Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Remarkable Things With A Pen

The New York Times spotlights The Kelly Writers House at Penn in today's paper. It's a very good read; Dr. Al Filreis (or as we will now call him, "Avuncular Al"), who runs the house, is in an especially animated pose in the featured photo. It's possible that only a room full of undergraduates can induce this kind of gesture; every time I've seen Dr Filreis (that I can recall) his head and neck have been fully orthogonal to his shoulders. But that's all part of the genius of the camera.

The article spotlights the role the Writers House plays in the undergrad life at Penn, but I can testify to its importance for Penn/Philadelphia writers (and people who like writing) of all ages. Penn doesn't have an MFA program, but some of its English PhDs are astonishingly creative: Kathy Lou Schultz, Jessica Lowenthal (who works at the house now), and Josh Schuster are just three of the poet/students that I've met while I've been here. Add people like Tom Devaney -- whose poetry I discovered through his skill at scheduling events and handling tech requirements at the House -- and various area poets like Ron Silliman or Rachel Blau DuPlessis, and the faculty (Bob Perelman, Charles Bernstein, Greg Djanikian, Herman Beavers, and Susan Stewart before that), plus the writers-in-residence and people who visit for a day -- and you have a real home for writers on an Ivy League campus.

The House reminds me of everything I love about universities -- that in addition to being places to work and to learn, they can also be a home. Not just to the students who live on campus, but to anyone who can find support and friendship and make themselves at home there.

When I first applied to Penn, as a neophyte modernist scholar who had written a lot of poetry (good and not good) and founded literary magazines and was still interested in contemporary writing, I had known that Susan Stewart and Bob Perelman were at Penn, but I hadn't known how important the house was going to be for me. Karen Volkman, a poet I worked with in Chicago, tried to tell me how different it would be, all but urging me to go. I was lucky to take a course on American poetry with Al Filreis at the house my first semester at Penn, and to work on Theorizing, a KWH-hosted lecture series on literary theory I've coordinated since 2003. Every visitor who comes to campus, the first place I take them is the Writers House.

My mom suggested that I get married there (not that it's officially available for weddings). Sometimes, I wish that I had.

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