This year, as the Creative Writing Reading Series turns 30, the popular talks continue a creative chapter of the College’s history. For almost as long as it has existed, the Series has been in the capable hands of Brenda Hillman, the Olivia Filippi Chair in Poetry and the Director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing, which sponsors the program.
Hillman took over the series nearly three decades ago from another trusted custodian and colleague: her husband, the poet Robert Hass. "Writers came to Saint Mary’s before I arrived," Hillman explained.
Starting in 1982, Hass ’61, the former United States Poet Laureate, helped organize and promote piecemeal talks by writers and poets. Since coming under Hillman’s care in 1985, the Series has hosted Pulitzer Prize winners including poet Rae Armantrout and notable writers including Adrienne Rich and Saint Mary's alumnus, poet and former professional basketball player Tom Meschery BA '61.
In the mid-1990s, the Series became part of the regular MFA programming, raising the visibility of the graduate department. Its format has also shifted from just a straight reading to include a short interview about the writer’s practice. Hillman said the frank and often lively discussion is a rare glimpse into the nuts and bolts of the professional creative writing life. “We feature writers as an accessible, important part of our culture. These are practicing artists,” she said, noting that MFA students in particular glean much from listening to the award-winning writers the Series attracts.
Being just outside of a cultural center like San Francisco, Hillman likes to emphasize that students and faculty need not leave campus to get their literary fix. Through the Series, which is free and open to the public, she explained, "We're bringing literature to the suburbs." Both the Saint Mary’s and local Moraga community benefit from the popular talks, which are typically an hour in length and have attracted up to 500 guests.
"Our events really mirror the Saint Mary’s mission to fully engage our hearts and spirits," Hillman said. "Because that’s what writing does."