Friday, July 31, 2009


Does anyone have more fun with poetry for kids than J. Patrick Lewis? Well, at least he makes it look like fun, even if it's hard work. And that "effortless" quality is what good writing (no, I mean the best writing) for kids accomplishes. Here is a poem from his latest book, A COUNTDOWN TO SUMMER (which every grade-school teacher in America should buy and use - a poem a day in the classroom!):


Button-down Bill
Had buttons a-plenty.
He buttoned his buttons
Where he didn't have any.
He buttoned his shoes,
His pants and coat,
He buttoned his buttons
Till he buttoned his throat.
He buttoned his lips,
His ears and nose,
He buttoned his head
Like he buttoned his clothes!
He buttoned his kids
And he buttoned his wife.
"Button up" said Bill,
All his buttoned-down life.
So if you should hear
A buttoned-up shout,
That's button-down Bill...

What makes me suspect that Pat Lewis is not entirely buttoned-down like Bill? I can't wait to meet him - Pat, are we ever going to be in the same state at the same time?

Maira Kalman's Column at the NY Times

Tell me you are all reading the current column, called And the Pursuit of Happiness, that Maira Kalman (seen in the photo at the right) writes for the New York Times. I love the way her brain works, her heart works, her obsessions work. Here is the first column of the year (it began with Obama's inauguration); and here is the latest installment. It comes out at the beginning of each month, as did her previous column, The Principles of Uncertainty, which was a little more playful, I think. This time around, she's really looking at American heroes, movers and shakers - Ben Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Supreme Court justices....though the focus of her attention in a column about Ben Franklin drifts (the quality is quintessential Kalman) to odometers, daguerreotypes, rubber bands, Tesla, naps, jello molds, the safety pin, etc. Her discursive sensibility can't quite be explained - she has an artist's eye, the mind of a true flaneur, she is intellectually curious but not pretentious. What a wonderful combination. She's on my short list of "Read Everything This Person Writes."

Monday, July 27, 2009

Bravo to Carol Ann Duffy

The grave site of Siegfried Sassoon.

Carol Ann Duffy, Poet Laureate of Britain, has written a lovely article for The Guardian in London about poets who write about war. As part of the effort, she asked her fellow poets to "bear witness, each in their own way, to these matters of war." The resulting poems can be read here. I especially like the poem by Gillian Clarke called Listen ("to the chant that tranced me thirty years ago / in Samarkand: the call to prayer at dawn; / to that voice again, years and miles from then, / in the blood-red mountains of Afghanistan....")

Saturday, July 25, 2009

VERMONT COLLEGE OF FINE ARTS - Last of the Summer Posts

I'm playing catch-up today, finally home and trying to sort through my notes for what I can share with you about the Summer Residency. Next time around I'm going to try to remember how micro-managed my days are, and I won't promise to post every day, which turned out to be impossible - my head was swimming by the end of the day in the first six or seven days of the residency, and swimming from the time I got up for the last four or five. But now, from home, with a few days rest, I can see what still needs to be said:

A few more bits and pieces from Alan Cumyn's lecture WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY: A PERSONAL INQUIRY (for main notes see post for July 16th) :

1. "Look at what makes a story tick, then look at what makes it tick for you."

2. Lay down the dilemma before moving into description- deep description, with every word advancing the meaning of the story - that's the way to avoid those "pause-button violations" everyone at VCFA is so worried about.

3. "Remember, readers have to care, otherwise who cares? The issues must be large." That is just so important, and it eludes some kids book writers who stay on the surface (girl meets boy) & forget to go deep (love is both divine and terrible.)

4. I have one more quick note, scribbled in as I listened: " live within the skin of someone." I'd like my students in general to think more about that - about what it takes to get readers "within the skin."

5. Alan was hoping to do a close reading of a second story (Esme and I by J.D. Salinger), but because of time restrictions he stayed with In the Fall by Alistair McLeod. I went right to the bookstore on campus and got The Island, in which collection this story appears - wow, how can such a brilliant writer not be well known? I'll be rereading the Salinger short story, too, which I haven't read since college.

