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

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.

 

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.

 

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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Ruben answers a question after his reading at VCFA.

Lewis “Buddy” Nordan, “Owls”

Lewis Nordan, whose nickname was “Buddy,” stood in the same Southern Gothic cathedral as Faulkner and O’Connor. Over the course of his life he wrote four novels, three short story collections, and one “fictional memoir” before his death in 2012. Nordan played with expectations in unique ways: his uniqueness was magical realism by way of small-town Mississippi, deep in the Delta, his native home. Lyrical tales of singing llamas and ghosts and a dead boy’s sentient eyeball—a reference to Emmett Till’s murder, which occurred when Nordan was a child and haunted his entire life. His stories contained blatant falsehoods, shaky memories, and unreliable narrators.

“At the house party of Southern fiction, full of death-dealers, drinkers, and unshaven folks behaving badly,” says M.O. Walsh, writing in the Oxford American, “Lewis Nordan stands alone in the yard, like a boy in a bright-blue suit his mother picked out for him. Yet his is the same haunted South as ours. He’s witnessed the same troubles, fought the same demons. Through his eyes, though, the South is transformed. His swamp is full of mermaids. His trashy neighbors sing arias in the cabbage patches. His depressed and alcoholic father is magic. His heart is open and honest and shredded and, thank God, he was willing to show it to us.”

“Nordan’s acknowledgment of me as a writer meant the world to me,” said Julianna Baggott, who teaches our Forms class. Baggott first met Nordan at a reading when she was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. In her words, he was the first writer to take her seriously. “He was the first person—upon meeting me and hearing my name—to say, ‘ah, Julianna Baggott, I’ve read your work.’ That sentence alone changed my life.”

In our Forms class we listened to a reading of Nordan’s short story, Owls. It is the final story in Nordan’s collection Music of the Swamp, a novel comprised of separate stories about its main character, the boy Sugar Mecklin. You can read an excerpt here.

“Once when I was a small boy of ten or eleven,” it begins, “I was traveling late at night with my father on a narrow country road. I had been counting the number of beers he drank that night, nine or ten of them, and I was anxious about his driving.”

We first listen to it hypnotized by Nordan’s spare language, a minimal sensibility that conveys so much: a porch light burned into our mind, the red eyes of rabbits, owls circling overhead. We believe everything because we go into the story with so much trust for the narrator—and also because the steady voice of the audio leaves us with no time to pause, to think things over.

Then, Nordan’s narrator (with the help of a lady friend) forces us to question everything. Do owls circle en masse? Are rabbits’ eyes red?

Did the whole thing happen?

“Was your father magic?” the unnamed woman asks.

“I wanted him to be.”

Nordan’s stories are dark and pinpricked with glimpses of magic. He has said before that his stories are about his father wanting to love him. After spending the entire story reinventing his past, he concludes Owls with a line as moving as it is transcendent: “there is great pain in all love, but we don’t care, it’s worth it.”

At that reading twenty years ago, something unusual happened—something clicked for Baggott. “At the end of the story,” said Baggott, “Nordan’s throat went tight. He had to take a moment; he was choked up. It was amazing to me to see a writer move by some memory coming alive in a moment, unexpected.

“It surprised me that the story was so authentic, and ran so deep. It’s important to be vulnerable, especially in front of students who need that vulnerability modeled. I’m thankful for his honesty.”

(Artwork: Megascops trichopsis (Whiskered Screech Owl), John Gerrard Keulemans, 1902)

Rauner Special Collections Library

As part of Trinie Dalton’s Fairy Tale class, we took a field-trip to the Rauner Special Collections Library at Dartmouth to view some old, kick-ass illustrated books. Above is a collage of some of my favorites. I have a bit of an obsession with both libraries (my mom was a children’s librarian; I’ve done 5 years of work-study and fellowships in libraries) and illustrations (I was a design major). I wouldn’t quite call it a fetish, but it’s getting close. So, this field-trip was basically perfect for me.

We got to spend all day in a beautiful library looking at beautiful books (with a break for lunch at a little diner), which was the perfect form of comfort right after the elections.

 

 

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Liz Powell and David Huddle

It’s sometimes nice to escape the gravitational pull of Montpelier, and one of my favorite places to escape to is Phoenix Books in Burlington. It’s especially nice when I also get to see one of my favorite professors/poets/people Liz Powell read from a her new book, Willy Loman’s Reckless Daughter and snag a copy and a hand-printed broadside. The book-launch was a co-launch with David Huddle (who we read in Liz’s class and was nominated for the Vermont Book Award) for his new book, My Immaculate Assassin. Liz’s reading also featured a slideshow of collages with old photographs and text, which I (ineptly) attempted to operate for her.

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The authors reading were amazing, but it was equally cool to see who was in the crowd—Major Jackson, Julia Shipley, Jessica Hendry Nelson, and a lot more writers and artists that I didn’t recognize, but that I’m sure are equally amazing. Coming from Nashville, I’m used to playing baseball with the sons of songwriters and musicians, but never before have I witnessed this kind of concentration of poets and essayists, and it continues to astound me how close-knit the community is.

Synezoma and Trailhead

Last year, my cohort put together a publication called Synezoma (formed from synesthesia and rhizome) from our own writing and art, outside submissions, and images found in the Gary Library archives. We fashioned ourselves into a curatorial team: handling outside submissions, checking image DPIs, working on publicity and social media. One of the main images we focused on was a complex and sprawling root system:

What a hulking, crisscrossed, heaping, and gorgeous mess. In the factual and the fantastic, we share crossed boundaries and blurry lines—here magic meets reality and the absurd. We follow great river tributaries into swamps and salt marshes, into the bay, then out to sea. Stop to watch the hermit crab as she makes another home hers—a snail shell, a clam shell, a discarded toothpaste top scuttling in the tide. Let’s wedge our souls into what fits best. We feature work that considers what it is to be of and in this vast world. Zoom out and let your eyes go soft. Zoom in and inspect chunks of dirt clinging to our roots. We’ve made space here for worlds to expand and slam into focus. We feature works that jar, comfort, dialogue with other art, bend rules. Each piece in our journal joins hands with its neighbor, sings with it, folds its arms, then turns its back, remains always aware.

We worked with professional designer and book artist Rick Myers, who was able to turn the content we gave him into a delicate and raw art object. Which included a removable cover/poster that we all got to fold by hand.


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Rick is now working with the new class on a curatorial vision for their own publication (tentatively titled Trailhead). I have to tell you, they’ve thought up some pretty cool phrases to describe it: Physicality of the page relates to content; Peters Projection Map (the kick-ass, upside-down ones from The West Wing); coming through the side door; utilitarian and tangible; outside submissions can turn into collaborations; the process is part of the product; rainbows (!!!); reveal the seams; and something very complex and crazy-interesting about turning the whole publication into a sestina. Breanne, please find a way to turn the whole business into a sestina.