Gloria Vando and Bill Hickok no longer reside in Kansas City, but Vando comes back to The Writers Place from time to time to see how the literary center continues to grow. Recently, she was in town to mark the 20th anniversary and received the first Muse of the Year Award. A couple days before, Vando and her daughter, Anika Paris, read selections from Woven Voices: 3 Generations of Puertorriquena Poets Look at Their American Live, which featured verse by both of them as well as Vando’s mother, Anita Velez-Mitchell, to a standing-room only crowd at The Writers Place.
In 1992 Helicon Nine, Inc., a private, non-profit, independent educational organization founded in 1977 in Kansas City changed its name to the Midwest Center for the Literary Arts, Inc. The first goal was to create The Writers Place, a regional literary community center, library, and gallery that offered readings, workshops, panel discussions, book signings, performance art, and public and educational programs for all ages. Second was to continue the publication of fine books of literature through Helicon Nine Editions.
Right after the celebration, Vando offered a few thoughts on two decades, highlights, top memories and the hope for the future. “Bill and I both think opening day is unforgettable. It was a festive occasion with musicians playing fanfares from the tower of the building as scores of guests arrived. Mona Van Duyn, who had just won the Pulitzer Prize and was days away from being appointed Poet Laureate of the United States, cut the ribbon. We even got the key to the city!”
Soon after The Writers Place opened, the Academy of American Poets launched a touring series. “They chose us as one of their venues. They sent us Lucille Clifton, John Hollander, C.K. Williams, Dana Gioia, and others. During that same period, Helicon Nine Editions was sponsoring two national contests: Marianne Moore Poetry Prize and the Willa Cather Fiction Prize,” Vando says. “Part of the prize was a reading at TWP with the judge. In addition to Mona Van Duyn, our judges included David Ignatow, Colette Inez, Richard Howard, Alicia Ostriker, Molly Peacock, James Tate, Robley Wilson, Al Young, Rosellen Brown, Hilary Masters, and others. The morning following their reading, most of the visiting poets conducted a writing workshop at TWP. It was important for TWP to be part of the national literary scene. This certainly helped!”
One of the highlights of the early days, Vando says, was William Burroughs’ appearance at the opening of his art exhibition, The Seven Deadly Sins, held in the gallery. “His paintings were riddled with bullet holes –– a technique he employed at the time. He had been scheduled to come from Lawrence for the opening, but due to a major snowstorm, cancelled. The Writers Place was packed: standing room only. People stood in line for hours to get his autograph on books they had purchased years earlier or just days before, or on the postcards we had mailed out, or little pieces of paper. Many young people, who felt a kinship with the Beats, came. One young woman wanted his signature on her hand, so she could have it tattooed. He refused. She insisted. He relented and with a black magic marker wrote his name up her arm from the back of her hand to her shoulder. We all gasped, but she was thrilled.”
Vando and Hickok also shared this memory. “One of our annual events that coincided with National Poetry Month was Poets at Large. The first year 25 poets read in 25 homes. Audiences went from house to house. The second year they read in artists’ studios, then galleries. It brought exposure to the poets who read, brought us an audience for our own events at The Writers Place, and brought in some earned income. Another was Festival of the Book, Robert Stewart’s project. We managed to bring together presses, bookstores, authors, readers, in a citywide celebration of the book. It was truly wonderful,” she says.
Marking the 20th anniversary celebration and the significant turnout at the events, Vando says The Writers Place is a permanent and invaluable part of the literary landscape of Kansas City. “It is one of the first of a growing number of literary centers throughout the country. Now that independent bookstores are closing down, the significance of TWP and other literary centers is critical to readers and contemporary writers and their books. Of particular significance is our library. It specializes in regional books and literary magazines, as well as books by our members. It is a browsing library where writers and readers can sit and enjoy the many works we have collected. Many of these books are not available elsewhere.”
