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Penn&Ink, continued...

"I had, since leaving home, mounted the bandwagon of a subculture in which money was supposed to be meaningless -- the world of art ... " J. Robert Lennon reads, in the voice of Tim Mix. "Lately, however, I'd begun to have a problem with this. Most of my unease came from a creeping conviction that my work was irrelevant and insular at best, simply awful at worst. I used found objects from the streets of West Philadelphia as my materials, and assembled them in our apartment's extra room to evoke scenes easily accessible in their original form not thirty feet from where I worked. I was, in other words, making little outsides indoors. I had never sold a single piece."
   One of his motivations in writing the funnies, Lennon explained earlier, was to "write a novel about the idea of artistic integrity, what it is to 'sell out,' what it is to do something that appeals to the masses -- whether that's inherently non-artful or not. But I didn't want to write about a writer, because that would be boring. So I got an idea to write about a sort of pompous installation artist who suddenly is trying to draw the most shallow daily cartoon in the newspaper."
   Tim Mix's mental balancing act of artistic and commercial priorities is familiar to many of Penn's alumni scribes. The issue surfaces often at the Kelly Writers House, whose planning committee -- composed of about 60 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and neighbors -- typically favors poetry readings and discussion over career workshops.
   A glimpse at one week's schedule highlights the tendencies, variety and sheer volume of programming. March 15-21, which followed Spring Break, included a taping of "LIVE! at the Writers House," a spoken-word radio show broadcast on WXPN, on Monday; a reading by poet Leslie Scalapino sponsored by the creative writing department, followed by a Talking Film screenwriting workshop on Tuesday; a talk on publishing by Nan Talese, senior vice president at Doubleday, followed by "Speakeasy," an undergraduate open mic series, on Wednesday; a planning committee meeting and another creative writing department-sponsored reading, by poet Barrett Watten, on Thursday; and the panel discussion, "Alumni in Publishing: A Career Fair and Conversation," with Caryn Karmatz Rudy and Celina (Cindy) Spiegel C'82, on Friday.

Photos by: (clockwise from top) Marion Ettlinger, Tommy Leonardi,
Bill Cramer,
Tommy Leonardi, Greg Benson
 
 
 

