Cheers and applause rang from thirty-odd screens as family, friends and colleagues un-muted to wish graduating students in the English department’s Area Program in Literary Prose godspeed on their post-collegiate journeys. The program itself, created in 2014 as a parallel program to the Area Program in Poetry Writing, features a competitive application process, a two-year course of study and a creative thesis project to be completed in the second semester of students’ fourth year. Under normal circumstances, graduating students would read from their final projects and then enjoy a party. The coronavirus outbreak forced APLP Director Liz Denton to rethink how to best celebrate the seven writers from the class of 2020.
“Those of us who teach these dedicated students could not imagine forgoing this rite of passage,” Denton said. “Though of course it’s less than they deserve, by holding the live virtual reading we’re doing our best to fully celebrate the accomplishments of these steadfast and talented students.”
Creative Writing Professor Micheline Aharonian Marcom emphasized the circumstances and global challenges APLP students have had to face to complete their studies.
“Our goal is simple,” Marcom said, “to celebrate the students’ accomplishments, to mark the end of the term and of the APLP Program, to share the work publicly, and to in this particular case call attention to the extraordinary achievement of doing so under the circumstances of remote learning and study.”
The bulk of the program, which took place May 10, featured pre-recorded readings from each of the students. Before each reading, another student in the program introduced the writer. This heartwarming touch gave visitors a look at the unique nature of the program, which Denton described as “tight-knit.”
“By committing to the serious and intensive study of the craft of writing,” Denton said, “students … are able to inspire one another, to engage in conversation with one another in and out of class, conversation not only about their own writing but about the continuum of works by writers, both canonic and current, that they aspire to join.”
The opportunity to perform intensive study in a small group appealed to many students in the program, particularly given the fact that most writers tend to work in isolation to actually create pieces. For Lizz Bangura, a graduating fourth-year College student in the program, majoring in Creative Writing was not her original plan — but the people in the program played a role in making her decision.
“I find our specific class to be very special,” Bangura said. “It’s just the seven of us. I can honestly say I love each and every one of them.”
Once she made her decision, Bangura said the program allowed her to grow considerably as a writer.
“I no longer write to a white gaze,” Bangura said. “I’ve learned that it’s OK to reject ‘the classics’ because the classics have rejected people who look like me since the beginning of time. I’m happy I found a major that lets me feel empowered in this sentiment.”
At the virtual reading, Bangura read an excerpt from her thesis, “Generations: A Lyric From Mother to Daughter.” Photographs accompanied her prose, which graduating fourth-year College student Dan Goff — who introduced Bangura’s work at the ceremony — called “beautiful and essential.”
As the ceremony continued with heartfelt words between the students, the strength and creativity of the graduating writers became clear. The series of readings provided a sampling of the variety of genres, styles and experiments the students had explored and refined throughout their course of study. Graduating fourth-year College student Andy Mangham elaborated on the meaning and inspiration behind the selection from his thesis, “How Gogga Prix Finally Went Too Far, and Doomed the Universe.”
“I believe very strongly in the power of literature as entertainment,” Mangham said. “We’ve somehow forgotten that for much of human history, ‘literature’ … has come in the form of stories, parables, myths, what have you. I want to bring back that merger of the insightful and entertaining.”
Mangham’s chosen excerpt, where a trickster goddess named Gogga Prix — whom Mangham described as “a bit of a knucklehead” — is facing punishment from the other deities for killing God, was another highlight of the virtual reading. For Mangham, the fact that the selection was “silly and gross and over-the-top” helped to illustrate his goal in writing the piece.
“It talked about real feelings, real ideas and — I hope — drew my audience in enough to consider these ideas and feelings on an intuitive level,” Mangham said.
After seven exceptional readings, the virtual ceremony continued with gifts from Denton and Marcom, which had been mailed to the students. The packages included laurel crowns, handmade by Denton, as well as a journal and a different volume from the Library of America for each writer.
In reflecting on the program, Bangura shared a sentiment on the bond between the seven graduating students.
“I can see us all being very successful in our personal endeavors,” Bangura said. “But I also see us occasionally reuniting, reminiscing about the times we stayed up all night to finish the ten page short story we started the day before it was due.”
To end the virtual ceremony, the whole call toasted the graduates and shared a last round of applause. Denton and Marcom congratulated the graduates on a job well done — and a promising future of creation.