Things we’re reading, watching, or getting inspired by, both in class and separately

Community Enrichment Class for April

I’ve begun the last couple of months with an interview of the MFA candidate set to teach that month’s Community Enrichment Class. This month, however, I’m teaching the class, and let’s face it, even though April is the fool’s month, it would be pretty silly to interview myself.

Nah! Too silly even for me!

So, rather than interview myself, I’ll just give you an idea of my background, my literary loves, and what inspired me to create my community enrichment class, entitled Leaving Europe Behind: Writing (Indigenous) Urban Fantasy for the Americas. Info Here

Who Am I? Part I

I’m an old broad with a young heart. No really. What keeps me that way is that I’ve wanted to be old since I was, well, young. I grew up in Los Angeles in the 60s and 70s, the daughter of an Anglo dad and an American Indian mother. (I’m enrolled in the Delaware Indian Tribe of Oklahoma, though I also have Wyandotte and Creek forebears.) My father’s family didn’t arrive here from England and Scotland until the last years of the 1880’s. I know, I’m diving in deep here, but my heritage matters when it comes to the class.

Knowing who I was growing up was a whole lot easier on the Anglo side. A lot of Anglo-Saxons, Celts, etc. made their way to these shores. White people from the British Isles were everywhere. The Indian heritage was a bit harder to come to know: my mom always told my brother and I “You are an Indian, and don’t you forget it!” I was proud of being Native, but I never really knew what that meant. Movie Westerns were the closest thing I had as a kid to learning what Indians were like—I didn’t meet another Native that wasn’t part of my extended family until I was in my mid-twenties—but let’s face it, we all know how those movies were at fair representation.

Who Am I? Part II

By the time I was twenty I had begun making a life at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. I graduated from Fashion School and opened a costuming business, making and selling period garb faire to faire. I also built my booths, utilizing the carpentry skill that I learned from my dad, a professional cabinetmaker. Needless to say, I was totally besotted by all things English/Scottish/Irish, from Celtic music, to English Punk, to Faerie Stories, myths, and tales.

That lasted a good thirty years, but eventually I needed a change. The life was hard work, and the economy was getting worse and worse for the self-employed. By chance I began writing again, something I hadn’t done since I started my business. I found my passion once more and decided to go back to school.

I had been reading Native American authors for a couple of decades, since I saw the movie Smoke Signals, written by Sherman Alexie. Being back in college gave me access to American Indian Studies classes. I was finally trying to figure out what “being an Indian” actually meant. I dreamed of teaching San Francisco State’s American Indian Literature class, co-run by the AIS and Creative Writing Programs. (Originally, I’d wanted to take the class but—while it was still in the catalog for both departments—it wasn’t being taught.) I also dreamed (and still do) of teaching Creative Writing and Native Lit. at tribal colleges. I ended up  utilizing Independent Studies classes here at VCFA to earn myself an unofficial minor in American Indian Literature.

Who Am I? Part III

I had a zinger of a realization a year or so ago: I realized that in the first part of my adult & career life I was following my dad’s path. We were both makers, building things, out of wood, and cloth, and various asundry things. It was about the visual, and it was about precision, and we were both very good at what we did. I was also concentrating on my English/Scottish/Irish heritage, through the Faire and all the literature I really, really, really loved. Arthurian Tales to Neil Gaiman, with scads of others in between.

When I began to devote myself to writing, however, I was following my mom’s path: she had been an English teacher, before she moved with her widowed mother and brothers and sister from Oklahoma to California. She had also been a writer, or at least she had wanted to be, but taking care of her mother, being the breadwinner, and then marrying and having kids wiped that dream away. We’re talking the mid-1940s through the 1960s, give or take, so that was pretty typical in those days. It’s too bad, though. From what I’ve read of her work, she was pretty good.

I had also left the Anglo-centric world of the Renaissance Faire and turned my attention to Indian studies, my mom’s heritage.

Pretty woo-woo cool, huh?

The Class

The idea for this class arose from that zinger. The melding of my two heritages together, to make a NEW cohesive whole. Not only in myself, but also in the words I love to read. When I discovered there were faeries in native literature, I was so excited. I began to study these “little people” as many tribes call them. Then I thought about how I could utilize these beings in urban fantasy, which is one of my favorite sub-genres. “What if American Gods actually had some American gods in it?” I thought. “What if Anansi had been Iktomi?”

