Bread Loaf's Literary Lions in Waiting
Monday, August 25, 2008
RIPTON, Vt. -- It's billed as the oldest writers' conference in the nation, a gathering at a picturesque mountaintop retreat where literary giants, book editors and up-and-coming novelists have been coming together once a year since the 1920s.
But somebody's gotta schlep the meals: At the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, the job falls to two dozen young writers who serve as waiters for the two-week summer summit, donning aprons and name tags to serve breakfast, lunch and dinner to the 225 participants.
Bread Loaf crumbs, they're not. Most are professors, graduate students in the fine arts or prize-winning writers, chosen from 600 applicants for work-study scholarships that cover the $2,300 tuition.
When they're not taking in poetry readings, learning about character development or getting other pointers from Pulitzer Prize winners, they can be found in the dining hall of the Victorian-era Bread Loaf Inn, taking orders or racing in and out of the kitchen.
"We're wearing aprons, but everybody who's here -- the agents, the editors, the faculty, the fellows, the other contributors -- knows that this person who's waiting on you is going to be a very important writer in four or five years," said Tiphanie Yanique, 29, a poet and fiction writer from New York who's the head waiter in this year's group. "So for us, it's kind of amazing. And I think for everybody, it's kind of amazing."
Founded in 1926 and named for a nearby mountain, Bread Loaf takes place at an idyllic campus about 10 miles east of Middlebury College, up a winding mountain road in a land that cellphones forgot. It's a place of yellow-and-green wraparound porches, Adirondack lawn chairs and slamming screen doors.
Robert Frost, Theodore Roethke, William Carlos Williams, Truman Capote, Isaac Asimov and Toni Morrison have taught or lectured here. Past waiters include novelist Julia Alvarez, National Public Radio's "voice of books" Alan Cheuse and short story writer Amy Hempel.
The practice of making less established writers and poets work for their bread began in the 1950s, when Bread Loaf organizers at Middlebury College began steering students to the wait staff jobs. Soon that became competitive, drawing applicants from all over.
The waiters serve dinner every night, and work breakfast and lunch as their schedule of lectures and writing workshops allows.
"It gets pretty dirty," said Yanique. "It's humbling. We handle compost. Things spill. There's a lot of running."
It also can be intimidating.
"These are people I would never, ever, ever talk to, even in a social situation," said Nina McConigley, 32, an aspiring novelist from Casper, Wyo., who worked as a waitress and is now on the conference staff.