Author Archives: molly

Lessons Through Literature

GutknechtAllisonA year or so ago, when Allison Gutknecht C’05 uncovered an embarrassing fact about the marching-band pants she’d worn in high school, she pulled out her phone and quickly tapped out a note to herself: Next book:, she wrote, Don’t Wear Polka-Dot Underwear with White Pants and Other Lessons I’ve Learned. “That title is where the whole thing stemmed from,” she says now.

Gutknecht had written three other manuscripts by the time she started Don’t Wear, which will be published by the Simon & Schuster imprint Aladdin on Nov. 12. Those first three stories centered on 10- and 11-year-old kids, but for her new project, Gutknecht decided to aim younger. Mandy, the narrator and main character of Don’t Wear, is an 8-year-old second grader.

Gutknecht spoke with us about publishing her first book, the art of writing for kids and the unusual way she met Ann M. Martin.

POLKADOTCOVERYou wrote Don’t Wear Polka-Dot Underwear with White Pants from 8-year-old Mandy’s point of view. How did you find the right voice for such a young narrator and make sure it was authentic?
It just kind of came out that way. My mom teaches second grade, so I hear a lot of stories about kids and school all the time. Mandy was written as an experiment because I’d never done an 8 year old’s point of view before and I wanted to try it. It’s actually harder for me to write from a teenage perspective because their lives change so rapidly. I find them harder to keep up with. Kids are kids to me, no matter what. Their problems are kind of always the same. It’s more universal and easier to tap into for me than older perspectives.

Now that you’ve been through the writing process from idea to published book, what are the biggest things you’ve learned?
For me, it’s always important just to keep going. If I’m working on something, I try to write a chapter every day. It’s good practice whether or not anything ever comes of it. I wrote the first draft [of Don’t Wear] very, very quickly. I think it was four days. Then I revised it many times after that before sending it to my agent.

I also think it’s very important to remember that no matter what story you’re telling, your perspective will be different from the way anyone else can write it. That’s the one thing you have major control over: writing it down and making it the best you can.

What are you working on now? Do you see Don’t Wear as the first in a series of books about Mandy?
I would love to write about Mandy for eternity. There is a sequel coming out on March 4 in the Mandy series called A Cast Is the Perfect Accessory. After that, we’ll have to see. I’m working on other projects also, but it’s pretty Mandy-centric right now.

Are there specific authors or books you remember loving as a kid?
Ann M. Martin, who wrote The Baby-Sitters Club, was always my favorite. I read The Baby-Sitters Club from when I was too young to read it until I was too old to read it. I read all of her other books, too: Ten Kids, No Pets; Bummer Summer; Yours Truly, Shirley. Any book she wrote, I read. There were other things I read as a child, but truly no one had the level of Ann M. Martin in my mind.

A couple years ago, I decided I wanted a kitten. I found out that Ann M. Martin was fostering a litter of kittens at her house. They were all gray-and-white tabbies, which is what my beloved childhood cat was. Long story short, I contacted the woman from the adoption agency and went to go meet the kitten. Ann lives about two hours north of New York. My parents and I drive up to her house. I meet her, I’m in her house, she takes me to her writing studio and I’m dying of happiness. She is the sweetest, nicest, most genuine person — just the person you would want her to be. Two weeks later, I went back to pick up my kitten.

Did you go back and re-read some of her books once you started writing your own?
When I was in grad school [at NYU], I wrote a children’s chapter book for my thesis and adapted it to a children’s pilot television script. For the research part of the thesis, I looked at relatable versus aspirational characters, including in The Baby-Sitters Club. I still keep up with the new releases of authors that I like, so I still read a lot children’s books, but I don’t do it specifically for research or anything. I do it because I like it.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni, Written Word

Ready for Homecoming? Its arts-and-culture focus turns 5 this year.


It’s been five years since the University introduced an arts-and-culture focus to Homecoming weekend — a focus we here at the Arts Blog happen to love. Each year we bring you a roundup of the events we’re most excited to attend. Here is this year’s list. (Note that advance online registration for certain events, available here, closes at 5 p.m. on Nov. 4. You can find the full schedule of events for Homecoming weekend here.)

