NYU Alumni Magazine Spring 2008


House of Words

A new home for poets and writers

by James Jung

“This feels like I’m reading in my own living room…except I’m not talking to myself and other people are actually listening,” remarked poet Brenda Shaughnessy last November, igniting a roar of laughter in the packed front parlor of NYU’s Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House. Framed by a large, multipaned front window, Shaughnessy cut a figure of a lively houseguest, regaling a living room full of book-drunk students and literary enthusiasts with anecdotes and verse. By evening’s end, late arrivals shot questions from their perches along the staircase banister and impromptu conversations bubbled up amongst rows of audience members, all before the crowd spilled through the French doors and into the house’s back room for wine, hors d’oeuvres, and, of course, more spirited book talk.

This renovated Village town house welcomes anyone jonesing for serious book talk in a casual setting.

While this bohemian scene might seem befitting of downtown New York's literary culture, it's more unusual than some may think. For small fees, places such as Poets House and the New School have long offered reading series, but there wasn't a downtown establishment showcasing both fiction and poetry readings, all free of charge to the public. The newly opened Lillian Vernon Creative Writers House, however, has quickly filled that void.

Located at 58 West 10th Street, the house, formerly NYU's Alexander S. Onassis Center for Hellenic Studies, first opened its doors in January 2007, following a gift by trustee Lillian Vernon and a $2 million renovation that left the aging brick building's interior sufficiently modern without sacrificing any of its colonial charm. Today, it provides offices for such renowned faculty members as E.L. Doctorow, Sharon Olds, and Darin Strauss. But more important, by relocating the university's more than 90 full-time MFA students from a small wing of the English department, the house has given the creative-writing program a home base and, with that, a sense of identity. "The house has utterly juiced up the program," Strauss says. "What had been a fairly loose confederation of writers has turned into a tightly united community with the house at the center of that social universe." On any given day, students lounge with their laptops or chat across the sofas about their reading. "Our graduate students are here all the time," agrees poet and program director Deborah Landau. "I wish we had laundry machines and showers!"

But the house looks outward as much as it does inward, offering the greater New York literary community a homey forum, thanks to the popular weekly "Reading & Conversation" series curated by Landau. The public can drop by to hear the likes of novelist A.M. Homes, author and scholar André Aciman, and former New Yorker poetry editor Alice Quinn read, field questions, and stir up lively debates. "The result is both charming and nourishing," Quinn says, and the inviting atmosphere has drawn fans such as musician Lou Reed and performance artist Laurie Anderson.

Landau and staff are currently cooking up more events to ensure that lines between the house and the city continue to blur. Matinee readings have started, while "Writers in New York," a craft-intensive program modeled after Middlebury College's prestigious Bread Loaf School of English, and a Paris Review-curated salon series are both planned for the summer. Landau explains, "The idea is that we have this elegant house with all these writers living in the neighborhood, so why not invite them over?"

Photos © Peter Gregoire

“The idea is that we have this elegant house with all these writers living in the neighborhood, so why not invite them over?”

—Deborah Landau, poet and director of the creative writing program