Bread Loaf


Bread Loaf, Day 10 began with a lecture by Mark Doty (and if you don’t already know how I feel about the man and his work, you haven’t been paying attention). I was definitely there, and was not disappointed. (Damn! Where are my notes?????) I’ll have to get back to you on recapping the lecture, but suffice it to say, it blew the top of my head off. It was about Whitman and his struggles with form, popularity and ego in his lifetime. It really struck a chord with me. I need to read more Whitman. After the lecture the fiction staff members started setup for the Gala Reception to be held later in the day, while the poetry staffers workshopped. We had to re-establish the alcohol perimeter (complete with its eight-foot moat–good old Vermont!) that we had taken down for the book signing that ended up being in the barn anyway due to rain. We set up the tables and generally organzied things as well. At noon, I hurried through my lunch and raced off in my vehicle to Port Henry, New York where my husband was to be arriving by train. Yay! Except the train was an hour late, taking us almost up to the reception by the time we got back. Fortunately, my awesome fellow-staffers had finished set-up (minus the alcohol, which can’t be left unattended–VT state law) so I was able to attend readings by Eric Puchner (very funny) and Ursula Hegi (excellent, as always). Ursula read from her latest novel, the maunuscript of which she had just turned in to her editor before coming to Bread Loaf. The Gala Reception went off without a hitch–good food, plenty of drinks, people really at ease with each other by this point in the conference, and the traditional Gala Reception hayride. If you’ve not been on this hayride, you’ve not lived. Or, rather, you’ve not almost nearly died. One of the BL caretakers, Leo, runs the tractor and he starts out calmly chugging through the fields across from the inn. It’s idyllic, really. Until Leo kicks his tractor into high gear and shoots forward, dragging the wagon down into steep gullies and up the other side, producing a strange marriage of the roughest wooden roller coaster you’ve ever been on, and a screaming, giggling roll in the hay. It’s really quite the experience. That evening’s reading was fantastic: Thomas Sayers Ellis’ bold, funny, innovative poetry delivered in a sing-song slam style complete with gestures to depict his punctuation followed by a great reading by Robert Boswell that was also very funny, and read with perfect comedic timing...

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Well, I’m actually back home, recovering, but I’m going to keep my promise and recap each and every day on the mountain. Day 9 at Bread Loaf was a staff day off. (Yay. This is the first year they’ve done this and it was very welcome.) Most of us did laundry, slept late, and engaged in other college-dorm-like activities. I had workshop at ten and had a bit more reading/commenting to do beforehand, so I didn’t sleep in. Workshop took us to lunchtime where we were having mac and cheese! Oh, the joys of comfort food. They could serve that every day (instead of the endless chicken) and I’d be happy. I was sitting at lunch with Ru (another staffer) quietly enjoying my comfort food and anticipating an after-lunch meeting with Dorian Karchmar an agent at William Morris, when I got the rushed message, “Stop eating! We’re kidnapping Michael (meaning Michael Collier, the director) and taking him to lunch.” But the mac and cheese was so good, and I’m not real great at switching gears mid-bite, so I finished my food, found Dorian to reschedule, and met them outside. Lunch was at a lovely restaurant in Rochester (VT) and even though I was full I indulged in a marvelous coffee milkshake from their soda fountain. There was a nearby used-and-new book store, too, and I found three books I couldn’t pass up: a book of Ruth Gordon’s poetry, a Peter Matthiessen non-fiction and a paperback fantasy for my son. Mid-afternoon I caught back up with Dorian and had a nice discussion about publishing and establishing the writer’s long-term career. One nugget: She said that the prevailing first-book wisdom is changing. In a two-book deal, it was often the short story collection that was published first, but the thinking now is that it’s better to have the novel published first, establish a readership, then come out with the collection. Luckily, I have both, just ready to go (well, very nearly ready). 🙂 For dinner, the staff and waiters converged (courtesy of several caravans) at Ian Pounds fabulous, hand-built house for pizza, music and dancing. I left early to go to a party at the Gilmore Guys’ house where they had a great bonfire, drinks, and music. I desperately wanted to stay, but wanted sleep more, and so I left and hit the sack by midnight. Boring, I know, but when I wring the most out of every second of the day, I have very little left for the night. I’ll have to work on...

