Middlebury College grads return to read their published work

MIDDLEBURY — Exposed to such world-class literary institutions as the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf School of English and the New England Review, not to mention a dedicated and accomplished undergraduate faculty, it’s inevitable that every spring another flock of aspiring young writers takes flight from Middlebury College.
But where are they now?
Carolyn Kuebler, editor of the New England Review (NER), makes it her job to find out. Every year she assembles a handful of these alumni writers to read from their work during college reunion weekend.
“The event always comes with surprises,” Kuebler said. “We’ve presented some wonderful poets and fiction writers, as one might expect from a NER reading, but we’ve also had writers whose books are about, say, mushroom-hunting, neuroscience, or time spent in a Syrian prison. One year a playwright had a couple of other alumni come in and read the parts, which made for a particularly lively event. Other times we’ve had young adult novelists — their books were a big hit for the parents who’d left their kids at home.”
The ninth annual NER Alumni Reading will take place this Saturday, June 9, at 2:30 p.m. The public is invited to come to Room 229 in the Axinn Center on the Middlebury campus to hear the authors read from a range of poems, stories, essays, and translations.
In addition to former Middlebury undergraduates, the NER readings also typically includes one or more faculty members.
“The alumni are always glad to see their professors again,” Kuebler said.
In addition to Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies Michael Katz, pictured at right, whose critically acclaimed translation of Dostoyevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” was published last fall, this year’s lineup includes four alumni from the classes of 1968, 2001 and 2013.
Peter Knobler (’68), pictured at left, began writing about the New York City music scene for the Middlebury Campus newspaper as a way of keeping his hometown “alive in myself,” he said. He also felt it was his calling to “bring the latter half of the 20th century to Middlebury College,” he said with a chuckle.
In the 1970s Knobler wrote for a succession of “generational magazines,” including Crawdaddy, for which he conducted the first major interview of Bruce Springsteen — before Springsteen became “The Boss.”
“We were on the way to Sing Sing prison, where he was supposed to play this concert, and it was me and Bruce in the backseat of this car,” Knobler recalled. “He was three years younger than me, and I looked at him and I was thinking, ‘This is just a kid.’”
From Crawdaddy Knobler moved to Inside Sports — “from one adolescent passion to another,” as he put it. There he profiled basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who liked the piece and eventually engaged Knobler to help him write his memoir. The project launched Knobler on an unexpected career path: autobiography collaboration. His partners over the years have included Texas governor Ann Richards and fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger.
J.T. Price (’01), pictured at right, remembers the “ah-ha” moment that spurred him to follow a professional writing career. Middlebury College Professor Stephen Donadio was “tearing up while reading aloud from the first epilogue of ‘War and Peace.’ Literature is uniquely powerful: that’s what the moment said to me. A pursuit well worth undertaking.”
Price published some of his very first writing in the Addison Independent.
“During the spring of my senior year at Middlebury, I’d meet with Angelo Lynn every few weeks, at which time he’d assign an article and off I’d go. I did modest reporting work on town governance, as well as (book and CD reviews). It was fortifying work on deadline and helped me to build confidence in my voice before I moved to New York City.”
In 2015 NER published a chapter from his novel.
“I went to cloud nine on learning I would have fiction appearing in its pages,” Price said. “The immediacy of that feeling may recede, but I will not forget it.”
Salena Casha (’13), pictured at left, “was one of those writers who began as an engaged reader,” she said. “I was the kid who stayed up half the night reading books with a flashlight under the covers.”
Casha lucked out at Middlebury and landed novelist and memoirist Kathryn Kramer as her freshman adviser.
“I basically followed her around for the rest of my college career. She provided great feedback and was so supportive. Even to this day I occasionally send her emails.”
As an undergraduate Casha interned at NER.
“It was an invaluable experience from an editorial standpoint. The quality of submissions blew me away every time I dug into the slush pile, and it was eye-opening to see what life as an editor looks like.”
Later that same year she won a student scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
“The feedback I received really took my writing to the next level. It was the work we did on my short story that earned me a Pushcart Prize nomination.”
Laura Irei (’13), pictured at right, arrived at Middlebury thinking she would major in international studies, but then found herself looking forward to her literature courses.
“I took my first creative writing class during my sophomore year and almost decided to drop it because I didn’t know if I had the courage to share my work. I stayed in, though, and fell in love.”
Novelist and story writer Robert Cohen was Irei’s most inspiring professor, she said.
“I very much appreciated his taste, perspective and the kindness he showed me when reading anything, whether it was Nabokov’s writing or my own.”
While at Middlebury Irei also interned for NER.
It “made me realize that most of us write about the same things and that it’s the telling that sets a story apart. I was also inspired by just how many people care about literary writing and are willing to work for its presence in our communities.”
NER was founded in 1978 by Vermont poets Sydney Lea and Jay Parini and came under the full sponsorship of Middlebury College in 1990.Many highly regarded authors, including Rita Dove, Jennifer Egan and Louise Erdrich, were published in NER before they achieved international recognition.
Editor’s note: Reporter Christopher Ross is married to NER’s Carolyn Kuebler.

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