Use Your Antlers
Michael Dumanis was the faculty speaker at Convocation 2018. He charged the campus community with stretching their expectations to "swerve, and get overwhelmed and lost, and make a few discoveries along the way, and find yourself at least a little changed."
Thank you to Mariko and Isabel for asking me to speak to you this morning, and Class of 2022, it is my pleasure to welcome you to your first Tuesday at Bennington and to your first year of college. And welcome back to all the faculty and staff and returning students.
I am beginning my seventh year here at Bennington, teaching poetry, directing the Poetry at Bennington reading series, and serving as Editor of the literary magazine Bennington Review. So this must be the seventh convocation I’ve attended — I feel both as though I’ve been here for an eternity and as though I’m only just now starting to discover this weird place. Though this campus has only about twenty buildings give-or-take that aren’t dorms, I still somehow manage to find myself lost, or at least turned around, trudging up the hill toward Jennings past the Secret Garden and the Orchard and the Pond. There’s something inherently overwhelming about being here, perhaps because of the surprising, unexpected architecture, perhaps because of the striking natural landscape and sheer amount of open space, and also because of the intensity, inventiveness, and passion of so many participants in this unique community. Over the past six years, I have had conversations in class that have permanently affected my understanding of a book, been asked brilliant questions by students in the middle of a discussion that completely threw me off-guard, and been astounded by the boldness, sophistication, and ambition of some of the advanced work I have seen students undertake. It is likewise easy to find oneself overwhelmed by the history of this place, and by the extraordinary faculty and students who wandered through the Barn before us and stared off the End of the World decades prior, leaving our atmosphere heavy with their presence. It’s pretty awesome and one-of-a-kind and yes, overwhelming, this college that was built here in the middle of the woods for people of singular character and wild imagination to come together to collaborate and live and talk and share and discover together and make and perform and find.
The poet Ezra Pound once defined poetry as “News that stays news” while the poet William Carlos Williams added, “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” And so I wanted to begin by sharing with you with a piece of news about what your experience at Bennington may feel like on occasion, namely this short poem that opens the new issue of Bennington Review, the national print literary magazine that students and I collaboratively edit and produce here at the college. It’s by a writer from New York named Jose Hernandez Diaz.
The Man and the Antlers
A man picked wild berries in the forest, ate them, and suddenly grew antlers. He was shocked. He ran around in circles, Why? Why? Then he saw a small creek. He looked into the water; he saw his antlers in the reflection, strong and sharp. Why me? He said. Why me? Then a bear approached him. He was startled for a moment, but then charged at the bear with force.
Several observations about the poem I just read to you:
Some of you, at least a few of you, but perhaps more than a few, heard that I was going to read somebody’s poem right now, and reflexively thought, I don’t understand poetry or, while listening to the poem thought, I do understand poetry, I know what poetry is and that is not poetry or Why did the man grow antlers? I don’t get it. And that’s okay. I don’t understand poetry either — At least not in the way I understand a newspaper article. But I do know that when I hear language doing something new or unusual or different or wild, something that causes me to stop and take note, something that leads me to see myself or others through a different lens or from an unexpected vantage point than I otherwise would, I get startled for a moment, and then I want to charge at it with force.
Some of the wisest decisions that you make seem a little crazy when you first decide to make them, when you are conscious of the risks you’re taking but don’t yet have a sense of the reward. It might occasionally feel like you are eating random berries in a forest, not really knowing what will happen next. But nourishment and transformation come in all forms.
In your life in general, and in your time at Bennington in particular, should you chance to encounter metaphorical bears, remember that you do have metaphorical antlers, talents you didn’t realize were talents until the bear showed up. I am here to tell you: use your antlers. There will be an occasion in your years here when you are confronted by an assignment--writing an essay, imagining a play, plotting a short story, conducting a scientific experiment or anthropological fieldwork, facing the creation of anything new---when you will feel scared, not up to the mission, a bit unsteady on your feet, afraid perhaps of failure. My advice is to charge at the challenge with great force. You might not get that bear on your first try. In fact, you might never get the bear. Deer and moose, let alone people with antlers, are not particularly known for taking down great beasts. That said, from the process of taking on the bear, successfully or otherwise, you will learn about yourself and what you’re capable of, you will find out what your antlers can do. As the great playwright Samuel Beckett famously wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Of course, this advice should not be taken literally were you to meet an actual bear at Bennington.
