Stories directly related to VCFA’s MFA in Writing & Publishing program

We’re Baaaaacckkk!

Home Again, Home Again

Winter break is over and we students are convening again, returning from far-flung locations like Nigeria, as well as closer locales like Chicago, Los Angeles, and NYC. One student went to Florida, another to Iowa. A few of us stayed here, in town, and in the dorms. Orientation for the Spring semester felt like a meeting of long-lost friends, and that is indeed what we’ve become, we Writing & Publishing students, good friends for life.

Now we’re busy settling in. First-year students are holed up in their rooms, writing, writing and writing, in preparation for the Multi-Genre Workshop taught by Justin Bigos. (If the first class is any indication, it’s going to be a fabulous class). Second-year students are a little different. You can find them wandering around with beatific as well as bemused looks on their faces, for this is their semester, the period of time when everything they’ve learned and practiced will coalesce into a publishable work of art. I’m guessing that “terrified and excited” might sum up the range of their feelings. (Personally, I can’t wait to read their work!)

The snow keeps falling, followed by rain, then sun, then snow again. The winter walks are as delightful as the summer walks, and the views may just be more inspiring. It’s wonderful as a writer to be in a place as varied and beautiful as Montpelier. Whenever I get stuck on something, stumble over a bit of writer’s block, I amble outside for some fresh air and exercise to get my thoughts flowing again.  We’re lucky to be here!

While We Were Out

The school hasn’t been empty while everyone was gone, not in the least. Several of the low-residency programs have been on campus: The MFA in Writing Residency was here from December 28th to January 8th, followed by the MFA in Writing for Children & Young Adults Residency from January 9th through the 21st.  At present, the MFA in Visual Art Residency is on campus and will be until February 2nd, followed February 7th through 16th by the MFA in Music Composition. Lectures, readings, exhibitions and more are all open to Writing & Publishing students. What a treat!

Coming Up

This Friday’s Professional Development Seminar is being led by playwright Amahl Khouri Amahl is delightful. One of my jobs as the Hospitality Fellow here at VCFA is to meet and greet visiting faculty. The night Amahl arrived was snowy, so snowy that my car couldn’t make it to the airport, and so snowy that the cab with studded tires couldn’t make it up the hill to campus. Amahl took it all with grace and charm. I met him midway up the hill, pulling his rolling bag through the snow, and we walked the rest of the way to the dorms together. Even after all that, after cancelled and delayed flights, after waiting in an airport for hours, after traveling all the way from Berlin, Amahl was full of smiles and happiness. We talked all the way up the hill. We’ve been running into each other around campus since that night, and we always have a fun and interesting chat. So sweet! (Also, the students who are taking his module tell me that he rocks as a teacher. I can’t wait till Friday).

Cafe Anna’s Friday Night Reading Series swings back into action on February 7th, featuring, wait for it…Amahl Khouri! He will be joined by Folio Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman & Sonali Chanchani for a Q & A.

Well, that’s it for now. I have a story to work on, so I think I’ll take a walk in the lovely night air to get my mind on fiction. see you next time!


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:

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.

The Vermont Book Award Gala

We’ve been busy here at VCFA for the past few weeks: classes, readings, modules, mixers, and most notably, the 5th Annual Vermont Book Award Gala, held Saturday, November 9th in Alumnx Hall. The Gala has become a go-t0 event for literati in the Montpelier area since it’s inception:

The inaugural Vermont Book Award was given in 2015. Vermont College of Fine Arts created the award to continue its mission of promoting emerging and established artists, especially those with deep connections to the state of Vermont–and to draw attention to a state uniquely suited for creative enterprise.

The annual Book Award Gala is a celebratory evening honoring these talented artists and the rich literary community that surrounds them.

–from the 2019 program


The Gala

Amara & Nina

To say that a good time was had by all is an understatement. To have such a special event that is centered around literature and the arts was good for the souls of all in attendance. Writing & Publishing students got the chance to rub elbows not just with faculty and staff, but also with the community at large. It was a “fancy” event, meaning we could dress to the nines if we so desired, and, pretty much everyone did.