I really do recommend you buy & listen to the CD of this lecture. It was one of the most beautiful and useful of all the lectures I've heard at VCFA.


1. "Story-telling is a two-way street and you ignore your readers at your peril."

2. In writing, you must surrender to the story, trust the reader, not hold back, think big, feel big, make connections, take leaps. You must stay in the moment - try not to observe your story,; instead, feel it. Don't explain it - don't spell things out. Allow your readers to put things together.

Notes from Rita Williams-Garcia's lecture, STEREOTYPES, STOCK TYPES AND CLICHES:

1. Wonderful etymology of "stereotype" - it's a printer's term- "stereo" meant solid, "type" meant blow. The whole idea of the strength of "impressions" (which we can feel with our finger tips.)

2. Oversimplification is the problem. Don't worry about stereotypes, archetypes and stock characters (the wise black housekeeper, the foolish sidekick, the school nerd, etc.) As with all cliches, they must be made fresh. Writers must "add texture and full consciousness."

3. "We can extract truth from the familiar." Just remember that truth, not cliche, is what we're going for.

Notes from Shelley Tanaka's lecture MAY CONTAIN MATURE SUBJECT MATTER: WRITING FROM THE CHILD'S POINT OF VIEW (lots of notes from this - again, it's a complicated, wonderful lecture - if you can, you should purchase it on CD):

1. Needed for packet responses: a stamp that says, "Is this a child's voice?" Writers must ask themselves not just whether a child would say it, but "Would this particular child say this?" and "Would this particular child say this right now?"

2. A story told from a child's 1st-person point of view must be "blinkered and selective" and often " linear thinking" because what is communicated is only what is important to the protagonist at the moment. If you move over to irony, beware of that - "Irony pulls a child-centered observation into adult territory." It's dangerous to allow the "clever adult eyes" to intrude - it makes the voice "forced and coy." Roddy Doyle manages to capture an authentic child's voice in Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha because the observations are child-centered and he doesn't interpret. Doyle's book has what Shelley describes as "the child's sense of wonder that infuses every great children's book."

3. Writers usually have no trouble letting their child protagonists get into trouble - it's getting them out of trouble that's difficult to set up, because the guiding principle is to empower the child to solve his or her own problems. But adult moral guidance in not always wrong or over-intrusive. Don't automatically rule it out.

4. 1st-person POV in YA books often allows for an adult perspective, but it's tricky. Death, for example, is often problematic because teens sentimentalize it less than adults.

5. The writer tries to imagine whether a child would want to read the story. A publisher tries to imagine if enough children would want to read it.

6. Remember that a story told through a child's POV is tight and focused. It's not memoir. It's seen through a tight lens. You have to be okay with that, otherwise 1st-person might not work for your story.

Notes from Leda Schubert's lecture about non-fiction for kids, TELLING IT TRUE-

1. Wow, the handout for this was incredible. No one ever needs to wonder about where to go when doing research for a story, not if they have Leda's handout. Her long history as a librarian and list maker came through. Many, many recommendations, including Infotrak, Corbis, Life Magazine (digitized through Google) and Lexus Nexus.

2. "Kids should get the truth." Spoken like a true anti-censorship champion.

3. Leda recommends getting as close as possible to the actual source of the story. "Six degrees of separation? I believe in one." She calls what drives her an "intrusive curiosity" and I say hooray to that. Intellectual curiosity is the one thing that can't really be taught in an MFA writing course. It's almost genetic.

I just want to mention, too, Katie Mather's reading on Grad Assistant night. Her story, Under the Ice, has moments that are so eerie, it gave me goosebumps.

Sorry to say that I couldn't take notes for Kathi Appelt's lecture, ditto for Marion Dane Bauer - I didn't have pencil/paper. - how ridiculous is that? Quickly, I'll say Kathi was responding to people who said her book, The Underneath, was "not a kids book," that the language was too complicated and self-conscious. She had everyone cheering, by the end, about the love of lyrical writing, about America's current obsession with standardized test-taking & how it is debilitating readers.

