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Christa Vander Wyst reads at a 2021 Milk Route broadcast.

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Milk Route Remains a "Rite of Passage" for Creative Writing Majors

Christa Vander Wyst reads at a 2021 Milk Route broadcast.

Milk Route is the English Department’s student reading series, held on occasional evenings throughout the year. The name is an homage to Carl Sandburg, who at the age of 13 left school to get a job driving a milk wagon so that he could assist in supporting his family. Thus, Milk Route honors the transitional period many creative writing majors find themselves in—nearly finished with their studies but still feeling far from careers as professional writers. Traditionally conducted as live readings in off-campus venues, Milk Route is considered a rite of passage for creative writing seniors where they can present their work to friends, family, and mentors. 

Featured authors are invited to read for 10 minutes each at their Milk Route, which works as a way to satisfy the oral presentation requirement that is a part of every Knox degree program. What makes the experience particularly special is the way it transforms a largely private endeavor—writing and reading—into a public celebration. Attendees include not only fellow seniors and friends, but any Knox student who happens by in search of an evening's entertainment. 

This year, with the restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic in mind, it was crucial to both students and faculty that the event continue, even in altered form. As a result, the 2021 Milk Route reading series was conducted without an in-person audience. Livestreamed from Old Main’s Alumni Room, the only other people in the room were fellow readers—all masked and socially distanced. Friends and family had to join in virtually.

Even in these conditions, senior Christa Vander Wyst said it felt “absolutely amazing” to read at Milk Route. “I was so grateful that the school still found a way to make it happen,” she said. “I don’t think that Milk Route really differed from what I expected,” she continued. “What surprised me was how supported I felt reading with such a small in-person audience. I didn’t know a few of the individuals in the room, but everyone was respectful and treated each other’s pieces with care.”

“I love how this is a tradition that invokes Carl Sandburg, which, as a native of Chicago, I greatly appreciate following in the great writer’s footsteps,” said Sebastiano Masi. He noted, too, that it “felt more like a performance or broadcast” than a community event. “[But] I’m used to that, as I am a theatre minor and have performed in many shows (including the radio show Dracula! The Radio Play last fall), but that was probably a very different feeling from years past.”

Vander Wyst said she felt safe during the in-person portion of Milk Route. “I was very satisfied with how students were spaced out in the room to maintain social distancing. I also appreciated that Nick Regiacorte cleaned off the stand between readers to prevent the spreading of germs.” Masi also mentioned his comfort with the event. “Knox’s [infection rate] numbers have been so low this term, and we have been tested so much that I was sure none of us even had it to begin with,” he said.

Professor Nicholas Regiacorte, director of the creative writing program, explained that though Milk Route lacked the usual “buzz” of being in-person, it was still a joyful experience. “It felt gratifying, cathartic, and a little defiant to gather as we did—in the face of the past year. As much as certain radiant images or sentences, the solidarity I experienced in the room was a great surprise—and most heartening.”

Students go about choosing what to read in various ways. Some are concerned with reading their best work, others their personal favorites. Some practice in advance, but others do not. 

Masi read two stories, “The Flower Woman” and “The God Under the Fronts Stairs,” for Milk Route, both written around his sophomore year. “I feel like ‘The Flower Woman’ does a great job at both embodying my love of genre, and my love of subtlety in a grander piece,” he said. “I choose both of these pieces over a perfect nonfiction piece about my grandfather, which although I feel like it is a better piece, it isn’t my trademark writing style.”

Vander Wyst read three short essays and a poem during her presentation. “I chose to read the 'essayettes' because it was important for me to convey stories of happiness during the pandemic not only for myself but for others,” she said. “The poem was also my way of thanking a faculty member on campus for her dedication to the creative writing students at Knox. I also felt that in sharing this poem, other Knox students would resonate with its content.”

“My impression is that this year's readers were more conscious of that solidarity. Also, perhaps, they were more mindful of the privilege and responsibility of making art when our reality is so fraught and subject to distortion,” said Professor Regiacorte. “More than anything, I hope they come away with a spirit of joyfulness and resolve—that their writing is essential, even and especially in the worst times.”

Learn more about Milk Route and outcomes for creative writing majors.

Above photo: Christa Vander Wyst reads at Milk Route broadcast, socially distanced, in Old Main.

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Printed on Monday, October 18, 2021