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

Our Last Reading Puts Us—Yes, Us!—Front And Center

It was a strangely warm night in Vermont for our last reading—a surprise, really, after a day-long blizzard that dumped a foot and a half of snow across campus. Mercifully, there was no wind chill. At Cafe Anna, we were all in high spirits.

Now, it was our turn to shine. The students of the MFA in Writing and Publishing program put on a reading of our own, where we shared the things we wrote during the semester. The funny thing is, separated by different classes and workshops, we didn’t even know some of each other’s work.

Here, then, is nearly every student in our program, up on the podium. We have all stuck together, made new friends, soaked up advice; fawned over professors whose work we loved, defended our writing, braved the snow and the chill and our own critiques.

Now it’s winter break. Maybe we’ll fly back home to warmer places. Maybe we’ll double down and work harder on our theses. Maybe we’ll go skiing. Regardless, we’re definitely in this together.

See you next year.

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Vermont Poet Peter Money, Live And In Concert

Local poet and publisher Peter Money came in to our Publishing and Fieldwork class to talk about his life in literature. Quite the life, too: The Beat-influenced poet was mentored by Allen Ginsberg, and during his time in New York and San Francisco he published various zines and collaborated across genres. In his album Blue Square, for example, Money performs his poetry against an eclectic set of instruments. Tupelo Press describes the album as a “traveler’s spoken journal opera.” Money worked with illustrator Rick Veitch to create collages punctuated by poetry in the shape of dollar bills—very fitting, given his name. “Our secret plan is to print them up and leave them in laundromats and waiting rooms à la Jack Chick,” writes Veitch on his site. Money translated Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef’s Nostalgia, My Enemy for Graywolf Press, a task he felt was vital, he told us, to fill a void in Middle Eastern literature, and to hear from contemporary voices affected by the Iraq War.

And for years, Money has been making things called “poem boxes,” a few of which he showed us: these are intricately decorated matchbooks, the poetry consisting of just one or two words. Open the box, read the message inside, and understand how the words fit the medium. Money originally made these to conquer writer’s block, he said, claiming that they give his words a more visceral, tangible outlet. Some of these boxes Money gives to friends and family, but they have also been exhibited at The Berta Walker Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. The poem boxes display a proud earnestness that Money believes is lacking in art: “Candor ends paranoia,” he said. “‘Why did you make it that?’ Because it is what it is.”

Money now directs Harbor Mountain Press, based in White River Junction, Vermont, an hour south of us on the New Hampshire border. Since its founding in 2006, the press has published 27 books of poetry—including Money’s latest collection American Drone, which was released in 2013. The press initially set out to publish six titles a year. That has slowed down considerably, but it doesn’t mean interest has waned.

The press is small. Money is just one of three people on the board. Backlogged with dozens of titles yet to be released, the press states on its website that it is not reading manuscripts until further notice. But a quote on the submissions guidelines page says, encouragingly: “We regret that we cannot publish every good manuscript we receive. But we are glad to be in this together, open against all that’s closed.”

Money discussed the challenges of running a press, how to get involved with a small press, and most importantly, whether he was accepting interns. Then, Money pulled out a guitar.

Only, it wasn’t a guitar. It was shaped like a guitar that had folded inward, like a half-open Asian paper fan. It had just three strings on it. It sounded like a cross between a banjo and a ukulele. It is a McNally Strumstick, handmade by one Bob McNalley in New Jersey. Money played along while he read a poem from American Drone, one of 24 untitled poems, unpunctuated and blocky, that he referred to with the title “It Is The Story of Brevity,” his voice rising higher, louder:

The old men modeling lifeguards          women apparently knitting    drawing thread           through charcoal an amplified        heartbeat        calling people to prayer in      New Orleans   the bomb a planet      Guernica less defined in Spanish Elegies  we radio          options & “regret the use” of landmines       but offer a cordial    now I can see for miles and miles

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VCFA Will Review Your Work For Free!

