Jenny Shank is the author of the novel The Ringer, which was a finalist for the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Reading the West Book Award and a Tattered Cover Summer Reading 2011 selection. Her fiction, essays, and reviews have appeared recently in Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Poets & Writers Magazine, Bust, and Michigan Quarterly Review. For the past twelve years she has written about books for the Dallas Morning News, the Rocky Mountain News, the Daily Camera, the High Country News, PBS’s Media Shift, and New West. She’s also been the Denver editor of the Onion and the books and writers editor of NewWest.Net.
When I was a kid growing up in Denver, I always used to enter the children’s writing competitions at the Tattered Cover, a bookstore that awed me with its three floors of books. I never won, and it was hard not to, because they awarded dozens of prizes for each contest. The story I remember best was the last one I entered before I aged out of the competition, in a contest for the scariest Halloween story.
We’d been dissecting frogs in my biology class, and the horrifying part was that the frogs were still alive—just knocked out—when we cut into them, because our teacher wanted us to see how their circulatory systems worked. I decided the scariest possible thing that could happen would be for the frog to wake up during this procedure and see me there, operating on him. I wrote my story from the perspective of the frog. I was pretty proud of it and I thought, “This is it. This is the story that’s going to take me all the way to the honorable mention.” Of course it was not to be. But I kept writing, and this year I published my first novel, The Ringer, set in my hometown, and had my book launch at the Tattered Cover, where the dear people of my past—family, friends, high school English and journalism teachers—turned out to cheer.
Colorado has often been a boom and bust state, attracting outsized characters prone to “dreaming the large Western dream of easy money, of a fortune kicked up somewhere in the hills—an oil well, a gold mine, a ledge of copper,” as Willa Cather wrote in The Song of the Lark, a novel that begins in the fictional town of Moonstone, Colorado.
Many of the greatest moments in Denver literature are set amid the down-and-out times between gold strikes, and the Denver most often portrayed in books is a rough-edged place, which is in part why it can feel like the city just doesn’t get any literary respect. At the same time, few people are aware of the vibrant literary scene in this metro area of 2.4 million residents, because Denver is a city that many people think of in terms of its proximity to the wilderness, those Rocky Mountains you can see from so many vantages around town.
Novelist John Fante grew up in a hardscrabble Italian immigrant community in north Denver and couldn’t wait to light out for Los Angeles, a city with which he is more often associated even though the first several books starring his literary alter ego, Arturo Bandini, are set here. The great short story writer Katherine Anne Porter described Denver as a “western city founded and built by roaring drunken miners”—which probably explains why the drinking has continued to this day; Colorado has 142 licensed breweries, more than any other state. Denver appealed to Jack Kerouac when he wandered through precisely because it was so scruffy, populated with plenty of “sons of winos,” such as his Denver buddy Neal Cassady, author of the posthumously published memoir The First Third (City Lights Publishers, 1971) and the model for Dean Moriarty in On the Road (Viking, 1957) and Big Sur (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1962).
More recently, Annie Proulx lived in a loft in the revitalized LoDo district, remembering her time here in her memoir Bird Cloud (Scribner, 2011) as “a year or two in a Denver apartment with a view of a Ferris wheel and a nutcase on the top floor.” I’m dying to know: Which Denverite was that nutcase?
Denver plays an ominous role in beloved Colorado novelist Kent Haruf’s Plainsong (Knopf, 1999): Victoria Robideaux leaves the ranch of the elderly McPheron brothers to go to Denver with the young man who impregnated her, finds the city terrifying, and quickly returns to the plains. It’s also where another character heads when she abandons her husband and sons. “Mother, are you going to be all right in Denver?” one of the little boys asks.
What’s so bad about Denver? Nothing, in my book. The city has always inspired me. As a white kid growing up in southeast Denver, I was bused fifteen miles to a Mexican American neighborhood in west Denver for elementary school, and eighteen miles to an African American neighborhood in northeast Denver for middle school due to the Denver Public Schools’ court-ordered busing for desegregation. Attending these schools in neighborhoods different from my own taught me that there are always two sides to a story, if not ten, which inspired the structure of The Ringer. I wrote it from the perspectives of a white, male cop who shoots a Mexican immigrant, and of the victim’s Mexican American wife, whose sons end up playing in the same youth baseball league in Denver. I’ve always seen a potential for stories in the hidden connections between people in different parts of this city.
