Amongst glittery nametags, tubes of glue and colorful building blocks, 10 students scribble their thoughts on paper for 10 minutes.
Every week, the students—ranging from recent college grads to graying retirees—trickle into the upstairs of the 92nd Street Y. It’s a nursery center by day, and home of the Unterberg Poetry Center’s Writing Program by night. They undergo writing drills, bounce lines off of each other and listen to the likes of Victor LaValle and other famous writers render literary strategies.
Like an MA creative writing program, they meet in intimate groups of eight to 10—but aren’t confined to a full-time course load or any particular formula of writing.
"People really feel encouraged to find their voice, and not conform to a specific style," said Alexandra Wilder, associate director of the writing program.
Since 1939, the writing program has offered classes that provide students of all ages the chance to hone their skills as writers, often bringing in guest speakers such as Toni Morrison.
While introductory workshops are open enrollment, advanced poetry and fiction workshops are notorious for their selective admission process. Most classes receive around 30 applications, but can only accept eight to 10 students, said Wilder.
Those that do make the cut fork over about $410 each for an eight-week workshop, complete with a 90-minute class every week. A unique option of the program, said Wilder, is a course in which students meet one-on-one with an instructor every week after the initial group meeting.
To apply, students must submit a manuscript submission of no more than six pages of poetry, or 15 pages of prose.
The courses—offered for the fall, spring and summer semesters—draw in new and experienced writers alike. Some, like the poet and writer Sapphire (author of Push), have already left their mark in the literary world before applying.
Armed with a collection of unpublished poems, Sapphire applied to the writing program in 2010, enrolling in Marie Ponsot’s Manuscript Workshop. "I wanted to be with someone whose work I really admire," Sapphire said of the prolific Ponsot, 85, who has been teaching the course for 15 years.
The course focuses specifically on the development of a poetry book, interlaced with writing exercises and talks on aspects of literary theory. "I enjoyed just listening to one of the finest literary mindsets talk," said Sapphire, whose poetry collection American Dreams was previously trumpeted by critics as one of the strongest of the ’90s. "Marie’s workshop really encouraged me."
Other participants had scarcely dabbled in poetry until taking courses at the 92nd Street Y. Oboe player Jane McKinley signed up for a class on a whim in 2004, drawn in only by a desire to tackle the new craft.
"I hadn’t done any creative writing since high school," said McKinley, who just published her first series of poems, Vanitas. "I decided, ‘OK, I’ll go with poetry.’ Then I kept doing it, and it just kind of took on a life of its own."
Poetry struck a chord in McKinley, who found that her musical sensibilities easily lent themselves to the pacing of the writing. Her progress was bolstered as her instructors’ positive pedagogy. Instructor and Nation poetry editor Grace Schulman would point out a strong line of poetry, and emphasize that McKinley should bring the rest up to that standard.
"We weren’t told what to do; we were told what was strong," said McKinley, who lives in Princeton but comes into the city once a month for a poet’s group.
"I felt an affinity with Grace’s writing, and the subject matter," she added.
On a Wednesday afternoon, Sapphire contemplated hopping on the train from her Brooklyn home, returning to one of the Y’s writing courses. "I’d love to do it again," she said.
Manuscript submissions for admission to the summer session of the 92nd Street Y Writing Program are due May 5 at 5 p.m. For more information, visit 92y.org.