FRIDAY, NOV. 8, 2013

  • Tour of Penn’s 19th-Century Architectural Masterpieces (2 – 3: 30 p.m., leaves from the steps of College Hall): David Brownlee, the Frances Shapiro-Weitzenhoffer Professor of Art, will guide alumni through the 19th-century architectural gems on campus. (Advance registration is required. A tour focused on Penn’s 20th-century architectural masterpieces departs from the top level of Garage #40 on Saturday at 2 p.m.)
  • Opening Reception: Penn Alumni Artist Exhibit (4 – 7 p.m., 2nd floor of the Inn at Penn): The Burrison Gallery presents its first show devoted to alumni artists. Works on display will include photographs, paintings, mixed-media and etchings, all of which will be up for sale. The exhibition will remain on view through Dec. 20, 2013.
  • Film Sound: The evolution of the subversive art of sound in movies (3:30 – 5 p.m., Claudia Cohen Hall): Alumni filmmakers David Novack EAS’86 and Nancy Levy Novack C’87 return as co-curators for the Alumni Film Festival this year. In this session, they’ll discuss film sound’s history and evolution. (Advance registration is encouraged, and a reception follows from 5 – 5:30 p.m. On Saturday at 5:45 p.m., the Film Festival will screen Head Games, which exposes the concussion as a leading public health issue and features several Penn scientists and clinicians.)

SATURDAY, NOV. 9, 2013

  • Classes without Quizzes: The City and the Museum (10 – 11:30 a.m., Meyerson Hall): David Brownlee will join Gail Harrity, president and COO of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and architect Tod Williams to discuss museums’ design history and their continuing impact. (Registration at
  • Life in the World of Theatre Today (10:30 a.m. – 12 p.m., Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts): This broad discussion of the theatrical professional boasts a number of distinguished panelists: Jed Bernstein C’77, Broadway producer and president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts; Lori Fineman C’92 W’92, executive director of Transport Group Theatre Company; Stephanie Kramer (Penn Parent ’16), board member of the Roundabout Theatre Company; and Brett Sirota C’89, CEO of The Road Company. Vickie Reiss, executive director of The Shubert Foundation, will moderate.
  • Curator Conversation: Jason Rhoades, Four Roads (11 a.m. – 12 p.m., Institute of Contemporary Art): ICA Senior Curator Ingrid Schaffner leads a Q&A discussion of the museum’s current exhibition, Jason Rhoades, Four Roads. Roads kicks off the ICA’s 50th anniversary year and marks the first U.S. survey of the artist’s work. (Docent-led tours of the exhibit will follow from 1 – 5 p.m.)
  • Classes without Quizzes: How to Teach Poetry to 42,000 Students at Once: ModPo, MOOCs, and Online Learning (4 – 6 p.m., Kelly Writers House): Al Filreis, Kelly Professor and faculty director of the Writers House, is in the midst of teaching ModPo — a massive open online course on modern and contemporary American poetry — for the second time right now. His students number in the tens of thousands and live all over the world. In this session, he’ll discuss teaching poetry via MOOC.
  • Gallery Hop (4 – 6 p.m., starts at the Arthur Ross Gallery): This year’s hop stops at the Arthur Ross Gallery (Auguste Rodin: The Human Experience), the architectural archives (Louis Kahn: Three Houses) and the special collections center at the library (Recent Acquisitions). A director or curator will be available at each stop to discuss the works on view.

SUNDAY, NOV. 10, 2013

  • Mural Arts Tour (10 a.m. – 12 p.m., departs from Inn at Penn): The group will explore Center City and West Philadelphia via antique trolley, taking in the murals each has to offer. (Pre-registration is required and there is a $35 fee for this event.)

