The Way We Were
WCM: You spent nearly four decades teaching at Washington College and nearly three decades as Literary House Director, retiring from that post in 1997. Throughout your career you created a literary environment that was fun and rewarding for both student-writers and literary visitors. So how did you get the idea for a Literary House?
DAY: I stole it from John Milton, the 17th-century English poet. “First, to find out a spatious house,” he writes in his essay, “Of Education.” I always liked his spelling of “spacious.”
WCM: What happened next?
DAY: When I came to Washington College in 1970, I invited William Stafford H’81, the Library of Congress Poet (now termed the Poet Laureate) to give a reading and hold manuscript conferences with our student poets. To my astonishment, 100 students came to the reading, and a dozen or so signed up to talk to Stafford about their poetry. It was at the end of that reading that he read for the first time his now-celebrated poem, “Weather Report”:
Light wind at Grand Prairie, drifting snow.
Low at Vermillion, forty degrees of frost.
Lost in the Barrens, hunting over spines of ice,
The great sled dog Shadow is running for his life.
All who hear—in your wide horizon of thought
caught in the cold, this world all going gray,
pray for the frozen dead at Yellow Knife.
These words we send are becoming parts of their night.
When Stafford finished, the students rose from their seats en masse and gave him an ovation. I thought to myself: these young writers need a home of their own. As Zeus would have it, Richmond House, located at the far end of the campus near Buildings and Grounds, was available and I asked if we could use it. The answer was yes.
WCM: And that was it?
DAY: Almost. It turned out we needed a student club and a faculty sponsor. There was a form to fill out with the signature of the sponsor (that would be me), the name of the club (The Writers Union came to mind because I had been reading Russian poetry) and a student president. But since we didn’t exist, we didn’t have a president. I thought about making one up: Emma Woodhouse, Molly Bloom, Jake Barnes, but as I was walking across campus, I saw David Roach ’71, one of the students who had been at the Stafford reading.
— You want to be president of the Washington College Writers Union? I asked.
— Sure, he said. There was a blank page for members’ signatures, and off Dave went in search of fellow writers. A day later he returned to my office with more than one hundred names.
— We are, he said with the smile of pride, now the largest student club on campus.
Later, we had that list framed and it, along with literary posters, memorabilia, plaques and letters from writers worldwide (including Katherine Anne Porter, Elizabeth Bishop, Vera Nabokov and a postcard from Allen Ginsberg) became part of the College’s living literary legacy on the walls of the Rose O’Neill Literary House.
WCM: In your mind, what is the legacy of the Literary House program?
DAY: It resides with the students and what they did when they were at Washington College, and what many of them have done after graduation. I thought the Literary House should provide all students with what Henry Adams called “an atmosphere of learning,” and provide the poets and writers and playwrights among them opportunities: opportunities to give readings, publish magazines, hold literary contests and colloquy. Most of the ideas came from the students: my job to was to fund those opportunities and see that the students got what they needed for their projects to succeed.
In those days there was a course called Freshman Creative Writing, so one of the first organized readings we had was the Freshman Reading. At the end of each year there was the Senior Reading, and at mid-year there was the Foreign Language Poetry Reading where faculty and students read a poem—first in its original language, then in a translation. Afterwards, we had a party. Well, in truth, after almost everything we did, we had a party.
One year, the freshmen organized the Freshman Literary Colloquy on the Beat poets with the students reading sections of Howl and Coney Island of the Mind, along with Gregory Corso’s Marriage. They also showed the film Wholly Communion, the amazing movie about the Beat poetry reading at Sir Albert Hall in London. As it turned out, by the time those freshmen were seniors, Allen Ginsberg arrived on campus for a reading, followed the next day with Ginsberg and his lover Peter Orlofsky leading students around campus and into Chestertown to levitate buildings. That first Freshman Colloquy led to others on other subjects: Political poetry. Erotic literature. We put their posters on the walls.
I remember one day the poet Tarin Towers ’94 came to my office to ask if the Writers Union could use the house for a poetry slam. They’d have to move furniture and roll up rugs, but the place would be back in order by morning. I wasn’t sure what a poetry slam was, but yes. And true to Tarin’s word, the house was in good shape when I came to the office, except that Edith Wharton (the resident cat) had been TFO (Totally Freaked Out, Tarin explained) and bolted. She didn’t come back for three days.
