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New York State Writers Institute Celebrates 20 Years as a Literary Powerhouse with the “Writing Semester” at UAlbany
by Greta Petry (December 12, 2003)

The University at Albany will celebrate Spring 2004 with the Writing Semester, dedicated to the observance of the 20th anniversary of the New York State Writers Institute and co-sponsored by the Institute and the College of Arts and Sciences. Highlights of the semester include visits by humorist Dave Barry, columnist Ellen Goodman, a dramatic adaptation of Richard Russo’s novel Mohawk, and the designation of the State Author and State Poet.

The Writers Institute, housed at the New Library on UAlbany’s uptown campus and founded by Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist and Executive Director William Kennedy, brings some of the world’s best writers to the UAlbany campus.

Kennedy founded the Writers Institute with part of a fellowship he received from the MacArthur Foundation. He designated $15,000 a year for five years to the institution of his choice, and the University matched the gift. Gov. Mario M. Cuomo signed into law the legislation creating the Institute, giving it goals and responsibilities to conduct a broad range of cultural and educational literary activities. The Writers Institute has a mandate to provide “a milieu for established and aspiring writers to work together to increase the freedom of the artistic imagination,” and “to encourage the development of writing skills at all levels of education throughout the state.”

Today the Writers Institute is one of America’s premiere sites for celebrating the art of the written word. Numerous and diverse programs meet the challenge of the original mandate by providing the broadest possible educational base for students of writing, access to some of our greatest living authors for serious readers of literature, enthusiastic audiences in excellent venues for visiting writers, and important cultural initiatives for the general public. “As the Institute continues to grow,” said Director Donald Faulkner, “our central aim is to celebrate literature and to enhance the role of writers as a community within the larger community.”

“The idea for the Writing Semester came to me when I first met Bill Kennedy over lunch in Fall 2002,” said Joan Wick-Pelletier, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I asked him if the Writers Institute, which I felt was one of the very special things at the University at Albany, had an anniversary coming up. He scratched his head and said, ‘I think it’s going to be 20 next year.’ ‘Perfect,’ I said. ‘A theme semester centered around the NYS Writers Institute would be a wonderful way to celebrate this anniversary.’ ”

Faulkner, who joined the Institute in 1995 and established a number of innovative programs ranging from a Young Writers Institute to a syndicated television show, added, “We’ve put the University at Albany on the map of the literary world. By creating a literary crossroads in Albany, we’ve established an ongoing conversation about writing. It’s open to everyone - from undergrads to retirees – free of charge. We not only give audiences a chance to hear readings by many of the world’s best authors, we also create an environment in which that audience can question, explore, and learn. I guess you could say that we’ve fostered the ‘literary milieu’ that we were charged to create.”

Referring to the theme semester, Wick-Pelletier said, “We wanted to feature and celebrate all sorts of writing – fiction, poetry, expository, journalism, film, criticism, theatre, text for music, etc. – all so integral to the curriculum of the College of Arts and Sciences.” The semester was also a natural segue from the successful recent theme semesters on Albany Heritage and technology and the arts and humanities. The theme of writing “also meshes well with a new college initiative to create a major in journalism, since several of the scheduled events feature presentations and panel discussions by well-known journalists. We already have a large and ever-increasing number of students who come to the University to take courses in creative and journalistic writing. The Writing Semester is sure to spur them on,” said Wick-Pelletier.

Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman is scheduled to conduct a reading of her work Wednesday, Feb. 25, at 8 p.m. in Page Hall, 135 Western Ave. Her articles on contemporary life have appeared in more than 400 newspapers for the past 25 years. Goodman has also published six collections of essays, the most recent of which is Paper Trail (February 2004), and the non-fiction book Turning Points (1979).

On Tuesday, March 2, the State Author and State Poet Award Ceremony and Reading will begin at 7 p.m. in Page Hall, at which time the Institute will award the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit for Fiction Writers and the Walt Whitman Citation of Merit for Poets for 2004-2006 to as yet unannounced authors whose career achievements make them deserving of New York State’s highest literary honors. Past recipients have included novelists Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, and E. L. Doctorow, and poets John Ashbery, Audre Lorde, and Robert Creeley.

On Tuesday, March 9, W. Langdon Brown’s dramatic adaptation of Richard Russo’s novel Mohawk will be presented as a staged reading at 8 p.m. in the Recital Hall of the Performing Arts Center. Mohawk is Russo’s first novel about a town set on the wrong side of the tracks. He went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for Empire Falls. Brown, director of Graduate Studies in the Department of Theatre, has directed plays in professional theatres in New York City and London, including the world premiere of his translation of Le Systeme Ribadier by Feydeau.

Humor columnist Dave Barry will close the semester Tuesday, May 4, with an 8 p.m. reading at Page Hall. Barry’s columns on daily life in middle-class America earned him the 1988 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.

For a full listing of about 60 Writing Semester events, which are sponsored by departments across the University, go to the NYS Writers Institute Web site:


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