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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!

 

 

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.