Seventy years ago, in 1949, one of the best-known literary figures in the land spent two weeks in Kansas City. Martha Foley, editor of an annual survey of fiction, “The Best American Short Stories,” spoke at a writers conference at the University of Kansas City, precursor to UMKC. Then she holed up in a hotel to read two suitcases full of stories as she prepared the next volume of her series. She also spent time touring the city and dining with Alexander and Dorothy Cappon. He was an English professor and editor of the “University of Kansas City Review,” the school’s literary quarterly, which already had been put on the cultural map by publishing an early story by J.D. Salinger and associating itself with the likes of Thomas Hart Benton and T.S. Eliot.
I tripped across this tidbit recently while researching another project. But it felt like a serendipitous reminder that a worthy piece of Kansas City’s cultural history has been under the gun.
By the 1970s, the old “UKC Review” had been renamed “New Letters” and its portfolio expanded to include national writing contests and a weekly radio show. A related asset is BkMk Press, known mostly for publishing emerging talents in poetry and prose, though it also recently issued a memoir by the late Henry Bloch.
Well, as these things happen, “New Letters” and BkMk Press are under budget pressure at the university. It has been touch and go for a while. There was a chance neither would survive. But now the story has taken a turn for the better.
I’ve followed “New Letters” and BkMk since at least my time as The Kansas City Star book review editor in the mid-1980s, if not my undergrad days the decade before. Full disclosure: The magazine has published my work — poetry, essays, photographs — and I’ve served as a preliminary judge of the essay contest. For all of that, I should add, I received compensation of the typical pittance. I also count the hardworking editor of “New Letters,” Robert Stewart, as a good friend.
As word of the uncertain fate of “New Letters” began to spread in 2019, the cruel execution seemed inevitable. Yet, some UMKC officials apparently hoped to avoid the kind of public outcry prompted seven years ago by the planned shuttering of the University of Missouri Press in Columbia. Justice prevailed, the book publisher was resurrected and a helpful precedent was born.
Thankfully, instead of a bean counter’s hatchet, “New Letters,” winner a few years ago of a National Magazine Award, has been granted a reprieve.
“The future is certainly brighter than the narrative,” says John Herron, acting dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, under which “New Letters” directly operates. “Our goal is to keep “New Letters” around for as long as it has been around.”
Stewart, who has guided “New Letters” for 17 years (see KC Studio’s July/August 2017 profile), is retiring and on the verge of turning over the reins to Christie Hodgen, a fine fiction writer on UMKC’s creative writing faculty. The fact that she is a tenured professor helps to create new opportunities, connections, and, of course, budget efficiencies sought by the administration.
Hodgen’s mission is to continue the journal’s old-school quality while expanding its capabilities by introducing new voices, launching a robust digital presence and rethinking current practices. Will the weekly “New Letters on the Air” survive as is, or will it transform into something else? Can student interns mine the vast print archives for digital gold? Will BkMk Press outsource its unwieldy distribution functions? Stay tuned for the answers to all of that.
A private fundraising effort underway may help to shore up a piece of the puzzle. But Herron and the university seem committed to making it all work under Hodgen’s new direction.
Onward, upward and back to that Martha Foley experience: In the end, for the 1950 edition of “Best American Short Stories,” she chose not one, but two stories that had originally appeared in the “UKC Review.” “New Letters,” under Stewart and his predecessors, has long delivered on that legacy of finding and publishing notable works of art and literature. In an era of cultural and educational change, there’s no reason it can’t continue doing that today and tomorrow.