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni, Museums, Music, Theatre, Visual Art

Kelly Writers House announces this year’s crop of alumni book groups

Last year around this time, we told you all about the free online book groups Kelly Writers House had created for alumni — and today we’re back to do it again! The first group starts in late October, so there’s still plenty of time to join up and get readin’ before then. Here’s an overview of the seven groups on tap for 2013-14.

goonsquadGroup #71: Oct. 21 – 30, 2013

Separate But Together: Links in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad

The focus: Selections from the Pulitzer-winning, alumna-authored A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan C’85) will guide the group’s discussion of “linked narratives.” Participants will examine what binds the Goon Squad stories together and consider the craft and style of these “independent” narratives.

The leader: Courtney Zoffness C’00, who co-founded Speakeasy at the Kelly Writers House as an undergraduate. She has taught creative writing at numerous universities since and recently won a 2013 Emerging Writer Fellowship at the Center for Fiction in New York. She’s currently writing her own collection of linked stories.

Writing-Down-the-BonesGroup #72: Nov. 4 – 14, 2013

Getting Your Words Out: Using Techniques from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones to Begin or Augment Your Creative Expression

The focus: First published nearly 20 years ago, Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within fuses Zen meditation principles with writing how-to’s. The group will read Bones and then employ its lessons and techniques, sharing the results with each other online. But there will be no critique of individual writing samples, as Goldberg’s methods focus on casting aside negativity and judgment.

The leader: Janet Falon, an award-winning writer who has taught the craft for 37 years and studied directly with Goldberg. Falon wrote The Jewish Journaling Book and has taught both students at staff at Penn for more than 20 years. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer and on WHYY-TV.

ArmantroutGroup #73: Dec. 5 – 19, 2013 and Jan. 2 – 16, 2014

The Poetry of Rae Armantrout

The focus: With her short-lined, complex poems, Rae Armantrout is considered a founding member of the West Coast-based Language poets. She’s published numerous books of poetry, one of which (Versed) won the Pulitzer Prize in 2010. She’ll also be visiting the Writers House for three days in April as a Kelly Writers House Fellow. While participants in this group are free to purchase one or two of Armantrout’s recent books, it’s not required. The leader will send copies of her poems via email.

The leader: Al Filreis, Kelly Professor and Faculty Director of the Writers House, who has led numerous online book groups and has taught several all-online, semester-long courses. He has won multiple teaching awards and was named the Pennsylvania Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation. He’s also published four books including, most recently, Counter-Revolution of the Word: The Conservative Attack on Modern Poetry.

brooksGroup # 74: Feb. 3 – March 3, 2014

The Poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks

The focus: Gwendolyn Brooks, a celebrated poet and the first African-American writer to win the Pulitzer Prize. While her best-known work is the rhythmic poem “We Real Cool,” Brooks’s full body of work spans a wide range of form and content. This group will examine her long career and consider what Brooks’s works reveal about 20th-century ideas of race, gender, motherhood, urban living and education. Participants will read The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks, the long poem “Annie Allen,” prose, interviews and listen to recordings of Brooks reading her work.

The leader: Julia Bloch Gr’11, an editor of Jacket2 and the associate director of Kelly Writers House. Her book of prose poems, Letters to Kelly Clarkson, was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award. She teaches creative writing at Penn and is also working on a book in literary studies focused on gender and the long poem in 20th-century American poetry.

frazierGroup #75: Feb. 19 – March 19, 2014

Writers House Fellows OOC

The focus: Modeled on the annual Writers House Fellows course, this open online course (OOC) will re-examine the works of four previous fellows and ask: What makes writing contemporary? The extensive Writers House archives will be put to full use here, supplying past readings and conversations with each of the fellows: Ian Frazier, Jamaica Kincaid, Robert Coover and Susan Howe. Participants will also read texts by each fellow.

The leaders: Max McKenna C’10, a first-year PhD student in English at the University Chicago, and a familiar face in the Writers House ModPo MOOC. He has published fiction in several literary journals and essays on modernism and contemporary literary culture both in print and online.

