A new appointment at the prestigious West Chester Poetry Conference has unleashed a whirlwind of words in the articulate world of poetry.
On Jan. 18, West Chester University announced that Jesse Waters of Elizabethtown College had been appointed interim artistic director of the conference, a major annual event held at the university since 1994 and scheduled for June 6-9 this year.
The university had a hole to fill. In October, the interim dean of students, Jen Bacon, sent an e-mail to R.S. “Sam” Gwynn, then director of the poetry conference. After thanking him for his work making the 2016 and 2017 conferences successful, she said his appointment would not be renewed after the 2018 iteration, stunning an indignant Gwynn, who immediately resigned.
Reaction among the region’s poets has been turbulent, especially for those worried that Waters might not support the longtime mission of the conference: to celebrate craft, form, and narrative.
On Twitter, poet A.J. Juster tweeted, “#WestChesterUniversity effectively killed off the nation’s premiere conference on formal poetry by dismissing its creative director, renowned #NewFormalist #RSGwynn, and replacing him with someone with no visible interest in or knowledge of formal poetry. English Dept 1, Poets 0.”
#WestChesterUniversity effectively killed off the nation's premiere conference on formal poetry by dismissing its creative director, renowned #NewFormalist #RSGwynn, and replacing him with someone with no visible interest in or knowledge of formal poetry. English Dept 1, Poets 0.
— A.M. Juster (@amjuster) January 11, 2018
In the Pennsylvania Review, poet Charles Southerland dropped this couplet: “When he resigned, they found another beau / who loves ‘free verse’; please say it isn’t so.”
Poet Robert Archambeau of Lake Forest College in Illinois, a frequent presence at the conference, voiced support on Facebook for the new guy: “I’m all for giving him a chance. It’s not his fault he’s not Sam Gwynn.”
People care. About 300 poets from around the country come to the conference to take seminars from eminent poets; enjoy panels, talks, and readings; and hang out with fellow artists. Great ones, like Richard Wilbur, Wendy Cope, X.J. Kennedy, Kay Ryan, and Robert Pinsky have walked the halls. Inspiring loyalty and affection, it’s one of the biggest and most prestigious gatherings of its kind in the country.
But some long associated with the gathering (including cofounder, poet, and former National Endowment for the Arts head Dana Gioia, who declined to comment for this article) are telling friends they’re rethinking their association with it.
“This poetry conference has given West Chester University visibility in the larger world that nothing else has,” said Gwynn, now on the outside. “So why do [university authorities] continually keep trying to screw it up?”
The Poetry Center and Conference are something of an institutional anomaly at West Chester. They are not part of the English department but are a standalone, independent program supported by their own $2.3 million endowment, made up of private donations and an NEA grant. That endowment more or less obligates the university to keep having the conference. About $1.9 million of it supports the center and conference, and about $400,000 of it supports prizes.
The $2.3 million is in an interest-bearing account that generates about $60,000 each year, from which the center and conference draw their operating budget, including the director’s part-time salary. There is an advisory board and a faculty advisory committee. The director’s position is under the direct authority of the dean.
The conference first landed in the rough in September 2014, when then-director Kim Bridgford was removed and reassigned to full-time teaching. Lori Vermeulen, then dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at West Chester, declined to comment on reasons for Bridgford’s reassignment, as did Bridgford.
The conference then went dark for 2015.
Blowback arose from poets, disappointed conference fans, and confused onlookers. Anna M. Evans, a poet, adjunct professor at Rowan College at Burlington County, and frequent conference participant, blamed the university, “which continues not to understand what the conference means to the poetry community.”
Gwynn, a poet and teacher at Lamar College in Beaumont, Texas, who had been involved with the conference since its beginning, was appointed director in 2016 to right the ship. “That, by whatever measure you want to use, is what I’ve done,” he said by phone. “And now this.”
In her Oct. 16 message, Bacon said that working from far away, as Gwynn had done, was “not ideal” and that West Chester would now search for someone “local-ish.” Elizabethtown College, where Waters directs the Bowers Writers House, is about 65 miles away; he as been appointed as an independent contractor.
Gwynn said he felt blindsided by his dismissal. Bacon said she was told by Vermeulen, who initially appointed Gwynn, that he had been “hired on a one-year contract that could be renewed, but that it was never meant to go much further than that.”
Waters is stepping into troubled tides and knows it. “Whenever a program is well established, as this one is,” he said by phone, “any new director is going to be walking a fine line between stasis and change.”
He said he supports the mission of the conference and its “long-standing dedication to form and narrative, and that will continue. I see myself very much as a steward.”
He also expressed hopes it can find room for experimentation and for greater diversity.
Another item on Waters’ agenda is to warm up the surprisingly chilly relations between the conference and the English department and West Chester students: “Our students will soon go out to the world as young educators and writers and leaders, and I want to work hard to make the center a welcoming place for them.” The night of the interview, he did a reading with students of the Creative Writing Club, and he said he plans to be on campus much more often than his appointment requires.
So he’ll be driving that 65 miles back and forth quite a bit. He has already filled out the roster of poets for this June’s conference, with choices that certainly seek to keep the tradition alive, including much-celebrated returnees Timothy Steele (this year’s keynote speaker), Dick Davis, Annie Finch, and Jane Satterfield.
After all the words, will the attendees come, or will disenchantment keep some former mainstays away? That’s the question. An early-bird application date of April 15 has been set, with no applications accepted after May 20.
Writing on the poetry website Eratosphere, poet Susan McLean of Minnesota spoke highly of past conferences. “The size of the West Chester conference made for a wide range of panels and workshops, and I don’t think any of the competing conferences can match it at that level,” she said.
Though she tries to attend one major poetry conference a year, she wrote, “That conference will probably not be at West Chester from here on. I will miss it.”