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

Fall Reading Series

The semester keeps soldiering on here at VCFA. The weather can’t decide what it’s doing, but that’s okay, since we students are keeping to our rooms studying hard and writing up a storm. We did, however, have our second virtual Zoom reading, featuring faculty members James Scott, Justin Bigos and Kelly McMahon. I encourage you to watch it here, but in the meantime, here’s the rundown:

James Scott

The evening was led by James, the author of the bestselling novel The Kept, a finalist for the New England Book Award. I know I always rave about our teachers here at VCFA, but I must sing James’s praises as well. We’ve just finished his three-week class on structure, and I feel like my writing toolbox is fuller than it has ever been. Hearing his take on rising action and learning about Inner Story/Outer Story will serve me well in my future writing career. If you ever get a chance to take a class or workshop taught by James—whether here at VCFA or elsewhere—take the class. I promise you it will be worth it.

James read to us from the fourth chapter of his forthcoming novel Restoration.

Set in Vermont, this is the story of a man who is desperately uncomfortable in his own skin and unhappily living life. Hillary is a diver who sometimes helps the State police with cases, who also owns an architectural salvage company. We meet him at his warehouse the day after he attempted suicide, in a scene with his employees where he is palpably awkward, unable to say the right thing or to connect with those around him.
In walks Mae. Hillary had met her a few days earlier after searching the lake for her missing husband. He found nothing and the husband is presumed dead. Mae has come to him, it seems, for comfort and advice. But Hillary, who still mourns the death of his wife, is hardly capable of such a task. He tries. In this poignant scene, the reader can compare the comfort and ease with which these two lost souls connect, with the awkwardness of the previous scene. The conversation leads Hillary to think “I almost tell her that I haven’t talked to someone who listens to me for a very long time.”
I want more. Much more. I guess I’ll just have to wait till it’s published. Hurry up, James!

Justin Bigos

Justin is one of the W&P program’s permanent faculty, teaching our workshop classes, thesis seminar and various modules. His poetry collection Mad River was published in 2017, and his chapbook 20,000 Pigeons was published in 2014. His cross-genre work has appeared in The New England Review, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, and Best American Short Stories of 2015. He is a co-founder and co-editor of Waxwing.

Justin read to us part of a story called “Riverside Drive.”

He started in the middle of the story. The main character has grown up hearing a ghost story. A story his mother told and swears is true. Years later, this character wants to date a girl from high school, but before such a date can happen, he must have dinner with her parents, who are of a “hard-scrubbed” Christian persuasion. The date itself is the next night, which, due to that persuasion, must be chaperoned by the young man’s decidedly secular mom. When it is time to drop the girl, Jackie, off at home, the mother recognizes the street and begins to tell the story of a boy she knew in high school.

The boy’s family was part of a Christian society that sought to destroy those who would worship darker entities. The boy, however, opted to “court” ghosts and demons instead of vanquishing them. There is a bit about a ghost with Buddy Holly glasses, (who is the boy in question, I think) but the origins of his non-corporeal state are not revealed to us. (I’m guessing we have to read the whole thing. See below)
The story continues through time, from the mom when she was a teen, to the mom’s  young husband, who calls priests to perform an exorcism. The day after the ritual is performed, the house burns to the ground.
But!
When the son (our main character and narrator) attempts to show his girlfriend the empty lot where the house once stood, the house is there again…Spooky!
Justin says you can find the story in The Indiana Review’s “Ghost Edition”. I may just have to look it up!

Kelly McMahon

Next, we had Kelly McMahon reading her poetry. Kelly is described on the VCFA website as a poet who “walked into a printshop and never looked back.” As visiting faculty, she teaches letterpress printing. She runs May Day Studios right here in Montpelier. Before falling for the smell of ink and paper, Kelly got her MFA in Creative Writing at California College of the Arts. (Truth be told, that’s where she succumbed to her love of letterpress.) She read us poetry from back in the day and beyond.
She told us that most of her poems are short. Sound inspires Kelly’s poetry, which is obvious from lines such as “Patient dog toe clicks across the floor.”
One of the most interesting ideas she shared with us is something she thought of in grad school: She realized that “Poetry is that bridge between my thought and spoken word, and your receiving that thought” She calls that bridge “The Language Museum,” and read a series of poems from this museum of the mind, including one called “The Docent” which was definitely on the creepy cool side. (Are you sensing a theme here?)
I was most captured by a series of interconnected poems titled “How to Grow”, which was inspired by a book called “How to Grow African Violets” by Caroline K. Rector. As you can tell from the section I’ve included below, the results are not gardening advice:

#4 “Rooting”

She had been rootbound
and happy
a small town
a small apartment
extreme weather in
a life of folded plants
I was the larger pot that
forced expansion
the necessity of
more water
or sun

On the second date
I ordered a bottle of wine and
drank half
she raised eyebrows
but drank the other half
we toasted to change
and sunnier climates
we tripped down the
spiral staircase into
the snow.

