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NYC event connects MFA students to publishing world

Back row, from left, David Picket with students Peter Gilbert, Lindsey Warren, Carl Moon, Neal Giannone and Chris Berardino; front row, students Cristina Correa, Shakarean Hutchinson, Weena Pun, Emily Mercurio and Hema Surendranathan at the Cornell Club in New York City.

Second-year MFA students in Cornell’s creative writing program were given the chance to read their work in front of editors, agents and publicists at a Nov. 12 event at the Cornell Club in New York City, thanks to David Picket ’84.

“It was sort of thrilling to receive compliments on my work from the people who read for a living,” said Emily Mercurio, who read five of her poems. “Even if nothing comes of the immediate connections from that night, which remains to be seen, I’m feeling quite confident in my voice because of it.”

The David L. Picket and Cornell Creative Writing Program Literary Reading in New York City included readings by nine MFA students and poet Ishion Hutchinson, assistant professor of English and National Book Critics Circle Award winner.

The event has been a priority for Picket for some time.

“These gifted writers need to know that they can earn a living as novelist or poet; that the world values the work they are doing,” Picket said. “Hopefully if we can open the door to the folks who are in charge of the business of writing, [the writers] will feel more secure about their future and will continue to produce more of the outstanding work we heard today.”

Students were “thrilled” with the opportunity to present their work, said Helena María Viramontes, professor and director of the creative writing program, who added that professors in the department helped by inviting their contacts in the publishing world.

“When I was an MFA student, there was only an emphasis on making your project as strong as possible,” Viramontes said. But with changing times and a reconfigured publishing world, it’s more difficult than ever to find people who can open doors for new writers, she said.

The publishing process often begins with students sending stories and poems to magazines to be published, Viramontes said. “This is where the editorial work they do with Cornell’s Epoch magazine really pays off,” she said. “Students begin to see how writers and poets present themselves. The experience and training is invaluable.”

The next step is usually for the writer to find an agent, Viramontes said, although the publishing process can be different for each writer.

“This event was mostly about exposure,” Viramontes said. “This was for students to have a conversation with an agent or editor and ask questions.”

The event attracted well-known editors and agents because of the reputation of Cornell’s program and the success of its alumni, she said.

Poet Cristina Correa said the evening helped students remember why they are doing the work they do. “It’s not so much only in our heads and under scrutiny, but it reminds us that our work can be shared – that it should be something we give to someone else,” she said.

“In any industry, success is so much about who your connections are, and having an evening like this where you are able to share your work with the people who can actually do something with it – that’s a pretty rare opportunity,” Mercurio said.

“Readings like this focus you to be hypercritical of your work because it isn’t just something on the page anymore, it’s something out in the world,” said fiction writer Shakarean Hutchinson. “You want it to be as good as possible so others can enjoy it.”

The Picket family endowed the Picket Family Chair in the Department of English, and the College of Arts and Sciences renamed the English department offices in Goldwin Smith Hall in their honor in 2015.

David Picket has a keen interest in the MFA students, getting to know them and providing funds to support them in various ways, including through summer writing fellowships.

“The Pickets have been so generous to us, not only with financial support but in terms of ideas,” Viramontes said. “David Picket loves to take the students out to dinner and talk to them about their work.”

Kathy Hovis is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.

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