Virginia & Rebecca

Bianca & Ukamaka

Especially the students. The attire was cocktail or formal, and as you can see, we did our best to “blend.”


Okay, maybe not blend as much as SHINE!

Nina, Hassan & Amara


The Award

But, as much fun as dressing to the nines and posing for pictures was, that’s not really what the Gala is all about. The Gala is about the Vermont Book Award, and we were treated to some amazing writers, nine in all, sharing their work. When asked if the author I wanted to win was conferred the honor, I had to say that I didn’t really have a winner in mind. They were all fantastic.

First we heard Poetry from Sue Burton’s 2018 collection Box. Sue is an alum of VCFA’s own MFA in Writing program and lives in Burlington.

Michael Collier was next. The author of seven poetry collections has won several important prizes. He teaches creative writing at the University of Maryland.

Poet and fiction writer Anna Maria Hong followed. She has work in fifty+ anthologies and journals and teaches at Bennington College. Ms. Hong couldn’t attend, but past VBA recipient Kerrin McCadden read from Hong’s book Age Of Glass.

Next came another VCFA Alum, this time from the Writing for Children & Young Adults program. Daphne Kalmar read to us from her debut novel  A Stitch in Time. (I have to admit that, when asked which author I wanted the award to go to, Ms. Kalmar was a strong contender, and most of my classmates agreed. Her book cover rocked as well.)


Another Alum, Kekla Magoon (Writing for Children and Young Adults) followed, as did Rebekka Makkai,



Rounding out the readings were Leath Tonino and Tony Whedon.







Finally, However

The winner of this years Vermont Book Award, Jason Lutes blew us all away with his graphic novel Berlin. Lutes has been working on this graphic novel for over twenty years. A work of historical fiction that describes the fall of the Weimar Republic and rise of facism/Nazism in late 1920’s, early 1930’s Germany, this series of 22 magazines has been complied first into 3 books, and most recently into one complete book. The work has won high praise over the years, being called “one of the great epics of the comics medium,” and landing on Rolling Stones “50 Best Non-Superhero Graphic Novels”.

When Mr. Lutes took to the podium he commented that he didn’t have a speech prepared, since he didn’t think it was possible that a graphic novel could possibly win the award. He shouldn’t have been so surprised. The book is amazing, and he well deserves the honor.

and then…

The snow has been blanketing the ground here in Montpelier, stuck in its current cycle of snow/melt–snow/melt. There’s the Thanksgiving break followed by the last three weeks of the semester and the long winter break. Time has flown here at VCFA. It’s a great place to be.


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.


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!


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.

Fiction, Memoir, and Poetry–Oh My!

Welcome back to the Frontmatter for spring 2019 here in wintry Montpelier, Vermont! After a restful and re-energizing break, our writers are back on campus! As someone who stayed in the area for most of the holiday break, I can’t tell you how lovely it’s been to begin classes again with my brilliant cohort and our thought-provoking faculty. I was starting to feel like I was haunting the place.

After a few weeks back in classes, our 2019 faculty reading series officially began with a tour de force of fascinating readers: former Program Director and current faculty member Miciah Bay Gault, poet Bianca Stone, and writer and artist Frances Cannon.

Miciah Bay Gault began by introducing her upcoming debut novel Goodnight Stranger, which comes out, she announced to much applause, in July. After a quick introduction of the storyline and set-up, she launched us headlong into the story, choosing to read from a section right in the middle of the action.

In addition to this reading, I was also fortunate enough to have heard Gault read last year, when Goodnight Stranger was still somewhat in progress. I won’t reveal too much, but it was a treat to slip into the mysterious narrative that Gault has woven together. With its idyllic small-town setting (a quaint New England island, with all the trappings one might imagine!) and the appeal of the characters that inhabit it, the slivers I have been privy to have been fraught with tension and complexity. I—and, it’s safe to say the rest of the audience—eagerly await returning to it after its release.

