Pictured: Professor of English Dr. Wyatt Prunty.
By Briana Wheeler
In the Stamler Center, a collection of offices on the first floor of Gailor Hall behind a door that students commonly believe is forbidden to enter, Dr. Wyatt Prunty (C’69) can often be found in his corner office. A comfortable space lined with ceiling-high bookshelves, the room functions as a headquarters for Prunty while he teaches classes, writes poetry, directs the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and edits The Johns Hopkins Poetry and Fiction Series.
Himself an alumnus, Prunty attended Sewanee during the 1960s, before the women and just after a freshly constructed duPont Library appeared on campus. In reference to why he chose to attend university here, Prunty revealed, “it was the only college I didn’t visit. So I imagined it to be what I wanted when I came.” While his undergraduate experience lived up to “different expectations” than those he set himself, “it also lived up to plenty of happiness” and has continued to do so.
After graduating from Sewanee, Prunty enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served during the Vietnam War. He then earned his M.A. from The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University and later used his G.I. Bill to earn a Ph.D. from Louisiana State University. Since then, he has published nine poetry collections and won several awards.
When he was offered a job at Sewanee, he decided to accept the position. He reasoned that this is a good place to raise children and “teaching in the English department is a very pleasant thing to do.” Two weeks after his return to the Domain, the General Counselor called and told him, “We have a problem. We don’t have any money from Tennessee Williams, but we will.”
In Tennessee Williams’s will, one of the two codicils specified that any money left over from the trust dedicated to Rosie’s care, his sister who had an early lobotomy, would be granted to Sewanee. According to Prunty, “while Rosie lived, there wasn’t really any money, and rightfully so.”
He told the lawyer, “you need to show Sewanee is doing something.” There needed to be a place for the money to go “when it was time for the benefactors who smiled upon Sewanee to send it to us.”
Prunty advised the lawyer, “You can do one of three things: a publishing series, a visiting writers series… or we could have a Writer’s conference. If you’re looking for a way to demonstrate you could manage our own affairs, a conference requires a lot of planning and effort.” So they started a conference, and eventually all three suggestions became a portion of Sewanee’s literary initiatives.
With a smile, Prunty continued, “That was in ‘89, and the following summer we had the first writers’ conference. I just called my friends.” The first Sewanee Writers’ Conference featured distinguished names such as Tim O’Brien, Stanley Elkin, William Styron, Arthur Miller, Ellen Douglass, and Francine Prose, which “drove home the point, again, that we didn’t need any supervision.” At the outset with such little funds, it was just “writers getting together, making their own community.”
Since then, Prunty has worked diligently to improve the Conference, but with the 30th year on the horizon, he has announced his retirement. He revealed that his mindset going into his final summer as director is “King Lear strictly. Full time King Lear, raging out in storms. Yelling at my daughters. I only have one, so she gets three yells.”
When asked about why this particular year, he recounted his reasoning. “Thirty is a good round number… everything has gotten stronger every year. Another thing I thought is that 30 years is enough. If I decided to stop at 31, everyone would think I’d messed something up and had to,” he added with a laugh.
Discussing his own writing process, Prunty explained, “[There is] no real routine, there’s a certainty sometimes…I do something everyday. Either I’m doing something for somebody else or writing for me. But when I’m doing something for you, I’m thinking about what I’m doing for me the next day or the day after, one thing that makes me particularly prolific is when I have to grade papers. Anything to get out of grading comprehensive exams. I’d write an epic to get out of those.”
When questioned about authors he reads after a bad day, he responded, “I don’t think there are bad days, to tell you the truth. I think if you’re feeling badly about something, that might become part of your subject, and if you’re feeling good about something that might become part your subject. And some days you’ll be able to put something on the page that coheres and some days you won’t.”
To describe the appeal of being a professor, Prunty remarked, “You’re free. Free to use your mind to work on what interests you most. You can work for what you really believe is the most important thing, and not because someone told you to. You’re obligated to help people, but that’s good for you, too. No control of thought or self-expression. It’s a good thing to do in a democracy.”
In closing, Prunty reflected on his favorite place at Sewanee. As a student, the library topped the list, but favored locations have shifted over time. He answered that currently, “I’m gonna be among people, here, in the Stamler Center. You know, I didn’t ask for anything when this [part of the building] was redone, but I did ask for the glass doors so we could see each other. So I wouldn’t be lonely.” Otherwise, he prefers the chair in his home office where he works and continues to write poetry.