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Saturday, April 11, 2009

Open Book (enjoy some, skip the rest.)

Open Book: Essays from the Vermont College Postgraduate Writer's Conference. Ed. Fetherston and Weingarten. A conference publication apparently. These can be insidious little (or even big -- this book is 377 pages) things. Someone gets tapped to coordinate and a big decision looms: do we want this to be a series of great articles or an exact record of presentations.

This is a book of what I'm guessing are presentations, self-edited if the author feels like it, and merely included by the editors.

The strength is in some of the careful, in-depth consideration of poetry. There are line readings and general ruminations on meanings, works on Ashbery and Danto. And when such tough stuff gets to be too much, many essays on the writing of longer works are there to reward. I particularly liked some of Fetherston's ideas on process and how ideas/writing is like considering ripples on Lake Champlain, Mark Halliday's consideration of Alessandra Lynch's poem, Brett Lott's essay "Before we get started", and J. Allyn Rosser's tongue in cheek reading recommendations. He says, "Now you're going to pay your dues, suffer properly." Very nice.

Bad essays are just hideous. The worst was Michael Martone's thoughts on camouflage and toy soldiers. Its main problem was a lack of theme, he'd be nailed in a 101 class for not developing the overall structure and for tossing in as a central idea each new term he came across. I would expect the English teacher would know that: Jewelers use a "loupe" not a "lope", it's "aides-de-camp" not "aid-de-camps", a cockade is a folded ribbon, not a tall feather, the purpose of Cubist art was not "the dissolution of contours", the opposite of countershading is not chiaroscuro, the book is Robinson Crusoe, (I can forgive the art problems as outside his domain of knowledge) but how to forgive him for writing "Robison Crusoe." Shoddiness on the author's part should not have passed the muster of two editors.

You can skip about a third of the works in this odd little book, but that's a conference, isn't it. You walk out of about a third of the presenations for one reason or another, usually for discursive junk, too narrow a theme, arrogance parading as knowledge, ah you can make your own list. You know. By the way, this is how students feel about a good deal of what goes on in their classes, and they're right.

My overall observation is that the Vermont College, which appears to be working to promote their low residency MFA program in writing, should seriously consider the printed works that bear its name--readers like me consider it representative of their overall quality.