Providence: Your New Favorite Lit Scene?
Rhode Island resident and Grub Instructor Ethan Gilsdorf offers an inside look at New England's best new lit scene: Providence. Meet Ethan and the rest of the Providence writing community next Monday, September 17th. This free round table and meet-and-greet event is a chance for writers to connect with each other and many of the literary and writing organizations mentioned in this story.
Many cities can claim their share of literary history, and Providence is no different. One of the nation’s first lending libraries, The Providence Athenæum opened its doors here in 1753. Passing through town in 1848, Edgar Allan Poe famously—and disastrously—wooed local poet and Athenæum groupie Sarah Helen Whitman. Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935), best known for her proto-feminist short story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” spent her youth in Providence. H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), progenitor of the weirdo horror Cthulhu Mythos, spent most of his life here. Providence is also the birthplace of novelist Cormac McCarthy and poet Galway Kinnell.
But a city can rest on its laurels for only so long. What's literary history, after all, without a thriving literary present?
Fortunately for me, a relatively recent literary refugee from Boston, the last few years have seen Providence emerge from the literary shadows of more established hubs New York City and Boston to hatch a burgeoning scene all its own.
Brown University and Providence College already lend the city academic street cred, and Rhode Island School of Design gives the state artistic chops. For writers, there’s no shortage of classes and community. For years, the dozens of workshops, seminars, readings, and open mics offered by Goat Hill and Frequency Writers have formed the backbone of the state’s vibrant writing community. (Goat Hill also co-sponsors Write Rhode Island!, the state-wide high school writing competition.)
“Providence has always been known as a great place for music, theater, and the fine arts, but the literary scene was, until recently, fairly quiet,” says Hester Kaplan, co-founder and co-director of Goat Hill. “It’s been really exciting to watch the literary community come together and claim its place as an integral and vibrant part of the arts landscape.”
One interesting newcomer is What Cheer Writers Club, a co-working community space for writers, journalists, podcasters, illustrators, and indie publishers that opened in downtown Providence this June. “Folks are moving here from pricey Boston and Brooklyn,” says general manager Jillian Winters. Another reason Providence needs a place like What Cheer? “Locals in disparate niches—kid’s books, lit fic, graphic novelists, indie zines, freelance journalists, audiobook narrators, etcetera—often don't know each other here,” Winters adds, “so they aren’t aware of how big the community already is.”
Point Street Reading Series Event, July 18, 2017. L-R: Janet Benton, Robin Kall, Rumaan Alam, Hana Alyan, Gina Sorell, Courtney Maum. Credit: Jan Markoff.
Helping to connect that big community is longtime local literary tastemaker and host Robin Kall. Her radio and podcast interviews, events and fundraisers, all under her Reading With Robin umbrella, have included such bigwigs as Alexander Chee, Jodi Picoult, Khaled Hosseni, Chris Bohjalian, Tom Perrotta, and Jennifer Egan. With her daughter Emily Homonoff, Kall runs what’s become the city’s most prominent reading event, the monthly Point Street Reading Series.
“Providence—and Rhode Island, for that matter—is more like a big town, but with the added bonus of have a tight knit community," says Kall. “People who come to these literary events feel free to come alone and know that they will always run into someone that they know."
Credit: Atomic Clock / @thisisatomicclock.
A spate of bookstores has also opened their doors in the past year. Joining terrific indie booksellers Books on the Square in Wayland Square on the East Side and Ada Books in the West End are two newbies: Riffraff, a bookstore/bar in the Olneyville neighborhood; and another, Stillwater Books, in nearby downtown Pawtucket. The most recent arrival, literally, is Twenty Stories, a mobile bookstore that rolled into Providence this June. The 1987 vintage van curates only 20 book titles and each day pops up in a new location around town. Once its owners Alexa Trembly and Emory Harkins moved to town, Providence could claim it “stole” the van from another storied literary city: Los Angeles.
Other organizations fill in the literary gaps. There’s the Rhode Island Center for the Book, which “celebrates reading, writing, making, and sharing books.” Each summer in the town of Warren, the Rhode Island Writers Colony provides a group of literary artists of color a room of their own. The Association of Rhode Island Authors (ARIA), which promotes local book authors, began in 2012 with six authors and now has over three hundred members.
credit: Alexandra DeFurio
Now entering the Rhode Island mix is GrubStreet. In the past two years, I’ve been spearheading GrubStreet’s effort to expand our creative writing classes in the Ocean State. This fall, five instructors are teaching sixteen workshops and seminars for adults in fiction, poetry, personal essay/memoir, screenwriting, playwriting, and publishing. They begin September 17 at the local arts high school School One in Providence.
As for The Providence Athenæum, it’s still kicking, and continues to be a cultural center and site for author talks and writing activity.
“Rhode Island is a great place to be inspired,” says Steven Porter, founder and current president of ARIA. With his wife Dawn Porter, they co-founded Stillwater River Publications four years ago and opened Stillwater Books in March. “You have the opulence of Newport and the inner city strife of Providence and Central Falls. You have the countryside of in the northwest and the beaches of South County. You have blizzards, heat waves and hurricanes. You have strong immigrant cultures, from the Irish, Italian, and Portuguese to the African-American, Laotian, and Dominican, and so many others. And you have sports, politics, and loads of corruption, all uncomfortably nestled together in just a few square miles. What else is does a writer need?”
A GrubStreet instructor since 2005, Ethan Gilsdorf is a journalist, memoirist, essayist, critic, poet, teacher, performer and nerd. He is the author of the travel memoir investigation Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks: An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms, named a Must-Read Book by the Massachusetts Book Awards. His essay "The Day My Mother Became a Stranger" was cited in the anthology Best American Essays 2016. His fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in Poetry, The Southern Review, The Quarterly, Exquisite Corpse, The North American Review, The Massachusetts Review, New York Quarterly and dozens of other literary magazines and in several anthologies, and he is the winner of the Hobblestock Peace Poetry Competition and the Esme Bradberry Contemporary Poets Prize. Gilsdorf got his start in journalism as a Paris-based travel writer and food and film critic for Time Out, Fodor's and the Washington Post. He has published hundreds of feature stories, essays, op-eds and reviews about the arts, pop, gaming and geek culture; and media and technology, and travel, in dozens of other publications worldwide including the New York Times, New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, Boston Globe Magazine, Boston Magazine, Wired, Salon, WBUR's The Artery and Cognoscenti, Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and Art New England. A regular presenter, performer, and event moderator, he frequently appears on programs such as NPR, The Discovery Channel, PBS, CBC, BBC, and the Learning Channel, and also lectures at schools, universities, festivals, conventions, and conferences worldwide, including at this TEDx event, where he nerded out about D&D.Gilsdorf is co-founder of GrubStreet's Young Adult Writers Program (YAWP), and teaches creative writing at GrubStreet, where he serves on the Board of Directors. He also serves on the Boston Book Festival Program Committee and is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. He received his BA from Hampshire College, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Louisiana State University. Follow Ethan’s adventures at ethangilsdorf.com or Twitter @ethanfreak, and read his posts on Grub's blog, GrubWrites.See other articles by Ethan Gilsdorf