Beginning April 11, Weber State University will once again stage the National Undergraduate Literature Conference. The conference has been growing since 1982, but - as the ad-lines say about celebrations and circuses - "This year's show is bigger and better than ever!"
In fact, over the years the success of the conference seems to have percolated throughout the school and created a community committed to the printed page.Weber may not have a graduate school or creative writing department, but that hasn't kept the school from putting its money where language is.
"At Weber State we've become very strong in writing all across the curriculum," says Candadai Seshachari, chairman of the English department. "More than 100 instructors are using writing as a learning tool now. And our writing center had 1,118 sessions with students last year. We've also put writing centers in St. Joseph and Ben Lomond high schools and, of course, we sponsor many readings and lectures from visiting writers and our two conferences, the Wilderness Conference and the Undergraduate Literature Conference."
It is the latter that's become the school's "showpiece." When asked to talk about it, Mikel Vause, who directs the conference along with Brad Roghaar, gives the event instant credibility just by ticking off the names of past participants:
"Raymond Carver, John Barth, Ann Beattie, Larry McMurtry, Ray Bradbury, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Harriet Doerr . . . we've been able to get quite a few big names to come in over the years," says Vause. "A lot of writers come because it is an undergraduate program. John Barth, for instance, said he wouldn't come for graduate students, but for our conference he'd reduce his fee. Visiting writers see this as a real forum for having some influence. Undergraduates don't run to secondary sources. They read something and then respond honestly to it. Writers like that. Ray Bradbury told the students `Don't let go of those honest, naive, explosive imaginations you have.' That seems to be the feeling of many of our visiting writers."
This year the conference will feature fiction writer Richard Bausch, poet Carolyn Forche and National Book Award-winner Tim O'Brien. Undergraduates from 28 states have already mailed in some 170 critical essays, hoping to be asked to attend. Ricks College sponsors a special course that helps prepare undergrads for the Weber get-together, and Texas A&M offers a $1,000 stipend to any student asked to read a paper here.
"I've been surprised by the kind of participation we get from professional writers," says co-director Roghaar, "but I'm not surprised by the interest of undergraduate students. Even when our advertizing goes awry we still get a great deal of interest from schools looking to do more with their undergraduate programs. The conference gives an undergraduate a chance to read a paper and publish, and that looks good on any graduate school application. The response has really been remarkable."
Needless to say, such enthusiasm is contagious. Weber State's literary magazine Metaphor has been doing well, and its flagship journal, Weber Studies, has been doing even better.
Under the direction of Nila Seshachari, the journal tends to gain status with each publication. The next issue, for instance, features posthumously the unpublished poems of May Swenson - along with an introduction by her brother, Paul, an interview with Mark Strand and several fine poems and prose pieces. Success has been so great, in fact, that next year the journal will publish three issues a year instead of two.
Add to that upcoming visits from poets David Lee andWilliam Stafford and some fine in-house writers such as Levi Peterson and Gordon Allred, and you have a writing program that can go one-one-one with most university programs in the region.
"For years Weber State has been the illegitimate child when it comes to local universities, and undeservedly so," says Vause.
The good writing and appreciation of good writing going on at Weber today should go a long way to rectify that.
The fee for the Undergraduate Literature Conference is $59, and should be received by March 29. For information call 626-6600.