Lily Applebaum C’12, assistant to Al Filreis and coordinator of the Writers House Fellows Program. She is also a teaching assistant for ModPo and coordinator of the Brodsky Gallery at the Writers House.

dylanGroup #76: April 7 – 16, 2014

Blood on the Tracks: Tangled up, and blue…

The focus: It’s been nearly 40 years since Bob Dylan released Blood on the Tracks, but it’s still difficult to categorize the album. Many see it as strongly autobiographical, though Dylan has insisted it isn’t; others debate its status as a “concept album.” However you interpret it, the 52-minute record is both simple and complex, sweet and venomous — and the ideal subject for an alumni discussion group.

The leader: Patrick Bredehoft, director of the Penn Alumni Interview Program in the Office of Alumni Relations. Before coming to Penn, Patrick was an IB English teacher and college counselor at a small boarding school located outside Istanbul, Turkey, where he also served as the head of foreign languages. From 2010-2012, he worked for Penn’s Undergraduate Admissions Office, where he served as the liaison between the UGAO and the Kelly Writers House.

cheeverGroup #77: May 15 – 24, 2014

Short stories by John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald

The focus: Participants will consider two short stories: Cheever’s “Boy in Rome” (1978) and Fitzgerald’s “One Trip Abroad” (1930). Though published almost 50 years apart, both stories focus on Americans traveling abroad, in search of something they lack at home. This group will examine each story individually, then compare and contrast the two.

The leaders: Al Filreis, Kelly Professor and faculty director of the Writers House, and David Roberts W’83, a member of the Kelly Writers House Advisory Board and denizen of the alumni book groups who works in Manhattan in the investment business.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni, Written Word

Performing ‘Syrinx’ for a sphinx

Alumna flutist Mimi Stillman G’03 Gr’12 has spent the last year celebrating the 150th anniversary of composer Claude Debussy’s birth. Every day from August 22, 2012, through August 22, 2013 — 366 times in all — Stillman recorded herself playing Debussy’s “Syrinx for Solo Flute.” Why did she choose that piece? She explains on her website:

‘Syrinx’ is one of the most important works ever written for solo flute. Composed in 1913 as instrumental music for Gabriel Mourey’s play Psyché, this 2 1/2 minute jewel highlights Debussy’s ability to create a universe of moods and timbres in microcosm, to invoke the soul of the instrument for which he writes, and to spark the imaginations of performers and listeners alike. Originally titled ‘La Flûte de Pan,’ the work was performed from the wings during Pan’s death scene, giving rise to the current performance practice of performing Syrinx in a darkened room. The eminent flutist Louis Fleury gave the premiere performances and subsequently included the piece in his recitals.

After playing “Syrinx” in concert halls, on the banks of the Schuylkill and even at a family seder table, Stillman visited the Penn Museum last month to perform beside the institution’s large Egyptian sphinx.

She recalled the experience on her site:

Today’s Syrinx performances at the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology were among the highlights of my nearly entire year of performing Debussy’s work every day, and I have done so in many impressive and beautiful places. In this video, I appear in the Egyptian gallery with the largest sphinx in the Western hemisphere and architectural features from the palace of the pharaoh Merenptah (r. 1213-1204 BCE). The palace, located in Memphis in Lower Egypt, is the best preserved royal palace excavated in Egypt. The red granite sphinx is inscribed with the names of the pharoah Ramesses II, and his son and successor Merenptah.

As my sound reverberated against the ancient stone, I wondered about all the other sounds the sphinx, standing so grandly and impassively through the ages, had heard.

Want to hear Stillman’s sound reverberating against the ancient stone for your self? Check out this video, which documents the performance:

And check out WHYY’s video interview with Stillman:

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni, Music

This alumnus moonlights as ‘Ali G with an M.F.A.’

We were chatting with one of Penn’s art history professors the other day and she happened to mention a series of videos by alumnus Jayson Scott Musson GFA’11. “They are hilarious,” she promised.

It turns out Musson started posting the recordings back in 2010 — during his first semester at Penn Design — but they span the last few years and were all new to us. As his invented character Hennessy Youngman, Musson offers up “Art Thoughtz,” discussing everything from the debate over attending grad school to becoming a successful artist to “Poetic Waxin’.”

