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Giants of the Northeast Kingdom

Dan Chiasson, interviewed by Daniel Drake

Dan Chiasson

Dan Chiasson

In the Review’s September 23, 2021, issue, Dan Chiasson takes stock of the Bread and Puppet Theater, a performance and art collective that began as a New York City street troupe in the 1960s and grew into a Vermont institution. One of the troupe’s cofounders, Elka Schumann, died on August 1 at age eighty-five. While her husband, eighty-seven-year-old Peter Schumann, and the other members of Bread and Puppet are committed to sustaining the organization’s working farm in Glover, Vermont, with its communal ethics and anticapitalist commitments, Chiasson’s piece asks what place there might be in contemporary America for a rural arts compound that “seems more or less frozen in 1975.”

Chiasson’s connection to Bread and Puppet has personal and regional roots: a poet, teacher, and critic born in Burlington (“as almost everyone who has ever met me learns within seconds”), he grew up amid the peculiar mix of pastoral poverty, lefty politics, and stern northeastern discipline that often defines Vermont and the region. “Burlington was and is a tense place, not the idyll it’s sometimes cracked up to be,” he told me over e-mail this week. “There were fights about the homeless, constantly. One local businessman started a campaign he called ‘Westward Ho!’ offering free bus tickets to the homeless.” The state’s famous progressivism “can feel a little exclusive or picturesque, or perhaps hypothetical.”

One notable Vermonter who was on the other side of the fight for affordable housing was the then mayor of Burlington. “A lot of my sense of myself and of Burlington at the time, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, is wrapped up in the phenomenon of one Bernard Sanders,” Chiasson explained. “He was introduced as a villain. My grandfather, a decorated WWII veteran—to me a frightening person—led the Vermont National Guard. I can remember watching from a window the approach of a wild-looking figure flanked by two students with clipboards, and my grandfather saying to my grandmother, ‘It’s Sanders, don’t answer the door.’” Nonetheless, Chiasson found himself supporting the Brooklyn socialist’s mayoral and congressional campaigns:

Once I was a teenager, though, I volunteered for him and identified very closely with supporting him. Teenagers all knew him. He shared all our spaces—Church Street, downtown, the cheap places to eat, the Burlington Square Mall. Jane Sanders was the director of the Teen Center, and Bernie was always coming by. My politics are driven by fear of the worst, and so, though I’ve supported him both times in his presidential runs, I never could get past a certain kind of amazement that Bernie could scale nationally. He was hyper-local, down to planting trees on Arbor Day and hanging out at the little league fields. The president was Reagan. How could those two zones ever coincide?

This compassionate anxiety—or perhaps caution—emerged at a young age. Chiasson was raised by his mother and grandparents. “My father had touched down in the area for a few years and kept moving; growing up I didn’t know anything about him or his whereabouts.” Abandonment was compounded by tragedy:

My home was tense; there had been a very recent tragedy, right before I was born—the death of a little boy, my Uncle Danny—and everyone in my family was still sort of shell-shocked and grieving.

And by institutional iniquity:

I was raised in the Catholic Church, an only child with a single mother right at the time when priests were preying on people just like me—the Diocese of Burlington has identified many offenders from that time, several of whom I knew well, who took an interest in me. I was not abused, but the threat was absolutely in the air, and I could feel it encroaching in ways that were cloaked as kindness, interest in me as quite special and thoughtful. 

For a child, “there was much keeping to myself, and a lot of defensive moves.” Enter poetry: “Poetry, which allows deflected or symbolic expression, is obviously a great aid to people who can’t (because it’s hard, or in fact, because it’s prohibited) say out, in a straightforward way, what is on their minds.” The ruminating, imagistic qualities of Chiasson’s poetry—much in evidence in his poem “Dream,” for example—emerged from this childhood reticence. “I had a lot to think about, and a lot of my thinking has always taken the form of quite shaped and formal inner sentences, almost an inside narrative. I don’t know what other people’s minds are like, but mine is sort of, I get up, approach the stand, tap the mic, and begin to orate. It’s always been very easy for me to write very quickly, since I’m always ‘writing’ mentally.”

A quiet confidence in his writing showed Chiasson a way forward. “My own art took a clear path through institutions,” he says. “You study poetry in schools, and I was very good at school. The poetry I loved, modern poetry, Stevens and Williams and Moore, was hard; you needed a teacher. So a very narrow upward path opened for me, through elite institutions. I had grown up poor, but these places had the money to support me, and I relied on them, and on federal aid as well.”

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This trajectory stood in sharp contrast to the hippie and hippie-adjacent culture that seemed to descend on Vermont in the 1980s and 1990s. “Bread and Puppet was part of a Vermont I didn’t know as a kid, or only saw out of the corner of my eye. Class plays into this. Bread and Puppet, ostensibly more democratic, was in my mind associated with people who had the privilege to stray, wander off the narrow ladder I was on.” Moreover, he says, “I am not, by nature, a communal person. I get sarcastic when presented with shows of great idealism.

But Bread and Puppet, I now see, is actually driven by these tensions which I find and, to some extent, even promote or cultivate within myself. Peter Schumann is a formidable, frightening man, austere and curt. Anger is part of the foundation of his genius. The puppets are, many of them, terrifying. And yet here we have one of the great pastoral idylls in the northeast: a free puppet show in a meadow.

Indeed, as Chiasson movingly explores in his essay, Bread and Puppet was always to the side of the denatured radical tourists who tried to bum free sandwiches from the restaurant he worked at in high school; far from mere affect, its politics are borne out in “work, just that.” The farm and the theatrical company are “the basis of an economy that has very little to do with capitalism. They are essentially a barter network and a hub in the Northeast Kingdom for a lot of other kinds of barter networks.” Ultimately, the Schumanns—and all the artists who work with Bread and Puppet, and Vermont denizens who rely on and contribute to the institution—embody many of the values that define the Green Mountain State:

the farm’s self sufficiency, its refusal to commodify itself, its refusal to budge from its perch in Glover even as it brings the news all over the country, is really what I admire and love about the place. It’s a kind of factory for producing human faces, human likenesses, touching or frightening exaggerations of our condition.

I think Peter and Elka Schumann are among the great American artists. Also, some of the greatest and most important Vermonters, ever—which is to me higher praise.

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