Tuesday, April 1, 2014
In the mid-70s two projects in particular lay the groundwork for establishing an MFA Program in Creative Writing at American University: the designing and implementing of a course on Washington, D.C. as a learning resource, and an annual Writer’s Conference.
Today, the University’s links to the vast resources of Washington are well known, but forty years ago this was not the case. The huge reservoir had scarcely been tapped. And thus we put in place a program for incoming freshmen and transfer students that embodied everything from the Congress, Department of State, the courts—from small claims to Supreme Court—international organizations, State Department, archives and libraries, Smithsonian, walks through our diverse neighborhoods led by young people from those neighborhoods, performing and fine arts, the media, lobbying organizations, religious organizations, the environment, including a journey on the Potomac River kindly provided by the National Park Service on their Wood-duck Barge at 5 A.M., usually in the pouring rain with Smithsonian Castle Curator James Goode who pointed out significant buildings as we sailed along.
And the great generosity of key figures in these organizations in helping to teach our students will be remembered. We never could pay them but we would set up a table in the Gray Hall ditto room—the size of a closet—and serve elegant lunches to congressmen and Supreme Court aides to justices—Justice Douglass’s for one who saved the C & O Canal when there was a move to turn it into a road by requiring members of Congress to walk with him from Georgetown to Cumberland along the beautiful Potomac River.
At the same time, Georgetown University was the only university in the area that had had writer’s conferences and they were beginning to wind down their annual summer program. So we started what turned out to be an annual Writer’s conference. Of course we had no funds and had to raise all of it, which we somehow managed to do. Jane Stanhope, a stronghold in the Literature Department, once gave me a gift of bed sheets on which she had signed the names of dozens of famous writers from Dante to Longfellow in various styles of handwriting, as a commentary on the fact that it was my job to house, feed, transport and somehow come up with honoraria for the guest speakers and readers. When I invited John Barth to come for $25 (no travel or housing) , he wrote back: "Your fee is $25; mine is $1000. Shall we dance!