The Poetics of Giving

Poet Donald Hall at Writers House.

If you asked Ian Frazier about his 2006 fellowship at the Kelly Writers House, odds are that the longtime New Yorker contributor would talk about the crickets. They came out during the mid-class break in a Monday seminar. On a serving plate. The students invited Frazier to eat them.

As snacks go, it was actually an unusually thoughtful treat. Ten years earlier, Frazier had celebrated the joys of eating live mayflies in an essay for Outside magazine. The seminar crickets were dead and covered with chocolate, but at least they had that inimitable insect crunch.

Frazier is by no means the only visiting writer to enjoy an eccentric token of gratitude. Since the Fellows program began in 1999, the folks at the Writers House have gained a reputation for thinking outside of the gift box. When John McPhee came in February, the students sent the avid outdoorsman home with a prized fly-fishing permit for the Frost Valley section of the Catskills’ Neversink River. (They also tweaked the Princeton prof by outfitting him with a Penn sweatshirt for the trip.)

When novelist and gardening writer Jamaica Kincaid visited the next month, the class zeroed in on a story about her frustrated search for a white-flowering wisteria plant. They located a nursery with the right specimen and had it sent to her house in Vermont.

But when Jamie-Lee Josselyn C’05 approached Kelly Professor of English Al Filreis with her gift idea for U.S. Poet Laureate Donald Hall, who came in April, it was as though a threshold had been crossed.

“At first I was a little shocked,” Filreis recently recalled.

Josselyn, who assists Filreis in his role as faculty director of the Writers House, remembers her boss’s reaction a little differently.

“He was like, ‘Are you kidding me? That’s surgery!’”

What Josselyn had proposed went right to the heart of the 79-year-old poet’s life and work. In 1994, Hall’s wife of 22 years, the poet Jane Kenyon, was diagnosed with leukemia. The cancer infected her bone marrow and she died 15 months later. Hall has written movingly about their relationship, most recently in his 2005 book The Best Day, The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.

Josselyn’s idea was to register herself, Filreis, and every willing seminar student as a potential bone marrow donor.

When she pitched it to the class, “there was definitely a rumble,” she says. A conventional bone marrow transplant involves a surgical procedure in which marrow is drawn from a donor’s hipbones. A newer alternative enables the collection of marrow stem cells from a simple blood donation, but only after the injection of a medication that can cause bone pain and other side effects.

Though she was careful to stress that participation was optional, Josselyn says that about half of the class endorsed the idea right off the bat. On April 23, representatives from the National Marrow Donor Program (NMDP) came to the Writers House and collected cheek-swab samples from 15 students and staff members. They are now listed in a national registry. If and when any of them are identified as a suitable match for a patient in need of a transplant, the NMDP will call to ask for a donation.

That call could come in a matter of weeks, or it could take years.

Josselyn announced the gift in Hall’s honor the evening he gave his final reading at the Writers House.

“I think he was blown away,” Filreis recalls, “and he wrote us a letter saying as much … Donald Hall is about 80. He’s old and frail and he’s seen everything. He’s been through everything. It takes a lot to stun someone like that.”

In the years since the Fellows program began, it has evolved into something more than a forum for featuring famous writers, Filreis says. “It has reached a point where it is every bit as much an experiment in teaching, or an experiment in creating a learning community.”

“We spend a lot of time talking the talk—that’s what we do at universities,” Filreis adds. “This is closer to walking the walk than I’ve ever gotten in a class, teaching, in 23 years.” —T.P.

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This Year’s Fellows

Now in its 10th year, the Kelly Writers House Fellows program will bring a poet, a comics artist, and a jack of all genres to Penn this spring semester.

The February 18-19
session will feature Art Spiegelman, best known for his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus, which chronicled his father’s struggle to survive the Holocaust in Poland. On March 24 and 25, the Writers House will host Lynne Sharon Schwartz, whose 19 books encompass fiction, reportage, poetry, essays, and translations of Italian writers. Finally, Jerome Rothenberg will visit on April 28 and 29; he is the author of more than 50
volumes of poetry, and is a prominent advocate of tribal poetry and “ethnopoetics.”

©2007 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 11/09/07