Twelve years of the Zale Writer-in-Residence Program
Dana Zale Gerard, Newcomb '85
Inside the conference room of the M.B. and Edna Zale Foundation in Dallas, Texas, a wall of framed posters recounts a dozen years of the Zale Writer-in-Residence program at Newcomb College.
These posters range widely in size, design, content and color. Some are letter-sized, while most are 11x17". Some feature the author's photograph, others original artwork by students. The poster for E.M. Bronner's visit features a drawing of a woman's face pulled apart into a grid of woven ribbons. For the Ellen Douglas poster, a student sketched a white and a black hand, joined together in solidarity. The Rosellen Brown poster features a black and white photo of five women students sitting on a couch, each reading one of Ms. Brown's works. A few posters feature detailed biographies of the visiting author, while others simply list a schedule of events. This poster gallery pays tribute to the cultural diversity and evolving tradition of a visiting-writer program at Newcomb that is now well established and eagerly anticipated by faculty, students, and the community. The first poster features the bold white signature of Allison Lurie written sideways against a royal blue background. Billing Ms. Lurie as "Tulane's First Woman Writer in Residence," the flyer gives dates for a public reading and separate "Meet the Author" session: January 27 and 29, 1985.
One and one-half years before Alison Lurie visited campus, I was a senior at Sophie Newcomb College finishing a BA in both English and French. At that time, my family and I began discussing with Tulane our plans for alumnae giving. Tulane offered us opportunities to contribute to the schools of business, engineering and architecture, among others. I preferred to make a gift to Newcomb, but, specifically, I was interested in seeing more writers on campus. Although I was attending a "women's college," it seemed to me that most of the writers I had studied were male, most of the professors teaching English were male, and even most of the visiting lecturers were male. Perhaps my family's gift could bring Newcomb women some role models! With the encouragement of Newcomb Dean Sara Chapman, dear friend and professor Kippie Abrams, and my English professor Dale Edmonds, a proposal for a five-year grant for the Zale Writer-in-Residence was accepted in the spring of 1985. Funded by the Zale Foundation in Dallas, Texas, my hometown, the five-year proposal stipulated an annual donation to Newcomb College in the amount of $5000 to provide a woman writer's honorarium and expenses. The idea was that for 4 or 5 days, the visiting writer would be on campus and generally available to students and faculty. In a mix of formal and informal events, she was to guest lecture in classes in her area of expertise, meet with students to discuss writing and students' work, give a public reading and a "meet the author" interview with a faculty member. Recent authors have also led writing workshops for students, faculty and community members.
For my part, my family encouraged me not only to give back to Newcomb, but to participate in that giving- to hold the institution accountable and to watch the magic of the gift at work. Although it has been a challenge, my participation in this gift to Newcomb has been extremely rewarding. This program began as a five year pledge born out of a passion for literature, and fueled by the desire to fill what I perceived as an institutional gap. It has now become a twelve-year tradition of women writers visiting Newcomb College who not only teach and advise, but inspire those who encounter them to reach for our goals, whatever they may be.
Ellen Bryant Voigt with student members
of the Zale committee.
(l-r) Bryan Holmes, Suzanne Presto, Voigt, and Jessica Bergman.
Photo by Beth Willinger
Behind the scenes, the Zale Writer-in-Residence planning committee, consisting of faculty and students, meets throughout the year to organize, execute and evaluate the annual program. Original members who are still active include Dale Edmonds and Peter Cooley from the Department of English and Beth Willinger, Director of the Center for Research on Women. Currently, five Newcomb students and two Tulane students with pronounced interests in literature and/or creative writing serve on the committee. Ideally, students stay on the committee for several years and mentor younger student committee members. In addition to attending meetings, students provide administrative support, help with publicity, escort the author while she is on campus, and are invited to some lunches and dinners with the author. An older student might interview or profile the author for the Tulane Hullabaloo, while another will introduce the author to the audience attending the public reading.
As partners with faculty in planning the program, students learn that a successful event takes hard work. Administration is not always glamorous, but it is an important life skill that all college students need to know. In a Hullabaloo article about the 1992 visit of Sonja Sanchez, Professor Dale Edmonds reiterated the value of student participation in the program: "We love to hear student suggestions about guest writers; an important emphasis of this program is what the students can gain from a successful interaction with the Zale writer." Whether a student is on the committee, attends a reading, participates in a workshop, or is a member of a literature or writing class visited by the Zale Writer-in-Residence, the program provides many opportunities for student involvement.
