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Lit from Within



Published April 21, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

What do Vermont writers have in common? "An extreme tolerance for cold and darkness," suggests Gary Miller, a local writer and filmmaker whose short story, "Museum of the Americas," appears in the new all-Vermont issue of Hunger Mountain: The Vermont College Journal of Arts and Letters. "We're more miserable, which increases our output."

Hunger Mountain hit the shelves of Borders and Bear Pond Books on the first of this month, just as seasonal misery retreated and Vermonters began to think -- ever so tentatively -- about beach reading. Yet rare is the book-buyer who goes to the store with the intention of picking up a stack of literary magazines. Some are put off by the $10-plus price tag, others by the irregular publishing schedules. Another common perception? What's inside may be the belabored result of too many creative-writing seminars.

"It is surprising how many people aren't familiar with literary journals at all," says Caroline Mercurio, Hunger Mountain's managing editor. "There are thousands of them out there." Some journals are simply publishing outlets for students of a particular writing program or groups of like-minded friends -- hence the charge of insularity. Other journals, however, have editors who sift through hundreds of submissions in search of exciting fiction, poetry and essays from all over the map.

Vermont is home to a handful of these ambitious journals -- the venerable New England Review, published by Middlebury College, the Green Mountains Review from Johnson State College, and now Hunger Mountain, which first appeared in October 2002. With a financial kick-start from a generous Vermont College alumnus, the journal is trying to build a subscriber base. "If you do really well, your goal is to break even in year five," senior editor Louise Harwood Crowley says with a chuckle.

Why publish an all-Vermont issue? "We made a decision early that this was going to be a very high-quality journal with a national and international scope to it," says Crowley. "But we also made the decision that we would to some degree always publish Vermont writers. We wanted to make that part of our mission."

Accordingly, Crowley enlisted guest editors Jim Schley and Sydney Lea, veterans of the New England Review who had an extensive network of contacts with local literati. Over a year ago, Schley and Lea sent out a flock of letters, soliciting submissions of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Then they sat back to read through each of the approximately 250 replies.

"The challenge was to have people who are well known, but not such a set roster that there would be no room for those who are lesser known," says Schley. As a result, the table of contents is studded with local literary celebrities: Hayden Carruth, Ruth Stone, David Budbill, Greg Delanty, Mary Hays, David Huddle, Joan Connor. But it also features less familiar names, including some writers who are publishing on this level for the first time: Ann Aspell, Seth Steinzor, Didi Pershouse, Mama Willey, Alexis Lathem and Bess Huddle, to name a few.

Schley suggests that in selecting from such a motley assortment of writing, one doesn't start with a unifying vision so much as end up with one. He and Lea decided not to use the nonfiction submissions after finding that they ran the gamut from academic essays to confessional memoirs. Just one nonfiction piece appears in the issue: an interview with two Barre granite sculptors conducted by Hunger Mountain's consulting editor, Danielle Dahline. It's illustrated by stunning color photos of the monuments in Hope Cemetery, their angles sharpened by the light of a subzero January day.

Though the editors made no attempt to impose a theme on the fiction in the Vermont volume, they soon found certain patterns emerging, says Schley. For instance, "There's an anthology of bizarre couple situations in here... stories about well-seasoned couples who start to experience a sort of undertow in their relationship. We didn't set out to find that, but it seems to be timely."

In Chandler Gilman's story "Insurance," a visit from an insurance adjustor makes a Northeast Kingdom woman suddenly aware of everything that's not working in her home -- and her marriage. In David Huddle's "Social Life," a rift in one couple's long, settled marriage has a surprising effect on their best friends.

The same issue contains a broad sampling of local verse, including the winner of an award it created and bestowed --the Ruth Stone Prize in Poetry --and the competition's three runners-up. Subject-wise, the poems range from Harper's essayist Garret Keizer's meditation on faith in "The Stars Are Near" to Edith Forbes' love song to her John Deere tractor.

Certain concerns, like politics, do recur. Carruth offers chilling words about the impact of the Iraq war at home, while Greg Joly depicts a lively episode from Vermont's culture wars in "Mud Season."

"The poetry we chose tends to be textured and dramatic -- not chopped prose," says Schley. He hopes Vermonters will take advantage of a statewide series of spring and summer readings sponsored by Hunger Mountain in order to hear the "musicality" of the poems firsthand.

"This is a great opportunity for people who want to learn about contemporary writing to start with their neighbors," Schley says. "There's a huge commotion of writing going on in every corner of the state."

A different kind of commotion -- one of academic discourse -- will be heard at the University of Vermont when the Society for the Study of Narrative Literature convenes for an international conference. The esoteric talk fest, co-hosted by UVM and Middlebury, takes place April 22-25.

Professors who specialize in this field often call themselves "narratologists" -- and if you think that sounds like a snooze, think again. A dictionary of literary terms defines "narrative" as any form of story-telling, fiction or non, from the cat sat on the mat to a CNN report to War and Peace.

The members of the Society define "narrative" in this roomy sense, which means the conference includes papers on Twain and Melville, but also "medical narratives" of operations gone wrong, Holocaust stories, computer games, travel guidebooks and TV shows like "The Sopranos" and "24."

What does all this cultural flotsam and jetsam have in common? A narratologist would say it's their story structure -- the set-up, conflict, climax -- which makes them infinitely more compelling than a recital of "just the facts, ma'am."

Two plenary sessions are scheduled -- one with Jane Gallop, a charismatic Freudian feminist who's drawn media coverage in recent years for her unorthodox stances on issues like student-teacher sexual relationships. The program also promises an event described as "The Famous Narrative Conference Dance." Who knew telling stories --in school --could be so much fun?

Kathryn Blume gets it down in 50 Ways to Love Your Country, a collection of essays about everyday political participation compiled by the progressive action committee The Charlotte actress --who is married to Vermont Stage director Mark Nash --launched a proliferation of plays, all versions of Lysistrata, to protest the war in Iraq. Her narrative is appropriately titled, "Express Your Views Through Art."

Got a story in you? Head over to the Essex Outlet and Cinema for The Book Rack's May 6 publication party for 50 Ways, with former Governor Madeleine Kunin presiding. The non-partisan event has an open-mic component through which volunteers can tell their tales of grassroots political action.

Come take the stand and take a stand -- or just hear about how local passion for change has been heating up the long, cold winter.

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