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Aspen Writers’ Conference: The First 30 Years

Bruce Berger
Photo courtesy Bruce Berger
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“You pay a lot of money to travel a long way to be with a group of strangers who are going to criticize the thing you most care about, your poetry. How does that work? It’s a recipe for disaster.”Those, curiously, are words of the founder of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, Kurt Brown.Aspen had already known a great deal of literary activity by the time the Writers’ Conference was founded in 1976. Beginning in the late ’50s, a poet from Iowa, James Hearst, gave classes in an abandoned mining building. In 1964, the first Aspen Writers’ Workshop was founded by poet Robert Vas Dias, and in 1972 an organization called Aspen Leaves, Inc. was established by a young woman from India, Indira Singh. Many of those who became involved in the writers’ conference first met in Indira’s living room, where they helped organize a reading series and became editors of a literary review, Aspen Leaves, later Aspen Anthology. In 1975 Kurt Brown attended a writers’ conference in Boulder and decided that a similar event would be a natural in Aspen. By the following year, that event was in place.At a time when Aspen’s social and political life were fully licensed, the job of bartender was strategic and Kurt made the most of his connections. At the Snowflake Lodge he lined up rooms that cost students a mere $125 for two weeks. He talked restaurateurs, some of them present and former employers, into donating dinners to the faculty, and persuaded Aspenites to put them up in their homes. He held conference events in churches and the common rooms of lodges. A reading at Hallam Lake was never repeated because jets, croaking frogs and carnivorous mosquitos upstaged the poems. Also, actual money had to be spent. A $1,000 loan came in from Janet Landry at Colorado Mountain College. The 50 students, divided into four workshops, paid tuitions of $125 apiece, doubling the room bill. The four faculty members were paid $500 on top of being wined and dined, beginning with what became an annual welcoming dinner in my living room. Readings, lectures and workshops generated excitement that spilled into the Hotel Jerome garden until last call. Like such pioneering Aspen institutions as the Aspen Music Festival, the Aspen Institute and the Aspen Center for Physics, the Aspen Writers’ Conference was patched together, spontaneous and glorious.

The first conference was also a hazing of sorts and could have ended in tragedy. One of the participants was a diminutive man in a wheelchair who arrived in the care of a well-known novelist. On the second day, the novelist reported that her friend was in the hospital, his lungs filling with fluid. We rushed to Emergency in my Jeep, where the doctor ordered us to get him to a lower altitude immediately; in another day he could die. Because there were no available flights out of Aspen, we floored my Jeep to Grand Junction and got him onto a plane to San Francisco. Responsibility for the well-being of participants, a preoccupation over the years, was one of the issues that led Kurt to found Writers Conferences and Festivals, a national service organization, in 1990, convening conference directors for an annual policy discussion of such concerns as safety and liability. But responsibility among literati was hard-won and a bit of farce that might also have ended tragically preceded the opening of the second conference in 1977. Kurt, faculty member Karen Swenson and I closed the Jerome Bar, continued at my house over two hours of scotch, then proceeded to Kurt’s rental house, where Kurt discovered that he had locked the key inside. No matter, he would go through the transom. He placed a foot on the doorknob, jimmied the transom open and broke the glass as he fell through. He triumphantly opened the door from inside, bleeding over one eye. We rushed him to the hospital, where the cut was stitched, and a few hours later a very rocky Kurt Brown delivered a welcoming speech to 50 fresh poetry conferees.Such distractions aside, the electricity of 50 evolving poets living in one hotel for two weeks, creating new work, sharpening craft, organizing readings to supplement those of the conference, created an intensity that brought many back for repeat summers. During the fifth season, a two-week fiction workshop with its own faculty of four was added after the poetry conference, creating a monthlong event. As the conference matured during the ’80s, other directors – Aspen-based Ruth Ganz, Karen Chamberlain, Steve Alldredge and Ariane Zurcher; the imported Karen Swenson and Robert Shure – took charge, even as Kurt returned from teaching jobs on the East Coast to co-direct as time permitted. Evolving personnel expanded, cut and reconfigured the conference. Non-teaching visiting writers made guest appearances. New programs came and sometimes went: theater workshops, juvenile fiction, screenwriting, nature writing, seminars on the teaching of creative writing, symposia on magazine writing … In 1988, nonfiction arrived to stay, as did a complement of editors, agents and publishers the following year. Kurt returned to full directorship with his wife, Laure-Anne Bosselaar, in 1990, expanding the conference to its maximum: a faculty of 21 that included guest writers from Belgium and Singapore, presenting programs for 128 participants.

