Tag Archives: Bread Loaf

The Poet Laureate Among Us

Poetry has long been an integral part of Natasha Trethewey’s life, but there was a time not long ago when she was surprised and moved to see how much it meant to someone else.

She and her husband were in a hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, celebrating her recent Pulitzer Prize for her 2006 volume of poems, Native Guard. A maintenance worker had come to their room to tinker with a nonworking air conditioner and noticed the champagne. After Trethewey explained and he asked to look at a copy of her book, he put down his tools, clasped his hands in front of him and recited from memory the short but powerful poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen.

“He transformed into what looked like the little kid he must have been when he first learned and recited that poem,” said Trethewey. “People really do have poems they have memorized or kept with them that they can turn to for some reason in their lives.”

Trethewey was recently named the 19th United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, but before she takes on that momentous role this fall she’s fulfilling her duties as a returning faculty member at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference at Middlebury’s mountain campus in Ripton.

There, in the Blue Parlor reading room of the Bread Loaf Inn, Trethewey ruminated on what her legacy might be as the national ambassador for reading and writing poetry. She recalled Robert Pinsky’s “Favorite Poem Project,” founded by that poet laureate in 1997 and still flourishing today, and hoped she would leave behind something similarly memorable and lasting.

Trethewey, who is also the Mississippi state laureate, wants to talk with other state laureates and hear their thoughts and needs, in the hope that she can develop a national project that engages the state levels as well.

“Somehow the right thing to do will be revealed to me through my conversations with other people, and I’ll be able to tap into what I can best bring to the program.”

When not in Washington, Trethewey will continue in her position as Charles Howard Candler Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University in Atlanta, where she is also director of the creative writing program. Though she’s not teaching her favorite freshman seminar this year, called “Poetry and the Historical Imagination,” she will be visiting the classes of several colleagues who are teaching her books.

When she talks about her new office in the Library of Congress, where she’ll be spending a good deal of time, Trethewey has fond memories of the place. “I already feel like that space is a poetic space for me. When I was working on Native Guard I did a lot of writing and research in the Library—I would go over to the Madison building, which houses all of the manuscripts, and read through the letters from Civil War soldiers in the collections there. And then I would go back over to the Jefferson, which is where the big beautiful reading room is, and I would sit there with my notes and start writing poems.”

Trethewey’s poems are very much rooted in the history of human struggle, both personal and communal. While Native Guard latticed the history of the South through the lives of plantation slaves, the gentlemen who owned them, and the black soldiers who fought for freedom during the Civil War, her most recent collection, Thrall, takes on questions of heritage, culture, and difference through works of art, history, and family relationships.

“I’m an elegiac poet,” she said. “And while I’m someone who’s certainly interested in investigating the self, it’s always through the lens of history. I want to make sense of my place in the world, my place in history.”

Trethewey herself is the child of a biracial marriage in Mississippi in the 1960s—illegal at the time—that subjected her and her parents to plenty of social scrutiny. And when Trethewey was still in college, her mother was murdered by an abusive second ex-husband. There is much for her to ponder and question, about herself as well as her society.

“For many reasons, our family history is also a national history, and I think because of that, it’s almost like I was born to think of myself always as an historical being or caught up in the movements of history,” she added.

This is Trethewey’s fourth summer at the Writers’ Conference. She has also had numerous poems published in the Middlebury College-sponsored New England Review. She first came to Bread Loaf in 2001 as a Fellow, having just published her first book, and was assigned to Ellen Bryant Voigt’s workshop.

“Just listening to her talk about poetry was eye opening. You think you know something about writing your own poems, but I learned so much in Ellen’s workshop. One morning we met up in the Barn and she gave me an impromptu one-on-one conference about form and meter—in about 30 minutes she gave me a private lecture that seemed like everything I needed to know!”

In 2007 she returned as faculty, right after receiving the Pulitzer for Native Guard, and then again in 2010.

