Every July in Southampton, novelists, poets and other writers come together like a giant family on a holiday weekend, each year with new faces and old. Director of the MFA in Writing and Literature program at Stony Brook Southampton Robert Reeves would no doubt be the patriarchal figure in the bunch, while other writers and faculty like Lou Ann Walker, Roger Rosenblatt and Billy Collins play the role of the unruly offspring who return each year.
“I’m a repeat offender,” said Collins, who is taking part in his seventh consecutive Southampton Writers Conference (SWC).
Rosenblatt joked, “I think I come before the parole board next year.”
The conference, which author Tom Wolfe has called the “best in the country,” is celebrating it’s 33rd year. There are many aspects that set it apart from the numerous other conferences, and one is the family vibe it fosters.
“We’ve created a sense of the familiar,” said Reeves, “with people returning, as they often do.”
Collins described the inner core of returning faculty as adding “stability” while the newer writers add “freshness.” Other “inner core” members include Frank McCourt, Melissa Bank and Matt Klam. This year Amy Hempel, Christopher Durang and Derek Walcott will embody the “freshness.”
Unlike most family get-togethers, according to Rosenblatt there is very little, if any, bickering with his contemporaries.
Said Rosenblatt, “The oddity is that we all get along, even sober, which is saying something.”
What truly sets the conference apart from others, though, is the fact that it’s a teaching conference. Most writers conferences include fly-by appearances from big name authors who drop in, read their work, sign some books and then skip town, or maybe sit in on one or two panel discussions. The SWC involves intense daily workshops where participants are afforded the opportunity to engage with respected authors and hone their craft.
“Most conferences are just for showing off,” said Rosenblatt. “Which is fine. But even writers tire of showing off. At the center of this conference is teaching.”
“We have plenty of big names,” said Reeves, “but we’re not about celebrity, per se. We are about honoring the craft and the people who care about writing as art.”
Collins admitted to the conference becoming a little more “glamorous” as first Long Island University and now Stony Brook University has become “increasingly aware” of the demographic of Southampton in July. He said that awareness, however, has not taken away from the goal.
“Overall the conference still has a serious nuts and bolts commitment to the workshops,” he said. “There is work to be done.”
One of the benefits of the workshop approach, according to Collins, is the breaking down of the author myth.
“[Participants] come into very close contact with well established professional writers. The hope is they find they’re just as human as anyone else. Though they pretend to be gods, they are just regular mortals who have kept at it for a very long time.”
Walker said she benefits from the workshops just as much as the participants.
“What’s always surprising to me each year is how much I learn,” she said. “You feel recharged, as if you’ve gone away for a vacation. You find yourself rethinking how you approach your writing and how you view other people’s writing.”
Rosenblatt said he goes into every workshop with the goal of allowing his students to find their “original language.”
“That’s a center of all good writing,” he said. “I gear everything in class to encourage [that], so they know they have something in them that no one else has. It takes work to discover what Twain called the difference between the word and the right word.”
The SWC has established itself as an institution on the East End, and this year two other bookend conferences were created with the aim of doing the same. Last week Walker presided over the inaugural Children’s Literature Conference.
“It was quite extraordinary,” said Walker. “It exceeded any expectations we could have had. One woman said it was a life changing experience. I’m definitely hooked and I’m already looking forward to next year.”
After the SWC, the inaugural Southampton Screenwriting Conference will be held from July 30 to August 3. About the two new conferences, Reeves said, “I think it can become a wonderful tradition. We have an opportunity to fill up the summer and really make it a writers’ summer.”
In a time when some see the written word as becoming increasingly endangered, Reeves acknowledged that he couldn’t predict the future. He did however say it has no bearing on the SWC and that people will always care about the art of story telling.
“Poetry at one time was a primary genre,” noted Reeves. “It was at the center of the culture. The novel has not always been around and it’s not written in stone that the novel will always be around, but people will always want the equivalent.”
“This is the place for them. If [the importance of the written word] is declining in the world, so be it. It hasn’t declined to us.”
Top Photo: (L to R) Ursula Hegi, Matthew Klam, Meg Wolitzer, Robert Reeves, Billy Collins, Frank McCourt, Carol Muske-Dukes, Lou Ann Walker, Melissa Bank, Roger Rosenblatt and Marsha Norman.