Conversation Two: Shara McCallum, Director of Bucknell University’s Stadler Poetry Center in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania [link].

.

The Stadler Poetry Center is home to the Stadler Center Writers Series, Sandra & Gary Sojka Visitng Poet, Poet-in-Residence, Stadler Fellowship, Stadler Emerging Writer Fellowship, Philip Roth Residence in Creative Writing, the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets and the literary journal WEST BRANCH. Its Director, Shara McCallum, was kind enough to answer five questions about the current position of the twenty-year-old institution.

*_____*_____*

.

KYLE DARGAN: The Stadler Poetry Center was formally established just over twenty years ago, and some of its current programming, such as the reading series, has been running in other formats for even longer. Still, the center did not adopt a formal mission statement until a few years ago. Is the center still trying to hone its identity and brand?

SHARA MCCALLUM: When I took the directorship six years ago, I was the third in the Stadler Center’s then fifteen year history. This meant the work of starting the majority of the Stadler Center’s programs had been done by my predecessor Cynthia Hogue and founding director Jack Wheatcroft. Initially, my focus was on refining and strengthening the Center’s existing programs. In order to create a coherent vision for our various offerings (reading series, residencies, fellowships, etc.), I worked with the staff to articulate the mission statement you mention in your question. When we were setting it down, we understood that this statement would be a guide to remind all of us in the Center what we were working toward. I have a strong interest, for example, in supporting underrepresented voices in poetry; so this has become a focal point of the Stadler Center’s programming in the past five years. In the future, I hope to expand our efforts with promoting literacy in the local and regional area (another point in our mission statement). Publishing our mission statement on our website was almost an afterthought, though when we decided to do that, we hoped it would do what you’ve touched on—to identify for others what we are about.

DARGAN: You have been in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for five years now. Bucknell’s presence aside, do you see it as a very “literary” town and, depending on that answer, how do you see that playing into the Stadler Center’s engagement with the town’s character when it comes to writing, poetry specifically?

MCCALLUM: I think there is a fairly active, if decentralised, literary scene in Lewisburg. For example, our local independent bookstore has sometimes run an open mic once a month and various coffee shops around town have done the same. As a professional literary arts center, the Stadler Center works to augment the local poetry scene with our reading series, whose focus is less on local writers and more on bringing nationally and internationally regarded writers to our region. We actively work to promote readings to non-Bucknell affiliated members of the community members to our events. Notably, last December we had a local storyteller as part of our reading series, a program geared toward children and their families. I and other members of the staff also go into local schools, libraries, nursing homes, and the like to give readings and talk about poetry. Still, I have a sense that more could be done and hope, in years to come, to facilitate a stronger relationship between the Stadler Center/Bucknell and the local community.

DARGAN: What do you consider to be the Stadler Center’s greatest asset, physical or otherwise?

MCCALLUM: The building that houses the Center offers a truly gorgeous reading space, no doubt. Still, our greatest asset is our staff. All of the folks affiliated with the Stadler Center work pretty tirelessly (I know that’s a cliché, but it’s true) to support our various efforts.

DARGAN: Given that Bucknell is, primarily, an undergraduate university, how do you see the center contributing to young people’s development towards understanding the professional and cultural worlds they’ll be entering upon graduation?

MCCALLUM: For about ten years now, West Branch, the literary magazine housed in the Stadler Center, has offered two internships each semester to students. These internships are eye-opening for the students, many of whom are aspiring young writers, often exposing them for the first time to the difficulty of small press publishing, for writer and publisher alike. Last spring, I offered a course on Literary Arts Administration and Editing, geared at addressing what some of our undergraduates feel is a lack of available practical direction in how to actually make a life (and a living) as a writer.

While I am glad we have these resources for our students, I always encourage students to focus their energies primarily on their development as readers and writers. I have some concern with what I see as students become “professionalised” too young in their development as writers-a trend I’ve noticed increasing in the past dozen years or so I’ve been teaching undergraduate creative writers. Perhaps we are all just most comfortable with the path we took to becoming writers, so I admit my bias up front. I was wholly ignorant as an undergraduate to the notion that anyone could be a “poet” in any career sense of that word (something I still question) and very slow to learn, even as an MFA student and beyond, the ins and outs of the poetry world. Even as director of a poetry center, I try to keep myself deliberately uninformed about “po-biz.” While it might be useful to know this as director, for me as a writer, knowing more about the professional or cultural aspects of the writing world doesn’t help me to write (often the opposite), potentially takes time away from my writing, and doesn’t actually change what happens when I have to engage with the “professional” side of being a poet, which is mainly sending out work for publication.

I don’t think students can be or should be kept in the dark about the professional and cultural world of writing, but I try to balance that-offset it really-by encouraging them to use their undergraduate years (and graduate years, if they go on to pursue an MFA) as a time, first and foremost, to develop their craft and articulate their poetic vision.

DARGAN: When you think about the concept of a “poetry center,” not specifically the Stadler, what comes to mind? What is the ideal, and what are the possibilities and boundaries the head of such a center, someone like yourself, would have to be aware of?

MCCALLUM: I think of a physical space that honours poetry and poets. I think of a human space that welcomes noviates and seasoned poets alike. As far as possibilities for particular programming and events, these seem endless to me. Each of the writers I’ve met in my time at the Stadler Center has contributed in some measure to what we’ve become. Past fellows, for example, have offered their ideas for programs or ways to better connect poetry with people, some of which we still use even when the originators are no longer here.

Regarding the second part of your question, if someone were going to start a poetry center, I’d say to first work to secure your backing. It’s the less pleasurable and sexy, if you will, part of the job of being a director but absolutely essential. We would not be able to do what we do without the support of individual donors and, most of all, the Bucknell administrators who saw fit to dedicate a space to poetry in the first place and those throughout the years since who have continued to see the worth in our endeavours enough to support an art form that is entirely without market value. Second, I’d say to gather around you a group of people who can participate in and help you reach whatever you articulate as your particular vision for your poetry center. I don’t just mean you’ll need to assemble a staff when I say this. Success involves actively cultivating a community of readers and writers who are connected with your center’s work. The Stadler Center has audiences well over 100 for most of our events—many repeat audience members—and we are located at a small liberal arts college, in a small American town. What this has proven to me, again and again, is how many people want or even need poetry in their lives.

____________________

SHARA MCCALLUM has published two books of poems, Song of Thieves and The Water Between Us. Her poems and personal essays have appeared in numerous literary journals and been reprinted in over twenty anthologies of American, African American, Caribbean, and World poetry. Originally from Jamaica, McCallum directs the Stadler Center for Poetry and teaches at Bucknell University. She is also on the faculty of the Stonecoast Low Residency MFA program. She lives with her family in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.