Leaving with a bang (and one last poetry slam)

Arts journalist, en route to New York City, plans going-away music festival for this weekend

BELLOWS FALLS — There comes a time in every artist's life when assessments need to be made, and directions chosen and changed.

Chicago-born dynamo Clara Rose Thornton, whose work has appeared in numerous regional publications, is moving on to greener pastures: New York City.

Thornton, who bills herself as a film, wine, and visual arts critic, music journalist, and editor, is pulling out all the stops this weekend and in a grand thank-you gesture, is producing the Rose Harvest Midwinter Festival.

The two-day event will be “a celebration of all the connections I've made here and their harvests,” said Thornton, whose southern Vermont arts column appeared every other week in the Rutland Herald and who served as a staffer for Southern Vermont Arts and Living, a quarterly arts and lifestyle magazine in Dummerston.

Thornton's numerous freelance writing contributions have also included a number of pieces for The Commons.

“I'm indebted to the New England publishing world,” she said, but “it's time to court bigger publications.”

The festival starts Friday with the last Vice and Verses, the open-mic poetry venue that she founded. Vice and Verses will take place at the Exner Block's Project 9 Space at 9 Canal St. from 6 to 9 p.m.

And this Saturday, Dec. 17, the main event takes place at Brattleboro's Stone Church, with music from 8 p.m. until 2 a.m.

The festival will feature hip-hop/reggae fusion by the Alchemystics from Northampton; organic electronica by Jeff Bujak, also of Northampton; and soul/jazz by Brattleboro-based Groove Shoes, a band whose performers Thornton calls “local favorites.”

The musicians will perform alongside performance poets and painters painting a “ragein' celebration of thanks,” she said, to the communities and people who both supported and gave her writing experience while living and working in southern Vermont.

An urban, upper-middle-class, African-American from Chicago, Thornton's father was a jazz drummer and social worker for the the city of Chicago, and her mother was the administrative assistant for Greater Bethesda Missionary Baptist Church on 57th Street, deep in Chicago's South Side.

Thornton says her neighborhood was not what you typically think of in the South Side of Chicago.

“We didn't have much, but we put on a good show,” Thornton said. “People often thought we were better off than we were.”

Having begun writing poetry as a very young girl and co-writing sermons with her Baptist preacher grandfather, Thornton found herself editing an arts journal while a student at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she graduated in 2003 with a bachelor of arts in philosophy and film studies.

“I wanted to be a film critic to pay the bills, and eventually make my own films,” Thornton mused.

Instead, Thornton's underlying passion of providing cultural analysis via her writing manifested for her here in Vermont just three years ago.

She started the journey at 22, as the youngest editor at a general interest textbook publishing company in Chicago, one of only three African-Americans in the firm.

“I hit the ground running,” she said.

But “the work I was assigned started to feel stale,” she said. “I was reporting to this cubicle every day, but I wasn't really connected to the written word.”

“After two years at job, I was told if I would promise to stay on board, I could become an editor of a big NY publishing house,” Thornton said.

But that wasn't her dream.

Instead, “I gave up my job and apartment and decided to spend one year of travel with an eye in mind for a small creatively supportive community in a natural landscape within which to settle down and create,” Thornton said.

She said she had a “little nest egg of 10k,” but “that doesn't last long when you're on the road.”

She intended to work as a volunteer farm hand for the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farm (WWOOF) program, but her first experience in the town of Arundel, Quebec (population 600) in the Canadian Laurentians turned her off.

“The farmer wasn't officially in the WWOOF program, and he totally misrepresented himself,” she said.

Thornton said she was working 10-hour days for a farmer whose behavior was unacceptable.

“I left a scathing note on the door and threw the key [to the room] into the bushes, and got the heck out of there,” she said. “The librarian was the only person I knew in town, and she agreed to take me to the closest town with a bus station.”

Thornton, like many urbanites, never learned to drive and does not own a car.

Was she scared when she found herself in a potentially dangerous situation?

“I've traveled and been on the road enough, and grew up on the South Side of Chicago, and I know when something is developing into a situation,” she said. “If I hadn't listened to my intuition and gotten out of there when I did, I have no doubt something would've happened.”

Thornton looked around for other WWOOF opportunities, and after spending some time in Burlington and then in Rutland, found an opportunity in Bellows Falls.

She began living and working at Basin Farm in Westminster, one of 12 farms owned by the Twelve Tribes, which describes itself as a messianic religious community.

Former members of the Twelve Tribes have documented the sect's teachings that include the belief that people of color are destined to be enslaved by caucasian people.

One morning, a few weeks after Thornton arrived, one of the Twelve Tribes members made a racist statement about African-Americans “and our place in the world, and how we couldn't expect any more than that.”

Thornton said she was out of there within the hour.

“I went straight to Bellows Falls and discovered the Exner Block 'for artists' – and realized this was exactly what I had set out looking for.”

'I'd found what I was looking for'

Thornton said she was only six months into her year of travel she'd set out on, but when she “found a small, creative, supportive community in a natural landscape within which to settle down and create” in the small river community, “I knew I'd found what I was looking for.”

“I made a list of all the local and regional publications and started sending out pitches,” Thornton said.

Among her first assignments was a memoir of her experience living and working for the Twelve Tribes in Bellows Falls, which was published in the June 2009 issue of The Commons.

Thornton then got enough work with several Vermont and New Hampshire publications as a freelance arts journalist and critic “to pay the bills.”

But as much as Thornton has found her passion again and given it free rein, building a good foundation here in Vermont, “It's time to light off into a new terrain, see where I can take this,” she said.

Thornton feels “incredibly grateful” for the opportunities she has gotten while here, but “after reporting on the music and arts scene for three years, you've pretty much covered what's there.”

New York City offers a “broader range of artists and audiences” and Thornton says that is what she needs right now.

“I want to have that sense of vitality and buzz around me,” Thornton said of being in New York. “I'm a city girl with the heart of a country girl, but I do get that urban itch to be around more stimulated people doing the things I'm doing or trying to do.”

Thornton plans to spend a month or more after this weekend's festivities, getting things ready for her arrival in the city by the end of January.

“I don't go until I've got everything set up, a place to live, a part-time job,” she said.

Duty to readers

Thornton described her admiration for beat poet Allen Ginsberg. “I admire him so much,” she said. “He didn't compromise his vision and kept on creating it in spite of opposition and misunderstanding.”

Thornton said that she began to see her passion as a gift and feels like she's following in Ginsberg's footsteps, fulfilling a “duty to portray that as an artist, not to take shortcuts or sidesteps. Don't trim.”

That duty includes showing readers “entry points into a person's work in the arts,” she said.

“I've always been inspired and influenced by great writing,” Thornton said. “If I can add my tiny drop to that bucket and just one other girl gets inspired in the way I was inspired, that's my goal.”

Now, at 30, Thornton's “passion” to write has taken root.

“Now I have a foundation on which to build,” Thornton says of her writing time in southern Vermont. “I could get any job I want with a high-end publishing company, I know it,” Thornton said, “but that isn't what I want to do. I'm going to work part-time to pay the bills, and going to pitch some of the bigger publications in person, with stories I want to write. I don't what you'd call it - drive, assertiveness, ambition - but I got it. That's what's taking me to New York. Every artist has to go there.”

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