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UC English Department Chair named to head Sewanee Writers’ Conference

Leah Stewart reflects on her experience with the conference and how her role at UC prepared her

By Michelle Flanagan

The annual Sewanee Writers’ Conference kicks off on July 16 with a new director: Leah Stewart, professor and chair of the English Department at the University of Cincinnati's College of Arts and Sciences. Stewart is just the second person to hold the directorship; the conference was founded by Wyatt Prunty, who has served as director for the last 30 years.

Stewart is already familiar with the conference, having served on staff from 1995 to 2004. “I was in graduate school, hoping to become a writer, and my former professors at Vanderbilt recommended me to the people at Sewanee,” she says. “For me it was incredibly exciting to have the opportunity to be in the presence of so many writers I admired.”

Now, as director, Stewart is tasked with finding writers to teach at the conference every year, representing the conference publicly and working with staff to ensure everything runs smoothly.

The Sewanee Writers’ Conference is run in conjunction with the University of the South, located in southern Tennessee. The conference is supported by a bequest from Tennessee Williams — the playwright known for "The Glass Menagerie," "A Streetcar Named Desire," and "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," among others— so naturally also includes playwriting, an uncommon addition that sets this conference apart. Further, that bequest partially supports everyone who comes, meaning no attendee is burdened with paying the full cost of a stay.

UC Arts & Sciences English Department Chair Leah Stewart.

UC College of Arts and Sciences English Department Chair Leah Stewart

The conference focuses on poetry, fiction and playwriting authors, giving attendees a chance to experience many different forms of the craft. Workshop sessions meet five times to form the core of the 12-day program, and combine formal lectures with informal exchanges. Faculty members select pieces of participant manuscripts for consideration in the workshop setting, and every writer meets with a faculty member for an hour to discuss their manuscript in detail. In addition to the workshops, readings by nationally renowned faculty, fellows and guest writers are scheduled throughout the conference, and professional actors assist in the playwriting workshop.

The Sewanee Conference is prestigious and competitive, with a typical 15 percent acceptance rate. The goal is to gather a community of talented writers who will eventually become published writers by the professionals at the conference.

Following Prunty’s 30-year tenure, Stewart is bringing her own twist to already-existing initiatives. “I’m thrilled at the prospect of continuing to support promising young writers by connecting them with mentors, agents, editors and peers,” she says. “I’m interested in exploring possibilities for the programming we offer — for instance, creating a bigger presence for nonfiction. It’s also very important to me that the conference be a diverse and inclusive space, and I’d like to work on reducing the conference’s environmental impact.”

Ultimately, she’s most excited about this opportunity to continue cultivating a supportive and inclusive literary community.

Stewart’s professional accomplishments have prepared her well. As head of the English Department at UC, she works on the business side, overseeing budgets, running meetings and mediating disagreements. In her role as creative writing professor, Stewart has worked with students at varying levels of expertise, equipping her to serve the diverse conference participants through workshops and programming. Outside of the university setting, Stewart is an accomplished writer herself. Her writing has appeared in multiple journals and newspapers, and she’s authored six novels: "Body of a Girl," "The Myth of You & Me," "Husband and Wife," "The History of Us," "The New Neighbor," and "What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw."

“The conference provides an experience that, for many, is both unusual and profound — a chance to be in a crowd of people who care as much about reading and writing as you do,” she says. “It’s an honor to have the opportunity to be part of it again."