Whatever your pleasure—sci fi or fantasy novels, modern or 18th-century poetry—Jennifer Snead thinks you should read it. And if you’re an undergraduate who wants to start a literary magazine, run a tutoring project or host a reading with a favorite poet, she thinks you should do that, too.
“ We want this to be a truly interactive learning community, where you come get involved and have an idea for a program and you help run it,” says the director of Kelly Writers House. “I want to reach out to members of the student community who might not necessarily consider themselves writers or English majors. Everybody writes something in their life. Everybody reads.”
For nearly a year, Snead, 34, has worked in the Victorian cottage at 3805 Locust Walk, advising students on projects, directing programming for the House, overseeing work-study students and teaching in the English department. In fact, she’s been involved with the House since 2000, when she volunteered there while finishing her dissertation on 18th-Century British poetry.
Q. What is it like to work in this house?
A. Itís great. Itís a perfect environment for writers. Itís very comfortable. I work a lot of long days because Iíll be here during the day doing a lot of administrative stuff or teaching and then weíll have a program in the evening and I might not get home until 9 oíclock, 10 oíclock at night. I can bring my dogs here.
A lot of people drop by my office during the course of the day, or just drop by the House, hang out, have coffee, read on the couch. My days are not routine, because I really never know whoís going to just pop in and say hello.
Q. It’s a testament to what this place has become—that people can come to an event or come just to hang out.
A. We welcome that. We love that. That’s very important to us—that people do feel comfortable enough to just come in and read or work on a paper or check email as well as for a program. That’s the one thing that we’re not—just a theater or a venue.
Q. What programs are you most proud of?
A. We want this to be a truly interactive learning community, where you come get involved and you have an idea for a program and you help run it. What a cool thing to do if you’re
We did a literary journal this year. A student came to me in September and said, ‘I want to start a literary journal [called “freshbuckets”], how do I do that?’. . .
Another thing that I’m really proud of is our afterschool literacy creative writing tutoring program [called Write On!]. It’s been going on for the past four years at the Writers House, and members of the Writers House community and Penn student volunteers meet with students from the Lee Elementary School every week throughout the semester and do creative writing exercises with them here at the House.
Q. Tell me about some memorable visitors.
A. There have been so many! Meeting Russell Banks was an incredible experience. What a generous man. I knew he was an amazing writer, but seeing him in class with Al Filreis’ students and then hearing some of the things that he had to say about the role of writers in a larger community and the kinds of responsibilities writers ought to have—amazing stuff.
And John Kinsella [the Australian poet]. I had read his work, and on the page it felt so slow and meditative. His performance style is very fast, almost hyper. He moves his arms and hands a lot. It completely changed the way I thought about his poetry.
Q. You’re a poet yourself—do you perform your work?
A. Not that much. I was a poetry concentrative here as an undergrad and then when I went off to grad school, I really had grandiose ideas about being a poet and getting published here, there and everywhere, but then I went and I got a Ph.D. (from Duke) in 18th-century British poetry.
Q. How did you get interested in 18th-century lit?
A. I got into it initially because it seemed to me that 18th-century writers and thinkers were really concerned about community and how people work together and how individuals and collectives relate.
Q. Is that what you mainly teach?
A. I also teach creative writing. . . . and I taught preceptorials on Harry Potter and J.R.R. Tolkien because science fiction and fantasy are also a favorite of mine. I’ll be teaching an introduction to writing science fiction and fantasy in the fall. There’s a whole community of people out there who are interested in this stuff but don’t consider themselves part of a creative writing community, but they could, they should!
I’ve read enough in that genre to know that there is some writing that is every bit as amazing in its way as Dostoevsky or Laurence Sterne.
Q. What are your goals for expanding Writers House?
A. Deepening our ties to the community of Penn, the undergraduate community. Also, outreach to the community beyond Penn.
The difficult part is how to let the House grow in such a way that it doesn’t lose its sense of smallness and intimacy and comfort. I think that’s going to be the challenge.
Originally published on July 8, 2004