I’ve been tinkering with how to make this idea work. It’s a good one, I think, honoring the mythical beings that come from this continent’s soil. Giving them back their place in this land—well, no, not really in the land, they are of it. But perhaps we can give them a place in our hearts. I’m enjoying this so much, and I’ll happily share the fun in class: First, we’ll read work of three of the masters of urban fantasy (de Lint, Gaiman, Jemison) to give students a feel for the genre. Then we’ll look at the legends and folktales of Jo-gah-oh, Puk-Wudjies, Wematagunis, and many more. After that, let the games begin. Literally. We will play prompt & write games and create stories of these beings interacting with our contemporary world. I can’t wait to see how my students interpret what I teach them. It will be a great afternoon!

For more information click here.

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My Story: How I Lost and Found My Superpower

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month

I don’t remember falling that night.

I remember being at a friend’s house, sitting at the table watching hands of poker being dealt. I remember snuggling close to a man who, thirty years earlier, I had almost loved. I remember getting up to go to the bathroom and closing the door behind me. I remember… nothing else of that evening, except, in retrospect and days later, when flashes showed me images I might have seen—maybe. The most vivid image was of gleaming white tiles. I don’t remember if I tripped on a loose rug or slipped on wet linoleum. I don’t remember falling or waking up on the floor. I don’t remember being unconscious and I don’t remember being back at the party. It’s all gone, hours of my night, hours of my life.

I do remember waking up the next morning, reaching up to examine my painful head and finding it swollen from the nape of my neck up past the crown and down the other side. I was dizzy, wobbly on my feet, and fuzzier than the fog that rolls over the West Marin Hills on a summer evening. I had breakfast with the gang, got in my car and drove home.

Drove home. I’m surprised I made it.

I spent the rest of that Sunday alternately sleeping and studying Chaucer for a class that I had to pass to get my BA. And I had to get my BA so I could start Grad school in 5 weeks. (There was no plan B) I read for ten minutes at a time, then slept for twenty.

Being a student is number four on the list of “personal, psycho-social, or environmental factors that can negatively influence recovery post mTBI.”(Ontario Neurotrauma Foundation)

I did everything I was supposed to do—or so I thought—I went to the doctor the next day. I watched for the symptoms that would require an ER visit. I rested as much as I could for a student in two accelerated classes finishing a degree. I mustered on and waited to get better. I continued like this for months, even after graduating, even after starting grad school. I constantly downplayed the seriousness of my condition, always thinking that everything would all return to normal next week, or the week after, or the week after that…

But I didn’t get better. Not really. Yes, in the first few weeks after my fall, the fog cleared, retreated over the hills in my mind till I could, for the most part, think. As time passed, I could stay awake longer than ten minutes at a time, the dizziness abated, the nausea went away, but…

According to TBI.org, early intervention is key in brain injuries. I didn’t get early intervention. My friends that night at the party convinced me that I didn’t need to go to the hospital. (Or so I was told) After my first doctor visit I was so certain that my TBI was nothing to be concerned about that I waited nine months before seeing a doctor again. My symptoms had to cascade, and my life had fall apart before I acknowledged that it might not have been just a little bump on the head. (More on this later)

In the days and weeks immediately following my fall weird new ailments began to appear. Ailments from which I still suffer.

There’s an assumption that most symptoms of a mTBI show up in the first 24 hours or so of the injury. Not so. According to the Mayo Clinic “Some signs or symptoms may appear immediately after the traumatic event, while others may appear days or weeks later.”

The first and hardest symptom was aphasia, caused by my injury to the left side of my brain, which controls language processing.

One day I couldn’t find the remote control. I kept saying “Where is that hat-rack?” I knew as I said it that it wasn’t right, but I couldn’t put a word to it. It took me holding the remote in my hand to recall its name.

“This term is applied to persons who are left with a persistent inability to supply the words for the very things they want to talk about-particularly the significant nouns and verbs. As a result, their speech, while fluent in grammatical form and output is full of vague circumlocutions and expressions of frustration. They understand speech well, and in most cases, read adequately. Difficulty finding words is as evident in writing as in speech.” (National Aphasia Association)

The word concussion disappeared, replaced by “hangover.” This almost made sense, since concussion feels roughly like a hangover—a bad hangover, the worst hangover you’ve ever had, replete with headache, nausea, all around fuzziness and the need to just go back to bed—except, unlike a hangover, it doesn’t go away by the next day. It sticks around for days, or weeks, or months, or even years.

