Robert Stewart

recorded in Kansas City, MO/KS

 

Robert Stewart

I’m Bob Stewart and I live in Kansas City, Kansas but I work in Kansas City, Missouri. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. I came to Kansas City in the mid 1970s to go to school here and just stayed, except for brief periods of time when I was in the Navy and different places. I did spend a time in my life when I would go and live in different parts of the country for three months at a stretch. That was really good for me. It was really healthy for me to do that. Basically, through friends and contacts you arrange for house sitting, or something like that. So I’ve done that in San Francisco and Miami and New England and other places. I also spent a lot of time in my life travelling to Central and South America, most of the time on my own. This all came a little bit late in life, in my 40s and somewhat in my 50s, as well, when I finally realized I had all the aspirations about what I wanted to do and they just weren’t happening. So one afternoon, I just called my—it was back in the days when we had travel agents—called my travel agent and I said, “Just get me an airplane ticket to Ecuador,” and I flew to Ecuador on my own without knowing Spanish. I arrived at one o’clock in the morning and fortunately did have some luck and got a hotel room and all that, got set up. I travelled into the upper Amazon, found a guide, hired a guide who took me into the Amazon. I travelled with a visual artist the following year to Brazil. She was creating an art project in the middle of the jungle and I went down and wrote about that for magazines. And I travelled to other places. Miami is kind of like going to South America, too, in some ways. I haven’t done much of that kind of thing for a while, but those were all really valuable for my life as a writer. Partly just to get the blood pumping and expose yourself to different cultures and put yourself at risk a little bit. And somehow people manage to get through these things pretty well, most of the time. It’s scary, but it usually works out just fine. But most of the time, I’ve lived here in Kansas City. As I said, I grew up in St. Louis, so I identify with St. Louis a tremendous amount. Kansas City is a really strong community for the arts in general—the literary arts, the visual arts, the music arts—we have great a jazz scene in Kansas City, we have an excellent opera and orchestra here—so there’s a lot of art in Kansas City. It’s a good place to be if you’re an artist. The other thing is the camaraderie here is congenial and conducive to creating art. There’s not a sense of competition and backbiting that I hear about in other parts of the world. It’s been a really healthy and good place for a person to be who wants to be an artist. Much of the time I’ve been working here at New Letters Magazine and New Letters on the Air. Then in 2002, I took over as Editor in Chief of New Letters Magazine when my previous boss Jim McKinley retired. So I feel really fortunate that all this has come through for me and given me tremendous opportunity to meet people. Being one of the producers of New Letters on the Air, the radio show, I’ve had access to meet some of the heroes of my life. And if I’d had any wits about me I could have probably met Henry Miller, but I wasn’t smart enough at the time. But I’ve had opportunity to sit down and have conversations with people like John Gardner and Richard Wilbur and Grace Paley. Real heroes. And I was only able to do that because of my affiliation with New Letters on the Air. That’s been a real wonderful experience for me.

The Knox Writers’ House

Do you think, as a writer, it’s important to live in a community of writers? Does that help you as a writer?


Stewart

I think it helps some people. I don’t think it’s necessary for everybody. I will say this: you want to be able to discriminate against those writers who are going to life you up as opposed to… I do see people who hang around the same group of writers all the time and they’re all sort of okay, they’re all sort of on this level, but nobody’s breaking through. And one of the reasons that I run this Midwest Poets Series and other things like that is to make sure I don’t get stuck in a community where we’re all just kind of satisfied with what we’re doing. I think it’s great to have that interaction and that inspiration and that support. One thing I tell students all the time is what John Gardner said in his book The Art of Fiction, and he said, “If your friends don’t support what you do, find new friends.” [laughs] And I think I’ve probably done that.

The Colossus of Maroussi by Henry Miller

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