One biography of the artist described these Youngman videos as “pit[ting] hip-hop and art world idioms against each other in a dual parody of cultural clichés.” A New York Times article called them “insightful jabs made by a hip-hop personality whose faux-outsider perspective is intended to challenge the art world’s pretensions and inaccessibility.” Art in America said Musson was “Ali G with an M.F.A.”

Here’s Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube channel, and here’s his most-viewed video, “How to Make an Art”:

In addition to recording videos and delivering in-person lectures as Youngman, Musson makes art under his own name, too. He had solo shows last year at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philly and Salon 94 in New York City, and he also exhibited in group shows at the Contemporary Arts Museum — Houston, FLAG Art Foundation and Postmasters in New York and Penn’s own Institute of Contemporary Art.

At ICA, Musson’s work “Early Imperial Luxury Arts” appeared in the exhibition First Among Equals. Here’s what it looked like:

Photo: Alex Klein

Photo: Alex Klein / ICA

Musson also became the voice heard ’round the world earlier this year thanks to “Harlem Shake” — a song-turned-Internet-meme. (This Top 10 compilation alone has nearly 60 million views.) The song’s creator, a DJ who goes by Baauer, sampled the key line “then do the Harlem shake” from the song “Miller Time,” which Musson’s rap collective Plastic Little released in 2001. The only problem was that Baauer didn’t have anyone’s permission. If you’re curious, the Times published this detailed account of what happened.

Leave a comment

Filed under Alumni, Visual Art

Writing instructor Karen Rile C’80 on her new literary magazine, Cleaver

karen-rileKaren Rile C’80 always dreamed of starting her own literary magazine. The idea just kept pushing its way into her head until finally, in early 2013, she launched Cleaver Magazine with her daughter, Lauren Rile Smith. The mother-daughter team released their new publication’s first full issue in March and a follow-up in June. The third issue of Cleaver is due out Sept. 3. We spoke with Rile, a Penn writing instructor and Gazette contributor, about her experience starting and running a literary magazine.

What is it that appeals to you about literary magazines, and why did you decide to start your own?

Where is most fiction and poetry being published these days? You get a little bit in places like The Atlantic or The New Yorker, but most of it is really happening in literary magazines. I’ve been interested in literary magazines for many, many years, and I’ve always wanted to have a magazine, but the problems of distributing a print edition were overwhelming. It’s very difficult. But now with the Internet the way it is and the tools that are available, my idea was to start a magazine that was online-only.

How did you land on the name Cleaver?

It was something my daughter came up with years ago and we decided on a whim that we’d use it. ‘Cleave’ is a Janus word: It means both to chop apart but also to stick tight. It’s just a nice little pun. And it’s kind of a joke — what is ‘cutting edge’ anymore? Everything has been done.

What type of work do you publish?

We’re really just interested in good writing and the work we’ve been choosing is pretty eclectic. Some of it seems very experimental, some of it seems very traditional. There’s a lot of variety in what we’re presenting, but our particular taste is work that’s very specific and well-crafted.

How did you spread the word about Cleaver?

I’ve been involved as a writer for many years, so between Lauren and me we have a lot of connections. I also listed it on Duotrope, which is a website where writers can keep track of their submissions. They list hundreds of literary magazines. Immediately submissions started pouring in.

Who are your contributors? I know I spotted at least a few alumni on the list.

We’ve had people from all over the world. When I added it up recently, maybe 12 or 15 percent of the writers are connected to Penn, either as alumni or faculty or current students or staff. That’s partly because I know so many writers at Penn, but also because we feel a real connection to that community.

We publish people who are very established writers and also quite a lot of people who have never published before. We’ve had over a thousand submissions, and I think our acceptance rate is around seven percent.

What’s on the horizon for Cleaver?

We started adding book reviews a couple months ago. Every week I’m putting up maybe two or three of those. I’m also interested in bringing in dramatic writing by publishing monologues as text and including high-quality videos of an actor performing the monologues. That should be a lot of fun and bring in a whole other community.

