Message from the Director | School of Writing in NYC

Message from the Director

  • Robert Polito, Director, School of Writing


    Writing Programs, whatever else they might involve, are communities, and those communities radiate from the talent, seriousness, and commitment of the faculty and students. Ours is a dynamic and widely-published faculty, many of whom work across multiple literary genres and artistic disciplines. This is a faculty galvanized by our New School lives as teachers and mentors. In turn, the achievements of our graduates are so multiform and numerous that I can only urge you to scan samplings of their books, stories, poems, essays, CDs, and films, or the notable journals they've founded, and the lively public readings and other events they curate.

    Henry James famously wrote, "We work in the dark—we do what we can—we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art." Writing tends to find its own defense in pleasure, yet at the turn of the 21st century, the actions we perform in our workshops and literature seminars turn out to be oddly social. We live in a culture that doesn't wish us to pay close attention to much of anything—a culture that increasingly assumes we aren't paying close attention, that increasingly assumes, in fact, that we don't know how.

    As a consequence of this relentless fictionalizing of our history, as well as of the omnipresence of the internet, the ordinary experience of the ordinary global citizen more and more resembles a life inside a Modernist novel or Modernist epic poem—Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Beckett, or Pound. The once radical innovations of Modernist literature—unreliable narrators, multiple voices, fragmentation, collage, ricocheting allusions, and the instabilities of language and identity—now are the expected conventions of our daily life, whether at home, the office, or en route.

    Close reading, or "reading in slow motion," is an act of resistance to this information age that turns out to be the best preparation for living in it. Attentive to the nuances of the real medium of literature—language—the close reading of poems and stories opens out into history and furnishes a ready template for the close reading of other social and political verbal performances, such as speeches, news reports, advertisements, and blogs, and can in turn be extended to other media: images, photographs, music, and films.

    Modern writers have often spoken of their writing as a sort of model for democracy—recall Whitman announcing, "I contain multitudes." The composition of a self in a Modernist literary work through (and against) the medley of voices competing for attention and representation offers provocative analogues for contemporary politics. For someone lost inside the complexity of our various inventions and technologies, there are the media‑saturated fictions of Joyce's Ulysses, the celebrity dramatizations of Stein's Everybody's Autobiography, and the collages of Eliot and Pound poems.

    People who don't write themselves sometimes ask with a rueful smile whether writing can be taught, as though cleverly tripping you up. But whether writing can be taught, it certainly can be learned, and that learning involves grace as much as craft, mystery as much as art.

    The New School Writing Program has always taken full advantage of our university's geographical location in New York City—home to so many gifted writers and so many vital magazines and publishers—and its charged history as part of the artistic and intellectual worlds identified with Greenwich Village.

    The New School has been a crucial creative institution for the writer's life in New York City for many decades—and now, more than ever. I'm honored and proud to be a part of this New School community.


    Robert Polito
    Director, School of Writing