GAMBIER — More than 200 high school students across the globe have been participating in the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop this summer — 107 during the two-week June session, and 100 more during the current July session ending Saturday. They have come to write as expressively as possible, receiving subject cues known as prompts to create poetry and prose.
Classes for the second session are taught by eight writing instructors who range from college professors to high school English teachers as far away as Portland, Oregon, to New York City. Each student, who also receives one-on-one instruction, reads his or her best writings to fellow students during night sessions at Ascension Hall, which follows seven hours of day sessions.
All writing is by hand with no laptops allowed.
“The goal is to get students to slow down their thinking and consider their craft more carefully, and to keep a strong focus on generating new work instead of revising existing pieces,” said Mary Keister, Kenyon director of News Media Relations.
The first week features visits from authors. During the second week, when students hone in on the craft of writing, prompts are preceded by Kenyon Review readings. Founded by John Crowe Ransom in 1939, the Kenyon Review is a literary magazine featuring poetry and prose from well-known authors through the years such as Flannery O’Connor, Dylan Thomas and Maya Angelou.
“It really has become an international draw,” said Andy Grace, a Kenyon assistant professor of English and the July Young Writers Workshop session director. We have students from Nairobi (Kenya) and Greece … people often say a Kenyan can be confused for a Kenyon. We are happy to have a Kenyan at Kenyon this session.”
The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop, starting in 1989 and in its 30th year, has been the most competitive yet for entry this summer, he said. About 500 high school students applied this year, with 207 accepted.
Those selected receive the chance to create their own anthology volume that contains each of their works — two pages per student, enough for a poem and short story, Grace said. They choose their own editing team, designing the layout and providing their own art images. The anthology must be meticulous with careful copy editing.
Rising high school senior Stephanie Chang of Vancouver, Canada, was accepted into the Young Writers Workshop by being the recent runner-up for the Kenyon Review’s Patricia Grodd Poetry Prize, selected from hundreds of entries. She was allowed to submit one poem for juried consideration, hers titled “Post Meridiem.” Her subject matter might be considered deep for one so youthful.
“It was about my mom, basically, and how we had a conversation about death and how we were scared of each other dying before the other does,” she said. The word “meridiem” means midday, being associated with the terms ante meridiem (before midday) and post meridiem (after midday).
Chang said one of her prompts for her workshop class Tuesday involved a 20-minute exercise during which the writer develops a theme — complete with dialogue, characters and setting. She chose a real-life non-fiction setting, in which she and her father visit an after-midnight sushi restaurant in Vancouver to discuss their lives.
She also enjoyed a writing exercise she called a “stream of consciousness” where students were prompted to immediately begin writing whatever thoughts came to mind without putting their pens down, “even if it was nonsense,” she offered. Chang also said she felt privileged to receive one-on-one conferences from her teachers, Adam Clay and Laura Scott — he a University of Southern Mississippi faculty member in multi-genre creative writing and she a professor of writing from Portland, Oregon.
Ceci Ganz of Mount Vernon, one of the workshop’s youngest participants as a rising 16-year-old junior at Mount Vernon High School, said she felt privileged to be admitted to the Young Writers Workshop filled with so many talented peers. She has spent three hours on just one occasion with her fellow writers at Wiggin Street Coffee, poring over ideas in the creative writing process. She has made lasting friends who will stay in touch through social media.
“I knew I was going to need to come in here with an open mind, because there were going to be a lot of amazing things we were going to get to do,” Ganz said. “What is important in writing is getting your thoughts across in a way that is meaningful.”
Ganz said the Young Writers Workshop helps most by encouraging teen participants to branch out into different writing genres — poetry, essays, fiction vs. non-fiction, and specific genres students are interested in. In Ganz’s case, that is science fiction. She enjoys stories with science and history intertwined.
Ganz’s mom, Karen Hicks, is a Kenyon biology professor. “I was actually just writing a poem about how I am sometimes upset that there is only one place for a middle initial on these tests (I take),” she said, explaining that she chooses to have two middle initials — A.H. She takes her mom’s last name of Hicks as her second middle initial and her dad’s last name for her surname.
Her mom is married to Josh Ganz, who works at SPI Spot, a reading and play space for children. “My mom chose to keep her last name, which encouraged me to be attached to that ideal as well. She is very strong and independent. That’s something I try to draw from.”
Kevin Kim, a Korean-American rising high school junior from Los Angeles, said having lived in crowded, busy “Korea Town” in Los Angeles, the opportunity to write on the Kenyon campus has been a breath of fresh air, so to speak.
“It’s crazy how many trees there are. It’s my first time seeing fireflies,” he said.
For one of workshop writings, Kim has written about Korea Town going through the Los Angeles riots. He likened his poem to a Taylor Swift song “with a love part and a breakup part.” His family has since moved to the San Fernando Valley.
“There’s some personal references in there like streets and places I like to eat,” Kim said. “That’s the ‘love’ part of the poem.”