Visiting Writers Reading Series sparks conversation on campus

Jaime Fields, Campus Life Editor

On Thursday, April 6, dozens of students and faculty members gathered on Zoom to hear a reading by poet Jane Miller. This reading was the penultimate event in the 2022-2023 Visiting Writers Reading Series, a program designed to bring guest authors to campus to read and discuss their work.

Katrina Roberts, the Mina Schwabacher Professor of English and Humanities and the Director of the Visiting Writers Reading Series, has been curating the series for over 20 years. According to Roberts, it began in 1998 after she became Whitman’s first full-time creative writing professor. In those few decades, the series has featured more than 200 authors.

“It’s imperative to provide an inclusive glimpse into the writing life of artists working in all genres, from across the country, whose experiences, orientations, politics, genders and aspirations differ. There’s nothing like hearing a writer voice their own work,” Roberts said.

Roberts has especially enjoyed having the opportunity to collaborate in a cross-disciplinary fashion: to bring writers whose work speaks to the academic themes or bridges different areas of knowledge, and hear the discussions that come out of these visits. 

Although most talks take place on campus, the most recent event took place online. This talk featured Jane Miller who has written twelve books, most recently “Who Is Trixie the Trasher? and Other Questions” and “From the Valley of Bronze Camels: A Primer, Some Lectures, & A Boondoggle on Poetry.” 

Professor Roberts was Miller’s student in graduate school at the Iowa’s Writers Workshop where Miller was a visiting professor. Coincidentally, Miller also taught Whitman Visiting Assistant Professor of English Shangyang Fang years later, and Roberts and Fang both agreed to reach out to Miller to take part in the series this year.

“We were saddened that given the pandemic worries Jane [Miller] wasn’t able to travel. But, the two inspiring virtual class sessions I had the honor to attend – thanks to Shangyang [Fang] – and Jane’s reading over Zoom on Thursday evening were all tremendous,” Roberts said. “Jane has not changed except to become an even more potent, wonderful version of the poet who inspired me decades ago … I love the way visitors bring language alive off the page. It’s been great to reconnect with Jane a teaching lifetime later.”

Miller was glad to reconnect with former students and appreciated being able to take part in an event like this.

“It’s urgent to have such a program for students because it literally brings a whole other world from the one they are studying,” Miller said. “Guests have a way of blowing the semester open, not because the faculty members are incapable, but rather that they are doing the deep, slow work of penetrating lovely minds. The guest is all about a single, intense moment. In it, the visitor gets to be a link from the classroom teacher to the student writer. Standing on a bridge, so to speak, that affords a broad view of literature, culture and study.”

During the talk, Miller read some of her work aloud and answered student and faculty questions. Miller spoke a little on her poetry between the readings.

“I love poetry. It’s a way of expressing emotions by using sharp, clear pictures, sounds and thoughts. I try to use the music of our alphabet in my poems so that people will be drawn in as they are with songs, nursery rhymes and stories that have their own internal patterns,” Miller said later in an interview with The Wire. “I try to observe the world and discover its beauty, especially because there is so much grief and suffering. I hope I am able to reach people by sharing feelings that are universal.”

Senior anthropology major Cheysen Cabuyadao-Sipe attended Miller’s online talk.

“Jane Miller’s energy and wealth of knowledge was highly appreciated. Her readings of poems and thoughts on poetry were so enriching, and I’ve personally tried to interweave some of her own tips and tricks into my own writing,” Cabuyadao-Sipe said. “Overall, I really enjoyed the experience.”

Senior psychology major Wako Soma heard about the Visiting Writers Series through taking an Intro Creative Writing course. Although she was unable to attend Miller’s talk, she’s attended the series in the past and really enjoyed being able to hear authors read from their own work and being able to ask them questions.

“Usually, you can borrow the visiting writer’s work through the Penrose Library. I try to read their work before hearing them read their own work, which has been really nice,” Soma said.

Soma has hopes for the future of the series and is excited for the possibilities.

“The [events usually] take place in enclosed places like Olin Hall auditorium or Hunter Conservatory, so to imagine it taking place outside on Ankeny or at the amphitheater would be interesting. Also, it would be so engaging if students were able to take part in deciding [what] authors to bring to campus,” Soma said. 

This year, there’s one more event left in the Visiting Writers Reading Series: fiction writer Rachel Heng will be doing a reading in Kimball on April 27 at 7 p.m. Professor Roberts is already planning the line-up for the next academic year and hopes to bring in more visitors for a set of writing workshops, either in-person or online.

“Virtual workshops obviously don’t have environmental impacts and are convenient for writers living at a distance,” Roberts said. “There’s nothing like in-person events, but virtual interactions with writers can be intimate, personal, transforming and convenient, as well. I hope to continue to offer both opportunities to the Whitman community.”

More information about the Visiting Writers Reading Series can be found online at