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ENGLISHA Slice of Life at Bread LoafPoet Jennifer Grotz helps lead a legendary writers’ retreat.Interview by Kathleen McGarvey
breadloafFIRST POET: Founded by poet Robert Frost, Bread Loaf has run continuously since 1926. (Photo: Corbis)

Poet Jennifer Grotz calls herself a “Bread Loaf poster child.” The associate professor of English first went to the famed Vermont writers’ conference as a 23-year-old graduate student, paying her way by waiting tables in the dining room. Since 2005, she has been assistant director of the annual August conference that was founded by poet Robert Frost and has run continuously since 1926. This year, the conference will take on a pronounced Rochester flavor, when Grotz is joined by poet James Longenbach, the Joseph Henry Gilmore Professor of English, and novelist Joanna Scott, the Roswell Smith Burrows Professor of English, who are members of the 2013 faculty.

What is Bread Loaf like?

It’s like a summer camp for writers. It’s on this rural campus, very beautiful, on a little mountaintop in the Green Mountains, which is called Bread Loaf Mountain. That’s how the conference got its name.

What makes it unique?

People respect the history and integrity of Bread Loaf. It’s the oldest and the most prestigious writing conference in the country—and it was at Bread Loaf that the creative writing workshop, that staple of American universities, was more or less invented. One of the things I really treasure about director Michael Collier’s vision for Bread Loaf is an ongoing emphasis that the conference remain about teaching and workshops, not just networking with editors or agents, though they attend the conference as well.

Is it for writers just starting out?

Yes, but there are different ways to attend, depending on where you are in your apprenticeship and career. Now acceptance is so competitive—we had 1,700 applications this summer for 150 slots—that many writers attending are slightly older than in the past.

The competition is keen, especially for scholarship positions, but there is still a true diversity of people who attend every year, from the ages of about 20 to 80 and beyond.

How does it work?

Sometimes folks think you write there, but you don’t. The time is much too busy and packed with readings and lectures and workshops. It’s also very social. You do your writing during the year, by yourself, in your “garret.” When you go to Bread Loaf, you bring work in progress. So the workshop is about sharing work you submitted with the goal of receiving constructive feedback. Workshops are buttressed with craft classes and lectures and readings by faculty and fellows and waiters—pretty much everyone reads. When I get back from Bread Loaf, I’ve heard significant chunks from the entire landscape of contemporary American writing.

How does being at Bread Loaf compare to life during the academic year?

Writers by and large have been sort of tamed into the academy, and that’s a good thing. I think the university is a great ecosystem for writers, and I also think writers contribute a lot to the university environment. I consider myself a poet-teacher, and as such, I teach poetry as well as write it, so I talk about it with students, I conduct workshops, and then as a published poet I’m also traveling and giving readings. I have a hybrid and very lucky life getting to do that during the year, but most writers really don’t—and they crave ways to be part of a writing community as well as to continue to improve their skills. Often participants at Bread Loaf are lawyers or high school teachers or nurses or folks who have a professional life but still want to pursue their writing.

What do you value most in the experience?

Writing is lonely, and it’s competitive, and it’s filled with moments of doubt and rejection. Bread Loaf—with its emphasis on nurturing new talent, reading and conversations, celebrating all the writing of the culture—well, it’s kind of the antidote to that. That’s my hope.

Rochester Review (July-August 2013)