University of Vermont

An Artist’s Still Waters

Alexandria Hall
Poet and musician Alexandria Hall won a prestigious Beinecke Fellowship for graduate study. (Photo: Sally McCay)

It’s not that Alexandria Hall is a contradiction, but she does, beneath her understated, even shy demeanor, “contain multitudes,” says her mentor, associate professor Major Jackson, echoing Walt Whitman to explain the unexpected range of talent and achievement from this first-generation college student, a junior English major from Vergennes. “Probably one of the defining characteristics of an artist is that they contain multiple selves,” says Jackson, a poet and Guggenheim fellow. “Alexandria’s art becomes a means by which she is able to constructively and imaginatively engage those various sides.”

Hall -- as poet -- was recently awarded a 2014 Beinecke Scholarship, one of the most prestigious graduate fellowships in the U.S., its purpose to support students who show great promise in the humanities, fine arts and social sciences. One of only 20 Beinecke fellows in the country, she will receive $34,000 in funding which she plans to use toward a joint MFA and Ph.D., continuing a creative and scholarly life.

As a songwriter and musician Hall has distinguished herself as well, a Seven Days reviewer once dubbing her “the queen of woozy soul.” She took a year off from her studies to tour the country, including music festivals in New York City and Austin, performing her solo electro-pop under the name tooth ache. (That’s two words, lower case, period at the end, though she says she’s not as insistent about it as she used to be.)

Hall recently released a music video for her song “Matador,” an experience she loved, not surprisingly, with the emphasis more on artistry of production rather than onstage performance, where she has to overcome that innate reserve. She admits that she used to perform without her contact lenses to distance herself from the audience, though she’s learning to relax. Music, Hall says, is not her main focus any more, but nor is it going away. “Even if I wanted to stop I couldn’t really,” she says. “It’s what I do. I don’t know how not to.”

Within the multitudes that distinguish Hall is also a facility for foreign language. She calls herself proficient in Spanish, which she learned purely through immersion during a study abroad year in Ecuador after high school. But Hall’s passion is for German, which she’ll be studying intensively at the Middlebury Language School this summer.

“I’ve always been interested in language for the sounds and the textures of it -- English too,” she says, “but I like studying other languages because I think the ways in which they’re ordered and ruled are really interesting and I just feel like different languages help with different perspectives.” Certain poems she writes, therefore, are laced with Spanish phrases.

Delving in the deep

“I totally remember being startled by some of the earliest poems she brought to class,” Jackson says of Hall’s work. “They felt layered with various intelligences. I could tell she was a reader but also that she had life experiences that set her work apart.”

Hall was, in fact, a reader: she recalls as a kid, riding all day alongside her dad in tractors and trucks on the goat farm where he lived and the dairy farm nearby, her head deep in books. It’s a telling image. Hall’s parents have both been mechanics, among other occupations; her mother went to technical school, making her way in a male-dominated field. It makes sense that she might have pushed for a “head-out-of-the-clouds” focus for her daughter. “My parents have always excelled in fields that require spatial, kinetic intelligences,” Hall says. “I always stuck out as the one with different interests or skill sets.”

Still, she had a grandfather who noticed her interest in language from an early age. “He used to teach me about morphology and etymology as he puttered around, painting my mom’s house,” she says. And she had another grandfather who would make up stories with her that her grandmother would later put in type. Hall also credits a third grade teacher who made the class memorize poems and particularly a writing teacher at the alternative high school she attended for encouraging her to pursue what she loved. “I was always stubborn enough,” she says, “to do that my way, even if it seemed like I was taking a weird or roundabout path -- like taking time off to tour and record music.” Stubborn maybe, but exceedingly disciplined.

“Alexandria,” says Jackson, who accepted her to study with him independently, “has an enormous amount of talent but there seemed to be another quality to her which is that she was always willing to listen to my advice. A lot of young writers seem wedded to their first or second drafts. It made me a better teacher. I had to give her increasingly complicated assignments.”

Yet she’s not obviously hungry, Jackson notes, as other students often are. Hall appears to have an almost enigmatic drive that Huck Gutman, professor of English, captures in his recommendation letter supporting her Beinecke: “She takes charge of, and responsibility for, her education, and she pushes herself to deeper knowledge and ever-greater understanding,” he writes. “Her commitment to her own maturation is remarkable.”

But if it sounds overly serious it’s not. Jackson notes a certain whimsy in her work that he finds exciting to see from a student. There’s no doubt that she’s willing to take risks. For Hall, the thread between her pursuits is communication and expression. “It’s just trying to find some way to get at that because it’s really difficult,” she says. “It’s trying to get to a place of understanding, to create connections.” Essentially, the work of an artist, tackled with everything she’s got.  

 

Seeing Chinatown at the Main Street Landing Movie House
by Alexandria Hall

There’s a ripple in the screen. It’s not a proper movie theater,
only once a week people mill in by donation to catch
Faye Dunaway in riding pants, or with her finger waves unraveling,
crying, My sister. My daughter. I watched it for the first time

once a week. People milled in by donation only to catch
me. I was in bed, smoking a cigarette, grabbing the sheet between my toes
crying, My sister. My daughter. Watching for the first time,
her final note: a horn played with a long fermata. Cue soprano scream.

Me, I was in bed, smoking a cigarette, grabbing the sheet between my toes,
breathless, as she spilled out of the car. Here the rippled screen distorts it,
her final note: a horn played with a long fermata and the soprano scream
distorted. The image is projected correctly until it meets the convex.

Breathless, she spills out of the car. Hear the rippled distortion
pinging in the theater speakers. Watch Nicholson’s nose meet a wrinkle
that distorts the image. Projected correctly until it meets the convex
surface, the reel clicks rapidly through the machine. The ripple is subtle.

Pinging in the theater speakers, a knife carves into Nicholson’s nose a wrinkle.
I cringe and crinkle into my seat. I, too, am distorted by
the surface. My reel clicks rapidly through the machine. The ripple is subtle –
how it changes slightly from alone in bed to alone in this theater

where I cringe and crinkle into my seat. I, too, am distorted by
glasses in a koi pond, by headlights in the reservoir,
changing slightly from alone in bed to alone in here.
It’s not a proper movie theater.