April 27, 2022 534 PM
MARFA — After two decades of hosting some of the biggest names in literature, the Lannan houses on the hill over Coffield Park have permanently gone dark. The Lannan Foundation announced Friday that it is shuttering its residency in Marfa for good, and over the next 10 years the organization plans to “sunset” the foundation from its main office in Santa Fe.
“It’s a challenge because we have an art collection, we have different program areas that all need to be wound down,” said Frank Lawler, executive vice president of the Lannan Foundation in Santa Fe. “That’s a process that’s going to take some time, there’s no question.”
In the meantime, those who benefited from the residency — an opportunity for writers, poets, scholars and activists to delve into their work and hone their craft, separated from the distractions of the outside world — are left mourning what they say was not only an integral part of Marfa, but an integral part of the literary world.
The Lannan Foundation traces its roots back to the 1960s, when it was founded by J. Patrick Lannan Sr., an “entrepreneur and financier” who “believed strongly in the cultural importance of innovative and controversial forms of art,” per the organization’s website. His son took over the organization after his death, and eventually settled down in Santa Fe in 1997. Upon relocation to the southwest, Lannan sought a suitable place for a residency program.
The early days of the residency were hosted in Galisteo, New Mexico, just outside of Santa Fe. Soon, the foundation began to see the upside to a more remote location, said Marfa coordinator Douglas Humble. “They quickly found out that there’s a lot going on in Santa Fe,” Humble explained. “Writers were coming to the opera all the time, they were coming to the office and hanging out. Patrick said, ‘We gotta get them out of here. I want to stick them somewhere they have nothing else to do.’”
Marfa had been on the younger Lannan’s radar for a long time — his first wife had served on the board at the Dia Foundation, the organization that financially launched Donald Judd. According to Humble, Lannan also had an interest in birding and cycling, and found plenty of each to enjoy in the then-sleepy Chihuahuan Desert outpost.
Lannan purchased two of its three residency houses in 1996 and renovated them in time for the first resident, Pulitzer-prize nominated poet Killarney Clary, in the spring of 1998. A year or so later, Humble ran into Lannan and his wife at a coffee shop in Santa Fe.
Humble was working at the time as a builder — a fact the Lannans kept in mind when they started looking for someone to fix up their newly-acquired residency houses in Marfa. “They just were not being kept up to snuff,” Humble said. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll commit to a year, maybe a year and a half and kind of set up the program and then be out of there.’”
Twenty years later, Humble has been responsible for welcoming the majority of Marfa’s Lannan fellows to town. He would personally pick up and drop off each resident from the airport in El Paso, and remain on call for the remainder of their stay. For some — particularly in the early days of the residency — the adjustment to rural life was difficult.
“I’m not going to give names here, but one time we had a writer come in from New York — people in New York eat out, they don’t cook in their kitchens,” he remembered. “I went driving by one day and I saw smoke pouring out of the kitchen. I asked her what happened, and she said, ‘Well, I thought I would roast a chicken.’ Somehow she set the oven at cleaning temperature, which is like 900 degrees. From then on, it was frozen dinners in the microwave.”
While Humble and his wife, Kristin Bonkemeyer, served as the official Marfa concierge for the Lannan Foundation, two other local couples formed the foundation’s unofficial welcoming committee: Tim Johnson and Caitlin Murray of Marfa and Lonn and Dedie Taylor of Fort Davis. They helped incoming fellows feel at home and connect with like-minded individuals in the community.
Humble would coordinate a welcome dinner for the fellows to get to know local writers and members of the press, and threw a party in the garden at the “Lannan Block” to follow each reading. The readings and the subsequent dinner parties were the highlights of the social calendar for many Marfa residents.
“There wasn’t anything to do in Marfa in the early years,” Humble recalled. “The local audience was — how can I put this? — starved for culture.”
