Notre Dame's Annual Sophomore Literary Festival celebrates its 35th anniversary Feb. 6 - 12 with a diverse group of writers from across the country
Scene Associate Editor
Like many good stories, it all started with one man's dream.
During his sophomore year at Notre Dame in 1967, J. Richard Rossi envisioned a literary festival, a gathering of scholars to celebrate the life and writings of William Faulkner.
Rossi was inspired by a convention he had seen at the University of Mississippi while in high school, and wanted to bring something of the sort to Notre Dame.
Dream became reality, and during the week of March 5, 1967, four Faulkner scholars lectured and presented a film series on the renowned writer.
Rossi wanted the tradition to continue, and he approached sophomore John Mroz to organize the next festival. Mroz accepted, and as the cliché goes, the rest is history.
At the beginning
Kurt Vonnegut. Joseph Heller. Norman Mailer. Ralph Ellison. The lineup of guests from Notre Dame's 1968 Sophomore Literary Festival sounds like the reading list from a English class on great American authors.
Yet the story of how these literary giants got to Notre Dame is far from lofty and academic.
"We were just a small band of desperados, gutsy and maybe a little nuts," said Mroz of the 18 sophomores who organized the second festival.
Determined to energize the campus with an infusion of good literature and important contemporary authors, the group of students traveled around the country, urging writers to come and speak on campus.
"We were pretty aggressive, to say the least," said Mroz, describing trips out to New York and California where the students literally knocked on the authors' doors to persuade them to come to the festival.
The famously reclusive Ellison was stunned to see a group of college kids on his doorstep.
"He said, `I told you `No' by letter, I told you `No' by phone and now here you are at my door in New York!," remembered Mroz. "But we got him to come."
During the tumultuous Vietnam years filled with protests and unrest at colleges across the nation, many found it hard to believe that students would have any interest in such a festival.
But Mroz and his fellow students approached several important literary critics for connections to bring authors to campus.
"[The critics] got a kick out of it," said Mroz. "A group of sophomores interested in literature at the time of Vietnam, a time of negativity on college campuses, ran counter to everything that was going on nationally."
But the group's persistence and belief in their work paid off. Although many of the letters they sent out came back with regrets, they still assembled an impressive list of guests.
"Most of the authors were amazed by our gutsiness and our vision," Mroz said. "We wouldn't take no for an answer."
Due to the cost of bringing such well-known authors to speak, the student group had to raise money in alternative ways — collections in the cafeteria, small concerts, even donations from their parents.
Getting money from the University was difficult, said Mroz, but finally Rev. Charles Sheedy, dean of Arts and Letters, agreed to give the group some funding and eventually enough was raised to make the festival possible.
"The festival was a huge success and it really motivated the campus," said Mroz. "Seeing the lines of people waiting outside Washington Hall — it was good for the University and good for the student body."
SLF drew national attention as well, with many literary critics in attendance.
According to Mroz, the group of sophomore organizers were pictured on the cover of the Saturday Review, an important literary magazine, with the caption "Every Mother's Dream Sons".
Extraordinary events that took place during the week of the festival — Martin Luther King, Jr.'s assassination and President Johnson's decision not to seek reelection — gave the festival an "electrifying" atmosphere, said Mroz.
"It was an exciting time, a very strange time," he said.
But overall, the festival's early and immediate success established a long-standing tradition at Notre Dame.
The tradition continues
Organizing the festival is still a long and involved process. The student committee (now open to all undergraduates, not just sophomores) begins work on the next year's plans in April, immediately following the festival.
According to this year's chair, sophomore Katie Ellgass, the biggest problem faced is still funding, due largely to recent budget cuts from declining attendance.
Most writers are now represented by agents, unlike the early days when Mroz's group could contact them directly.
Speaking fees of $15,000 and above for major authors make it difficult for SLF to attract the big names it hosted in the past, like Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Margaret Atwood, Chaim Potok and Seamus Heaney.
Yet recent guests such as Gloria Naylor, Tim O'Brien and W.P. Kinsella prove that SLF's reputation is still solidly recognized in the literary community.
"We try to find people who are inspiring and are willing to give their time to speak to us," said Ell-gass.
Acc-ording to Ellgass, even the rejection letters the committee received this year were positive.
"Robert Pinsky [a previous guest of the festival] wished us continued success and good luck," said Ellgass. "Isabel Allende wrote that she had heard so much about the festival, but couldn't attend because of commitments to her family."
Turning the page
The committee is optimistic about SLF's future.
Partner-ships with the Creative Writing department, the Institute for Latino Studies and the Core program have helped with funding and strengthened the connection between authors and students.
Faculty members continue to be an integral part of the SLF's success, offering assistance and professional connections to the student committee to bring writers to campus.
"The faculty know of these rising stars," said Ellgass, "and the future depends on strengthening the connection between faculty and students."
For example, this year's Core classes are reading the translation of The Inferno that will be presented at the festival, a connection that Ellgass hopes students will find "fascinating" and will encourage them to attend.
