No Editors No Prisoners

AOL Digital City Philadelphia
November 14, 1996

It's not supposed to work like this. Not in 1996. Not in the fin de siecle of this corporate culture millennium where genuine enthusiasm is yawned upon by slacker cynicism.

It's not supposed to work like it did in those old Mickey Rooney movies when Judy Garland and the rest of the gang would get together to figure their way out of yet another jam, when suddenly Mickey would jump up and shout, "Hey, everybody, I got an idea. Let's put on a show."

Next thing you know they've got a Busby Berkeley musical packing them in till it's standing room only inside the old wooden garage behind Mickey's house.

Nah, it's not supposed to work like that in this day and age, and certainly not on a major college campus, let alone an Ivy League university campus, with all its dusty committee structures that strangle fresh ideas before they have a chance to draw a first breath.

But it's happened and it's happening at the University of Pennsylvania, where a bunch of students, faculty and technical staff put their heads together in an effort to find a place where writers, aspiring writers and people with aspirations of becoming aspiring writers -- where anyone interested in writing -- could gather to talk, read and listen.

What they came up with is as ingenuously conceived and brilliantly realized as any Rooney-Garland production born from a joyous shout' "Hey, everybody, let's build a Writers House."

We are sitting in the window-lined alcove off the living room of the Writers House at 3805 Locust Walk on the Penn campus in West Philadelphia. The three-story Tudor Gothic cottage built in 1851 sits directly across the pedestrian walkway from the Class of 1920 Commons. It's backyard meets the backyard of the University of Pennsylvania's official President's Residence, currently occupied by Judith Rodin, Penn's first female president.

"Penn had its nose in the air about writing until about 20 years ago," says Al Filreis, an English Professor and director of the Writing Program at Penn. "I mean, they considered people like Shakespeare and Dryden to be CONTEMPORARY writers. The English department was out of touch with the students, with the world and with the world of writing.

"The faculty and the administration began to recognize the need to change the way writing was perceived academically and how it was taught, encouraged and cultivated. It took about 20 years for this big squishy thought to finally materialize."

Filreis is hip, wiry, bearded and enthusiastic.

"You should have seen the reaction from the students in my Modern Contemporary American Poetry class when I listed the range of poets we'd be reading, 'From Whitman to Walker,'" Filreis laughs.

Walker is Shawn Walker, a contemporary poet and Filreis' teaching assistant. She is sitting in a chair opposite Filreis in the alcove of the Writers House, where she directs day to day operations, which include a busy schedule of meetings, readings, discussions and performances five or six days a week. The university funds the events and provides the space. Anyone can participate in Writers House activities, undergrads, faculty, poets, essayists, itinerant journalists, barflies who hover over cafe latte at Borders, non students, almost anyone who falls under the heading of the "larger Penn community."

Says Walker, "Some people just want to be part of the writing scene." The writing scene includes music performed each Thursday night by the Virgin House Band Quintet, a group of jazz-blues fusion musicians who knocked on the door of the Writers House one day offering to play for free.

They perform in what's called Cafe 88, Arts Cafe, located in the living room downstairs of what had been the university chaplain's residence until his retirement last year.

Renovations are planned to make the Writers House more group accessible. "We're going to keep the chaplain's residence feel, except our reverence is toward writing," says Filreis.

One of the renovations necessary is upgrading the pre-war wiring to accommodate the Internet accessible computer terminals that are planned for the not-too-distant future.

In fact, providing high tech writing venues are one of core goals of the Writers House, and it was the interest and energy of Penn computer wonks that is as responsible for the creation of the Writers House as any other source.

Seated near Shawn Walker is Dave Deifer, who came to Penn from Korea by way of Allentown and stints as a teppanyki/sushi chef before becoming an aerospace engineer and accepting the post of techno-guru for Penn's Data Communications and Computing Services Department.

More importantly, Deifer is an activist poet who last year founded Cross-Connect, the first all electronic Internet-accessible university literary journal.

...Poetry has been moved
to aisle 12, between the get-well
cards and the pantyhose...
Private poems struggle toward print.

Deifer, Walker, Filreis and a hub group of about 20 others dared to dream, and more significantly, dared to work at their dream of creating a place where writing has a home, where those who love writing have chair waiting by the fireplace.

Corny? You betcha. As corny as saying, "Hey, everybody, let's put on a show" and then succeeding in mounting a smash hit on Broadway that started as a backyard musical.

For more information about the Writers House, visit their site on the World Wide Web at