Making the Cultural Scene at the Writers House

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“The alphabet wonders what it should do,” began Tom Raworth, departing from his normal rapid-fire delivery to intone “Out of the Sun,” an elegy for a friend who had died two years before. As he read, blue plaid shirt untucked, a couple of dozen writers — some aspiring, some experienced — listened intently. Before the public reading, Raworth — a British poet with some two-score books to his name — had met with two writing classes and discussed his works with the students. Afterwards, he chatted informally with the small crowd. It was a fairly typical afternoon at the Kelly Writers House.

Here, in the private nooks and public spaces of this nineteenth-century Gothic cottage at 3805 Locust Walk — which once served as the living quarters for Penn’s chaplain — writers of all stripes can find affirmation, inspiration, or critical feedback. The only prerequisite is a passion for writing

The Writers House, which opened this past September, is currently undergoing renovations and rewiring for desktop publishing, and will be closed until October, when a “grand” reopening is planned. The renovations are being funded by a gift of $1.1 million from Paul K. Kelly, C’62, WGr’64 , the president and CEO of the investment-banking firm Knox & Co.; the house is named for his parents, Rita P. Kelly and the late Thomas J. Kelly Jr.

All involved with the Writers House — the first of the “collegiate communities” included in Penn’s strategic plan, Agenda for Excellence-agree it fulfills a unique role on campus. “Writing is such a private activity that it’s important to give it a public space in which writers can come together as a group,” says Shawn Walker, C’96, the resident coordinator and teaching assistant for a Writers House class focusing on critical approaches to the works of visiting writers.

Since September, there has been a full slate of poetry readings, screenwriting workshops, weekly performances by the House band, and dinners with visiting writers. Peer advisers hold office hours there to help students tweak their prose into shape, and the Writers House Website posts job listings. “Live from the Kelly Writers House,” broadcast on radio station WXPN for the first time in February, featured readings from more than a dozen poets affiliated with Penn and its surrounding community.

“You’re able to come and listen to your peers and see that creative side of them outside of class,” says Christy Goralnik, a senior English major. “It’s a nice way to really get to know people in an intellectual way but still a social way. Sometimes I feel like [Penn] is divided up: There’s the classroom, and there are the bars. This is a nice middle ground.”

Dr. Alan Filreis, the professor of English who founded the Writers House and serves as faculty director, calls it “an intensive collaboration of literally every Penn walk of life: undergraduates, doctoral students, professional students, staff volunteering from across the University’s divisions and units, faculty, alumni, several trustees; even the architect of the renovation — Harris Steinberg, C’78, GAr’82 — cares about this project as if it were his own home.”

Since writing is a “central component of the existing educational mission,” he adds, “we are strengthening something very basic. But we are also experimenting with new forms of learning … and with new kinds of learning spaces — with our late hours and weekend events, our proximity to the residences, and the feeling that we’ve given the House as an intellectual haven or free space for all comers.”

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