Imagine that you’ve spent the better part of the decade wanting to be a writer. Imagine that writing was a passion from long ago that you’d lovingly and delightedly returned to. Imagine working hard to get to a place where you felt confident in your abilities. Imagine years of schooling, grades you were proud of. Think of your love of words and how much fun you’ve had playing with them. Think of your dreams, and how the written word is the centerpiece of those dreams.

Think about those words going away.

Imagine yourself in an academic setting. You and your fellow students are analyzing why a story does or doesn’t work. You know why. You think the piece is a shoddy bit of writing (or a brilliant one) and you know the exact craft elements that lead you to this conclusion. But you can’t, for the life of you, explain it. The technical words are gone from your mind, and you end up authoritatively stating a jumbled mash-up of a pronouncement that makes it seems as though you don’t have a clue as to what you’re talking about.

Imagine you’re at a party. You keep up with current events, you’re well informed. You’re known for witty little quips that make people laugh and think. You try one of those bon mots, but it falls flat as it refuses to follow the path from your brain to your tongue.

Imagine it’s the first day of class. You try to compliment someone, but words get irredeemably mixed as you say them. They come out sounding like a thinly veiled insult. You try to explain that it came out wrong, that you meant the opposite, but the damage is done. Classmates think you are insincere and mean. They begin to shun you.

Finally, imagine you are writing, and what you hear in your head steadfastly refuses to be written down. The words hide from you. Your thesaurus is a better friend than you ever thought possible—that is, if you can come up with a similar word to the one you want. You usually can’t.

All this has happened to me. And still happens. Writing and interacting are nowhere near as easy or as fun as they used to be. I’ve often felt stupid, or incapable. Sometimes I felt lost. I’ve commonly felt like concussion has stolen who I was from me.

The general public frequently misinterprets the difficulties an individual with aphasia is experiencing and may react as though the person is psychologically ill or mentally retarded. Feelings of social isolation with resulting emotional effects are common to individuals with aphasia. (National Aphasia Association)

Though aphasia might be the most concerning after-effect of brain-injury for a writer, it’s hardly the only one: there’s emotional lability (the inability to control one’s emotions); endocrine imbalances (such as my consistently low thyroid); Vitamin levels that fall to dangerous levels (especially B-12 and D.); sleep disturbances, constant fatigue, inability to concentrate, and an incapacity to handle excess stimulation.

It All Falls Apart (And I Pull  It Together Again)

San Francisco State had been my undergrad dream school, but postgrad at that University was different. I was different. All the noise, all the people! Between stupid things I said inadvertently due to aphasia, and stupid things  I said intentionally due to emotional lability, I was losing friends fast. I couldn’t handle the competitiveness of grad-school—which was nil in undergrad. Worst of all, I’d lost my superpower: my ability to see possibilities! I couldn’t figure out how to end stories, or even chapters. I couldn’t tell where my life was going. I was losing hope and thinking about quitting writing. Sometimes I thought about quitting living.

I finally saw another doctor.

She asked the right questions, ordered the right tests, prescribed the right medicines. I began to feel better.

Then I got an email from Rita Banerjee, asking if I would reconsider coming to VCFA.

My Emotional Support Animal Parnell “guarding the dorms” from his “security tower.”

A college with small class sizes, individual attention, and a mandate against students competing against each other? Yes please.

Transferring to VCFA wasn’t stress-free. The cross-country drive left me with two weeks of heart palpitations. One semester was all morning classes, leaving me perpetually sleep-deprived (bad for a head-injury). I did that aphasia thing when I first got here. (Yes, that aphasia thing: Intended compliment = insult. *sigh*)

But small class sizes helped, as did the smaller college and living in the “Smallest State Capitol in the

U.S.” I found a new doctor, who sent me to a concussion clinic nearby. I started speech therapy, so writing became easier, and socializing became less embarrassing.

I’m not done yet. I still have work to do. (Psychotherapy is next, for emotional lability and anxiety.) But I feel good about where I am today and about where I’m going.

And yes, knowing where I’m going does mean I got my superpower back.

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Community Enrichment Classes

Later this month MFA graduate Valentyn Smith will teach the second Spring 2021 enrichment class, Spell of the Evocative: Setting in Fiction .

Valentyn Smith

Valentyn  is a transplant to Vermont from Brooklyn. She came here originally for our residential program in Writing & Publishing, but found that the low-residency model was a better fit. She earned her MFA in Writing, but came back to W & P for the Certificate in Publishing. Valentyn also works in the library here on campus.

