William M. Blackburn Legacy

Between 1926 and 1969, when many educators believed creative writing to be unteachable, William Blackburn, Professor of English at Duke, consistently taught a course on Literary Composition. He was once singled out by the London Times Literary Supplement as one of the “rare individuals” who could teach writing. “He never taught writing merely as writing,” according to former student Fred Chappell. “He taught writing as literature, as part of a civilized discourse that always had been and always would be going on” and made students feel as though they had each “contributed something to that great conversation.”1 Professor Blackburn’s use of the workshop in class allowed students to learn from him and each other.  As a result, their writing improved and some, such as William Styron ’47, Mac Hyman ’47, Reynolds Price ’55, James Applewhite ’58, Anne Tyler ’61, and Fred Chappell ’61 developed into award-winning writers. Blackburn created a legacy of imaginative writing at Duke which is still thriving. 

Looking for William Blackburn's Legacy

In the Fall of 2000, the English Department tried “an experiment” with the Blackburn Professorship.  Maureen Quilligan, chair of the department, noted the difficulty in getting distinguished writers to commit to an entire semester of teaching so a new model for the professorship was proposed by the creative writing faculty.  Rather than having a writer in residence for a semester, the department condensed the professorship to a “workshop-packed week.”  The experiment was a success, and this new model, called the Blackburn Residency, was used for several years. The writers-in-residence visited Duke for at least two weeks and were primarily involved in the instruction of creative writing with undergraduate students. They led workshops, visited classes, and held office hours during which they offered writing instruction to individual students. Writers-in-Residence also gave public readings during their visits and some participated in a faculty pedagogy roundtable. With the returned commitment to the Blackburn Visiting Professorship, the residency program was retired.

Past Blackburn residents include the following:

Photo of Caryl Phillips from Yale University

Caryl Phillips was the English Department’s Blackburn Author-in-Residence in 2019-20. Phillips, an extraordinarily accomplished novelist, playwright, and essayist, has published over a dozen novels, multiple essay collections, and has won multiple prizes including being awarded the Commonwealth Writers Prize twice. For two weeks in Fall 2019 and two weeks in February 2020, Phillips met regularly with undergraduate students, both individually and in class. During the first part of his residency, Phillips was also the featured author for the Blackburn Fiction Festival, where among other events, he did a joint reading with Indian novelist and essayist, Amit Chaudhuri.

The second part of Phillips’ residency included a workshop for advanced creative writing undergraduates; daily office hours attended by undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty; visits to several writing classes; and three public events: a literary critical talk, a joint reading, and a pedagogy roundtable. This was one of the most successful Blackburn residencies in recent years, in large part because of Phillips’ engagement with a significant percentage of English students—both undergraduate and graduate—and faculty.

Caryl Phillips during workshop

To begin the multi-event series with Caryl Phillips, Duke English hosted a Creative Writing/Literary Criticism Pedagogy Roundtable discussion which featured Phillips and English professors Sarah Beckwith, Tsitsi Jaji, Mesha Maren, Akhil Sharma, and Corina Stan. Two of these are creative writing faculty, two are literary critical faculty, and one teaches both creative writing and literary criticism. The purpose of the roundtable was to share teaching techniques among faculty, especially between those who teach creative writing and those who teach literary criticism.

This was an important departmental event and facilitated extremely productive conversations about literature and teaching among English department faculty.

Caryl Phillips

Caryl Phillips, who was scheduled to come as a visiting professor in 2019/20, came as a writer-in-residence in spring 2020. His visit established the current two-week residency model.  He returned in spring 2021 for a second residency, this time all virtual (due to pandemic protocols) and completed a third residency in fall 2021, returning to in-person teaching. 

