A. R. Ammons Reading Series: Reviving a beloved tradition

The Temple of Zeus café used to host a weekly open mic reading at which students and faculty shared their work with enthusiastic listeners. Among the regular attendees was the late Archie Ammons, Goldwin Smith Professor of Poetry in the College of Arts & Sciences (A&S), whose presence told student writers that their work merited the attention of Cornell’s most honored poet. The novelist Richard Price told an audience at Cornell’s sesquicentennial celebration that he recalled seeing Ammons in the Temple of Zeus audience: “He’d be laughing every time I read, and it was thrilling.”

Now, over two decades since Ammons’s passing, this open mic tradition is being revived thanks to a generous gift from his student Beverly Tanenhaus ’70.

The inaugural open mic Ammons Reading will focus on poetry and will take place on Thursday, Nov. 9 from 5 to 7 p.m. in the Groos Family Atrium in Klarman Hall.

Tanenhaus said her goal is to help current students appreciate both Ammons’s legacy at Cornell and the power of transformative teaching more generally.

When asked what Archie Ammons meant to her, Tanenhaus replied with one word: “awakening.”

“That’s what a good teacher invites, brings about,” she said. “Isn’t it all about love?  The teacher’s love of subject, love of the miraculous capacity of the heart and mind to take in, to change shape, to transform. Decades ago, in my intermediate creative writing course, Archie stated to the class: “If your writing goes from ‘horrendous’ to ‘very bad,’ I’ll give you an ‘A.’” Archie was not about hierarchy and prizes (at least with regard to his students). He cherished the intimacy of transformation through the revered medium of language.”

“Since the atrium is now the location of the Temple of Zeus, it represents a symbolic return to the site of those weekly readings at which Ammons was a regular,” said Roger Gilbert, professor of literatures in English (A&S).

Creative writing teachers at Cornell invited students to present their best work. More than 15 have signed up to read.

For now at least, the Ammons Reading will take place only once each semester, but it aims to recapture the informal warmth of those original weekly readings, said Gilbert. Refreshments will be provided, and all are welcome.

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People in an audience, smiling
Cornell University file photo A. R. Ammons in 1998