The most recent issue of Cleaver is available here, including these contributions by Penn alumni:

Emily Steinberg C’87 FA’87 GFA’91
The Modernist Cabin (art)

Nathaniel Popkin C’91 GCP’95
“The Dig” from Lion and Leopard, The Head & The Hand Press, October 2013 (novel excerpt)

Jamie-Lee Josselyn C’05
Dispatch from the Cat Show” (essay)

John Carroll C’05
Journalism” (flash fiction)

Anna Strong C’13
from Aposthropes (poetry)

Anya Lichtenstein C’13
Beating Ploughshares into iPods” (essay)

1 Comment

Filed under Alumni, Faculty/Staff, Written Word

How do Penn professors spend their summers?

You may have wondered what Penn’s illustrious English professors are up to when school isn’t in session. The short answer is plenty. The longer answer, at least in the case of Kenneth Goldsmith, is showing up on popular TV shows and websites to discuss all kinds of interesting stuff.

Last Tuesday, we spotted Goldsmith—who we previously wrote about here and in the magazinecalling himself a “dumb writer” on The Awl. That evening, he turned up again, this time sparring with Stephen on The Colbert Report while promoting his new book and giving us a sudden craving for watermelon:

Screen Shot 2013-07-29 at 2.25.43 PM
You can watch Goldsmith’s full interview with Colbert on the show’s website (make sure you watch until the end, as things really heat up around the 4:30 mark), but here’s a taste of the conversation:

Colbert: You are the poet laureate of the Museum of Modern Art. You’ve got 10 books of poetry. You teach writing at the University of Pennsylvania and you’ve got a new book called Seven American Deaths and Disasters. Did you write this?

Goldsmith: Absolutely not. I never write any of my books.

Goldsmith: You see, artists are dumb.

Colbert: Artists are dumb?

Goldsmith: Artists are dumb. We do things that you shouldn’t do. What I’m doing is too easy for an investigative reporter to do, and by doing something that is that simple, we’re uncovering something that nobody else has actually ever thought of.

Come fall, Goldsmith will be teaching a course focused on the Institute of Contemporary Art’s 50th anniversary called Writing Through Art and Literature.

The merrily attired Goldsmith wasn’t the only Penn writing professor we found in the spotlight this summer. Beth Kephart C’82, Lorene Cary C’78 G’78 and Diane McKinney-Whetstone CW’75 are honored in a new exhibit at the Philadelphia International Airport and were all on hand for the July 2 unveiling. Under the lengthy title Philadelphia’s Literary Legacy: Selected Authors, Playwrights and Poets — from Writers of the Declaration of Independence to Present Day, the exhibit also celebrates Benjamin Franklin, W.E.B. DuBois, Lisa Scottoline C’77 L’81 and L.A. Banks W’80.

Kephart passed along these photos from the opening ceremony:




For those who are curious, here’s the full 50-name list of those honored in the exhibit, on view in Terminal A-East:

Louisa May Alcott, Lloyd Alexander, L.A. Banks, Berenstains, Ben Bova, Sandra Boynton, Charles Brockden Brown, Rosellen Brown, Pearl S. Buck, Bebe Moore Campbell, Lorene Cary, Noam Chomsky, R. Crumb, Gardner Dozois, W.E.B. Dubois, Ben Franklin, Charles Fuller, David Goodis, Carolyn Haywood, Quiara Alegria Hudes, Solomon Jones, Ken Kalfus, Beth Kephart, George Lippard, Alain Locke, Diane McKinney-Whetstone, Margaret Mead, James Michener, Katherine Milhous, Karen E. Quinones Miller, Thomas Paine, Richard Powell, Tom Purdom, Joe Queenan, Anna Quindlen, Deborah Kogan Ray, Agnes Repplier, Sonia Sanchez, Judy Schachner, Lisa Scottoline, Sara Shephard,  Jerry Spinelli, I. F. Stone, Michael Swanwick, Jennifer Weiner, David Wiesner, Owen Wister,  Teri Woods.

1 Comment

Filed under Alumni, Faculty/Staff, Written Word