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Blake Z. Rong

It’s true! Every fall, the faculty of VCFA’s MFA in Writing & Publishing program take the time to review prospective students’ work. Five pages tops, in any genre, free of charge. For those considering an MFA, it’s a helpful glimpse into graduate level critique: a taste of an intensive, workshop-focused MFA writing program.

“It’s almost like practice,” said Miciah Bay Gault, the Director of the MFA in Writing & Publishing program at VCFA. “It’s low-stakes. Writers who are thinking of applying to MFA programs can get feedback from faculty to help them get over any hurdles to applying. It will also give them a little taste of that intense mentorship our students have with faculty here.”

Lauren Lang was an unsure prospective student when she sent in a five-page manuscript of her own work. She had been on the fence about applying to an MFA program, but was intrigued by the opportunity to have her work reviewed.

And it was free, after all.

So she sent in five pages of prose: previous fiction exercises, from her undergraduate writing classes. Miciah replied with feedback, which Lauren found both useful and familiar: “It was similar to the feedback from my undergrad professors in creative writing,” she said, “but it was more in-depth.”

Not everyone who takes advantage of the free manuscript review goes on to an MFA program. Not everyone who goes on to an MFA program goes to the Vermont College of Fine Arts. But sometimes, they do both.

Being in such close contact with the program director was reassuring. Lauren also liked the publishing component of the Writing & Publishing program. VCFA wound up being the only MFA program Lauren applied to. This December she’ll finish her first semester at VCFA.

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Breaking Genre Borders with Julianna Baggot

Julianna Baggot is “intense.” The Faculty Director of VCFA’s MFA in Writing & Publishing, she proudly wears that badge, and brings that sort of energy to our Forms class. Sharp, funny, and never one to hold back, what she does best with the cadre of young writers assembled before her is to stress the importance of showing up: in writing, “no one cares if you don’t.” Sit down, write, go to bed, wake up, do it again. For Baggot, it’s worked—25 times over. 

In this interview with MFA candidate Breanne Cunningham, Baggot touches on such concepts in writing as boundaries, compartmentalization, and the raison d’être of this teaching career: how can one teach writing in the first place?

This is just a condensed version; the full interview is on Hunger Mountain’s website

Julianna Baggot, the new Faculty Chair for VCFA’s full-residency Writing and Publishing program found herself drawn to Montpelier’s College Hill because of what was already embedded in the program here: a cross-genre approach to learning—which mirrors her own teaching philosophy—alongside publishing curriculum that educates students on the business of writing. The infancy of the program however, meant she would have a hand in shaping its evolution.

And who better to mold an emerging writing program than an author of over twenty books whose work spans all genres and subgenres of literature? Stepping into the roll of Faculty Chair, she wishes to “translate her own writer-ly experience to emerging writers” by creating new ways of tapping into creativity and voice that are innovative and come from the artist’s own mind. To implement her methods, she uses a variety of techniques in the classroom, from word association and memory exercises, to watching scenes from a film for dialogue, or dissecting the opening sentence of an essay, Julianna inspires students by keeping material fresh, fun and challenging.  

What vision do you have for the Writing & Publishing Program?

There’s a strange culture around the idea of teaching writing—Some people don’t believe it can be taught—

But you do?

Yeah! Aggressively! And I’m so thankful for the people that came before me who dedicated themselves to teaching, I think writing might be only the field—it’s existed in baseball—with this idea of raw talent. I believe there is such a thing as an ear for language and a natural eye, but I absolutely believe writing can be taught and I am fascinated with trying to create new ways to help young writers develop.

The idea is that each genre informs the other. Many programs cordon off different genres and have students define and limit themselves before that is appropriate. I started out in my MFA program as a fiction writer—I just wrote short stories. The end. But since then, I’ve written every other kind of writing and it might be foreign to a screenwriter and a poet that there is much they can learn from each other, but to me, the poem and the screenplay have so much in common, so much shared territory.

Like what?

First of all, they are the most similar on the page; they have the most white space around them, so they have to hold up and endure.  The poet has to support the work through image and narrative, and the screenplay has to support through image, dialogue and plot. It’s very clear to me, having written both, that the screenplay can be seen as a plot poem. It’s very clear that poetry has a lot to teach the fiction writer about epiphany, that the fiction writer has a lot to teach the essayist about storytelling, and that the essayist has a lot to teach everybody about writing from the truth.