“I’ve saved all my notes and poems from my Writers’ Conference workshops over the years and it’s nice to go back and read them. They continue to tell me something each time I open them and look at them again.”

Notes from the Mountain: a Summer Series

Each summer, Middlebury’s mountain campus in Ripton—home to the Bread Loaf School of English—becomes a hive of activity from late June to mid-August. From readings and performances to pick-up softball and study groups in the Barn, there’s a lot to notice and learn.

This summer, Middmag welcomes Bread Loaf student Diana Ling as a guest reporter for our “Notes from the Mountain” series of stories about the Bread Loaf School of English. Thanks to Diana, we’ll get a closer look into the daily happenings up on the mountain.

In this first installment, she interviews fellow student Noam Osband, who has appeared on both “Jeopardy!” and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”

Stay tuned for more!


Noam Osband is easy to spot among the polo shirts and Patagonia jackets popular with Bread Loafers: he’s the guy who pairs sarongs with neon-green Crocs—and dons a cowboy hat, snakeskin boots, and a rooster-shaped belt buckle for the annual square dance.

Less visible, but no less legendary, is his distinction as Bread Loaf’s only two-time game show contestant.

His stints on “Jeopardy!” in 2009, and “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” in October 2011, are easy fodder for conversation in Bread Loaf’s dining hall, where he waits on faculty and fellow students.

I sat down with Osband to talk about his wins, losses, and what he wore.

How much did you win on each show? Did it feel different to win on Jeopardy! compared to “Millionaire”? How did you use your winnings?

I won $27,759 on “Jeopardy!” and $250,000 on “Millionaire,” but being on “Jeopardy!” felt much more surreal. I’ve watched “Jeopardy!” since I was seven or eight, and my grandfather always asked me “Final Jeopardy” questions when we talked on the phone, and still does. My grandmother would make trivia booklets for me out of clippings from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

I did splurge on a fancy meal, a ukulele, and a sunrise boat tour on Boston Harbor. I also bought a GE bond after a talk with my grandfather, who often tells me, “Jesus saves; Moses invests.”

Part of my earnings went towards filmmaking equipment, which I needed for my work as an Anthropology Ph.D. student at UPenn. I’m currently finishing “¿Dónde está México?” It’s a feature-length documentary about an Irish Catholic church in Philly that was in danger of closing, but has been revitalized by Mexican immigrants.

In September, I’ll start work on my dissertation, which will be a film about Mexican guest workers who do reforestation work in the U.S.

How did being on the shows help you see Bread Loaf through a new lens?

I got into street performance because of Bread Loaf, and street performance helped get me on these shows. When I sang a song about Bread Loaf professor Isobel Armstrong at the coffeehouse, people seemed to love it. I began street performing after that, and I think I made it through the auditions for both shows because I’d become comfortable with entertaining a crowd.

During the second day of taping “Millionaire,” I was told by a head producer to “cut it out” or get kicked off the show when I quoted “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot as part of my response to the final question in the first round. Right after that, I remember thinking, “I can’t wait to get back to Bread Loaf to tell this story.”

Being on the shows made me appreciate the Bread Loaf community more. I always tell people, “This is the only place you can read a poem to a bunch of dudes drinking beer, and instead of calling you names, they’ll listen to you.”

What happened when you wore your cowboy hat to “Millionaire”?

After spending time in Mexico, I got into wearing cowboy hats, and I wear cowboy outfits to weddings. My childhood best friend, Toby, went to the first day of taping and brought a cowboy hat with him because I’d forgotten mine. When I brought my dad’s cowboy hat to the second day of taping, they wouldn’t let me wear it; I had to “tone it down,” they said. I did wear my rooster belt buckle, though.

Here They Come!

With an expected sense of nervous excitement, this summer’s latest batch of new students arrived at the Bread Loaf School of English last Monday. But any signs of anxiety quickly gave way to calm comfort as many of those students were greeted by none other than the director herself, Emily Bartels. With her warm smile, welcoming hand, and wonderful sense of humor she set the tone, once again, for a fun and rewarding summer.