I took perfectly good notes for Uma Krishnaswami's lecture and Cynthia Leitich Smith's - and can't find them anywhere now - I'll have to buy them on CD, and I recommend you do that, too. Uma is brilliant - we all know it, though she denies it - and is always worth listening to. Cyn had everybody in the room wanting to write a mystery - everyone who knows Cyn knows how infectious her energy is. [UPDATE: Uma has posted a "60-second summary" of her lecture on her blog. Go read it, then buy the real version. Definitely worth the money.]

A few notes from Tim Wynne-Jones's lecture were posted earlier (on the 11th, I think.) Notes for Good & Evil day were posted on the 18th - but for the record I want to say Tim and I had a ball thinking through our opening "duel." Dramatic music provided by Tim via iPod. Who knew I could channel Elvis Presley?

You'll have to get notes about grad lectures from someone else - I couldn't keep up with it all. I attended what I could, but we did have lectures overlapping again. I'm hoping to get a printout of Varian Johnson's lecture (Varian is a graduating student with a new book out - My Life as a Rhombus, which is garnering praise), which I couldn't attend because I was over at Seta's wonderful presentation of "The Page Turn in Picture Books." I'm intrigued by the idea of a fiction writer talking about metaphor, so Varian, if you're reading this, send me your notes? Advisory Council meetings made me miss a few other grad lectures I really wanted to hear, too. But what the grads lectured on was typically varied and intriguing - everything from girls breaking the rules to Aristotle to Maslow to Strasberg to Spinelli, from student muses to fantastic wonder to Eurocentrism to the art of the prologue to strategies for completing your character's journey. Toss in mini-lectures from the Picture Book Certificate students about math books, amplifying emotion, turning points, deviant rule-flouting, and 3rd-person POV -

Yikes - I hope anyone reading this who is thinking of attending VCFA will see what a mother-lode the program is - no need to go digging for the gold nuggets - they are visible & shining right on the surface.

And ah, graduation. What can I say? Sarah Ellis, with her wit and erudition - I could listen to her forever. Graduates looking serious and nervous. Uma and Rita reading passages from the graduates' work. Tom Greene (College president AND author) coming over for the ceremony from the hospital where his wife had been confined for the last weeks of her pregnancy (Tom now has a new little daughter, born two days after graduation.) And the families - husbands, wives, kids, parents - that all came to see the culmination of the process. Hmmm....what else....? Did I mention that the Saturday night party was one of the best EVER? And the mini-parties over at Martin House, very nice....and....hmmmmm.....

OH! THE BAGPIPER. Mustn't forget the bagpiper....!

Okay. That's more than enough. Another residency completed. Something unexplainable happens at Vermont College of Fine Arts - whatever it is, it's big and mysterious, it involves a lot of laughter, it involves enough motivation to lift you off the ground. Strange, Brigadoonish, transformative. I hope it proves to be so for my next group of students, pictured below.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - GOOD AND EVIL DAY!

Well, the Saturday night party is in full swing down in Noble Reading Room - Hawaiian Theme this year, so quite a few people have leis and grass (plastic) skirts, flowers behind their ears. There's a photo wall - palm trees & surf in the background, props to hold (surfboard & beach ball) while you get your photo taken with friends.

It's a little comic relief & a chance to relax after our themed special day of "Good and Evil' - Tim and I started off the day with a "duel" of sorts, Tim in white shirt, me in black, with quotations exchanged - everyone from Alexander Pope to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to John Milton to Mel Brooks (yes, that's quite a range!!) And then it was time for one of our special guests to speak - Nancy Werlin delivered a very heart-felt examination of her experience, over the years, with the book JANE EYRE, describing for us how she read it at 20 (and was annoyed when Jane left Rochester after his deceptions) compared to how she read it in her 30's and 40's - finally able to appreciate the need of this young woman to grow and get strong. Is Rochester actually a villain? It's an interesting idea to contemplate. Nancy was very gracious about staying up at the podium and answering many, many questions about her latest book, IMPOSSIBLE - and she was brave enough to say that she wrote the story she wanted to write, without thinking about audience. It came from her desire to explore the idea of real evil, not evil that is mitigated in some way by a villain's sad background.

