The VOICES Reading Series has been dedicated for nearly forty years to bringing emerging and established writers from across the nation to read for the St. Mary’s community. These readings typically take place on a monthly basis in the Daugherty-Palmer Commons (DPC) on Thursday nights at 8:15 and are free and open to the public. Each evening has a simple format: the invited poet or prose writer is introduced by a St. Mary’s faculty member and reads for about 40 minutes. At the receptions that follow each reading, audience members have a chance to mingle with the visiting writer who has just read aloud from his or her work. Over the years, St. Mary’s has been honored to hear the voices of poets and prose writers such as Mark Doty, Sharon Olds, Toni Morrison, and Lucille Clifton—and many more.
When VOICES series founder Michael Glaser arrived in 1970, his personal and professional mission was to expand the role of poetry on campus and to provide students with exposure to living, breathing poetry. By 1976, Glaser and Judith Hall began bringing poets to St. Mary’s for an intensive two-week summer program run on a shoestring budget called “The Festival of Poets and Poetry.”
In the early eighties, Michael Glaser asked poet Lucille Clifton, Maryland’s Poet Laureate from 1979-1985, to visit St. Mary’s for the first time. Knowing that she loved Maryland, Michael Glaser suggested that Clifton become a repeat visitor to the College—and she did. For close to two decades, Clifton taught at St. Mary’s and mentored student poets here.
Clifton’s presence also became the inspiration for the newly emerging VOICES program. While the summertime Festival of Poets and Poetry had been gaining reputation and momentum, the organizers wanted fall and spring semester students to have exposure to the world of contemporary literature that the summer festival brought to campus. The reading series was called “VOICES” because of Clifton’s insistence that the emphasis of the series should be on hearing voices of justice, fairness, and human compassion. After all, the VOICES series began, in the words of Michael Glaser, “not because poetry matters, but because what poetry is about matters.”
This effort to bring the world of contemporary writing to the St. Mary’s community has been very successful. In the Summer 2005 edition of The Mulberry Tree, Wrenn Heisler ’99 writes, “I knew I wanted to be an English major when I heard Robert Hass read. I knew I wanted to be passionate and precise about life and my family when I heard Lucille Clifton read. I knew I was doing the right thing in being an environmentalist when I heard W.S. Merwin read. I knew I wanted to teach when I took my first class with Michael Glaser. I knew I had never looked into eyes as intense as those of Adrienne Rich when I met her at St. Mary’s.”
“I met her,” Heisler continues. “There I was—a measly little English major at St. Mary’s, and I was taking dinner with Adrienne Rich, one of the most illuminating poets of our time.” In fact, all of the writers Heisler mentions are luminaries. Over the past thirty years, the collection of individuals who have come to read at St. Mary’s is astonishing.
Poets such as Robert Bly, Mary Oliver, Amiri Baraka, Toi Derricotte, and Li-Young Lee have been just a few of the many inspirational voices heard by the St. Mary’s community through the VOICES series. In 2008, Glaser turned the directorship over to Karen Leona Anderson, who has maintained its focus on bringing quality writing and writers to campus along with an emphasis on diversity, collaboration, and aesthetic breadth.
In addition to individual readings, the VOICES Reading Series has also broadened to include a variety of reading formats linking readers to writers. St. Mary’s alumni, such as Tony Quick and Michelle Johnson, have read from their work; seniors have participated in Senior Invitational Readings; a Women Writers Reading group of female voices has been a regular feature of the Series; and in recent years, the Writer’s Harvest—a group reading led by English faculty member Jennifer Cognard-Black—has raised money to fight hunger. The VOICES series also works each year with the Environmental Studies department, International Languages and Cultures, and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies to host cross-disciplinary readings.
Those who have attended the readings frequently cite them as formative events in their lives as poets and writers. “That one reading changed my life,” is a common refrain from alumni such as Randy Bridgeman, who has continued to write and publish poetry since graduation. Many others have also gone on to become poets, or have found themselves teaching subjects such as art, poetry, and creative writing. Others remember the ideas behind the work, and have found their passions piqued by the subject matter of an evening gathering. For many of those who attended St. Mary’s, VOICES serves to inspire a lifelong passion for reading and writing.
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