Anything about Montpelier, Vermont

Life in Montpelier, VT

I’ll probably always start these posts with something about the beauty of Vermont, and what a special place Montpelier is. It’s a gorgeous place, and the people are friendly and quirky and cool. I feel lucky to be here.

The leaves have fallen from many of the trees now. Clumps of gold and soft rust hang on the bottom branches of skeleton forms. Other leaves have just started the jettison process. When people and dogs walk through the fallen leaf-litter they make soft crunching and shooshing sounds, an early reminder of the near-inaudible underfoot crunch of the snow that’s yet to come. The locals tell me that the Fall colors haven’t been as outstanding as in previous years, due to having a drier than normal September, but the leaves have been vibrant enough to make this California girl’s heart go pitter-pat.

Small Town Life with a City Vibe

California and Vermont have many similarities: stunning vistas, sophisticated cities with lots of liberal, artsy folks. Cities in Vermont are smaller, of course. Montpelier, for example, is the nation’s smallest state capital, with nearly eight-thousand people. Eight-thousand people would be a town in California, not a city. There’s no doubt, however that Montpelier is a city. It’s downtown area bustles during the day, with locals, those with business at the Statehouse, and tourists.

There are bookstores, clothing shops, pet stores, florists, chocolatiers, vintage clothing and record stores (check out Buch Spieler Records for some choice vinyl), movie theaters (the Capitol Showplace, a first-run theater, and The Savoy, our art-house film theater, which has strong ties to VCFA), and more. Restaurants run the gamut from quick and cheap Three Penny Taproom to sophisticated and delicious Kismet, with many options in between. (Maple syrup on Mexican food? Really?But it’s good!) There are brew pubs and bars that extend their hours into the night, with live music to boot. Yep, it’s definitely a city, just on a smaller scale.

Scale is the thing that most differentiates California and Vermont. In California you have to drive hours and miles to get from cool, eclectic cities, to engaging vistas and forested paths, then another few miles to get from the ‘burbs to the next sophisticated urban area. In Vermont it’s a short walk. From campus it’s a fifteen or twenty-minute walk to either downtown, with all its delights, or several local nature areas.

The Slate Quarry

This easy hike begins just steps outside of the back door  of the Glover dorms and takes you through a grassy area called The Meadow (where all the town dogs love to play.) From there it’s down through Sabin’s Pasture and into the woods. With the crossing of a creek or two and a couple of slight inclines you’re there. Despite some recent tagging it  has an ancient or otherworldly feel, with slate walls forming a tall and narrow canyon. It’s quiet and peaceful, and a great place to meditate, or write, or even just sit. It feels as though there’s no one around for a hundred miles, and yet…you can be back downtown in less than a half an hour!

 

Hubbard Park

There’s also Hubbard Park, known for its 54’ Stone Tower, set on a hilltop above the capitol building. As with everything in this area the tower looks ancient. I’d thought it was a Revolutionary War relic, only to find that it was built between 1915 and 1930. (That’s still old enough to warrant its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.) The park was established in 1899 with the bequeathing of its original 134 acres. The tower sits on land that was deeded to the city in 1911, at the very summit of Capitol Hill.  Not only could you see all around the countryside from that summit, the tower stood out like a beacon to those downtown and at the Capitol Building. The hope was that seeing the tower on the hill would draw visitors up to the park.That worked until 1961 when the pines planted on the previously clear-cut pastureland grew tall enough to block the view.
It’s a pity to lose the view. But, as a local asked when met on part of the seven miles worth of trails in the park: “What’s Vermont without trees?”

–Darla Hitchcock, MFA in Writing & Publishing Candidate at VCFA

 

A New Home for New MFA in Writing & Publishing Students feat. Literary Readings & Film Screenings

The leaves have started to change: a spot of scarlet here and there, a clump of crimson among a sea of green. Last week and the week before it was pure green with no red to mark the change. Now, however, the crimson grows with each day while the green, like the sea, recedes. I’m looking forward to the New England color show, as are my fellow out of state students. We come from across the country and across the world, with two from California, two from Oregon (one of them by way of North Carolina), two students from the South (Virginia and Georgia),  one from the rust belt state of Pennsylvania, another from Massachusetts, from neighboring counties, and from as far away as Nigeria. We’re  a diverse bunch,  just getting used to Montpelier, to the dorms and the school, and we are beginning to form friendships with fellow writers that could last for the rest of our lives.

There’s plenty besides settling in to keep us busy here at VCFA. There’s classwork, of course, and readings, game nights and even craft nights at Café Anna, the school’s café and coffee house named after VCFA’s own ghost. An open house was held last weekend for prospective students; two films have been screened: Marshawn Lynch: a History by Nonfiction Faculty David Shields about Oakland, CA football player Marshawn Lynch, and Arming Sisters, a poignant and powerful documentary by VCFA alum Brian Heck about indigenous women and the battle against sexual abuse and violence in the Northern Plains. See this movie if you ever get the chance!