You’ve mentioned in class that you compartmentalize and when you’re focused on someone or something, everything else falls away. It reminded me of Tuesdays with Morrie.

I think it’s honestly a genetic disorder. [laughs] My father has it… There is a hyper-focus that goes on… It goes on when I’m writing, too. I’m so human-centric; my writing is such about human beings that I have to remind myself there is setting (laughing). When I’m with whomever I’m with, I absolutely focus on that person and that moment. It’s sometimes why I think I don’t understand Buddhism. I’m like, really, the present moment all the time? [laughs] I’d like to have some awareness of the rest of the world! But it all falls away when I’m with somebody.

Can you talk about the boundary between being a writer and being a teacher when you find yourself in the position of learning as opposed to teaching? How does that inform your writing?

Sometimes it’s the simplest thing I’m saying. I hear a little echo in my head as I’m saying it to the class oh, that’s what I’m not doing right now in my piece. So sometimes it is going back through and trying to figure out what they’re doing and really I’m still processing my own work in the background and realizing what’s not there. Sometimes what I am teaching is the thing I need to hear as a writer. 

It’s like an epiphany. It’s amazing how teaching is reciprocal in that way. What long-term habits or lessons you hope to impart on students?

I want them to create a sustainable practice. The workshop is great and it helps you to have deadlines and it helps you to have support, but I want students to have a daily practice or as close to a daily practice that they can. A lot of the things I talk about in workshop are not appropriate to them now in the program, but I do talk about creative process—I make time for it specifically—because I want some of the things I say to come back to them when they’re in the muddy pit of a project not knowing what to do. I want them to remember that rope I gave them. Authentic Nike Sneakers | Entrainement Nike

Our Fourth Reading: Grounded In Place With Sean Prentiss, Jessica Hendry-Nelson

The best art is grounded somewhere. We are all tied to memories of where we grow up, where we settle down, where we spend time in between. At our fourth reading, faculty members Sean Prentiss and Jessica Hendry-Nelson both talked about the value of place and how they ground their work in very precise settings from rural Pennsylvania to northern Vermont.


First up: Prentiss, Faculty in nonfiction, an environmental writer, and the author of Finding Abbey: A Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave. “I’ve got two really depressing essays,” he began, “so we’ll have a fun night.”

He painted a picture of Clarion, Pennsylvania, a town of 2000 people, “a town as lonely as a breeze, as empty as a heartbeat.” In Clarion, time stands still in the cold air, and Sean speaks across years to an unseen friend, Doug, Prentiss’ wrestling mentor from high school, the two spending the summer of 1989 practicing single leg takedowns in Bangor, Pennsylvania. It is a depressing town, with nothing more than what Prentiss calls “slouching bridges… and bucking back roads leading from nowhere to nowhere.” The way it ends is that Doug was drunk in his Mercury Lynx, heading down one of these back roads, when what you think happens happens just the way you think it does. “Is it strange that I’m talking to the air here in Clarion, talking to the breeze?”

After Prentiss finished reading, he looked up and said to the audience: “I will buy a beer for anyone who can guess what poem I stole it from.”

The answer, shouted from the back: James Wright, which Prentiss confirmed as his influence for the piece, elaborating: “a Midwestern poet who died of alcoholism.” Wright’s poem “Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio” begins with these lines: “In the Shreve High football stadium, I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville, And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood, And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel, Dreaming of heroes…”


Then, Prentiss read a piece about the first house he ever bought: 724 Lockwood, somewhere in Western Michigan. Prentiss was on a tenure track, dodging marriage proposals, he didn’t realize how much a house can change you. He imagined hearing the pitter patter of child’s steps. This house needs a wife, he told himself, this house needs a child. Eventually, Prentiss finds both, but not at this house—instead, in Vermont.


