The poet Robert Hass, one of the first instructors at LSA’s Bear River Writers’ Conference, used to tell a story. At another, faraway writers conference, an elderly man brought Hass a poem to read and critique. Hass obliged, and while he was kind to the poem, he also offered a few helpful suggestions. The man grew apoplectic at Hass’s critique and snapped the poem back. “Richard Hugo said he loved this poem,” the man said. Hass was flummoxed. Richard Hugo had been dead for 17 years.
“Hass realized that this guy had been dragging this poem to all of these different summer workshops for 17 years, probably more, using them to stroke his own ego,” says Keith Taylor, the director of Bear River. “Hearing that story, we knew that the rule had to be that people create new material while they’re here at our conference.”
The Bear River Writers’ Conference takes place at Camp Michigania, a facility run by the U-M Alumni Association on Walloon Lake in northern Michigan, near Petoskey. Writers stay at the site, producing new work and revising it in collaboration with writing workshop leaders. Before they leave, writers read their new pieces aloud at a large group gathering.
When Taylor took over as director of the conference in 2006, the program ran an annual deficit. Under his stewardship, the conference has developed a network of talented instructors as well as corporate foundation support, which has brought the program into the black.
Taylor says he is happy to have the conference run smoothly, and he’s proud of the writing work that gets done there.
“Most people who come to Bear River self-identify as writers,” Taylor says. “They get stuff done here, they go back and revise it, and then they publish it. Maybe it’s in a newsletter, maybe it’s somewhere really big. Either way, it becomes part of their career, and they’ve got something to build on.
“People tend to find what they’re looking for here, I think,” Taylor continues. “Some are just looking for time to write, and they find that, certainly. Some really want to be in workshops with writers like Antonya Nelson or Laura Kasischke. Others are looking for peer groups, and I can tell you that there are writing groups all over the northern Midwest that were started here.”
The State of Literature
The program not only affects individual writers, but students throughout the state of Michigan. The program gives multiple scholarships to college students at U-M as well as Wayne State University, Oakland University, Saginaw Valley State University, and Grand Valley State University. It also offers scholarship support to high school students from Ann Arbor, connecting poets and novelists from across the country with young writers from across the state.
“When we started, the attendees were all mostly people over 50,” Taylor says. “Now, we still have a lot of people in that range, some of whom have been coming for years, but we also have a lot more young writers and middle-aged writers, professionals and amateurs both.”
The program also connects attendees with northern Michigan. Working with the Indigenous Voices project, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, and U-M’s Arts of Citizenship, the conference brought around 30 Odawa to share their traditional style of storytelling with attendees several years ago.
And the program connects attendees to the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, who once summered on Walloon Lake and who set many of his early stories in the area. While Hemingway’s reputation has changed over the years—his attitudes toward women, for example, have been examined in the recent film Hemingway and Gellhorn and the novel The Paris Wife, written by LSA alumna Paula McLain (M.F.A. 1996)—much of his work from that early period feels timely, addressing a world defined by economic divides and cultural intersection.
And Hemingway's connection to the area is strong: He spent every summer on Walloon Lake before leaving for WWI.
“I think it’s good to honor Hemingway’s connection to the state of Michigan,” Taylor says.
The director is thinking a lot about history and legacy these days. Taylor, a beloved LSA literature professor and noted poet who also acted as the coordinator for the English department’s undergraduate creative writing concentration, is retiring from both teaching and directing this year. He’s sad to end his connection to the conference, but he’s eager for the next generation of writers to populate the ranks of Bear River faculty and to read and hear the new voices that will develop there.
“Ten years from now, I hope that the conference still continues, and that it still keeps a certain kind of integrity,” Taylor says. “That means, to me, that it keeps serving the writers who go there well.”
Registration for the Bear River Writers’ Conference begins at 9:00 A.M. on Monday, February 5, 2018.