Alumna Holly Wren Spaulding puts Interlochen’s collaborative spirit to work

  • Holly Wren Spaulding reads her poetry at "Northern Light: 40 Years of Creative Writing at Interlochen" in September.

  • Holly Wren Spaulding's mother, Carol Conrad Spaulding, at Interlochen in 1968 (scanned from the yearbook).

  • A photo of the Urban Renga project at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photo by Kyle Depew)

  • One of Holly Wren Spaulding's poems, projected on the Brooklyn Public Library as part of the Urban Renga project.

Thousands of people come to Interlochen Center for the Arts each year—as students, as cultural explorers, as artists, as teachers and more. What is it about Interlochen that brings people back again and again—guest artists, alumni and volunteers?

If you present the question to poet Holly Wren Spaulding (IAA 91-92, IAC/NMC 83), she might say it has a lot to do with the collaborative atmosphere. As an alumna herself—as well as a working artist who has taught and given master classes, read at special events and even helped brainstorm some of the features of this Academy year’s theme, the Year of Light—Spaulding knows a bit about collaboration at Interlochen.

Spaulding, who is a Michigan native (mother Carol Conrad Spaulding studied visual art at Interlochen in 1968), was on campus Sept. 23 to read for “Northern Light: 40 Years of Creative Writing at Interlochen.” She also spent time giving a master class for the Singer-Songwriter music majors, and came back to campus in late October for a Creative Writing Boot Camp at Interlochen College of Creative Arts (where she is a member of the Creative Writing faculty), and to teach Zen Arts Aesthetics with Interlochen’s Comparative Arts students.

We spoke to her about her current projects, her ties with Interlochen and more. What follows is an edited transcript.

You were invited to participate in the Creative Writing 40th anniversary event this year. What was that like for you?

I was completely honored to be invited to read in celebration of a program that did so much for me at an important time in my young life. Nurturing emerging writers is a big deal in my opinion—I think it’s wonderful, important work. And the roster of writers who’ve come through here (as guest artists) is impressive—I saw many of them when I was a student here and had early encounters with the greats—and that has absolutely shaped how I think about what I’m trying to do as a writer, as a teacher of poetry, and as a collaborator. So it was a true honor for me to come back and pay my respects to my lineage.

How did you choose what to read?

I chose a sequence of poems that were written as separate poems over a span of years, but because each one, in some way, tracks the changing light through seasons, I decided to reconstruct them as a series. I stripped the titles and read them as an unbroken fabric … I felt that was an appropriate contribution to an outdoor reading on the autumn equinox, on the theme of light—northern lights.

Talk about your Interlochen history. How did you discover this place?

When I was age 5 or 6, my parents started bringing me to live performances here. And that was enough to plant the seed that going to camp would be an experience I’d like to have. I think I was 9 years old when I became a junior camper … and that was a wonderful experience, but also really intense. It provided exposure to the performing arts—and artists at work—that was absolutely formative in terms of my ambitions and my values as an artist.

And then I remember sitting in a performance of Coppelia at Interlochen when I was 16, and I said to my mother, “I want to go to Academy.” I was accepted for junior and senior year, but I ended up attending only for my senior year because I spent a year abroad in Germany. But I really think the desire to have a relationship with this place was nurtured all those years ago, in large part because I was brought here to attend those performances. … there is a center of gravity here that I was attracted to, even at a young age.

You studied Creative Writing when you were here for Academy. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I didn’t know it when I first came here. I was a little young—I didn’t really know myself well enough at that point. But what I did know was that being around art and among artists was deeply interesting to me. I had done dance and I had done music and I had done visual art, but writing became the thing that was most native. Receiving an early, rigorous education from poets like Michael Delp and Nick Bozanic put me on a path and I eventually recognized that this is what I am.

What have you been working on recently? Anything you can talk about?

I’m collaborating with a few other poets and a group called The Illuminator, which is based in New York, on a project called Urban Renga: Poets in Cityscapes. We’re using the idea of the collaborative poem—which is what the traditional Japanese renga was—to create short, place-specific poems that are then projected in light around New York City. We did our first series at the end of August in Brooklyn, projecting poems on the Brooklyn Public Library and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

I’m really interested in how to bring poetry off the page and into the public space, and for the presence of poetry to serve as an interruption, or an intervention, amidst the noise of consumer culture—the noise of commerce generally, of traffic, of business, of people hurrying ... all these things that essentially are consuming our attention, and I want to sort of intercept those signals, and offer something that captures our attention with moments of beauty, or of real life as it is lived by fellow humans.

So that’s something I have some energy around right now, but I’m always working on poems, and I have a nonfiction book in the works, and other collaborative projects going on, too.

(For a description of the Urban Renga project, go to

All these connections you have here at Interlochen—how did that happen?

It’s been really organic how I’ve ended up being connected to these other programs … (Nicola Conraths Lange, Interlochen Comparative Arts Director and Instructor of Dance) took a poetry class from me at the Oliver Art Center in Frankfort, and then approached me about coming in to work with her C.A. students, and now I’m returning at the end of October to work with them for a full week. I’ll present a seminar on Zen Arts and Aesthetics and help them prepare for a December performance and installation called Ensō

And (Courtney Kaiser-Sandler, Interlochen Singer-Songwriter instructor) and I were students here together, and when she heard Niki was bringing me here, she said, “Wait!” (Laughs) So this is actually the second time I’ve come to work with her students on elements of songwriting.

I’ve always had relationships with individuals at Interlochen, and I’ve always come back for readings and performances, and my interests are in all of the arts—I’m very interested in cross-genre collaborations. It’s part of my ongoing education to be a part of this stuff, and to have colleagues and friends who are deeply involved in these things in a serious way is a great inspiration to me. New work emerges from these interactions.

It sounds like you’ve been influenced by a lot of the people you’ve encountered here.

Absolutely. When you come to Interlochen, you embark on this really incredible experience … you have no idea how precious, how rare, how valuable it is until you leave and find out that there aren’t that many people in the outside world who are interested in having those conversations with you. And you have to seek long and hard to find the same level of access to mentors, colleagues and collaborators.

What kind of advice would you offer to students at Interlochen?

I would say it’s a rare and special opportunity to be in such proximity to the kind of faculty and the exceptional peers that you will find in this environment. I would encourage students to be really awake to that; don’t miss the chance to have the conversations, to embark on collaborations, and to pay really close attention while you’re here … because you’ll go out into the world and learn that it’s a lot harder to come by. If you form strong relationships here, and seize your education for what it can offer you in terms of increased literacy, serious training, and exposure to other artists, it’s a foundation for a life in art.

—Cheryl Bowles, Interlochen Center for the Arts content manager