Next: Hendry Nelson, vivacious and full of energy, shouting out to her friends and students in the audience, usually one and the same. Faculty in nonfiction and memoir, her memoir If Only You People Could Follow Directions was deemed one of Kirkus Review’s Best Nonfiction Books of 2014. She serves as the nonfiction editor at the nearby Green Mountains Review, a literary publication hailing from nearby Johnson State College that also boasts the talents of Jensen Beach and Liz Powell. We could feel the anticipation. We were amped up. According to Lauren Lang, the student who introduced her, she’s “super awesome.”

Hendry Nelson gave us a glimpse of her upcoming book—so new it was still spiral-bound and had no clear title. “I love reading with Sean, my good buddy,” she said, “I love to put him on the spot. He’s in this. He’s the one named Sean.”

In her piece, three writers—the author, Sean, and the poet Julia Shipley—gather to perform a reading in Craftsbury, Vermont. In Vermont, Hendry Nelson read, “Patterns in this small town are not recommended, they are law.” All fences must be white. All men must wear flannel. The three writers wish to expand their reading beyond northern Vermont, “to spread the seeds far and wide,” because, “art is the pursuit of cognitive ecstasy…”

Throughout the piece, Hendry Nelson dropped references to Stendhal, a 19th-century nom de plum of the French novelist Marie-Henri Beyle: particularly his travelogue Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio. In that work, a young Stendhal found the aesthetic of 1817 Florence so overwhelming as to punctuate his descriptors with exclamation points. “I had reached the point of celestial feeling,” he wrote: “As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.”

Can you ever feel that in Craftsbury, Vermont? Hell, you can feel it in Clarion, Pennsylvania, or in Hendry Nelson’s native Philadelphia. Or even in Montpelier. Maybe the point of a writer’s life is to find that celestial feeling wherever you are. “When you go out in search of the miraculous,” said Hendry Nelson, “you’ll find it everywhere.”

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VCFA Alumnus Tyler Friend Discusses Launching “Francis House,” A Literary Journal

Poet and photographer Tyler Friend is a self-described “apricot/human hybrid,” a characteristically pronoun-averse writer, and someone who’s eager to take on new poetic forms. Friend’s 2014 chapbook, ampersonate was published by Choose The Sword Press (motto: “read a fuckin’ book”), which they describe as a “quasi-autobiography…a collection of insecurities…a topography of my heart.”

After graduating from the MFA in Writing & Publishing program in spring of 2017, Friend moved back to their native Nashville, Tennessee and founded the literary journal Francis House. Friend—who worked on VCFA’s Hunger Mountain as well as Green Mountains Review—decided to start a journal not (just) out of a lofty sense of artistry, or to serve at the altar of high literature, but because they missed the fresh-from-the-page feeling of new poems.

“I quickly realized how lonely my world was without a regular in-flow of poetry,” Friend said. “There’s something really exciting to me about poetry that’s still existing in the nebulous world of the pre-published.”

We talked via email about Francis House and how one goes about starting a literary journal—it’s easier than you think.


Tyler Friend (via Facebook)

What spurred you to found your own journal?

When I was at VCFA, I read for Green Mountains Review and Hunger Mountain (sporadically) as well as seeing the fresh-out-of-the-notebook poetry that was produced for workshop. So, my reasons were entirely selfish—to keep me entertained and engaged.

Was there anything lacking with the journals you were submitting to?

I don’t think Francis House is about filling a hole in the world of literary magazines or anything. It’s just about creating more room for poems to live, like adding a room to a house. I’m a firm believer that poetry should occupy as much space in the world as it is able to.

What’s the focus of your journal, aside from poetry? 

As I’m reading for the inaugural issue, I’m looking for poems that love. Not necessarily traditional love poetry (although I do love a good love poem, and I think they’re generally underrated), but also poems that love the language of themselves, poems that love an object or a concept or a body.

What kind of experiences informed the launch and your own writing? 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to exist in a space and be visible. So, I’m thinking of Francis House as a (sort of) literal home for poems, a place where they can be comfy and safe and where they all get along.

Where does the name come from? 