My fellow classmate told me that writing was  with her from an early age. As a quiet child, writing was how Valentyn communicated. I’m sure many of us can relate to that sentiment (I know I can!) She remembers having “story movies” in her head, and that continues to this day.

Her family came to the U.S. from Russia seeking political asylum, and she was greatly influenced in art as in life by her mother and grandfather. Valentyn’s mother, a Ukrainian/Russian Jew, was a fine artist and student of Art History, who learned to speak English by reading children’s books to her young daughter. Her grandfather, on the other hand, believed in speaking up, which could have gotten him killed back in the Soviet Union. He imparted that kind of bravery through words to his granddaughter.

Valentyn had her own version of “the Dark Ages” as far as her art goes, and writing stopped being  important in her life.  However, in college she had her own personal “Renaissance”  and communicating again with the written word made her feel like she was coming home! (this is another sentiment that I am certain that other writers can relate to. It seems like so many of us—myself included—have come back to writing.)

One of the most compelling things about her writing is its connection to Russian folklore.  She didn’t grow up hearing these stories.  Her move to Vermont brought her to the type of tales that have become a motif of her work: Missing her family caused her to study writings from and about their homeland. Russian tales, anthropological texts, oral storytelling traditions and the myths of landscape, full of nature spirits  and fantastical elements. She started using the strong, evocative sense of place in these stories to examine her upbringing in New York City. (This has worked well for her. I’ve had just two classes with her, so I’ve only been privy to a tiny bit of her work. But let me tell you, my response has been “MAN! That girl can WRITE!)

The Class

Spell of the Evocative: Setting in Fiction

Valentyn hopes that students of this class will fall in love with setting, and learn to see it not just as place, but also as an extension of character. She wants them to consider our—and our character’s—relationship to the environment and realize that setting is living, breathing, and can even be considered an entity, both in our lives, but also in our writing. Especially in our writing.

In this class a combination of close reading and generative exercises will help students understand the evocative importance of setting. Students will learn—in both reading and writing—to ask “Why this setting?” and  “Why this journey?” She wants to teach them, she says, to “carve out the why.”

Transporting the reader is the goal here. When she reads she tries to figure out what does the trick in this regard. She wants to teach her students how to pick out and impart tone, mood and style. They will leave the class with a sense of the difference between these elements. Participants will learn to “follow the smoke to the fire,” to discern what casts the spell that “opens the portal to a raw place.” Finally, they’ll learn how to cast that spell in their own writing.

That just gives me goosebumps! It sounds like a great class from a gifted writer and teacher. Go forth and learn, you Padawan scribes!

You can get more information or buy tickets to the class here.

Also, see the poster below:

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Congratulations to Alumnx Lizzy Fox

Congratulations to our own Lizzy Fox on the release of her book of poetry Red List Blue,  just published by Finishing Line Press. I “attended” the online reading and book launch party last Friday, sponsored by Bear Pond Books and the Hubbard Library. I’d previously heard Lizzy read a poem or two at VCFA readings, but on this night she read several that I hadn’t heard. I very much enjoyed them.

Lizzy is a graduate of the MFA in Writing program here at VCFA, and was the Assistant Director of the Writing & Publishing program until July of 2020. We love and miss her. She’s a bright and shining light who was ready to show each of us the way. If we ever had a question, the answer was always “Ask Lizzy.” But we are so proud of her for following her goals and moving on when she needed to. She left to attend the Teacher Apprenticeship Program at Champlain College where she will earn her Vermont teaching license and go on to teach high school English. The best of success in this endeavor, Lizzy!

And now she has a book out!

This is not a typical book of poetry. Lizzy came out of the slam poetry scene and sound is so important to her work. Her poetry resonates strongly with me and this is probably why. (I was a street poet in San Francisco in the 80s, and that scene melded into the slam scene.) I LOVE poetry that’s meant to be read OUT LOUD! Lizzy told us that before she began her MFA program she wasn’t very interested in how poetry looked on the page. But—despite still being concerned about the sound—she has come to appreciate carefully planning a poem’s look.

She began the reading with “Empty/Full” a poem about love and cold, which closes with these lines:

“Have you seen how the light bends off the ice these days?

The way snow becomes the sun? How empty the trees,

always reaching, never in want?”

Lovely lines, aren’t they?

Lizzy read several poems that night, and even when she thought she’d read the last one, Valentine’s Day, people asked for more: “Read Beryl,” they asked. “Read A minute to seven.” So, of course, she did.