Later in the panel discussion led by Louise Hawes, Stephen Roxburgh said he prefers the idea that evil is nuanced and complicated, that heroes often battle the evil within themselves, that as an editor he looked for stories that offered up these kind of complications, such as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde - two sides of the same person - that interests him. Deborah Noyes agreed, and held her own in the discussion - all three of our guests seem tremendously articulate about literature, with Roxburgh flat out brilliant and funny about the way he thinks things through and talks about ideas. Both Deborah and Stephen feel that pure good and pure evil are boring - they want characters that mix it up.

We had a writing break - the challenge was to take one character from a list of Good Guys (Dorothy of Kansas/Oz, Charlotte of Charlotte's Web, Jo March, James Bond and Harry Potter) and one from a list of Bad Guys (Vito Corleone of The Godfather, Goldilocks, Darth Vadar, Cruella DeVille, and The Cat in the Hat) and write a scene where they interact. We got wonderful contributions, with volunteers coming to the microphone to read their pieces.

In the evening, Stephen Roxburgh delivered a less theme-oriented (well, I guess Evil publishing conglomerates qualify!) lecture about the future of publishing - it's obvious he feels passionate about changing our thinking - he's pitching a new business model entirely, focused on print-on-demand, profit-sharing (as opposed to advances for authors) and e-books. A hard position to take in front of a room full of blossoming writers (not to mention that many are librarians, teachers and prior booksellers. I need to buy Stephen's lecture to listen to again and sort out whether I see any room at all for the traditional independent bookshop and the books-on-the-shelf library. )

A busy busy day.

Must get back to the party - luau time! More tomorrow. I'd love to tell you about Shelley Tanaka's lecture. But luau....

Thursday, July 16, 2009


Quick - quick - quick! 15 minutes of free time to write up something for you:

The Grad Assistants read their work today - well-done to them. Stephanie Greene's reading produced quite a bit of laughter. The scholarship winners also read - wow, beautiful work by Daphne Kalmar for a critical thesis about the linked short story cycle - I intend to sit down with a full copy of it, and I recommend you do the same. It's exciting, and even if you're not writing short stories/story cycles, it's worth reading for what it says about allowing your reader to make meaning, to do the work & fill in the gaps. Daphne, who used her science quite a lot in her classroom, brought lovely science metaphors (about creatures in the deep ocean) into her critical writing - quite brilliant!

ALUMNI ARRIVING! MORE HUGGING! MORE DELIGHT! Sarah Aronson and Mary Atkinson have gathered up quite an array of editors and agents for the Alumni Residency, which overlaps with ours, and we all maxed out on pizza tonight up in the Faculty Lounge. And I got to see baby pictures of Mary's granddaughter, Julia, now five-months old. Mary and I are smitten with our grandchildren.

WONDERFUL READING TONIGHT BY MARGO LANAGAN who is down to earth, very funny, and not at all flummoxed by the widely disparate reactions to TENDER MORSELS (why do I always type "Tender Mercies" and then think, "No, that's not right...."?) I know we will look back and remember what an honor it was to have her with us. She was invited originally to join us for Good & Evil Day on Saturday, but she didn't think she would be coming to the U.S. this summer and had to decline. As it turns out, she came to ALA to pick up her award, so she flew over from Chicago to join us today and tomorrow. Wish we could keep her here longer.....

Beginning notes about Alan's lecture WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY? A PERSONAL INQUIRY
Bottom line: It completely amazed me. So heartfelt, and such good advice for any writer: 1) Tell a story with interesting characters 2) in a compelling situation; 3) where a choice is made; 4) tell it with heart 5) in an original and economical (no words wasted) voice 6) and make all the elements work together 7) to produce a story that feels effortless, and 8) where you leave room for the reader to make meaning. Oh, my god - that's a beautiful list, and nearly impossible to achieve. But a goal to hold out in front of ourselves, certainly - and the example Alan used, to show us how a story can work, sounds, though I haven't read it yet,- a story called "In the Fall" by Alistair McLeod, taken from a "slim volume" (aren't those lovely words?) of his short stories called THE LOST SALT: GIFT OF BLOOD. Must get this from the library and read it. favorite quotation from Alan's lecture: "If you don't staple your reader to the page, your reader will put your book down, go into the kitchen and make a cheese sandwich." I predict that "Cheese Sandwich Moment" enters the VCFA lexicon very quickly.

