Wilkes University Graduate Creative Writing Program Marks 10th Anniversary June 19-26

by Gabrielle D'Amico

Wilkes University’s graduate creative writing program is celebrating its 10th anniversary with a gala, a ceremony dedicating its building, alumni readings and special workshops for program graduates. The anniversary will be observed during the program’s annual June residency, held from June 19-26 on the University campus.

The anniversary celebration begins Friday, June 19 at the Dorothy Dickson Darte Center with an evening reading of alumni and faculty who all have new books being launched this summer.  All evening readings in the program’s Maslow Salon Series, held June 21-25, are free and  open to the public. Friday’s readings begin at 7:30 p.m.; all other readings begin at 7 p.m. nightly.

A gala to mark the anniversary will be held Saturday, June 20 beginning at 7 p.m. in the Ballroom of the Henry Student Center. Program graduates, faculty and current students will gather to reminisce and celebrate. Highlights of the evening include special presentations about the program history, including a compilation of videos produced by graduating classes, a photo exhibition culled from 10 years and a silent auction of items, most with a literary theme.

The creative writing program’s building at 245 S. River St. in Wilkes-Barre was recently restored through a generous gift from Harold Cox, professor emeritus of history at Wilkes. On Wednesday, June 24 at 4:30 p.m. the building will be dedicated in his name in a special ceremony. Cox has taught the creative writing program’s research course since the program’s inception.

Beginning Sunday evening, June 21 and continuing through Thursday, June 25, nightly readings from program alumni will showcase their work. During its first decade, the program has launched the careers of dozens of writers – including many in northeastern Pennsylvania. Many have successfully published books, had plays produced and screenplays optioned. More than 60 alumni will return to read and share their work throughout the week at the evening readings.

Among the readers to be featured during the week of readings are Marlon James, author of A Brief History of Seven Killings, which has made the Top Ten and Book of the Year lists of such publications at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time and Newsweek, Scranton native Barbara J. Taylor, whose book Sing In The Morning, Cry At Night, was a Publishers Weekly 2014 summer reads pick, and Morowa Yejide, whose novel Time Of The Locust was a 2012 finalist for the PEN Bellwether Award and longlisted for the PEN Bingham Award.  For a full schedule of alumni 10th anniversary readings, visit www.wilkes.edu/news/. 

The Wilkes creative writing program, which grants the master of arts and master of fine arts degrees to graduates, was founded in 2004, with its first class entering in January 2005.  Students work in one of five genres: fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, playwriting or screenwriting. Among the program’s early advisors was the late Pulitzer Prize-winning author Norman Mailer, who was the first chairperson of the program’s advisory board. Mailer, Mike Lennon, Wilkes Board of Trustees member Beverly Hiscox, and other supporters created the first scholarship for the program in honor of his wife, novelist Norris Church Mailer.

The program is low residency, with students attending two nine-day residencies each year in January and June with work done online during program semesters. Since its founding, the program has graduated nearly 400 students. In the last decade, faculty, students and alumni of the program have published more than 100 novels, memoirs and nonfiction works, 50 plays, 30 chapbooks or poetry collections, produced more than 40 new films and hundreds of individuals poems, articles and short stories.

Program co-founders Mike Lennon and Bonnie Culver – both veteran Wilkes University administrators and faculty members – created a program around the idea of establishing a community of writers.

Culver, who also is program director, talked about the pride and sense of community found in the Wilkes creative writing program. “Our students have come from 40 states and 4 countries to be part of a writing program like no other,” Culver says. “Here, they find support for their creative work and the practical nuts and bolts of how to make that vision in their head a real novel, chapbook, film, play or poem  We don’t just theorize about writing. We write.  All of us.”

“We were pioneers. We created the program for an underserved population of aspiring writers, who couldn’t afford a full time M.F.A. program,” says Lennon, who also is professor emeritus of English at Wilkes. “We stress literary business, finances, and the editing process to get your play produced, your movie made, and your book published. Students learn what it means to be real, professional writers.”

Program participants are paired with faculty mentors who work with them on book-length fiction, nonfiction and poetry projects, plays and screenplays during their time in the program. Faculty are published writers who are well-established in their fields. They include poet Philip Brady, memoirist Beverly Donofrio, fiction writer David Poyer, novelist and memoirist Kaylie Jones, poet Neil Shepherd, film producers Susan Cartsonis, Robert May, Michael Mailer, and many others.

The mentor/student relationship is at the heart of the program.  Barbara J. Taylor of Scranton, whose novel Sing In The Morning, Cry At Night was published in 2014 by Kaylie Jones Books, says the program was integral to her development as a writer.

“I am a published novelist because of the Wilkes University Graduate Creative Writing Program and my mentor, Kaylie Jones,” says Taylor, who earned her master of arts in 2008 and is completing the master of fine arts degree in 2015. “This is no ivory tower experience. The faculty members are working writers, publishers, producers, editors, and agents, who quickly become part of your writing community. They offer valuable lessons in craft, but they don’t stop there. Thanks to the vision of Dr. Bonnie Culver and Dr. J. Michael Lennon, the program’s founders, the curriculum also focuses on practical pathways to publishing. The truth of it? I call myself a writer now thanks to Wilkes.”

During its decade of existence, participants in the program have had the advantage of its affiliations with publishers and special programs. On campus, these programs include three housed in the creative writing building on South River Street.

  • Etruscan Press, a small non-profit publishing company with a distinctive publishing history, including three National Book Award finalists in poetry.
  • SenArt Films, an independent film company whose six films include the Academy Award winning film Fog of War. In 2009, Robert May, the company’s executive producer, moved SenArt’s offices into the Creative Writing building. Nine graduate assistants and Wilkes interns spent the next five years researching, filming, and assisting in the making of the film Kids for Cash. 
  • The James Jones First Novel Fellowship is a $10,000 annual prize awarded to an emerging writer to support a first novel in progress. Kaylie Jones, James Jones’s daughter, brought this fellowship to Wilkes in 1992.

Off-campus partners affiliated with the Wilkes program include Kaylie Jones Books, an imprint of Akashic Press, founded in 2012 by faculty member Kaylie Jones; Northampton House Press, an independent press founded by faculty members Lenore Hart and David Poyer; and HAVESCRIPTS.COM, founded by playwriting faculty member Jean Klein.

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