I set my first novel and most of the short stories I’ve written so far in my hometown. But it’s true, there isn’t much literary fiction set in Denver. Even though the city is full of writers, many of them choose to set their work elsewhere, perhaps because many residents didn’t grow up here and writers often set their work in the places that they’re from. And Denver has no book festival. We hang our heads in shame before you Omaha; Missoula, Montana; Tucson, Arizona; and Salt Lake—all home to rocking public literary festivals. Colorado discontinued its grants to writers during a budget crisis over a decade ago, and never brought them back. Several years ago, the National Endowment for the Arts threatened to cut off all grants to Colorado residents due to a lack of arts infrastructure in the state to administer them. Luckily, this never came to pass.
But despite the lack of public support, I believe Denver’s literary community is thriving, and what I like about it most of all is that it’s welcoming. If you’re a writer—whatever you write, wherever you’ve published or haven’t—you’re in. There’s a do-it-yourself spirit inherent to Denver and all of the West, and an egalitarian vibe.
All Denver needs is a literary cheerleader. As there have been no other applicants for this position, for the time the job falls to me. So, come along with me on a look at the literary life of my hometown.
Denver’s Literary Past
Thomas Hornsby Ferril was Denver’s first literary cheerleader, a man who loved his city enough to write a whole volume of poetry, 1966’s Words for Denver (Murrow), in its honor. Born in 1896, Ferril lived in the same Victorian house (2123 Downing Street) from 1900 until his death in 1988. Ferril was a respected poet, newspaper columnist, and man about town. Plenty of Ferril’s literary buddies stopped by his house over the years, including Robert Frost, Carl Sandburg, Dorothy Parker, and Jack London. Ferril’s daughter donated the house to Historic Denver, and until recently it was home to the Lighthouse Writers Workshop (more about them later). Currently, the Ferril House is closed to the public, and its future is uncertain.
There are no monuments to the passionate, elemental John Fante in Denver, so a visit to Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church (3549 Navajo Street) might be the best way to honor him and the Italian immigrant community he was born into in 1909. Mount Carmel was the center of Italian life for decades—in The Wine of Youth (Black Sparrow Press, 1940), Fante calls it St. Cecilia’s. “In North Denver is the Church of St. Cecilia’s,” he writes. “The church is a big, sad church and the incense smells like my mother.… My mother knew all the nuns at St. Cecilia’s. She used to bum around with them, and they put her in charge of the altars and she decorated them with flowers.”
Enough bumming around with nuns—now it’s time for some criminals. Next stop on our tour is the brand new Denver Justice Center (490 West Colfax Avenue). What does this complex of courtrooms and a detention center for inmates have to do with Denver’s literary history? Well, this is the final resting place of the Rocky Mountain News, Denver’s newspaper that published continuously for almost one hundred fifty years; the building it occupied for more than fifty years was torn down to make way for a new jail. Katherine Anne Porter wrote about politics and theater for the Rocky Mountain News in 1918 and 1919. While working for the paper, Porter caught the Spanish flu and nearly died; her hair fell out and grew back in white, but she recovered to write her signature novella, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, which drew on these experiences and was published in 1932, long after she left Denver.
Not only did the Rocky Mountain News have the best book review section in the region—of course I’m biased because I reviewed books for the Rocky for the last eight years of its existence—but one of the final special projects the Rocky published before it shuttered in 2009 was A Dozen on Denver: Stories. Books editor Patti Thorn commissioned twelve Colorado writers, including Laura Pritchett, Robert Greer, Nick Arvin, and Manuel Ramos, to each write a story set in one of Denver’s decades, beginning with the 1860s. The Rocky published them over three months, and after it folded, Fulcrum Books collected the stories in a beautifully designed volume.
