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

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.”


“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.”


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. Asics shoes | Air Jordan Sneakers

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)Nike footwear | NIKE HOMME

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.


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.Best Nike Sneakers | Nike Off-White

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.


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.Asics footwear | NIKE HOMME