A New Riverside Retreat for NYC Poets Debuts in Partnership with KGB Bar & Lit Club

Josh Cottage

It’s the cottage where a New York City teacher named Frank McCourt wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes.  Since McCourt’s time there in the 1990s, this Milford, Pennsylvania cabin owned by former AMC-TV head and current indie film producer Josh Sapan has served as the periodic retreat – an “accidental art colony” in his words – for creative-minded friends and friends of friends. It has hosted everyone from national book award winner Colum McCann, who worked on his acclaimed international bestseller Apeirogon there, to a bevy of poets, painters, photographers and composers.
Now Sapan has bestowed this Delaware River-adjacent sanctuary with a new mission – to serve as a getaway where NYC poets can find relaxation, inspiration and create at The Riverwriters’ Retreat.

To bring the concept to life, Sapan teamed with The KGB Bar and Lit Magazine. A longtime home to readings by both famous and emerging names in literature, the curators at KGB helped select the first round of poets for residency. The sextet of wordsmiths read their works, a significant percentage that were penned at the residency, to a packed house at an event at KGB on March 6.

So, what’s the story behind this new oasis for emerging NYC writers?  We sat down with Josh Sapan to get the story.

How did you come to create and formalize The Riverwriters’ Retreat?

It was all very organic and accidental.  I purchased this cabin on the Delaware River in 1986 as a weekend getaway for me and my young family.  But when we weren’t using it, we rented or loaned it out to friends.  One for the first was a TV publicist named Ellen Frey.  She had a schoolteacher/boyfriend who, like many people we all know, was working on a novel!  He just happened to be Frank McCourt and the book was the Pulitzer Prize-winning Angela’s Ashes.  They loved the house so much that they got married on the lawn, with Frank arriving by canoe and his loquacious brother Malachy helping to preside.  

Through a friend I met Colum McCann who worked on his acclaimed novel Apeirogon over the course of a few visits.  Colum didn’t like our desk chair so he went out a bought a quite ugly office chair from Walmart which we’ve kept.  Over time, more creative friends and friends of friends went there to write, paint, photograph the nature and compose music.  It all just grew from a happy accident.

Why the new focus on poets?

I’ve been interested in poetry all my life – from the time I discovered the Beats and City Lights authors in my teens. I’ ve been a striving amateur poet myself for about 40 years, getting the occasional work published in journals and my first collection, Rx, with Red Hen Press just last year. 

When it comes to creatives in need, poets probably take the cake. Through a friend I got in touch with KGB Bar & Lit Club founder Denis Woychuk and their literary director Lori Schwarz. They provided suggestions for some of the first round of poets for residencies during fall 2023, and also agreed to host our reading.  Matt Brogan, the Executive Director of The Poetry Society of America, also provided some suggestions and sage direction.  All totaled, we hosted six writers who read their work, some of which was crafted during their time on the Delaware, to a packed house event at KGB Bar on March 6.  Amazingly we even had some attended who came from as far away as Los Angeles.

Tell us a little about them?

There’s three emerging women, one very well-known poet/educator and two who I say fit into “the Wallace Stevens bucket”— people like me who have full-time professional careers while continuing to periodically and passionate dance with our poetic muses.  

Sally Wen Mao is a writer and educator who has authored three books of poetry and a forthcoming fiction collection, Ninetails: Nine Tales. She’s the recipient of an NEA grant, a Cullman fellowship, a Shearing fellowship and two Pushcart Prizes.  Leah Umansky is the author of three collections, including the forthcoming, Of Tyrant.  She earned her MFA in Poetry at Sarah Lawrence College and has curated and hosted The COUPLET Reading Series in NYC since 2011. Umansky’s creative work can be found in The New York Times The Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A Day, USA TodayPOETRY, and American Poetry Review.  Jada Gordon is a recent college grad, a young award-winning Bronx-based writer whose poetry investigates powerful themes of identity, family and sexuality.  

In the spirit of the great insurance exec/Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Wallace Stevens, we hosted two lifelong poets who also happen to be professionals. Dick Manning is the writing pseudonym for Neil Zuckerman, a corporate consultant who is on the board of organizations including NPR and the MTA.  Dr. Josh Potter is a former English teacher and now family doctor residing in Shelter Island. Both of these have had their works published in outlets including Ghost City Review.

We were truly delighted to host and present at our March 6 reading Jeffrey McDaniel.  A recipient of an NEA fellowship and instructor at Sarah Lawrence College, McDaniel is the author of seven books of poetry, most recently Thin Ice Olympics. His works have appeared in numerous places, including The New Yorker, American Poetry Review, The New York Times and Best American Poetry 1994, 2010, and 2019.

Sapan Milford Cottage
Sapan Milford Cottage
credit: Larry Tuckett

The Riverwriters’ Retreat is located in Milford which has a great literary pedigree. Tell us a little about it?

Right down the road from the cabin was the home of The Milford Writer’s Workshop.  From the mid-1950s until its move to England in 1972, it hosted the premier annual science fiction writers conference attended by luminaries like Kurt Vonnegut, Ursula Le Guin and Theodore Sturgeon.  Maybe it’s something in the water, but the town has also been home to many notable writers and editors, including Frank McCourt who ultimately bought a home here.  Our mayor is Sean Strub, the activist/author who founded POZ Magazine.  And his husband’s father, a frequent visitor is the poet laureate of his town in Puerto Rico.

How has your professional life in television and film been impacted by your love of poetry?

For me, it’s all about anything narrative.  Whether I’m working on the creation of a television show like AMC’s Mad Men or The Walking Dead or a film, like our recent release The Taste of Things, it’s all about the story, the narrative, the texture of the characters and the imagination and the sense of wonder it bestows.  I think my love of the written word, and those who craft it, has played a big role in my professional life.

What are your future plans for The Riverwriters’ Retreat? 

To keep going.  Jeff McDaniel already has plans to come back and we are working with KGB and other NYC area poets to provide this creative getaway to more poets and novelists, with an accent on emerging talent.  The best way to find out more about it is to get in contact with our partners at KGB Bar & Lit Club.


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