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After Randall Keenan’s craft class (which was fun and useful) I had big dreams of a quick nap, but it was time to head to Treman to set up for our Harley-themed night. We put up posters of motorcycles, made a bar sign for the front door–“The Exhaust Pipe”–turned out the lights and used red, green and blue lights clipped to the bar. We had whiskey sours on the menu (a special drink for the special night) which were very good, by the way. I’d never had one before, but mine hit the spot. The most fun for me was being the tattoo maven. We had a big selection of temporary tattoos and we offered them to all who attended. It was great fun seeing who picked what to adorn their body and then applying it for them. As one young woman said, “This is the most physical contact I’ve had all week.” I’ve decided if this whole writing gig doesn’t work out I’m going to open a temporary tattoo parlor and make people happy without the commitment or the pain. After all, how many people can claim to have given Mark Doty and Michael Collier tattoos? (I think I need to write a story about a tattoo artist…there was definitely something powerful about adorning another human body, even if it was temporary adornment. Imagine what it must be like to permanently mark people every single day. To send them out of your shop knowing they’ll be wearing your art every day until they die. Now that’s commitment. Unless of course you’re Cher.) Another great thing about Harley night was looking out into the crowd and seeing Merrill Feitell and Chris Castellani, and having Merrill tell me she’s been reading my blog (Hi Merrill!). Merrill and Chris were both waiters and fellows at Bread Loaf and it was wonderful to see them back on the mountain. They are both fantastic writers, too, so check out their books. Plus, I hear they kicked some serious butt at Bread Loaf poker. After Harley Nite, we went to dinner, still in our full Harley regalia, and got a great welcome from the waiters when we strutted in. After dinner I made a quick wardrobe change because my dear friend Laila was reading with Carl Phillips, and much as I loved my Harley costume, it didn’t belong in the reading hall. Laila read from the beginning of her new novel and it was marvelous, plus she looked absolutely radiant at the microphone. I know it’s superficial, but it really does make the reading even more pleasant when the reader is beautiful…and even that...

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The day began with a lecture by Mac McIlvoy titled “Somatic Wisdom.” He’s one of my new writing heros now that I have heard him read and lecture. (Note to self: next step, buy his books.) Mac started his lecture by referencing Virginia W. (I’m abreviating because it’s nearing the end of the conference and damned if I can remember how to spell Woolf, Wolff, Wolfe, Woolfe…) who bemoaned the fact that she often felt as if there were a layer of cotton between her and the world. Meaning that often we have to focus in order to remember to feel. We can be divorced from our surroundings, tuning out sensory experiences until the world around us becomes just so much moving wallpaper. This is not a problem I have. I am entirely tuned in, sometimes to the point of it being painful–a sensory overload. My sister had a brain injury a few years ago and the term “flooding” entered my vocabulary, but I had always experienced the sensation, without any injury that I knew of, and wihout any words to name it. In case you aren’t familiar with the term, flooding is when the brain has become so full of sensation that it begins to swamp, and everything becomes overwhelming. In the West (moving back to Mac’s lecture) we are moving farther and farther from feeling. We test our children without remembering that feeling the world is just as important. Neither do we teach them (or remember ourselves) to get worked up about language. He read a lot from Anais Nin and referenced her work as very emotional, very feeling-based, sensation-based. “I only believe in fire,” she says. (You would have loved this lecture, Linera–if you’re reading–I’m getting a copy to send to you.) He told us to think about children, about how engaged they are in their world. “For example,” he asked, “how many of you have reached down to pick up an object off the floor of the little theatre…and put it in your mouth or nose?” Children are all about sensation. We can learn from them. He believes that our first gift is physical aliveness, after that comes intellectual study/awareness. He proposed we use the word “prehension” to describe the act of being without words, feeling that there is something there…as opposed to “comprehension,” a word we all respect and use. (I will be writing more about this next week, because the topic is huge and very somatically important to me.) We made a quick trip to town to prepare for Harley night, then I attended Randall Keenan’s craft class which was wonderful. The class...

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Okay, so Tuesday turned out to be my BL day from hell. Not any fault of the conference, mind you, but a fault of personal scheduling, and the inescapable syndrome of FMS: Fear of Missing Something. I had workshop comments to finish after breakfast, then workshop, then lunch with my workshop, which I had to leave early because I had a meeting with the editor of Orion Magazine, a periodical that I just adore for its emotional take on environmental and social issues. It is also gorgeously put together. our meeting was productive, and he said they are taking fiction again, which is good. (I haven’t seen any in the magazine for two years, but always thought they would do well by a story, so I’m glad to know they are accepting again.) From there, I went to a craft class taught by Laila Lalami, which was very interesting and informative. She had a handout of excerpts from different authors who write in English but whose characters do not speak English, or for whom English is a second language. There was a wonderful discussion of the politics of using italics to set off “foreign” words, which of course then makes the assumption that anything other than English is foreign, much in the way we always start out reading with the assumption that a character is white and American. She said that certain words are often not translated and/or nontranslatable. The list included: endearments, insults, explatives, idioms, food, greetings, place names, metaphors, proverbs, and an especially fascinating one: animal sounds. In the US, the rooster says cock-a-doodle-doo, in other languages, the “translation” is quite different–“kree, kree” for example. After Laila’s class, I really wanted to hear Emily Raboteau’s reading, but unfortunately the weather decided to turn foul. Since we had a major outdoor reception half set up, things got hairy, really quickly. Eleventh hour decision–move to the barn. So we schlepped everything through the rain, against impossible odds (dramatic writing) and re-set everything up. It was a book signing and turned out wonderful, once the staff all caught their breath and calmed down. But then there were two places to break down afterward. When the crowd finally left, the staff sat around and had quick bloody Marys and laughed with giddy exhaustion. Then we went to dinner and a combination of things came together to send me over the emotional edge. (I feel compelled to mention that I’m not prone to going over the edge, but the combination of academics, physical exhaustion and social overload lead most Bread Loaf waiters and/or staffers to have one day when everything comes crashing...

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Day six is actually the day that the entire Bread Loaf campus takes off. Well, more or less. There’s still food to be prepared, rooms to be cleaned, people to be directed. “Off” applies mostly to the readings and workshops, but it really is a welcome chance to take a collective breath and catch up on laundry, or reading, or calling home, or any of the other things that hover just beyond our consciousness waiting to be addressed. The morning was devoted to the Writer’s Cramp race: 2.8 miles marked off around the campus. This always takes place the morning after the barn dance–a clever ploy of scheduling that limits the race to only the very hardiest of runners. The day dawned drizzly and cool, but cleared just in time for the picnic at Robert Frost’s farm. I didn’t make it to the picnic, but heard good things about it. The staff went to town, ate lunch at A&W, a drive-up hamburger joint with root beer floats that is a local fixture. Then we went to Ben Franklin and bought props for the Harley Night at Treman cocktails. Oni Buchanan gave a kick-ass visual poetry reading, a portion of which can be found on-line, followed by simliarly kick-ass readings by Katharine Noel and Cheryl Strayed. (Pronounce my name like a sentence, she said: Cheryl strayed.) I would also just like to mention that Cheryl and Katharine both brought their beautiful baby daughters with them. Every year I have attended Bread Loaf I have seen evidence that the staff understand that writers have lives beyond the conference and they are very accommodating and progressive in this. Yet another reason to admire the program. The evening reading was fantastic. Rachel DeWoskin read from her very funny memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing (I hope I’ve got the title right). Then the ending gave me such a visceral reaction that I cried out before I even realized I had. It was so well set up. Following Rachel, Mark Doty read. I am a huge fan. He has been here all week and is so open and friendly and accessible. His partner is with him as well, and all I can say about that is that two finer specimens of male pulchritude would be hard to find. Then he read and wowed us even more. I’m sorry I didn’t get the titles (planning to buy the book…), but there was a wonderful poem about being the only one in his group to hear the call of a bat and taking it as a personal message from the cosmos. He read The House of Beauty...

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