WCM: You said something about contests and student publications.
DAY: Well, yes. There was the Rejection Slip Contest (won one year by the poet and playwright Mary Wood ’68, later a member of the Board of Washington College and for whom the front room of the Literary House is named), the prose writers vs. poets strip volleyball game on May Day; the Beacham Prize (a letterpress chapbook of poetry or prose printed by Mike Kaylor, our Master Printer, who also conducted workshops in letterpress printing), the Poetry Postcard awards, the Writers Union Award, the Writers Theater, the Senior Fellowship Rooms (each named for a different American author), the Broadside Poetry Series (20 student poems a year photocopied and posted throughout the campus), the Washington College Review (started by Marty Williams ’75) and the Underground Magazine project where I’d give students money and let them use the Lit House photocopiers—or the press room—to publish their own magazines. Mona Brinkley ’89 printed one edition of her magazine whose name I’ve forgotten; Danny Williams also started one but misprinted a poem by Sue Pippin and caught hell for it; Pat Attenasio ’92 published Crack and put up posters all over campus saying: “Get Free Crack at the Lit House.” Douglass Cater, then President, was amused but had to pretend he wasn’t. Many of the students who published these “underground magazines” went on to careers in editing and publishing. Neal Boulton ’89, now a first-rate New York magazine editor, published a magazine called Go. Lee Ann Chearneyi ’81, who went on to be the managing editor of G.P. Putnam and then Ecco Press (and founded her own publishing house, Amaranth), was one of the first editors of the Washington College Review. David Lamotte ’77 went into publishing, as did Sarah Gearhart ’75 and Sarah Hamlin ’91. One year, a newspaper did a story on our student magazines and by their count (I didn’t keep track) there were seven of them. I like to think these young editors got their start—and their affection for literary endeavor—at Washington College.
WCM: Is it true that the Washington Post called the Lit House “the Carnegie Hall of Literary Readings”?
DAY: Yes. We even put it on a T-shirt. But it wasn’t just because of the Literary House, it was also because of the generosity of the Sophie Kerr Committee. They would let me use their funds to match National Endowment for the Arts grants, and between the two pots of money we could bring very accomplished poets and writers, both American and international, to campus. Over the years we got four or five NEA or Maryland Arts Council grants, and our students met with more than twenty Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winners, and four Nobel Laureates. It was quite a parade and some astounding readings and events: Edward Albee spent well into one night showing the drama students techniques of staging; Joseph Brodsky and his translators gave readings from Russian and English; our own John Barth read from his novel Letters, just then published; one of my teachers, Katherine Anne Porter, recited a story of hers. Anthony Burgess came from London, and the week before he arrived we showed his movie, A Clockwork Orange. Later, the screenplay writer and director Walter Bernstein (Semi-Tough, Fail-Safe) was on campus to show his Woody Allen movie, The Front; the party afterwards was special. Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the founders of the Nouveau Roman movement, came; the poets Marvin Bell, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Richard Wilbur, John Ashbery, John Hollander, Gwendolyn Brooks, Diane Wakoski, W.D. Snodgrass, James Tate and Henry Taylor all held manuscript conferences with our students, taught workshops and gave readings, as did James Dickey—but Dickey was drunk and only read one poem, then more or less passed out. And this was before the party—which he attended in spite of himself.
WCM: And Toni Morrison?
DAY: Indeed. She was invited because of the students. One day, two or three African-American students (perhaps half the population of African-American students) came into my office and asked if we might invite a black writer to campus. Sure, I said. I knew Gerry Barrax and Gwendolyn Brooks and thought I could bring either—or both. But the students wanted Toni Morrison. I doubted we could afford her, but didn’t say so. I told them, I’d check it out, which I did through a contact I had at her publishing house: her fee was beyond our reach. Enter President Douglass Cater who, full disclosure, was always something of an unindicted co-conspirator to my Literary House schemes. When I told him the problem, he suggested we not offer her money, but an award.
— What award? I asked.
— The Washington College Literary Award, he said.
— We don’t have a Washington College Literary Award.
— Then we’ll make one, he said.