Workshops with the guests and book-signing receptions following their presentations are other chances for students to interact with published authors.
"Recently we've been trying to revive the festival," said Ellgass. "We're trying to spread the word that this is for all students, faculty and the general public."
An underappreciation for the festival is what drove Ellgass to become involved.
"Last year I went to the reading of C.K. Williams, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet," said Ellgass. "There were only about 30 people there — I was very disappointed that more didn't come and I wanted to change that."
This year's SLF committee, now under the direction of SUB, has therefore emphasized publicity. A display in the Hesburgh Library concourse will feature biographies and books of this year's guests.
The committee's Web site — www.nd.edu/~sub/slf.html —includes write-ups on each presenters and additional links to their Web pages.
"We're also gotten in stall notes, had an article in the South Bend Tribune, and we're passing out bookmarks [to advertise]," said Ellgass. "But the best way is still word of mouth."
This year's lineup
Over the last 35 years of the festival's existence, the range of guests has come to include poets, playwrights, screenwriters and songwriters.
From a slam poet to the author of "Sex in the City," this year's group exemplifies the diversity that Ellgass hopes will draw people from all over campus.
The festival will open on Wednesday night with a presentation by Prof. José Limon of the University of Texas at Austin.
Limon will discuss two of his books that highlight his interest in Mexican-American cultural studies: "Mexican Ballads and Chicano Poems, History and Influence in Mexican American Social Poetry," and "Dancing with the Devil: Social and Cultural Poetry in Mexican American South Texas."
Next is a reading on Thursday night by Robert and Jean Hollander, authors of a new translation of Dante's "Inferno."
This collaborative project between husband (a Dante scholar and professor at Princeton University) and wife (a Vienna-born poet and teacher) is part of a complete translation of the "Divine Comedy," with the "Purgatorio" and the "Paradiso" due out in 2002.
Friday night features a reading by Maura Stanton, winner of Notre Dame's Richard Sullivan Award in Short Fiction. Her latest book, a collection of short stories entitles "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," was published as part of the award by the University of Notre Dame press in 2002.
Stanton teaches in the M.F.A. program at Indiana University and has had poems and short stories published in many magazines.
The artist known as muMs will perform his slam poetry on Saturday night.
As an actor, writer, poet and activist, Bronx-native Craig Grant has appeared in several major motion pictures — Martin Scorcese's "Bringing Out the Dead" and Spike Lee's film "Bamboozled". muMs has also performed on Lollapalooza tours and has a recurring role as the Poet in the Emmy-nominated HBO prison drama "Oz."
Saint Mary's alumna Adriana Trigiani will present her two best-selling novels, "Big Stone Gap" and "Big Cherry Holler," on Feb. 11. Trigiani was the first student in the ND/SMC theater program to write and direct her own play on the university main stage.
Since her graduation in 1982, Trigiani has gone on to write and produce many plays, TV sitcoms, documentaries and screenplays, including the current film adaptation of "Big Stone Gap."
The final night of the festival, Feb. 12, features Candace Bushnell, author of the bestseller "Sex in the City", now a popular comedy series on HBO.
An aspiring actress turned feature writer, Bushnell will address the topic of "The Responsibility of Journalists in the Twenty-first Century." Her second New York Times' best-seller, "Four Blondes," was published in 2001.
In addition to these outside guests, the literary festival will feature three of Notre Dame's own students presenting original works.
Michael Rampolla, a junior English Education major, will read before Stanton's presentation.
Senior English major Gregg Murray precedes Trigiani's reading, and senior PLS major Eric Long will present his writing on the festival's final night before Bushnell's talk.
The three student readers were chosen by the SLF committee at an open coffeehouse last November, and Ellgass considers this an essential component of the festival.
"It's a great way to showcase student talent, since there are unfortunately so few opportunities to promote writing at Notre Dame," she said.
In true literary tradition, SLF's Web page offers a humorous definition for the festival: "`sophomore literary festival' 1. 35 year old Notre Dame literary tradition 2. opportunity for students, faculty, and community members to listen to, interact with, and emulate notable authors 3. a week-long ritualistic carnival focusing on ancient papyrus celebrations native to the Nile River Valley 4. FUN! 5. free admittance 6. warning: seating is limited, so come early! 7. a reception will follow each evening event."
While this definition may not be able to include the names of every guest the festival has hosted over the years, its solid tradition continues to attract writers from around the country to the halls of DeBartolo, Washington Hall and Lafortune — keeping the dream of one Notre Dame sophomore 35 years a reality today.
Ellgass and the rest of the SLF committee are looking forward to seeing the fruits of their labors pay off this week. "But the most important thing," said Ellgass, "is getting the word out so that people come from all over campus to enjoy the opportunities the festival offers."
[Editor's note: All photos of festival guests provided courtesy of SLF Web site and used by permission.]
All Scene Stories for Monday, February 4, 2002