Speaking of bears, and of meeting them at Bennington, one of my favorite memories is of something that occurred my first year here. A student suddenly writes on Facebook one evening, “Oh my god, there’s a bear next to the Center for the Advancement of Public Action” Exclamation point. Thirty minutes later, another student replies, “Oh my god, there’s another bear behind Franklin.” Exclamation point. Exclamation point. Exclamation point. And then, an esteemed member of the Literature faculty writes in, not using any exclamation points: “Guys, I think it might be the same bear.”
This is an excellent example of the sort of finely-honed critical reasoning skills that you, under the guidance of distinguished faculty, may develop in your time in college. Over the next four years, you’re going to be outside CAPA and you’re going to be outside Franklin. You’re going to be studying, oh, I don’t know, Experiential Anatomy, the History of Jazz, Metal Sculpture Fabrication, Screenwriting, the LatinX AvantGarde, Crosscultural Psychology, Architectural Graphics, how to construct a corset, how to compose for a choir, how to write poems in Chinese. You’ll be an actor, an astronomer, a botanist, a painter, an activist for causes you believe in--and although it doesn’t seem plausible, given the remarkable range of these pursuits and the physical spaces you find yourself in, you will always in the end be the same bear. Nobody knows now the person you are going to become, or the approaches you will need to take to find that person. To figure it out, you should let yourself wander, and give yourself permission, if you’re at all like me, to get a little overwhelmed and a little bit lost.
Something I often say to my poetry students is something a professor, the poet Jorie Graham, once told me in grad school: If you want to write a poem, and you start at point a and you have a point b in mind that you want to get to and you jot down all the lines you need to write in order to move from point a to point b and you successfully arrive at point b, you may have expressed yourself, but you haven’t actually written a poem. If, however, over the course of writing a poem, you discover a point x you weren’t previously aware of that you couldn’t have discovered if you hadn’t started writing, if instead of heading to point b, you swerve to reach this newfound destination — the journey you took to get to point x: that’s your poem. The value of this swerve and the consequent journey applies not only to poetry but to virtually every endeavor. You won’t know what you’re looking for until you find it — My responsibility as a professor here at Bennington is to help you give yourself the permission to step out of your comfort zone, to curve and zigzag, to leave behind what you think you know and embark on your journey toward an unknown point x, The faculty and staff would like to provide you with the tools and support that will enable you to formulate the questions you may need to ask in order to discover where you’re headed.
I know this from my own experience. I came to school under the delusion that I wanted to be, of all things, a political operative or pollster. (I really don’t know what I was thinking). In my first semester, I excitedly signed up for a 300-person early-morning lecture called Introduction to Political Science, where I often sat in the back row so I could comfortably sleep. This was a valuable and formative experience. It may surprise anyone who, 25 years ago, witnessed a dormant seventeen-year old in the last pew of the first-floor auditorium in Bloomberg Hall, to hear that he was actively engaged at that moment in an eminently productive enterprise, and that to this day he’s grateful for the direction in which this political science course pushed him. I was finding out that I was not well-suited to passively receiving information in a cavernous lecture hall, that I wanted to instead engage in small-group conversations with interesting people, and, while I to this day remain genuinely interested in the machinery of politics, that this was not my calling. I am not encouraging you to sleep in class. But I am encouraging you to consider that academic wrong-turns can be highly worthwhile – that finding out what you don’t like may prove every bit as rewarding as finding out what you do, that sometimes it’s good for expectations to be dashed.
The person who had the greatest influence on my undergraduate education, and in fact on my present life, is the late poet Mark Strand. I first saw Mark read on campus my freshman year and he was funny and clever in his banter between poems – and I thought, I want to take a class with this man, he seems like an interesting person. Two years later, I got my chance. I signed up to take his intro poetry course – this was my first ever poetry writing class, and I may never have taken one otherwise — in many respects it wasn’t the class I expected. Instead of conducting a regular workshop where fifteen students sit around a table and give each other feedback about their writing, Mark would spend the first half of class reading published poems he liked to a room of 35 students and then we would take turns standing up and reading our own poems out loud to him. Mark, without looking at the poems, would offer a sentence or two of advice off-the-cuff and then we would move on the next poem. It was the most intimidating thing I’d ever done in class. One day, I stood shakily to read what I had stayed up writing the night before, and Mark paused, looked at me and said, “That’s too complicated. I can’t respond to that just yet. There seems to be a lot going on, and I’d probably have to look at your poem before I gave you feedback.” The following week, I nervously approached him, and said, “Mark, I really like your class, but maybe it would be better if you just met with me one on one to look at my poems.” To this day, I don’t know where I got the courage to ask the former poet laureate of the United States for private lessons. To my shock, Mark turned his steely gaze on me, looked at me carefully and said, “Let’s start meeting once a week, every Wednesday at eight in the morning.” And for the rest of my time in college he would spend an hour every week going line-by-line through every poem I brought into his office. And that for me, was the real beginning of everything.
