Deirdre O'Connor '85 vividly recalls the moment she knew she'd found her tribe.
It was winter 1985, and the Bucknell senior was one of a dozen college students from across the country invited to attend the first Seminar for Younger Poets, a program founded by the late Jack Wheatcroft '49, renowned poet and professor of English.
"Jack understood very well that most undergraduates who were serious about poetry didn't have the opportunity to really focus on their writing while taking classes," recalled O'Connor, director of the University's Writing Center. "He also knew that they didn't always have a chance to meet other people their age who share that interest and community." She thrived in the atmosphere of creative camaraderie — a powerful experience that has come full circle for O'Connor, who now serves as an associate director of the seminar.
Find Your Path
Recently renamed the Bucknell Seminar for Undergraduate Poets, it is now held in June rather than January, but otherwise, little has changed over the program's 33 years. Twelve students, including two from Bucknell, are chosen from a competitive pool of the best collegiate poets in the country, representing institutions that range from community colleges to elite universities. They gather on campus for three weeks of workshops, craft talks, readings, and plenty of unstructured time for writing and forming friendships. A team of staff members, visiting poets, and fellows from the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts facilitate the seminar. There is no cost to attend.
"We thrive on being a group of individuals who each are doing something distinct — who appreciate one another and our differences," said Katie Hays '03, director of the seminar and acting director of the Stadler Center. Like O'Connor, she participated in the program as a Bucknell undergraduate.
"This is the first time many of the students really have a sense of themselves as poets," Hays added. "We trust them and their commitment to their work, and that helps them develop a sense of confidence and identity. They feel 'seen' in a way they weren't before, and there's a beautiful explosion of energy when they discover that."
Learning From Each Other
Participants also develop valuable connections with other seminar alumni, which helps them navigate graduate school, writing conferences, literary journals and careers. Past attendees include Kevin Young, poetry editor of The New Yorker; Mary Szybist, a National Book Award winner; and Oni Buchanan, a classical pianist and National Poetry Series winner. Many others have published poetry in national and international publications, and some have started their own literary magazines.
"People leave the seminar and share resources and advice for years," said O'Connor. "That's important in your early twenties, when you're trying to figure out how to support yourself and also maintain a life of writing."
That network was life changing for Chrissy Friedlander '09, who began submitting her work to literary journals with the encouragement of others who attended the 2007 seminar.
"Following what my fellow poets were doing after they graduated made me realize that getting my MFA in creative writing was something I could do, too," recalled Friedlander, who works in education and has published several books. "In many ways, the lessons I learned from my peers were as valuable as the lessons I learned from visiting poets. The seminar made me aware, for the first time, that you can learn from everyone."