Reflections on the Ocean State Writing Conference

The University of Rhode Island English department has hosted the Ocean State Writing Conference for the last eleven years. This distinguished event is planned and coordinated yearly by the creative writing faculty, Mary Cappello, Peter Covino, Derek Nikitas, Jody Lisberger, the conference director, the wonderful Tina Egnoski this year, and the conference administrative director, Michelle Carraccia.  In addition, many graduate students volunteer each year with both the preparation and in helping the conference run smoothly for attendees, from registration to cleaning up after workshops and panels. This year we asked several of the graduate students who volunteered and attended workshop sessions with our featured writers about their experiences.

Elizabeth Foulke: On October 26th , 27th and 28th , I attended the nonfiction workshop at this year’s Ocean State Writing Conference. Kenny Fries, author of the memoirs In the Provence of the Gods and A History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory, led the group of nine workshop participants. All agreed that writing in a communal setting created a unique alchemy that had been absent in our lives for far too long. We were a diverse group of writers— professionals from scientific fields and a copywriter, undergraduate and graduate students, and retirees. Along with writing directives, Kenny shared a variety of nonfiction texts and answered our questions. Responding to one question, Kenny suggested that when we are the subject of our own writing, to think of our self as a character. This precipitated an electric conversation about the degrees of distance from which we write.
Okay, it’s a cliché, but nonetheless it is true— we shared laughter and tears. A reminder not
to underestimate the profound act of writing and of bearing witness to others’ creative process.

Sue Kim: Writers and readers of all capacities can leave behind their every day demands of life and come together in a corner of Rhode Island just when the leaves boast their most brilliant autumnal hues. Here, together, over a span of just a few days, we become a community—one where we can be vulnerable, honest, eloquent and blunt. Whether it was standing at the podium delivering an introduction, or sitting in a writing workshop glancing around the table, I recognized the mutual understanding and respect the gazes looking back at me held. It was a realization that this was a safe and intimate space, one where I could breathe more freely the words and literature that I so dearly love.

Michael Landreth: It is the opportunity to serve the advancement of the humanities while learning from others in the field which drives most graduate students into English programs, and I found my first year as a volunteer at the Ocean State Writer Conference allowed me to do both. As a volunteer, I was able to attend the events of the conference, including a workshop with Major Jackson, where I interacted not only with the author himself but also writers from all over the New England region. It was encouraging to see how many people would respond positively to literary opportunities like these, and nice to know that I played a small part in giving them this opportunity. During these interactions I also learned more about my craft than seemed possible in just three days. In short, volunteering at the Ocean State Writing Conference was a great way to serve and to learn—my primary motivators for graduate study. I could not be happier with the experience.

Heather Macpherson: My experience in the creative nonfiction workshop with Kenny Fries, author of In the Province of the Gods (2017), was unpredictably sung with unwavering vibrato. During the course of three days I had the opportunity to be in the midst of other writers as we followed Kenny on an intense, but shared journey of story. His instructional practice and openness allowed each of us to engage on higher plane as we traversed through insightful readings, discussions, and exercises providing pathways to generating new work to share with each other.

Andrew Merecicky: Major Jackson’s workshop was exactly what I was hoping for. On the one hand, I had been in creative writing workshops with some regularity for the past ten years and was skeptical that another workshop was really what I needed right now. On the other, I’ve been in a bit of a rut with my work, unsure of what I really wanted to pursue next in terms of subject and aesthetic. Major is a master at balancing the artistic integrity of a poem with a careful mindfulness for audience. His insights about how to experiment with old forms in a new way, combined with his ability to contextualize forms within a rich and diverse poetic tradition ignited in me a sincere enthusiasm for producing new poems not just more poems. It was a truly memorable experience.

As these reflections show, the conference was an inspiring and exciting event that we are lucky to be able to host and participate in yearly. From hearing from and working with fantastic writers, such as Masha Gessen, Kenny Fries, Michael Lowenthal, and Major Jackson, to meeting and sharing work with writers from Rhode Island and beyond, this conference offers much for graduate students of all types interested in creative writing.

For more information about the conference, visit the OSWC website.

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