VOLUNTEERISM AT THE WEST CHESTER UNIVERSITY POETRY CONFERENCE
By Lewis Turco
I had decided not to publish this essay, but yesterday morning, Monday, September 15th, 2014, I discovered in a posting on Facebook by Allison Joseph, that Kim Bridgford, the director of the West Chester University Poetry Center and Conference, has been removed from her position, and the conference for 2015 has been canceled. I am not quite sure of the reasons yet, but part of it seems to be that attendance has been falling, also that the administration and/or others are unhappy because the conference has lost focus. Its original purpose was to plug formal poetry, which it did very well at first. And then a political agenda took over and formalism receded into the academic background.
At the 20th anniversary in 2014 of the West Chester University Poetry Conference in Pennsylvania, Dana Gioia, co-founder with Michael Peich, praised the tradition of volunteerism that has been associated with the Conference. I am acquainted with this tradition, as I volunteered as a “scholar” rather than as a poet on the first occasion of the conference. The schedule was so badly managed that year that we “scholars,” including the late poet Alfred Dorn, a fellow formalist, discovered that there were no attendees when we got up to give our presentations. Readings and workshops had been so thickly scheduled that it was impossible for people to come hear us “volunteers.” When Dana Gioia phoned to invite me to the next conference, I asked him what his terms were. He replied that there were none. I declined to attend.
When I had been an undergraduate student at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, as a member of the Student Union Board of Governors I was placed in charge of the Student Union’s guest writers series from 1956 to 1959. Over that period we invited many writers to campus including E. E. Cummings, Richard Wilbur, James T. Farrell, Richard Eberhart, Donald Hall, John Hollander, Philip Booth, and others. We gave them each an honorarium, provided them all with meals, accommodations and travel allowances. The only people we asked to read on a voluntary basis were faculty and students.
During the summer of 1959, after my graduation, I was invited to spend some time at Yaddo, an artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, New York. Yaddo gave all its guests meals, travel, and accommodations. No one was asked to “volunteer” anything except readings for the attendees and staff.
The following year, while I was a Graduate Fellow at the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop from 1959-60, I was able to attend programs very similar to those I had supervised at UConn. All those writers were given the same considerations that were provided at Storrs.
The summer I left Iowa my First Poems was published and I went to the State of Maine Writers’ Conference to meet with the co-founder, Loring Williams, who had also been one of the editors who had chosen my volume as a selection of The Book Club for Poetry, and with its publisher, Clarence Farrar. I gave a program of some sort and came back a number of times over the years, always with an emolument and accommodations.
In the fall I took my first job teaching at Fenn College, now the Cleveland State University. At the time C.S.U. was a downtown engineering school primarily, and in order to survive in such an atmosphere I began asking any poets and writers I knew who were local or visiting town, to come sit in on some of my classes as a favor, voluntarily, which some of them (actually, I recall no refusals) were happy to do. These were the origins of the C. S. U. Poetry Center.
The following summer of 1961 I attended Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury College in Vermont, as a Poetry Fellow; Miller Williams was another Fellow that the Director, John Ciardi, invited to come, and there were others in fiction and nonfiction. We all received the considerations that I was familiar with.
While at Bread Loaf I learned that the British novelist, William Golding, was going to make an American tour the following year, 1962. As soon as I got back to Cleveland I arranged to have Golding come to Fenn as the first guest of the newly instituted Cleveland Poetry Center which was scheduled to begin the year he was touring. I spent the entire first-year budget for the Center, $100.00, on Golding and arranged accommodations at the College for him. Although I had no money left for the rest of 1962-63, I managed to schedule events at Fenn for local and state organizations with visiting writers including John Crowe Ransom, and for volunteer area and local poets.
In 1964 I left Fenn for Hillsdale College in Michigan whose administration asked me to set up a Conference of Midwestern Poets for the summer of 1965. I did so, and of course I followed the procedures I had been using since UConn. Then I left for the State University of New York at Oswego where I remained for 31 years, until I retired in 1996.
It was no surprise that Erwin Palmer, the Chair of the English Department, wanted me to set up yet another program, which I did: a major in creative writing complete with visiting writers every semester. There have been many, many of those, some very famous, such as John Cheever, John Ciardi, William Everson (Brother Antoninus at the time), Donald Justice, Dana Gioia, and on and on – all of whom were given honoriaria, accommodations, meals, and travel expenses.
Thus, I never understood where Mike Peich and Dana Gioia, a poet-businessman who became Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts during the George W. Bush Administration, got the idea that it is all right to ask professionals to donate their time, money, work, and materials to a writers’ conference. Certainly Gioia was not unfamiliar with the system I employed to invite writers to campus during my entire academic career. He himself has been the beneficiary of that system many times and at many places, including Oswego.
I still don’t understand it. Personally, I would have felt embarrassed and miserly to ask people to travel sometimes great distances at significant expense to provide me and my school professional services gratis. (Although Peich was a faculty member at West Chester, to the best of my knowledge Gioia never taught there.)
Yet I myself provided such service to the West Chester Poetry Conference the first year it was held, and in 2013 as well. Over the past decade I have provided the Conference with a $100.00 Student Scholarship annually (for which I don’t recall ever being thanked except by one recipient of that emolument one year).
In 2013 I agreed to serve as a member of two panels. The Conference scheduled one panel on the first day, and the second on the last day, which meant that I had to be (as the director said), the “Formalist in Residence” at my own expense, except for one or two nights’ hotel accommodation and meals. When I was invited to come back again in 2014 I felt constrained again to decline except, perhaps, as a keynote speaker whom the Conference treats as a professional ought to be treated. That has not happened over the decades, and is unlikely to happen at this stage of my life, especially since the Conference now appears to be gone.