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The Kelly Writers House Fellows program, established in 1999, invites three distinguished writers to Penn every spring.

Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

Now in its 24th year, the Kelly Writers House Fellows program will feature novelist Jamaica Kincaid, poet Maggie Nelson, and poet Harryette Mullen.

Initiated in 1999 by KWH Faculty Director Al Filreis and Board of Trustees Emeritus Paul Kelly, the program annually invites three distinguished writers to the KWH every spring. 

“The students are very involved,” Filreis, who's been instrumental in the program since its commencement, said. “This is the innovative part of this. Typically, a university’s famous writers come, and the students don’t have anything to do with it.”

The seminar mirrors traditional undergraduate courses but allows connections with seasoned writers. This year, it will be under the guidance of Stephen M. Gorn Family Assistant Professor in English Simone White, who previously co-instructed with Filreis. 

The course's format involves an in-depth study of one writer's work for a month, followed by the writer's visit for student interactions. After each seminar, there's a public reading open to all. 

Additionally, selected students participate in an intimate dinner and subsequent public discourse with the featured writer. 

“It’s a pretty intimate exchange with a pretty famous writer,” White said. “We get to ask any questions that you want, about their work, about their life as a writer, about specific questions, about individual texts.”

This year will feature Kincaid, an Antiguan-American novelist and Harvard professor known for her autobiographical novels focusing on mother-daughter dynamics and the impacts of colonialism; Mullen, a UCLA English professor who blends orality and literacy in poetry; and Nelson, a poet and nonfiction writer teaching at the California Institute of the Arts, who combines poetry and lyrical prose. 

2021 College graduate Sophia DuRose, once a student of the program and now the coordinator, reflected on her experience and emphasized the seminar's profound impact. Having taken the seminar three times, DuRose mentioned that it was really humbling to actually speak with a fellow and participate in a conversation about their work. 

“And that’s a really exciting thing, as you know, an 18 to 19 year old just coming into the writing world to have that access,” DuRose said. 

College junior Dylan Fritz, who took the course last spring, echoed this sentiment. He cherished his interactions with poet Joan Retallack, gaining a fresh outlook on poetry. 

“It was really cool to not only be reading her work but also just having a personal connection with her was really cool as well,” Fritz said. 

Filreis believes the seminar benefits all students, whether or not they aim for a writing career. 

“I think it’s for anybody. I think anybody who’s willing to read, willing to be bold because you have to be bold to sit next to a famous person,” Filreis said. “I think any student is eligible for this course.”

Past seminars have featured other prominent writers like Jason Reynolds, Art Spiegelman, and Tony Kushner.