Leaving VCFA 1
To be continued probably...
Yesterday I resigned from the Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts to embrace a life of poverty and abstinence. (I typed "obstinance" by mistake, a Freudian slip if there ever was one.) I have been teaching there so long that I remember dinosaurs playing soccer on the Green in front of College Hall. I remember early homonids emerging from caves to attend lectures. I remember the glaciers, when we held workshop in igloos.
Those of you accustomed to reaching me at my VCFA email address should shift over to my personal email address instead, if you want a response. If you don't care about getting a response, then keep using the old address. There are pluses to that strategy. You can say whatever you want and I won't disagree with you. Some might even find that an improvement.
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My mind just went down a strange pathway, as it will, thinking of the sweet friends I made over the years, students and faculty, some now gone forever.
When I began teaching at Vermont College, Roger Weingarten was the director, Louise Crowley was his assistant, we were owned by Norwich University, a military school, and the program offices were in Howland Hall, now no longer owned by the college. I arrived in a blizzard for the winter residency and the first person I saw was Gary Miller, looming out of the sleet to say hello. I could see no other living person. In memory, he had icicles hanging from his beard, but this cannot be true. He and his friends Lisa Carey and Sandra Miller (who had, at the time, a side gig writing porn) became my students. All published books. Lisa, especially. She worked with me in her third semester, became ferociously angry because I refused to wax sentimental about child narrators, but wrote one excellent short story. She took the next semester off, spent much of it in Ireland writing, and returned with 60 pages of a novel based on that story. She had worked herself to the bone. She requested me for her last semester, and finished the novel by graduation. The Mermaids Singing. Look it up.
The parttime teaching with two annual residencies suited me because I had two small children anchoring me in upstate New York. Aside from the residencies, I could teach from my study at home and be there when the boys got off the school bus in the afternoon. Sometimes I would still be in bed, since that was where I did most of my writing.
I deeply enjoyed the camaraderie of the residencies. Walter Wetherell was the first colleague I met; he was put in charge of my academic intake (he took me for pizza at Angelino’s and told me what a “packet” was). Later, during summer residencies, a group of us would rise early and drive out for a swim at Curtis Pond. Walter was a ringleader. One summer, just after he had published his first trout fishing book, we had a little adventure together. Walter had been getting trout fishing fan mail. He developed a correspondence with one enthusiast, a plumbing supply dealer in Queens. Somehow Walter mentioned that he came to Montpelier every summer to teach, and the plumbing supply dealer mentioned that he had a cottage on Curtis Pond. Walter said, well, we go swimming there. And the dealer wrote back, “You should come and visit.” So one day, after our swim, Walter (a bit shy) asked me to drive over to the dealer’s cottage with him. There was a climb up from the parking pad. Suddenly, at the top by the cottage, a burly, big-bellied man appeared. Throwing open his arms, he shouted (in a gravelly Queens’ accent), “Which one is Walter?” It was a meeting of soulmates. Walter and the plumbing supply dealer disappeared to talk streams and heft fly rods while the dealer’s wife and sister-in-law took me down to the dock with a pot of coffee and entertained me for an hour before we had to get back to campus to teach.
Another time at Curtis Pond: We were just getting into the water (cold mornings). Phyllis Barber dove in first but came up in trouble, choking and flailing, already out over her head. In an instant, Bret Lott plunged in after her and carried her out. Amazing reflexes, that man.
Francois Camoin was a great friend in those days. His room on the third floor of Noble Hall was always open, to faculty or students. At any time of the day, he would by lying one of the two beds, reading a mystery novel, and there would be a rotating coterie of visitors. In the evenings, bottles of wine would appear. (One longlasting student friendship I made in Francois’ dorm room was with Hilary Mullins, who later wrote essays and sermons I published in Numéro Cinq.) Francois liked to reminisce about his childhood in France, how he got to America, and freezing in foxholes on the DMZ in Korea. One thing the Army had taught him, he once said, was how to slip a pillow case onto a pillow. He taught me this skill, and I think of him every time I make the bed. He liked to take photos. One afternoon, a bunch of us went to the Hope Cemetery in Barre so Francois could pose us against the folk art grave stones. Francois, alas, is gone.
That first residency, so long ago (you know, before the glaciers), was a culture shock of the best kind. The first faculty reading I attended was in the Noble Lounge, crowded with rows of chairs, people sitting along the walls, standing against the radiators, packed and noisy, hot and gestational. Sydney Lea got up and read a long poem about nearly cutting his leg off with a chainsaw, about old time Vermonters, and friendship. He stood at the lectern, growling out the lines, and, as the emotion rose, he began to stamp his foot to the rhythm of the words, stamping to keep from being overcome himself.
