Poetry News

HuffPo Talks to SLS Founder and Lit Scene Heavy Mikhail Iossel

By Harriet Staff

The Huffington Post has a great feature on Summer Literary Seminars founder Mikahil Iossel, whose name, they write, "is not just on the literary scene." Writer Ming Holden continues: "His creation pretty much is the international literary scene to North Americans, at least where writing workshops are concerned. The Summer Literary Seminar, which began in 1998 in St. Petersburg, 'was originally a one-shot deal,' he chuckles. Robert Creeley, Gary Schtengart, Colum Mccann, Dave Eggers, Robert Coover, Francine Prose, Mary Gaitskill, Billy Collins, and Cornelius Eady are some of the authors Iossel has enlisted to teach at SLS." More:

"About the places you pick," I ask Iossel over the phone. "Some of them are in risky locations, like Kenya. Was that intentional?"

"We don't have SLS in countries that are in stasis," he replies. "SLS goes to places in transition. There is an intensity and excitement to immersion in the artistic and literary community in Nairobi, for example, that there would not have been without the recent political struggle."

Freedom of expression is implicitly championed by the very act of conducting a literary conference in a place with spotty political history. When I ask about how he locates SLS within the political landscape of its host country, Iossel denies that SLS promotes a political platform.

"If anything, SLS takes a moral stance, not a political one," he explains. "If a society is stuck, not progressing, we likely won't go there, or we'll take a break. But a regress can be viewed as progress-in-reverse, and therefore it is preferable to stasis."


SLS does, however, sustain an intriguing dedication to the political realities of the space it is in. SLS Kenya has a "Kenya Between the Lines" program to educate curious conference-goers about Kenyan history and tradition, and Lithuania's program boasts a plethora of activities meant to deepen the relationship between conference-goers and engagement with what Iossel called the center of pre-war Jewish life.

Ninety-five percent of Jews were then exterminated in Lithuania during the WWII... It is a tragic story, and Lithuanian society is yet to come to grips with it. There is hardly any Jewish life left there anymore. But sometimes the absence of something provides for a stronger contest than its presence.

It's not just Iossel, of course, the man himself points out; Jeff Parker and Thomas Burke are two of the many staff members putting time and energy into making the impossible possible, babysitting droves of jet-lagged writers in new and challenging climes for weeks at a time.

Read the whole piece here.

Originally Published: December 7th, 2011