“I’ve been late every meeting,” said James Carpenter, the first to walk into the writers group meeting. He was taking his muffler off when we arrived to check out the group’s proceedings. Then he sighed. “So I’m not intimate with the group yet.”
It was 5:05 p.m., 10 minutes before the February meeting of the Penn and Pencil Club, a group of staff members who joined together to lend one another support and feedback on their ways with words.
Carpenter, a lecturer in computer programming at Wharton, writes poetry (“not very good,” he said, with modesty, but don’t believe him).
The others trickled in. First came poet and short story writer Pat Green from the Veterinary School, one of the original members from 1997. Then poet Heather Carson, a newcomer from Human Resources, arrived, toting a worn marble composition book.
Next, Andrew McGhie sat down. “I’m Andrew McGhie and that’s all I’m saying.” He then broke his promise right off the bat. McGhie is associate director at the Laboratory for Research on the Structure of Matter and the group’s versifier extraordinaire.
Dilys Winegrad sat down next to him, and lastly, in came group leader John Shea. Winegrad, director/curator for the Arthur Ross Gallery, writes fiction, and Shea, who edits three publications for the Health System, writes all kinds of stuff.
Shea updated the group about some of their fellow writers who didn’t get there, like Julie, who returned to San Antonio and her radio show, and Victoria, who recently sent her novel to a second agent.
With a new member there, the group introduced themselves one by one. “I’m a little nervous about sharing with other folks, so please be kind.” newbie Carson said. And self-described latenik Carpenter, said, “I’m a pathetic, over-the-hill baby boomer trying to recover the passions of my youth.” We didn’t believe some of what he said.
Then McGhie, who mentioned that he writes old-fashioned poetry that rhymes and scans, said his method was to start thinking in the shower and scribble it down on I-95 on the way to work.
Green, the poet and short-story writer, presented poems that told short stories and incorporated some random phrases like “for a fashionable bare look” and “winners and losers in the Bronx,” from John Shea’s collection of phrases taken from periodicals and then drawn out of a hat.
“I only write very depressing poems,” said Green, not looking terribly contrite. “I’m going to have to write a humorous one.”
The writers then discussed Winegrad’s e-pistolatory short story. Appropriately enough, the group had received the story via e-mail and read it prior to the meeting. Carpenter had a lot to say about it: “I think this is absolutely amazing in every regard. …It’s a treatise on culture and history. It’s so elegantly, complexly done, it scares me.”
Winegrad smiled beatifically through the rest of the discussion, until she felt compelled to explain herself: “It’s also a commentary on the form. E-mail is not the same as letter writing.”
Then Carpenter read. In introducing his first poem he said, “I’m quite embarrassed about it and now wish I had not sent it out.” When finished he said, “I have some things that are more radical than this that I will bring in—when I’m more comfortable.”
Shea passed around a Colombo yogurt cap that transformed itself into a spoon to explain his essay, “The Revolution That Wasn’t.” Winegrad and McGhie brought out their pocket knives to suggest another approach to the no-spoon-with-yogurt situation. And then Shea closed with a story that suggested that communication is impossible.
The Penn and Pencil Club meets monthly at the Kelly Writers House, 3805 Locust Walk. The next meeting is March 4 at 5:20 p.m. New members are welcome. To get on the club’s listserv or for information, contact John Shea, firstname.lastname@example.org, 215-662-4802.
Originally published on February 21, 2002