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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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