One

of the things that most delights me about VCFA is the immersion into all things writing. Coming from a commuter school in California, I rarely got a chance to spend time with fellow writers. (I usually had to forego events and readings due to my long drive home). Not so here.  Living on campus surrounded by fellow students is inspiring. We haven’t yet begun our discussions of what we’re each working on, but we have been telling each other what we’re reading.

One student told me her synopsis of Goldfinch, which I notice is playing in movie form at the Capitol Showplace downtown. Another told me that he’s reading faculty member David Shields’s book. David Shields wasfeatured at the first of the years reading series held at Café Anna on 9/11. He ended the night with bits of humorous wisdom—vignettes that had us in hysterics, including one in which he listed what he had in common with George W. Bush (I wish now that I would’ve been able to take his class this semester. Oh well, maybe next semester).

 

 

 

 

 

The reading began with our Nonfiction Faculty Frances Cannon who read poems from her book Uranian Fruit.

Bookended by these two was our Director of Writing & Publishing Rita Banerjee. She read, appropriately for the date, an excerpt from “Birth of Cool,” an essay published in the Power & Silence Issue of Hunger Mountain, which explores her familial connection to the Twin Towers and of witnessing them fall on that fateful day.  Quite a compelling way to spend the eighteenth anniversary of that event.

We’re now a bit more than a month into the semester, the first module has ended and the second will end soon, our semester long classes are rolling along, we are all getting more and more used to Vermont and VCFA. As the weather cools to crisp, clear Autumn nights, we students dig into our studies and look forward to everything our new lives have to offer.

A Visit to May Day Press, Your Friendly Neighborhood Letterpress Studio

Kelly McMahon first fell in love with the fine art of letterpress when she was in San Francisco attending the California College of the Arts for Creative Writing. She had set out to work on her poetry, but this centuries-old craft—once a necessity for the printed word, now an art form—called to her. “I was lucky enough to choose an art school that had an established printmaking program,” she said. “The grad programs were all interdisciplinary. I took a seminar on book arts and loved printing. I loved making text tangible.”

About ten years ago, she co-founded May Day Press with two artist friends here in Montpelier, Vermont. The 1st of May is her birthday—but it is also Beltane, the Gaelic May Day festival. “I’m not a real birthday person,” she said, “but in Celtic folklore, it’s the day when the fairies come out to dance.”

At May Day Press, McMahon designs wedding invitations, business cards, letterheads and envelopes, as well as the occasional concert poster. (Behind the rows of cabinets is a room full of musical instruments; local bands rehearse in the space on weekends.) She hosts events for the community to illuminate the art of letterpress. For the past three years, students from VCFA’s Writing and Publishing program have interned with her; this past year, Program Director Miciah Bay Gault reached out to McMahon and asked if she would be interested in teaching a course for the Spring 2018 semester.

So far, she’s enjoyed spreading the art form. Seven VCFA students took the course, and they read about artist’s books, studied the typography of the printed word, and dove into the form and function of intricate machinery. They even carved rubber stamps to learn relief printmaking. When I visited, they were finishing up a book sample and about to start on their final project: a class chapbook.

According to McMahon, there is a thriving printmaking culture in New England; in Western Massachusetts there is a clearinghouse, run by a former printmaker himself, who takes in old equipment when print shops close. He refurbishes them and sells them for what McMahon calls “a functional price tag.” That’s how she was able to acquire her Chandler & Price press, made in 1911 in Cleveland, Ohio, which she has owned since the studio was founded; with two hands free, one can print small pieces quickly. “Not a beginner press,” she said. For larger works, up to 14×18 inches, there’s the newest machine in the shop: a Vandercook proof press, built in 1968. With multiple rollers, she said, it provides plenty of coverage across these larger surfaces. And it’s much easier for beginners to get into the ink.

To dive into the ink is a tactile experience. Behind are racks and racks of cabinets, each cabinet holding cases, each case holding type, each type containing not just letters but also dingbats, ellipses, blackletters, and fun symbols. They are meticulously organized: some in baby food jars, most in soft wooden wooden drawers that squeak when you open them. Their metal is cool to the touch, tarnished by ink and the oil from one’s fingertips. The metal clanks together in the machine, and when the worn metal lever is pulled, actual, shiny wet ink is laid down on the paper right before your eyes. For a class that usually types on computers and merely hits “Print,” this is what McMahon was eager to show us: the text, made tangible.

What I’ve Learned About Montpelier, After Being Here for a Total of Three Weeks

Montpelier is a tiny blip of a town, just one sign on the freeway; blink on Interstate 89, barreling toward Montreal, and you’ll miss your exit. Its charming brick-façade downtown could fold up and fit in a cardboard box. It maintains all the vitals to a functioning society: a Thai restaurant, a dimly-lit coffee shop, a hip brunch place with bottomless mimosas, a tiny pet store with a trio of dreadlocked Bergamasco sheepdogs that loaf around like sentient low-energy mops. All the Subaru drivers stop for you at crosswalks. All the bars are empty by 10:30. (There is no happy hour.) Montpelier also happens to be the state capital, because state capitals are never in the cities you expect. And it is a fine place to host an MFA program.