More tomorrow, when I find another 15 minutes. It's after midnight, and I'm turning into a pumpkin. Oh, gosh, how will I find time to do a load of laundry?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - Summer Residency 2009

Oh, gosh, please forgive, I just can't keep up!! Tomorrow is our free morning, and I'll post news and notes from lectures then. Right now, the news is scholarships:

Alumni Award (for contributions to the school and support of her classmates): Mima Tipper
In a Nutshell Short Story Award - Linda Oatman High
Flying Pig Humor Award - Katie Bayerl
Critical Thesis Award - Daphne Kalmar

And here's a photo of all of us listening to the Picture Book Certificate students making their end-of-semester presentation (fabulous job!):

And Deb Gonzales & Zu Vincent taking notes & listening intently:

And Rachel Wilson listening intently while she knits (or maybe crochets?) :

Larissa Theule PROMISES that new baby Eero will put in another appearance on campus soon, at which point I am to be informed immediately so that I can snap some baby pictures. We'll have LOTS of photos from Good & Evil Day (Saturday) which is going to be such fun!

More tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Vermont College Summer Residency 2009 - Oh, My


New advisors were assigned today! so the usual yelps and yips and squeals and shouts and whistles and hoorays drifted up to the Faculty Lounge from students surrounding the Noble bulletin board at about 10:00 pm. I have to say, it's great to hear so many people sound so happy with who they're going to be working with!

Kathi Appelt got back very late last night from her triumphant appearance with the other Newbery Honorees at the ALA conference in Chicago. Sounds like she was wined and dined to the max, and that she has a little crush on medal-winnner Neil Gaiman, who gave what she described as an excelllent speech to the gathered crowd. We're so proud of Kathi, though it's also nice right now that she was able to come back and not miss the rest of the residency. The faculty toasted her with champagne and got to hear all about ALA. This is the first time in ten years that the ALA summer conference has conflicted with our residency dates, and there are many of the faculty missing an opportunity to attend it.

We had a fascinating grad lecture by DP Pignataro today (there are enough grads so that grad lectures overlap - oh, I hate when that happens) about the effect of reading on the writing of her middle school students. Lots of photos of her students, and a kind 0f before/after sampling of writing focused on Beginnings, Tone, Voice - kind of amazing to see how talking about specific passages from specific books radically changed the kids' own writing. It's good to be reminded that there are real readers out there, not just some imaginary ideal reader - but real, honest-to-goodness kids.

We also had grad. readings by Varian Johnson, Jess Leader and Annemarie Turner today, as well as a wonderful lecture by Shelley Tanaka about the Voice of the Child and a discussion with Tim Wynne-Jones about his new book, THE UNINVITED. Rita has been knitting up a storm - the softest and most beautiful baby blanket for Larissa's new little boy, Eero (hope the spelling is right on that.) Strange not to see a whole row of knitters - only Rita. (What happened - did you all graduate? )

Scholarship announcements come tomorrow and I'll post them tomorrow night.

Forgive me, but I'm not going to be able to post notes from the faculty lectures until our Free Morning - the pace of things here is just too busy, busy, busy. But tomorrow I plan on taking lots and lots of photos and posting them - how does that sound? I think you will love that. And for heaven's sake, find some students who are posting notes on their blogs - they'll be able to give you such a different perspective, and they're so used to doing it quickly!

I can't even imagine life here at VCFA from the perspective of the Dewey dorms....Wild and crazy, you think?

Monday, July 13, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - Summer Residency '09 - Day What?? Which?

[Photo of a skunk? Yes, photo of a skunk. Explanation below.]

Oh, this is the day you begin to ask your friends if anyone knows what day of the week it is. Busy, busy, busy - in fact, can I remember all the way back to this morning?

