New Letters magazine works to discover and publish the finest new writing, wherever it exists. That mission implies encouragement of writers just starting or those who deserve wider readership. By placing the emphasis on excellence, we best promote the cause of the literary arts and affirm their transforming qualities. Editorial decisions arise from three core questions: Is the writing intense; does it advance literary art; does it offer hope?
New Letters’ Literary Awards for Writers, established in 1986, offers a total of $8,250 in prizes annually. The Awards program discovers and rewards new writers and encourages more established writers to try new genres or new work in competition. In recent years, New Letters has won a National Magazine Award, the magazine industry’s highest honor, received multiple Pushcart Prizes, often in a given year, and places selections often in The Best American Poetry, Essays, and other prize anthologies.
In the winter of 1934, the small, private University of Kansas City began publishing The University Review. In 1944, the name was changed to: The University of Kansas City Review. The late Alexander P. Cappon became its editor with the spring issue in 1938, a position he retained for the next 33 years. During that time, America fought three wars and inaugurated six presidents, entered the Atomic Age and put a man on the moon. The University of Kansas City eventually became part of the greater University of Missouri system where many of today’s authors were born. But throughout the years, one thing that never changed is The Review’s high standards and stated mission.
On the publication’s first masthead, the editors announced their hope was “to reflect the cultural life of this section of the United States by providing a medium for the publication of the finest writing obtainable here.” They welcomed all manuscripts, “the sole test of acceptance being that of literary quality.”
By the end of its second year, The Review had published a wide variety of works from notable authors, including: a discussion on “Art and Social Struggle” between Thomas Hart Benton and Diego Rivera; a story by Vance Randolph; a poem by Edgar Lee Masters; and a personal note by Pearl S. Buck. Under Dr. Cappon’s editorship, the publication featured many other authors of note including May Sarton, J.D. Salinger, e.e. cummings, Marianne Moore, May Swenson, James T. Farrell, Kenneth Rexroth and many more writers who were already well-known or just becoming so.
In 1971, The Review appointed a new editor, David Ray, and began publishing under a new name: New Letters. Mr. Ray’s first issues contained works by literary giants Robert Bly, Cyrus Colter, Anselm Hollo, Joyce Carol Oates, Richard Hugo and Josephine Jacobsen. In 1972, Mr. Ray devoted an entire issue to previously unpublished work by and about Richard Wright. Over the years, special issues featured the works of Jack Conroy and introduced readers to new work from India.
THE RADIO ERA BEGINS
In 1977, David Ray and his wife, Judy, began the audio literature program New Letters on the Air, a half-hour radio program featuring writers reading and discussing their work (see the link on this website for more details). The radio program widens the scope of the magazine to promote great literature both on the page and on the air. Rebekah Presson produced and hosted each radio show for many years, succeeded in 1996 by Angela Elam. The venerable program is now the longest continuously running broadcast of a national literary radio series, featuring more than 1,200 programs by many of the world’s preeminent writers.
In 1986, James McKinley took over as editor of New Letters. The magazine continued to attract new writing from well-known writers including: Amiri Baraka, Thomas Berger, former President Jimmy Carter, Annie Dillard, Tess Gallagher, William Gass, Charles Simic, John Updike, Miller Williams and many others. Lesser-known authors, some whose first published work appears in New Letters, continue to be featured. Since 1986, New Letters has also published several special issues, including the “Writer in Politics” and “Writer and Religion” issues, special issues dedicated to the writing of either men or women, and our interview issue, which contains interviews with Joseph Brodsky, Gwendolyn Brooks, Allen Ginsberg, Walker Percy and Derek Walcott, among others.
LITERARY AWARDS COMPETITION INTRODUCED
The first New Letters Literary Awards competition was held in 1986. Its purpose was to discover, encourage, reward, and publish fresh, new material from aspiring and accomplished writers. In the first year of the competition, over 1,600 entries arrived from established and emerging writers across the country and around the world. Today, the contest remains one of the most influential and has become a model for similar competitions sponsored by various literary organizations. Each year entries from writers from all over the globe receive professional, anonymous judging from a distinguished panel. The best entries are then featured in the special awards issue of New Letters. Due to its continued commitment to anonymity and fairness, the New Letters Literary Awards has become one of the most respected literary contests in the country.
With the retirement of James McKinley in September of 2002, Robert Stewart took over the post of editor-in-chief for New Letters, New Letters on the Air, and their affiliate, BkMk Press. Stewart worked as managing editor under both David Ray and James McKinley, and played a central role in design, typography, and art direction as well as serving as a long-running voice in the magazine’s poetry selections. Over the years, he also worked with such regular essayists as Janet Burroway and Alberto Rios and published notable writers Brian Doyle, Quincy Troupe, Daniel Woodrell, Sherman Alexie, Marilyn Hacker, Maxine Kumin and Charlotte Holmes.
THE MISSION CONTINUES
New Letters will continue to seek the best new writing, whether from established writers or those ready and waiting to be discovered. In addition, it will support those writers, readers and listeners who want to experience the joy of writing that can both surprise and inspire us all.