If, a few decades hence, people elsewhere speak of Philadelphia as a great literary town, we can credit Kerry Sherin Wright (C’87), among others, for the transformation.
The chemical engineering-turned-religious studies major was not one of those present at the creation of the Kelly Writers House. Nevertheless, she has left a deep imprint on the place that has become the epicenter of a burgeoning citywide creative-writing community in its eight years of existence.
Wright joined the Writers House in 1997 as its second resident coordinator and was named its first director within a year. Now she is stepping down so she can pursue her own writing. As a tribute to her work in shaping the house and its programming, an annual $1,000 prize named in her honor was announced at the annual Writers House year-end party May 5.
We spent some time with Wright the Friday before the party to talk with her about her experiences at Penn and the house.
Q. How did you come to work at the Kelly Writers House?
A. I was getting my Ph.D. at Temple, and actually had not really been back to Penn very much after I graduated. A friend of mine was reading at a graduate student reading here the first semester that the house was open, and I came to hear him read his short story.
I walked in the door and thought, What is this place? What an incredible project! How exciting for Penn that this exists. And I cornered Greg Djanikian and I started asking him all kinds of questions. I knew he was a poetry professor here [he is now director of the Creative Writing Program and undergraduate chair of English] and I said, How does this work? and Who’s in charge? and Are there jobs? And then I kind of forgot about it for a while, and then the next year my dissertation chair, [Temple English Professor] Rachel Blau Duplessis, who had come to the Writers House already for events, sent me the job description for the resident coordinator position.
I didn’t know if I would get the job, I wasn’t sure it was the right thing, but I knew that I was incredibly excited about this notion that there would be a writing community at Penn that would be supported by people all across campus.
And as a religious studies major who had been a ChemE major, I understood that there were writers everywhere. When I was an undergraduate, I had organized a series called Fresh Fish with a friend of mine, and we brought Margaret Atwood and Amiri Baraka, and Gil Ott and a number of other writers to the Penn campus. It was in the Christian Association, and we had open-mike nights back before they were called that. We called them parties. [laughs]
Q. Do we get many chemical engineers walking through the doors of the Writers House?
A. Oh, absolutely. In fact, when I taught English 10, I had a lot of engineering students. And then I had other students who were English majors and biological basis of behavior majors, and there were a lot of psychology students, and people from East Asian studies and Wharton who come. We have students from all over.
Q. In 2001-2002 you took a year off. Why?
A. I needed to finish my dissertation, and I was finding it [difficult because] I sort of pour my heart and soul into my job. I was having trouble figuring out how I was going to get those last chapters done.
One of the things I learned over the course of that year was that I really loved writing. I had known that all my life, but I hadn’t thought about actually trying to figure out a way to make sure I was home most of the time and working.
Q. Did you have any idea the house would be this alive when you signed on?
A. I wanted it to be. I felt like there was endless possibility when I started here, and seeing all the people who were involved, it’s just too many incredibly talented volunteers for the place not to just flourish.
Q. How do you think the Writers House has changed Penn?
A. I want to be able to [answer] that, and at the same time, one of the things I was thinking about today is that I spend all my time inside the Writers House. I try to go to things elsewhere on campus, but the fact is we’re so busy that [I only] see the change from the inside.
I’m looking forward to having a different perspective on it. [Wright will become a senior adviser to new Writers House director Jennifer Snead (C’94) and an associate fellow in the new Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing.]
The one thing I can say is that I’ve met so many alumni who say, and you might have even heard me say this before, Gee, I wish we had this when I was at Penn.
Q. You told me that it was your father who led you to major in chemical engineering. How is he about your becoming a writer instead? Is he disappointed?
A. No, he’s thrilled. [laughs] He actually became a photographer later in his life, so now he’s living the life of an artist. And both of my parents absolutely love literature and love storytelling especially. And they love Penn. They’re so proud that I went to Penn.
Originally published on May 15, 2003