KWH event bridges literary generation gap

Four generations of Penn alumni and students crowded the Kelly Writers House Arts Cafe on Nov. 8 to listen to poetry, drama and a witty take on the art of the letter to the editor.

Responding to Alumni Relations’ Homecoming Weekend theme, “Penn in Print,” the Writers House staff had planned a program called “Four Generations of Penn Writers,” featuring poet Allie D’Augustine C’02, playwright Suzanne Maynard Miller C’89, poet Greg Djanikian C’71, director of Penn’s Creative Writing Program, and best-selling author Paul Fussell, Donald T. Regan Emeritus Professor of English. Although none of them took this opportunity to reflect directly on their experiences at Penn, each distinctive voice represented their differing experiences here.

When a last-minute family emergency prevented Djanikian from attending, a member of the audience, Professor Emeritus of English Daniel Hoffman, rose to the occasion, reading several poems from Djanikian’s latest collection, “Years Later” (Carnegie Mellon).

The program began with D’Augustine reading her poem, “Rules for a Good Life,” in a high piping voice. “I always read this first,” she explained. “Its a bad sign if you don’t like it.”

Next, four students working with lecturer Rose Malague of the Theater Arts Program arranged themselves around a table to present two scenes from Miller’s latest play, “Flirting With the Deep End.” The excepts, performed with scripts in hand, showed that Miller, who teaches playwriting at Hunter College, has perfect pitch for the dysfunctional relationships, miscommunication and halting speech patterns that characterize Generation X.

Before he began reading, Hoffman, who founded the creative writing program at Penn, noted that Djanikian was a student in his first poetry workshop in 1968. Paging through “Years Later,” he picked four poems at random and read them with passion and authority, stopping to savor a lyrical insight or a particularly astute turn of phase. At the conclusion of “Seeing,” he remarked, “That’s a poem I wish I’d written.”

Fussell, who taught Samuel Johnson to several generations of Penn students, concluded the program on a light note. Following in the esteemed Doctor’s footsteps, he read from a tongue-in-cheek essay he wrote in 1982 for Harper’s that purported to be an academic study of aggrieved authors’ letters to the editors of The New York Times Book Review and The New York Review of Books complaining about bad reviews.

Fussell, who knows a thing or two about enduring bad reviews, called the authors of these letters “pompous self-celebrators” and enumerated the conceits of the genre, including “self-pity, sometimes subtle but no less heart-rending, and self-praise, by quoting a greater authority. Silence,” he advised to appreciative applause, “is the author’s only recourse.”

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Originally published on December 11, 2003