The Write Place: Understanding the prose and poetry of the annual Sewanee Writers' Conference

Sewanee Writers' Conference

The two professors enter the classroom and sit at opposite ends of the long conference table. One of them, William Logan, the distinguished and notoriously provocative poetry critic (and poet), raises his chair to its highest point, not because he is especially tall, but because he wants to make sure he appears so to the fourteen students gathered at the table. His teaching partner for the class, Debora Greger, his wife and also a prolific poet from the University of Florida faculty, where they have both long been safely tenured, arrives in dark sunglasses, her pixie-cut helmet of steel-gray hair revealing just a portion of her face. Just enough of Greger’s face is visible for one to discern her expressions, yet she remains enigmatic, akin, metaphorically, to one of the impenetrable couplets the class will ponder over the course of twelve days at Sewanee, aka the University of the South. 

The 2014 Sewanee University Writers’Conference (held annually late July to early August) has begun. For its 150 participants, chosen from an application pool of 715, their vacation will not be a typical one. Most students, long past their college-attending years, will occupy sweatsocks-redolent, fluorescent-flickering dorm suites with others their age and share one bathroom (the suggestion to bring a mattress pad for the bed, which feels like Leavenworth surplus, is good advice). Group outings include such activities as 10 p.m. lantern-lit graveside recitations of works by dead poets (Allen Tate is buried in town); an hour-long lecture by Logan parsing every word of Ezra Pound’s fourteen-word, “In a Station of the Metro”; readings and craft talks by novelists Alice McDermott and Jill McCorkle, poets B.H. Fairchild, the now-late Claudia Emerson and Mary Jo Salter, playwrights Daisy Foote and Dan O’Brien and others who are so inspiring that many an attendee is sufficiently pumped up afterward to pull an all-nighter drafting a sestina or neo-Dada story. Jill McCorkle’s talk about the need to write about mothers, because they are the first people from whom we hear language, was worth the entire price of admission to the program ($1,800). Alice McDermott likened the writer’s life to always courting a potential shipwreck, mid-sea—thus her admission that she often works on two novels concurrently, ensuring a literary lifeboat rescue. She reputed, too, the tired adage about using as few words as possible when describing something, invoking Macbeth to prove her point: “Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

The other main component of the program, though, involves attending several two-hour-long classes where students’works are read and “workshopped.”The canard about words not hurting you does not apply here. At Sewanee, the words unsheathed in class by your fellow students, a portion of whom are thirty-somethings laboring on advanced degrees while adjuncting for poets’wages at community colleges, as well as those uttered by your visiting profs, are as blunt as the bricks of Tennessee flagstone used to fashion the buildings on campus. For students in the Logan-Greger class, Logan’s self-parody that he sang as a coda to his public reading, using a Gilbert & Sullivan lyric, where he referred to himself “as a most disagreeable man,”proves an apt description. Some in class might have begun to fantasize it as his epitaph. (His accompanist for the routine was one of the many poets he has reduced to an iamb in his withering criticism.) To be in their classroom is to witness the real-life incarnations of Martha and George (i.e., “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”) as they banter and flirt with the merits of students’similes and enjambments. 

The Sewanee Conference, like many such gatherings of established and hope-to-be writers, is as much about socializing (Jack Daniels and Jim Beam are regular guests) as it is about writing and reading. While some such summer writing programs encourage students to produce new work while in attendance, the one at Sewanee is instead about assessing and analyzing existing poems, novels and dramas. Applicants in the categories of fiction, poetry and playwriting submit manuscripts in advance. Through the machinations of some secret selection society, the students are chosen for the two-week program (attendees who merit the designations of Scholar and Fellow receive scholarships; they participate in group readings and get to wear special T-shirts).

Fiction faculty Randall Kenan (left) and participant Buzz Sienknecht

In addition to the classroom sessions, every student has a scheduled one-on-one hour-long talk with one of his two professors. Such chats usually involve side-by-side meetings on a broken-springed sofa, a copy of the student’s manuscript draped over each lap. The professor’s copy is marked with notes (often, a hieroglyphics of crossouts and question marks, exclamation points and red-inked scribblings along the margins that appear sharp as barbed wire). Upon sinking into a loveseat at the university’s Women’s Center with my reader, Greger, I hear her say through the topiary thicket of her hair, “What are you trying to accomplish here?”

In answer, I express my interest in writing ekphrastic poems (referencing my poems in American Arts Quarterly), a discipline for which she is known, notably her series of poems in response to Japanese art as “poet in residence”at the Harn Museum of Art. I add that many works, too, are about classic, middle-aged perplexment and romantic yearning. While I say this, she jots down the beginning lines, but with her emendations, from The Inferno; “In the middle of my life/I found myself along a dark road/lit only by reflector strips”. She remains smiling.