The Writing and Publishing Program’s Class of 2019, which started its first class this Tuesday, just contributed 18 more people to Montpelier’s population (7,800).

Some of us came from out west. Some from New York City, which may as well be a different planet. Some came from Africa, Europe, the Middle East. Hey, why not? This is still America, for now. And some of us are coming home, because no matter how hard we try to resist, we tend to come back to where we grew up. Your humble chronicler, who hails from nearby Massachusetts, found himself downsizing across the country, moving to smaller and smaller cities. After two years in this program, who knows? Some of us might even stay in Montpelier.

Most of us arrived on August 21, giving us plenty of time to explore Montpelier. An hour later, we saw everything.

What’s been fascinating about this place is how intimately familiar it all becomes, and how quickly: it is a quiet place, imbued with modesty, all tree-lined neighborhoods and old Victorian buildings facing the streets, along the steep hills, where stray cats come out to greet you for head scratches. I walked past a trio of kids banging on ukuleles and guitars, listlessly shouting and laughing, a bowler hat placed upturned on the ground as a gesture. I walked past my landlady’s two dogs, play-fighting in the street, and petted them. I walked past an old Chevy van with a pair of kayaks on the roof and a back window covered in national parks stickers: Acadia, Yosemite, Zion. An older couple waved from the porch. By now, I already made it to downtown, where the streets were empty. Above the buildings, against the sunset, the golden dome of the State Capitol gleamed.

There are a lot of Bernie Sanders bumper stickers. I expected this.

There are a lot more surfboards mounted to the tops of Subaru wagons. I did not expect this.

Vermont, somewhat famously, if you’re into matters of pub trivia, is the only state that banned billboards. The same might apply to chains: the only chain restaurant in town, for example, is a Subway, which like all Subway franchises perpetually looks like it’s about to go out of business. (This one doesn’t even grant us the satiation of a fresh bread smell.) Drive a bit out and you can get your craving of McDonald’s, and Panera Bread, and KFC—which is good, because you should never underestimate the allure of an 8-Piece Bucket. Still, chains are so scant in this entire state that it puts some things into perspective. The nearest Bank of America ATM, part of the second-largest financial institution in America, is an hour and a half away. The nearest Apple Store is at the Mall of New Hampshire, in another state. The nearest IKEA is in another country.

But nobody yells at you about Vermont Pride, thankfully, since I’ve lived in all of these places that are so self-absorbed, and imbue that into their emigrants. Flags do not hang limply from every lamppost. Lifted Jeeps are devoid of outlines of the state of Vermont, filled in with a gun, and there are no slogans like God Bless Vermont, Don’t Mess With Vermont Women. You Can Go To Hell, And I Will Go To Vermont. I Wasn’t Born In Montpelier, But I Came Here As Fast As I Could. Remember Fort Bennington. SECEDE.

The leaves are already starting to change, splotches of orange and yellow that shout from the green spaces. Already our class is talking excitedly about all what fall will bring: apple cider! Haunted hayrides! Pick your own pumpkin from a pumpkin patch! Maybe a corn maze to get lost in and immediately regret! If writers are the lonesome, introspective sort to always seek out that proverbial cabin in the woods, then Montpelier is essentially that: a series of cabins, surrounded by deep and dark and foreboding woods. And just wait another few weeks, we tell ourselves—the whole forest will be ablaze.

(Photo: Blake Z. Rong)

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.

 

 

end

Halloween in Vermont

Or, Everywhere is Haunted and You Should Know About It
Or, The Median Age is Under Fifty After All
Or, How strong did you make this Russian drink?

Montpelier is very into Halloween, and there’re all sorts of stories about hauntings in the area, including our very own Anna. It’s also the only time of year where I’m convinced that there are actually children here—so many children. One of my cohort, C.J., has an apartment right off campus that is the prime spot for candy-giving, and every year (I say this as though we’ve been here for more than two) we go over to her place, dressed up and just as excited as the kids. There’s pounds and pounds of candy and bottles and bottles of wine (and vodka), as well as Cards Against Humanity and C.J.’s extensive CD collection.

1

Our first Halloween here was the first time my cohort truly came together, let all of our barriers down, and got over our awkwardness. This year, it was exciting to have the new kids there too, to have our cohorts commingle. Costumes included Wednesday Adams, April O’Neil, Santa Clause On a Budget, Pearl and Rose Quartz (from Steven Universe), Lars and his Real Girl (very method), and (briefly) Tim Kirkman in a borrowed, skimpy witch’s outfit.