We had a wonderful lecture by Rita Williams-Garcia about stereotypes, stock characters and cliches. Bottom line - some of these tired, familiar things represent "truths," but only the shell of the truth - as writers, it's our job to fill in that shell, give our characters substance, make the characters new and fresh. Tell a story, don't stay with the surface cliche.

The faculty had lunch with VCFA's Academic Dean, Gary Moore. Wonderful to hear his reports about Strategic Planning (no, really, it isn't dull - it's exciting!) Part of his report was about the library, which now has a huge collection of graphic novels to share between the Writing for Children Program and the OP (the Other Program - regular Writing MFA.) Plans are to clear out unused books from the old Union Institute days and really revitalize our collection with everything related to Fine Arts - literature, performance arts, visual arts. Oh, can't wait to see that!

I had to miss Sharon Darrow's lecture because there was an Advisory Committee meeting and I am now on the AC. Also on the Academic Council. I'm turning into a bureaucrat....

Carol Allen, Danielle Pignataro and Jen Taylor gave their graduate readings today - such accomplished writing. And again, such a lot of laughter. DP especially had people in stitches with her work in progress.

Seems like today was a real get-business-done day - lots of end-of-semester meetings between faculty and students moving up. And then the huge job (for students) of interviewing the faculty - today the 1st and 2nd semester students came to talk with us about how we work on packets, what we emphasize, what we want to see from students. I sat with Sarah Ellis and Alan Cumyn for this, in order to save students a little time, so they didn't have to come/go so quickly: three of us at once. I certainly love to hear my colleagues talk about what's important to them - again, reinforcing the idea that this program provides for a tremendous amount of personalization about the projects undertaken and the responses from advisors.

The evening reading ran long as Marion Dane Bauer, Sharon Darrow and Uma Krishnaswami read from their fiction and I read from my poetry - and then graduate assistants joined us upstairs in the faculty lounge for a late evening of talk... ended finally by a skunk somewhere outside....phew! He cleared the room before midnight, and all of us owe him a debt of gratitude - an hour more sleep tonight than we might have had otherwise!

Here's a little poem I read tonight (and no, I haven't forgotten that I'm supposed to be giving you details about Alan Cumyn's brilliant lecture! Can I just promise you "Maybe tomorrow if I can find five minutes?" Those of you who know the residency schedules know that five minutes free time is quite a find) :

Snort. Oink.
Oink. Snort.
I'm a pig and I cavort
in mud and messes
all day long,
singing out this piggly song:
Big Wig Piggy! Splendid Swine!
Emperor Pig! Pig Divine!

This poem is from a recent collaboration with the children's poet J. Patrick Lewis (tentatively titled CRAZY DAYS) celebrating strange holidays - Did you know that March 1st is National Pig Day??? And hey, just a head's up: tomorrow (well, July 14th - it's already after midnight now) is Pandemonium Day. Go create some!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - Summer Residency '09 - Day 2

Day 2? Oh, yikes - tornado time, metaphorically speaking!

It was the first day of workshops. Plus we heard three faculty lectures - Cynthia (DEMYSTIFYING MYSTERIES), Alan Cumyn (WHAT MAKES A GOOD STORY: A PERSONAL INQUIRY) and Louise Hawes (COMMUNION: THE PARTICIPATORY NATURE OF NARRATIVE.) Fine lectures, all three, but I have to say that Alan's was simply brilliant - tomorrow I'll write up a few notes about it. We will be talking about it for a long time - YOU MUST BUY A CD OF THIS LECTURE - truly, it's one of the best I've ever heard. Plus we had five faculty readings. And a group photo. And trips to the new bookshop. And faculty interviews by Third and Fourth Semesters. And end-of-semester reviews with students moving up. And a party for the faculty over at Martin House, thrown by the graduating class. Sampling of stupendous cakes made by Ginger Johnson. Appearance by Larissa Theule and her husband and her new baby boy - much cooing, much begging to be allowed to hold him. Plus autographing of the "yearbooks" (Yours until Niagara Falls, until 2+2=3, until the mountains tumble to the other words, UNTIL ETERNITY....oh yes, there was some singing....)