And we did. We offered the first Washington College Literary Award to Toni Morrison and again, at President Cater’s suggestion, created a scholarship in her honor. She dropped her fee, came to campus, met the student who would get the scholarship, gave a reading, had lunch with the four or five African-American students, and accepted the award, which was a letterpress broadside from her novel Beloved. The next year, she got the Nobel Prize. We put the Washington College Literary Award plaque in the Rose O’Neill Literary House and had it engraved with names of the other fine writers who, over the years, received it: Richard Wilbur, Israel Horovitz, John Barth, William Warner, Howard Nemerov, Mavis Gallant and Galway Kinnell. On the walls we put the framed letterpress broadsides of those awards. A house of our own, a tradition of excellence.
WCM: Tell us about the upside-down posters that used to hang on the Lit House walls.
DAY: One night I came back to the Lit House to catch up and noticed the poster of a recent visiting writer was turned upside down.
— He was a jerk, said one of the students when she noticed I was looking at it.
— Very “jerk-worthy,” another student said.
I came to understand that while the writers we had on campus might give a good public reading, in some cases (a very few to be sure) they failed in their larger task at Washington College: to conduct workshops, class visits and (most important) the individual manuscript conferences. I never knew the criteria that got you admitted to the society of Jerk-Worthy, and in at least one case there seemed to be a disagreement because a poster would one day be right side up, then upside down. To settle the matter I took it to my office and hung it sideways.
But about Gordon Lish, the fiction editor of Esquire, there was no disagreement: he failed so badly in so many ways, the students turned his poster to the wall and it was only after those students had graduated (I now confess to them) that I turned Gordon back around (but still upside down) because he had brought to our attention the splendid fiction of Ray Carver.
WCM: What about your own career?
DAY: What about it?
WCM: Your literary career.
DAY: Well, I published a novel in those days, short stories, book reviews for the Washington Post and literary essays. You shouldn’t coach baseball unless you’ve played baseball. But our students were my career, if what we mean by that is where I took pleasure from my work. Pericles wrote that our legacy should be what we weave into the lives of others and not in commemorative statues. The sound coming off this prose might be heard as me patting myself on the back, but it is applause for all those students who contributed to the Washington College Literary House programs and, in the process, made of their collective literary achievements a tapestry for themselves and for Washington College:
Peter Turchi ’82, publishing his novels and stories and running the Piper Center for Creative Writing at Arizona State; Chappy Bowie ’75 and The Conservator’s Song, his award-winning poetry collection; Robert Burkholder ’72, now a celebrated professor of English at Penn State; Kathy Wagner ’79, the poet who, as associate director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House was, like Douglass Cater, a co-conspirator; David Beaudouin ’73, Baltimore’s fine poet; Christine Lincoln ’00 and Sap Rising, her collection of short stories; Erin Murphy ’90, perhaps our most prolific poet and essayist, with five collections of poetry, including Distant Glitter forthcoming this year; the magazine editors and journalists Mary Ruth Yoe ’73 and Sue DePasquale ’87 (who started the Collegian); the poet Katie Degentesh ’95; our award-winning fiction writer Sarah Blackman ’02; the poet and celebrated book designer James Dissette ’71; Eric Lorberer ’87, the energetic literary entrepreneur (then and now) who runs Rain Taxi in St.Paul, MN; the novelist and award-winning teacher Craig Butcher ’76; the fine fiction writers Honor McElroy ’03 and Elizabeth Rollins ’90 (author of The Sin Eater and Other Stories; Greta Jee ’82, the poet who taught us all that haiku was more than syllabic poetry; Tricia Bauer, the visiting student who wrote Poetry in Japan and Elsewhere, an astonishing haiku sequence; and Robert King ’73, the fiction writer who was the first student from Washington College admitted to the famous Iowa Writers Workshop. And my guess is that we’ll soon hear from Mike McGrath ’07, among the best writers we’ve ever had at Washington College, a writer’s writer, also admitted to Iowa, but who instead went to the MFA program at the University of Virginia.
They, and hundreds and hundreds of Washington College literary students, are the legacy of the Literary House programs. The campus doesn’t have enough space for your commemorative statues. So weave on, all of you, now in my wide horizon of thought.
Robert Day is the author of The Last Cattle Drive (a novel); In My Stead and The Four Wheel Drive Quartet (novellas); Speaking French in Kansas (collected short fiction); We Should Have Come By Water (poetry); The Committee to Save the World (literary nonfiction); and Where I Am Now (short fiction).