Long before people were talking about an Indianapolis “brain drain,” writers at Butler University knew that something needed to be done to nurture our creative resources. “It always felt like writers needed to leave town in order to have a literary community and see what was going on in the larger, literary world,” observes Susan Neville, a masterful writer herself, and one of the founders of the Butler Visiting Writers’ Series. “So the idea was to bring writers here – to bring the mountain to Mohammed.”
That was in 1987. Since then, Butler has established itself as one of this country’s leading showcases for writers from around the world. Beginning every fall, the Visiting Writers’ Series can be counted on to bring from 15 to 20 writers to the Butler campus and, by extension, to this city. Over 300 writers have been here in all – seven, including Toni Morrison, Nadine Gordimer and Seamus Heaney, have been Nobel Prize winners.
From its inception, these programs have been thought of as a bridge uniting the university and the community. Fran Quinn, the poet who complements Neville’s predilection toward prose, explains, “What the writer coming to Butler feels is that we’re paying attention. We’re not just giving them a reading. It’s not enough to give them a reading. Not when you’re going to create other writers. If you’re going to create a culture that’s going to allow writers to be in existence, you’ve got to work a whole other way. It’s not a career. It’s a life.”
Perhaps nothing has exemplified this principle better than a story Neville tells about the time that Allen Ginsberg came for a performance at Clowes Hall. The author of Howl had learned that his books had been banned from the North Central High School library. No sooner did Ginsberg walk off the plane than he told Neville he wanted to meet the man responsible for taking his poetry from the library’s shelves. Neville managed to locate the man and invited him backstage so that he and Ginsberg could confront one another. But what promised to be a confrontation between two antagonists became, instead, a remarkably civilized exchange of views. They met during intermission. “Ginsberg was sitting across the table from this man who had a problem with his work and they had an incredible conversation,” Neville recalls. “They actually learned from one another. They shook hands.”
“What writers need,” Quinn adds, “is not only an awareness of their own writing, but a community that honors and values writing. If I”m going to get these kids really interested in writing, then they need a community to walk out into that says this is an honorable task, and will honor them for doing it. They need to come into contact with some of the best minds that are out there.”
To learn more about the Butler Writers’ Series call 940-9861.