poetry quarterly

10th anniversary


The Writer's Center

by Sunil Freeman


The language of fairy tales somehow seems fitting in writing about the origins of The Writer’s Center in the mid 1970s. Once upon a time, in a small town near a mighty river on the edge of a big city, a community of writers gathered to read their stories and poems and hone their craft. It wasn’t, of course, a fairy tale, but rather a lot of hard work by people who were riding a wave of creative energy that seemed to be spreading across the country. Allan Lefcowitz, a university English Literature teacher, called a meeting after learning that space was available for cultural activities in Glen Echo Park. His initial thought was to form a theatre group, but when he met with Merrill Leffler, Barbara Lefcowitz, Mary MacArthur and others on September 20, 1976, the vision expanded considerably. The writers who founded the Center saw a need for a non-academic creative community that would be open to all, from complete beginners to those who with considerable experience.

The Annual Small Press Fair in front of The Writers Center, c. 2005

The Park Service’s Creative Education Program approved their application to offer workshops in poetry, fiction, and printing, and author readings. The Writer’s Center was announced publicly for the first time at a November 1976 conference at Washington Project for the Arts. On December 17, 1976, the facility was officially opened as The Writer’s Center. The reading series was organized by Barbara Lefcowitz and Merrill Leffler, who invited poets Ann Darr and Roland Flint to give the inaugural reading. A tradition developed, as Ann and Roland gave the initial readings at each of our venues as we moved over the years, from Glen Echo to Sangamore Road, then Old Georgetown Road, and finally our home on Walsh Street in downtown Bethesda. The Writer’s Center also printed books in its early days, including Paul Zimmer’s With Wanda: Town and Country Poems, Shaping, an anthology edited by Philip Jason, and Nympholepsy by Roger Kamenetz. Printing workshops, led by Kevin Osborn and Mary MacArthur, complemented the range of poetry and prose workshop offerings.

It would, of course, be impossible to name all the people who made significant contributions in the Center’s earliest days. Some of the most prominent would include Jane Fox, who played a major role for 25 years, Patric Pepper, Peter Pastan, Stacy Tuthill, Werner Low, Ann McLaughlin, Patti Griffith, and David McAleavey. While the founding was clearly a community effort, it would be fair to say the person who pulled it all together, with the vision and perseverance to guide the fledgling organization along, was Allan Lefcowitz.

The Center became a meeting place for editors, some of whom have maintained contact through all these years, including John Elsberg (editor of Bogg), Merrill Leffler (of Dryad Press) and Gargoyle editor Richard Peabody. Elsberg also ran our open mic reading series for several years.

I first came to the Center in the early 1980s after sending some poems to my aunt Grace Freeman, a poet. I was thrilled by her response, which has since become a guaranteed laugh line, even at her memorial service: She said my poems were so striking, with such vivid imagery, that she believed I was Ready To Take A Writing Workshop! I knew nothing about “writing workshops,” so when I started to look around for one, I kept hearing about The Writer’s Center. I finally went, took a poetry workshop with Ann Darr, and was hooked. I took another workshop with her, then took the first of what became dozens of poetry workshops with Rod Jellema. Since then I’ve taken workshops with others, including several personal essay workshops with William O’Sullivan. I was too clueless, with too much ego, to immediately recognize the true meaning of my Aunt Grace’s suggestion, but when I did realize her actual intent I had grown to enjoy the workshop atmosphere at the Center.

My responsibilities over the years intertwined with the Center’s larger story. We gave up the printing press, but continued phototypesetting literary journals and books for several years, and that was my first job. I then became became managing editor of Poet Lore, the oldest continuously publishing literary journal in the US, founded in 1889 and now published by The Writer’s Center. I corresponded with poets and worked with the executive editors to put together each issue. The editorial decisions were made by executive editors, and there were a few over the years. I began to understand how much energy and commitment go into publishing a literary journal as I worked with the executive editors Roland Flint, Philip Jason, and Barbara Lefcowitz. All three, and those that have followed, put a lot of hard work into making it a great journal. Executive editors E. Ethelbert Miller and Jody Bolz now continue in that tradition, with managing editor Caitlin Hill. I was particularly honored in my tenure to work closely with Phil Jason.

In time I started to help Al as we put together the seasonal reading series. The reading series intentionally draws both the big name authors, but also emerging writers, and has always included open mic readings as well. Some names, over the years, include Allen Ginsberg, Robert Hayden, Carolyn Forché, Ursula LeGuin, Edward P. Jones, Lucille Clifton, Michael Ondaatje, and Robert Olen Butler. We’ve also had special events that fall outside the scope of typical readings. Perhaps the first such event I ever attended gave me a great introduction to what the Writer’s Center offered. Stimulating, informative, and humorous, it brought together Linda Pastan and Peter Davison, who was poetry editor of The Atlantic at the time. They discussed the relationship of poets and the editors who accept—or reject—their submissions.

Al Lefcowitz and Jane Fox retired, as Artistic Director and Executive Director, respectively, after 25 years. Subsequent Directors have been Karen Goodwin, Gregory Robison, Linda Sullivan (as an interim director) and our Director now, Charles Jensen. Charles (aka “Charlie”) is a poet, with several chapbooks and a first full-length collection, The First Risk. Charlie works closely with the Board of Directors, which now numbers slightly over 20. The Board guides the Center in many ways, expanding connections in the community, helping us get a new website, and working on broad, “big picture” visions for the future. Mier Wolf, a long-time friend of the Center’s who has been active in the community for decades, is the Chairman of our Board.

As we come into our 34th year, we’re offering well over 260 workshops annually, with readings and special events almost year round. New initiatives include the “Story/Stereo” literature and music series, in which we select two emerging writers and the musicians Chad Clark (of the band Beauty Pill) and Matt Byars (of The Caribbean), select bands to perform on the program. We are also initiating a new mid-spring annual event, LitArtlantic, drawing small presses and arts organizations across the region. Kyle Semmel, our Publicity and Marketing Director, has started a blog, First Person Plural, and a Facebook page to expand our online presence. A relatively brief entry can only give a snapshot of the organization, which continues to grow and evolve. If you click around our website, www.writer.org, you’ll begin to learn more about our programs and offerings.


Sunil Freeman is Assistant Director of The Writer's Center, and author of two books of poems, Surreal Freedom Blues (Argonne Hotel Press, 1999), and That Would Explain the Violinist (Gut Punch Press, 1993). Born in Raleigh, NC, he has spent most of his life in the Washington, DC area.



Published in Volume 11, Number 2, Spring 2010.


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