“The readings were a joy — not only because they varied so much, but sometimes there’d be writers you’d never heard of who were just wonderful,” said Dedie Taylor. She and her late husband especially enjoyed the dinners, which brought together a mix of the Marfa old guard and younger artists in town. “We loved the receptions at the Lannan House — we’d have good food and sit and talk outside. It was magical.”
Another important aspect of the residents’ social outreach was an appearance on Marfa Public Radio’s West Texas Talk program, where an MPR reporter or local writer would give an interview on the air. The station’s general manager, Elise Pepple, was grateful to have the opportunity to oversee the program when she took the reins in 2016.
“As a radio station located where we are, it’s just remarkable to have amazing thinkers and poets talking about their work on our airwaves,” she continued. “Just think of the roster! People like Dr. Kimberly Crenshaw, Ross Gay, Natalie Diaz. I don’t know how many small public radio stations our size had the benefit of this kind of interview series with thinkers and writers like the residents at Lannan.”
For the hundreds of writers who cycled through the Lannan houses, the experience was woven through with magic. “They have a very out-of-the-blue process on the end of the writer — you just get an invitation,” said Eileen Myles, a poet who came to Marfa for the residency in 2015 after shuffling around their teaching schedule.
At the time, they were teaching at NYU, and had never been to Marfa before. “It was this place that everyone went to, and yet it was a little bit mysterious.”
Lannan brought a mix of big names and up-and-comers to town, and Myles was already widely known for their work. “I’ve gone to a lot of residencies, I will say that [Lannan] is the greatest. There was just a sense of being completely received as an artist. There was a constant infusion of people that I wanted to meet and wanted to meet me, and it was very much a treat.”
The experience moved Myles so much that they decided to put down roots. “I bought a house here, I got a Prius, I brought my dog here,” they said. “Marfa is paradise for work. In New York, I have the apartment of a 20-something. It’s like having a hotel room. At a certain point, you want to grow up.”
“I love this part of the world,” they continued. “I love the landscape, I love the mountains. As soon as I started, I was like ‘Oh my god, I belong here.’ I’ve been here for five years now, and I’m just another person walking around with their dog.”
Another Lannan poet, Carolina Ebeid, was earlier along in her career when she got the golden ticket to come to Marfa. She had put out her first book just a few years prior and was wrestling with her PhD dissertation when she received the offer. “I knew that after so much intense work that I would have that relief of going to Marfa,” she said. “It was my first residency, but I wasn’t filled with those pitiful feelings of being an impostor. They made me feel that I belonged, that they were trusting me enough to open up the space for me.”
Two other poets overlapped with Ebeid on the “Lannan Block” during her residency: Kaveh Akbar and Natalie Diaz. “We would come together at night. We spent time just stargazing, looking at planets, walking around, noticing the stray dogs around town and the fauna and flora — we were all in a new place.”
Ebeid made the most of her time, taking day trips to Ojinaga and Big Bend National Park and even scoring an invitation to Easter dinner at Lonn and Dedie Taylor’s house in Fort Davis, which provided an opening for one of the more memorable conversations during her time at Lannan.
“It was wonderful to be in their house, to really appreciate the library and how the house itself has its archive of Texas history. They were so welcoming, but I remember distinctly Dedie saying that my poetry was difficult,” Ebeid remembered. “I said something like ‘Well, there is lots to receive at a poetry reading.’ I love the freedom of not having to understand everything or the wholeness of a poem — it has an effect that is somewhat invisible to us.”
Unlike many other fellows, whose residency marked their first experiences with the borderlands, Alfredo Corchado’s work as a journalist brought him to Presidio before his Marfa residency. His time in town challenged his own preconceptions.
“I’m an El Paso boy — we don’t really spend that much time in Marfa because Marfa gets all the attention,” he said with a laugh. “Marfa’s become like a home since [my residency], because you see beneath the facade to all these writers, all these artists who take literature very seriously.”
“When you write a book, you need support, he said. “During the Lannan fellowship, I was the most productive ever. You’re in a bubble, you’re there to push the story forward.”
