Literary Boroughs #45: Columbia, MO

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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 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.


What the city is best known for/what makes it unique:

The University of Missouri

Resident Writers (an incomplete list):

Scott Cairns, Thom Dawkins, Speer Morgan, Trudy Lewis, EJ Levy, Maureen Stanton, Aliki Barnstone, Willis Barnstone, Cornelius Eady, Gabriel Fried, Marc McKee, Claire McQuerry, Melissa Range, Lisa Saffron, Alex George, Marly Swick, Keija Parssinen, Joanna Luloff, Sw. Anand Prahlad, Bridget Bufford, and Richard B. Schwartz, with big apologies to any and all writers that I may have missed.

Literary References:

Set primarily in Columbia, John Williams’s novel Stoner is often considered a book that all writers must read. The novel is about an undistinguished English professor named William Stoner who loses the love and respect of his wife and daughter, unintentionally makes enemies within his department, and starts an affair with a colleague. What’s remarkable about the novel is how tense the entire thing is, how “nothing happens” but everything happens, how the simplest misunderstandings between people expand into the worst kind of treachery. If you take nothing else from this blog post, read Stoner — it’s an absolute gem of a novel.

The late poet Tom McAfee taught at the University of Missouri for many years before dying due to complications from his alcoholism. Columbia and the surrounding Missouri areas frequently appear in his work. One of his protégés and friends, the poet Mike White, also has written poems evoking the Missouri landscape and examining his time kicking around the Show-Me-State.

Other writers who have used Columbia in their work are, of course, many of the writers who have spent time at Mizzou, either as teachers or students, but the diversity isn’t just linked to writers that have come through the higher education system. This includes such writers like Suzann Ledbetter Ellingsworth, Daniel Woodrell, William Peden, William Inge, Robb Forman Dew, Henry Bellamann and Rod Santos, among many others.

Where to Learn:

University of Missouri is the main campus of the MU system.  Founded in 1839, the university currently has about 33,000 students (and growing!). MU was the first public institution west of the Mississippi River, which probably doesn’t matter much to us in the year 2012. Our School of Journalism has a national reputation of being one of, if not the, best journalism school in the country. We also recently joined the SEC, if you care about that sort of thing.

Stephens College began as a finishing school, then became a college, and over the course of several decades has blossomed into a terrific institution of dance, theater, fashion design, and equestrian studies. Each semester, the college has a reading in The Penthouse, the top floor of the library with a terrific view of the city.

Columbia College is a private liberal arts college just north of Broadway, which is the main east/west street of Columbia that cuts through our downtown. Columbia College was the first women’s college on this side of the Mississippi, and renamed itself in 1970 when it became a four-year coeducational joint.

Quarry Street Writers Workshop was founded in September 2010 by the novelist Keija Parssinen. QHWW offers eight week creative writing classes, weekend retreats, and a summer writing workshop for teens. Parssinen designs her classes to be beneficial to both beginning writers and those going through those maddening final versions of a novel.

Where to Find Reading Material:

Given that Columbia is a university town, you can find all the books you want from the MU Library system. Yeah?

If you want to buy books, you just need to stroll straight up Ninth Street and check out Get Lost Bookshop. Now in its fifth year, Get Lost filled the vacuum created when Acorn Books (more in a second) left the downtown area. Get Lost hosts several author readings every year, has terrific recommendations from their savvy staff, occasionally has an “official” pet looking to be adopted, and in the back, has a small nook for thrillers and science fiction books. The wonderful proprietor Amy Stephenson keeps the place humming.

Though most of the literary scene is in downtown Columbia, it’s worth your time to head northeast from Broadway and hit up Village Books, which is run by Doug Wilson and Becky Asher. Among other good things going on there, they have a “Chick Lit n’ Chocolate” reading group every fourth Friday of the month. I’m not sure how you can go wrong when chocolate is involved. In fact, you probably can’t.

Daniel Boone Regional Library is just a bit west of downtown (and that means, like, three blocks) and takes care of us in here in Boone County. All those good services that dynamic libraries are doing now — computers, DVDs, audiobooks, ebooks, programs for children and families — DBRL excels at. My favorite is One Read, a title for all adults to read that is selected by public vote, which includes a series of free community events during September. This year’s choice is Tea Obreht’s wonderful debut, The Tiger’s Wife. This is also a fabulous place to write (see below), too. And it looks fantastic: DBRL was the recipient of two Columbia Image Awards because the architecture and design of the building is magnificent.

We also have a Barnes & Noble. Attached to a mall. So.