Liz Powell (have you had her for class yet? She’s amazing) calls me Francis, and I’ve started imagining Francis as a fictionalized, poetic version of myself, and I imagine them somehow living in a house made of poems. It’s very weird and probably narcissistic, but the domain name was cheap.

How’s it going so far? Good interest? Plenty of submissions?

There have been a lot more unsolicited submissions than I was anticipating, actually. I’ve received a little over a hundred submissions so far, but I definitely need more!

(Photo: Tyler Friend)

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Poet and Professor Ruben Quesada Talks To Us About Journals, Translating Cernuda, And Neck Tattoos

On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day in August. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am and my personality,” he said.

Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in the Los Angeles area. His mother emigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua, and their son was just a month older than him.

“From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable,” said Quesada. “I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”

When Quesada completed his MFA at the University of California Riverside, he sought a reminder of the past, so he got a tattoo of a Chinese character. “Growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to and to be physically a part of me.”

Quesada’s debut collection of poetry, New Extinct Mammal, was published in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. At the Chicago Review of Books, he serves as Contributing Editor; at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, he is a Senior Editor. He founded the Latino Caucus, which convenes every year at the AWP Conference. Operating at the intersection of Latino and queer literature, he has devoted his energies to amplifying these voices: in his adopted hometown of Chicago, he runs a series of reading events for Latino writers called “Logan’s Run,” named in part by his neighborhood of Logan Square.

On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation.

Do you still talk to your friend?

Not regularly. After high school, like many people you grow up with, people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.

So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.


But he’d probably be pretty excited.

I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.

Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and predominantly Mexican community?

That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.

How did you come to poetry growing up?

My mother encouraged me to read early on—to read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.

It wasn’t until I was a teenager—after I’d started writing letters, and I found that writing letters was cathartic. I didn’t understand that that could be a form of poetic expression until almost toward the end, in high school. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.

Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.

Ruben answers a question after his reading at VCFA.

Ruben answers a question after his reading at VCFA.

Even as you graduated, did you have doubts about a life in arts?

I had doubts because I had heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Many people that I’d met who had been through a creative writing graduate program ended up teaching part time and having to take on other types of jobs in order to make a living. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? In many ways it forced my hand into leaving the life where I would be able to present myself in this manner. And I knew that the arts would be one place that would allow me to do that.

But even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry. Or even literature.

Early on, I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It’s at that point that it became critically important to me that I ensure the visibility and presence of people of color, queer people, in the literary community—in the arts. That is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.

Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.

I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas we have in our own heads, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that [Neruda] book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language familiar to those I knew.

If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?

Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, there’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.

I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.

Tell me about your second collection of poetry.

My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments. There’s a section on communion; there’s a section on confession. What’s different about the way the poems look is that the poems are laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.

The idea for that really came to me when I was preparing for a reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. I was asked to read poems in the Galleries of African Art and Indian Art of the Americas. There was a Mayan stone that was in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs, which reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas: emojis. I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.

Does Catholicism still play a large role in your life?

I’m not religious. You might say I’m spiritual, but it played a large role as a child. And it certainly still has influence over me. When I write poetry, I dig deep into who I am and my life experiences, and Catholicism is still within me. It certainly finds its way into the work that I write and into the way that I translate my experiences.

How do you like Chicago?

I love it. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There are many things I like about it: its public transit system, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways; the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home

How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc.?

I write anywhere I can at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table. I love revising. I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass, and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. So I try to step away from something as often as I can.

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An Evening With Ruben Quesada

Visiting poet Ruben Quesada was the star of our third reading, a solo act. He read three poems from his upcoming and still-untitled collection, though they aren’t entirely poems, per se: they are disparate ideas split up into numbered sections that convey themes of religion, desire, and surviving the AIDS crisis of the 1980s.

When the collection goes to print next year, these poems will be arranged into squares: devoid of punctuation, interspersed by translations of Luis Cernuda. Quesada has old-time religion on his mind, both in theme and arrangement: big stone tablets like what Moses carried down the mountain. He was inspired by Mayan stones at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he once gave a reading. Covered in hieroglyphics, he said they reminded him of the “contemporary use of images to convey ideas: emojis,” and added, “I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.” His editors welcomed the idea. “It’s fun to play with, so I stuck with that.”


