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Susquehanna Salutes 15 Years of Nurturing Creative Writers

Published on September 20, 2011

The Writers Institute, home to Susquehanna University’s nationally recognized creativeThe Writers Institute at SU writing program, recently celebrated its 15th anniversary with a reception for returning alumni during the university’s Homecoming-Reunion Weekend Sept. 16–18.

The creative writing major has experienced rapid growth over a short time span. Gary Fincke, the Charles Degenstein professor of creative writing at Susquehanna, founded The Writers Institute in 1996, establishing creative writing as a major within the Department of English. The first four creative writing majors graduated in May 1999, and 25 students declared the major that fall. Today, the program boasts more than 160 majors and 15 minors, making it the third most popular course of study at Susquehanna.

And no wonder, as creative writing alumni have enjoyed remarkable publishing success. In August, The Atlantic’s summer fiction issue included “Scars,” a short story by Sarah Turcotte, who wrote the piece while still an SU student. Nick Ripatrazone, a 2003 SU creative writing alumnus, was named first runner-up, among some 3,000 entries, in the 2010 Esquire Magazine Fiction Competition for his story “Never, Ever Bring this up Again” and had a volume of prose poems, “Oblations,” published this year. “Nothing Left to Burn,” a memoir by Jay Varner, another 2003 graduate, was published by Algonquin Books in 2010, and he was subsequently interviewed by Entertainment Weekly magazine. And Marcus Burke, a 2010 graduate who is an M.F.A. candidate at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, was profiled in April on PBS’ “NewsHour.”

In addition, three of the first six Bennington Writing Prizes awarded by “plain china,” a national anthology of the best undergraduate writing, according to its editors at Vermont’s Bennington College, have gone to Susquehanna students, Turcotte among them.

“I have a sense now that the program is beginning to have a history, that alums are beginning to establish themselves as writers or educators or editors,” Fincke said of the 15-year milestone. “I remember saying way back when that once we’re in this for about 20 years, we’ll have a sense of how we’ve done as far as our alums’ life experiences.”

Katie Pierce, a 2000 alumna, was the first creative writing graduate to have a book published: a book of poetry titled “Famous Last Words,” published in 2008 and selected by John Yau as the winner of the 2007 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize.

Since then, Susquehanna has been turning out noteworthy authors at an accelerating pace. The secret recipe for literary success seems rooted in intimate exchange: devoted coaching; invested faculty who share their own publishing experiences; personal interaction with renowned visiting writers; and a reassuring classroom environment that encourages literary risk-taking.

The Susquehanna faculty, too, are racking up successes in publishing and beyond. “Amp’d: A Father's Backstage Pass,” Fincke’s 2004 nonfiction account of his son's life as a rock guitarist in the band Breaking Benjamin, has been optioned for film rights; a screenplay is currently underway. Fincke has published more than 20 books of poetry, short fiction and nonfiction, among them his most recent volume, “The History of Permanence.”

Two PBS affiliates interviewed Assistant Professor Glen Retief when his memoir, “The Jack Bank,” was published by St. Martin's Press in April, with one of those interviews being syndicated nationally. In fact, Retief was one of four Susquehanna creative writing faculty members published within the last 18 months: Oxford University Press released the second edition of Tom Bailey’s “On Writing Short Stories;” Ahsahta Press published Karla Kelsey’s second volume of poetry, “Iteration Nets;” and Fincke’s memoir, “The Canals of Mars,” was published by Michigan State Press. All six faculty members, including the job-sharing Catherine Zobal Dent and Silas Dent Zobal, have long lists of literary review and journal publishing credits.

Last year, the faculty moved into offices in a new Writers Institute building on University Avenue, the renovated rectory of the former St. Pius Church. Aspiring writers come and go through the comfortable workshop spaces and reading lounges, following alumni footsteps toward their particular publishing dreams.

“There’s no question for our current students that this program is on the map,” said Fincke, “that it’s made an impression and is consistently well respected by writers and teachers of graduate programs.”


Karen M. Jones


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