Contributor’s Note: DG and Lucy requested that I put up the speech I delivered at graduation during the recent residency at VCFA. The last time I gave a speech was at my 8th grade graduation, so, needless to say, the tension was riding high. That being said, the speaker was (is) aware of the fact that the poet in attendance was Matthew Dickman, not Michael, and was playing off a joke which began early in residency. My entire time at VCFA can be summed up in one word: humbling. I failed to mention that anywhere in this address, but it should have been said. —Richard Farrell
DG adds: This was perhaps the finest graduation speech I’ve heard at Vermont College. Rhetorically deft, comic, heartfelt and inclusive. There was barely a dry eye in the house. The phrase “non-commencement commencement address” is, I think, what VCFA President Tom Greene called it.
Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA in Writing
Graduation, January, 2011
By Richard Farrell
I wanted to write a graduation speech about the war on language, about the struggle we face every day as writers. But my friends wouldn’t let me. They told me to talk about living in a dorm again, about softball games and swimming holes and cafeteria food.
I wanted to talk about the real fears we face going forward as writers. But my friends told me to celebrate this moment. They told me to talk about the surprise birthday party we once threw for Gary Lawrence when it wasn’t his birthday. How we bought him a cake and sang to him. And how Gary had no idea what the hell we were doing, but how he smiled and blew out the candles anyway.
I wanted to remind you of the difficulties of finding work, about the strength we would need to make it in the writing world. But they said to tell you the story of how terrified we were at our first student reading, how shaky our voices were. But how we persevered, with dry lips and racing hearts, and how proud we were of each other when we finished.
I wanted to frame our experiences here at Vermont College as a proving ground, and to tell you that we were crusaders ready to sweep out across the world in defense of language. But my friends wouldn’t let me. They told me to talk about the wine we drank in Dewey Hall, the conversations till dawn. How we wrote erasure poems on potato chip bags and formed facebook groups and sent each other text messages and long emails between packets. How we helped each other navigate through our doubts and believe in our words.
I wanted to talk about how scared we were as we approached graduation and how we wondered what we would do next, but my friends told me to talk instead about the laughter we shared at Charlie O’s, about New Year’s Eve in Montpelier, the fourth of July, about dinner at Sarducci’s and conversations on the porch of the Martin house. They told me to talk about joy.
I wanted to quote Toni Morrison and Shakespeare and convince you of our earnestness. They told me to tell you the story of our class readings at each residency, how we listened to each other’s poems and stories for hours, never once calling time on a reader who went too long. And how nowhere else in our lives was this possible.
I wanted to speak about our resolve going forward, how we would rise up to the challenges of the world of publishing. But they told me to talk about the friendships we’ve formed, about the dysfunctional family we became over the course of these ten day retreats from our lives.
I wanted to talk about how College Hall was built on the ruins of a Civil War hospital. How it was a place of healing, but my friends told me not to talk about our wounds. That pain was not nearly as important as laughter. Not today.
I wanted to discuss writing, but they told me not to. They reminded me that we almost never speak about writing itself. That while we talk all the time when we’re here, it’s never about our own process. They told me to celebrate our accomplishments, not dwell on the ineffable.
I wanted to make this speech about language, but they said that never could happen. This experience, who we are as a class and who we want to be as writers, is not just about the words, but also about bonds between us. We may write in a vacuum, but we formed a community here, one without assumptions or judgments. Well, maybe with a little judgment. Did you see Michael Dickman dancing the other night?
I wanted to close this speech with a metaphor of a soldier returning to battle, but they laughed at that and told me to lighten up. Then, last night, Michael Bogan gave me a great piece of advice. He told me to tell a personal story instead, something about what Vermont College has meant to me and to let that represent our collective experience. So here it is.
Before each reading I delivered here, I had a friend who listened to me rehearse my words. Danielle and I would go off to a quiet dorm room or find a bench in the shade of College Hall, and no matter how awkward my story was, no matter how tentative and unseemly, she helped me reshape the story until it was better. She would never allow me to fall flat on my face. And after I finished, I would do the same for her story. And as much as any craft book or workshop or packet letter, it was her friendship that made me a better writer. And how we have all found those people here. In our classmates and in our teachers. And how such people are rare.
I wanted to write a graduation speech but I couldn’t. Not until I turned it over to my classmates and they wrote it for me, perhaps not the words, but the spirit behind the words.
We can’t encapsulate what Vermont College means in 3 pages. We can only tell you that it has changed more than just our writing. It has changed our lives.