- A Tribute to Wyatt Prunty:Stories and Poems from the Sewanee Writers' Conference
When I first came to the Sewanee Writers' Conference in 1995, I was twenty-one, halfway through an MFA program, and so awed by the other writers I could barely bring myself to speak. It amazes me, looking back, that the Conference was actually a fairly recent creation, Wyatt Prunty having started it only six years before. In Wyatt's own telling, he was a newly arrived faculty member at Sewanee when administrators sought his advice on how best to make use of a legacy from Tennessee Williams, left "for the purposes of encouraging creative writing and creative writers." The Conference was born from that request, and Wyatt moved rapidly from idea to execution, inviting writers like Tim O'Brien and Mona Van Duyn to come teach the very next summer. By the time I joined the staff, the Conference already seemed like something that had always existed and always would, a separate world into which I had been lucky enough to find the door. [End Page 706]
Over the ten summers I worked there, the other staff members and I referred to the Conference as Brigadoon. And presiding over this magical, briefly accessible village—all the more magical because it was brief—was Wyatt, the architect of literary paradise, and the man who had brought us all there. Or perhaps I should say had brought us all together because of the centrality of the sense of community that Wyatt created and nurtured over thirty years. For many writers, the Conference has been not just a place of literary inspiration or connection but of confirmation that what we do when we create an image or a plot or a line of dialogue matters. That feeling, which can be fleeting in the rest of life, becomes palpable during the Conference, in a room packed with people caught up in the same poem or story or play, suspended in time and space by the particularly acute emotion that only a communal experience can generate. When we support other writers, when we listen to and read and teach them, we make art vital, and we make it possible. Wyatt's faith in that principle, and in the primary value of language and of thought, has been a wellspring.
What follows is a tribute to Wyatt by the writers who have attended the Conference over the years, although it is as much a tribute to the Conference, and to the people it has touched, as it is to its founder and director. As I take over as director, it's my hope and intention that we will sustain and grow the community the Conference has formed, for this generation of writers and the one after that.
Leah Stewart, the incoming director of the Sewanee Writers' Conference, is the author of six novels. She teaches at the University of Cincinnati.