A reading series at Kelly Writers House is bringing in a stream of alumni poets, fiction writers, journalists, screenwriters, editors, and literary agents back to campus—many for their first time since graduation.

By Nate Chinen | Photography by Greg Benson

“I checked into my hotel and had some time to kill before coming here,” J. Robert Lennon C’92 says to the 20 or so people assembled to hear him read at Kelly Writers House in late February. “I was a little nervous, so I figured I’d sit back and watch a little TV. I turned the TV on, but instead of a program, it had the Hotel Menu. They started flashing up different things that the hotel made available for business travelers. On this list, it said: ‘Fax and Coping Services Available.’ So I took advantage of that, and I feel very confident now. I highly recommend it.”

He gets a good laugh — and not just because the majority of the audience is made up of his family and friends. The 28-year-old Lennon, who slouches at the podium, his dark hair somewhere in the realm between “tousled” and “unkempt,” his manner a mix of bookish and hip, channels much of his considerable intellect into the deadpan delivery of one-liners, both in person and on paper. It seems fitting that his new novel — his second, after the well-received The Light of Falling Stars — is about a comic strip.

   More specifically, the funnies documents the travails of the Mix clan, the actual — and highly dysfunctional — family behind the popular syndicated strip, “Family Funnies.” When the Family’s progenitor, Carl Mix, dies unexpectedly, it is learned that he has bequeathed the strip to his son, Tim, a failing avant-garde artist, and given him three months to produce a portfolio of strips satisfactory to the syndicate editors. Though Tim is initially reluctant, by drawing the “Family Funnies” — and perceiving his parents and siblings through “the reeking roil of [his father’s] subconscious” — he realizes that his harsh, longtime preconceptions have been misguided at best.
   Tim Mix’s inner conflicts, neuroses and self-doubt make him an appropriate narrator for this irreverent but touching situation comedy. His is a sharp, comic voice, attuned to the timing of good storytelling and the cadence of plain speech — in fact, he sounds a lot like J. Robert Lennon. “This narrator is fairly close to me,” the author admitted privately, shortly before the reading. “I’m preoccupied with a lot of the same things that he is preoccupied with. But he’s a little more screwed up. My family is stable and happy, and I’ve never had the kinds of problems he has.”
   As if to underline his statement, practically the entire Lennon clan is waiting for him at the Writers House when he arrives for the reading.
   Lennon’s visit was sponsored by the Kelly Writers House Alumni Writers Series, which has brought more than a dozen alumni fiction writers, poets, journalists, screenwriters, editors, literary agents and other publishing folk to the former University chaplain’s-residence-turned-literary-hub at 3805 Locust Walk. Since opening in the fall of 1995, Writers House has developed a handful of regular reading series, each with a specific focus: Philly Talks, as a House flyer has it, is “a dialogue with contemporary poets.” Theorizing in Particular is “an interdisciplinary lecture series highlighting current methods of cultural analysis and criticism.” The Talking Film series hosts visiting screenwriters, film producers and directors.
   While alumni have appeared at the House since its beginning, the idea of a reading series focusing exclusively on alumni began to take shape in a formal way in the fall of 1997, largely under the direction of Dr. Alan Filreis, professor of English, who had led the effort to create the House and serves as faculty director, and Kerry Sherin C’85, who was then the House’s resident coordinator and has since become program director. “Writers House had become a kind of clearinghouse for information about alumni writers,” Sherin recalls. But, although the School of Arts and Sciences had occasionally sponsored talks by alumni writers, there was no regular series serving that purpose.
   For Sherin, an alumni series seemed a natural extension of the House programming. “I know what it means to be a writer and graduate from Penn and lose touch with Penn,” she says. “I also know that when I was an undergrad, I sought out the writers in the Penn community. I wanted to meet them and talk to them about what they did, and show them my work.”

