February 27, 2012
by Rana Tahir '13
Three Knox College students and a professor of English have teamed up to create the Knox Writers' House, an online archive that aspires to be an auditory map of American essays, poetry, and fiction.
The innovative website, which launched in January 2012, currently holds more than 1,200 audio files of poetry, stories, and interviews. The material was collected by Knox students Emily Oliver ‘11, Sam Conrad '11, and Bryce Parsons-Twesten '10 as they drove from city to city all over the United States. (Above, from left: Emily Oliver, Bryce Parsons-Twesten, and Sam Conrad. Illustration by Parsons-Twesten.)
Oliver, a native of Newtown, Connecticut, who now is a Knox College post-baccalaureate fellow, said the idea for the Knox Writers' House came from a string of events during her time at Knox.
A creative writing major, Oliver completed an independent study project with Monica Berlin, Knox associate professor of English. The project focused on audio recordings of poets, and it was inspired by Oliver's habit of listening to The Poetry Foundation's podcasts.
Not long afterward, they worked together again, helping Oliver become more familiar with writers from the Midwest.
Oliver decided to produce audio recordings of Knox College creative writing majors while they read some of their own work. When she studied abroad through the Knox Program in Buenos Aires, she recorded Argentinean writers as they read aloud from their work.
Upon coming back to Knox, Oliver reconnected with Parsons-Twesten and Conrad, and the three quickly renewed their friendship. They set off on a cross-country road trip to record the works of writers from all over the United States.
While the Knox students originally planned only to record writers reading their own work, the project eventually expanded. Oliver, Parsons-Twesten, and Conrad decided to ask each writer to read aloud from someone else's writing, too.
Oliver remembered the first time they tried the idea. "We showed up at (fiction writer) Lon Otto's house, and without warning him beforehand, we asked him to read a favorite of his. He didn't even have to think about it. He read the entire Addie chapter from William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying perfectly."
"We were watching someone read out loud the thing that made him want to write."
The students also recorded interviews with the writers, and those interviews became an integral part of the entire project, Oliver said. "They were really beautiful and moving."
The three students persevered together, working long hours and encouraging one another, Oliver said.
When they returned to Knox, Conrad edited the audio files, and Parsons-Twesten built and designed the website. Parsons-Twesten also drew all the sketches that illustrate the website. (Parsons-Twesten's sketches of Jericho Brown, above left, and Paula Cisewski, right. Both are among the writers featured in the Knox Writers' House.)
The site went live on January 9.
Funds for the project came from several sources available to Knox College students and faculty: the Ronald E. McNair Program, the Ford Foundation Research Fellowship program, the Richter Memorial Trusts, and a Knox College Faculty Development award funded through the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
"There is a long, storied history of artistic things in this town, in this college, in this room, in all these rooms." Berlin said. "Auden read here. Rita Dove received an honorary degree here before becoming poet laureate. Carl Sandburg. Edgar Lee Masters. So many others. We're all a part of that."
Berlin hopes that they can continue to record writers on campus, including student writers who can be added to the site after they graduate, and who will become part of the long tradition of the arts at Knox College.
Reflecting on her time with Conrad and Parsons-Twesten on the road, in Berlin's office, and in classes at Knox, Oliver summed it all up: "I do believe that Knox is a place that lets magic happen, and that's something I'll always believe."