Reading Back the SemesterCreative Writing MFA faculty take the spotlight
David M. Deleon
n Monday, April 23, the Hunter English department held a reading for the Creative Writing MFA program’s Distinguished Writers Series, honoring faculty members who had recently published books. The reading featured executive director of the MFA program Peter Carey, along with program director Tom Sleigh, and faculty members Nathan Englander and Kathryn Harrison.
The event took over the 8th floor faculty lounge with food, wine and the company of Hunter faculty, MFA students and undergraduates, as well as a number of illustrious writers, alumni and supporters of the arts. A few hundred people showed up for the celebratory evening of fine literature and classy drinking.
Hunter College president Jennifer Raab spearheaded the event with a short speech praising the Creative Writing faculty for their many achievements. The four speakers have all won awards, including two Booker Awards (Peter Carey), the PEN/Faulkner award (Nathan Englander) and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award (Tom Sleigh). She mentioned, perhaps ironically, that these distinguished writers “don’t need to return to teach the next generation of artists, and for that we thank you.”
She also credited the influence of Hunter’s prominent writing faculty for making the Hunter Writing Program, “the best in New York” – as the Village Voice wrote in a recent article. Raab then introduced Peter Carey as not only a writer, but a “legend.” Carey’s face was recently immortalized on an “Australia’s Legends” series of stamps.
Before reading from his new book, “The Chemistry of Tears,” to be released on May 15, Peter Carey gave accolades to the faculty in the Creative Writing MFA program. The four teachers honored at the event, he said, were just some of the many accomplished professors in the program, chosen only because they have new books to promote. “We four are going to represent all of us,” he said.
After Carey, Nathan Englander read an excerpt of his short story “Everything I Know about My Family on My Mother’s Side,” which is collected in his new book “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” just released in February.
Kathryn Harrison then spoke, giving a long series of anecdotes about cats from one of her memoirs. She promoted her most recent book, “Enchantments,” a novel about the last days of the Romanovs told from the perspective of Rasputin’s daughter.
Creating an odd emphasis on felines, poet Tom Sleigh followed Harrison in her cat theme, reading from his new poetry collection, “Army Cats.” The title poem, which characterizes cats that lounge peacefully amidst tanks in a war zone, was inspired by a journalistic trip Sleigh took to Lebanon and Syria in 2007. Sleigh’s ironic yet deliberate tone carefully tread the delicate balance of nature and war, and pity and barbarity without coming down on one side or the other.
Sleigh also read several other more lighthearted poems, including a memory of him and his twin brother at football practice in “Self-Portrait with Shoulder Pads,” another a humorous take on small talk in “Party at the Marquis de Sade’s Place,” and an Irish folk tale retold in “Homage to Mary Hamilton.”
To close the evening, Carey came to the podium once more to read a long selection from his forthcoming novel, “The Chemistry of Tears. “The final event in the Distinguished Writers Series is Wednesday, May 9 at 7:30pm in the Kaye Playhouse. Reservations are required for the free program, featuring poet Robert Pinsky and the Ben Allison Jazz Trio.