   In addition to Lennon, the series has included visits by fiction writer and journalist Jennifer Egan C’85; poets Betsy Andrews C’85 and Carole Bernstein C’81; journalists Gilbert Sandler C’49, Mark Cohen C’84, Stephen Fried C’79, Buzz Bissinger C’76 and Sabrina Eaton C’85; screenwriters Alec Sokolow C’85 and Andy Wolk C’70; anthologist Larry Dark C’81 and editor Tina Pohlman C’92; literary agent Loretta Barrett CW’62 GEd’65; film producer Kathy DeMarco C’88 W’88; performance artist Eva Mantell C’85; monologuist Sharon Glassman C’84; and grant-writer Andy Robinson C’80.
   “I approached them,” Loretta Barrett recalls. “I had read about the Kelly Writers House in the alumni newsletter, and thought it was a wonderful idea.” Barrett worked as an editor for Doubleday before creating her own literary agency, Loretta Barrett Books. She has led publishing workshops at the House in January of 1998 and again this year. Both events were well attended, with the audience including both aspiring writers and would-be publishing professionals and ranging in age from 20 to 50, in Barrett’s estimate.
   She enthuses about the House’s potential to support developing writers. “Practically every writer I have ever worked with, particularly in fiction, started writing very young. So to be able to have a place on campus for the undergraduates who are interested in writing is an extraordinary opportunity. I think it adds an enormous dimension to the life of a campus. I don’t know of anything like the Kelly Writers House on other campuses, to be perfectly honest.”
   Events such as Barrett’s workshop attract career-minded English majors eager to make their first professional contact. When Anchor Books editor Tina Pohlman and Larry Dark, editor of the annual anthology Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards (published by Anchor) visited, they were nearly overwhelmed. “I was really surprised at how much of the discussion focused on the practical,” Pohlman says. “Larry and I did our prepared questions, and then we took a lot of questions from people in the audience, and then when we were done with that, people followed us out the door and asked us more questions.” One student has since sent her a manuscript, “which I haven’t had the time to read yet.”
   A similar scenario unfolded in the wake of the screenwriting workshop, which was co-sponsored by the Talking Film series, hosted by Andy Wolk. “There were maybe a dozen people in the audience,” recalls Wolk, a successful writer-director and former artistic director of the Sundance Institute, “and almost every single one of them has called me or written to me or sent me scripts afterwards. Here I am, three thousand miles away. I think that speaks to a kind of need that something like this [program] fulfills.”
   Caryn Karmatz Rudy C’92, senior editor at Warner Books, puts it another way: “Anyone who was an English major from my year at Penn remembers that our Wharton counterparts had tons of job interviews and all sorts of career planning assistance. Whereas if you were an English major, there wasn’t a hell of a lot that was open to you.” Karmatz Rudy made her first visit to the Writers House in March, when she helped organize a career fair in publishing co-sponsored by Career Services and the School of Arts and Sciences. “This is the first step toward creating some of that alumni-student bonding that goes on in trying to get people jobs,” she explained.

“I had, since leaving home, mounted the bandwagon of a subculture in which money was supposed to be meaningless — the world of art … ” J. Robert Lennon reads, in the voice of Tim Mix. “Lately, however, I’d begun to have a problem with this. Most of my unease came from a creeping conviction that my work was irrelevant and insular at best, simply awful at worst. I used found objects from the streets of West Philadelphia as my materials, and assembled them in our apartment’s extra room to evoke scenes easily accessible in their original form not thirty feet from where I worked. I was, in other words, making little outsides indoors. I had never sold a single piece.”
   One of his motivations in writing the funnies, Lennon explained earlier, was to “write a novel about the idea of artistic integrity, what it is to ‘sell out,’ what it is to do something that appeals to the masses — whether that’s inherently non-artful or not. But I didn’t want to write about a writer, because that would be boring. So I got an idea to write about a sort of pompous installation artist who suddenly is trying to draw the most shallow daily cartoon in the newspaper.”
   Tim Mix’s mental balancing act of artistic and commercial priorities is familiar to many of Penn’s alumni scribes. The issue surfaces often at the Kelly Writers House, whose planning committee — composed of about 60 undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, staff and neighbors — typically favors poetry readings and discussion over career workshops.
   A glimpse at one week’s schedule highlights the tendencies, variety and sheer volume of programming. March 15-21, which followed Spring Break, included a taping of “LIVE! at the Writers House,” a spoken-word radio show broadcast on WXPN, on Monday; a reading by poet Leslie Scalapino sponsored by the creative writing department, followed by a Talking Film screenwriting workshop on Tuesday; a talk on publishing by Nan Talese, senior vice president at Doubleday, followed by “Speakeasy,” an undergraduate open mic series, on Wednesday; a planning committee meeting and another creative writing department-sponsored reading, by poet Barrett Watten, on Thursday; and the panel discussion, “Alumni in Publishing: A Career Fair and Conversation,” with Caryn Karmatz Rudy and Celina (Cindy) Spiegel C’82, on Friday.

