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Writers' paradise in the Golden City

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Writers' paradise in the Golden City

Prague Summer Program cements its literary legacy in the heart of Europe

Posted: May 27, 2009

By Joann Plocková, For the Post

Writers' paradise in the Golden City

Courtesy Photo

The annual Prague Summer Program offers something many writers desire: time to focus on their craft while under the guidance of some of the most respected names in the literary field. It's this unique forum, set against one of Europe's most striking cultural landscapes, that has not only helped to distinguish this program but has also ushered in a new generation of writers hoping to take their talent to the next level.  

A joint effort between Charles University and the U.S.-based Western Michigan University, the Prague Summer Program has been going strong for the past two decades, providing a renowned four-week study-abroad program centered on the arts. While participants can choose how to focus their time, from photography to cultural and social studies, it is the writing component that has undoubtedly garnered the most attention.

"Students from scores of institutions of higher learning from all over - not only America, but the world - have attended and earned credit in the Prague Summer Program," says Richard Katrovas, the program's director. "We've had as 'students' in our workshops folks who are professors at American universities and who've published significant books."

Offered each July, the program invites writers of all levels to apply for one of the 12 available places in each of the program's five genres: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, multigenre and playwriting/scriptwriting. There are also four fellowship positions that require candidates to be nominated by a writer who has published at least one book and also submit a sample of their work.

Prague Summer Program

The core of the program surrounds intensive morning writing workshops, weekly faculty readings and lectures and literature-based cultural studies courses. A Czech-film series, optional Czech language courses and organized trips throughout the region further strengthen the program's culture component, as does the program's A-list faculty. In addition to some of America's most eminent novelists, poets, memoirists, playwrights and short-story writers, the program's lecturers also include what Katrovas describes as "some of the luminaries of contemporary Czech literature and culture."

Dan Lamken, a poet and writing and literature teacher who attended the 2008 Prague Summer Program, cites some of these teachers when commenting on how he benefited from the program.

"The resources of Prague Summer Program were and are wonderful," he says. Besides learning from the likes of American poets Cynthia Hogue and Allison Deming, "I gained insight in the readings and lectures of Robert Owen Butler, Stuart Dybek, Ivan Klíma, Tomáš Kraus [and] highly recognized writers like Arnošt Lustig, [as well as] 'new' voices like Pavel Šrut."

Lustig, a Czech novelist who has participated in the Prague Summer Program since its inception, and former President Václav Havel, a well-regarded playwright and active supporter of the arts, were both awarded honorary doctorates from the Prague Summer Program three years ago, further helping to cement its reputation.

This year's faculty lineup is sure to do the same. Along with Lustig, Klíma and Deming, who are the 2009 special guests, this summer's program includes award-winning American author Melissa Pritchard and one of the Czech Republic's foremost literary critiques and theorists, Petr Bílek, among others.

Hana Zahradníková, the program's assistant in-country coordinator, sees enormous benefits for all those who participate.

"The Czech faculty provides a connection to the Czech environment and academia, which is very important to the program. It's a part of the program's focus to provide another perspective," Zahradníková says. "Something Richard [Katrovas] always mentions in his opening speech is, to be a good writer, you should have as broad a perspective as possible. Most participants write about their Prague experience, their change in perspective, and they keep writing about it."

It's this kind of inspiration that Katrovas hopes students sustain for years to come.  

"The Prague Summer Program encourages aspiring writers to interrogate their own literary ambitions in light of those vibrant literary traditions at the heart of Czech identity," Katrovas says. "The program has worked best when students return home, reconsidering their relation to their own artistic ambition."

Sarah Heston is one of this year's fellows. She is currently finishing her Ph.D. in nonfiction at the University of Missouri and can't wait to see what Prague has in store for her. 

"I expect to get, simply, great advice on how to sharpen my strengths in prose by borrowing from my education in poetry and how to avoid novice mistakes." explains Heston, who holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine. "The hope for any student here is to come out of the program a better writer with more tools in their tool belt."

Roughly 20 percent of the students come from Western Michigan University, while the others come from "the likes of Harvard, Yale, Berkeley, NYU, as well as many other prestigious private and public institutions," Katrovas reports. Participants also come from various "second- and third-tier institutions as well as community colleges."

When asked about success stories of writers who have already come out of the program, Katrovas stumbles for an answer.

"There are simply too many to list," he says. "Writers who have attended the Prague Summer Program have published scores and scores of books with large commercial, as well university and small presses. Dozens of students are now teaching in colleges and universities, and are winning major awards and fellowships."

Joann Plocková can be reached at © The Prague Post 2009

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