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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!

 

 

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.