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A Community Story

The New York State Writers Institute is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. And before I say another word about it and for the sake of full disclosure, let me mention that I’m married to the director, Donald Faulkner.

But the marriage is of much more recent vintage and my relationship to the Writers Institute goes back, in fits and starts, almost to its beginning. So the uniqueness of it, as well as its inestimable value, has always been apparent to me.

I came to the Capital Region after getting my MFA in writing from the University of Virginia. Friends and I had run a reading series at a gallery in Charlottesville for a while and I’d learned a little bit about setting up the books and the wine and cheese and listening, sometimes half-heartedly, but always with an alert look on my face, to poets and writers read their stuff.

So I was really excited when I got a job at the Arts Center of the Capital Region in Troy (then called the Rensselaer County Council for the Arts) and was put in charge of the reading series that the RCCA ran. I worked with the series for a season or two and we brought in some pretty great writers—Heather McHugh (one of this year’s MacArthur Fellowship recipients), Rita Mae Brown, Mark Nepo, among others. (And, not incidentally, during this time, scenes of Ironweed were being shot directly in front of the old RCCA building on Troy’s Washington Park, so William Kennedy’s generous impact on this area was ever-present.)

One day I got an invitation to an event at the Legislative Office Building in Albany at which Gov. Mario Cuomo would be giving the Edith Wharton Citation of Merit to the first-time-ever New York state author and New York state poet.

And it wasn’t that a free party with the governor at the LOB seemed too good to pass up, it was that these first-time-ever honorees were Stanley Kunitz and Grace Paley.

Stanley Kunitz! Grace Paley!

I’d read Kunitz’ poems for years (and, as he was by then getting on in years, poet Heather McHugh—my college teacher—accepted the award for him)

Grace Paley, however diminutive her size, carried a far-reaching voice. I’d heard her read a few times in New York and each time left feeling I’d experienced a seamlessly-woven event that was part drama, part sheer comedy and part lesson in political science.

I was in and out of the Capital Region during the next 10 years, but I continued to write for Metroland and during that time wrote a profile of the Institute’s first director, Tom Smith, whom I’d known through close mutual friends.

No one disputes Tom’s warmth and generous spirit. Nor does anyone dispute the grave and enormous loss with his sudden death in 1995.

When I briefly worked for the Writers Institute in 1997, I transcribed some of his taped interviews with writers on The Book Show. It was both powerful and bittersweet to hear his voice. Notably, I remember him asking Mary Gordon (current New York state author) if she felt better now that John Updike had written Rabbit at Rest, in which the iconic protagonist of the Rabbit novels had died.

She responded that she feared there was yet another novel to come—Rabbit Resurrected.

It was during my time working at the University at Albany as a chaplain that I met the Writers Institute’s new director, Don Faulkner. I asked him if he’d ever given any thought to doing a staged reading of the amazing W.H. Auden oratorio, “For the Time Being.” He hadn’t and as far as I can tell, still hasn’t—though hope springs eternal.

While a chaplain at UAlbany, I also spent a semester working part-time for the Writers Institute. It was then I came to fully recognize its impact not only on the regional community, but on advancing and archiving major 20th- and 21st-century writers.

My path took me away from the Capital Region after that for some time. When I returned I was forever saying, “oh, look who’s at the Writers Institute!” And then sitting down on the couch with a book and a glass of wine.

My loss.

In these last few years the New York State Writers Institute has become part of my daily existence and concerns, so it’s easy to recall anecdotes from the visit of this or that writer—one’s idiosyncrasies, another’s compelling charm.

But sometimes I do take a step back and think about what a wealth of treasure the Institute provides. And sure, I know how much of a cliché that sounds. Except that it’s true. All the events are free. Every event includes time to ask questions, time to meet the author.

And no, not everybody who visits is fabulous. There are off nights. I know first-hand the stress and occasional—OK, not so occasional—crankiness that can precede an event. There’s snow to worry about. Or finances. Or the venue. Or an author’s disposition, dietary needs, transportation and housing. Or curiouser and curiouser worries.

But the Writers Institute really does exist to serve a critical purpose: fostering intellect, stimulating imagination and creating community—attributes that support public weal.

And critical purposes aside, it can be a hell of a lot of fun.

—Jo Page

graepage@gmail.com


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