Room for Craft
SEPTEMBER 2016: VERANDAH PORCHE
Editors Sierra Dickey and Rose Alexandre-Leach met poet, scribe, and mentor Verandah Porche at her residence in Guilford, Vermont. In her combined kitchen/living room, she sat snugly on a low couch beside a crimson wood stove. Art of all kinds adorned nearly every surface, from the rugs below her feet to the troupe of masks gazing down from the rafters. Formerly called Packer Corners, and most famously known as Total Loss Farm, Verandah’s home and work space is also the site of a back-to-the-land commune where she moved with a group in 1968. As soon as the editors sat down, Verandah began to talk about the building.
Verandah Porche: This room was a garage when we first moved here. The farmer who lived here never wanted to farm but liked fixing motors. This was raw space—a garage. There was a truck parked right on the rug. It was all dark old barn boards and we had a stage right where I’m sitting and a baby grand piano and a loft that went all across the upstairs. The masks were made by a woman whose son lived here for a while, and he didn’t work out, but she did. She’s a frequent visitor.
The land is owned by a nonprofit. The old commune expanded, morphed into a land trust, and a lot of the people who lived here moved out further into the neighborhood. It’s still very much a community and it was originally based around people making art. We have a very broad interpretation of people making art. I like to think of it as the art of living.
The Hopper: When you wake up and you have a work day, do you have a routine in the morning?
VP: Yes. I wake up and feed the fire and make a pot of tea and then I hike with my neighbors. Walking and talking. On a good day, we have two therapists, one brain researcher. There’s also a book artist and a photographer. Anyway, it’s anywhere from two to maybe eight people who do that walk.
At some point in the morning I settle down and do work, sort of mapping out the projects that I have to do. You know, I have a very varied writing life. I’m trying to teach myself to write prose and it’s so much more pedestrian, but on the other hand it's a good challenge and I always like to be bad at something. Otherwise, we quote ourselves and I don’t wanna do that.
TH: Do you like that it’s new or that it’s hard?
VP: I like that I’m not good at it. I’m trying to teach myself to stay grounded and to make plausible connections. I just wrote an article about home burial.
When turning to write this thing in prose, I had to figure out what information people really need in order to follow. If I’m writing a poem, which is essentially a lyrical experience, then the imagery, the truth of the feeling, and just the lay of the words conveys everything. You know, 1,500 words is a bigger canvas.
Many many years ago I wrote fiction, but nothing ever happened—people just talked. Because everybody I know just talks and nothing really ever happens. If anything does happen, people talk about it.
TH: Did you feel like you were able to add mystery back into that nonfiction piece once you had it all settled?
VP: The death of my husband, Richard, and our response to it is certainly the biggest thing that’s happened in maybe twenty years of my life, and so I’m very preoccupied with all different aspects of it. Writing about it seemed like the best idea cause it’s always going on in my head anyway.
Instead of “moving on,” it was diving in that I was drawn to do. Of course there are all my poems, what I always ever did, but looking at the poems that I was drawn to write while he was dying, a kind of fracturing of language started to interest me: pulling words apart and seeing what was inside of them.
I could also walk you up to the grave on the hill, because that’s a place that I spend time just sort of sitting on the bench and looking out over the farm. I’m consumed by this, but not defeated by it, because in my studies of the nineteenth century, death was in every house. Everybody had to take everybody down and it was only after the Civil War really that funerals and dealing with death got to be professionalized.
This has been a settlement for a long, long time. The graveyards around here hold people from the Revolutionary War. One of my friends whose husband died lived in an old, old house. She said that when she was caring for him, all of the baby rocking and the tending to illnesses and the laying out that had gone on in her 200-year-old house . . . there were all of these ghosts and protectors that were right there for her.
TH: Your office space and your living space don’t seem to be separated at all; do you think of them together?
VP: Oh ya. I’m constantly being interrupted or interrupting myself. Unlike people that have a more traditional literary career, I don’t really have to compartmentalize my life because it’s all connected.
TH: What do you do when you’re trying to sort out a problem in your writing?
VP: I pace the floor. I sometimes lay out papers on the table and walk away from them. I call up a few friends—I have a lot of writing friends.
My older daughter is a union organizer and has to write a lot of white papers with a lot of evidence and policy-type things, and she says that she always has an outline and so I thought “Fuck, alright, I’ll try an outline.”
TH: Do you find that collaborating with people and then going solo complement each other? How are the energies different?
VP: When you look at the big picture, it’s all just composting experience—turning what comes into me into what comes out of you. Growing garlic, for instance, doesn’t seem much different from writing a poem.
My current passion is making cider jelly because we have this whole cider operation. I mean, it’s really dinky and effortful and kind of wonderful. Not artisanal. It’s just backyard, community funk. Making cider jelly, you take a gallon of cider and it turns into eight ounces of jelly. I’ll show you some before you go. It’s just this luminous, distilled, boiled-down product like amber. It has no sugar, no pectin, and it’s very non-perishable. It’s just, you know, your poem.
All of these elemental, transformative processes are the same for me, whether they’re verbal or edible. Like churning butter: here you have cream, and three more shakes and it’s something different entirely. That was what moving to the country gave me—a connection among all of these things that are very basic and elemental.
TH: Do you feel like since you’ve moved to the country, your work process has changed?
VP: I came here so long ago. When I was 23, I might have thought that I had my procedures and my mission and all that, but really I was just starting out, and so all of the skills that I wanted in life I sort of developed simultaneously. But I always wrote poetry of whatever variety.
When I first moved here, I had the idea that it would be nice if you couldn’t tell what century the poems were written in, and then I sort of got over that after reading about sexism. I think it was Adrienne Rich who said, “Nostalgia is amnesia,” at least in terms of the lives of women. I suppose if you could cherry-pick the conditions—in other words, just have a fantasy—that’d be great.
TH: What other kinds of art do you keep close by when you write?
VP: I always read.
I like to see what people are making and I really love every kind of making. I love to see what kind of intention people have and what their obsessions are and that really fascinates me. I could be just as happy going to the salt-and-pepper shakers convention. I’m curious about what you didn’t know you knew. That’s the same thing I do to myself. I ask, what don’t I know that I can discover?