KINGSTON, R.I. – April 23, 2014 – Writing is hard work. Just ask anyone trying to fill up a blank computer screen with clean and compelling prose. Even top-notch writers choke now and then. Help is on the way.
The University of Rhode Island is hosting its annual Ocean State Summer Writing Conference with world-famous writers, including graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, Harvard poet and literary critic Stephen Burt and digital media artist Charles Bernstein.
The three-day program from June 19 to 21 is remarkable for what it is not: a string of lectures in stuffy auditoriums. Hands-on workshops with published writers gleefully offering feedback and encouragement are a highlight of the program.
This year’s conference also has some new offerings: workshops on young adult literature; more master classes; book discussions with faculty experts; one-on-one consultations with editors, and features on the graphic novel, an exploding literary genre. Bechdel, who catapulted to fame with her comic strip, Dykes to Watch Out For, and groundbreaking graphic memoir, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, will give one of three keynote talks that are free and open to the public.
Organizers say the conference provides writers an opportunity to hone their skills under the guidance of seasoned writers and, just as important, connect with other writers pursuing what can be a lonely and solitary craft. Many past participants credit the conference with giving them the inspiration to forge ahead and get their work published.
Also, the conference reflects the importance of creative writing on the URI campus, organizers say. The program is luring graduate students in English to campus and played a key role in the creation of The Ocean State Review, a literary magazine that showcases local and national talent.
“People keep coming back to this conference because they appreciate the combination of challenge and welcome,” says Mary Cappello, a URI English professor and conference organizer. “It’s a warm and inviting atmosphere we’re cultivating that is also stimulating, energizing, immersive and reflective. No matter where a person is in relation to something they are trying to write, having the chance to talk to master writers for three solid days is a gift. We are trying to reach the community, but also reach out in a broad and compelling way, where our writers are concerned. Our writers come from all over the country, sometimes all over the world.”
What started as a modest summer event on the leafy Kingston campus eight years ago has blossomed into a nationally recognized gathering able to compete with more established writing conferences throughout the country. Much of that success is due to the presence of renowned writers and the intense but informal setting.
“It’s an incomparable gift to be able to sit in a room with 15 other people in a master class and engage in intimate dialogue with Pulitzer Prize winning writers,” says Cappello. “Our attendees connect with accomplished writers who are also generous and humble teachers. That’s one of our conference’s distinguishing features.”
This summer’s program features 33 writers, including the three keynote speakers: Bechdel (shown above), whose most recent work, Are You My Mother: A Comic Drama, was adapted into a musical that premiered at New York City’s Public Theater; Bernstein (shown at right), a poet at the University of Pennsylvania who is the founder of the Buffalo Electronic Poetry Center and the Penn Sound archive; and Percival Everett (shown below), a professor at the University of Southern California and the award-winning author of short fiction, poetry and more than 20 novels, including I Am Not Sidney Poitier.
In addition to Bernstein and Burt, whose essay collection, Close Calls with Nonsense, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, master classes will be taught by novelist Amity Gaige, who has taught courses at URI, is a founding workshop leader of the Ocean State conference and was a 2014 finalist for The Folio Prize, and Ayad Akhtar, whose play, Disgraced, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013. Akhtar also presented and taught at the conference last year.
Other instructors include Malaga Baldi, a literary agent from New York; Susan Bee, a painter, editor and book artist from New York City who recently won a Guggenheim Fellowship; Rob Cohen, a writer and director who has worked in the television and movie business; Edward J. Delaney, an award-winning author, journalist and filmmaker; Paul DiFilippo, a writer with more than 30 books of fantasy and science fiction published; Amy Hoffman, whose third memoir, Lies About My Family, was recently published; Christine Montross, a medical doctor and author of Falling into the Fire; Maria Mutch, an alum of the conference whose memoir has just been published in Canada and the United States to wide acclaim; Russell Potter, a novelist, literary and cultural historian; Kristen Prevallet, a poet, performer and hypnotherapist; Shauna Rossano, an associate editor at G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group; Elaine Sexton, a poet, essayist and artist; Nicole Walker, author of Quench Your Thirst with Salt; and Wendy S. Walters, a poet and essayist.
The URI faculty writers teaching at the conference are: Cappello, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow and the author of four books of literary nonfiction, including Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life; Peter Covino, a poet, translator and editor whose prizes include the PEN/Osterweil Award for Cut Off the Ears of Winter; Robert Leuci, a novelist who also has written and produced three episodes for “A Current Affair,” exploring problems in American policing; Jody Lisberger, a short story and nonfiction writer and director of women’s studies at URI; and Padma Venkatraman, the author of three critically-acclaimed novels, Climbing the Stairs and Island’s End and A Time to Dance.
“We happen to know that great writers are also deep readers,” says Cappello. “This year we are inaugurating sessions led by English department faculty so that conference attendees can discuss books by the greats – like Percival Everett, Alison Bechdel and Jane Austen.”
English department specialists who will lead these discussions include Jean Walton, Carolyn Betensky and Valerie Karno, as well as Covino.
Covino is especially excited about Bernstein’s digital work with poetry. “He thinks poetry should be more interactive and that it should consider audience,” says Covino. “He’s basically trying to jolt people – poetry is not some well-behaved thing that you just read. He loves a lot of performance poetry. It’s exciting to have someone who talks and thinks like this.”
The conference is putting Kingston on the map. “We’re doing something special here,” says Cappello. “There’s a conversation happening in South County every summer that major American writers as much as aspiring writers want to be a part of. People are getting the sense that the conference is an opportunity not to be missed.”
For more information and to register, visit Summer Writing Conference. There is a $25 discount for people who register for both the three-day workshops and main conference by May 15. Discounts are available for students, alumni and URI faculty.
Shown at right, Jody Lisberger leads her fiction workshop at last year’s Ocean State Writing Conference at the University of Rhode Island. Lisberger is a short story writer and director of women’s studies at URI. Photo by Nora Lewis.
Photos: Alison Bechdel, Percival Everett and Charles Bernstein, all keynote speakers at the Ocean State Summer Writing Conference June 19 to 21 at the University of Rhode Island. Photos courtesy of authors.