Kristin Kovacic believes that “Chautauqua students are the ones teachers will find in heaven.”
Kovacic, who is an author and essayist, teaches at Winchester Thurston School and Carlow University’s Low-Residency MFA Program. She was most recently a writer-in-residence at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center in 2015, and returns to the Institution as Week Eight’s prose writer-in-residence, along with poet-in-residence Jim Daniels. Kovacic described her workshop participants as “happy, intense readers who do their homework, generously listen to one another and bring years of experience and hard thinking to the table.”
“You don’t teach Chautauquans,” she said. “You get out of the way of their learning.”
Kovacic and Daniels will both offer readings at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy, as well as lead two weeklong workshops: “Your Life Is an Argument: The Personal Political Essay” and “Writing Lives, Writing Poems,” respectively.
The Thomas S. Baker University Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Daniels hopes to read one prose poem or piece of flash fiction from his new book, The Perp Walk, as well as from the three books of poetry he has published since his last Chautauqua residency in 2016.
“I hope to see some old friends from previous visits to Chautauqua at the reading, and I want to share with them what I’ve been up to lately,” he said. “And maybe make some new friends.”
Aligned with her upcoming Friday Brown Bag lecture, “Of Forests and Trees: Distance and the Art of Revision,” Kovacic will read her short essay, “On Usefulness,” from her new collection of essays, History of My Breath, during the Sunday reading. She plans to use this essay throughout her craft talk later in the week as an example of how to perfect prose — a skill she deemphasizes in her workshop in order to focus on “generating work” through reading and discussing genre pieces and overnight writing assignments.
“I find that writers new to the genre often have strengths in analyzing complex texts that can then be instantly applied to their own work,” Kovacic said. “Chautauqua readers, particularly, are so insightful. You learn by listening to them read, if that makes any sense.”
In Daniels’ workshop, participants will read and discuss poems “that deal with various aspects of writing based on autobiographical material — from self-portrait poems to family secrets” as well as write their own with attention to precision and clarity.
“I will try to focus on the key aspect of writing about the self: making the personal universal in order to create some emotional transference from us to our readers,” Daniels said. “So often, when we write about things that we are deeply invested in, we have a hard time making the poems accessible to readers who don’t know us.”
Although Daniels admits that questions involving the word “favorite” tend to make him “panic and cower in uncertainty,” he allowed that his favorite personal poems are “inclusive” — they have the ability to “(reach) out and (pull) the reader into the emotional landscape of the poem,” despite the fact that a reader might not share the author’s exact experience.
By naming her workshop “Your Life is an Argument,” Kovacic manifests her belief that “every life lived can be fashioned into an argument for a better life — many arguments, actually.” Memorializing is “a selfish intention,” for Kovacic, while the attempt “to make use of the hard-won knowledge that comes from working and living” is a generous one.
“Even in the era of constant communication, not enough thoughtful people share and interpret their lives in ways that could help other people right now or in the future,” she said. “If, for example, your father was an immigrant, as mine was, you have an argument to make about immigration that is absolutely necessary for our country to hear right now. If you’ve had an abortion, sent kids to public school, experienced or witnessed racism, made minimum wage, experienced weather before global warming, tried to raise a family in America — the list is endless — you have news for us as a nation and as a species.”
Daniels, too, will be involved in writing the personal — a practice that requires vulnerability and a sense of safety in the classroom. Echoing Kovacic’s sentiment, Daniels praised Chautauquans as “good readers and listeners” who “take each other seriously as writers, regardless of level.”
“At Chautauqua, the clock is ticking, and you have to try to create a community of writers in a very short period of time, amid all the wonderful distractions of other things going on,” he said. “The most gratifying is when people do come together and connect in a way that sticks — people keeping in touch, sharing poems long after the workshop has ended. And I have to say, at Chautauqua, the writers have that spirit that helps create community.”