North Carolina author Margaret Maron taught a week-long creative writing workshop to students in October 2011.  She capped off the week with a reading in the East Duke Parlor from her latest “Deborah Knott” mystery Three Day Town.  Maron is the author of thirty novels and two collections of short stories. Winner of several major American awards for mysteries (Edgar, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity), her works are on the reading lists of various courses in contemporary Southern literature and have been translated into 16 languages. A native Tar Heel, she lives on her family's century farm a few miles southeast of Raleigh, the setting for Bootlegger's Daughter, which is numbered among the 100 Favorite Mysteries of the Century as selected by the Independent Mystery Booksellers Association. In 2004, she received the Sir Walter Raleigh Award for best North Carolina novel of the year. In 2008, she was honored with the North Carolina Award for Literature. (The North Carolina Award is the state’s highest civilian honor.)

According to Maron, "The mystery novel is the peg upon which I hang my love and concerns for North Carolina as the state transitions from agriculture to high tech, from a largely rural countryside to one increasingly under assault by housing developments and chain stores and politicians more interested in catering to wealthy donors than working for ordinary Tar Heel citizens." Her books have looked at problems of race, migrant labor, politics, and unstructured growth.

Fiction writer James Salter was in residence April 2-7, 2006.  He visited creative writing classes, taught a master class on fiction writing, and met with students.  He gave a reading in the Rare Book Room from his newest collection of short stories, Last Night.  Salter’s other books of fiction and memoir include: A Sport and A PastimeDusk and Other Stories, and Gods of Tin: The Flying Years.

Poet, essayist, and naturalist Diane Ackerman was the Blackburn Writer-in-Residence in March.  During the week, she visited classes, taught a master class, and gave a public reading in the Rare Book Room of Perkins Library.  Ackerman’s books of poetry include: Origami Bridges: Poems of Psychoanalysis and FireJaguar of Sweet Laughter, and Lady Faustus.  She has the rare distinction of having a molecule named after her: dianackerone.

Poet Li-Young Lee was the Blackburn Writer-in-Residence in February 2002.  In addition to reading from his recent book The City in Which I Love You, Lee led a workshop discussion with students and was available for informal meetings at both the Franklin Center and the Gothic Bookshop.  He also gave a reading on March 25 at the Duke Museum of Art as part of the Blackburn Festival.  Lee was born in Jakarta, Indonesia of Chinese parents.  His family eventually moved to the United States to escape the political repression of the emerging Chinese regime, which imprisoned his father for nearly two years.  In his poetry, Lee often reflects on his father’s early career as Mao Tse-tung’s personal physician, and later as the Presbyterian minister in a small Pennsylvania town.  He has published a moving memoir of his family’s ancestry and refugee experiences, as well as his own childhood: The Winged Seed: A Remembrance.

Paul Auster was the Blackburn Writer-in-Residence in November 2001.  During his time here, Auster visited creative writing classes, gave a public reading from his work, and was available for informal visits with students.  There was also a screening of his screenplay “Smoke” and a book signing.  Auster is the author of many novels, including TimbuktuLeviathanThe Music of Chance, and In the Country of Last Things.  He has also written two memoirs, The Invention of Solitude and Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, as well as a book of critical essays, The Art of Hunger.  He wrote the screenplay for the movie “Smoke” and was co-director with Wayne Wang of “Blue in the Face.”

Poet Yusef Komunyakaa was invited to be the William Blackburn Visiting Professor for a week in March, 2001.  Komunyakaa has written twelve books of poems, including Neon Vernacular, for which he received the Pulitzer Prize and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award.  His awards and honors are numerous, including being elected a chancellor of The Academy of American Poets in 1999.  Komunyakaa is a professor in the Council of Humanities and Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.  During his week-long visit to Duke, he gave a public reading in the Rare Book Room at Perkins Library and visited creative writing classes.

For a short time this month, a Pulitzer Prize winner was on the Department of English’s faculty.  Richard Ford, author of Independence Day, four other novels, and a collection of short stories was invited to campus for a week in November as the William Blackburn Writer.  He has been the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, two grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Literature, and the 1994 Rea Award.  Independence Day is the only novel ever to have received both the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.