Where to Get Published:

I’ll give you the boilerplate about my employer: The Missouri Review, founded in 1978, is one of the most highly-regarded literary magazines in the United States. We’re based at the University of Missouri and publish four issues each year. New, emerging, and mid-career writers whose work has been published in The Missouri Review have been anthologized over 100 times in Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Travel Writing, Best American Poetry, The O. Henry Prize Anthology, and The Pushcart Prize. We are also pleased to be the first to have published the fiction of many emerging writers, including Katie Chase, Nathan Hogan, Jennie Lin, Susan Ford, and Elisabeth Fairchild. Writers whose work first appeared in The Missouri Review has won major prizes, including the National Book Award, the Yale Younger Poets Award, MacArthur Foundation “Genius” awards, and the Pulitzer Prize.

But you knew all that, right?

Unbridled Books, though, is one of those under-the-radar presses that you might not have heard of that regularly churns out high quality literary books. Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson (the most cheerful pessimist I have ever met) formed the press in 2003 and have been growing their list of fine authors ever since.  My favorite of their stable of writers is Emily St. John Mandel, whose novels include The Singer’s Gun and The Lola Quartet. Some of their other authors include Ed Falco, Peter Geye, Timothy Schaffert, and Elise Blackwell.

EPIC is the undergraduate literary magazine of the University of Missouri. The editor-in-chief is often a senior at the university, and EPIC becomes one of the first publication to many an emerging writer.

The Believer Magazine even has ties to the Columbia community: their editor Andrew Leland has recently located to our fine city (no truth to the rumor he is secretly the next point guard for the Tigers) and anytime we can give some dap to The Believer, well, we will do so.  Note: they have an interview with Lucinda Williams in the current issue, and guess who just performed at Stephens Lake in Columbia this July? Lucinda Williams! See? Not as tenuous of a link as you first thought!

(okay, yeah it is, but …)

Where to Write:

Lakota Coffee is in its twentieth year of serving the community with freshly ground coffee, friendly baristas, a coffee bar always packed with conversation, and the type of ambience one would expect from a local coffee shop. If you’re an early riser, you’ll see the group of early morning regulars that cruise in every single day to talk about their lives. Table size varies, and the outlets can be a bit dodgy, but don’t let that stop you.

Coffee Zone has a dull name, but their Rocket Fuel brew is no joke, and the Turkish aesthetic (and gyros) are fantastic. It is located on – surpise! – Ninth Street. Everything is located on Ninth Street. Well, not everything. Almost everything.

Kaldi’s Coffee is also on Ninth Street (what isn’t on Ninth Street, you must be wondering) and known not only for its delicious coffee but for having the A/C cranked way too high. It is always freezing in there. Even in the summer, you need to bring your hoodie if you’re going to write.

Ragtag always has a bunch of people on laptops whenever I’m there. But since Ragtag may not be the best place to write because it is several things at once—Ragtag Cinema, the showcase for independent and small films in Columbia; Uprise Bakery and Café, for all your morning pastry and afternoon sandwich needs; and Ragtag, the bar where many of the twenty-somethings in Columbia cluster seven days a week—it’s pretty easy to get distracted from your magnum opus in order to knock back a few IPAs. That’s just how it is.


Roots N’ Blues N’ BBQ is exactly what it sounds like: great music and great food, with a half marathon and 10K thrown in, just for kicks. Held every September, downtown Columbia is flooded with a bunch of terrific outdoor performances. We want to get our exercise in before we chow down on the Kansas City BBQ Society’s fully sanctioned competition, with over sixty teams competing for beaucoup dinero.Seeing Visions/Hearing Voices is a weekly event at Orr Street Studios in downtown Columbia. While it takes periodic breaks around the summer and holidays, most Tuesday evenings this curated event features local authors giving a reading and then discussing their work in informal and friendly setting.

Artrageous Fridays are a quarterly event for those inclined to walk around our town, which many do, though we are semi-famously big into riding bikes. A self-guided art crawl, Artrageous calls attention to the diversity of our arts community, from dance and photography to pottery and jewelry, and everything else in between.

Citizen Jane Film Festival is a weekend showcase of films by female directors and producers. Beginning in 2008, this rapidly-growing festival is held in collaboration with Stephens College, bringing in a diverse mixture of exciting new films, often with Q&As with the director herself.

Michael Nye’s debut short story collection, Strategies Against Extinction, will be released in October. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Crab Orchard Review, and New South, among others. He is the managing editor of The Missouri Review. Visit him online at