At the time of Corchado’s residency, the other Lannan writers in town were poets. Getting the opportunity to spend time with writers doing more creative work was eye-opening. “As a journalist, you’re always struggling to feel like an author, to feel like a writer. I think being around so many poets gave me a sense of belonging in that community.”
Though the broader Lannan Foundation will disburse the rest of its assets through programs like its Indigenous Communities Program over the course of the next 10 years, the Marfa residency program stopped bringing artists to town in the spring of 2020 and shuttered indefinitely with April 2022’s announcement.
The news left many questions hanging over the remote art community, including: what would become of the properties Lannan has owned and maintained for almost 25 years? Both Humble and Lawler, representing the wider Lannan network, weren’t sure what’s next for the organization’s assets in Marfa.
“Some of the Lannan writers would say those houses accumulated the psychic energy of so many people focusing and working through things and creating,” said Rachel Monroe, a local writer who, over the course of her time in Marfa, has published a successful nonfiction book and become the Texas correspondent for the New Yorker. “Not to be too woo-woo about it, but I do think that changes a place. It would make me really sad if those houses just went on the market and got turned into AirBnBs.”
The three Lannan residency houses were temporary homes to dozens of legendary writers who have since passed away — Jean Valentine, C.D. Wright, David Foster Wallace, and Linda Gregg are among the giants who spent time inside their walls. One major American poet, Robert Creeley, passed away while in residence at the Lannan house on the corner of Lincoln and Mesa Streets.
Humble was — as always — on call when he got the word that Creeley had collapsed in the house. The poet was rushed to Alpine by ambulance, and transferred to Midland when the Big Bend Regional Medical Center determined that they were unable to treat him.
Humble stayed in Marfa, and later that night got a call from Creeley’s wife, Penelope Highton. “She called me and said, ‘He needs his computer because he wants to continue writing. Would you pack it up and bring it in?’ So the next day I was over at the house, putting his laptop together and gathering everything and I had it all in the car. And then she called me and said he was gone.”
Creeley’s death became a part of the lore of the house, and incoming classes of poets swapped experiences amongst themselves. Ebeid believes she had an interaction with the poet beyond the grave, who appeared as a shadowy figure of his younger self one night as she was falling asleep. “I literally spoke this out loud in the room — I said, ‘Robert Creeley, if you want to interact with me, I think that’s really cool. Just do it in the daytime, don’t do it at night.’”
Ghost stories aside, the Lannan residency has branded a place for Marfa in the wider literary world, immortalizing the West Texas landscape in works of art from “Highway 90” by Linda Gregg to Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner. Poet Jeffrey Yang recounted his car ride with Humble in his book Hey, Marfa, and MacArthur fellow Keeanga Yamhatta-Taylor has made repeat trips to Fort Davis with her family to keep up with the Taylors.
“I think it’s a real loss,” Monroe said of the foundation’s announcement. “I think the thing that I always really appreciated about it was the chance to meet and get to know people as working writers. Not as people who had a book to promote, but people who were wanting to hunker down and get something done.”
Monroe moved to Marfa before she had really emerged professionally as a writer, and was able to hone her skills through a gig giving 30-minute interviews with Lannan fellows on Marfa Public Radio. “They invited such a wide selection of people, and I think they had really fantastic taste, poets and novelists whose work I probably wouldn’t have encountered otherwise,” she remembered. “In some cases, you were getting to read people before most of the world has heard of them.”
Myles thought that the “sunsetting” of the foundation was a loss not just for Marfa, but the art world as a whole. “The Lannan Foundation had originally supported art and they moved over to literature. That was radical. The art world is always ‘discovering’ literature, and more often than not, it seems to me that they discover it wrong,” they said. “The literary taste of Lannan just kept getting wilder. From the outside, we were watching somebody that understood the art world really try and understand the literary world — nobody else has done that.”