10 days + 46 writers = 1 literary whirlwind

Wednesday, August 10, marks the start of the annual Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, which takes place on Middlebury’s mountain campus in Ripton. In addition to bringing together established icons, young hopefuls and publishing professionals, the event creates a literary feast for the local public. With daily lectures and multiple readings, there’s plenty to choose from.

Early in the session, Richard Bausch mixes angst with humor in his lecture titled “How to Write in 700 Easy Lessons,” and David Shields surmises that “All Great Books Wind Up with the Writer Getting His/Her Teeth Bashed In.” Despite the intended wit, these accomplished authors have plenty of wisdom to share.

Later in the week, James Geary discusses “Juggling Aphorisms with Mixing Metaphor,” Peter Ho Davies advises “Only Collect: Some Thoughts on the Short Story Collection,” and Marianne Boruch explores “The End Inside It: A Consideration of the Bewildering Nature of Closure.”

As for readings, there are at least four or five each day and evening. These are unbelievable opportunities to see some of the best of today’s established and emerging writers. All events take place in the Little Theatre on the Bread Loaf campus. Click the image at left to view the enlarged schedule at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference website.

Bittersweet End of the Line for Bread Loaf’s Streetcar

It’s a bittersweet end to the summer for Sherry Brown, our Bread Loaf student-on-the-scene. She has spent the last six weeks studying the plays of Tennessee Williams with veteran professor Michael Cadden–and the last week watching full-house final performances of  A Streetcar Named Desire, starring a professional troupe of Equity actors-in-residence led by Director of the Program in Theater Alan MacVey.

Throughout the summer Sherry has reported on the class (see here) and the rehearsals (see here), and finally, here are her thoughts on seeing the play, which took place each evening at 8 p.m. from July 27 – 30:

“It was with mixed emotions that I saw the last performance of A Streetcar Named Desire come to a close. I was aware that I was at the end of something extraordinary.

I spent so many hours discussing Streetcar in class, viewing various productions, watching rehearsals, and writing papers that I was concerned that I would not be able to enjoy the performance. On the contrary, I found that the awareness of and appreciation for all of the choices which Alan and the actors made enhanced my experience as a spectator.

This has been my first year at Bread Loaf and I value the time I was able to spend here among people who are passionate about literature, art, and the exchange of ideas. This is an extraordinary place, but is made even more unique by the opportunity to interact with and learn from Michael Cadden, Alan MacVey, and the equity actors. They are generous with their time and talents and I feel honored to have been able to learn from them.”

Many thanks to Sherry!

Bringing the Streetcar to Life

Here’s the latest update from MiddMag’s Bread Loaf student-on-the-scene Sherry Brown. (Read the first installment here.)

In her course this summer on Tennessee Williams, Sherry’s getting to see first-hand how a play is read, taught, studied, rehearsed, and ultimately performed by a professional troupe of actors when A Streetcar Named Desire opens there later this month, starring Equity actors Elizabeth Bunch, Angela Brazil, and Chris Hutchison (L-R, below). Performances are Wednesday, July 27, through Saturday, July 30, at 8 p.m. in the Burgess Meredith Little Theater on the Bread Loaf campus. For tickets call the Middlebury College Box Office at 443-2771.

The course Sherry’s taking is called “Tennessee Williams at 100: How to Take A Streetcar Named Desire,” and professor Michael Cadden has invited several of the Equity company-in-residence actors into the classroom to perform and discuss parts of the plays they are reading. Director of the Program in Theater Alan MacVey (at right below, directing Hutchison and Bunch) has held open rehearsals throughout the summer, and Cadden asks his students to attend several of these as well.

