By Jay Fields
According to Brian Griffin, the first UT writer in residence, you’d have to go in the card catalogue and look under “American Chemical Society” to ferret your way to the remote but beautiful writer’s space he was given—a space set aside for the year’s resident writer.
“I wrote a lot of poetry there,” he says, “received a small honorarium, and had access to the collection. I got lots of support. I wanted to return the favor.”
The Writer in Residence program began in 1998 as a UT library-based initiative to support emerging authors. When first approached by Paula Kaufman, who was dean of UT Libraries at the time, Brian was teaching creative writing at the university and readily accepted the appointment.
Opening the Doors
“I had bumped into several grad student gatherings at the University of Virginia where original works were read and I thought we had a wonderful opportunity to do that here,” Brian recalls. “The English Department got right behind it. We went ahead on a shoestring, held the first readings in the faculty lounge, and left the doors wide open so anyone who was walking by would be drawn in.”
The idea exploded in its dimensions in subsequent years, with each resident writer working with the English Department and library to stage readings by student authors, local writers, and nationally known, award-winning poets and artists invited to take part in the series.
Called “Writers in the Library,” this now long-running string of literary events has featured national poet laureate Ted Kooser, poets Charles Wright and Yusef Komunyakaa, author and essayist Elizabeth Gilbert, and actor, poet and country rocker Steve Earle. Local authors reading in the series have included Linda Parsons and Jeff Daniel Marion, Marilyn Kallet, Michael Knight, Jack Renfro, and Kevin Bradley.
“I hosted Ted Kooser,” says Marilyn Kallet, author, English professor and devoted series advocate, “I also hosted Pulitzer Prize winner Yusef Komunyakaa a few years ago. We filled the auditorium and lots of overflow rooms. Everyone was so excited about Yusef’s presence. He did an informal presentation that was the jewel in the crown.”
Keeping the Doors Open
The Writer in Residence program will take a year’s hiatus in the 2009-2010 academic year with fall-offs in supporting endowments, according to JoAnne Deeken, director of technical services for UT Libraries, though the reading series will again set sail in the library’s auditorium, generally with readings each month.
“The program will continue,” says Marilyn Kallet. “All of us in the creative writing program will make sure that the widest possible diversity of speakers comes to campus, the highest quality of writing in diverse genres will flourish. Our students need the contact with major American and world writers, and they will find themselves in that excellent company in the months and years ahead.”
As an example, Marilyn says she’ll be hosting Prairie Schooner editor Hilda Raz in late October. Also scheduled to visit: Dorothy Allison, 1992 National Book Award finalist for her semi-autobiographical first novel, Bastard out of Carolina.
In the program’s history, fiction writer and playwright Pamela Schoenewaldt followed Brian Griffin, serving as writer in residence for the years 2001 through 2003. In that time frame, she helped double the number of readings in the auditorium series, focusing on local writers.
“One night we had a discussion on death, spinning a dialogue around faith and reason,” she says. “No matter the subject, it’s always a wonderful partnership with the library, a chance to meet local and regional writers, and, for students, a validation of their work.”
Making the Connection
Poet and non-fiction writer Patricia Waters served as writer in residence for 2003-2004, followed by RB Morris, poet, editor, and musician, from 2004 to 2008, an individual described by Barbara Dewey, Dean of Libraries, “as our first, and only, Writers in the Library performer to be backed up by a double bass.” The current writer in residence is Kali Meister whose writing grows out of acting and directing in theatre, performance art, and film productions.
“During the time I was there we began archiving the readings,” says RB Morris. “That was probably my major contribution. That and the fact that I also included songwriters. The song lyric is a poetic voice that has enriched western culture and has been a major ambassador of the American arts to the rest of the world.
“Knoxville has a long and rich history in both literature and music. The Writers in the Library program is a great outreach program for connecting student and university writers with local and regional writers. And, of course, it’s always a powerful and often pivotal connection for student writers to be exposed first hand to internationally renowned authors. The program consistently brought all these connections together.”
JoAnne Deeken who, along with Martha Rudolph, coordinates the library-side of the reading series, says the community of Knoxville hugely benefits. “Families of the students come; there’s a lot of dialogue after the readings. We have audiences, depending on the subject matter, that include every age.”
“The best thing for me,” she says, “is the interaction between audience and presenter. I remember someone asking a writer, ‘How can you keep writing?’ and the writer said, ‘I can’t not do it.'”
And, as Marilyn Kallet says, there’s something to be said for the place itself.
“Any space where poetry and fiction have been honored consistently over the years becomes sacred space, and the library auditorium is no exception,” she says. “We have learned to gather there, in that venue, and our expectations of hearing strong new work have been raised and met. So the venue is important. A lot of creative energy and skill have found a home there.”
Considering the warp and bent and impact of the entire series, Brian Griffin says good humoredly, “I don’t think Paula Kaufman would have envisioned all this.”
The Writer in Residence program was named in honor of former UT Chancellor Jack E. Reese in 2005. Reese, who died in May 2005, was an active supporter of the UT Libraries and the local writing community.