Lizzy’s poetry–or at least what she read that night–seem to be invariably about love, but all kinds of love: not necessarily romantic love, but…that too. Even the poems that are serious have a light air to them, like pixies dancing in a field. I had thought I’d lost my taste for poetry, but Lizzy may just have revived it. I will leave you with my favorite lines of the night, from the poem Blue:

” …she was a painter too–my grandmother.

She dyed her hair red and used yellow washes to make

the canvas brighter. She talked about the black hole

in her brain that ate memories. Later I learned

it was martinis. I’m beginning to notice a pattern.

The sky on a sunny day but not on a cloudy one. Sapphires

except not all of them. Did you know that sapphires

come in every color except red? Red sapphires are called rubies.”

 

Get the book/Find Out About Future Readings

You can order Red List Blue here.

Lizzy will be reading Friday night at the Writing & Publishing Reading Series (here) along with current Assistant Director Shin Yu Pai, visiting faculty Tim Horvath, and visiting writer Prageeta Sharma.

You can find out about Lizzy’s other readings here.

 

 

 

 

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Community Enrichment Classes

For several years now the Writing & Publishing program here at VCFA has offered Community Enrichment Classes. These classes allow the college to interact with the community, and give our MFA students important chances to teach. In the past we’ve had  craft class about our character’s inner lives, as well as poetry and memoir craft classes. This winter and spring we will hold four Saturday classes taught by current students: The Personal Essay: Introspection in the Time of Covid, taught by Hassan AJ; Spell of the Evocative: Setting in Fiction, taught by Valentyn Smith; Leaving Europe Behind: Writing (Indigenous) Urban Fantasy for the Americas, taught by yours truly; and Magic & Tech: Elements of Science Fiction and Fantasy, taught by Dexter Loken and M.K. Martin.

Hassan AJ

A self described nomad, Hassan AJ is an international student in his second year at VCFA. Five or six years ago he was a pre-med student secretly taking online writing classes. He was lured away from medicine when he fell in love with language itself, from the sentence level on. (In other words, from the micro–to the macro) He’s fascinated by the ability to “assemble language on the page to make the world less abstract and more tangible.”

Hassan has concentrated on historical fiction in his time at VCFA, writing a novel based on his family’s ancestral story. However, 2020 has made him look closer to home: introspection has become the name of the game. As he puts it “personal essay and solitude go hand in hand, and what is quarantine but forced solitude?” He also feels that personal essay has a therapeutic component to it that he–and society–needs after a year of Covid.

In other words, this is a timely class for us all after the year we’ve had!

The Class

“In solitude, a mask comes off that allows the personal essayist to look back at the past and extract a truth about the human condition. For centuries, the personal essay’s goal has been to make the bitter awareness of the reality of our existence ‘appetizing and even amusing’” (that last bit is a quote from Lopate, but the rest is pure Hassan).

Three essays will be discussed in the class:

The Crack-Up, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

In this essay, Fitzgerald, like us, is in solitude. His life is on pause.  He uses that pause to find his own disillusionment in life. Fitzgerald “teaches us that facing the past, with all the demons of the present, can help us unmask the self, and understand our follies.”

Goodbye to All That, by Joan Didion

Didion uses this essay, written in Los Angeles, to “make sense of the disenchantment in her life” by viewing her past in New York City through the lens of space and time, seeking to understand what went wrong.

Street Haunting, by Virginia Wolfe

In this essay Wolfe takes an opposite tack from Fitzgerald and Didion, by concentrating not on isolation and introspection, but on her escape from such–and from herself–as she wanders the streets of London where “she has her grip tight on the enchanted life.”

“Hassan will use these three pieces to show how personal essay can help us interrogate our lives and our own inherent disenchantment, or the compulsion to cling to life’s enchantment.”

What enchantment or disenchantment might you need to concentrate on after a year of solitude and confinement? Hassan’s class may just point you in the right direction. The class is on February 27th between 1-4pm est. all classes are online. You can register here.

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Halloween Community Enrichment Class

 

Here, at VCFA, we believe in being good members of our community. Now, by community, we mean, of course, students and faculty here in the W&P program. More than that, however, we mean the writing community outside of our school. We also mean the surrounding community of Montpelier and beyond. Because of this responsibility to being good citizens, we hold community enrichment classes in different types, styles and genres of writing. In doing so, we not only give our students valuable teaching experience, we also help other writers hone their craft.