“Do we really need any of this,”she says, as she retraces her crossouts on entire stanzas of a poem I had entitled “After an Exhibition of Chagalls.”“And Chagall? Could we care?”(Logan, earlier in class, had called Grant Wood “a truly terrible painter”when one of the class poems referenced American Gothic.) Greger then recites select lines of my poetry—with all the feeling one might do when reading aloud the warranty for a food processor.

But she is often right—as is her partner in rhyme, Logan. Most of the poems she analyzed for me and for others in the class could lose the bulk of their form on the page and stand far stronger and leaner without the oh-so-clever weight of conceits and allusions. One of her many talents is the uncanny ability to reread a student poem aloud, making her impromptu edits along the way. “I would agree with most of what Ms. Greger is saying, but not everything,”Logan might say cheekily from the opposite end of the table after one of her many on-the-spot edits that reduce some student odes to haikus. “I suppose Mr. Masello would say this poem, too, is about the writing of a poem—that facile observation could be said of any poem,”he would say on more than one occasion, wheeling his chair around to face me, though I’ve cranked mine up higher than his. 

Students take three daily meals at the Sewanee Inn, a brand new stone-and-wood McMansion at the entrance to the campus. Immediate cliques form, but their memberships are flexible. Some days, you feel popular and can recall your high school glory as student president; other times, when you arrive too late for a meal and find most of the tables already filled, you might just retreat to a bike ride pilgrimage up to Memorial Cross, a monument to fallen soldiers atop a hill, or a session in one of the rocking chairs set on the sun-bathed terrace of the alumni headquarters.

And while most of the gossip revolves around the instructors and their behavior in the classrooms, there are one or two fellow participants about whom others remain wary (e.g., the man who maneuvered every conversation so that he can mention his professed role as a former “CIA operative”with a “double-0 status”). But everyone is generally congenial and welcoming. After every evening’s 8:15 reading by one of the brand-name writers in attendance, many students gather at a nearby pub for an open-mic read (thankfully, limited to six minutes) or wander to the university’s French House, a garrison-like edifice with a covered porch lined with rocking chairs—and where drinks, mysteriously, are served free.

For writers and readers, the Sewanee event is a kind of literary heaven, with tense debates ongoing all around the Gothic-style campus about Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil versus her at Vassar, or which translations of Ovid and Beowulf read best. You can actually see people passing books of contemporary poetry at cafétables, as if this is your version of the sci-fi town of Stepford. Even the youngest students, some of whom are recent Sewanee graduates, on the eve of their entry into adult life sans MFAs, know the allusions to Tennessee Williams (who left his literary estate to the university) and Trollope. The people who attend the conference are smart, they write, they read, they know the music of Arvo Pärt—this despite some arrestingly thick “country”accents (novelist Tony Earley was overheard saying, “Sometimes, I take a Mountain Dew and a bag of Doritos and, well, you’re talkin’good eatin’.”).   

Novelist Tony Earley and literary agent Gail Hochmann

Sewanee, the town, the milieu, is a combination of something like Mayberry and Oxford, the Old South and the New South, Shangri-La and Gloccamorra (though, fortunately, it does not vanish in a day). There are enough historical markers on the campus that reference the “War Between the States”to make it seem as if those events ceased just before the grits were finished that morning. The night after I arrived, an iconic 1866 building on campus, the Rebels Rest, mysteriously burned; as one of the minority of Yankees in attendance, I began to feel increasingly like Nat Turner on the run as people conjectured as to the fire’s cause. Situated as Sewanee is atop the Cumberland Plateau, it is not uncommon at night to be amid the ink-dark, cicada-throbbing campus, while ringed by a halo of distant lightening storms as your view up remains clear and infinite. During my time there, my home, Manhattan, has never seemed more distant to me.Patrick McDermott entertains

Does one leave a better writer? Many people come down from the mountaintop perch of the university suffering a literary concussion from the harsh editing doled out about their works, but it seems that the advice offered settles in. The bruising fades. New images appear in the mind’s eye. Soon, even on the hour-and-a-half bus ride back to the Nashville airport, laptops are powered on and attendees are busy tapping out new work, some of it likely to be submitted for admission to next year’s conference with the hope that even the most disagreeable man or woman will approve of it.                                      



The 2015 Sewanee WritersConference is July 21 through August 2;


This is very, very good. Better than a writers conference itself.

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