This is the poem Allison read at the Tenth Annual Participant Reading for the Young Writers Workshop (June 28, 2008)
Once there was a professor with a dream. She dreamed that her little public university in the middle of nowhere in the bottom of Illinois could compete with the likes of Iowa, Virginia, Kenyon College and the University of the South--she, too, could educate the young people, bring them to her campus, let them eat junk food by day, brownies by night. So she went to the Division of Continuing Education, told them what she wanted and they said we shall help you with meal cards and room keys, dorm check-in and check-out. We shall help you collect money and refund money should there be writing greatness. We shall help you with T-shirts and guest writer paychecks, bring you pizza and soda pop when the Student Center is closed.
But that first year, no one signed up, save one brave pioneer from Boston. The professor had two choices: give up, say she'd given it her best and no one wanted her best, or she could try again, make the workshop shorter, leaner, even more affordable. She could bring the price down even more, so that both rich and poor, white and black, and every shade of teenager in between could come down to her little college town in the bottom of Illinois, down where pregnant deer lurk outside classroom buildings because they too want to go to a mid-afternoon poetry reading, get out of the heat and get some culture.
Cut to ten years later--ten years of graduate students running mini-classes and reading their work and finding blankets, ten years of visiting writers rocking that stone-cold auditorium, singing and strutting and bringing down the house, years of open mikes and late-night sing-a-longs, of nicknames and Uno games, shrieks of joy when the nice lady at check-in says "Congratulations, you've received a scholarship," of years of students nervously saying at open mike, "I Just wrote this, so I'm nervous," or "I wrote this two years ago," or "I wrote this and I don't know who I was back then." We started with thirteen that first year, and now we'll have up to thirty every summer--next summer: June 23-June 27, mark it down, 10% discount for previous attendees, deadline June 5, first-come, first-serve, no teacher recommendations necessary.
As long as the professor at that little state university in the bottom of Illinois has breath in her body and teeth in her head and as long as the trains run from the top to the bottom of the state (call the governor, tell him "don't cut the trains, you fool"), there will be Young Writers here in Carbondale. We don't have to be Iowa, or Duke, or Sewanee, because we are who we are--Southern Illinois, rural as a heart attack, urban as "Can I get a what-what?" We have joy on our terms, and we'll share it with you, if you promise to come back until you graduate--heck, come on back even after you graduate (you just can't stay in the dorm then), if you promise to tell others when you get home, "yes, I've seen the bottom of the state and it was good--hot, but good, and the people there, they are smart and they care." And the professor at the university in the middle of nowhere will smile when she thinks of you all, back in your own lives, back at your own computers and in your favorite writing spots, she will think of you when she is in boring faculty meetings, and she will plan it all again, find scholarships and write brochure copy, choose graduate students and give them summer jobs. She will think back on it all, say it was worth it, it was worth it, every last dollar was worth it.