It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of a conference that required, during its early years, formal lectures as well as readings from its faculty – discourses that found their way into literary journals. The dedicated were rewarded by a line-by-line reading of Thomas Hardy’s “The Convergence of the Twain” by Joseph Brodsky and an examination of the myth of Eden by Larry Levis. My own most vivid experiences took place at home, with the vibrant personalities who endured my hospitality. When I dismissed some Jehovah’s Witnesses from my carport, poet Jane Shore objected, “What a missed opportunity! You should have pretended to rape me, or said, ‘Oh, we don’t live here, we’re just robbing the house. Would you help us carry out the TV?'” The following year a guest-bathroom light fixture fell on the head of a traumatized Mekeel McBride, an event that astounded me because the odds were many thousands-to-one against that hardware finding a head to drop on. I was on the verge of saying that I’d wanted to arrange for a poet to be struck by lightning and a light fixture was the best I could manage, but the litigious look in her eye stilled my tongue. The next season I delivered a phone message to poet Linda Gregg and found her on her knees in the same treacherous bathroom, washing her hands in the tub. When I scolded her for not informing me there was no water in the sink, she replied, “But I didn’t want you to fix it. I’d rather kneel to get my water. It reminds me of when I lived in Greece.” Finally, there were some 10 consecutive evenings of sipping scotch on the deck with the late Vicki Hearne, surely animal training’s greatest gift to literature, in the horsey aroma of her down vest. She talked in a continuous mumble that I never deciphered over the slur of Castle Creek and didn’t seem to mind that I replied in non sequiturs.Given the traditions and following of the Aspen Writers’ Conference, its cancellation in 1995 was a shock. The reason was simple: It was out of money. Over the years it had been funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, the City of Aspen, the Colorado Council for the Arts, gala benefits, private donations and even the world film premiere of a porn version of “Alice in Wonderland” – not to mention three years when director Ruth Ganz paid for the whole thing out of her own pocket. Literati of means convened, volunteers pitched in and, by the following year, returning and fresh staff had reinvented the Aspen Writers’ Conference.

Rechristened Aspen Summer Words, the resurrected Aspen Writers’ Conference reflects the very different time and place that Aspen is 30 years later. Gone nationally is the bohemian attitude toward literature that equated creativity with extreme mental states, and gone locally is the patched-up mining town where low-paid enthusiasts could pitch a monthlong conference devoted to craft. Today’s five-day writers’ conference features two- and four-day workshops in the morning for students of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, followed by afternoons and evenings of readings, lectures and seminars presented by well-known writers from around the globe. In 2005, for instance, a contingent of novelists and poets arrived from Ireland for a presentation of contemporary Irish writing, the kind of themed event that the conference repeats this summer with literature of the American West. Unlike the esoteric papers delivered by the conference’s first faculties, recent programs have proved popular with Aspenites and visitors as well as conference participants, increasing attendance and running the conference solidly in the black. The original Aspen Writers’ Conference was focused solely on the writer whereas Summer Words, a more extroverted event, has become largely a readers’ conference. In whatever incarnation, there seems little risk that the Aspen Writers’ Conference will crash again, and those present at its inception in 1976 are hoping to keep body and brain together for its 50th reunion in 2026.When Julie Comins resigned in 2003 after five years as director of the Aspen Writers’ Foundation, a call went out for poems in her honor. Although such masters of poetic form as Pulitzer Prize-winner Henry Taylor and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky participated at the writers’ conference, I’m unaware that any mode but free verse has ever been taught there, but because an ocean of time zones stretched beneath where I sat, I decided to offer a Petrarchan sonnet using the honoree’s first and last names as rhyme sounds in the octet and sestet. When it was completed, I realized that I had made Julie Comins a figure for the three decades of selfless, dedicated volunteers and professionals who have labored to create the exalted folly that is the Aspen Writers’ Conference:Writers, it is known, are an unrulyRace of slackers who devote their daysTo plying any waterhole that paysTheir self-effacing talents to get trulyBlitzed, then on their wake-up latte coollyCoach their charges in the sacred waysOf starving artists mainly starved for praise.None of this appeared to bother Julie.

Always aware that words were the real deeds,Amid the swirling ids she kept her poise,Attending staff demands and student needsWhile coping with a board of local Brahmins.Kudos, applause and other joyful noiseTo cheer a job well done by Julie Comins.


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