Kelly Writers House serves as refuge for wordsmiths

The Courier Post Online
February 5, 2007

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The Kelly Writers House Arts Cafe

Photo by Denise HenhoefferCourier Post

See that house over there, on the University of Pennsylvania campus?

What is that house?

That house, with the second-floor balcony and the bay windows that frame its main room ... what is that house? Is it a fraternity or sorority house? Who's in there?

What it is, actually, is a combination refuge / salon / workshop space for lovers of the written word.

This is the Kelly Writers House, a literary dwelling with all the comforts of home.

Its residents include amateur wordsmiths and professional scribes, students and non-students, aspiring and famous authors (E.L. Doctorow, Cynthia Ozick, David Sedaris and Susan Sontag are just a few of the house's past guests), upstart poets and elder statesmen whose souls are alive with a novel not yet realized.

Founded in 1995 by an enlightened colony of Penn faculty, staff, students and alumni, the house continues to keep prose alive with more than 150 programs and projects held each semester -- everything from poetry readings and film screenings to writing seminars, Web casts and author-attended dinners.

Except for the summer months, there is a succession of free events held practically every week. Most are open to the public.

"Any given week, we'll have a famous author visit and speak, as well as have a lecture series and a reading by a local poet. It's really quite varied," said Jessica Lowenthal, director of the Kelly Writers House.

That's an understatement. Last week, for instance, the house was occupied by Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times war correspondent David Zucchino and noted author Michael McKeon (The Secret History of Domesticity), who both made guest appearances on Monday; on Tuesday, two films by Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts professor Osvaldo Romberg were screened; and on Thursday the house's first Caroline Rothstein Oral Poetry event featuring the recognized champion of poetry-slam strategists, Taylor Mali, was held.

"We try to keep our programs as eclectic as possible and spread out the writing genres. Each month, we can have multiple events that include poetry, journalism and fiction," said Erin Gautsche, the house's program coordinator.

Gautsche said she's already planning events for fall and, with the extensive amount of time that's consumed by this preparation, she lately has become a homebody of the house. She often eats three meals a day inside the house's kitchen -- one of 13 rooms here, which includes several furnished reading rooms with countless shelves of books, a dining area and staff offices upstairs.

Among the prominent, critically-acclaimed authors soon to be touring the house are John McPhee (Feb. 12) and Jamaica Kincaid (March 19).

They'll be followed by Gay Talese (April 2), the Ocean City native and renowned author (The Kingdom and the Power, Thy Neighbor's Wife, Unto The Sons) who helped create the New Journalism of the 1960s and continues to be regarded as a master of literary nonfiction.

Talese, 74, whose most recent book, A Writer's Life, was released last year, is no stranger to the house.

He first visited nine years ago. Then, in 1999, he was honored as the first Kelly Writers House Fellow and conducted a literary journalism seminar during that year's spring semester. Since then, the house's Gay Talese Lecture Series has showcased a different Italian-American writer each year.

"I remember the first time I came here. I was on the university's campus and, suddenly, there was this house, with people taking food out of the refrigerator inside. It seemed so out of the ordinary and I've never seen a meeting place for writers quite like this one. It's one of a kind," Talese said from his Manhattan home.

"The times I've spent here were very interesting and pleasant experiences. The students who attended my past seminars seemed to enjoy it and I felt that it was good for me and good for everybody who was there," he said.