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By Matt Hughes
LEWISBURG, Pa. — Time is a precious commodity for a poet — time to step away, unburdened by the demands of education and economy, time to look around and take the world in and time to delve deep inside. Each year for 29 years, the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets has offered 12 up-and-coming poets from around the country a wealth of opportunities: chances to interact with peers, to perform their works publicly and to learn from internationally renowned writers of poetry. But most of all, the seminar’s directors said, it has offered them time.
“We are very under-scheduled, under-programed, but that’s on purpose,” said G.C. Waldrep, director of the seminar and editor of West Branch magazine. “We only have one activity a day, so the other 22 hours a day are theirs. This is intentional for them to begin to have the luxury and the leisure of time to work out where they are.”
This relaxed schedule is what sets the three-week seminar apart from conferences for poets at other institutions, Waldrep said. The fact that tuition and room and board are endowed for all participating poets is also unique, he added.
“It’s been a little surreal; I don’t usually have this much time to dedicate completely to my writing,” said participant Diamond Forde, a senior at the University of West Georgia. “It’s really exciting because I don’t have to think about anything else. I can just think about words and about what I’m writing, and I have people here to support me while I’m doing it. It’s an experience I don’t think I could find anywhere at home.”
Each year the program accepts 12 applicants: two from Bucknell and 10 from outside institutions. Applicants must be attending school or have graduated in the spring prior to the program. In each of the six years Waldrep has directed the program, it has received anywhere from 80 to more than 400 applications, making it highly competitive, Waldrep said.
“Part of the joy of teaching creative writing, and poetry particularly, is that it doesn’t key to any other skill set,” Waldrep said. “So we do bring students from Stanford and Harvard and Yale, but we also bring students from community colleges in Arkansas. We’ve had three community college students since I’ve been running the seminar, all of them from disadvantaged backgrounds and areas, who were fabulous young poets.”
This year participants hailed from locales as diverse and far-flung as the University of San Francisco, Brigham Young University in Utah and Bennington College in Vermont. All have either published their work or have written work suitable for journal publication, Waldrep said.
“Most poets who are involved in publishing or university teaching are aware of the program and likely to encourage their best students to consider applying,” said Deirdre O’Connor, associate director of the seminar. “We’ve had more than 300 poets pass through the seminar over the last 29 years, and I think this program has really put Bucknell on the map in terms of creative writing and the poetry world.”
The poets bring with them diverse perspectives and approaches to writing poetry, and O’Connor and attending poets said this variety is another great advantage for the program.
“One of the most rewarding things is just being in the company of other really serious writers,” said 2013 participant Janan Scott, a recent graduate of Smith College in Massachusetts. “I’m feeling a great sense of appreciation for everybody’s processes, which are all different and look different.”
O’Connor, who was a fellow in the inaugural Seminar for Younger Poets in 1985, said interacting with other poets helped her find her own poetic voice.
“Being a part of a group of folks who were truly devoted to their writing and thinking about poetry for a month helped me to see myself as a poet, which is not common, necessarily, for an undergraduate,” she said.
Participants also gain the opportunity to interact and read their poetry with Bucknell faculty and accomplished visiting poets. This year’s visiting poets were Jean Valentine, whose accolades include the 2004 National Book Award, and Dan Beachy-Quick, who has authored five books of poetry and published work in The New York Times, The Southern Review and elsewhere.
Valentine said she has held many residencies and attended many conferences in her career as a poet, and that she finds the unhurried pace of the Bucknell seminar “very wise.”
“You don’t always know what you need,” Valentine said. “Sometimes you’re there to rest. Sometimes you’re there to read books, and take long walks. So we want to make sure that they can make of this whatever they need it to be. They’re being given time to write, which I think is infinitely important.”