For most Yale students, the appearance of a mysterious white tent that fills up Cross Campus is barely remarkable news. There are a few side glances, sure, and some curiosity, but the majority of the collegiate student body is accustomed to strange sights. Never knowing if today is the day for a silent disco or a visit by the former president of Colombia: that’s just the Yale experience.
This tent, however, deserves way more than a passing glance. Over the next four days, it will host the winners of the Windham-Campbell prizes, a literary award presented annually by Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library since 2013. Established by writer Donald Windham and his lifelong partner, actor Sandy Campbell, the award is, quite literally, a labor of love—a shared love of reading, writing, and creating. Prizes are given out in four categories: fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and drama. Each year, two prize recipients per category are selected by a jury of literary scholars. Each winner receives a grant of $175,000 to support their writing, allowing them to write without having to work.
Sounds sweet, right?
It’s a shame, then, that the majority of the student body is unaware that the festival…exists. In the days leading up to the festival, I ask new students, old students, readers, non-readers, and semi-readers about their opinions about the festival. Some have a vague idea that there is something literary cooking on Cross Campus. Some recall seeing a poster. A handful of English 120 students have received a Canvas notification. My friend, when I ask, mumbles, “There’s a festival?” without looking away from his coding homework.
Why? Is the literary community insular and elitist? Is writing no longer the mode? Have we lost our liberal arts spirit?
From what I’ve observed, the answer is none of the above. Yale students are as excited about reading and writing as ever. The liberal arts spirit is alive and well. And, while it might be natural to blame the exclusivity of literary circles, the Windham-Campbell festival is anything but snobby.
On Tuesday, at around 5 p.m., I arrive at the first event of the festival: the Welcome Party. I’ve managed to survive a day of four classes. I approach Cross Campus with dread, expecting to see a fancy party and people in tartan suits. Instead, my weary mind is immediately soothed by the sight of a cannoli truck. Forgetting that I’m actually there to observe literary stuff, I get in line for a cannoli. One of the prize winners and a literary crush of mine, Ling Ma, is right behind me. With a cannoli oozing onto my hand, I tell her I love her work. It’s friendly and casual, though my voice is shaking. When I ask her about her first impressions of the festival, she replies that the excitement is “unexpected.” I find it unexpected, too. This kind of genuine enthusiasm for a literary event is unexpected.
The cannolis are awesome.
According to program director Michael Kelleher, this kind of convivial atmosphere is exactly what the organizing committee was trying to cultivate. Over Zoom, he tells me that the program has specifically been designed to create an environment that the “New Haven community is comfortable entering,” even in a “reputationally and architecturally intimidating” place like Yale. All the events are open to the public, promising free admission, food, and coffee. Friendly student volunteers are there to greet you at most events. With all the work that goes into Windham-Campbell, Kelleher says that he hopes the festival has “a special place in the Yale and New Haven community.”
My next stop is the actual prize ceremony. The ceremony, which takes place in the Yale Art Gallery, begins with an appearance by President Salovey, who talks about how immersing ourselves in “great literature” helps cultivate emotional intelligence. The prize winners receive hand-made, leather-bound awards with artwork inspired by their writing. The highlight of the evening is the captivating opening lecture, titled “Why I Write,” by Greil Marcus, author and music journalist.
“For some people, whatever stops them from writing is whatever stops them from breathing,” Marcus points out. He commands the room as he tells the audience about how he writes for fun, for play, and for discovery.
The following days are filled with talks, interviews, and readings. This year’s festival has adopted “music” as its theme: there are close listening sessions almost everyday, along with exhibitions in the Beinecke on topics ranging from Irish Civil Rights in song to the Golden Record. There is also a lot of emphasis on reading, surprisingly, and not only writing: writers are often asked to speak about what their reading habits and favorite novels are. Darran Anderson confesses to being a seasonal reader of “A Christmas Carol.”
The group of attendees are, by this point, familiar to me. Most are older, and some are much younger, but everyone seems to be there because they are passionate about this. Aspiring writers furiously scribble down notes as the authors talk. Audience members ask deep, probing questions that manage to fluster authors. Some people are clearly there for the snacks. The discussions are sometimes funny, sometimes serious—but always intimate.
On Friday night, we gather once more in the Art Gallery. The poets, the writers, the playwrights come up one by one to the stage to read excerpts from their work. I am by no means a person with a long attention span, but that night, I am nailed to my seat. I shed a tear during playwright Jasmine Lee-Jones’ monologue, and balk at the beauty of the poetic images dg nanouk okpik paints. It’s not stuffy. Instead, it’s an inspiring night.
It has been a few days since the festival has ended now, and I find that I miss my days in the Cross Campus tent. I miss drinking coffee (supplied by everyone’s favorite, Koffee?) and listening to good stories. I miss the simple joy of listening to people talk about their creations.
Greil Marcus said, on that very first day, that he writes for fun, and that he writes for play. He said that he writes to discover what he wants to say, how to say it, and the nerve to say it. I think that with those few sentences, he encapsulated what Windham and Campbell stood for.