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Stanford Writers at Yaddo

The Katrina Trask room at Yaddo, where Janet Lewis wrote "Geometries, North Studio, Yaddo"

Stanford University Libraries has created this site in conjunction with the New York Public Library exhibit, Yaddo: Making American Culture (October 24, 2008—February 15, 2009). Janet Lewis, Tillie Olsen, and Denise Levertov, whose papers are held at Stanford, all spent time at Yaddo in the 1970s. We have selected materials from these collections to offer insight into their Yaddo experience.

Janet Lewis

Poet, novelist, writer of short stories, and teacher, Janet Lewis was born in Chicago in 1899. In 1922, she published her first volume of poetry, The Indians in the Woods. She was married to author Yvor Winters in 1926, with whom she founded Gyroscope (1929-1931), an influential literary journal that served as center for a group led by Winters. She continued to write poetry throughout her life, the work first collected in Poems, 1924-1944 (1950) and later in Poems Old and New, 1918-1978 (1981). Lewis' first novel was The Invasion: A Narrative of Events Concerning the Johnson Family of St. Mary's (1932). She is best known for her historical fiction, including The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), The Trial of Soren Qvist (1947), and The Ghost of Monsieur Scarron (1959). She is also the author of a volume of short fiction, Good-bye, Son, and Other Stories (1946). Lewis taught creative writing and literature courses at Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley.

Yaddo, May 15–June 15 1979

Janet Lewis came to Yaddo after receiving a rare direct invitation from the Yaddo director, Curtis Harnack. Lewis gladly accepted the invitation, and her subsequent correspondence with Harnack reflects her high expectations of the upcoming experience. In a letter dated January 30, 1979, Lewis wrote, "I don't look on Yaddo as a retirement plan, but as a retreat which I would dearly love,” and later in March added, "I look forward to this adventure with pleasure."

Lewis arrived at Yaddo on May 15, 1979 and stayed there for a month. Her residence appears to have been an artistically productive experience for her, one which was linked to her appreciation of the place itself. Inspired by her stay in the Katrina Trask room, a large studio named for one of the founders of Yaddo, Lewis wrote the poem "Geometries, North Studio Yaddo." The poem follows the eye of the poet through the studio's diamond-paned windows and out to explore the environment beyond, skillfully representing the interplay between the poet's mind, the outside world, and the mediating influence of the poet's work space.

On her final day at Yaddo, Lewis expressed her appreciation for the stay in a letter to Harnack, saying, "the weeks here have been a happy and invaluable experience." Harnack, in turn, admired her poem and valued it as a commentary on the Yaddo experience. After receiving a copy of “Geometries,” he wrote, "you capture and enrich the experience in a most beautiful way" and "your, poem, "Geometries," beautifully evokes the feeling of that room. How pleased I am to have it!"

The poem was first printed as a broadside by Cambria Press in 1980, and was later reprinted in the 1981 Yaddo newsletter.

 

The 1981 Yaddo newsletter with reprint of "Geometries, North Studio, Yaddo." Read the poem.

 

Tillie Olsen

Novelist, short story writer, and feminist critic, Olsen was born in Nebraska in 1912 of Russian Jewish immigrants and attended schools in Omaha through the eleventh grade. Her socialist upbringing, empathy for the underprivileged, and innovative relation to language made Olsen both a radical and a modernist. Though Olsen published several widely admired pieces in periodicals during the 1930s, she did not achieve full national prominence until the 1960s with the appearance of her first book, Tell Me a Riddle (1961), a collection of stories notable for its subtle registration of working class America. Also the author of Silences (1978), a benchmark of feminist criticism, and of the novel Yonnondio (1974), Olsen "made the mysterious turn and became a writing writer" while she was a fellow in Stanford's Creative Writing Program during 1956-57.

