When Professor of English John Somerville took over the English department’s Visiting Writers Program in the 1990s, he took on a job he never would have anticipated. Twenty-five years later, however, he called the job “a surprise and a joy.”
Beginning in the fall of 2019, Associate Professor of English Dutton Kearney will take over as the new head of the program.
Since its establishment in the late 1980s by Daniel Sundahl, former professor of English at Hillsdale College, the Visiting Writers Program has brought nationally-renowned novelists, professors, and poets to campus. A typical visit involves a public reading by the author of his or her work, as well as a public lecture. Some writers have taught small workshops, met with students one-on-one, or even passed an evening visiting with students at off-campus houses. Dennis Covington and Linda Gregerson, who visited campus in February and March of 2019, respectively, were the last two writers Somerville brought to campus as head of the Visiting Writers Program.
The program brings the past into a dynamic conversation with the present by exposing students to writers both steeped in the classic literary tradition and actively contributing to the contemporary conversation.
“We invite these writers to show students that you can engage with the contemporary world with the education that you’ve received and elevate the cultural conversation,” Kearney said. “We give students the past so they can propel themselves into the future.”
Students’ personal experiences with visiting writers have often convinced them to pursue their interest in writing literature beyond Hillsdale’s campus and the four years of their undergraduate experience.
Hillsdale alum Forester McClatchey ’16 applied to the University of Florida’s masters program armed with a letter of recommendation from Pulitzer-nominated American poet Andrew Hudgins, a graduate from the esteemed Iowa Writers Workshop in 1983. Hudgins had visited Hillsdale College with the Visiting Writers Program in 2014, and McClatchey, who was a staff cartoonist for the Collegian at the time and the 2016 winner of the Hillsdale College Barnes Award for Metered Poetry, made his acquaintance.
While Hudgins never taught McClatchey in a class, “he saw Forester’s poetry here and that was enough,” Somerville said.
McClatchey went on to pursue a master’s of fine arts in poetry at the University of Florida.
“It’s clear the writers who were here had an effect,” Somerville said.
These opportunities for mentorship sometimes blossomed into personal friendship between the writers and students of the college. Kearney remembers that two Hillsdale students, Aaron Schepps ’14 and Joshua Andrew ’14, traveled to Notre Dame University to hear a lecture from journalist John Jeremiah Sullivan, who had previously visited Hillsdale’s campus. Sullivan, who specializes in journalism, writes for The New York Times Magazine and also edits Harper’s Magazine, is especially known for his collection of essays, “Pulphead”, which cover everything from thoroughbred racing to Axl Rose and the Tea Party Movement. While on stage preparing for his scheduled talk before a massive auditorium packed with Notre Dame University students, Sullivan caught sight of the two Hillsdale students in the front row and stepped off stage to hug them. Only afterward did he climb back on stage and deliver his lecture.
Because of the encouragement she received from visiting writer Dennis Covington, junior Mary Kate Boyle said she plans to pursue a master’s in creative writing. Somerville offered Boyle the chance to participate in a workshop with Covington during his most recent visit to Hillsdale’s campus, giving Boyle the chance to “talk to a master in a craft that I want to pursue.”
“I really enjoy writing but I don’t think I had taken myself seriously as a writer until talking to Dennis Covington. He was incredibly encouraging,” Boyle said.
After taking a gap year and teaching in France, Boyle plans to apply to graduate programs in creative writing.
Kearney explained that engaging with contemporary poets, essayists, journalists, and fiction writers educates and encourages students to apply their knowledge of tradition to current issues, and mine excellence from the contemporary literary world.
“We read the past and know the past not so we can stay in the past, but so we can move into the future,” Kearney said.
Kearney said one poet he would like to bring to campus as new director for the program is Jorie Graham, a poet and professor at Harvard who replaced poet Seamus Heaney as the school’s Boylston Professor.
Kearney’s interest in Graham’s work reflects a secondary aim of the program: to explore what’s American about American poetry.
Graham writes in the meditative tradition, one that Kearney said used to be “quintessentially American.”
In his 25 years heading the Visiting Writers Program, Somerville’s own investment in contemporary literature has overflowed to his students. He sees it as a gift, getting to share the writers he admires so much with his students and fellow faculty.
“I grew up in South Korea, and since I was a boy have had the experience of traveling halfway around the world and seeing different cultures. Maybe that’s part of it, part of where I get my curiosity,” Somerville reflected.
Senior Lydia Hall said that the Visiting Writers Program is important to Hillsdale because it reminds us that not all authors of import are ancient.
“We spend so little time engaging with modern authors that it’s easy to think that the only authors that matter are the ones we’ve known about for centuries,” Hall said.