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The Castalia Reading Series, Then & Now
Twenty years ago, Perspectives newsletter highlighted the Castalia Reading Series after an event was held in memory of series founder Nelson Bentley. At the time, the fate of the program was unclear. Here's the original story and an update on the Castalia Reading Series.
Castalia Reading Series Honors Nelson Bentley
from Perspectives newsletter, Winter 1991
Professor Nelson Bentley was looking for a forum for creative writing students when he founded the Castalia Reading Series, which has met nearly every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday since 1970. Students, faculty, and former students attending the readings have had an opportunity to share their own work or the work of other writers.
Bentley died in December 1990 after a long struggle with cancer, but some 75 faculty and former students celebrated his life at the 20th anniversary Castalia program in January. The evening was filled with poetry and memories of Bentley, UW professor of English since 1952.
“People didn’t stop being students of Nelson’s when they stopped being UW students,” comments Dick Dunn, chair of the Department of English. “He always had time to talk to them and read their work. He literally surrounded himself with the poems of his students.”
Bentley’s continued interest in former students was reflected in his running tally of students whose writing had been published. At his last count, the total exceeded 1,000.
The department estimates that the Castalia program has held upwards of a thousand meetings through the years. In addition to regular readings, the group has held special events ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous: celebrating a favorite poet, enjoying the reading of the world’s worst poems.
Whether the Castalia program will continue as a regular series after this school year, without Bentley’s leadership, is still unclear. What is clear is that Nelson Bentley touched many people, as reflected in the comments at the anniversary reading.
How would he have felt about the celebration? “He would have been self-effacing and good-natured about it,” suggests Dunn. “And he would have been moved.”
Castalia Readings Attract Standing-Room-Only Crowds
The Castalia Reading Series is still going strong, with monthly readings at Richard Hugo House in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
“The series has been run for years by graduate students, as a place for them to read to each other,” says Maya Sonenberg, associate professor of English. “As writers, it’s important for them to get practice doing that. And there’s an immediate response you get from reading that is very validating.”
For many years the readings were held in Parrington Hall, but recently students decided to move the event off campus, partnering with Richard Hugo House (a center for the literary arts) for a more real-world experience. As a result, the series now boasts standing-room-only crowds that include UW students, faculty, and alumni, as well as other interested community members.
Each monthly event features readings by three or four graduate students, one UW faculty member, and one or more alumni of the Creative Writing Program, all selected by Castalia’s graduate student organizers. The readings can include anything from poetry to short stories to essays.
“The place is packed,” says Sonenberg, who read at a recent gathering. “It’s a lively, happening thing. The format has changed, but the series has retained a lot of its original purpose. It’s mostly a way for students to celebrate each others’ work.”
The Castalia Reading Series is held on the first Tuesday of every month (during the academic year) at Richard Hugo House, 1634 11th Avenue on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. The event is free and open to the public. For more information, visit the Castalia blog at uwcastalia.blogspot.com or the Richard Hugo House website at hugohouse.org.