“Communion” shared the aftermath of a poetry reading in San Francisco, and a chance encounter with a palm reader. He drops the word “petrichor” in Part II, a beloved word among literary nerds like us. Part III contrasts the AIDS movement against the death of a classmate’s parent: “There was no funeral. He simply turned to ash.” In Part IV, Quesada says: “Take me away from the worthless ghosts of this daily life.”

“Already you were nitrogen, sulphuric, even gold,” says Quesada, in his next poem, “Confession”: “Summer in silver patches of rain.”

He read from Cernuda, two poems titled “Desire” and “Winter Song.” Then, he finished with a poem called “Clemency,” about growing up queer and Latino in Southern California.

“Imagine the most beautiful garden of flowers and weeds, coexisting in the same soil,” said student Cammie Finch, who introduced Quesada. “This is how I picture Ruben’s poems: juxtapositions of the ugly and tender, the simple and the supernatural, the horrifically broken and the immaculate. 

“Each sound is thoroughly considered, each sound is placed gently and purposefully into place. Each sound begs for the wind of a voice to bring the poems alive, which we are so fortunate to hear read aloud by the poet himself in just a few moments.

“And let’s face it, he wins Best Dressed Award, hands down.”


After his reading, Quesada answered questions from the audience, who responded with such grating queries as: did you hone your reading voice? (Answer: Quesada has a “poet voice” that reflects his performative aspect.)

Should a poem be titled? (Answer: “Titles are hard.” Without a title, “the focus is simply on the content.”)

Who are some poets and their work that you love? (Answer: David Campos, Furious Dusk; Jenny Johnson, In Full Velvet; Rosebud Ben-Oni, currently in Hunger Mountain.)

And, what do you do for fun? (Answer: watch movies with good, interesting soundtracks like Arrival, with a score by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson; A Ghost Story, by Daniel Hart.) And music helps a lot for meditation, to get into a space. If Quesada is creating: something repetitive. If he revises: he balances the emotionally challenging work with uplifting music, preferably Spanish.

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Hula-Hooping While Reading Is 2017’s Hot New Workout Fad

Multitasking, that’s what it is, really—says Cammie Finch, an avid combination reader and hula-hooper, usually both at the same time. A first-year student at VCFA’s MFA in Writing & Publishing program, she has been frequently sighted outside of the dorms, holding up a (lightweight) book and simultaneously hooping it up.

It might seem silly, sure, but there’s nothing to it: once you get moving, the motion takes up almost no effort or concentration—which leaves the sunshine-warmed hooper to better focus on, say, Hunger Mountain’s latest volume, as well as Sherwin Bitsui’s Flood Song, a book that according to Amazon weighs a mere 6.4 ounces. You can even turn the pages.

Plus, it burns calories. Who says reading has to be a stationary activity? And it’s cheaper than spinning.

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VCFA’s Second Reading: Trinie Dalton, Sherwin Bitsui

We kept our second reading of the year short, and to the point: poet Sherwin Bitsui, reading from his current work as well as a preview of his third book of poetry, joined onstage our very own Trinie Dalton, Faculty in the MFA in Writing & Publishing program.

“I’ve kinda been in a mood lately,” said Trinie, just as she launched into two pieces, one entitled “Women’s Art Prison,” a dark and fragile story of women forbidden from making art, who secretly create in prison.

Sherwin, visiting from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico, read a piece from his third book of poetry, Dissolve—but not before choosing some passages from his second book, Flood Song, which is one long poem. “I once read Flood Song from beginning to end,” he said. “It took about 40 minutes. People were squirming out of their seats.” Here, he read with his eyes closed, possessed by greater forces, as if transcending the technology of the printed page. And no one squirmed here; we were transfixed.

Hunger Mountain will be publishing an in-depth interview with Sherwin, who before the reading held a Q&A session with the students of the Writing & Publishing program. But for now, here are some photos from the second reading of the year.

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