The Zell Visiting Writers Series brings writers from across the country and world to Ann Arbor to engage with the community through various events, including a public reading, a Q&A session and workshops. MFA students are able to work directly with visiting writers through direct forums and feedback from writers about student work. The Q&A sessions are also open to undergrad students. It’s a great way to share a space with the visiting writers and be surrounded by people who are incredibly passionate about their work. During these visits, writers share their personal experiences behind their writing and encourage young writers by sharing their backgrounds.
The Zell Visiting Writers Series will kick off their first visit of the semester with visiting writers Jane Hirshfield and Brit Bennett. Hirshfield has written eight books of poetry, earning immense praise and numerous awards. Among these awards, she has received the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship, Rockefeller Foundation fellowship, Academy of American Poets Fellowship and National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. Brit Bennett returns to Ann Arbor after receiving her MFA at the University to share her work, which has been featured in publications such as The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. During her time in Ann Arbor, she received the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers and a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction.
“The real purpose of the visiting writers series is to bring the world of contemporary literature to Ann Arbor, serve the local community and also to serve the MFA students,” said Maya West, Assistant Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, in an interview with The Daily. “Many undergraduate Michigan students have a frame of reference for sports or politics or different kinds of celebrities. For contemporary literature, it’s a little more obscure. I would love to figure out a way to explain that.”
Many University students, particularly undergraduates, do not necessarily expose themselves to any form of contemporary literature beyond what is offered in the classroom. The Zell Visiting Writers Series allows students to spend time hearing from writers who are thriving and engaged with the impact of their literature. The series aims to bridge the gap between learning from classical texts studied in class and understanding the influence of contemporary literature today.
“I didn’t realize until I got to the university that the literary world is a living, breathing organism — not something that is sort of on a slab for us to dissect and study. It is something for us to talk to and engage with,” West said. “That can revolutionize our understanding and experience of all literature.”
In academic settings, students might feel like the tasks of essay writing and reading required texts forces them to pick apart literature in search of its meaning. West suggests that we engage with texts on a new level in efforts to understand how literature transforms, as well as understand how it is living among our current society. How does the literature of contemporary writers speak to the pressing issues and concerns of our world today?
“It is significant that young people who aren’t really involved with contemporary literature don’t realize that literature is a thriving, living community,” West said. “It’s not just dead people. It’s not just writing essays about names you’ve vaguely heard of.”
West describes those who are not completely involved with contemporary literature as an “untapped” population. She also suggests that the Zell Visiting Writers Series brings a new dimension to the MFA program and illuminates a practice of collaboration in writing that has existed for a long time.
“What an MFA program is, it’s an attempt to structurally create a phenomenon that has always been around. Writers have always sought each other out. The MFA program is the institutional version of that, which has pros and cons,” West said.
The series offers U-M students the chance to observe those in their field who love what they do. Regardless of how closely tied the series is to students’ intended career paths, this experience provides a valuable and honest projection of what successful people in their careers are doing and why they are doing it.
“To steep yourself in a culture that you want to be part of is one of the best tools for growth and self-care. You want to be a runner, start running and surround yourself with runners,” West said. “It really does matter what you take in. This is an incredible opportunity and resource to breathe all that in.”