Standing in front of the jail that marks the grave of my favorite newspaper makes me want a drink. And a good place to get one is at 2376 Fifteenth Street. Don’t look for a sign indicating the name—there is none—just ask a passerby to point you to it. This is the location of Denver’s oldest bar, Highland House, which opened in 1873 and has changed names and ownership many times since then. It was called Paul’s Place when Kerouac’s muse Neal Cassady used to run up his bar tab there. For the last forty years, it’s been known as My Brother’s Bar, and the owner proudly displays a photo of Cassady and Kerouac, and a letter Cassady sent to his friend Justin Brierly from the Colorado State Reformatory: “Dear Justin, At the corner of 15th and Platte streets there is a café called Paul’s Place, where my brother Jack used to be a bartender before he joined the Army. Because of this I frequented the place occasionally and consequently have a small bill run up. I believe I owe them about 3 or 4 dollars. If you happen to be in that vicinity, please drop in and pay it, will you?”
Next stop, Cole Arts and Science Academy (3240 Humboldt Street). Why here? Well, I went to middle school here, but more important, half a century before me, Neal Cassady attended Cole, which is situated near Denver’s Five Points neighborhood, dubbed the “Harlem of the West,” where Kerouac went to seek good jazz. (To read some fiction about contemporary life in Five Points, check out the novels of Denver’s Carleen Brice.) Besides inspiring Kerouac, Cassady also was a member of the Merry Pranksters, immortalized in Ken Kesey’s work and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968). Nobody mentioned Cassady when I went to school at Cole—Colorado schoolchildren do not learn about Colorado’s literary past—but I like to think that Cassady’s delinquent spirit still haunted the halls when I was there.
Denver is jam-packed with Kerouac, Cassady, and Beat-related spots to visit, such as the house in suburban Arvada where Kerouac lived (6100 West Center Street) in 1949; Holy Ghost Church (1900 California Street), where Cassady served as an altar boy; and Sonny Lawson baseball field on Twenty-Third and Welton that Kerouac wrote about in part three of On the Road. Although Kerouac wrote to Allen Ginsberg, “Neal is a colossus risen to Destroy Denver!” he never did get the job done—Denver still stands. Ginsberg made his own mark nearby, founding with Anne Waldman, John Cage, and Diane di Prima the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder. For loads of information about Denver and the Beats, visit Andrew Burnett’s website, Neal’s Denver, where you can find three different beat-themed tours, one on foot, one by train, and one by car.
Tattered Cover, celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, is the best bookstore anywhere, and I’ll gladly arm wrestle anyone who thinks different. The store opened in the Cherry Creek shopping area in Denver in 1971, and owner Joyce Meskis has since expanded to three locations: the substantial yet cozy LoDo store (1628 Sixteenth Street), converted from an old warehouse in the revitalized district near Denver’s Union Station and the Rockies’ baseball stadium; the Colfax store (2526 East Colfax Avenue), redeveloped from the old Lowenstein Theater, part of a happening complex that houses Twist and Shout Records and the Denver Film Center; and the Highlands Ranch store (9315 Dorchester Street), serving a suburban area. Even in this time of book tour cutbacks, major publishers still send their writers to the Tattered Cover, where readings and literary events happen at all three locations most nights of the week—over six hundred a year.
Even though the biggest names in literature regularly appear at the Tattered Cover, the staff treats local writers like royalty. I was delighted to discover that each writer who reads at the store receives a silver Tattered Cover bookmark engraved with her name and the date of the reading. My friendly host, bookseller Lisa Casper, told me that Wyoming novelist C. J. Box has so many of these bookmarks that he’s decorated the antlers of a mounted deer head with them. Some of us can only dream of publishing enough books to decorate our own stuffed game, but C. J. Box, man, he’s living the dream. (Lisa tells me 270 people turned out for the signing of his newest novel, Back of Beyond, which was published this year by Minotaur Books.)
The Tattered Cover looms large on the Denver bookstore landscape, but plenty of other indies are worth a visit. Purple on the outside and stuffed to the rafters with used and new books on the inside, West Side Books (3434 West Thirty-Second Avenue) keeps it real in Denver’s hip Highland neighborhood (near where Fante roamed long ago) with a knowledgeable staff and plenty of literary events, mostly featuring local writers, as well as live music, from jazz to flamenco.
