Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

DU to host prestigious writer’s conference

When one of the nation’s biggest annual writing events comes to Colorado, it’s no surprise the University of Denver’s writing program is a major sponsor.

The Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) — which hosts its annual convention in Denver this week — has earned its prestige in the writing world just as DU has.

There are a lot of connections between the AWP and DU, so try to keep up:

John Williams — the only National Book Award-winning author in Colorado’s history and one of the founders of AWP — established the creative writing program at DU, explains DU English Professor Bin Ramke, who has been a staple of the creative writing program for 25 years.

In 1966 Williams also co-founded the Denver Quarterly, which Ramke now runs.

Ramke, who was a member of the AWP before he joined DU, showcases the Denver Quarterly, DU’s literary magazine, at the convention’s book fair — which is one of the conference’s highlights.

The Denver Quarterly’s presence will be in good company — thousands of books and other publications will be showcased (and available for purchase at a discounted rate) by hundreds of small presses.

The book fair is Eleni Sikelianos’ favorite part.

It’s amazing,” Sikelianos says. “Seeing the amazing energy that is put into those small literary presses is unbelievable. It’s one of the most impressive, important book fairs in the country.”

Sikelianos, the current director of DU’s creative writing program, helped arrange for DU to co-sponsor the event.

Many of DU’s important writers and faculty — like Ramke and Sikelianos — have been involved with the convention for years, but this is DU’s first year as a major sponsor.

Faculty will be hosting events (there are hundreds of panels and readings), and presenting some of their own. On Friday night, for example, DU will sponsor a reading by Gary Snyder and Anne Waldman, an event anticipated to be well attended.

Earlier that day, there will be a fiction reading by current DU faculty members Brian Kiteley, Laird Hunt and Selah Saterstrom. Former DU faculty member Rikki Ducornet also will read.

“Our PhD program is one of the most highly regarded in the nation,” Sikelianos says. “It’s great to highlight that [at the convention].”

In some ways, the AWP has validated the importance — or even the existence of — a PhD in creative writing. When the AWP first began hosting the annual conference in the 1970s, it was only attended by a few hundred people and anyone outside of the association considered an MFA to be a terminal degree. A doctorate, especially in English, was often pursued to study other people’s work. It wasn’t intended for people to create their own work, Ramke explains. But times change.

This year, 8,000 people — including novelists, poets, academics and publishers from around the country — are attending the convention, and a PhD in writing is mostly considered impressive, not useless, Ramke says.

“One of the good and validating reasons for this growth is the rising sense that so-called creative writing can provide models for creativity of other sorts, and that understanding moves us closer to understanding what consciousness itself might be — or at least how it works,” explains Ramke.

DU, just one of a handful of universities that offer a PhD in creative writing, is extraordinarily prestigious, Sikelianos says. The program accepts only 4 percent of its applicants.

Ramke emphasizes that what DU’s program does is different than other programs of its kind.

“I do not claim it is better, but I think our way of maintaining a respect for the disciplines of literary study and a respect for the unpredictable and often un-productive methods of creativity is unlike what happens elsewhere,” he says.

Citing this, he says when he arrived at DU in 1984, the program had hired William Wiser, author of the novel Disappearances.

“His novel had received wide acclaim, but Bill didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, much less a doctorate, and yet the faculty understood his experience and reading and publication had unique pedagogical value,” Ramke says.

And yet, Ramke notes, many faculty at the time had a doctorate, including Williams.

“[The faculty] share a belief in the value of this uneasy alliance between academic discourse and creative unpredictability,” he says.

DU’s program allows students to study fiction and poetry as well as cross-genre approaches. Both poetry and fiction will be showcased at panels and readings at this week’s convention.

Other sponsors of the AWP convention include the University of Colorado-Denver, Colorado State University, Naropa, the University of Colorado at Boulder and Lighthouse Writers.

Denver-based writing workshop program Lighthouse Writers is the brainchild of Andrea Dupree, who teaches creative writing courses at DU’s University College.

The conference and bookfair will be held at the Hyatt Regency Denver and Colorado Convention Center April 7–10. For a list of events, visit Some events are free. However, most panels and readings require a conference pass that costs $205 for nonmembers; $45 for students. One-day passes are $105. The book fair on Saturday is open to the public.


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