Earlier in the day, we were treated to a discussion between Frances Cannon and Bianca Stone on the role of art and illustration in their work. I have no doubt that I would have been caught up in their readings regardless, but it was fascinating to have a different lens, a tutorial on the intersection of the written word and graphic art. As a selection of Cannon’s illustrations flashed on a screen beside the podium throughout the evening, it was easy to sense the intimate connection between her visual and verbal storytelling. Visually, her style is relatively minimal, perhaps sometimes encouraging the reader to color between the lines themselves. As she read from her recent graphic memoir, The Highs and Lows of Shapeshift Ma and Big-Little Frank (which, sidenote, “easily has the best title to any book ever,” according to introducer Kayleigh Marinelli, ’19), and her images accompanied her, we were allowed a unique step into a writer’s psyche.

I don’t think I’ve ever commented on a reader’s voice before—perhaps I should more often, as they are always so affecting—but I can’t help but mention it when it comes to Bianca Stone.

She presents her words slowly, deliberately, allowing her audience to savor every syllable. She speaks at a low register, so it doesn’t feel very much more significant in sound than a whisper, but with a rich resonance that requires attention. How do you make that happen? I found myself wondering over and over, as she executed each one of her pieces with such confidence, a calm sort of calculated boldness. How does one get there? How does one dominate a podium so gracefully, let alone create such entrancing pieces?

When you figure it out, will you let me know?

Pursuing Those Emotional Questions

On Friday, November 9th, we welcomed a trio of writers to campus for another reading. This time, James Scott, faculty member and author of The Kept, Sean Prentiss, faculty member and author of Finding Abbey: A Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir each read us excerpts of their work.

A surprise snow shower started just before our evening began. Through the windows of Café Anna, we could see the flurries swirl across the campus green, settling on the fountain that has been drained in anticipation of our dropping temperatures. It all served as another poignant backdrop to the words our readers shared with us.

“We all started a class here with [James Scott] this week, and yesterday,” Mariah Hopkins, ’19 began candidly, “James taught us that there is an emotional question behind every piece of writing…and the emotional question behind this piece of writing,” she said, gesturing to the introduction she had written for Scott, her thesis advisor, “is how to do James and his work justice in such a short paragraph.”

After detailing his recent literary successes, Mariah welcomed Scott to the podium.

“I love writing because writing is like having a daydream—you can go wherever you want,” Scott began, recalling an exchange he had had with a friend who works with fourth-graders, one of whom offered the insight. After wondering aloud what the appropriate gif to send in response to such a declaration might be, he continued: “It made me think about what I’m working on now, and that it really started with some daydreams that occurred here in Vermont.”

As you may imagine, all Vermonters—natural-born or recent converts—blushed to ourselves in the audience. There’s simply no way around it: Vermont is a pretty dreamy place. It’s always nice to get a little validation, isn’t it?

James Scott then transitioned into reading the prologue for his current work-in-progress. I won’t reveal too much, except to say that it’s eerie, cold, and wet—and desperately mysterious. If that’s not an enticing combination of adjectives, I don’t know what is.

“At the end of my first year here at VCFA, every one of my classmates seemed to know what they were working on for their thesis project. I did not.” Mike Demyan began in introduction of our next reader, Sean Prentiss. He went on to confess that an essay he wrote in Prentiss’ nature and environmental class became the seed to what his thesis has evolved to today. He related Prentiss’ self-described relentless work ethic, prevalent talent in the creative non-fiction scene, and expansion into other areas of the writing world—a perfect example of the cross-genre exploration we students are expected to delve into ourselves during our time here.

“Every once in a while, I enter a fugue state and write a short story,” Prentiss started. “And by ‘once in a while,’ I mean like every third year. I know nothing about fiction…and I call this the dark art of fiction.”

Demonstrating his flexibility (even in the dark arts!) he went on to read a piece of short fiction about the intersection of young love and math. He raced through the story at breakneck speed, describing the bizarre conditions of infatuation and equations (and axioms, quadratics, and algebra) with the perfect frenzied feel, entirely evocative of what attraction feels like.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich began with a disclaimer.

Because their work, The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir is non-fiction, some of which pertains to the murder of a six-year-old in Louisiana in 1992, Marzano-Lesnevich was artfully direct about their sources and their opinions in the process of writing their book. In haunting narration, Marzano-Lesnevich continued, detailing the conditions of the boy’s murder.