On the other side of West Highland, the Bookery Nook (4280 Tennyson Street) is a charming neighborhood bookshop that has begun to wrest a few local “best bookstore” awards away from Tattered Cover. It features a neatly arranged selection of carefully curated books—including titles by local authors. The Bookery Nook welcomes dogs; hosts a monthly knitting group; and this year, added an ice cream parlor, selling scoops of local favorite Liks Ice Cream.
One of the most fun days I’ve spent in Denver was when I tried to find all the required books for my college lit classes at the string of used-book stores on Broadway. Some stores have closed since then, but my favorites that remain include Fahrenheit’s Books (210 South Broadway), a well-organized bookshop run by knowledgeable proprietors. Broadway Book Mall (200 South Broadway), which took over the longstanding Denver Book Mall, houses ten separate booksellers in one store, and offers free dog treats.
A fellow former Rocky Mountain News book critic, Dan Danbom, opened Printed Page Bookshop (1416 South Broadway) with Nancy Stevens in 2009. It specializes in used books of all kinds—bargains as well as collectibles—and annually hosts a Banned Book Week contest and exhibit of classic editions of banned and challenged books, including To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye and Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner (Riverhead Books, 2003). Patrons are invited to try to spot the one book in the display that hasn’t been banned. Those who guess correctly can win a gift certificate to Printed Page.
Kilgore Used Books and Comics (624 East Thirteenth Avenue) is a good place to linger, chat with the owners, and peruse the work of small press cartoonists, such as Nick Maandag and Mardou. Kilgore is located along the Thirteenth Avenue corridor of cool next to Wax Trax Records where I went as a teenager to score used CDs and concert T-shirts and across from FashioNation, where I would buy my blue Manic Panic hair dye. Kilgore fits right in with the cluttered, creative, and counter-cultural vibe of these stores.
A recent trend on the Denver bar scene is speakeasy taverns, and in November a new bookstore-themed 1920s-style speakeasy, Williams & Graham (3160 Tejon Street), opened in Highland. My writing group and I visited it immediately, before prohibitionists could raid it. From the street, it looks like a bookstore, with a window showcasing vintage books, and a sign on the door that reads, “Williams & Graham Booksellers.” At the entrance stands a bookcase stocked with books about old-fashioned cocktails and what Westword described as the “works of famous drunken authors” for sale. Past the bookcase is the bar, which is full of 1920s details, including one bartender sporting a handlebar moustache. If you’re lucky, you can score a cozy quilted leather-backed booth, but more likely you’ll find yourself standing at the bookshelf/banquette in the middle, ordering nostalgic cocktails. (The books lining this banquette are not from the 1920s—I noticed a copy of Freakonomics.) My Old Fashioned was potent and tasty, though one of my writing buddies, who randomly selected her drink off the menu, noted that hers tasted like "armpit and the inside of a whiskey barrel." But the attentive waitstaff make Williams & Graham a friendly place, and they were glad to recommend a drink that suited her better.
Literary Groups and Reading Series
Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop (1515 Race Street), which recently moved from the Ferril house to a larger Victorian house to accommodate all its activity, is involved in just about every literary happening in the city, collaborating with the Denver Office of Cultural Affairs on the One Book, One Denver program, with Ballet Nouveau Colorado on performances that combine poetry and dance, and with several Denver public schools, offering writing programs to students. Founded in 1997 by fiction writer Andrea Dupree and her husband, poet Michael J. Henry, as an independent creative writing center, Lighthouse hosts a diverse roster of workshops offered as half-day seminars, one-day classes, or eight-week sessions in genres such as fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenwriting to adults and youth of all ages and levels of experience. Lighthouse also offers a summer writing camp for kids; mountain writing retreats; the annual Lit Fest—a summer flurry of classes, panel discussions, and parties—the Fly-By Writer’s Project, which brings up-and-coming writers to Denver for craft classes and discussion (recent guests include Robin Black, author of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, published by Random House last year, and Alexi Zetner, author of Touch, published by Norton this year); and Inside the Writer’s Studio, for which Lighthouse hosts a well-known writer for a weekend of activities: an interview about the writer’s craft held in a packed auditorium, a dinner with the author, and a craft lecture. Anyone can buy tickets to individual events or a pass to all three; discounts are available to Lighthouse members. This year’s guest was Mary Karr. Colson Whitehead, Lorrie Moore, Francine Prose, and Tobias Wolff were honored in past years. I had a blast teaching at Lit Fest last June and learned that Lighthouse’s parties are some of the best places to mingle with book-minded people in Denver. Lighthouse’s faculty includes Chris Ransick, Denver poet laureate from 2006 through 2010, and dozens of other accomplished writers who’ve published in the New Yorker and the Atlantic, and who’ve won Wallace Stegner fellowships, Pushcart prizes, and Colorado Book Awards. Many of Lighthouse’s students boast equally impressive achievements.
