Literary Boroughs #53: Prague, Czech Republic

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 53rd post on Prague, Czech Republic, by Jeremy Hauck and Sonja Crafts. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

castle tram

It would be a mistake to attempt to examine Prague’s literary scene without also looking at its rich history, which informs its architecture as well as its writing. Most major Prague writers have a distinct dialogue with the city’s political history in their works—from the banality/inanity of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy found in Kafka’s writings, to the often satirical, sometimes overt critiques of military force and the region’s various occupying governments found in Hašek and Čapek, Hrabal and Seifert, Kundera and Klíma. Even today, the effects of Prague’s subjugation and the turbulence surrounding its successive political changes continue to infiltrate its literary contributions, more than two decades after the Czech Republic cut the political puppet strings that once tied it to Moscow.

Now the capital of an EU state and one of the most visited cities in Europe, Prague is settling into its capitalistic groove—just how comfortably remains to be seen. Its contemporary writers, including Jáchym Topol, Emil Hakl, Václav Kahuda, Petra Hůlová, Sylva Fischerová, and Michal Ajvaz, continue the tradition of historical, political, and cultural examination, looking beyond Prague’s attractions and hypermarkets to find the real heart of the city and its people—both past and present. With a little effort, visitors to Prague can do the same, finding literary hot spots and quiet, scenic spaces, sometimes only minutes from the main tourist sites. Or as Ajvaz states in an interview with The Prague Post:

To look at beautiful houses inhabited with shops full of kitschy souvenirs and overpriced restaurants without any atmosphere is truly depressing, as is seeing unpremeditated decisions to deprive historical parts of the city of its life by turning them into mono-functional seats of offices. [But] Prague, like every city, has lots of magic places where no tourists go, which are not described in any tourist guides and which each of us has to find for himself: there are empty, dreaming streets on the periphery, railway stations with the atmosphere of distances, departures and arrivals, railways overgrown with bushes, embankments of the river, various quarters with their own souls…

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Literary Boroughs #52: Toronto, Ontario

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 fifty-second post on Toronto, Ontario, by Stevie Howell. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Photo credit: Paul Bica (license)

Although Toronto’s unofficial slogan is “Toronto the Good,” this city often catches flak from the rest of the country for considering itself the centre of the (Canadian) world. That tension is especially true when it comes to writers and book publishing, as Toronto happens to be home to the bulk of awards and is host of literary lions.

Resident Writers:

World heavyweight authors Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje have long made Toronto home, as does the US ex-pat bestselling author John Irving. Younger breakout writers include Sheila Heti and Alix Ohlin. Plenty of poets make Toronto home, too, including Ken Babstock, Matthew Tierney, and Michael Lista. Toronto features prominently as a character in books by many of these writers. But let’s be honest—Toronto really makes its living as an extra in American feature films.

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Introducing… The New Ploughshares Blog!

The Ploughshares blog has changed a lot since we first launched it in 2009. Back then, it was mostly a supplement to the magazine—a clearinghouse for announcements, extra contributors’ notes, and all the other little tidbits that wouldn’t fit elsewhere. Over the years we added more original material, too, inviting our print contributors to sign up for four-month stints as guest bloggers, and then, in July 2011, adding our first real proprietary content—a book reviews section, written by our staff and other writers not connected with the print magazine.

The blog was still very much a supplement to the magazine, though—and to a certain extent, of course, it always will be. On the other hand, we were increasingly excited about what our regular book reviewers were coming up with, from Shannon Wagner’s Dr. Poetry column, to Paul Scott Stanfield’s “Not Unlike…” column. And who could forget Anca Szilagyi’s inventive book-reviews-in-bullet-points? Suddenly it seemed like the blog could be more than just extra pages for the magazine’s contributors: it could complement the magazine, giving it a lively online presence that would ultimately draw more attention to the wonderful prose and poetry we’ve always published in print.

So we’re very excited to announce, today, that the blog is changing once again. Starting next week you’ll be meeting a crop of nearly twenty regular bloggers, all of whom will be with us for a whole year—and none of whom (with one exception) have any connection with the print magazine’s recent issues. For the first time, the Ploughshares blog is becoming its own, separate creature.

