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Winter residency, Montpelier, Vermont

January 18, 2011

At the Burlington airport, waiting for a late plane to take me on the first leg of my journey back home, a woman sitting across from me gave me a long sympathetic look, then said, “You look really tired.”

“I guess I look how I feel,” I said. “I just spent ten days at a writing conference, and it was amazing but exhausting.” I didn’t also tell her that the purple circles under my eyes were caused by a weird case of congestion that I couldn’t shake, or that I was desperate to get home and see my husband and kids.

She was short and squat, in her late fifties, maybe early sixties. While her husband studiously ignored us, she asked: “Oh, which one?”

“In Montpelier, the low-residency MFA at Vermont College of Fine Arts.”

“Ahhh,” she said. “I used to work at Vermont College, a while ago.” The woman went on to tell me that her mother had lived in one of the houses up near the college, that it was, or at least had been, the “nice” part of town, where the richer folks lived. She told me that way back when the big grassy square that we trudged across from dorm to lecture used to have a race track around it.

“You know College Hall?” she said. “I used to work in that building. It’s got a gymnasium on the top floor–you need a special tour to see it. And it’s haunted.” As we lined up to get on the plane, she got out a small notepad and started to scribble.

About College Hall being haunted, I believed her. I could imagine the ghosts listening in on workshop, drifting through  the readings in the evening, or sneaking cookies and coffee that were meant to be eaten only after the event. In fact, I had felt haunted, in a good but complicated, highly emotional way, during the ten days I spent at my second residency.

The river haunted me, the fact that it seemed to flow more slowly as the days grew colder, sluggish water barely moving. The wind haunted me, snagging my cheeks when I walked down the hill to the Co-op for my daily coffee. I was haunted, also, by the desire to write poems, something I hadn’t done in years. I resolved to write a poem a day while in Vermont, no matter how bad, and I succeeded. I wrote a lot about the river.

I also wrote about my children, whom I missed terribly, trying to understand what attachment meant, why it tied me up and expanded me at the same time.  I wrote about knots, and bones, rib bones, mostly, probably because I had fractured a rib in a coughing fit in late November. In my poems the bones were white, bleached, like whale bones on a California beach.

I felt ungrounded in Vermont, disoriented by the lack of routine, by my West Coast sleep schedule (staying up past midnight every night when I’m usually asleep by 9:30–I never realized how many hours there are after dinner!). Because I felt oppressed by the cafeteria food, powdered, scrambled eggs for one hundred and fifty, cream of cream of cream soup, always white, served on plastic, salmon-colored plates and in shallow greenish bowls, I became lighter, hollower, driftier.

Inspiration also served to lift me out of my regular patterns of thought to a sometimes exultant place. There was much to be inspired by: Sue Silverman holding a long silence when a man in the audience asked exactly the harmful question she was explaining had damaged her on book tour; Richard McCann parsing a Marie Howe poem, showing us that her use of present and past tense demonstrated how she stood in relation to her material. David Homel, the guest translator, explained the concept of crypto-language. A crypto-language is spoken at home when it is not the language of the wider culture. In his case Yiddish. In mine, German. The hiddenness made it interesting, he said, but it also caused a kind of internalized repression, that ones basic tool of self-expression (language) was hidden or forgotten. So that’s why I’ve been so screwed up all these years, I wrote my husband in an email after that lecture.

Have you heard of Barry Lopez, I’ve asked everyone I’ve spoken with since I got home. Barry Lopez, in jeans with a white beard, began his lecture on how to write with authority by speaking a line from Czeslaw Milosz: “I have to write to save myself from disintegration.” He went on to talk about what his “heart was shaped by:” among other things, the Vietnam war, Christianity. He told us, in his deep and melodious voice, that a discerning reader always starts with a measure of distrust, reads widely, and is given to awe. As writers, these are the readers we should respect if we are to expect respect back. Lopez urged us to develop an ethical relationship with the reader, with ourselves, and with language. Without language, we don’t know what we mean. He ended by reminding us to include everyone in our writing community. Writers are not in competition with each other, they are inquiring into the same questions. “Take care of each other, ” he said, a message much-needed in an MFA program.

Inspiration is difficult to define, and possibly different for everyone, but I didn’t speak with anyone who was not moved and inspired by Lopez’s lecture.

There were personal triumphs, when I put myself out into the world in ways that made me feel excruciatingly uncomfortable but got me where I wanted to go. There were amazing conversations, at breakfast, lunch and dinner, before and after lectures, readings, and workshop.

Yes, for six, two-hour and fifteen minute sessions, in ghostly College Hall around a conference table, there was workshop, a group of six very different individuals, some cranky and cantankerous, some self-deprecating, some mellow, but all intelligent, detail-oriented, and persistent, who came together around the bright light of our leader, Ellen Lesser, and our inquiry into the novel, form and process. Every session started with a discussion of one of the supplemental readings (Forster, Gardner, King, Vargas-Llosa). Then, each day a different writer was up, with forty pages of material we’d all read and marked up and considered. It always began with the writer reading a paragraph of his or her novel aloud. By the third day, someone brought chocolate. Day four it was apples. Finally, chocolate, apples, tangerines, and home-baked cookies from a care-package. The feedback was equally generous.

After ten days, I was ready to leave. I had a plan, I couldn’t wait to get back to my novel-in-progress, to San Francisco and my family. At the tiny Burlington airport, we boarded the so-called pencil plane, with two seats on one side and one on the other. As it happened, the woman who told me about the ghosts was sitting right behind me in a single seat. Her husband was squashed against the window and between them sat a young woman whose traveling companion was a large and yowling cat that kept trying to escape his carrier. Before the woman turned her attention to the now much more interesting cat, she passed me a small piece of white paper, on which she’d written her name, phone number, and an illegible message.

I’d like to believe she was inviting me on a special tour of College Hall, in June when I next return to Montpelier, so that I could visit the gymnasium, and maybe see a ghost.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2011 6:37 am

    Wow, Karen! Great blog. Your post about Winter Residency was beautifully done and it inspired me to go back to the lessons learned up in Montpelier.

    • January 20, 2011 8:04 am

      Thanks, Sarah–It’s so great to be feeling a part of a VCFA community!

  2. January 20, 2011 6:39 am

    beautiful and haunting! it is wonderful thinking about residency through someone else’s eyes. you’ve inspired me to write about the lectures that really got me. thanks so much for sharing this! and, i also had heard VCFA was haunted but didn’t know any details. college hall, good to know. i bet the ghosts live in the pipes of the biggest organ in the world.

    i miss me some karen wiederholt!

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