Bennington College hosts writers’ camp

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(Host) In Bennington, budding low-income poets and novelists are honing their skills at the nation’s only free summer colony for unpublished writers. The camp is sponsored by the National Book Foundation.

VPR’s Susan Keese has the story.

(Keese) In a classroom at Bennington College, students and their teacher are critiquing an urban take on a familiar nursery rhyme.

(Teacher) “The way you set this up it’s like, of course she falls in love with him. I don’t know, if this was a play I’d tell you there’s no tension there.”

(Keese) The author is more at home in inner city Queens than the green Vermont countryside. His classmates are from 19 different states. They’re a cultural melting pot, as young as 14 and as old as 62. They’re participants in a free nine-day summer camp for writers who couldn’t afford a writers’ colony on their own.

Allen Murphey is an English teacher from Ohio. Over lunch between classes he says it’s a luxury to put his passion for writing first.

(Murphey) “You know, you got a family, you got a house, you got the yard to mow, you got the toys to pick up and where do I fit in that 45 minutes a day if I can carve it out?”

(Keese) Twenty-three-year old Tevor Ford is back at the workshop for his sixth year this summer. He’s been writing stories and poems since his early teens. He’s not at all shy about reading from one of his poems that was published in an anthology of writings from the program.

(Ford) “The bongo beat spilled upward, till oxygen had no more to offer those who lived off dance, turning time backwards, the electric fire.”

(Keese) Ford is a mental retardation specialist in South Carolina. He keeps in touch by e-mail with the writers he’s met here. Beyond that he doesn’t know many people who share his love for words. But that doesn’t stop him.

(Ford) “I don’t see myself existing without writing. I have to express myself. It’s my blood, it’s my life, I had to keep on.”

(Keese) Poet Meg Kearney directs the program for the National Book Foundation, the writing camp’s sponsor. She says Ford is exactly the kind of writer the foundation hopes to encourage.

The Foundation is based in New York City. It’s best known as the sponsor of the National Book awards. They also have a program that brings authors to small towns and urban neighborhoods around the country, where authors are in short supply.

(Kearney) “There’s always the student who hangs around at the end of the class and waits till all the other students leave and then kind of comes up and says, I’m a poet and I write stories and what advice could you give me, or what should I do?”

(Keese) Kearney says the program was founded 10 years ago at a summer camp in Andover, New Jersey. This is the second year it’s been held at Bennington College.

The application process is competitive. Those who make the cut get to work closely with published poets and fiction writers. This year’s camp also includes guest sessions with a working screenwriter and a woman who writes for magazines.

They also learn from one another. Alena Phillips is a single mom working in a grocery store on a tiny Indian Reservation in Montana.

(Philips) “I think it’s easier to find my voice around all these writers. The people where I live, most of them don’t understand that who you are could be defined by being a writer. But there’s something that keeps me there. And it’s almost like it makes me a better writer to live there. But it’s very difficult.”

(Keese) Director Kearney believes that the program will save at least a few of the great writers of the future from obscurity. All they need, she says, is hard work, a little instruction, and a lot of encouragement.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Bennington.

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