Walk West over the bridge on the Walk. Stop in front of Commons. Now look to your right at the quaint little house next to the frat. This is where Jennifer Snead, dart-thrower, dog enthusiast and Kelly Writer's House director, spends her days.
You went to Penn as an undergrad. What was the Writers House like when you were here?
There was no Writers House when I was here.
So then how did it get started?
A group of students and faculty and staff, led informally by Al Filreis, who's now the Faculty Director of the Writers House, got together and started talking about the fact that there wasn't a centralized place for writers at Penn, and that they wanted to change this. At the same time, the new president, Judith Rodin, was starting something called the Agenda for Excellence, which one of the goals was to improve the quality of extracurricular life for undergraduates. And so the President's Office got very interested in what they were trying to do ... That was in '96 ... We do over 300 programs a year, from September through May, from those really small beginnings.
How does the Writers House reach out to the Philadelphia community?
We have a literacy outreach program that's been running for the past four years, and it's called Write On! ... It gets Penn student volunteers together with eighth graders from the Lea Elementary School in West Philadelphia. And the eighth graders come to the Writers House on Friday afternoons and basically take it over. And the Penn student volunteers work with them on creative writing skills. And they bring in writers from the Writers House community to do workshops with them; they do readings of their work at the Penn bookstore ... The Penn Alexander School, which is that new school on 43rd and Locust, came to me last spring ... So [the program] just doubled in size. We've also done things with the Philadelphia School, which is a little private school on the other side of the bridge, 25th and Lombard ... We also do outreach into the greater Philadelphia area, into the metropolitan area of New York, D.C. ... We're recognized now as a national literary venue ... People know who we are, all over. It's very cool.
Were you an English major from the get-go?
No, I wasn't. When I was at [the University of] Virginia, I thought for some reason that I was going to go into business. I don't know, it was the late '80s, and everyone was doing that. But I wasn't very happy with my classes. I was taking statistics and econ at Virginia ... And so I dropped out and took a year off and just thought. And lived at home, which is a humbling experience ... By the time I transferred into Penn ... I was like, "I've got to be an English major." And I never looked back.
Where are you taking your writing right now?
I've always written poetry ... I think my first -- I wrote a sonnet about unicorns when I was nine ... I drew a unicorn with a rainbow coming out of its horn, kind of to go with it. This is what you did in 1981 ... I've basically been trying to understand the world as I see it through poetry ever since I could write ... It makes me happy, personally, and so that's why I like to do it. Why else would you write if you weren't enjoying it?
You could write a best-seller.
The National Endowment for the Arts came out with this reading report on America, and the state of reading in America, and [only] 12% of adult Americans read poetry at all ... That was kind of a chilling percentage. And given what I write I can't imagine ever writing a best-seller.
Last year you read aloud the Google results of your full name. Do you write other types of "found" poetry?
When I was an undergrad I used to do things like, I would do this really complicated thing where I would take my horoscope and I would take a dartboard and I would throw the dart at random and it would hit a number and I would count down, so like the dart would hit two, and I'd go, "One, two, OK," and I would write the second word down. And then I'd throw another dart and it would hit five, and so I'd count from the second word, one two three four five, and I would write the fifth word down. And I would generate a poem like that ... I was not going to read that night at the Speakeasy, at the open mike night. We have them every two weeks [on Wednesdays]. And the students who organize were like, "Oh, come on, Dr. Snead ... why don't you read tonight?" ... I have some poems that are posted on the web ... And so I Googled myself to find my poems. And then I saw all the Google results and I thought, "This is wack." Because there were Jennifer Sneads, you know, like one of them had been murdered, one of them was an official for the National Park Service in Virginia, one of them was a baton-twirling contest-winner and then there was me. And I thought, "This is hysterical. I'm really going to print these things out and read them. And see what happens."
What about Linus and Lucy? What kind of dogs are they? And how nice is it to have them at work every day?
Lucy followed me home seven years ago. And I don't know where she came from, I don't know who her parents were, I just knew she was real cute and black and fuzzy. And I adopted her. And then four years later, I had a friend whose husband bred beagles. And a Jack Russell terrier got in with one of his beagles. And there was a mistake. And so Linus came out of that mistake ... They're just good, cool dogs ... They've gradually become a part of this community. But I'll tell you, I would not bring them here if I were not working so many hours ... Really, the House rules are no dogs. Unless you're me. If you want to work here for 14 hours in a day ... OK, come talk to me ... People will pop into my office and say, "Hey, are Linus and Lucy here?" And I won't even know who they are. And I'll just be like, "Nooooo ... But I am." "Oh, no. When are they going to be in again?" "Um, tomorrow?" "Oh, OK. I'll stop by and see them." It's like they have office hours ... My dogs have been to more poetry readings than like half of America.