A Model for the Writing Life

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When Jeff Boruszak found out he was going to spend his spring semester working with real poets, the senior from Boise, Idaho, couldn’t believe it. It was his big break into the field—a chance to work alongside faculty member Michael Hennessey with the PennSound project. “I was just horribly excited,” he says. He called his mom back home. “I was telling her about it, and I said, ‘I’m going to correspond with famous poets!’” She burst out laughing, and called across the room to his little sister: “Sarah, he’s going to correspond with famous poets. Do you have any famous poets you want an autograph from?”

Teasing aside, Jeff will be doing much more than simply writing letters. With PennSound, he’ll be an integral part of maintaining the project’s growing archive of recorded poetry and podcasts. He’s one of three students who’ve been paired with faculty members as part of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing’s (CPCW) Bassini Apprenticeship program. This semester sophomore Katie Sanders will apprentice under novelist and journalist Kathryn Watterson, and senior Thomson Guster will assist poet Kenny Goldsmith with his rewrite of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.  For four months, they will be submerged in the daily business of working writers—apprentices in the medieval sense, studying alongside an experienced master.

The apprenticeship program began taking shape in 2002, when faculty member and novelist Max Apple approached Al Filreis, the director of the Kelly Writer’s House. Apple had been at work on a short-story collection, and was looking for a fresh reader who could offer some perspective on how to organize it. “I thought, we’ll call this an apprenticeship, and we’ll put the word out about it,” says Filreis.

Then he went one step further. He decided to form a new program, and found two other faculty members working on their own projects who could use some help. As soon as word got out, “the students applied in droves,” he recalls. “They wanted this.”

After all, this sort of real world “lab experience” is already available to students in the hard sciences. “Typically, the physics student realizes that his own professor is actually working on some very important, cutting-edge research,” he says, and from that point there’s a well-defined path for the student trying to get from the classroom to doing advanced research in a working lab. The apprenticeship model provides the missing link for a writing student trying to make the leap from an undergrad workshop class to the professional craft. “I think with this program we’ve proved … there is such a thing as advanced research experiences in the world of writing,” he says.

By establishing the Bassini Apprenticeships under the umbrella of CPCW, these courses could become credit bearing, says Filreis. The center is devoted to pedagogy that “really works” for the education of young writers, including experiences that might not necessarily take place inside a traditional classroom. “We believe very firmly that students learn best when they are essentially getting a one-on-one experience,” Filreis says, a philosophy that he compares to the intimate size of the Kelly Writer’s House. The largest room can barely hold a few dozen audience members, and “more often it’s one person talking to five people,” he says. “Narrow that down to its extreme, it’s one person talking to one person.”

This arrangement also mirrors the nature of the writer’s craft. “There’s no real collectivity possible,” Filreis says. “There’s a community, and there’s a lot of collaborative projects that can be done,” but in the end, every writer sits down alone at a desk. But what a program like this can provide, he says, is “a model for the writing life.”

It’s also a matter of Penn staying competitive. Filreis sees Penn losing creative students to smaller schools like Swarthmore, Haverford, Williams, or Bowdoin, because they know they’ll receive just this kind of one-on-one attention.

The program is also structured to feed the student’s experience back into the creative community. Seniors are eligible, Filreis says, but “we like to pick juniors and sophomores too” so that the knowledge they gain will be injected back into their other classes over the remainder of their undergrad career.

Also unlike the sciences, in the creative field “we don’t see research dollars, or the large grants sponsoring this kind of work,” says Filreis. Instead, the funding came from Emilio Bassini C’71 W’71 WG’73, whose own experience at Penn reinforced the one-to-one ideal. “I came from Latin America,” he says, “and originally I went to Penn to go to Wharton.” But as a sophomore his academic trajectory changed when he took an American Civilization class from Anthony Garvin, whom Bassini remembers as “an extraordinary teacher.” Before long he applied to become a double major. Later, after watching Filreis serve as a mentor to his own three children, he wanted to back a program that would provide the same experience to others.

When faculty and students match up this way, relationships have a way of springing up out of a common interest. This semester, English lecturer Kathryn Watterson seemed to find a kindred spirit in Katie Sanders, her new apprentice. 

The Writer’s House had presented Watterson with three final candidates to interview, but once she talked to Sanders they clicked. “Katie and I had a special connection, I really felt,” she says. For her part, Sanders was amazed she’d found a professor who’d already been writing about social inequality and prisons, interests close to her heart.

“The process of bringing something to completion is chaotic,” says Watterson, who has some experience with this sort of thing. She was at Princeton in 1994 when Toni Morrison started the Atelier seminar program, and she remembers Yo-Yo Ma working with students on a new composition. Instead of simply viewing the finished product, the collaboration provided a rare opportunity for students to pull back the curtain on the process of a working artist. 

This involves some vulnerability, and like any relationship “there’s a trust there,” says Watterson. Bassini apprentices might be relied on to perform independent research, or they might serve as a sounding board for a work in progress. “It’s exciting to have someone to show things to,” she says.

A writer like Watterson has several projects in the air at once, so Sanders is involved in a little bit of everything. Though the semester was just getting started, she’d already done some research for an op-ed piece, as well as some fact checking for the second draft of Watterson’s novel, answering questions like “Would the battle of Iwo Jima really have water in it?” or “In the 1950s, did doctors actually keep pickled fetuses in their offices?” After a couple weeks, it already seemed she had found a sort of rhythm in this supporting role. “It’s really great for me to come in and say, ‘I can find out for you, and you can keep writing, so don’t worry,’” she says.

It’s not uncommon for these relationships to last beyond a single semester. In 2006, Moira Moody C’06 apprenticed under Beth Kephart C’82. A working relationship that began with a shared love of the history of Philadelphia eventually became “a lot more than I expected, in the end,” remembers Moody. “She really gave me exposure to a lot of the things she does to make her life work as a writer.” The two kept up a correspondence over the years, and Moody is now in the second year of her MFA at Rutgers—a program Kephart tipped her off about. She’s working on a collection of short stories, many of which are set in Philadelphia.

Like Emilio Bassini, Jeff Boruszak never came to Penn with the intention of pursuing the arts. But after beginning as an aspiring math major, 
“I took my C in Math 114 and walked away,” he says. Around the same time, he took a class in Romantic poetry that he “really loved.” Though he waited until the last possible minute to declare his major, “when the time came I just sat there, and I looked at all the majors, and there wasn’t a single one I wanted to do” besides the poetry and poetics concentration. He says he still gets a bit of the “why don’t you become a lawyer” treatment from his family, but they’re supportive. Though he’ll be graduating in May, he doesn’t sound worried about navigating life as a poet after Commencement.

“There’s no clear cut career after that, but I’m okay with it.”

—Sean Whiteman LPS’11

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