While the Rockies, Nuggets, and Broncos never seem to bring home a championship title (although Tim Tebow is giving us flurries of hope this year), Denver’s performance poets always manage to get the job done. The Mile High City is a slam-poetry powerhouse, home to Andrea Gibson, winner of the 2008 Women of the World Poetry Slam championship; Rudy Francisco, individual winner of the 2010 World Poetry Slam championship; and Slam Nuba and Mercury Slam, the National Poetry Slam championship teams for 2011 and 2006, respectively. Could it be that training at a high altitude expands the lung capacity of our performance poets? Whatever the reason for their excellence, you can catch the reigning Slam Nuba, led by Slam Master Ayinde Russell, at Crossroads Theater (2590 Washington Street) the first and last Mondays of the month at 8 PM.
Café Nuba, which bills itself as Denver’s “hot and black” poetry reading, is a diverse spoken- word and music show that has been going strong since 1999. Founder Ashara Ekundayo hosts Café Nuba several times a year at a variety of venues. Check the group’s Facebook page for details or follow Ekundayo on Twitter @blublakwomyn.
Marilyn Megenity’s Mercury Café (2199 California Street) has been a hotbed of literary activity for decades, fitting in regular poetry readings (every Friday), slams (Sundays), and storytelling nights (throughout the month) among dance classes, community fund-raisers, film festivals, concerts, and tarot readings, while serving up organic and vegetarian dishes.
El Centro Su Teatro (721 Santa Fe Drive), Denver’s long-running Chicano community theater (the third oldest in the nation), began in 1971 as a student theater group at the University of Colorado in Denver. Su Teatro carries on Denver’s tradition of Chicano poetry, ignited in the 1960s by activists and poets Abelardo “Lalo” Delgado and Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzales, by creating and performing a variety of plays throughout the year, such as one of its biggest hits, an adaptation of Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima (TQS Publications, 1972). Su Teatro hosts the Neruda Poetry Festival and Barrio Slam spoken-word competition each spring.
Nationally touring slam poet Bobby Lefebre, who has acted in many Su Teatro productions for over a decade, co-founded Café Cultura in 2004, a monthly open-mike poetry night that runs every second Friday of the month at La Academia (910 Galapago Street) and encourages Latino and Native American youth to share their work.
Denver’s slam poetry action will culminate at the Women of the Word Poetry Slam’s upcoming competition held March 8 to 11, 2012.
A good way to find out about the literary events taking place across Colorado’s Front Range is to join the Lit Cal listserv. Laura Wright of the University of Colorado maintains Lit Cal, which is a weekly e-mail listing of upcoming events.
Graduate students in the University of Denver’s creative writing department organize the Gypsy House Reading Series, which hosts new and established authors such as poets Jake Adam York, David J. Daniels, and Dana Elklun and poet and fiction writer Marilyn Krysl at Gypsy House Café (1279 Marion Street). On the entrance level is a Mediterranean café and hookah bar, and downstairs (duck your heads, tall folks), in a basement filled with cozy mismatched couches and chairs under a low ceiling strung with Christmas lights, is where the readings take place. If there’s one place in Denver where it would be appropriate to snap your approval of a poetry reading, this is it.
