Ashokan Farewell at the VCFA Graduation

Graduations at VCFA are always touching and beautiful, but the one on January 20, 2018 was made particularly poignant by a haunting piece of music played by graduates Allison Ritchie on violin and Jillian Fox on piano: Ashokan Farewell.  It’s the tune that Ken Burns made famous in his PBS Civil War documentary. It tugged at the heart, background to the reading of the letter from Union officer Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife. Ballou knows he will die, and his anguish shows. The letter itself was found on his person and delivered to his wife after his death.

…”with my own joys,” Ballou wrote, “I lay down nearly all of yours…” He said that when his last breath escaped him, it would whisper her name.

It’s a complicated story, as is the story of the composition of that piece of music by folk musician and composer Jay Unger. The piece is titled in honor of a music and dance camp that Unger and his wife and musical partner Molly Mason have run in the area since the 1980’s. It’s also a tribute to the place in the Catskills where a dozen towns were flooded to create reservoirs, the Ashokan among them, to provide drinking water to New York City.

About composing this piece, Jay Unger writes:

I composed Ashokan Farewell in 1982 shortly after our Ashokan Fiddle & Dance Camps had come to an end for the season. I was feeling a great sense of loss and longing for the music, the dancing and the community of people that had developed at Ashokan that summer. I was having trouble making the transition from a secluded woodland camp with a small group of people who needed little excuse to celebrate the joy of living, back to life as usual, with traffic, newscasts, telephones and impersonal relationships. By the time the tune took form, I was in tears. I kept it to myself for months, unable to fully understand the emotions that welled up whenever I played it. I had no idea that this simple tune could affect others in the same way.

Unger calls it “a Scottish lament written by a Jewish guy from the Bronx.”

Purely by the kind of coincidence that you can’t make up if you try, the word Ashokan reverberates in quite a different way for me. It’s an adjective derived from the name of an emperor, Ashoka, who ruled almost all of present-day India in the 3rd century BCE. In the words of University of Hawaii history professor Jerry Bentley, following a bloody conflict, “Ashoka reflected on the war in Kalinga, which reportedly had resulted in more than 100,000 deaths and 150,000 deportations, ending at around 200,000 deaths.” Fron that moment, the legend goes, he gave up war, and dedicated the rest of his long reign to peace and the welfare of his people. Is that legend or reality? It was so long ago that the boundaries become permeable.

All those geographies and histories overlap and coalesce in this one tune. War and peace, sacrifice and the conflicting needs of people, and always time, stretching onward and over continents, all of it finding expression in stories.

Is it Craft or is it Magic?

Students in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults at VCFA  are asked to turn in an annotated bibliography each month. Mostly trade books for young readers, with a sprinkling of craft books and books not specifically intended for children. I ask my students to use that bibliography as an opportunity to read closely and thoughtfully and generously. I tell them to read books they might not otherwise have selected for themselves. To read several books published before the year they were born (thank you, Sarah Ellis). To read books published in countries other than their own. And when they read, I ask them to look for what makes a book work for them, or fail to do so. I tell them they must get beneath the surface of the text and try to examine its working parts. Which also means understanding their own reactions to a book–why do they like or dislike it? What part of that is the book’s doing and what part the reader’s background and feelings and experience?

My students sometime worry that this kind of close reading is going to ruin the magic of it for them. Secretly they worry that tinkering with their writing is also going to somehow kill its beating heart. Megan Abbott speaks of just this in her reflection on a youthful epiphany on reading Macbeth. Perhaps craft and magic are not two separate things, after all.


Photo courtesy of VCFA

And now, VCFA has launched this incredible new venture. Focusing on bringing diverse young readers and writers to the table, the initiative introduces diverse young minds to the magic of craft and the universe of reading and writing. This has not happened overnight. It’s taken hard work and persistence and collaboration between the college and our amazing graduates. It’s taken an enduring belief in the confluence of craft and magic.

Craft vs. culture? Really? Still?

Writers of color often get told that they ought to separate their craft issues from their diversity issues. Even in my relatively friendly MFA world at VCFA, I’ve occasionally heard this advice. Not so much lately, I must say.

The advice usually comes with plenty of good intentions, from a true belief that somehow the writer’s post-colonial or feminist or other “ism”-related views are separate from the matter of writing. It’s about content, surely, not process. There’s something else called “true” craft, isn’t there?

grandplanjacketUm, no, not really.

My background, culture, family, beliefs, have always imbued my craft. Haven’t everybody’s? If you happen to be writing while white, in the same way I’m writing while brown, would you not say your literary antecedents come at least in part from within your culture? Is including references to Shakespeare and Milton in a lecture not a culture-driven act? You and I can both do that, but they are an act of connection to a particular socio-historic past.

So why should your cultural connections be allowed into the conversation but mine be put into their own little box and kept separate from my art? For many years I didn’t know anyone to whom I could put these questions and hope to get semi-cogent answers. In part, I wrote The Grand Plan to Fix Everything to turn common tropes on their heads, link to stories outside the usual Eurocentric paradigm and give the brown kid the power to be cool.

That was 2012.

That conversation doesn’t seem to be going away, this article seems to suggest.

VCFA’s Bath Residency

IMG_0344IMG_9328Thank you to Tim Wynne-Jones and Martine Leavitt for allowing me to drop in on the Bath Spa residency in July 2015.

IMG_9307I rode a bus through rolling countryside to the Newton Park campus, attended Martine’s terrific lecture, and then came back down the hill to town for an afternoon playing tourist in this lovely city. All purely joyful.

A million thanks as well to Julia Green, Lucy Christopher and everyone at Bath Spa University, and of course to Melissa Fisher, world-class residency planner, solver of problems and creator of program magic, and everyone else–you know who you are–who supported this effort.

Two residencies at once, one on either side of the pond. Quite a feat, VCFA!