I was crazy, though, to think I could write up a coherent summary at the end of each day. Intense? Intense! Please forgive. I'll grab free minutes when I can tomorrow, but no guarantees about quality.

Cynthia Leitich Smith says I have permission to go to bed because it's late and it's been a long long day, the kind with not even 15 minute breaks. And she says if you've got a problem with that, see her.

Now, Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz - oh, my gosh, no, not yet, not without mentioning one of the highlights of the day! Leda's husband, Bob, brought THE NEW PUPPY, PIPPA, TO MEET EVERYONE!!!!!!! Much tail wagging (the puppy, not us, not Bob.) Pogo also joined in - so we had the siblings.

Margaret and Tim just walked in to the Faculty Lounge (where I am sitting and typing) and they say, "GO TO BED, JULIE!"

I obey.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - First Full Day

The green at Vermont College of Fine Arts

First impression of the day: Oh, my gosh, we're a talky and a noisy bunch! This afternoon Noble Lounge filled up with the roar of the crowd - faculty, staff, adiministrators and the whole student body. Once the microphone is tapped and people sit down and finish clapping, the temporary silence is almost deafening.

Sharon opened things up by remembering Summer 2006 when Tom Greene was "morphing out of his existence as a Program Director into being the President of a brand new college." We're are still very aware that, though VC has a long history, VCFA is a new entity - it's still exciting to think back when decisions were being made about which direction we would go.

Margaret Bechard was given a standing ovation when Sharon introduced her as the new Faculty Chair. Anyone who knows Margaret knows how lucky we are to have her here - focused, articulate and funny. My favorite from her welcoming introduction: The description of VCFA as a kind of Brigadoon for those of us who live out on the West Coast - it appears magically out of the mist every six months. Another favorite moment: Margaret reminding us that children's literature is "our passion, our responsibility and our joy."

Jess Leader wrote the lyrics for a VCFA version of The Beverly Hillbillies (substitute favorite buzz words from the Writer's Toolbox) and presented the faculty and Katie and Susannah with a new "VCFA Yearbook" called "The Hilltopper." Fabulous photos of good times over their two years in the program - plus funny bios of the faculty and parodies of the NYTimes Bestseller List. PLUS room for autographs! DP Pignataro brought the whole project to fruition, and Sue LaNeve wrote funny/sweet quatrains about each advisor. Lots of fun.

1st-semester students gathered to talk with the faculty - for those of you reading this who are alumni, do you remember how that felt? Probably a little intimidating - way too much information coming at you way too fast. But for the advisors, it's great - fresh faces, new students to get to know.

BIG THUNDERSTORM AND POURING RAIN after dinner. Very dramatic.

Tim Wynne-Jones delivered the Opening Night Lecture, all about "reading yourself seriously" by looking for moments of "genius" (not Einstein-style but Muse-style) where you were unconsciously planting the seeds for solutions to your plot problems. He talked about the writer's toolbox and about using tools as carpenters use them, "constructing a fit habitation for the mind." Favorite serious quotation: "Despite the fragility of words, you construct durable works that matter." Favorite funny moment (those who know Tim know there are plenty of these) came when Tim, discussing the idea of over-revising, said, "When you massage someone for too long, it hurts!"

Applause. More rain. More thunder. A good first full day of the residency.

More tomorrow.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts - Students Arriving!

The beautiful Winooski River which runs through Montpelier....

I spent most of today at the all-day faculty meeting - seven hours (!) of discussion about not only procedures and policies (which any institution has to handle) but also about plans for the future, which are so exciting for us! This is where the thrill of our new independence as a college of fine arts - unique in this country - really comes into play. The vision people have - and I mean everyone connected with VCFA - of our role as a national center of the arts is just so invigorating. Sorry - I don't mean to get too corny - I just am impressed by this faculty and how, after a day-long long meeting, we come out even more energetic than when we went in about what this place can mean to our students.