(I hope Kelly will forgive me for any enjambment I may have unintentionally added or taken away. I transcribed this from the video, which I again encourage you all to watch!)

Our next reading on October 16 will feature faculty members Frances (Franky) Cannon, David Heska Wanbli Weiden, and Tavia Gilbert, and our own alumnx Ukamaka Olisakwe. Please join us online or keep watch for a rundown in this blog!

Fall Arrives: A New Academic year at VCFA

Fall has arrived!

I’m looking out my dorm room window as I write this. The view over the college green is a stunning representation of a New England Autumn, with oranges and reds mixing with green in the trees and on the grass. I think back to last year at this time, as I was just entering my second month in  Vermont. Everyone warned me that we probably wouldn’t  get much of a show, leaf wise, since the weather had been so “mild” for the season. When I say mild, I mean that it was 71 degrees with about a million percent humidity—or maybe it just felt like a million percent to a Californian used to dry weather. No. Even the students from the South were affectionately calling the Glover dorms “sauna.” We joked about having a luau, wearing Hawaiian shirts, and drinking cocktails decked with bits of pineapple.

The locals were right, we didn’t get much of a show. The leaves were still green at that time, and fell almost before they turned. Not so this year. Several September nights in a row of freezing temperatures have started the changing colors. It’s been worth the wait, because the show is magnificent. And it’s just beginning.

A New School Year

We’re a month into the new school year, with the first module finished and the second nearly there. The full semester classes are chugging along. First-year students are attending remotely due to Covid-19. We second-years find this sad. We were looking forward to meeting new writers and filling the dorms with new friends. I’m sure the first-years are sad about this as well, but  we are moving along through our studies and doing the best we can despite having a pandemic to deal with. Forms class and working on Hunger Mountain, VCFA’s literary magazine, has the first-years occupied and the second-years are in the pleasant depths of Thesis Seminar and Critical Essay, doing the prep work for our all-important final semester, when we write our thesis—otherwise known as finishing our books!

Fall’s First Faculty Reading

We’ve had the first reading of our series, held on Zoom instead of at Cafe Anna. (God, how we miss Cafe Anna!) It featured our program director Rita Banerjee and faculty members Erin Stalcup and David Shields. View it here. I encourage you to watch the whole thing. The readings are worth it! But here are highlights:

Rita Banerjee

Rita read to us from her memoir about how women keep their cool against social, sexual, and economic pressure. In a chapter titled “Cool As Kin,” Rita tells us about her family members who inspired her to be  a writer and a creative. “From my great uncle I first learned about curiosity and what it meant to see the world through the eyes of an artist. His paintings were inspired by the idea of nature in meditation.”

She shared with us a book detailing her uncle Satyen Ghosal’s art work before launching in to the reading of her own work.

 

Rita’s writing is as lush and beautiful as her uncle’s painting, with prose that reads like poetry, sounding at times like a waterfall skipping over stones. You can’t help but follow her story as it flows along. There is an especially evocative section as she describes a shadowbox tableau in her uncle’s house that shows a depiction of village life in ancient China. You can hear it from 00:12:17 to 00:14:10 on the video.

Rita also read a section from her essay “Mano a Mano” about growing up in Jersey and facing racism, tribalism, and prejudice. I highly recommend you listen.

Erin Stalcup

Erin is the editor of Hunger Mountain literary magazine. She’s also co-founder of the magazine Waxwing, and, of course, teaches here at VCFA. Erin told us that her tactic for picking what to read was to go with the piece that scared her the most to share, and she then read the first half of the first chapter of her novel in progress The Keener.

The chapter starts with Maeve McNamara at an awards shows, with paparazzi snapping picture after picture of her. She is the most famous keener in the world.

“What’s a keener?” you may ask.

A keener is someone who keens—or cries—for the dead. America has no sense of mourning, you see. We’ve become a society that’s so homogenized, so removed from our various homelands that we have no culture around mourning. So we borrow a culture of mourning from the Irish, who do it so well. As the narrator puts it “…we agreed upon a consensual reverse colonization. Ireland didn’t impose their cultural customs upon us, but they let us adopt them.”

