Book Mark: A Q & A with Lisa Zeidner on 30th Annual Rutgers University–Camden Summer Writers’ Conference

By Tom McLaughlin

Rutgers University–Camden celebrated three decades as the premiere literary hub in South Jersey when it presented the 30th Annual Rutgers University–Camden Summer Writers’ Conference from June 22 to July 1.


Lisa Zeidner

To celebrate the milestone event, we checked in with conference founder and longtime director Lisa Zeidner, a professor of English at Rutgers–Camden and a successful novelist and poet, who shares her memories and experiences of the last 30 years.

What was the inspiration behind the original conference in 1985?

There are plenty of writers’ conferences, many which are in glorious places like Key West or Hawaii. However, we knew that many of our best students – very promising writers – couldn’t afford such conferences or couldn’t get away from their families and jobs for that long. So we began our own. We used to call it, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, “Summer in the City.”

How has the conference evolved over the years while staying true to its mission?

We now have an MFA program in creative writing, which is competitive nationally, so our students tend to be even more serious and further along in their creative process. However, we still accept talented writers from the community.

What are some memorable or cherished experiences that you have enjoyed over the years?

At the very beginning, Tama Janowitz read here just as her book, “Slaves of New York,” became a bestseller. The house was packed! Many of my current students are too young to remember the book, but it sure was a phenomenon.

Karen Russell, who was nominated for a Pulitzer, gave one of her very first readings on our campus and now feels close enough to our program to return every year.

We have also hosted several Pulitzer Prize-winning presenters, such as Tracy K. Smith and Stephen Dunn. Greg Pardlo, one of my former Rutgers–Camden students who just earned the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, will be the latest, when he reads from his works on June 29.

Who are some other esteemed writers who have spoken at the conference?

We’ve had some of the biggest literary luminaries out there welcomed through our doors – distinguished guests such as Karen Karbo, Helen Schulman, Tim Seibles, and Mark Winegardner. Our students have gotten to work with them very closely.

What type of feedback have you gotten from both participants and guest speakers over the years?

People are particularly impressed by the close contact that they have with one another. We keep the number of participants very small, so it’s not a conference like Bread Loaf, where there are hierarchies. Everyone has access.

So what are your plans for the next 30 years of the summer writers’ conference?

To keep it going!

For more information on the conference, contact Dee Jonczak at (856) 225-6121 or visit

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