Our first Community Enrichment Class of the semester is one that I am personally excited about: Halloween Horror, a speculative fiction class specifically for teens, taught by Virginia Booth.  Virginia will be utilizing folklore from the German, Celtic and Nordic traditions to explore the origins of Halloween. Students will use this folklore and in-class prompts to create their own horror or speculative fiction piece.

The class will be taught this Saturday, October 31st (Halloween!) from 9:30am-12:00 Noon, EDT. It is an online class, and the cost is based on a sliding scale. Please attend, teen writers, have fun and give us some spooky tales!

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The Last Readings of the Year

What an amazing couple of nights for readings we have had here at VCFA. First, on Thursday 12/5 we had our last reading of the year at the North Branch Café, featuring students Dayton Shafer and Ukamaka Olisakwe. Then, on the following night we had the Final Friday Night Reading of the year at Cafe Anna. Cafe Anna is always a great venue, and on this night featured faculty Justin Bigos & Ariel Francisco as well as visiting writers Kristina Marie Darling, & Chris Campanioni.

North Branch Café

Ukamaka Olisakwe

We were all abuzz with excitement to hear Ukamaka read.  Her poem “Slut” has just been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Go Uka! Congratulations! She started off with an intriguing CNF piece about her life in Nigeria, but ended with reading “Slut”. You can view and/or hear it here: https://www.rattle.com/slut-by-ukamaka-olisakwe

Be prepared to be amazed.

Oh, and more congrats for Uka. Indigo Press will publish her novel Ogadinma next spring. It’s been a very good week for her, and she richly deserves it.

Dayton Shafer

Dayton began with “A Tasting with Troglodytes”, a review of a body modification pop-up.  Part searing, comical send-up, part tender field guide to the underground, his essay brought to mind the weird, wild, wonderful punk-rock art shows of the 80’s mixed with a little Burning Man for good measure. All in our own tiny state capitol, Montpelier.

We were then treated to a series of monologues about growing up as a thinking soul in the Midwest. Richly detailed accounts of Dayton’s life, The American Dream Is fluidly carries the audience from one touching vignette to the next. We travel with him from the house his grandfather built; watch him in his first bit of activism (at the age of ten) as he cleans trash and debris from an Ohio river; and end with an endearing account of community back here in Montpelier. I can’t wait to see the whole thing performed.

Cafe Anna Friday night Reading Series

It’s hard to believe that we are at the end of the semester and the year, but here we are!

Justin Bigos

The night ended the series well, beginning with Justin Bigos reading the story of an eight-year-old child going through divorce and homelessness. The piece had an almost vintage, antique feel to it, full of the oddities of a strange museum that the child explores: for example, a piece of wedding cake displayed under glass, a cake that is over one-hundred years old. We then find that it’s more of a contemporary setting when we learn about the father’s love of sci-fi and the child’s blase feelings about Star Wars. There was a really nice tone to the piece, and I look forward to reading it.

Ariel Francisco

Ariel started off with a very funny poem about working in the garden section at Home Depot in Florida during the holidays. He commented on the worthlessness of his English Degree, recalling his diploma hung proudly on the wall. Alas, that degree left him to help customers find the biggest, bulkiest, heaviest trees in this store–trees he wished were full of spiders; trees he thought had followed the call of migratory birds who told them that Florida was the place to spend their winters. Hysterical! He followed with a couple more poems  that conjured for us his humorous loathing for his home state, and finally, told us a tender and funny story about translating his father’s love poems.

Kristina Marie Darling and Chris Campanioni

Rounding out the evening were collaborative poets Kristina Marie Darling and Chris Campanioni. They read separately at first, with Kristina regaling us with persona poems about a character named Jane Dark. Jane Dark’s hobby is stealing husbands.  The poems are sometimes comical stories about Jane’s resentment of “the other wife.” I hope to never meet someone like Jane, but hearing about her in prose poems was fun.

Chris’s poetry, on the other hand, was more intriguing than funny, though just as sharp when it came to characterization. He read from his book The Internet Is Real, beginning his segment with “Opening the first pages of a book is like seeing your lover for the first time…I like to forget my lover from time to time.”  Wow. The two ended with an anonymous collaboration from their class the evening before.  It was a great way to end the night.
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MFAWP Reading feat. Elissa Schappell. Rob Spillman, and Kevin Yuen-Kit Lo

Students at VCFA are privileged to hear faculty and staff present their work at monthly readings in Cafe Anna. Not only can our teachers teach, they can write, as evidenced in October at an event featuring Visiting Faculty Elissa Schappell and Rob Spillman, as well as Visiting Designer and Poet Kevin Yuen-Kit Lo.