The Evil Companions Literary Award is named after the Evil Companions, a group of Denver writers who met in the 1950s and 1960s to drink and discuss literature. The Denver Public Library Friends Foundation bestows the award each year on a writer who has made a significant contribution to Western American literature. Over the years, the honorees have included Annie Proulx (2001), Kent Haruf (2002), Sandra Cisneros (2005), T. C. Boyle (2007), and Timothy Egan (2009). The event, organized by Tattered Cover’s Meskis, novelist David Milofsky, and Oxford Hotel owner Dana Crawford, consists of an upscale cocktail hour and a speech by the winner. Last year’s winner was Denver native Ted Conover, who was feted at the Oxford Hotel, Denver’s oldest grand hotel, constructed in 1891. The ballroom was packed with a sold-out crowd of dressed-up bookish people, and the bar served a martini called the Sing Sing Sling in honor of Conover’s book Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing (Vintage Books, 2000). Besides this annual award, the Denver Public Library also supports the Denver literary scene by hosting the Colorado Authors Series at various branch libraries, bringing in local authors to discuss their books with library patrons.
For over a decade Denver Center for the Performing Arts (1101 Thirteenth Street) has hosted Stories on Stage, which presents accomplished actors reading stories by writers such as Alice Munro, William Faulkner, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Each performance groups three or four stories that fit a theme, such as Veterans’ Affairs or Eccentrics Unlimited, and every year, Stories on Stage teams up with Lighthouse Writers Workshop to perform an unpublished work by an up-and-coming Denver writer. The Denver Center also frequently commissions playwrights to adapt the work of local writers for the stage. So far, it has presented plays based on Haruf’s Plainsong and Eventide (Knopf 2004), both adapted by Eric Schmiedl, and playwright Karen Zacarías is currently adapting the first book by Denver journalist Helen Thorpe, Just Like Us: The True Story of Four Mexican Girls Coming of Age in America (Scribner, 2009).
Thorpe is married to John Hickenlooper, who recently became the governor of Colorado after a two-term stint as the mayor of Denver. Hickenlooper’s administration was a book-friendly one, launching One Book, One Denver in 2004. New Denver mayor Michael Hancock continued the program this fall with a series of readings, discussions, and events organized around this year’s selection, Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain (Harper, 2008).
You can’t visit the offices of most of Denver’s local presses, but they do add to the bookish vibe of our city, which, by the way, ranked eighth (above New York City and Portland) in Jack Miller’s 2011 list of the seventy-five most literate U.S. cities and has been in the top ten for the six years that this study has been conducted.
Fred Ramey and Greg Michalson founded indie publisher Unbridled Books in 2003 after working together for BlueHen Books, a former literary imprint of Putnam. Ramey is based in the Denver area, and Unbridled frequently publishes the books of Western authors, such as New Mexico’s Rick Collingnon and Montana’s David Allan Cates, and one of my favorite novels of last year, David Bajo’s fascinating, surreal Panopticon, set on the California-Mexico border.
Fulcrum Books, based in Golden, emphasizes beautiful design in its award-winning titles. In addition to A Dozen on Denver, Fulcrum has recently published Trickster: Native American Tales: A Graphic Collection, a gorgeous anthology of Native American trickster tales illustrated by graphic novelists; Migration Patterns, the debut collection of short stories by Gary Schanbacher, which was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award; and Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway: An Epoch Tale of a Scientist and an Artist on the Ultimate 5,000-Mile Paleo Road Trip, a hilarious and inventive collaboration between Kirk Johnson, the vice president and chief curator of the Denver Museum of Natural and Science, and the artist Ray Troll.
Literary entrepreneur Caleb J. Seeling recently took over as publisher of Conundrum Press from founder David J. Rothman, where Denver book designer Sonya Unrein serves as the editorial director. In October the press published its first book under its new leadership, Let the Birds Drink in Peace, by local short story writer Robert Garner McBrearty, who received the Sherwood Anderson Writer’s Grant in 2007. Conundrum publishes “regional voices with universal stories,” and donates ten percent of its book sales to local organizations with literary and educational goals, including Lighthouse Writers Workshop and its Young Writers Program, Urban Peak, Ballet Nouveau Colorado’s Elementary School Partnerships, and Flobots.org.