“I trained as a lawyer before doing an MFA, and when I was in my law program, I took a job in Louisiana, helping to defend men accused of murder,” they said after finishing the difficult passage. “Now, I am the child of two lawyers. I grew up talking about the Constitution over the dinner table. I remember the moment when I learned about the death penalty. I was horrified by it—felt right away that it was wrong. I have since learned that that is not a formative memory for most American schoolchildren, but it was for me.”

Before finishing their reading with a section from the memoir portion of their book that is woven into the account of the murder and its consequences, Marzano-Lesnevich paused, allowing us to step into their thought-process in going about this project. Needless to say, the subject-matter was stark and disturbing, but their self-reflective line of questioning was stunningly relatable: “Is who we are determined by the past,” they asked us, “or is who we are determined by what we believe?”

Photo credits to Bianca Viñas. 

Mining Interiority & the “Everybody Test”

Because the campus has been hopping with various events and other residencies lately, our normal Friday night reading venue, Café Anna, was suspended this week, and we relocated to the Chapel on the second floor of College Hall. Framed by the giant pipe organ and ornate finished wood accents, our reading took on an oddly reverent feel. This is not to imply that we do not revere our visiting writers normally—quite the contrary. But, as you may imagine, the juxtaposition of discussing the poetic nature of mystery feces and the surreal disappearance of a dear sibling was particularly curious in this space.

Our most recent guests to campus were poet Diana Goetsch and author Lesley Nneka Arimah. Both spent time in and out of classes with our Writing & Publishing students, offering their advice for their area of the writing industry and creative mentorship. The work and expertise they shared with us were invaluable.

“Diana Goetsch—pronounced like “fetch,” or “kvetch”—is the author of eight collections of poetry, including her most recent chapbook, “In America,” published in 2017.” Christa Guild, ’19 introduced our first reader. “She received her MFA from some school you’ve probably never heard of—the Vermont College of Fine Arts.”

Hearing Diana read her work was a striking experience. Not just because of her deliberate, graceful diction, or the complexity behind every syllable she spoke, but because she was one of us. Diana Goetsch did her time at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, like all of my peers in the audience. She had put in the long nights editing; she had dived into her personal experience and shared her intimate thoughts; she had probably negotiated a few of our formidable winters for her work. And, as with our other visiting artists and writers, she inspires.

“The challenge always is to be a writer—that’s my identity,” Goetsch said at one point in between poems. “It’s how I write something that satisfies what I call the ‘everybody test,’ the faith that when you write, it’s never for you, it’s not self-expression, and yet the subjects can be so specific. Who passes the everybody test is really for you to decide.”

’When Enebeli Okwara sent his girl out in the world, he did not know what the world did to daughters.’ This exquisite sentence begins the story of Light, my first introduction to Lesley Arimah’s work back in 2015,” Samuel Kolawole, ’19 began, introducing Arimah. “The final sentence hit me so hard that I immediately started the story all over again.  Such is the calm, lightness, and power of Lesley’s fiction.”

We have had the pleasure of having Lesley Nneka Arimah on campus with us for the last three weeks as a visiting professor teaching our Fireside Chats (professional development for those of you not in the know!) and a fiction craft module centered around the concept of world-building.

One of the lessons that keeps surfacing as I review my experiences with Lesley is “mining one’s own interiority” for material. It’s a simple enough concept to grasp: tapping in on personal experience, thought, and emotion to inform your writing. We have read and discussed so much over our last few weeks with Lesley, and I can’t help wondering which bits and pieces authors and poets have sampled from their own brains for their material. I wish I could properly convey the deep impression she has left on her students—we are so sad that her time with us (for now!) is up.

As promised, I have a few more additions to our running reading companion playlist. This week, all contributed by Diana Goetsch: Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” (belted out under the cover of an arriving train) The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” (a song about loneliness) and “Ziggy Stardust” by David (“wow, isn’t this a blahhhst!”) Bowie.

Photo credits to Bianca Viñas.

