Rose Solari Came of Age as a Teacher at "The Writer's Center"
In this short essay, Rose Solari muses on her time as a teacher working in the early '90s at Bethesda's up and coming "The Writer's Center", and on how a recent reconciliation led our 2019 book launch back to The Center.
"I came into my own as a poet in graduate school. But it was at The Writers Center that I truly came of age as a teacher."
I can no longer remember when I first heard about The Writer’s Center. If you were a young, aspiring writer in the DC area at the turn of the past century, you might think it had always been there — a testament to the impact the organization and its founders had on the local literary scene when it launched in 1976, and in the ensuing decades.
Now that non-academic writing workshops are ubiquitous, it may be hard to imagine what a unique place The Writer’s Center was, and what a need it filled. It provided a place where writers of all levels and across an expanding list of genres could enroll in low-cost workshops to develop their craft. And its independence from the university creative writing programs that were concurrently popping up all over the country lent it a certain cache.
And cool people taught there. Like Ann Darr, a pilot in World War II, who wrote diamond-hard poetry and carried herself like the heroine she was, in her signature velvet cape and fabulous hats; Richard Peabody, an indie press rock star — poet, fiction writer, editor, publisher, founder of Gargoyle Magazine and Paycock Press, scholar, mentor; and Paula Clossen Buck, novelist and poet, who blazed through town for a few years like the meteor her intellect truly is, all fierce glamor and steel.
I was added to that fine list in 1991, by Al Leftcowitz, one of the three original founders and longtime Director, and Jane Fox, then Artistic Director. With them, I had one of the strangest job interviews of my life — Al asked a couple of questions, but mostly did the talking, about his vision of the Center, about theater, about teaching — while Jane observed. It didn’t help my nervousness that my car, one in a series of beaters held together by duct tape and wire hangers, had refused to start that morning and I’d had to cadge a lift there from a neighbor with a motorcycle. Straddling that thing in my little business suit, the skirt crinkling around my hips, I felt the opposite of confident as he kindly drove me to Bethesda, then waited in the parking lot to take me back. He asked me afterwards how the interview had gone and I said I honestly had no idea.
Jane called the next day to offer me a summer class for teenagers. More and more classes came my way. I loved designing new workshops, I loved the students, I loved being free of academic constraints and curriculum guides. I taught there, an unbroken stream of workshops and readings classes, for over 20 years. I came into my own as a poet in graduate school. But it was at The Writers Center that I truly came of age as a teacher.
And it was there that I met my husband, James J. Patterson, with whom I would go on to form Alan Squire Publishing. As with my work at the center, it began a bit awkwardly. Having retired from his career as a touring singer-songwriter — he was one-half of the political satire folk duo, The Pheromones — Jimmy was taking essay writing workshops there from Joanna Biggar, a professional journalist and travel writer. Jimmy had told a staff member at the center that he needed an editor for a project he was working on, and he was hoping to find someone who had some knowledge of Pagan religion and Goddess worship. I was a perfect fit.
But due to my rather old-fashioned first name, Jimmy had me confused with Ann Darr. When we were introduced, he shook my hand but kept looking around, as if he expected someone else. When I asked if there was a problem he said, “I thought you’d be … older. And, you know, wear a cape.”
I thought he might be a little bit crazy – what did he want, a super-hero editor? — but once that confusion was cleared up, we began a conversation that has never stopped. We got married in 2003. And in 2010, we co-founded Alan Squire Publishing. We had our inaugural book launch there that autumn, featuring Joanna Biggar and her first novel, That Paris Year, and Jimmy’s first collection of essays, Bermuda Shorts. A friend and colleague of Joanna’s from the west coast, Linda Watanabe McFerrin, had a novel out that year called Dead Love, and we invited her to read, as well. The Writer’s Center theater was packed that night, the drinks flowed, and many books were purchased. It was an auspicious start.
That was nine years ago. In the interim, I broke away from the place for a while. Al and Jane retired, and there were some growing pains, some stumbles along the way to acquiring good new leadership. Meanwhile, a U.K. book tour for my second collection of poetry, Orpheus in the Park, led to a glorious six-month post as a Visiting Writer with Oxford University’s Centre for Creative Writing. Jimmy and I loved living there, and thought about re-locating to England permanently. But the realities of managing a U.S.-based publishing house from across the ocean were daunting, and Jimmy didn’t want to be that far from his adult son. Meanwhile, the press kept growing. We kept working, kept writing. I taught at many other places, but none quite had the feel of The Center.
Last spring Amy Freeman, Director of Development of The Writer’s Center called me with a simple message: “We’d like to have you back.” I resisted, at first — I’d learned from my romantic life that it’s never smart to go back to an old love — but Amy was delightful to talk with and gently, charmingly persistent. Now Jimmy and I are part of the place again, members and donors, and I plan to teach there again in 2020.
Next month, we’ll celebrate the release of ASP’s three new titles at The Writer’s Center. Joanna Biggar will read from her second novel, Melanie’s Song; Reuben Jackson will share work from his volume Scattered Clouds: New & Selected Poems; and in a neat twist of fate, Linda Watanabe McFerrin will return with Navigating the Divide: Selected Poetry & Prose, the third volume in our Legacy Series. It feels like a beautiful circle has been closed. Or as Amy said to me when she took me on a tour of the renovated Writer’s Center last spring, “Welcome home.”