Here are some thoughts and observations from Sherry after attending one of those rehearsals:

“Watching the Streetcar rehearsals as Alan MacVey and the actors develop the characters has been quite an experience. I had expected that it would be educational and interesting on an intellectual level. It certainly has been that; however, I have been taken by surprise at the depth of my emotional response to the characters. When I read the play, I didn’t particularly like the characters – it was easy to judge them. As the actors bring the characters to life, however, I’m struck by the fact that I’m not so different from them after all. Like Stanley, I have hurt people I love. Like Mitch, I have been awkward and ham-handed in relationships with people, and like Blanche, I have lied to protect myself. The immersion in Streetcar has been very intense.

“As well as attending rehearsals and Michael’s class, we have viewed the Streetcar movie and teleplays. This very close reading of the text and attention to the various interpretations of the characters has opened up the play to me in an unexpected way.

“Each time I read or see a scene performed, I participate in the creation of that character anew. This is an understanding that I hope to bring to my students in our study of drama in the classroom. There is not one definitive Blanche, or Hamlet, or Willy Loman. The creation of a character happens in the space between the actor’s portrayal, the staging of the play, and the interpretation of the audience member.

“That said, I am looking forward to stepping away from Streetcar for a little while. Although we have not exhausted all of the nuances and interpretations of the play, it has exhausted me! We will be spending some class time discussing Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, before returning to Streetcar for the final Bread Loaf production.”

Stay tuned for the third installment when we’ll hear from Sherry after the final performance of A Streetcar Named Desire from Wednesday, July 27, through Saturday, July 30, at 8 p.m. in the Burgess Meredith Little Theatre on the Bread Loaf campus.




Catching a Streetcar at Bread Loaf

What’s it like to read a Pulitzer Prize-winning play, study it with a legendary drama professor and then see it performed by Equity actors—all in six weeks?

That’s what Sherry Brown (left) is doing this summer at the Bread Loaf School of English. This is her first year at Bread Loaf, and the secondary school teacher from San Antonio is in for a ride.

The class is called “Tennessee Williams at 100: How to Take A Streetcar Named Desire,” and it’s taught by Michael Cadden (right), a Bread Loaf veteran of 30 years and an absolute genius at building bridges between the worlds of academia and professional theatre.

And as the course comes to a close later this month, the class—and anyone else who wants to attend the public performance—will enjoy the focus of their summer study come to life. Alan MacVey (left), another one of those talented Bread Loaf veterans, is directing the summer program’s Equity company-in-residence in A Streetcar Named Desire. Like most plays performed each summer, it will likely be sold out, but Sherry plans to be front and center.

In the meantime, she’s going to keep MiddMag posted about her experiences while taking this class—from the readings and rambunctious discussions to visits from Equity actors and sneak peeks at the dress rehearsals. Here’s her view after the first two weeks of class:

“Before arriving this summer, we were expected to read everything for the course including Strindberg’s Miss Julie, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, and Williams’s plays, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Glass Menagerie, and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, as well as a production history of Streetcar.

We’re not studying the play scene by scene but looking at various aspects of the play, such as characterization, theme, and staging, and also exploring the influence of previous playwrights on Williams. We’re exploring the social and economic setting of the play, and discussing the production history—of this play and plays in general.

I have always loved the theater, but have only experienced it as an observer so I was intrigued by the idea of watching the play take shape and seeing how the director and actors work together to make the creative choices that lead to the final production. Also, we teach quite a bit of drama in my classroom (Shakespeare, Arthur Miller, Lorraine Hansberry, and others) with mixed success. Without the luxury of taking the class to a live production of the play, I’m looking for ways to make the study of drama more engaging for students.

On our first day of class, the major actors for Streetcar came in to talk about their roles and the production. We’re also expected to attend several hours of rehearsal each week, which is really interesting. You get a whole new appreciation for an actor’s every move—each one becomes so significant.

And yesterday, an actor came in to read two monologues from The Glass Menagerie and talk about his experience playing Tom in the Vermont Stage Company’s production last fall. Last week, Michael got us all tickets to see a recording of the National Theatre production of The Cherry Orchard at the Town Hall Theater in Middlebury.”

Stay tuned for more from Sherry in the coming weeks!