Besides refuge, stimulation, and inspiration as Vando says, The Writers Place offers exhibitions of visual art in the gallery. It hosts readings, workshops, and panel discussions on a regular basis, and, on occasion, performances of plays and music. “The Writers Place Salon (an open mic night) and the Riverfront Reading Series, founded by the late Phil Miller, are held there monthly. Various groups regularly meet there, including the Latino Writers Collective, which, like Helicon Nine Editions, has an office on the third floor of the building. We also have a reading series at the Johnson County Library, hosted by Jeanie Wilson,” she says. “And of utmost importance is the new poetry in the school’s program, ‘In Our Own Words,’ a citywide high school poetry event. For many years we sponsored the Youth Poetry Symposium, a program founded by Ann Slegman Isenberg. It included students from Raytown, Blue Spring, Shawnee Mission, Paseo, Grandview, Hickman Mills, and Pembroke Hill, who were brought to TWP to attend rotating workshops and participate in a citywide reading that evening.”
Board president Mary Bunten says her interest in The Writers Place was similar to others – being a writer. “I write fiction and I look for opportunities. The Writers Place is one of those opportunities. When I moved to Lawrence from Houston, I knew no one in the area. I came to teach at the University of Kansas. I attended a class at The Writers Place about 12 years ago and found a welcoming place that was a home for developing writers. The classes and groups help writers develop that persona, that stimulation and creative writing instruction to keep going. You form connections and supportive friendships. None of this would be possible if it wasn’t for Gloria and Bill and their vision.”
Bunten joined the board in 2008. “If The Writers Place didn’t exist, the Kansas City metropolitan area would be a poorer place. This sort of grassroots group stays grounded in sharing the love of the written word. We are supportive and we hope to grow this place to reach even more people.” For the 25th anniversary, Bunten hopes to see even more people writing. “We want The Writers Place to be the go-to place for creative writing, what everybody thinks of — just like we think of the Lyric when we say opera, the Symphony for classical music,” Bunten says. “I’d like to see us reach out into the community, because we know people everywhere are writing, that they have enormous interest and curiosity about writing that we want to encourage. I think the Latino Writers Collective is exemplary. They’re really serving their writers’ needs. They have the critique group, they publish an anthology, they sponsor a reading series, they encourage their members’ professional development by sending them to conferences and workshops. I would love to help form similar collectives to support other groups — African Americans, Native Americans, seniors, LGBT, veterans, prison inmates, and especially kids.”
Ben Furnish, managing editor of BkMk Press, University of Missouri-Kansas City, is often seen at The Writers Place. “Sometimes, I joke with Linda (Rodriguez, his wife who is a writer, vice president of the Latino Writers Collective, and a founding board member of The Writers Place) that The Writers Place is like a secular congregation we belong to, where we attend ‘services’ in its ‘sanctuary’ and find fellowship with others who love literature, we celebrate milestone life-cycle events like book publication, and spread the good news about reading,” he says. “We were even married there. The Writers Place members have also mourned the passing of some of our community’s departed leaders like Phil Miller. The Writers Place gives the literary community of Kansas City a place to happen consistently, a real street address. Literary events flourish in many parts of town, now more than ever, but I think that the Writers Place has definitely played a central part in Kansas City’s ascent on the national literary scene. Cities usually contain writers and readers, sometimes in impressive numbers, but the community we have in KC is rare. Writers from out of town frequently stress to me how fortunate KC is in that respect.”
As for the future, Funish wants to see The Writers Place enlarge its national profile and continue to broaden and diversify its membership and support so that it can spread the “faith” in the transformative power of literature. Executive Director Carol Kariotis agrees with Furnish that the future of The Writers Place looks good, especially if the collective can find a broader national appeal. She says the group has been invited to be part of the Alliance of Artist Communities as the conference comes to Kansas City at the end of October and early November. The Celebration of Native Americans will showcase Native American poets and The Writers Place will be on a citywide tour. “While visitors are here, they will get to be part of a workshop on mining the memory. This conference will include people from all over the country.”
Vando wants to see an endowment established within the next five years. “It’s so we can continue all these important activities. We have a dedicated staff and board and I’m confident they will succeed. We also need to expand our outreach program to include more, if not all, of the high schools in the city. Kansas City is the most supportive place in the universe! The Writers Place is a literary community center and it has received enormous support from funders, from volunteers, and from audiences of all ages.”
Vando is overjoyed that The Writers Place continues a forward march. “It means a great deal to Bill and to me to leave some kind of meaningful legacy to a community we cherish and will always consider our home,” she says. “The Writers Place has surpassed all our dreams.”