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Hamptons Life

May 4, 2010 10:59 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference promises a stellar faculty lineup this summer

May 4, 2010 10:59 AM

Like a classic novel that gets richer with age, the Stony Brook Southampton Writers Conference has as lofty a reputation and deep a talent pool as ever heading into its 36th summer. The annual pilgrimage of novelists, poets, playwrights and screenwriters to the Shinnecock Hills college campus promises to be vibrant yet again when it gets under way on July 14.

A decorated cast of writers is poised to lead workshops focusing on the novel, short fiction, poetry, personal essay, fiction, memoir and creative nonfiction. Though the shelves of award-winning works penned by conference participants become more stocked each year, it is the close-knit atmosphere of the small literary community that participants rave about.

“The writers who have won Nobel Laureates in literature interact with everyone as serious colleagues,” marveled Robert Reeves, a professor and director of the Stony Brook Southampton Masters in Fine Arts (MFA) degree program in writing and literature. “We have a playful spirit that is very much in keeping with the creative process, a warm, friendly feel conjoined with very rigorous standards. I think that’s kind of extraordinary.”

Mr. Reeves, a novelist who lives in Hampton Bays and has also taught writing at Harvard and Princeton, believes this collegial atmosphere lends itself well to the success of the program. “They’re good writers already, but they’re better writers when they leave,” he said of the dozens of bright minds who have spent their summers in this seaside writers’ enclave.

This year, approximately 120 participants are expected to participate in each of two sessions of the conference, according to Mr. Reeves. The first, from July 14 to 25, will feature the writing and playwriting conferences. The second, from July 28 to August 1, includes a second playwriting conference, a children’s literature conference, and a screenwriting conference—each headlined by stars in the field, such as New York’s Ensemble Studio Theatre doing a screenwriting residence.

“It’s the perfect combination of literary application and pleasure,” Billy Collins, the U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 to 2003 and New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006, said of the conference and its idyllic location on the East End. Mr. Collins, who describes himself as one of many “repeat offenders” in terms of returning to conference year after year, will be leading poetry workshops this summer.

Applicants for the writing conference must submit an original, unpublished writing sample of up to 20 pages, 15 for poetry. Participants are primarily selected based on who would most benefit from the experience. They range in age from their teens to their 80s, but all are equipped with a devotion to writing well. Some are students in the MFA program, which is one of two programs to survive the axe at the college. As of last week, about two-thirds of the seats were already filled, according to Mr. Reeves.

“Everyone’s in a lifeboat together,” described Meg Wolitzer, a Manhattan novelist, about the process of writing at the conference. “When you open a novel, it will sink or swim depending on how it begins.”

Ms. Wolitzer’s aquatic metaphors are particularly significant this summer since the upcoming issue of the literary journal “The Southampton Review,” to be published in late July, will revolve around a water theme, according to Julie Sheehan, an East Quogue poet and New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship winner.

Ms. Sheehan noted one valuable aspect of the conference is the opportunity to receive feedback from readers. “In real life, you don’t hear from your readers. You can assume someone’s reading it, but you never find out what they thought,” she said, adding that it is a great honor to have one’s work read carefully by other poets, as at the conference.

Ms. Sheehan, who will lead a poetry workshop this summer, said she believes the art form is very childlike, and to become a better poet one must think more like a child and become attuned to pleasure of how words feel in one’s mouth. A good poem, she said, can sometimes be written in a short time—“if the stars line up, it’s a gibbous moon and there’s fairy dust in the air”—but often it takes a little longer, and writing regularly can help.

Roger Rosenblatt, a Fulbright Scholar, journalist, author, playwright and teacher with a Ph.D. from Harvard who lives in Quogue, said the best part of the conference is the practical lessons it imparts: “We teach that every life counts and we teach that in subtle ways.”

Despite the loss of Pulitzer Prize-winning memoirist Frank McCourt, author of “Angela’s Ashes,” who taught at the conference before his death last July, the faculty is still stellar.

The keynote speaker this summer will be Lorrie Moore, whose recent novel “A Gate at the Stairs” was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner Award. This summer’s faculty will also be highlighted by such literary luminaries as Pulitzer Prize-winners Jules Feiffer, a cartoonist, playwright and screenwriter; Marsha Norman and Elizabeth Strout; Emmy Award-winner Alan Alda; Melissa Bank, author of “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing”; Kaylie Jones, author of “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries”; Matthew Klam, a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine; Thomas Lux, a poet who has won several National Endowment for the Arts grants; Lou Ann Walker, a former editor of Esquire and New York magazine; Colson Whitehead, author of “Sag Harbor”; and Peter Hedges, author of “The Heights.”

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