Elissa Schappell

I was fortunate enough to be a student in Elissa Schappell’s fiction course “The Non-Traditional Story Form, Gateway to the Truth”. I knew from being in her class that she was smart, funny, and capable of giving the most amazing prompts: precise enough to get your juices flowing and your fingers typing, but loose enough to allow you to write something personal and powerful. What I didn’t know about Elissa was the depth of her experience: Not only was she a runner up for a Pen/Hemingway Award for her very first book (Use Me), but her work has appeared in numerous magazines, including Vogue, Spin and GQ. She writes book reviews for The New York Times. She was a Contributing Editor at Vanity Fair and a Senior Editor at The Paris Review. Finally, she and her husband Rob were co-founders of that iconic literary magazine Tin House.

Those of us here at VCFA are incredibly lucky to be able to study under such amazingly qualified writers. Incredibly. Lucky.

As I said before, Elissa is a smart and funny woman. Her tongue-in-cheek, hyperbolic story Re: Your Rape Story, had us laughing and giggling away. It’s a send-up of every persnickety and pushy editor we writer’s have ever–or will ever–deal with in our hopefully long careers. She uses the non-traditional story form of emails to show an editor who goes from applauding a writer for her courage, to asking that writer to change the story just a little bit, to asking that it be practically rewritten. All the while negotiations are going on regarding the contract and payment with the editors assuring the writer that she is on her side. So very funny.

Rob Spillman

Rob Spillman was next in the line up. In addition to co-founding Tin House, and being Elissa’s husband, he’s the recipient of many awards, including a Pen award for editing. He’s been the judge of many other awards, contests and fellowships.

Rob read the first chapter of his 2016 memoir All Tomorrow’s Parties, which tells the tale of being in Berlin in 1990, just before the Wall fell. He writes of navigating the fine line between reality and romanticism at such a momentous time in history. Invited to an illegal rave (before they knew what a rave was), speeding Vespas whisk Ron and Elissa away. As they pass the Berlin wall it appears “Faintly iridescent and glowing white”. They arrive at an old, disused ball-bearing factory–the site of the Rave. As they are led through the dark, they remember a variant of that old pirate warning: “Banish all bad thoughts….” Finally, on coming into the light of a cavernous dance floor they are met with music that was a cross of Donna Summer and Kraftwerk.

The tale was at turns entertaining, humorous and nerve-wracking, and now I am going to have to buy the book.

Kevin Yuen-Kit Lo

Finally designer Kevin Yuen-Kit Lo, from LOKI Design in Montréal, read from “Fragments,” the last issue of his lovely literary journal Four Minutes to Midnight. The poetry within is about the fall out of the 2012 student strike in Quebec. Tuition increases; non-liberal policies of a liberal government. Materialism and it’s bad effects versus Activism/Anarchy. Kevin writes using “fragments of other’s work, lines ‘stolen’ and reformed into poetry.” They are also quite compelling.

 

 

The next reading is November 8th, and features Lizzy Fox, Caitlin Leffel and James Scott. More on that next time, along with a run down of the Vermont Book Award Gala.

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Poet and Professor Ruben Quesada Talks To Us About Journals, Translating Cernuda, And Neck Tattoos

On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day in August. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am and my personality,” he said.

Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in the Los Angeles area. His mother emigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua, and their son was just a month older than him.

“From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable,” said Quesada. “I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”

When Quesada completed his MFA at the University of California Riverside, he sought a reminder of the past, so he got a tattoo of a Chinese character. “Growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to and to be physically a part of me.”

Quesada’s debut collection of poetry, New Extinct Mammal, was published in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. At the Chicago Review of Books, he serves as Contributing Editor; at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, he is a Senior Editor. He founded the Latino Caucus, which convenes every year at the AWP Conference. Operating at the intersection of Latino and queer literature, he has devoted his energies to amplifying these voices: in his adopted hometown of Chicago, he runs a series of reading events for Latino writers called “Logan’s Run,” named in part by his neighborhood of Logan Square.

On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation.

Do you still talk to your friend?

Not regularly. After high school, like many people you grow up with, people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.

So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.

No.

But he’d probably be pretty excited.

I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.

Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and predominantly Mexican community?

That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.

How did you come to poetry growing up?

My mother encouraged me to read early on—to read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager—after I’d started writing letters, and I found that writing letters was cathartic. I didn’t understand that that could be a form of poetic expression until almost toward the end, in high school. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.

Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.

Ruben answers a question after his reading at VCFA.

Ruben answers a question after his reading at VCFA.

Even as you graduated, did you have doubts about a life in arts?

I had doubts because I had heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Many people that I’d met who had been through a creative writing graduate program ended up teaching part time and having to take on other types of jobs in order to make a living. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? In many ways it forced my hand into leaving the life where I would be able to present myself in this manner. And I knew that the arts would be one place that would allow me to do that.

But even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry. Or even literature.

Early on, I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It’s at that point that it became critically important to me that I ensure the visibility and presence of people of color, queer people, in the literary community—in the arts. That is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.

Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.

I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas we have in our own heads, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that [Neruda] book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language familiar to those I knew.

If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?

Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, there’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.

I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.

Tell me about your second collection of poetry.

My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments. There’s a section on communion; there’s a section on confession. What’s different about the way the poems look is that the poems are laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.

The idea for that really came to me when I was preparing for a reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was asked to read poems in the Galleries of African Art and Indian Art of the Americas. There was a Mayan stone that was in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs, which reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas: emojis. I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.

Does Catholicism still play a large role in your life?

I’m not religious. You might say I’m spiritual, but it played a large role as a child. And it certainly still has influence over me. When I write poetry, I dig deep into who I am and my life experiences, and Catholicism is still within me. It certainly finds its way into the work that I write and into the way that I translate my experiences.

How do you like Chicago?

I love it. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There are many things I like about it: its public transit system, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways; the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home

How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc.?

I write anywhere I can at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table. I love revising. I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass, and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. So I try to step away from something as often as I can.

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An Evening With Ruben Quesada

Visiting poet Ruben Quesada was the star of our third reading, a solo act. He read three poems from his upcoming and still-untitled collection, though they aren’t entirely poems, per se: they are disparate ideas split up into numbered sections that convey themes of religion, desire, and surviving the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

When the collection goes to print next year, these poems will be arranged into squares: devoid of punctuation, interspersed by translations of Luis Cernuda. Quesada has old-time religion on his mind, both in theme and arrangement: big stone tablets like what Moses carried down the mountain. He was inspired by Mayan stones at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he once gave a reading. Covered in hieroglyphics, he said they reminded him of the “contemporary use of images to convey ideas: emojis,” and added, “I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.” His editors welcomed the idea. “It’s fun to play with, so I stuck with that.”

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“Communion” shared the aftermath of a poetry reading in San Francisco, and a chance encounter with a palm reader. He drops the word “petrichor” in Part II, a beloved word among literary nerds like us. Part III contrasts the AIDS movement against the death of a classmate’s parent: “There was no funeral. He simply turned to ash.” In Part IV, Quesada says: “Take me away from the worthless ghosts of this daily life.”

“Already you were nitrogen, sulphuric, even gold,” says Quesada, in his next poem, “Confession”: “Summer in silver patches of rain.”

He read from Cernuda, two poems titled “Desire” and “Winter Song.” Then, he finished with a poem called “Clemency,” about growing up queer and Latino in Southern California.

“Imagine the most beautiful garden of flowers and weeds, coexisting in the same soil,” said student Cammie Finch, who introduced Quesada. “This is how I picture Ruben’s poems: juxtapositions of the ugly and tender, the simple and the supernatural, the horrifically broken and the immaculate. 

“Each sound is thoroughly considered, each sound is placed gently and purposefully into place. Each sound begs for the wind of a voice to bring the poems alive, which we are so fortunate to hear read aloud by the poet himself in just a few moments.

“And let’s face it, he wins Best Dressed Award, hands down.”

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After his reading, Quesada answered questions from the audience, who responded with such grating queries as: did you hone your reading voice? (Answer: Quesada has a “poet voice” that reflects his performative aspect.)

Should a poem be titled? (Answer: “Titles are hard.” Without a title, “the focus is simply on the content.”)

Who are some poets and their work that you love? (Answer: David Campos, Furious Dusk; Jenny Johnson, In Full Velvet; Rosebud Ben-Oni, currently in Hunger Mountain.)

And, what do you do for fun? (Answer: watch movies with good, interesting soundtracks like Arrival, with a score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; A Ghost Story, by Daniel Hart.) And music helps a lot for meditation, to get into a space. If Quesada is creating: something repetitive. If he revises: he balances the emotionally challenging work with uplifting music, preferably Spanish.

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