I Loved Losing Myself at the Vermont Studio Center

by Julia Lisella

Julia Lisella

Julia Lisella

The early morning air is cool and the moisture not yet burned off as I climb the steep hill into the Johnson State College campus, just down the road from “home” for the duration of my two-week stay at the Vermont Studio Center. I am surprised and a little intimidated not to see other walkers or joggers at 7am; I learn later that it is still days before summer programs begin at the college. The fog is profound; I feel as though I’m muscling my way through clouds. I persevere up the hill, past parking lots and buildings, as I have studied the map and know that the road rings the campus. I cannot get lost. I keep telling myself this as the campus road morphs into woods on either side, and I wonder why my heart is beating so fast. I am not really afraid of getting lost; I’m afraid of being alone in the woods! A city-gal fear I try to explain later to a fellow resident who is from the country where quiet abandoned roads are a sign of peace and renewal, not a scene from a 1970s horror film about disappearing women. As I round the bend I begin to see familiar sites—campus buildings, the art center—in my comfort zone again my breathing normalizes. And suddenly, a deer bounds out from the field and crosses my path, just a few feet in front of me. She looks directly at me, and then turns and leaps across the road. A sound comes out of my mouth that I can’t identify, something between a cry and a laugh. I am suddenly very glad that I’m alone. This is my first morning as a writing resident at the Vermont Studio Center.

According to its website, VSC is one of the largest international artist and writing residencies. At any given time there are about 50 artists and writers, some of us here for two-week stretches, but most for four. And though I was thrilled to be accepted for a residency here, I was also full of apprehension. Though I had been to several residencies before, and was always amazed at the good it did for my work, I had not been to a writing residency since my eldest child, now nearly 22, was 5 years old! In the intervening years I had been to my share of writing workshops and academic conferences, but these trips were always quite directed and schedule-packed. Two weeks away from all schedules, with only a vague sense of wanting to produce “some new work” seemed different, new, and both scary and wonderful.

I had imagined VSC would be tucked deep in the woods somewhere, well removed from the town, but instead, VSC sits between the town and the college, carved into the shape and context of Johnson—in converted churches and mill buildings, and in the beautifully designed writers studio near the corner of Pearl and Main. There is nothing quaint or precious about VSC. It feels like a genuine space, where deer roam around college campuses in the early morning, and working people carry their laundry to the Laundromat in the afternoon or late into the night, and friends meet at the nearby café or one of the two bars in town. Ebenezer Books stocks the books of VSC authors and artists, and tourists stop there to buy postcards.

The writing studios are separate from the living quarters, a recent change at the Center, which is a good thing for me as our Victorian rambler of a house was visited in the evenings by a bat for a couple of days midway through my stay!  I was also lucky as a writer, as the house I lived in housed the library-conference space where we would meet visiting writer Madison Smartt Bell later in the week, and which would become the unofficial meeting area of many a late-night howl of writers and the few brave visual artists who joined us. A very short walk would bring me to the main building where we had our meals and where I’d  grab a coffee before work in the early mornings. It was actually the most beautiful “commute” to work I will probably ever have the privilege to take.  Crossing a bridge over the sometimes wildly grumbling Gihon River brought us to our beautiful workspace, a modern building designed with the context of the older mill buildings in mind, long and narrow, so that each studio space looks out onto the Gihon—each day’s work moving with that great hum of water moving below us, and an occasional shout of joy from someone swimming there below.  

Though I thought the transition would take days for me, I had settled in by the time I’d finished breakfast that first day. That is, I moved a chair from one side of the room to another, and unpacked my backpack. I opened my laptop up. And I laughed. I could hear myself laughing. OUT LOUD. Later I learned the walls between the studios were quite thin. But there I was. Pure Joy. Many of my writing resident buddies decorated their offices—STUDIOS—beautifully. Postcards, small paintings made by them or friends, maps that marked the journeys of their main characters in the novels they were working on, inspirational quotes, odd emblems of their work. Though I admired the way many of their studios seemed to grow and expand as poems and pages of prose filled their walls,  I knew I had to keep things simple. On the bulletin board I posted the VSC yoga schedule and a poem by Gwendolyn Brooks that I admired deeply and was trying to finish an essay about. Toward the end of my stay, I posted a drawing a fellow poet had made for me of a stick figure woman and dog, both reading under a tree. What I had needed was to feel stripped down, unencumbered. While the visual artists lugged canvases and clay, paints, lights, I had “settled in” with a pen, a notebook, and a laptop. Frank Bidart’s Metaphysical Dog and Jane Hirschfield‘s Nine Gates were safely nearby, as were some books I never opened and some books I gave away.

After so much apprehension and anxiety, VSC’s invitation to work, to meet other writers and artists, to let go of expectations and make the poems and essays that wanted to be made, cast its glow. Was it the light of the late afternoon when I had arrived?  Was it the constant rumble of the Gihon? Was it the fact that the center is run by committed fellow artists and writers whose welcome is felt and who are occasionally called on to rid your house of bats? Was it the promise of someone else serving me dinner at 6? I don’t know. It is a strange phenomenon, that to write about what is most familiar, most essential to us, we need to get out of our skin, and out of our way a little bit. The familiar must breathe its last to make room for the what-is-to-come: the new work that rides on all our old dreams and terrors and yearning. So many new poems, so many moments of recognition and comradeship with fellow writers and artists, so many difficult moments trying to give old challenging moments new shape, so much joy in the creation. Something rose in me and cleared old fears away, maybe even a little bit of that fear of walking alone in the countryside.

            For an added treat, here’s the sound of the brook at the Vermont Studio Center.

Julia Lisella is the author of Always (WordTech Editions 2014--which was featured in Mass Poetry's "New Books by MA Poets" interview series here) and Terrain (WordTech Editions, 2007) and Love Song Hiroshima (Finishing Line Press, 2004), a chapbook. She grew up in Queens, New York, and went to school there: Barnard and NYU, before moving to Massachusetts where she received her PhD from Tufts University. Her poems have been widely anthologized and appear in such journals as Alaska Quarterly Review, Valparaiso, Prairie Schooner, Crab Orchard Review, VIA: Voices in Italian Americana, and on line at Antiphon, Literary Mama, Pebble Lake Review and other sites. She has received residencies from the Millay, Dorset, and MacDowell arts colonies, and most recently, the Vermont Studio Center.  She has held several grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In addition to writing poetry she is a scholar of American modernism and teaches American literature and writing at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts.