Writer’s Center Celebrates 40 Years

Maya C. Popa
From the July/August 2016 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

In 1976, when Merrill Lefler and Allan Lefcowitz heard that the National Park Service was looking to turn Glen Echo Park—a former amusement park with a working forty-horse carousel in Bethesda, Maryland—into an arts-and-culture neighborhood, the idea to create a home for the Washington, D.C., literary-arts community began to take root. They submitted a proposal for free use of space in the park, and with the help of a group of local literature enthusiasts, launched the Writer’s Center. Now celebrating its fortieth anniversary, the center remains committed to its original mission: the “creation, publication, presentation, and dissemination of literary work” in the D.C. area and nationwide.

“The center as meeting place led to many people forming their own groups,” Lefler says. “And over the years, with the expansion of workshops in different genres in Bethesda and elsewhere in Maryland, Washington, and Virginia, the center has continued to be the primary place in the Washington area for literary programs, readings, and performances.” Today, the Writer’s Center hosts more than fifty literary events each year; publishes Poet Lore, the nation’s oldest poetry journal; and administers prizes and fellowships to emerging writers, as well as writing contests for high school students. The center’s writing workshops, which annually welcome nearly 2,500 participants, have been taught by such notable alumni as Pagan Kennedy, A. Van Jordan, and Eugenia Kim. Recent instructors have included Stanley Plumly, Richard Blanco, Phillip Lopate, and Bianca Stone. Writers can also rent out the center’s theater and classrooms, as well as carrels to use as work space.

“The key word is community,” says Vanessa Mallory Kotz, the center’s marketing and communications manager. “Writing is a very solitary pursuit, and we strive not only to offer resources and information on the literary scene, but also a warm, welcoming place to work on craft and engage with others who are doing the same—at all levels and in all genres.”

These workshops are valuable to fledgling and established writers alike. “A Writer’s Center class is a great space for me to try out new approaches to craft,” says poet Sandra Beasley, who began teaching at the Writer’s Center in 2009 and served on its board from 2008 to 2013. “As someone who travels the country as a guest lecturer in poetry and nonfiction, I’m always looking to find new rhythms of critique, refine my vocabulary, and fine-tune my handouts. I feel lucky to have a local space where I can try out ideas with a sophisticated, engaged writing audience.”

In January, on the symbolic first day of its fortieth anniversary, Joe Callahan began his appointment as the center’s new executive director. Prior to joining the center, Callahan served as the executive director of 826DC, earning the Mayor’s Arts Award for Outstanding Contribution to Arts Education in 2014. “Joe is a fast-rising star in the Washington nonprofit community and has a strong background in and appreciation for world-class writing and literature,” says Sally Mott Freeman, chair of the board of directors. “He is the ideal leader to shape the future of this unique and well-loved literary jewel.”

To celebrate its fortieth, the center is holding a series of special events throughout the year. In March it presented a sold-out evening with Jim Lehrer, longtime host of PBS NewsHour. The organization partnered with the Library of Congress for a translation event in May; and in June both Alice McDermott, who has taught at the center and previously served on its board, and MSNBC talk-show host and journalist Chris Matthews returned for separate special anniversary events. 

“Attending events at the Writer’s Center was a huge part of how I educated myself about the literary landscape of my hometown,” Beasley says. “More people should know about the Writer’s Center.” With renovations that will increase classroom and office space over the next few years, Callahan and his staff plan to expand the center’s programming and reach within the community, and to continue to offer inspiration and support to local writers. He looks forward to what the future will bring. “As we celebrate the fortieth anniversary, it is an exciting time in the center’s history to be here.”

Maya C. Popa is a writer and teacher based in New York City. Her website is www.mayacpopa.com.