This weekend, Donna and I undertook a quick trek to Bennington, VT, to see my dear friend A graduate her Masters program. Bennington is a little, bitty town just over the border in southwestern Vermont – it’s a rural mountain town, the kind of place where you can buy tree-trunks carved out to look like bears on the road and guns at the gas station (seriously).
Bennington College is a little world all its own, just outside the downtown area. The buildings are a curious mix of 70’s retro, modern and traditional New England farm style architecture: the administration offices are in an old barn building, the old dorms are white clapboard houses and the new dorms are steel-and-glass triangles at the back of the campus. It’s not a big campus – crossing from one end to the other takes less than 10 minutes – and it’s quiet, which makes it a lovely place for a writing program.
We arrived just before noon on Saturday, while A was still in lecture. We walked the campus for about 15 minutes before meeting up with her, at which point she took us to dinner in the sufficiently institutional-looking dining hall. The food, however, was better than average: vegetarian egg rolls, grilled squash and a bagel melt made with fancy cheese, turkey and cranberries. Yum. Immediately after lunch we headed over to Tishman Lecture Hall to hear Frank Bidart‘s lecture on time and space in poetry – an hour and a half spent dissecting the effect of spacing on time and rhythm in poems by Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Robert Lowell and William Blake. The first 45 minutes or so of the lecture were fascinating – we looked at one of the most obvious choices from WCW, “This Is Just To Say,” and the discussion was lively and interesting. I took about a page of notes on that poem. I found Bidart to be mainly interesting, if a bit stiff – it was pretty clear that he was all about imparting his wisdom, and not hugely interested in interpretations that differ from his own. Which, considering how long he’s been writing, I would say is his right.
The graduation ceremony was short, and unlike any other I’ve been to. The faculty entered the room in typical procession style (accompanied by a large-drum trio), but stopped along the center aisle, and lined each side. The candidates for degree then filed in, passing through the faculty-lined aisle before settling to the right of the stage. I thought it was fitting – the faculty symbolically welcoming each candidate as a colleague, rather than still treating them as students. The remarks were relatively short, with a welcome by the Acting Director Sven Birkerts and a commencement address by Bidart. And after the hoods had been awarded, the recession was similar to the entrance: the faculty again lined the center aisle while each candidate passed through – this time with flowers, handing the blooms to teachers and mentors who had, in some way, affected or influenced them.
Dinner after the ceremony was full of good food, of course, and good wine. We sat at a table with Major Jackson, who was amusing as usual, and another graduate of the program. The entire evening was full of references and tributes to Liam Rector, the program’s founder whose suicide this summer had a profound effect on many, many people. It was a lovely evening with appropriate recognition for the students who have worked hard for the past two years, and for the faculty who supported them.
The surprise of the evening, though, came while Donna and I were talking with Major and A – I had a glass of wine halfway to my mouth, listening to A talk about the residency, when I spotted a familiar face. I looked at Donna, then back in the direction of the person I thought I recognized, and said, “Isn’t that…” Donna looked too, and said, “Rider Strong?” Indeed, the familiar face belonged to one of the cast members of that great 90s show Boy Meets World. (I had a huge crush on him when I was younger. Him and Danielle Fishel both, actually.) It turns out that Strong has been writing as long as he’s been acting, and is now working toward an MFA in Fiction from Bennington. I desperately wanted to go talk to him, but I thought it would be rude and crazy: star-stalking at an MFA graduation weekend? Uh-uh. Instead, I just stared at him sort of awkwardly for awhile, and tried not to get caught looking. He was rather gracious about it, pretending not to see me staring when he did catch me. Sigh. I’m such a nerd.
And of course, the “formal” events (which weren’t, by the way, hugely formal) were followed by drinks and dancing in the Student Center. Faculty, students, and family members were all gettin’ down to a poorly-mixed soundtrack of 80s dance music and recent hip-hop. It was quite a sight, and even Donna got in the spirit by dancing a few songs with me. After a few hours, we retired to the rather uncomfortable dorms and caught a bit of sleep before driving back.
I have pictures, but I forgot my camera.
Perhaps I’ll update later.