Back when the Inernet was a new toy, Slate had a five-day diary feature where writers reported on their activities in the field. In January 1998 I signed on to write about the experience of teaching in the low-residency program MFA at Bennington College. This is installment #1, dated January 12, 1998
Today is day four of my semi-annual sojourn at Bennington College, where I teach in the “low residency” graduate program in writing. We -- 88 students, 20 faculty, and assorted staff -- convene here for ten days in January and ten in June; the rest of the work gets done by correspondence, with each writer on the faculty supervising five students in his or her genre.
These residencies are a cross between summer camp and boot camp, saturation experiences. Every hour of every day is filled with lectures, readings, workshops, conferences, and parties. We eat communally. The food sucks. Last June, in the Varsity Show the faculty puts on, the novelist Douglas Bauer took the Duke Ellington standard, “I Got it Bad, and That Ain’t Good,” turned it into “The Food is Shit, and That Ain’t Good,” and sang the new lyrics in the relaxed, sweater-clad Perry Como manner. I doubt that I shall ever be able to hear the words “artichoke bake” and “walnut cheddar loaf” without a shudder in my deep heart’s core.
Our isolation on this Vermont campus with its storied past (Malamud taught here, Bret Easton Ellis went to college here, and Donna Tarrt’s “The Secret History” is a roman-a-clay-feet set here) makes it the perfect setting for a murder mystery. There is never a shortage of motives, suspects, and candidates for victimhood. One year, the victim was played by Bob Hornbuckle, a good-natured St. Louis schoolteacher and aspiring fiction writer, who interrupted a lecture by visiting poet Robert Pinsky to argue a point about William Carlos Williams. Hornbuckle maintained that a certain Williams poem would be improved if the lining were changed. “That’s because you don’t know shit about Williams,” Pinsky replied. From then on, the “don’t know shit” locution was in constant use. Hornbuckle didn’t mind; he basked in the attention.
In workshops, the standard M.O. is to dissect a student’s story or poem, heedless of Wordsworth’s warning, “We murder to dissect.” People talk as they do nowhere else: “One thing I kind of objected to and then I fell in love with was the repetition of the word `hood’ in the second paragraph. But then I wondered about the prostitute. What if she were a nun?” Yeats’s “The Second Coming” might fare badly in a workshop. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre”: needless repetition, willful obscurity. “The falcon cannot hear the falconer”: show, don’t tell!
Today’s a rarity in a Vermont winter: a sky of unbroken blue and no snow on the ground, which is, however, soggy from the freezing rain that pelted us for our first forty-eight hours. No heat in my apartment the first night, so I gathered myself into three layers of clothes, my winter coat, and five blankets. There’s a red light in the window, which is supposed to go on when the temperature drops below fifty. The temperarure did and the red light didn't. Not that it matters. On the most sub-arctic of my five winters here, I shared a house with Doug Bauer and the poet Jason Shinder, and the furnace failed on the coldest night. The security man, making his three a.m. rounds, noticed that the red light had gone on, but decided to do nothing about it, reasoning that we were asleep inside and would resent the intrusion.
-- David Lehman