Our alumni graduate assistants are all here now and busy (very) getting material ready. It's quite a talented bunch: Cheryl Coupe, Katie Mather, Nancy Flood, Debbie Gonzales, Sharry Wright, Stephanie Greene and Ann Jacobus. They work their tails off during the residency and make all the difference in the world in how smoothly things go during the day. Lots of sharing of news about new jobs, writing projects, families - lot of hugs, too, which is no surprise to anyone who's ever been to one of our residencies.

It's almost time for dinner, the sun is shining, students are arriving, and tomorrow morning will start with a focus on incoming students - the "newbies." What I see sometimes in their faces is terror and uncertainty, and what amazes me is how quickly the camaraderie kicks in. I've always told people that for me, grad school in creative writing was 33% about reading (and reading and reading and reading), 33% was about pushing myself and my writing, and 33% was about making good life-long friends who cared as much as I do about intellectual curiosity and creativity. A growing sense of community can do a lot for your confidence.

That adds up to 99% - the extra 1% is a mystery still to me. Like the Big Bang - there's proof to support it, I know it happened, I don't quite get it, and I still feel like it's a miracle. Something happens in graduate school (at least it happened to me) that can't quite be explained. A certain creative chain reaction begins.

More tomorrow as the introductions and gatherings begin. Time now to end the day with a good meal and laughter.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Vermont College of Fine Arts Summer Residency '09

I flew out to Montpelier from Seattle today - time for the intensely wonderful, intensely creative, intensely berserk Summer Residency of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA /Writing for Children and Young Adults program! Some of my best friends in the world are here on the faculty - they are talented, warm, hilarious, generous, supportive -in addition, they are committed to teaching. It's just a pleasure to see them twice a year for our on-campus gatherings -- listening to their lectures every six months is a privilege. Then there are lectures by students in the graduating class, and readings by faculty, graduate assistants, grads and scholarship winners. On the 16th, Margo Lanagan will be here to talk with us about her new book, Tender Morsels. On Saturday the 18th, we have a special all-day symposium on Good vs. Evil, with invited guests Nancy Werlin, Stephen Roxburgh and Deborah Noyes. And then there's the daily discussion of pieces submitted for workshop - I honestly am eager to get started. Students begin arriving on Friday, and by Saturday we are in full swing.

I'm going to post brief summaries of each day's lectures and readings here at The Drift Record. Come back each day through the 21st to get an idea of what's happening here in the loveliest and littlest state capitol in the nation, as well as to get an idiosyncratic interpretation (mine) of what is being talked about and discussed in the world of kids book writers. If you're wondering whether or not getting an MFA is worth your time, maybe this ten-day journal will convince you....? If you want more information about the VCFA program, just click here. And feel free to email me, too, with questions about the MFA in Writing for Children - my email is on the main page of the blog, under the photo of 19th-C Parisians drifting around.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Poetry Friday: The Glorio of Rome

Statue of Babuino w/Bird

The Glorio of Rome

Because the Pincio is not the Pinch-ee-o
but is the Peen-cho, and because our mouths
must make that e then o, we sound like small rondini
peeping, we sound like piccolo uccelli, see?
Noi amiamo - si, we love - those long-voweled birdy-o's
in their umbrella pines, they way they make us crazy,
make us weep above the plaza of the still-here Roman popolo,
and make us want to swoop from Via Veneto
right down to Rick's Place in the crumbling Pio
chirping Peep, peep, peep, Bernini-o!

I wrote that when I was over in Rome as a graduate student.My good friend, the poet Rebecca Hoogs, is over in Rome right now as Co-Director (along with poet Johnny Horton) of the University of Washington's Creative Writing/Rome Program for the summer. She's sending wonderful photos back via Facebook. Here is one that captures the extraordinary blue of a Roman sky. I've never seen this shade of blue in the sky in any other part of the world.

Rome is definitely a city for poets. Voglio andare a bella Roma ora!! (Grande sospiro....)
Before you head off to more of Poetry Friday, here are two more photos Rebecca sent:

A dry goods store, probably near the Campo de Fiori.
What happens to colors in Rome - is it the light?

Last but not least, Johnny eating gelato and looking much more severe than he really is:

Poetry Friday today is being hosted by Tabatha Yeatts over at
The Opposite of Indifference.

Happy 4th of July tomorrow!