Over the years, professors whose classes meet with the author have asked students to record their impressions. Their responses prove the dramatic impact each has made not only on students' work, but on their understanding of writing as a career. One student wrote about Dorothy Allison (1995), "The classroom provided a perfect setting to learn from and about Ms. Allison... Her advice about employment may have been discouraging, perhaps shocking for some, but seemed realistic." During the most recent Zale week, many creative writing students were shocked by, but appreciative of, poet Ellen Bryant Voigt's supportive, but painstakingly honest critiques of their works, and her insistence that poetry is more revision than "inspiration." One student reflected that Ms. Voigt's visit to his class both "unnerved and engergized me." A budding poet in Dr. Edmonds' creative writing class commented, "I have never had someone read a line of one of my poems and say it was bad, but I'm glad she did, even though I went home and cried." Wrote another student, "I'd rather be treated like a writer who's trying to go somewhere with her work than like a student who's too far from ever being published to be taken seriously, which [Voigt] could have done."
Before the visiting writer leaves, she meets with the committee to evaluate the week and give and receive feedback on her visit. On the whole, the visiting writers have been highly complimentary of the program. In a letter to Beth Willinger, Rosellen Brown offered these final comments: "I had a lovely time among you all, and went home with a good feel, I think, for what it's like to be a student at Newcomb. You run a terrific program: not inhibited by procedure, but notably efficient. I've been to many and yours is really as good as they get."
Poster advertising the 1994 visit of Rosellen Brown
Photo by Abby Graf, Newcomb 1994
In selecting authors to invite, the Zale committee looks for writers representing a variety of cultures as well as literary genres. Though some may object to the infusion of "literature" with "identity politics," the worlds in which Gloria Naylor and Sonja Sanchez live and write self-consciously as African-American women, Linda Hogan as a Chickasaw Indian and Dorothy Allison as a lesbian are extremely meaningful to the context of their literary endeavors and their development as influential and inspiring writers. Also, the majority of the Zale writers are, in one way or another,"southern" writers. Across the writings of Lee Smith, Dorothy Allison, Ellen Douglas, Gloria Naylor and Ellen Bryant Voigt, one can read cross-culturally how these women have translated strong roots of family and region into tools for making powerful and positive connections with readers.
To be eligible to become a Zale Writer-in-Residence, authors must have college-level teaching experience of some sort, and, in general, be interested in working with students. The committee maintains a list of notable women writers, and makes inquiries about whether or not the writer has the interest and time to travel to New Orleans for a week. Coordinating with writers' busy schedules is often one of the most challenging aspects of planning. Since 1985, the author's honorarium has increased from $3,500 to approximately $5,000. Though this is a fairly modest fee, many Zale writers have been additionally attracted by the rich literary history of New Orleans and by the opportunity to teach and discuss their work on the Tulane University campus.
In spite of the relatively small budget, the Zale Writer-in-Residence program has flourished under the committee's good management and direction. In 1993, the year after Beth Willinger served as Acting Dean of the College, the Zale committee decided to shift responsibility for the program from the Dean's office to the Newcomb College Center for Research on Women, a "natural" move which has proven very beneficial for the program's identity and continuity. Although the Newcomb Dean's Office is still involved, the Center is now homebase for the program's administration and hosts many of the Zale week events.
The Center also maintains an archive of audio and video tapes of author readings and interviews, as well as other materials about the writers visits. This article is part of a larger undertaking: I am working with Center staff on the early stages of a project to collect and publish the history of the program and to make significant portions of the Zale program archives available on the World Wide Web to scholars and book-lovers. One reason for archiving select aspects of Zale programming in cyberspace is that off-campus, too, the Zale writers-in-residence attract attention. The program is regularly anticipated and publicized in the local literary press, and well-attended by members of the New Orleans community. In 1994 and 1995 the Times-Picayune Book Section opined that the "Meet the Author" interviews with Lee Smith and Dorothy Allison were the "best author appearance" in New Orleans that year, and called Dorothy Allison's reading the "best public reading" of 1995. Soon, visitors to the Center site will be able to see photos and hear audio clips of all of these events!
It is the mark of a successful program that, in addition to inspiring literary achievement, the Zale Writers-in-Residence have left strong impressions on so many in the university and New Orleans communities. Perhaps the ultimate importance of a writer-focused program like the Zale is to remind us of the connections between art and life, that poets, novelists, essayists, short-story writers, and playwrights are struggling, thoughtful human beings, not just names on book-jackets or in the pages of magazines and journals.