Ford’s visit marks the first time a Blackburn writer has come for such an abbreviated period.  In the past, distinguished writers would come for an entire semester and teach two courses in creative writing.  During his week-long stay, Ford lectured in classes, gave a reading in the Rare Book Room at Perkins Library, and chatted with students.  He even held office hours.  Ford said he tried to show student writers the impact they could have on their readers.  “Writing can’t be taught like chemistry.  It’s an art ….” he said.  “It can be encouraged, entertained, but you can’t tell [students] that writing is necessarily their vocation.  There are a lot of drawbacks to it, a lot of reasons for people not to succeed.”  Ford said the best part of his visit was “sitting down in a relaxed manner with students.”  Students seemed to enjoy this time with the writer as well.  James Silver, a law student, appreciated Ford’s openness.  “He’s totally willing to talk about his style of writing as well as his life,” he said.  “He told us about why he writes and how.”                                 

In addition to these authors, the Blackburn Reading Series has had the distinct pleasure of hosting: Robert Morgan, Lucille Clifton, Toby Olson, Lucy Corin, Paul Muldoon, William Gass, Heather McHugh, Sherman Alexie, Adrienne Rich, Alan Gurganus, Ann Beattie, James Salter, Mark Doty, Claudia Emerson, Angela Davis-Gardner, Robert Pinsky, Josephine Humphries, Jane Hirshfield, Howard Norma, Rachel Blau Duplessis, W.S. Merwin, William Corbett, Eileen Myles, Phillip Lopate, Lydia Davis, Jay Wright, Alice Notely, and George Sanders.

The sole aim of the William M. Blackburn Endowment is to allow Duke English to bring in distinguished writers to teach undergraduate courses in creative writing so that students may benefit from the teaching of these authors with national or international reputations.  Blackburn Visiting Professors are in residence at Duke for one or two semesters and teach two to four courses.

Each of these authors has published at least one book, as well as other publications, and has earned distinction with their publications. They also have teaching experience and are committed to engaging with the literary and intellectual life of the English department, which includes giving public readings and participating in workshops. 

Blackburn Visiting Professors have included:

Frances Leviston (Fall 2024 – Spring 2025)

Accomplished international poet Toby Martinez de las Rivas joined Duke English as the Blackburn Artist in Residence for 2023-24. He taught four creative writing courses, honored a full house with a Read & Greet, and was one of the featured guests of the Blackburn Poetry Reading, a segment of the Poetry & Theology Symposium. He returned in Fall of 2024 to teach two additional courses.

Martinez teaching included:   

  • English 110S: Intro to Creative Writing
  • English 220S: Intro to Poetry
  •  English 290S: Poetry Beyond the Pages
  • English 290S: Poetry & the Archives 

Articles featuring Professor Martinez:

During Spring 2022, Duke English had the honor of hosting Kenyan author and journalist Peter Kimani(link opens in a new window/tab) as its Blackburn Artist in Residence. His novel, Dance of the Jakaranda – a New York Times "Notable Book of the Year" – was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award and the inaugural Big Book Award in the UK. Kimani currently writes a weekly column for The Standard(link opens in a new window/tab)

During his time with the department, Kimani  taught two fiction writing courses:   

  • English 221S: Introduction to the Writing of Fiction 
  • English 421S: Advanced Workshop in the Writing of Fiction 

More information

Headshot of Verlyn Klinkenborg

Verlyn Klinkenborg, former editorial writer for the New York Times, author, and Yale professor, was the English Department’s Blackburn Visiting Lecturer in Spring 2019. During his semester in the department, Klinkenborg taught two writing courses which focused on creative prose. He also met regularly with undergraduate students to discuss their writing and help develop their skills. On April 17, he gave a reading, followed by a Q&A, which was attended by our students and faculty, as well as residents from the community. Klinkenborg also led a workshop for the faculty and graduate students who are participating in the department’s “Writing and Academic Thinking” group.

