First Annual High School Literary Festival!

A new collaboration of Creative Writing, College in the Schools, and the Walter Nathan Literary Initiatives
Group of over 20 people holding book cover over their faces in blue and white walled room
College in the Schools "Literature" course students at the literary festival with their own copies of Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars.

The morning of November 4, two-term US Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith took the Great Hall stage in Coffman Union, before hundreds of Twin Cities high school students. The students were quiet, expectant: they’d been studying Smith’s work and had received a personal copy of the poet’s Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life on Mars (Graywolf Press, 2011) to mark up and highlight. At five schools, a Department of English graduate student had visited their classroom earlier to lead creative writing exercises, answer questions about college, and talk about Smith’s poetry. Rapt, the students now listened to Smith read from across her five collections. “This next poem,” the poet announced, “is from Life on Mars.” In an electric moment, nearly all of the students reached into their backpacks for their copies, and the sound of rustling pages filled the Great Hall.

It was clear in that instant that the first annual Walter Nathan-College in the Schools Festival had met the high expectations of its creators. The collaboration brought together two entities: the storied University of Minnesota College in the Schools program (initiated in the 1990s by English Professor Charles Sugnet) that allows students to earn college credit in a high school classroom; and the Walter Nathan Literary Initiatives, a new Creative Writing Program fund established via a gift from CLA alumni Michael and Julie Kaplan to honor their fathers. The fund supports programming in partnership with Creative Writing to facilitate literary relationships between the University and its communities, including strengthening ties between the Creative Writing Program and local high schools.

Connecting writers with students

The Walter Nathan Literary Initiatives donated copies of Smith’s Life on Mars to all 650 students enrolled in the “CIS Literature” course. Said one teacher, “My students were thrilled to get their very own books…they liked being able to write in them and annotate.” Another reflected: “Many kids were awed by this. I saw them more engaged, and they took better care of this text than others.” The fund also made the event with Smith possible. During a lively Q & A session following the reading, Smith discussed the art and craft of writing poetry. Smith then met students and signed classroom copies of Life on Mars that will become part of each “CIS Literature” class’ classroom library.

“My students enjoyed learning about [Smith’s] writing process,” recounted one teacher, “and were struck at how she drew from both personal experiences as well as collective/historical voices in the forming of her poems.” Another noted that students “loved being able to actually interact with Tracy K. Smith after the event. The picture of students with Smith is already posted in the classroom!”

Encouraging young writers

The Walter Nathan Literary Initiatives also hosted an inaugural high school poetry contest this fall for students enrolled in “CIS Literature” classes. The high school seniors submitted original poems to the contest, which was guest-judged by award-winning poet Eloisa Amezcua. The first, second, and third-place winners won gift cards and, most notably, read their poems to the rousing applause of their peers at the Walter Nathan-College in the Schools Festival. That evening, they read their work again, this time at Pillsbury Hall for the Walter Nathan-Edelstein Keller reading with Smith and Amezcua. Before a packed audience of faculty, students, and community members including their family, friends, and teachers, the contest winners were presented by Creative Writing Director Douglas Kearney, himself a celebrated poet. Attendees approached the winners after the event to congratulate them on their work.

“The MFA program in Creative Writing is always excited to find new ways to contribute to the extraordinary Twin Cities literary culture that so inspires and nourishes us as writers,” said Kathryn Nuernberger, chair of the Department of English. “And we're especially excited about the ways the Walter Nathan fund provides opportunities to celebrate local writers, including area high schoolers who may be just discovering their passion for creative writing.”

Who will be the guest speaker for the 2023 Walter Nathan-College in the Schools Festival? Current US Poet Laureate Ada Limón, author of five books with Milkweed Editions. Nearly 700 Twin Cities high school students will soon have their own copy of Limón's collection The Hurting Kind (2022) to reach for when, next fall, the author takes the stage.

More Walter Nathan events

Creative Writing and the Walter Nathan Literary Initiatives presented two other literary events in the fund’s inaugural year, along with introducing a new essay prize. On March 1, 2022, the latest issue of Great River Review was launched in Pillsbury Hall, the newly renovated home of the English department. Great River Review is the longest-running literary magazine in Minnesota and has been produced by graduate students and faculty of the Department of English at the University of Minnesota since 2016. CMarie Fuhrman, the first annual Great River Review Walter Nathan essayist, and Stephen Scott Whitaker, the 2021 Pink Poetry Prize winner, both read. Just two weeks later, the Walter Nathan Literary Initiatives sponsored the English department’s annual “First Books” event. This event brings writers of exceptional promise to campus to celebrate their debut books. The 2022 lineup included Twin Cities poet Michael Kleber-Diggs, fiction writer Abbey Mei Otis, and memoirist Marco Wilkinson.

The next "First Books" event will take place Thursday, March 2, 2023. Stay tuned for an announcement of our readers!

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