Authors and Students Converge at Hillsdale’s Visiting Writers Program

Written by Katarzyna Ignatik

Pulitzer Prize finalists. A professor at Yale. A winner of the John MacArthur genius grant. Prolific writers of award-winning works. In the past three years, Dr. John Somerville of the English department has brought writers fitting all these criteria to campus with the Visiting Writers Program.

“Hillsdale brings a lot of speakers, a great number of politics, economics, history experts. This is the only program that brings poets or serious fiction writers to campus,” Dr. Somerville said.

He brings one or two writers on campus per semester. The visiting writers usually read from their work one night and give a lecture the next night.

“One thing I love the most is that I get to pick people I like,” Dr. Somerville said with a chuckle. He’s been running the program for more than twenty-five years.

The process of choosing the next visiting writer often happens through networking with previous visiting writers. Somerville remembers one case when he read an excerpt of a poem by B. H. Fairchild. This poem was so fascinating to him that he went to the library right away to print out several copies of it. Later, a visiting writer mentioned B. H. Fairchild. Through this writer Dr. Somerville got into contact with Fairchild, who has since visited Hillsdale twice.

Something Dr. Somerville has tried to do with the Visiting Writers Program is to truly make it for the students.

“Students have as much contact with visiting writers as possible at Hillsdale. They get to spend time with very fine active writers,” he said.

Dr. Somerville invites interested students to events like lunches and poetry workshops with the writers outside the formal lectures. My roommate walked around campus looking at trees with visiting poet Ellen Bryant Voigt, and author Joy Williams went to the Hillsdale County Fair with a couple of students. It’s through these interactions that Dr. Somerville hopes to encourage a better appreciation for modern works and modern authors.

“At Hillsdale we read lots of poetry from before 1900, and the language is quaint and outdated. The students here are good at rhyme and meter, but can they write about serious things today in the current vernacular?” Somerville said.

Somerville himself intentionally reads a lot of contemporary literature. A whole bookshelf in his office is devoted to works by contemporary authors, many of whom have visited Hillsdale through his program. “It’s good to know that there are lots of good writers still writing in the world,” he said.

Katarzyna IgnatikKatarzyna Ignatik, ’20, studies English. She strives to live optimistically and deeply, with a healthy sense of the hilarity of life. Katarzyna believes that the world should have more genuine community, witty conversation, and appreciation for pleasant little things like green grass and bread pudding.

Published in February 2019