Weekend programming included a reading by Jeanne Murray Walker in the Laughing Hermit Reading Series, a non-University program focused primarily on Philadelphia-area poets; a meeting of the Saturday Reading Cooperative, an elementary school literacy program; and a musical performance by the David Lavin Group; and, on Sunday, a Victorian Society-sponsored talk by architect Harris M. Steinberg C’78 GAr’82. (Steinberg designed a major renovation of the Writers House building, funded by a donation from University trustee Paul Kelly C’62 WG’64, that was completed in late 1997.) For the statistically inclined, that’s 12 events in seven days — five of them poetry-related, two career-oriented and two involving Penn alumni.
   The Alumni Writers Series straddles both the commercial and artistic sides of the fence, and at times, blurs distinctions between the two. “The [Alumni Writers] programs are so varied,” says current resident coordinator Heather Starr. “This is what’s so exciting about the series — that it’s not based on any particular genre or interest. I don’t feel that it’s like other series, where there’s a constant audience.”
   In some ways, the series’ greatest strength — this diversity of genre — is also its only perceptible weakness. Without a pool of regular attendees, Alumni Writers Series presentations have occasionally been a bit too intimate. One of the series’ first visitors, Gilbert Sandler, columnist for The Baltimore Sun and, in his Penn days,author of a regular column for the Gazette on undergraduate life,came to campus while the House was still closed for renovations, and led a discussion with only a few students. Without Lennon’s New Jersey-based entourage of family and friends, his audience would have numbered fewer than 10. Poet Betsy Andrews and performance artist Eva Mantell, both classmates and close friends of Sherin, presented their work two Novembers ago — to Andrews’ family.
   Jennifer Egan — who, besides being Sherin’s roommate at Penn, has written the novel The Invisible Circus; Emerald City, a short story collection; and articles in The New York Times Magazine and other publications — read to an undergraduate audience that had been corralled by her former instructor, Diana Cavallo, who teaches part-time in the creative writing program. “I had a great audience,” says Egan, “but I’m not sure I would have had much of anyone if [Cavallo] hadn’t brought her class.” Andy Wolk recalls: “When I did a [screenwriting]

workshop recently in San Francisco at a bookstore, there were three times the people. The people who did come [to the Writers House] were extremely smart and creative, and incredibly hungry. So you ask yourself: ‘Aren’t there other people out there who are hungry for this?'”
   Some of these attendance problems can be explained in practical terms. Lennon’s reading took place on a Sunday night before midterm-exam week; it was the only date on which the novelist was available. Wolk also led his workshop on a Sunday, a week before Thanksgiving. Andrews’ and Mantell’s appearance occurred during Homecoming Weekend and was lost in a flurry of campus activity.
   Any reservations alumni express about the size of their audience are raised apologetically — and quickly followed with praise for the Writers House concept. “It’s everything that I wish would have been at Penn when I was there,” says Caryn Karmatz Rudy. Jenny Egan agrees. “I had wonderful teachers at Penn, and I feel that my writing was really fostered there — but part of that was that I felt like such a Lone Ranger,” she says. “I felt supported, but there was not really a community exactly.”
   Andy Wolk appreciates the House’s role as an informal extension of the classroom. “I took a lot of fiction-writing seminars while fulfilling an English major,” he says. “Those seminars met once a week and were very intense, but what do you do outside the seminar? Well, people might come over to my apartment and hang out. Or we’d meet in a bar and talk. It was really informal and pushed to the side to a certain extent, so the idea that the University says that there’s a place where this could and should happen is great. Writing is a very lonely profession. The idea that you can have a place to go is really good, particularly within a university like Penn, which can be an alienating place.”

 “It had been twenty years since we’d all been together,”Tim Mix says of his estranged family. “We were like a high school graduating class, sticking it out only as long as we had to, then fleeing into the world, diplomas in hand.”
   It would be unfair to suggest that Penn’s humanities graduates disperse from West Philadelphia in like fashion, with nary a backward glance. But for many alumni in the arts and in publishing, campus visits are rare. While interviewing alumni for this article, I asked whether they had previously returned to Penn for alumni activities. “Nope,” Caryn Karmatz Rudy replied. J. Robert Lennon also answered in the negative. Tina Pohlman joked, “I’m not really a school-spirit, booster sort of person.” Eva Mantell explained that her performance “was the first time I went back in any organized way. I didn’t go back for any homecomings or reunions or anything. My guess is that the arts people don’t really rush back.”
   The Writers House staff and supporters want to change that. “Some alumni may be looking for how to get more involved with Penn, or to reconnect,” Heather Starr says. “I think this is a great entry-point for alumni for whom writing is a primary interest. There are ways to get involved [with Penn] other than contributing money, and they can interact directly with students.”
   At the same time, Penn’s far-flung alumni community could serve to disseminate the Writers House mission beyond West Philadelphia. A crew of House representatives led an informational session at the Penn Club in New York last fall. Al Filreis has made presentations in Los Angeles to a nascent organization he calls Writers House West. One alumnus — a participant in a pioneering on-line poetry course for alumni (dubbed “Alumverse”) taught by Filreis a few years back — is organizing an activity in San Francisco; there have been similar stirrings in Boston. Sherin mentions other possibilities: “An anthology of writings by Penn grads. A Web-based journal. There’s no end to the kinds of things we can do.”
   The range and scope of Writers House alumni activities depend largely on the enthusiasm of a volunteer workforce. “Our support needs to come from alumni,” explains Filreis. “I think of them as former students; they’re just dislocated by time and place. Many of them are ravenously hungry for more intellectual life, contact with alma mater and so forth. They’re naturals.”

Nate Chinen C’98 is a freelance writer in New York. He worked at the Writers House as a student last year.

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