Yaddo, May 9 – June 23, 1975

Tillie Olsen stayed at Yaddo from May 9 – June 23, 1975. Letters sent to Olsen by fellow Yaddo residents reveal the stimulating influence she had on their creative process. Sarah Appleton Weber, a poet and scholar who was at Yaddo with Olsen, wrote to her, saying, "I have to tell you today how much your comments have been helping me with my poems . . . the things you said—the little check marks with no words as well; and what you said through our brief talks about women. Somehow this has been most valuable." Notably, the correspondence between Weber and Olsen extended beyond their time at Yaddo, and they continued to provide each other with feedback for years to come.

Group photograph taken at Yaddo on June 11, 1975. FRONT ROW (left to right): John Haffenden, Maureen McCabe, Sister Bernetta Quinn, Anne Tabachnick, Edwin Honig, Altoon Sultan, Julie Gross, Tillie Olsen, David McKain, Jillian Denby. BACK ROW: Peter Klappert, Daniel Fuchs, Allan Gurganus, Morton D. Elevitch, Roger Rath, Sarah Appleton Weber.

Deena Metzger, who stayed at Yaddo a few years after Olsen and Weber, wrote the following to Olsen: “I received your gift at Yaddo—the first place of solitude and support for writing—I went expecting something a little elite, and therefore uncomfortable, but was seduced, totally, by the lakes and trees, and worked better than I ever have.”

 

 

Denise Levertov

Born in England of Welsh and Russian parents, Levertov was a recognized figure in postwar British poetry before emigrating to the United States in 1948 and adopting US citizenship in 1955. Influenced by such American poets as William Carlos Williams and Robert Duncan, Levertov moved away from the fixed forms of English practice, developing an open, experimental style. With the publication of her first American book, Here and Now (1956), Levertov became an important voice in this country's avant-garde. A longtime teacher in Stanford's Creative Writing Program, Levertov was a poet of lyric intensity and social conscience. Themes of political justice became prominent in her poetry during the 1960s, when the Vietnam War energized her activist temperament. Levertov was the author of more than 20 volumes of poetry, memoirs, and criticism, and also a former poetry editor of the Nation.

Yaddo, May 8 – June 7, 1975, December 15-30, 1975

Denise Levertov stayed at Yaddo twice in 1975, overlapping with Olsen during her spring stay. Like Olsen, letters to Levertov suggest that she had a positive effect on her fellow Yaddo residents and inspired in many a desire to continue sharing their work with her. After their time together at Yaddo, Sarah Appleton Weber sent an essay to Levertov, writing, "I'm enclosing an essay that accompanies the plant poems, about the first part of that incredible journey I made during my first Yaddo stay." Presumably, Weber sent the essay to Levertov not only because she valued her feedback, but because of the appreciation Levertov would have for the work based on their shared experience of Yaddo.

David McKain, who was also at Yaddo with Levertov, later wrote to ask her for a letter of recommendation: "I know you genuinely liked my book In Touch and I remember you were less than excited by what I did that summer at Yaddo (so was I) but if you'd be willing to consider writing a letter in my behalf, I could send you sample work from a new mss." Although it appears that Levertov did not like the work McKain produced while they were at Yaddo together, the connection they made there still enabled McKain to receive future support and feedback from her.

Michael Harper, another poet at Yaddo with Levertov, and who later went back, wrote, "Yaddo, brief as it was, wasn't what it was when you were there; I'm not trying to resurrect the past, but some outings are magical, and not to be repeated." Harper’s letter to Levertov once again suggests that the Yaddo experience is defined by the artists it draws together, just as much as by the place itself.

 

 

To learn more about the Janet Lewis, Tillie Olsen, and Denise Levertov collections at Stanford, please visit these pages:

Janet Lewis Papers

Tillie Olsen Papers

Denise Levertov Papers

 

Credits

Group photograph and photograph of the Katrina Trask room courtesy of the Yaddo Corporation

All other images courtesy of the Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Content and design by Joseph Geller

Last modified: October 30, 2008
   
©2005 The Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All rights reserved.