Literary Legacy

By Logan Sweet ’15 and Jennifer Yuricich ’00 Spotts
Spring Summer 2024 Issue

The foundation for the Writers Institute began in 1964; today, it is both a bustling hub and quiet place for creative writing majors to pen their works.

Two years before the first creative writing course was approved for the curriculum, seven student editors and three faculty advisors published the university’s first student literary magazine, Focus. Described in the course catalog as “a means of communication for the best creative expressions of literary and artistic nature,” the magazine teetered between making new waves and barely staying afloat. When Gary Fincke became advisor to Focus in 1982, its trajectory was reset. And so was his.

A lecturer in English at the time, Fincke had just completed his first year of teaching the lone creative writing course at Susquehanna, and by 1986, he was leading four creative writing workshops and welcoming six or more visiting authors to campus each year. His entrepreneurial vision and forward thinking for what should come next is why Fincke’s name has become synonymous with all things writing at Susquehanna University.

Fincke’s proposal to establish a writing community was endorsed by then Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Don Housley, and in 1993, this dream of “what could be” was realized.

“The university and especially Don Housley supported the creation of the Writers Institute and me as director,” Fincke recalls. “My ‘job’ was to find ways to call attention to Susquehanna by creating opportunities in creative writing.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Fincke was on his way to building a program that became more than he imagined.

Grant awards from the President’s Fund for Excellence and the 1994 Charles B. Degenstein Foundation fueled rapid growth. By 1996, the creative writing major was approved and, according to Fincke, it had nine “eager volunteers.” Soon after the first two classes (1999, 2000) graduated, the number of faculty expanded to three and the number of creative writing majors surged.

The ushering in of these new writers was marked by new student literary magazines dedicated to the three genres that comprise the creative writing program: Essay, for creative nonfiction; and RiverCraft, for fiction and poetry. Focus was renamed in 1993 as The Susquehanna Review, and in 2003 it was launched as a national undergraduate magazine.

Its roots established in the Department of English & Creative Writing, formerly located in the English Cottage on University Avenue and then the lower level of Hassinger Hall, the Writers Institute moved to its own building on University Avenue in 2010. It has permanence, regardless of its location, because the Writers Institute supports and funds the creative writing endeavors at the university — literary magazines, chapbook publications, workshops, the senior reading series, prize-winning and prize-granting journals, a summer workshop for high school students, and the Seavey Visiting Writers Series.

In terms of physical space, the Writers Institute is to a creative writing major what a laboratory is to a science major, a studio to an art major, and a radio station to a broadcasting major. “The Writers Institute serves as a nucleus for our community,” says Karla Kelsey, professor of English & creative writing. “The space naturally blends the work creative writing majors do in the classroom with the community that the Writers Institute fosters. It represents the function of the Writers Institute to hold space for creative interaction and growth.”

It is a place that is as much a quiet retreat for a student to be introspective and reflective as it is a boisterous hub for workshops and literary club members to brainstorm and collaborate. It houses inspiration — whether through the critique of peers and faculty or within the covers of the books and publications that line the bookshelves.

“I was here for our move into the building on University Avenue,” recalls Glen Retief, associate professor of English & creative writing. “That created a magical space on campus where writing and creativity were celebrated — where students continue to sit all morning or all afternoon, reading quietly or writing in front of books and chapbooks published by alumni who came before them, faculty, visitors and even their peers.”

A must-see stop for aspiring writers while on a tour of Susquehanna’s campus, the Writers Institute is a recruitment tool all its own. “I first visited the Writers Institute the summer before my senior year of high school during the Summer Writers Workshop,” says Nala Washington ’24, a creative writing major with a minor in women and gender studies from Temple Hills, Maryland. “I fell in love with the building, people and professors, and appreciated how every aspect motivated me to become better, to work harder and to be greater.”

Washington will pursue a Master of Fine Arts in poetry from Texas State University. “The Writers Institute has been home to some of the biggest and bravest voices, and I’m proud that it now includes my own,” she adds.

Throughout the past three decades, hundreds of young writers have been inspired by the Writers Institute to foster creative lives.

“Our writing majors who applied to graduate programs had a nearly 100% acceptance rate, and many received funding to continue their education,” boasts Fincke. “Our alumni began to publish or teach, and several became lawyers, librarians, agents and editors.”

Graduate successes include Devon Taylor ’04, who is a senior editor at The New York Times and part of the Gimlet Media team that has been honored with a Pulitzer Prize and Peabody Award for the podcast Stolen: Surviving St. Michael’s; Nick Martell ’16, who secured a three-book publishing deal with Simon & Schuster for his epic fantasy series Legacy of the Mercenary King; and Catherine Pierce ’00, H’23, who was named poet laureate of the state of Mississippi. Pierce, now a professor of English and co-director of the creative writing program at Mississippi State University, was among Fincke’s first cohort of graduates who majored all four years in creative writing.

The connections that writers form at Susquehanna support them in their careers and personal lives. “The Writers Institute is based on energy, connection, commitment and vision,” Catherine Zobal Dent, associate professor of English & creative writing and director of the Writers Institute, says. “We train new generations by making space for them to connect to each other as well as to the wider world of creative writing and literature.”

Sarah Gzemski ’13, business coordinator of the University of Arizona Poetry Center and executive director of Neomi Press, says, “The instruction I received at the Writers Institute exposed me and my peers to a large literary world of which we are still a part. When I entered graduate school and the workforce, I realized I had learned so much in my time at Susquehanna, not just about the craft of writing, but also about the publishing world and how to be a contributing member of the community.”

Retief, who in 2015 became Fincke’s first successor as director of the Writers Institute, adds, “Consistently, I have watched the creative writing program help students find their voices on the page and hone the skills they need to be not just great writers but effective communicators as well — attuned to their genre, their audience and their craft.”

Matthew Neill Null, assistant professor of English & creative writing, attributes the success of the institute to its creative programming and the community it fosters.“What makes the Writers Institute unique is the vibrancy of the writing community at Susquehanna,” he says, “with so many public readings, literary magazines, visiting writers and other opportunities for engagement. It functions more like a graduate program. It’s rare for an undergraduate creative writing program to have such a large, lively writing community. It’s central to life here.”

Fincke retired in 2017 as Emeritus Charles B. Degenstein Professor of English and Creative Writing. The award-winning poet and author continues to write and publish. Reflecting on his 37-year career at Susquehanna, he says, “I couldn’t have been happier coming to work each day. I had a dream job, recruiting and teaching talented students and having excellent writers as colleagues.”

Return to top
View this full issue Return to Spring Summer 2024 Issue