But I didn’t know it then. I didn’t know if my poems were any good, or what it meant for a poem to be “good.” Sometimes I felt when I sat down to write that I was a blindfolded child at a birthday party trying to pin the tail on the donkey but stumbling instead into the table with the punch bowl, about to send it crashing to the floor. Another former teacher, the poet Mark Doty, wrote once that “The new arrives with its edges raw,” a phrase that crawled into my brain and wouldn’t leave. Most of the new things I tried to make at first felt raw and odd and unfamiliar. But at the same time, it was so exciting to find myself writing all these poems that I didn’t understand myself, to let words and images collide in sudden ways before I quite knew what was happening. I realized that I loved what I was doing, so I might as well keep at it.
A few years ago, Mariko invited a group of distinguished Literature alumni to have dinner together in New York and talk about how studying literature at Bennington helped shape their development as writers. The first person to respond was an alum from the seventies, Alec Wilkinson, the author of ten books who, since 1980, has been a staff writer for the New Yorker. “I didn’t take a single literature class at Bennington,” he said to audible surprise. “I was a music student. I spent all my time in Jennings. I wanted to be a rock and roll musician, and I tried to do that after leaving college. And then, I spent a year as a policeman on Cape Cod. And afterwards, when I turned 24, I wondered what I should do next. And I decided I would write a book and show my writing to the Editor of The New Yorker. And later he gave me a job. But though I didn’t take a single literature class, Bennington was instrumental in making me a writer because it taught me that if I want to do something I should just go for it and not worry about whether or not I can, that I was ultimately capable of anything.”
Dear Class of 2022, you are ultimately capable of anything. My advice is to take chances. Mistrust the already familiar. Make choices that surprise or even intimidate you. Every year, take a class in a subject you genuinely know nothing about. If a course description at first blush sounds overly rigorous, take it. Rise to the occasion. The class is probably going to be more exciting, and has a higher chance of being life-changing. Here, we don’t have requirements, but we have opportunities. Each course is a door you can walk through. This all holds true outside the classroom too. Try making friends who are different from anyone you’ve previously met. Wander into the poetry readings in Tishman and Franklin. Go to Deane Carriage Barn to listen to experimental drumming and traditional folk music. Think about studying abroad in a place you never imagined yourself living in. Consider applying to Field Work Terms that sound like they might stretch and expand and challenge your talents and world view.
Every new student here today arrived on campus with a set of expectations. What your house will be like, who your friends will be and what you’ll talk about, how cold it might get in Vermont, what you will do on weekends, what you’ll study, and what your classes will demand from you. I am here to tell you that your expectations will not be met. The reality will be richer and stranger, more surprising and, I hope, more compelling than you can imagine. It is inevitable that your aesthetic will shift and your ideas will change. You should let them. Some of the most exciting work I have seen done by students at Bennington involved radical swerving – the Textiles major from RISD who transferred here to study anthropology and then took a poetry class on a whim and ended up writing a poetry thesis in addition to their senior-anthropological research, then spent half a year in Iceland at an art residency making spacesuits out of fiber, then went to get an MFA in Poetry, work as a curatorial fellow at Studio Museum Harlem, and publish a book. The student who came here to focus on poetry but then discovered modern dance during a field work term and developed a plan of study in dance, later also, having jumped into a class on Incarceration in America, becoming passionately focused on prison reform.
Over your time at Bennington, you will repeatedly be given the opportunity to pause and reflect, to consider how you see yourself and your environment, what work you have undertaken on your journey, where you still want to take yourself, what your expectations had been, and what they’ve become. Sometimes it may feel like instead of walking forward you are moving sideways, or that you need to take several steps back in order to take one step forward. And that’s actually perfectly fine. The faculty and staff are all excited to have the opportunity to share this journey with you as you swerve and get overwhelmed and lost and make a few discoveries along the way and find yourself at least a little changed.