And though I don’t want to spoil too many surprises, here are a few highlights you can look forward to:

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Literary Boroughs #51: Sacramento, CA

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 fifty-first post on Sacramento, California, by Tim Kahl. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Sacramento is the “land of big water” as the Miwok referred to it, but it is most well known as The Capital City and the site where the Gold Rush madness began. It is the seat of state government of California. It is the birthplace of  Tower Records and Cake. It is affectionately known as the “River City” (a distinction it shares with Grand Junction, CO; Mason City, IA; Decatur City, AL, Louisville, KY; etc.), the “City of Trees” (a distinction it shares with Paris and Amsterdam), the “Big Tomato” and the “Camellia City.” It was named by the Civil Rights Project of Harvard University as the most racially/ethnically integrated major city in America. Recently it was named the Farm-to-Fork Capital of America for its abundance of locally-grown produce. Other local luminaries include: Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, actor Sam Elliott, actress Adrienne Barbeau, businessman Charles Schwab, musician Jackie Greene, Lee Greenwood and jazz legend Jimmy Smith.

Sacramento’s literary scene puts as much emphasis on how words enter public space as part of the oral tradition as it does on words impressed onto the printed page.

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Literary Boroughs #50: Cleveland, OH

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 fiftieth post on Cleveland, Ohio, by Michael Croley. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Even these days, with all the talk of Ruin Porn and Rust Belt Chic and the great renaissance taking place across the burned out factory towns of the great Midwest, mention Cleveland and it’s more often than a not as a punch line. In a recent issue of The New Yorker America’s newest sweetheart, Lena Dunham, wrote about an an “ironic” trip she and her friends took to Cleveland while in college to visit the Salvation Army.

But as someone who lived in Cleveland for three years and who met his future wife there, I don’t know what’s so ironic or funny about Cleveland (much less a Salvation Army). It’s a great old city that hangs onto its history. Yes, the river is crooked and, yes, it burned. But let’s get past the smoke. Clevelanders are proud, noble people and have a vibrant arts culture that boasts world-class talent, all within the city’s University Circle Neighborhood. In a matter of minutes residents can walk from the Cleveland Museum of Art to Severance Hall, home of the Cleveland Orchestra (one of the “Big Five”), and then down the street to the brand new onyx gem built by the Museum of Contemporary Art. Cleveland also boasts the nation’s second largest theater district at Playhouse Square, and there is a vibrant restaurant scene across the city’s many neighborhoods east and west.

There’s a lot more to the city than Ralphie’s house from A Christmas Story—based on the story by Jean Shepherd. The literary tradition is long and storied—and growing—and includes Langston Hughes, Hart Crane, Susan Orlean and Andy Borowitz.

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Literary Boroughs #49: New Orleans, LA

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 forty-ninth post on New Orleans, Louisiana, by Michael Zell. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

photo by Kristin Fouquet (kristin.fouquet.cc)New Orleans is no less than a cultural outpost. The literary arts are particularly on the rise in the Crescent City, characterized by an influx of writers and an exponential increase in readings and events over the past couple years.  Though William Faulkner, frankly more of a Mississippi writer, is often publicized as having New Orleans connections, many notables have sought creative succor and received inspiration from New Orleans, including Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Charles Bukowski, and Colum McCann—and that trend continues today.  Susan Larson’s weekly WWNO radio show The Reading Life is the source for interviews and features.  Room 220’s literary blog ably fills in the gaps, particularly with an otherwise sorely missing critical element.  The Times-Picayune’s coverage has been hurt by a shift in focus from print to digital (Nola.com), but Chris Waddington remains one of the key writers on literature in the city.  New Orleans may have rested on its laurels in the past, but new ones are being braided as we speak.

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Literary Boroughs #48: Berlin, Germany

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 forty-eighth post on Berlin, Germany, by Amanda DeMarco. —Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

Located on the River Spree in northeastern Germany, Berlin is home to 3.5 million people. Since much of it was destroyed in World War II, the city’s architecture is a melange of mostly 20th-century structures, and it is certainly not among the most picturesque European cities. About 13 percent of Berlin’s inhabitants are of non-German nationality, with 25 percent having non-German heritage. Immigration (often short-term) from America has also exploded in recent years, and comparisons to 90s-Prague are common. Gentrification and rising rents are a major concern, and Americans with foreign funding (who can therefore afford to pay amounts those earning typically low Berlin incomes cannot) are increasingly the object of criticism.