The Blackburn Tradition: 3 Generations of Duke Writers

Lucy Corin was the English Department’s Blackburn Visiting Professor in the Fall of 2018. Corin , a former Duke English major is currently a Professor at the University California, Davis. She has published two short story collections and a novel, with a second novel forthcoming. During her visiting professorship, Corin taught two creative writing courses and worked with undergraduate students to build their fiction-writing skills. She also co-organized the Blackburn Fiction Series events. The 2018 Blackburn Fiction Series featured Maria Kuznetsova, novelist and Duke English alumna, who visited creative writing classes and participated in a panel about “Fiction Writing as a Way of Life."

The reading series also provided a unique opportunity for students and faculty to hear form three generations of Duke English writers as Corin, Kuznetsova, and English faculty member Melissa Malouf came together for a joint reading of their work.

Oscar Hijuelos was appointed as a Professor of the Practice in English, and named as Blackburn Visiting Professor by George McLendon, Dean of Trinity College. Hijuelos taught two courses each spring between 2008 and 2012.

Following the death of Hijuelos in October of 2013, the professorship was vacant until 2018.

Spring 2003: Robert Morgan

Amy Hempel taught two classes: “Writing Short Stories” and “Craft and Vision in Short Fiction” during the spring of 2000.  She also gave a public reading of her work.  Ms. Hemple is the author of three collections of stories: Reason to Live, At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, and Tumble Home.  She is also the co-editor of Unleashed.  Her stories first appeared in such places as Harpers, Vanity Fair, The Quarterly, and The Yale Review. They have been widely anthologized since then and translated into 12 languages.  Ms. Hemple is a member of the core faculty in the MFA Writing Program at Bennington College.

Spring 1998 - Spring 1999: Lucille Clifton 

During this year the Blackburn Visiting Professorship was jointly held by Edward Hower and Alison Lurie, a husband/wife team who were both Blackburn Visiting Assistant Professors of Creative Writing for the Spring 1997 semester.  Hower taught a course on creative fiction writing while Lurie taught short story writing.  Members of the university and local communities were invited to hear both authors read from their work on February 6 in the Rare Book Room of Perkins Library.

Hower is the author of four novels, Night Train Blues, Wolf Tickets, The New Life Hotel, and Queen of the Silver Dollar.  He taught writing at Cornell University and Ithaca College for many years and is an associate editor of Epochmagazine. Lurie is the author of eight novels, a collection of short stories called Women and Ghosts, three books of traditional folktales for children, and a collection of essays on British and American children’s literature: Language of Clothes, Don’t Tell the Grownups.  Three of her novels—Foreign Affairs, The War Between the Tates, and Imaginary Friends—have been adapted for television.  Lurie is a past winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the American Book Award.  She is currently the Frederic Whiton Professor of American Literature at Cornell University.

Fall 1995: Randall Kenan 

In the early 2000s, the English Department began a Blackburn Reading Series in which distinguished fiction writers and poets were invited to campus to read from their works.  Between Spring 2004 and Fall 2017, the English Department used funding from the William Blackburn endowment to host this reading series.  This series continued, sometimes alone and sometimes in conjunction with the Blackburn Visiting Professorship, until 2020 when Covid19 shut down the university. When we returned to campus in 2021, the reading series was discontinued. However, our visiting Blackburn Visiting Professors read from their work while at Duke, so the tradition of holding public readings in the English Department remains strong.    

Authors who have been a part of the Blackburn Reading Series include the following:

Photo of John Peck

Featuring acclaimed poet and Pound scholar, John Peck, the Blackburn PoetrySeries in Spring of 2019 included a well- attended poetry reading and reception at the East Duke Parlors. Many of our creative writing students attended the event, as well as faculty from Duke and surrounding universities as well. While on campus, Mr. Peck visited poetry writing classes to workshop directly with students on their own work.

Ann Lauterbach is a prolific poet. A professor in creative writing at Bard College since 1991, Ann has walked many paths. She came to Duke in September of 2017 as the Blackburn Visiting Poet. Over the course of two days, she participated in workshops with students in our creative writing courses for poetry. She then performed numerous works old, new, and unpublished, for a significant crowd of students, faculty, and community members at the Branson Hall Brody Theater. Ann’s reading and book signing was a highly successful event as well as an honor to host.

