A new home for PEN New England at MIT
Dean Deborah Fitzgerald and members of the School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences welcomed the PEN New England organization to the group’s new home at MIT during a reception held at the MIT Faculty Club on Monday March 5, 2012. The liveliness of the gathering, which brought together novelists, poets, scholars, publishers, agents, and members of the academy, gave a foretaste of the potential creative collaborations between the PEN and MIT communities.
Celebrating writing and the free exchange of ideas
Now located in Building 14, near the Writing and Humanistic Studies headquarters, PEN New England is the largest branch of PEN America, and is also affiliated with PEN International, the oldest human rights and literary organization in the world. “The mission,” said Executive Director Karen Wulf, “is to celebrate great writing and writers, and to defend the freedom of speech. We welcome all who are passionate about literature and the free exchange of ideas.”
The spectrum of PEN NE programs includes professional panels and workshops, prison writing programs, campaigns on behalf of writers imprisoned for writing, and special events, such as the recent "Lyrics as Literature" event honoring songwriters Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry. Each year PEN presents two distinguished literary awards, the PEN/Hemingway for best American debut fiction and the PEN New England/Winship Award for the best New England writers of fiction, poetry, and non-fiction.
In a toast, Dean Fitzgerald said, “We are really very honored to have the PEN New England writing community based here at MIT.” The match is a natural, she said, citing common purposes of ideas and creativity. Fitzgerald noted that the Institute is a longstanding home to distinguished literature and writing faculties whose awards include the Pulitzer prize, National Book Award, Peabody Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Through these and other SHASS faculties, the Institute gives all undergraduates sustained training in writing and critical thinking, skills that have become hallmarks of an MIT education.
At the reception
Top L to R: MIT professor Helen Elaine Lee; Dean Deborah Fitzgerald; PEN NE chair Richard Hoffman
Bottom L to R: MIT professor Tom Levenson; PEN Executive Director Karen Wulf; novelist Alexandra Marshall
Members of PEN expressed equal pleasure in the new relationship with MIT. Among those present were novelist and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll, novelists Alexandra Marshall and Christopher Castellani; Richard Hoffman, PEN New England chair; boardmember Amy Macdonald, who with Chris Lydon and MIT poet Erica Funkhouser runs the PEN Reading Series; designer Michael Borum; Jill Kneerim, of Kneerim Williams literary agency; publisher Helene Atwan of Beacon Press; authors Dale Peterson and Kim McLarin; Renee Loth, Boston Globe columnist and editor of Architecture Boston; poet Kathi Aguero, and novelist Helen Elaine Lee, who first catalyzed the new PEN/MIT connection.
Lee, an MIT SHASS Associate Professor of Writing and a PEN New England boardmember, first saw the possibility of a PEN/MIT connection. "I saw a great resonance between MIT and PEN," she said at the event, "and I am so grateful to MIT for recognizing that the work PEN New England does in promoting literature, service, the exchange of ideas, and free expression is MIT’s work, as well.
Literary MIT and new forms
Tom Levenson, Head of the MIT-SHASS Graduate Program in Science Writing, and an award winning documentary television producer, also noted the creative possibilities for PEN and MIT, observing that MIT is a center for the “many new forms that writing is taking.”
Other members of MIT’s literary community include James Buzard, Head of the MIT-SHASS Literature Faculty, Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Brain; Joe Haldeman, one of America's science fiction masters; Juno Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; Stephen Tapscott, poet and literary critic; Nick Montfort, associate professor of digitial media; and Philip Hilts, head of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships.
At the reception
Top L to R: novelist/Globe columnist James Carroll, MIT Corporation member Brit D'Arbeloff; editor Renée Loth
Bottom L to R: poet Erica Funkhouser; MIT Senior Lecturer Wyn Kelley; Beacon Press publisher Helene Atwan
Richard Hoffman, PEN NE Chair, announces the first PEN/MIT co-hosted event
In his toast and remarks, chair Richard Hoffman, observed that MIT is an exciting and meaningful home for 21st century writers who are, like MIT communities, engaging with creating and understanding new forms and technologies. Invoking the spectrum of PEN programs, Hoffman then announced the inaugural PEN/MIT collaboration: the 2012 Henry David Thoreau Award Event, to be co-hosted by PEN and MIT, and held at MIT, Tuesday, April 10, at 7 pm in 10-250. The award—for literary excellence in nature writing—will be presented to poet Gary Snyder, a Chancellor of The Academy of American Poets, and Professor of English at the University of California-Davis.
All are welcome to attend.
For more information visit the PEN New England website.
MIT SHASS Writing, Literature, and Media Groups
Writing and Humanistic Studies (WHS)
Story by MIT SHASS Communications
Editor and Design Director: Emily Hiestand
Reported by Judith Nies
Photography: Jon Sachs, Richard Howard, Donna Coveney (and friends and family with cameras)