Germans love to read and German publishing is more robust and better structured than that in the U.S. In recent years, more publishing houses have moved to Berlin, and the city is now truly the capital of German literary life. Though you can certainly get by in Berlin only speaking English, you’re definitely missing out on the most vibrant parts of Berlin book culture if you don’t know what’s happening in German.

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Literary Boroughs #47: Seattle, WA

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 forty-seventh post on Seattle, Washington, by Cody Walker. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

“Father and Son” at the Olympic Sculpture Park, with the Space Needle in the background

In a ranking of America’s Most Literate Cities, Seattle has finished first or second in each of the past seven years. And yes, ranking cities in such a way is sort of silly—but still, but still. Seattle doesn’t have the literary history of a Boston or a New York, but it’s become a mecca for bookish types who don’t mind a bit of rain on their chunky-frame glasses. And the rain gives writers the perfect opportunity to go indoors—into dive bars, into coffee shops—and talk to other writers. (What you’ve heard is true: Seattle has ten zillion coffee shops.)

Among bars, the Blue Moon deserves special mention. Founded in 1934, it’s the oldest remaining tavern in the city’s University District. Theodore Roethke, Richard Hugo, and Tom Robbins were all regulars in the ’50s and ’60s. In 1995 the Seattle City Council proclaimed that, seeing as Roethke had conducted numerous “symposia formal and informal in the Blue Moon Tavern,” the alley adjacent to the bar would henceforth be known as “Roethke Mews.”Continue Reading

Literary Boroughs #46: Stone Town, Zanzibar, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania

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 forty-sixth post on Stone Town and Dar es Salaam, by Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

The Swahili coastal cities of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Stone Town, Zanzibar have inspired the imaginations of artists and writers for centuries. From holy religious texts to contemporary fictions, the region attracts seekers, adventurers, and dreamers. Once the seat of the Omani Sultanate, Stone Town, Zanzibar was not only a major Indian Ocean trade centre for spice, ivory, and slaves, but was also an intellectual Mecca. Today it is one of the oldest living Swahili cities, and World Heritage site where a potent mix of traditional African and Islamic traditions contends with globalization and tourism. Dar es Salaam, a booming East African metropolis on the mainland, was fondly named “haven of peace” by former Sultan Sayyid Majid of Zanzibar. Fondly known as “Dar,” it has attracted its fair share of revolutionaries, religious luminaries, artists, politicians, and activists. Dar is the financial and cultural capitol of Tanzania and proudly boasts itself as a contemporary East African city on the rise.

Zanzibar is the acclaimed “birthplace” of Swahili, the lingua franca of East Africa. In both Stone Town and Dar es Salaam, Swahili literature, poems, and songs abound, ranging from traditional utenzi and maulidi  (spiritual, Islamic-inspired verse) to contemporary Taarab (sung Swahili poems set to Middle Eastern orchestration) and Bongo Flava (East African hip-hop). The ubiquitous kanga cloth, worn by women in East Africa, is known for its puzzling poetic messages woven into each design. Even the local transport, ‘dala-dala,’ are adorned with witty, sometimes ominous messages written in bombastic script. The language is rich with jokes and metaphors that spin both the written and spoken word in surprising directions.

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Literary Boroughs #45: Columbia, MO

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 forty-fifth post on Columbia, Missouri, by Michael Nye. -Andrea Martucci, Ploughshares Managing Editor

I’ve been in Columbia for three years now, and it is the smallest town I’ve lived in yet. I was born in a city (Cincinnati), went to college in a city (Columbus), worked in a city (Boston), and went to graduate school in a city (St. Louis). Moving to a new town is a pretty daunting experience, and much more stressful and difficult than I ever realized. Everyone has had horrible moving experiences, some of which ultimately become good anecdotes to repeat for years to come. I’ve been lucky, though: Columbia has been a welcome, delightful place for me.

Writers, I think, gravitate toward the pen and paper (the laptop?) because we’re generally observant people who value expressing exactly what we mean with just the right words, and are willing to sit quietly for long stretches of time to communicate what we think and feel and believe just right. The flipside is that it can make us lonely, bored, and antisocial. So having a community that is not just vibrant, but vibrant in an artistic way, is a tremendous boon.

And, strange to think it, that’s exactly what we have deepintheheart in Missouri: a thriving community of arts, literature, and general ballyhoo. Here’s your quick and pleasantly dirty trip through Columbia.

Onward!

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