You can visit Counterpath Press (613 Twenty-Second Street), founded by Julie Carr, who recently won a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship in poetry, and her husband Tim Roberts. Counterpath Press publishes experimental and avant-garde work, including The Field Is Lethal by Suzanne Doppelt (2010), Time’s Wallet by Steve Katz (2010), and Yingelishi by Jonathan Stalling (2011). Counterpath also hosts many exhibitions, performances, and readings in its space and sells small press titles in its bookstore. Counterpath supports the work of other small presses, and recently featured an evening centered around Flood Editions, a Saint Louis–based press. Cofounder Devin Johnston spoke about Flood Editions, and one of the press’s authors, Graham Foust, read from his work at the spare, high-ceilinged venue.
In 2006 writer and musician Jennie Dorris founded Telling Stories: Music and Essays, a unique live program hosted at a variety of venues that combines a performance of classical chamber music and essays focused on a different theme for each show. Telling Stories started in Boulder with a vision to “attract younger audience to classical music and literature” and expanded to Denver. Last year Colorado Public Radio began recording and broadcasting the performances. Dorris recently relocated to Boston, and hopes to expand Telling Stories’ reach, while Colorado Public Radio continues to record Denver events. In January Telling Stories will collaborate with Denver School of the Arts and students from the visual arts, music, and creative writing programs to create original compositions on the theme of Borders.
The Denver Woman’s Press Club (1325 Logan Street) was founded in 1898 and has occupied the same historic clubhouse since 1924. Members regularly host seminars, writing contests, and readings by authors such as Barbara Kingsolver, Annie Proulx, and Alexandra Fuller. When I did a reading there and signed my very first copies of The Ringer, the charming women in attendance were proud to tell me about the Denver Woman’s Press Club’s history and past members, including Mary Coyle Chase, the Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright of the 1944 play Harvey. Denver Woman’s Press Club often hosts readings by out-of-town writers visiting Denver—men and women alike—just e-mail them to let them know you’re interested in speaking.
The Denver Press Club (1330 Glenarm Place) has hosted journalists and creative writers since 1867, and sponsors a variety of readings, special events, and its annual Damon Runyon Award Banquet that began by honoring Jimmy Breslin in 1994 for his contribution to the field of journalism. The award is named in honor of Damon Runyon, who made his name in New York City, but grew up in part in Pueblo, Colorado, and got his start as a journalist at the Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News. Recent winners have included Anna Quindlen (2011), P. J. O’Rourke (2010), and Rick Reilly (2009). The event is open to the public.
Finally, whenever I can, I like to join the Denver branch of the Literary Ladies Luncheon, organized by novelist Karen DeGroot Carter, for lunch at an Indian or Chinese buffet on the first Friday of every month. The members include literary agents, editors, and authors who write literary fiction, self-help books, young-adult novels, women’s fiction, paranormal mysteries, science fiction, nature guides, and more. Like I said, in Denver, if you’re a writer, you’re in. Come eat with us.
Libraries and Places to Write and Research
One of my favorite places to write and research is the Central Denver Public Library (10 West Fourteenth Avenue), an inviting building designed by Michael Graves located next to the Denver Art Museum (Thirteenth Avenue). When I lived in an apartment so stifling in the summer heat it reminded me of the metal shack Alec Guinness is confined to in The Bridge on the River Kwai, I’d walk to the library and spend the day in the air-conditioned comfort and pleasant surroundings. Study desks with Graves-designed lamps ring the central atrium on several floors. The magazines and periodicals room has a huge picture window with a spectacular view of the mountains and comfortable areas for research. The Western History and Genealogy department is a marvel—you feel that all the stories of the past are at your fingertips as you wander between looking at old maps and photos of Denver and requesting newspaper clipping files on different historical topics. When I was researching my novels, I loved ordering up a clipping file on, say, busing in Denver, and receiving a low-tech manila folder of old articles to flip through. But many of the department’s resources have been digitized since then, and you can now search the records online.
The Blair-Caldwell African American Research Library (2401 Welton Street), one of the only research centers of its kind in the country, contains a treasure trove of material related to African Americans in early Denver and in the West, including photos, letters, diaries, and oral histories. The third-floor gallery hosts exhibits and special events, such as “Moving Toward Liberation: The Freedom Riders."