   Weekend programming included a reading by Jeanne Murray Walker in the Laughing Hermit Reading Series, a non-University program focused primarily on Philadelphia-area poets; a meeting of the Saturday Reading Cooperative, an elementary school literacy program; and a musical performance by the David Lavin Group; and, on Sunday, a Victorian Society-sponsored talk by architect Harris M. Steinberg C'78 GAr'82. (Steinberg designed a major renovation of the Writers House building, funded by a donation from University trustee Paul Kelly C'62 WG'64, that was completed in late 1997.) For the statistically inclined, that's 12 events in seven days -- five of them poetry-related, two career-oriented and two involving Penn alumni.
   The Alumni Writers Series straddles both the commercial and artistic sides of the fence, and at times, blurs distinctions between the two. "The [Alumni Writers] programs are so varied," says current resident coordinator Heather Starr. "This is what's so exciting about the series -- that it's not based on any particular genre or interest. I don't feel that it's like other series, where there's a constant audience."
   In some ways, the series' greatest strength -- this diversity of genre -- is also its only perceptible weakness. Without a pool of regular attendees, Alumni Writers Series presentations have occasionally been a bit too intimate. One of the series' first visitors, Gilbert Sandler, columnist for The Baltimore Sun and, in his Penn days, author of a regular column for the Gazette on undergraduate life, came to campus while the House was still closed for renovations, and led a discussion with only a few students. Without Lennon's New Jersey-based entourage of family and friends, his audience would have numbered fewer than 10. Poet Betsy Andrews and performance artist Eva Mantell, both classmates and close friends of Sherin, presented their work two Novembers ago -- to Andrews' family.
   Jennifer Egan -- who, besides being Sherin's roommate at Penn, has written the novel The Invisible Circus; Emerald City, a short story collection; and articles in The New York Times Magazine and other publications -- read to an undergraduate audience that had been corralled by her former instructor, Diana Cavallo, who teaches part-time in the creative writing program. "I had a great audience," says Egan, "but I'm not sure I would have had much of anyone if [Cavallo] hadn't brought her class." Andy Wolk recalls: "When I did a [screenwriting] workshop recently in San Francisco at a bookstore, there were three times the people. The people who did come [to the Writers House] were extremely smart and creative, and incredibly hungry. So you ask yourself: 'Aren't there other people out there who are hungry for this?'"
   Some of these attendance problems can be explained in practical terms. Lennon's reading took place on a Sunday night before midterm-exam week; it was the only date on which the novelist was available. Wolk also led his workshop on a Sunday, a week before Thanksgiving. Andrews' and Mantell's appearance occurred during Homecoming Weekend and was lost in a flurry of campus activity.
   Any reservations alumni express about the size of their audience are raised apologetically -- and quickly followed with praise for the Writers House concept. "It's everything that I wish would have been at Penn when I was there," says Caryn Karmatz Rudy. Jenny Egan agrees. "I had wonderful teachers at Penn, and I feel that my writing was really fostered there -- but part of that was that I felt like such a Lone Ranger," she says. "I felt supported, but there was not really a community exactly."
   Andy Wolk appreciates the House's role as an informal extension of the classroom. "I took a lot of fiction-writing seminars while fulfilling an English major," he says. "Those seminars met once a week and were very intense, but what do you do outside the seminar? Well, people might come over to my apartment and hang out. Or we'd meet in a bar and talk. It was really informal and pushed to the side to a certain extent, so the idea that the University says that there's a place where this could and should happen is great. Writing is a very lonely profession. The idea that you can have a place to go is really good, particularly within a university like Penn, which can be an alienating place."
   
 "It had been twenty years since we'd all been together,"
Tim Mix says of his estranged family. "We were like a high school graduating class, sticking it out only as long as we had to, then fleeing into the world, diplomas in hand."
   It would be unfair to suggest that Penn's humanities graduates disperse from West Philadelphia in like fashion, with nary a backward glance. But for many alumni in the arts and in publishing, campus visits are rare. While interviewing alumni for this article, I asked whether they had previously returned to Penn for alumni activities. "Nope," Caryn Karmatz Rudy replied. J. Robert Lennon also answered in the negative. Tina Pohlman joked, "I'm not really a school-spirit, booster sort of person." Eva Mantell explained that her performance "was the first time I went back in any organized way. I didn't go back for any homecomings or reunions or anything. My guess is that the arts people don't really rush back."
   The Writers House staff and supporters want to change that. "Some alumni may be looking for how to get more involved with Penn, or to reconnect," Heather Starr says. "I think this is a great entry-point for alumni for whom writing is a primary interest. There are ways to get involved [with Penn] other than contributing money, and they can interact directly with students."
   At the same time, Penn's far-flung alumni community could serve to disseminate the Writers House mission beyond West Philadelphia. A crew of House representatives led an informational session at the Penn Club in New York last fall. Al Filreis has made presentations in Los Angeles to a nascent organization he calls Writers House West. One alumnus -- a participant in a pioneering on-line poetry course for alumni (dubbed "Alumverse") taught by Filreis a few years back -- is organizing an activity in San Francisco; there have been similar stirrings in Boston. Sherin mentions other possibilities: "An anthology of writings by Penn grads. A Web-based journal. There's no end to the kinds of things we can do."
   The range and scope of Writers House alumni activities depend largely on the enthusiasm of a volunteer workforce. "Our support needs to come from alumni," explains Filreis. "I think of them as former students; they're just dislocated by time and place. Many of them are ravenously hungry for more intellectual life, contact with alma mater and so forth. They're naturals."

 

Nate Chinen C'98 is a freelance writer in New York. He worked at the Writers House as a student last year.

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