Laura Moriarty 

A long-time poet, the California-based Moriarty has published collections of poetry since as far back as 1980. She came to Duke in April of 2017 as one of the Blackburn Visiting Poets and participated in a classroom workshop with our Advanced Creative Writing students in poetry. Along with Ted Pearson, she performed some of her work during a public reading and book signing event at the East Duke Parlors.

Theodore Pearson

Ted Pearson has been an active poet since the mid-1960’s. He has produced an immense volume of work since that time and continues to write and teach to this day. He came to Duke as one of two poets for the Blackburn Visiting Poets Reading Series in April of 2017. Along with poet Laura Moriarty, Ted participated in classroom workshops with the Advanced Creative Writing students in poetry. Later that day, he performed a number of poems spanning the decades of his body of work at the East Duke Parlors.

Laynie Brown

Laynie Browne is a professor of creative writing in the distinguished creative writing program at the University of Pennsylvania. After receiving her MFA in poetry from Brown University, Laynie has published numerous collections of poems. Along with Norman Finkelstein, Laynie came to Duke in Fall of 2016 as one of the Blackburn Visiting Poets. With Norman, she participated in a special workshop class with the Advanced Creative Writing students. Later that day, she performed a selection of old and new (not yet published) works for an intimate crowd of students and faculty.

Norman Finkelstein

A professor of English and Jewish Studies as Xavier University in Ohio, as well as an active poet for more than three decades, Norman Finkelstein was one of two poets to come to Duke as the Blackburn Visiting Poets in Fall of 2016. Along with Laynie Brown, Norman visited the Advanced Creative Writing courses in poetry for a special workshop with the students. Later that day at McClendon Commons, he performed a diverse selection of poems from his lengthy body of work.

Junot Diaz

MIT professor and award-winning novelist Junot Diaz came to Duke in October of 2016 as the Blackburn Visiting Fiction Author. He participated in a special workshop class with all of the English Department’s Advanced Creative Writing Fiction students, prior to the public reading. At the Geneen Auditorium at the Fuqua School of Business, the English Department hosted hundreds of community residents and students for a lively Q & A with the author, a reading from his most recent novel, and a book signing.


Novelist, poet, short story author and Professor of English at Boston University, Ha Jin gave a reading in the East Duke Parlors on October 7, 2015.   

Born in China, Jin was a teenager when China entered the Cultural Revolution. He became a member of the People’s Liberation Army at the age of fourteen. His novel Waiting, which won him the National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award was based on his experiences during his five-year service in the Red Army. He was awarded the PEN/Faulkner again for War Trash. He also received the PEN/Hemingway award for his first collection of short stories, Ocean of Words (1996), and the Flannery O’Connor prize for his second, Under the Red Flag (1997).  He is also the author of: A Free Life, The Writer as Migrant, A Good Fall, and Nanjing Requiem.

In Spring 2015, the Duke community was invited to hear poet Ed Roberson read from his jazz-influenced works "Atmosphere Conditions" and "To See the Earth Before the End of the World." 

In October 2014, novelist Gish Jen, author of The Love Wife and Tiger Writing gave a reading in McClendon Commons.  Jen also met for discussion with students in an English class the following day.

George Saunders

Alice Notley

Jay Wright (P)

Lydia Davis

Phillip Lopate

William Corbett and Eileen Myles

W.S. Merwin

A.S. Byatt

Howard Norman, Rachel Blau Duplessis, Cecil (P), Rene G (P) and Chris

Jane Hirshfield

Josephine Humphries and Richard Ford

Robert Pinsky

Angela Davis-Gardner

Claudia Emerson

Ann Beattie, James Salter, and Mark Doty (P)

Heather McHugh (February 11, 2005)

Heather McHugh gave a public reading on February 11, 2005.  She is the author of Eyeshot, Hinge and Sign (both of which won the Boston Book Review’s Bingham Poetry Prize and the Pollack-Harvard Review Prize, as well as Shades, To the Quick, A World of Difference, Dangers, and Broken English: Poetry and Partiality.  McHugh teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College and is frequently appointed as Visiting Professor at the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa.