The place for dreamy poetry-obsessed young people has long been Paris on the Platte (1553 Platte Street). (The Platte River runs through Denver, so young Denverites refer to their city as “Paris on the Platte”—though Denver is not quite as glamorous as Paris!) When I was a teenager, Paris on the Platte was the café I went to legally experience the downtown nightlife; it was full of hipsters scribbling in notebooks, and still is.
Old South Pearl Street, filled with restaurants and unique boutiques, is one of the most fun places to wander in Denver. Stella’s Coffeehaus (1476 South Pearl Street) is the street’s friendly, labyrinthine coffee shop, with porch seating for sociable types, cozy nooks for those seeking quiet, and shelves full of books to peruse.
You’ll find writers scribbling at the round tables of Pablo’s (630 East Sixth Avenue), which roasts its own coffee and features the work of local artists on its walls, and at St. Mark’s Coffeehouse (2019 East Seventeenth Avenue), open—and busy—from 6:30 AM to midnight.
Boulder at Lightning Speed
Boulder is thirty miles away from Denver so the two cities’ literary scenes are intertwined; writers who live in one city teach in the other, and give readings in both. Boulder appreciates writers and literature, and it’s crawling with professional writers. If you walk down the outdoor Pearl Street Mall on a weekday, you’ll see coffee shops filled with people pounding away on laptops like worker bees in some kind of massive telecommuting hive. In Boulder, you can take writing classes from the Boulder Writers Workshop, the Boulder Writing Studio, Lighthouse Writers Workshop’s Boulder branch, or enroll in Naropa University’s Summer Writing Program. The Boulder Writers Workshop, led by Lori DeBoer, also regularly hosts craft lectures, workshops, and readings by visiting writers, including recent guests Christopher Boucher and Simon Van Booy.
The Boulder Book Store (1107 Pearl Street) is the well-stocked center of downtown life with a beautiful converted ballroom upstairs where over one hundred fifty readings a year are held—and the store still packs in crowds even after it started charging five bucks to attend readings earlier this year.
Innisfree Poetry Bookstore (1203 Thirteenth Street, Suite A) opened this year on the hill adjacent to the University of Colorado, making it, according to Publishers Weekly, only the third all-poetry bookshop in the country (along with Seattle’s Open Books and Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge). Innisfree hosts readings, open mikes, and general outpourings of poetry enthusiasm.
The Book Worm (3175 Twenty-Eighth Street, #2) is the place for used books—they have a great selection of fiction, children’s books, and foreign language titles.
Beat Book Shop (1717 Pearl Street) keeps the spirit of the Beats alive in a town Ginsberg loved and hosts a poetry reading series at the Laughing Goat Coffeehouse (1709 Pearl Street) next door.
Trident Booksellers and Café (940 Pearl Street) sells used books and good coffee, and is packed until it closes at 11 PM.
Once a month Vic’s Espresso (4770 Table Mesa; South Airport Road; 700 Tenacity, Suite 101) stays open a few hours later than usual for the SoBo (that’s South Boulder) Reading Series run by novelists Doug and Cat Kurtz and poet John Brehm. The readings pair a poet with a fiction writer and the crowd is convivial. Any of Vic’s locations make good spots for writing, if you can find a table.
Ellen Orleans’s Yellow Pine Reading Series takes place in a cheery, high-ceiling community lodge (1650 Zamia Avenue) in north Boulder, and usually features three writers, either local or visiting, some who have published books and some who haven’t, reading work related to a common theme, such as Deep Storage: Unearthing the Word, Animal: Nature, and Match and Mismatch. Recently featured writers included Shane Oshetski, Cara Lopez Lee, and Nancy Stohlman.
Denver is no longer the scruffy and rough-edged city that Fante, Porter, and Kerouac found it to be. Successive waves of revitalization have left it burnished and burgeoning. However, like the rest of the country, Denver is in a downbeat moment. But despite the shuttering of newspapers, the end of local book reviews, cutbacks in public library hours and services, the lack of Colorado grants for writers, and the struggle of bookstores, Denver’s book lovers have kept its literary spirit alive. To me, these people—a bunch of independent, passionate people who open bookstores, host readings, and launch writing groups and presses in the bootstrapping tradition of those “roaring drunken miners” who founded our city—are the literary scene, and any writer who turns up here is welcome to become part of it.
Credit: Nina Goffi