English Reading Series inspires writers, community

Sunni Wilkinson addresses an audience of students gathered to hear her reading. Wilkinson is one of the authors who has participated in the English Reading Series during the Winter 2017 semester. (Maddi Driggs)

BYU Professor Michael Lavers sees his decision to attend the English department’s weekly reading series as a life-changing event.

Lavers was an undergraduate at BYU when he started attending the series, knowing he wanted to write but uncertain about which path to take. He’d never considered writing poetry or reading it seriously, but a reading by poet Mark Halliday changed Lavers’s perspective and path.

Lavers now directs the English Reading Series, a weekly event held on Fridays at noon in the HBLL auditorium. The series started in 1999 and brings in renowned local, national and international authors, who read their work aloud. They also participate in Q&A sessions for students and community members.

Lavers said the main motivation behind the series was to expose students to a broad variety of authors, styles and genres. The series also provides an opportunity for the creative writing community to make connections and learn from each other.

The creative writing faculty gathers every year to brainstorm and select writers to invite to the series. They try to focus on authors who recently published a book or writers who are doing exemplary work in their field. They invite writers from all genres, from nonfiction to poetry to fantasy and science fiction.

Creative writing professor Joey Franklin said they want the visiting authors to be people who can “provide not just a reading, but an awareness of the creative writing discipline, of publishing, of teaching. Someone who can give our students a different take on the industry.”

Lavers invites the authors, arranges their travel and hosts them when they arrive. Authors often visit classes or have extended Q&A sessions with English students where they talk about the craft and business of writing in their genre before their reading begins.

The readings themselves begin with announcements and a prayer before a graduate student introduces the author and the piece they will read. The author usually reads for 25-35 minutes.

Franklin said questions directed toward the writers involve everything from the nitty-gritty, sentence-level craft of creative writing to the “headaches” of trying to get published and finding a job.

Franklin said the writers always leave campus with good things to say about BYU.

“Universally, writers are really impressed with the students we have here, and with the program that we run,” Franklin said. “Occasionally in academic creative writing circles, BYU gets stereotyped, and when writers come here and spend time with our students and see the program we run, I think it goes a long way in dispelling misconceptions on what BYU is all about.”

Students and attendees also walk away impressed, Lavers said. Students often give feedback saying they value the program or they’ve fallen in love with a writer they wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.

Lavers said hearing an author speak the words instead of just reading them on the page opens up the work in a new way, providing valuable insights. He believes the series is crucial for aspiring writers most of all.

“It’s so encouraging and so helpful and so important that (students) meet on a regular basis with other people who have succeeded at what they want to do,” Lavers said. “To have living, breathing proof in front of you that this is a life path that is open and viable, and that you can succeed in, is hugely important.”

The English faculty cared enough about student attendance at the readings to create ENG 321R, a class that gives students credit for attending and preparing in advance.

English student Kyle Singleton first discovered the series through a creative writing class. He went to a couple of events and got hooked. He has taken 321R several times since then to get credit for his attendance.

Singleton said he could list seven or eight separate readings that have had a big impact on his life, including visits by former U.S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and well-known poet and translator A. E. Stallings. The readings open up new ways of thinking, teach empathy and introduce interesting ideas for writers and non-writers alike, Singleton said.

“I’m a firm believer that the humanities are essential,” Singleton said. “They’re called the humanities because they’re about what it means to be human. So even if you’re an engineering major or a math education major, whatever your major is, I firmly believe that you are missing something if you’re not engaging in the humanities in some way. And this is a really easy way to do it.”

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