Pro­fessor of English John Somerville is stepping down from the Vis­iting Writers Program. Courtesy | Col­legian Archives

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.