He took the audience somewhere else. People were in tears, craning forward, catching the rhythm with their hands. I kept thinking is this really happening? When he was done, the audience rose to give him an ovation. People ran up the aisles to embrace him. I thought I had died and gone to writer heaven. Ever after, I loved giving readings in the Lounge, the concentrated immediacy of the space, the informality, the knocking of the radiators, the windows open in the summer and dogs barking outside. (It was a certain sign of decline when we moved the readings to the chapel in College Hall, the space too big, the audience to distant. I realize fire codes made the old regime impossible, but still…)
More of Syd Lea: The program used to host what seemed to me spectacular dance parties in the Noble Conference Room (with the bar in the Reading Room). We had a kind of house band formed from students and grads. I remember one great night when Sydney took the mic and sang the blues, sweat dripping off his huge frame. Was I the only one in shock at the sudden beauty? I think not. Syd was also an instigator in the residency House of Tang all-you-can-eat Chinese food night, reserved only for male faculty, and unreservedly unreconstructed. I seemed to have arrived between the good old days and the future, whatever that was. House of Tang night always devolved into story after story of heroic personalities who no longer taught in the program and wild times when, without a campus, we sometimes held residencies at distant resorts (Destin, Florida, I think, was one). It all seemed bigger than life, at the same time, a trifle juvenile. I pointed this out one night. Everyone agreed, then went right back to telling stories. Traditions are traditions, bad food and all. Syd retired from the program long ago, but we’re still good friends. He contributed mightily to Numéro Cinq. His wife Robin just this morning sent us a picture of Syd dressed up as Obi-Wan Kenobi with a light saber for a grandkid’s themed birthday party.
I have more to say and will return to my years at VCFA. But I mentioned Numéro Cinq and want to close with that since it bears so much on my time at the college. A normal semester at Vermont College (as it was called at the beginning) consisted of an 11-day residency (over New Year and the 4th of July) and then five months of student packets. A normal workload for a faculty member was five students. In January, 2010, I was looking for a way of enlivening the semester for my class, something that would also teach me. The world was abuzz with Internet excitement, blogs, and electronic publishing. I thought it would be a good thing for us to dip our toes into that. So as the new semester began, we started a class blog on Wordpress.com.
It was meant to be a private thing between the six of us, little lessons and words of wisdom (sic) from me, reading reports, complaints, jokes, etc. from everyone. In a spectacularly short time, weeks, we realized that this was fun, a kind of writing performance space, a space with a lot of possibility. We took it public, we gave it a name (taken from one of my short stories; it’s the name of a fictional terrorist organization), and then we started publishing work from outside. We gradually built a reputation. The texts we printed started getting better and better. We published work in translation (for a while we published fiction in French without a translation), book reviews, art work, even music posts. We ran contests that were incredibly entertaining. E.g. the famous translation contest (which you could only enter if you didn’t know the language you were meant to translate), the novel-in-a-box contest (9 chapters, 27 lines). We became a monthly magazine with an international scope (one editor was an Argentinian man living in London).
Most of the early student participants dropped away over time (Rich Farrell, bless him, stayed the longest of that initial class), but others joined (every knew class I had was given the option of joining the staff). The last issue came out in August, 2017. By then we had published hundreds of known and first time writers and artists. Innumerable VCFA students had contributed or worked as editors. We had a vast online community. It was a ride, let me tell you. And the whole thing is still online, all the issues from the first. I pay for this myself out of loyalty and to honor the effort my people put into the magazine.
I will stop now and continue another time. The ends of things are always tumultuous. Memories seethe in the brain. You know how it is.
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Those two semesters working with you set me on my slow, but steady, course. Even tonight, I'm teaching a class called "Conflict and Desire" and will credit the Doug Glover method as the foundation for everything they'll be learning about narrative structure. Beyond your wonderful teaching, you always made me feel seen in the best way. I will be publishing my first novel in July. It's got Copula Spiders crawling all over it, and I thank you for that. Here's to your long and wonderful career at VCFA and all the good stuff ahead.
Thank you for these memories! My first residency was in the summer, several years before you. I arrived to dozens of people embracing and all asking in the exact same happy tone of voice, "How was your semester?" I thought, OMG, this is a cult and I thought about turning around the getting the hell out of there. I quickly became a committed cult member. I miss it - and you all.