The story so far is both thought provoking and funny, describing a world that hasn’t happened exactly how ours has happened…yet! Maeve has keened for various famous rockstars (Bowie, Prince), hip-hop artists (Lisa Left Eye Lopes), singer/actors (Whitney Houston) and underground icons (Holly Woodlawn)! But, Maeve has also keened for Brexit and, just to remind you that this book is a work of speculative fiction,  she’s keened for the dissolution of the U.K.

There are more funny parts, like the send up of fangirling with the objects of adoration being far more pop-culture than usual. There is also a beautiful section that compares Maeve’s keening to a selkies’ cry, banshees wailing, and an “old man at the pub who doesn’t think the college girl believes he saw a faerie in his garden when he was a child.” My favorite, though, is that Maeve’s keening is like “the hiss of a striking snake that never was on the island for St. Patrick to remove.” (Um, Erin, we should talk! Have you SEEN my tattoo?)

I can’t wait for Erin’s book to be finished and published so I can devour it.

David Shields

David read to us from his soon-to-be-published book The Very Last Interview, a compilation of some  2,700 questions that he’s been asked  in interviews over the past 40 or so years. Not his answers, mind you, of which he said he has no interest, but the questions. He’s “fascinated by the aggressiveness” of these questions. He’s not kidding. These are some of the rudest, most pompous and arrogant questions to ever escape the mind, mouth, or pen of an interviewer. David views these as humorous. I can see the humor in them, BUT…if they were asked of me I’m sure I would’ve had to spend some time as a puddle-of-sad on the floor, or on a mountaintop flinging lightening bolts before I ever thought of laughing. Kudos to David for having a thicker skin!

Here are some of the best (or maybe the worst):
  • “You’re dating a librarian? Seriously? You’re not just saying that to make a broader point?”
  • “I’m not sure I understand. What is it you like so much about Cheever’s journals, other than, of course, his swooning self-abjection?”
  • “Are you in sync with Elif Batuman, who says that she prefers most of her writer friends’ emails to the books they write? Any sense of whether, following this widely disseminated remark—widely disseminated by you, I might add—she still has any friends at all?”
  • “Do you have any friends? Real friends, not just colleagues or collaborators?”
  • “What kind of books do you like, then? Can you name one?”
  • “What stops any author from merely indulging his or her predilections?”
  • “Is it possible you’re doing nothing more than documenting your private anguish and fobbing it off as art?”
  • Ulysses bores you? What else? Hamlet? The Brothers Karamazov?”
  • “Are you bored when you read? Are you bored when you’re not reading? What is your underlying impasse? What’s buried beneath that seeming numbness? Anything?”
  • “No final quasi blistering apercus  from you, Mr.Shields?”

And, my favorite:

  • “Could you please name 11 prominent contemporary writers you vehemently dislike?”

(Okay, that one IS funny…kinda!)

Other News

We welcome Shin Yu Pai as the new Assistant Director of the Writing & Publishing Program. She is the author of 10 books of poetry, and her essays have appeared in The Rumpus, City Arts, Yes! Magazine, Tricycle, and The Stranger, among others. Her work has been exhibited at the Dallas Museum of Art, The McKinney Avenue Contemporary, The Paterson Museum, American Jazz Museum, Three Arts Club of Chicago, The Center for Book Arts, International Print Center New York, and The Ferguson Center Art Gallery at the University of Alabama. Her artist books are held in the collections of University of Vermont, Bucknell University, University of Central Florida, The Jaffe Book Arts Collection, Trinity College, UCLA’s Louise M. Darling Biomedical Library, University of California at Irvine, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, University of Pittsburgh, Wesleyan University, Olin Library, University of Michigan, Special Collections, MIT Libraries, and the Savannah College of Art & Design. Shin Yu curates and produces the podcast Lyric World: Conversations with Contemporary Poets for Town Hall, a project with KUOW Public Radio.

Welcome, Shin Yu!

 

 

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 https://vcfa.edu/faculty-staff/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: https://www.rattle.com/slut-by-ukamaka-olisakwe

Be prepared to be amazed.

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

Dayton Shafer

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

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

Cafe Anna Friday night Reading Series

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

Justin Bigos

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

Ariel Francisco

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

Kristina Marie Darling and Chris Campanioni

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

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

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!

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.

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.