William Gass (April 1, 2005)

One of the most critically acclaimed authors of modern fiction and critical prose writing, William Glass, visited the Duke English Department and gave a public reading on April 1, 2005.  Mr. Glass, former professor at Washington University is now the David May Distinguished University Professor Emeritus in the Humanities.  His fiction publications include: Omensetter’s Luck, The World Within the Word, Habitations of the Word, and most recently The Tunnel.

Spring 2005     Sherman Alexie and Adrienne Rich

Spring 2005     Alan Gurganus


Paul Muldoon, author of Moy Sand and Gravel and Poems 1968-1998, gave a public reading and led a discussion on the role of poetry in history and politics. The discussion took place in the Department of English on November 18, 2004.  [for more on this discussion, see The Chronicle Online, November 19, 2004: “Muldoon ponders poetry, politics” by Mingyang Liu.]

Lucy Corin gave a public reading from her book Everyday Psycho Killers: A History for Girls.  It was very fitting that Corin, a Duke graduate, was invited to be a Blackburn Writer-in-Residence.  She was awarded the William Blackburn Scholarship during 1991/92.  

The English Department’s Blackburn Literary Festival brings literary figures of renown to Duke for multi-day celebrations, usually centered around a theme. Past festivals have featured music and performance, as well as partnerships with faculty in Duke’s Divinity school, African and African-American Studies Department, and Duke Arts. 

The Arthur G. Raynes (Trinity, 1956) Endowment funds The Blackburn Festival. The Raynes endowment supports readings “by authors of the highest national achievement.”


Photo of Caryl Phillips and Amit Chaudhuri

The Blackburn Fiction Festival in Fall 2019, a 2-day multi-venue event series centered on the work of novelists and essayists Caryl Phillips and Amit Chaudhuri (Professor of Contemporary Literature at the University of East Anglia). The opening night featureda fiction reading and reception with members of the Duke English faculty: Michelle Dove, Faulkner Fox, JP Gritton, Melissa Malouf, and MeshaMaren. The following night featured a joint reading with Phillips and Chaudhuri followed by a conversation andQ & A with the crowd. While on campus, both authors participated in multiple events with our co-sponsor, Franklin Humanities Center, including panel discussions and a musical performance.

Blackburn Fiction Festival - Writers from Duke Photo
Poetry Festival: The Mackey Sessions Flyer



The Blackburn Poetry Festival featured a 3-day multi-venue event series centered on the work of Nate Mackey (Reynolds Price Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing). Highlights from this series included an opening night reading and reception with Fred Moten (NYU) and Ed Roberson (Artist in Residence, Northwestern University), a headline performance with musical accompaniment by Nate Mackey, workshops led by Professors Tsitsi Jaji (English) and J. Kameron Carter (Religious Studies, English, AAAS), and a farewell brunch with a poetry open mic.

The English department’s Blackburn Literary Festival brings literary figures of renown to Duke for multi-day celebrations, usually centered around a theme. A collaboration of Duke Arts and the English department, this year’s festival (Oct. 18-20) brings three celebrated novelists together for a weekend of readings and conversation. This year’s theme, “History and Its Alternatives,” explores the storyteller’s place in a world in which the truth seems ever more contentious and ever more elusive.  Following her address on Saturday, keynote speaker Rachel Kushner (Creation Lake) will be joined onstage by fellow novelists Claire Messud (This Strange, Eventful History) and Paul Yoon (The Hive and the Honey). Akhil Sharma, Duke English professor and PEN/Hemingway award-winning author of An Obedient Father, will lead this year’s guests in a discussion of their craft. A Sunday triple-header reading and book-signing will cap the weekend’s events.

The Arthur G. Raynes (Trinity, 1956) Endowment funds The Blackburn Festival. The Raynes endowment supports readings “by authors of the highest national achievement.”

2024 Blackburn Literary Festival