Musicality & Mistaken Identity: An Evening With Justin Bigos and Matthew Olzmann

This past Friday, we had the pleasure of hosting two poets for our reading series in Café Anna: Justin Bigos, current faculty member here at VCFA, author of Mad River and chapbook Twenty Thousand Pigeons and co-founder of Waxwing Literary magazine, and Dartmouth poet Matthew Olzmann, author of Mezzanines and Contradictions in the Design.

After mingling with the other attendees over drinks and hors d’oeuvres (pro tip: look out for the double-chocolate cookies—they are positively sinful) introductions began.

“I picked up Mad River and opened it randomly, landed on a poem involving masturbation and a candlestick,” Lennie DeCerce, ’19 said in her opening introduction of Bigos, pausing for a laugh. “I obviously had to have it immediately because I’m that kind of reader.”

“I think I should probably move that to the front for a second edition, maybe,” Bigos responded as he straightened his pages in preparation for his read. “For people like y’all—a new word here in Vermont.”

Justin Bigos’ poems are delicious—you can taste them. Not just because he uses a language of food—splitting sardines with his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter, breakfasting on coffee and watermelon, pickling kohlrabi, and musing on kabocha squash and pipián verde, for instance—but also because one is simply encouraged to sit in a moment and consider with him.

His reading primarily came from his current project, a book-length poem with dated sections. “I wanted to do something very different than I had done before, and so I decided to write daily, and to make that something that I went to like work, like labor,” He said in preface. “I also decided I wanted it to be something very multi-voice, very polyphonic.”

In this vein, Bigos dissected moments in time with references to pop culture, bits of then-current events, and above all—music. It’s fitting that Bigos sometimes dipped in and out of a lexicon of song titles and artists, once mentioning a Roy Orbison phase, then The Cramps (“real ghoulish rockabilly business. They took a genre they loved and fucked it in the mouth. I salute them.”) and Wanda Jackson’s “Fujiyama Mama” (“comparing her overpowering passion for a lover to the atomic bombs that killed over 200,000 people in Japan—but she didn’t write the song.”) His words have a musicality of their own.

Before our second reader started, we had one of those strange “art imitates life imitates art” moments. Bianca Vinas, ’19, who introduced Matthew Olzmann, began with an anecdote about mistaking another man for him around town.

“In wonderful poetic nature, Matthew,” She began, “I confused you with another human last week.”

She detailed a figure—“tall, gallant, dark-rimmed glasses, a chesterfield top coat”—who she “immediately prescribed…to be poetic,” and who she and a few others watched for hours, knowing that Olzmann would soon be visiting campus. “This is what I gathered: his huge strides in leather booties were poetic, forgetting the code to the front door was also poetic, walking in circles around the coffee machine was poetic.” She finished by describing his disappearance, which she thought “the most poetic gesture of his whole arrival.”

“So now that I know who you are, Matthew,” she finished, letting the audience laugh with her, “I want to thank you […] and promise I will never confuse you again.”

At this point, Matthew Olzmann took the podium.

“This is a poem also about being mistaken for someone else,” he said, not skipping a beat. The first piece delved into questioning identity and spiritual experience, weaving in and out of humor and solemnity at a deft, breakneck pace. He, unlike Bianca, compared himself to the musician Moby (“who, like me, is bald and wears glasses. I am not Moby. I am the man who is mistaken for the man who is mistaken for Moby.”) What followed were a series of hilarious and moving pieces delivered in sharp deadpan.

“If you’re trying to figure out where exactly we are and where exactly this whole thing is going to end,” Olzmann said in transition at one point, “when a cow falls through the roof, we’re probably halfway done, and when I start talking about an invisible horse, it’s probably time to go home.”

After we broke for the evening, I had so many song titles and artists bouncing around in my head that I could have made my own mixtape—so, essentially, that’s what I’ve done! Should you like to sink deeper into our readings, I’ve curated a playlist of all songs and artists referenced so far, and I hope to keep updating it with new additions whenever possible. So today, we have “Fujiyama Mama,” “Goo Goo Muck” by The Cramps, Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and “Porcelain” by Moby (not Matthew Olzmann). I’ll keep you posted as time goes on.

For now, though–I think we’ve hit that invisible horse point.

Photo credits to Bianca Vinas and Blake Z. Rong.