piece by piece, shop your manuscript to local small press Starcherone Books. The name is a fairly obvious play on words (start-your-own), because what is now an operation featuring over a dozen staff members was once just the efforts of one man attempting to get his stories into print.

Stories such as this aren’t uncommon in Buffalo. Other small presses began as self-publishing outfits that grew to include a range of writers from both inside and outside of the city. Doug Manson’s Lil’ Scratch Pad Press has published chapbooks by writers such as Kristianne Meal, Aaron Lowinger and Michael Basinski, and at its most prolific point, was prominently featured in the 2008 Buffalo Small Press Book Fair.

Events such as the Small Press Book Fair showcase hundreds of the region’s smaller outlets, reminding patrons of the literary arts, that size isn’t everything, nor are shiny covers.

Saucebox is one such press that doesn’t boast glossy books that you can see your face in. Robin Brox is the force behind Saucebox, and since 2003, every book from the female-only press has literally been made by Brox’ hands, with chapbook covers ranging from cardboard to papyrus in material.

The point that Buffalo writers drive home over and over again, is that with enough digging, you can find the outlet that’s right for you; but in the event that you can’t find your perfect outlet, you can create one. Some local poets even create DVDs.

Where to Write:

Where to write? It all depends on the goal. Writers looking for inspiration need look no further than their own front yard. Whether your front door reveals a view of Canada, an abandoned grain elevator, or a community garden, the impetus for a good poem or good story, is literally before your feet.

Writers looking for a comfortable place to write ought to consider Spot Coffee. With three locations in Buffalo, Spot offers writers the ability to sink into a couch, sit by a fire/an open window, sip lemonade (or cocoa) and let the world around them fade into the background. While your neighborhood Starbucks might hire a crew full of folks who don’t know a pantoum from a poncho, Spot tends to hire baristas and cooks with a flair for the arts. You never know when you might come to enjoy a book of feminist poetry, and leave with a date.

If you’re a writer seeking a place to sharpen your skills, Buffalo has several writers’ groups with you in mind. Every first and third Tuesday, University at Buffalo professor Gary Earl Ross leads a group, within the confines of the Western New York Book Arts Center. This group is sponsored by the Just Buffalo Literary Center and open to members only, but free of charge, it’s one of the many perks enjoyed annually by paid members.

Founded in 2006, The Buffalo Writers Meetup Group has been responsible for sharpening the skills of many first-time writers in the area, and is curated through the website Meetup.com Writers to come from or participate in this group have included; Marek Parker, once host of the Queer Vibes Reading Series; and Stephanie Haefner, internet impresario and self-proclaimed “chick-lit” author.

Perhaps the proverbial cool kids club of Buffalo’s writing groups, the Bad Pudding writers’ group is held every other Tuesday at the home of veteran Buffalo poet, George Grace. Members of the group regularly congregate around a coffee table, a picnic table, or even within an above-ground pool to not only strengthen each other’s poetry and fiction, but to dialogue about the literary landscape around them. As poems and drinks get passed, the prose gets tighter, as does the camaraderie.

Events/Festivals:

As mentioned, Buffalo likes to party, to show off, to do things big. Our Mardi Gras celebrations are second only to New Orleans in size. It makes sense that perhaps our most beloved literary festival-type event is Urban Epiphany.

UE is a poetry marathon that often takes place during National Poetry Month. With performers numbering in the hundreds, every corner of Western New York’s literary community is represented. For an entire day, artists tag in and out, reading for two minutes at a time. Generations collide at the epic event. Audience members can sit and experience the poetry of blue-chip talent Jane Sadowsky, and in the next minute witness the local living legend Jimmie Gilliam, all for the suggested donation of five bucks.

Already mentioned was the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair,  a one-day Spring bazaar featuring hundreds of vendors, and thousands of visitors. If you miss this event, the next month of your career will be spent being utterly confused by, and left out of a lot of subsequent conversations with your colleagues. Books get sold, deals get made, series are born, there’s no substitute for being there.

If you want to find an event with a slower speed, a more relaxed tempo, travel just a skosh outside the city limits to the suburb of Blasdell, NY. There you will find the Woodlawn Diner, home to the Poetry And Dinner series. Each month from September through June, the Ries invite you to be a member of their family for a few hours. Dave and Joan Ries are the proprietors of the diner, their daughter Sara is the series’ host. As the title suggests, guests come down to the diner for a three-course meal, followed by a featured poet and subsequent open mic. In the past two years the series has drawn features from across New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario; and has served meals such as lasagna, chicken ala king, broccoli & cheddar quiche. For twelve dollars, it may just be the best literary value in all of Erie County. Email brushstrokegirl@hotmail.com for details and reservations.

Just like the publishing community of the city, where for every Frick there is a Frack, the area’s series also relate in similar fashion. Whereas the Poetry And Dinner series occasionally features an out-of-towner, the Just Buffalo Literary Center’s Big Night series almost-exclusively features traveling literary tradesmen.

Originated by then-Just Buffalo artistic director Michael Kelleher and partner Aaron Lowinger, the monthly multi-media event combines innovative international poets with local musicians, film artists, and visual performance artists. Like the series at Woodlawn Diner, Big Night at the WNYBAC offers guests the chance to go home with ears and stomach full. CIA-trained chef Geoffrey Gatza serves a wide array of gourmet food at each of the Saturday-night events.

If you recognize the name Geoffrey Gatza, it may be because of his small press BlazeVOX books. Gatza’s press is open to debate, but his cornbread is not. If you attend Big Night, grab a seat by the food.

If you’re only going to be in Buffalo for one day, and you want to see a name you’ll recognize, you want to visit Kleinhans Music Hall for the BABEL lecture series. Just Buffalo also organizes this series which brings literary giants from the world over. Each month features not only a lecture, but an on-stage conversation, and an audience-interactive question and answer portion. Former speakers have included Nobel laureates Orhan Pamuk and V.S. Naipaul, as well as young prodigy Zadie Smith, and the world renowned Salman Rushdie.

No one outlet can list every Buffalo series, festival or event, but literary listings can be found each Thursday in the pages of Artvoice, or every Sunday in the Spotlight section of the Buffalo News. There you can learn more about other places to share your work such as the Wordflight reading series, Daemen College’s Readings at the RIC series, or Empire State College’s Appletree Reading Series. Also listed will be other events that sometimes feature poetry in addition to other art forms, events such as the Buffalo Infringement Festival, Music Is Art festival, or Trimania.

Come to Buffalo, we don’t mind the company. Our city was built for a population twice our current size, so there’s nary a traffic jam, and if you’re smart, you’ll catch Lloyd’s Taco Truck with me before a show.

Next post: July 17 | Berkeley, California …

 

Bio: Josh Smith was born, raised, and currently resides in Buffalo, NY. Since debuting in 2006, he has been published by the Buffalo News, Artvoice and various other publications. He has been a featured poet many times over in the United States and Canada. In 2012, Josh captured the Best of Buffalo award for Best Poet. He is the self-proclaimed leader of the Mainstream Era of poetry. Find out more at http://joshsmithpoetry.com , follow him on Twitter @joshsmithpoetry, like him on Facebook.com/joshsmithpoetry, or subscribe to Youtube.com/joshsmithpoetry

(Josh Smith photo by Caesandra Seawell. All others by Josh Smith.)

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