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Khadra then immediately catches the crowd's interest by declaring that he does not agree with the basic premise of the panel, because, he says, he spent his life trying to rise above the perceived limitations of being "an African writer", only to find that he is now "stuck back in Africa". He states that this type of categorization amounts to "intellectually subcontracting". Since we're only about two minutes into the panel at this point, it's clear that Yasmina Khadra is here to make his presence felt.
As the panel progresses, in fact, it becomes more generally clear that Yasmina Khadra has got an attitude a mile wide. But I don't mind, since these festival panels often suffer from over-politeness, and it happens that Khadra is capable of delivering eloquent, poetic answers to questions about the concept of home, about language, about the importance of place (though he has to scoff at each question first). By the end of the event, Khadra reveals that it's not this panel but the American war in Iraq that makes him angry. He succeeds in making a very positive impression on the crowd, and I'm going to read his The Swallows of Kabul (I am worried, though, that he's going to beat up a cabdriver or a waiter before the night is over).
American-born Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala, author of the acclaimed Beasts of No Nation, is as placid as Khadra is rude, speaking of his unique use of "pidgin English" in his work, and reading from a new work in progress (directly from his laptop computer) that will prove, he hopes, that he is capable of writing about something other than child soldiers.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, born in Zanzibar and currently living in England, is soft-spoken and thoughtful and doesn't mind trying to speculate about how Africa's unique history and frequent civil turmoil affects its literary identity.
Young graphic novelist Marguerite Abouet has a warm and unpretentious style, and she begins her self-introduction by marvelling at the fact that she is here on this panel when only two years ago she was living an obscure life as a legal assistant. Her Aya is yet another book I'm looking forward to checking out.
I race out of the Instituto Cervantes to get to the Donnell Library where Dave Eggers and Valentino Achak Deng are speaking about their book What Is The What, which Eggers composed from Deng's experiences in Sudan. Obviously unaware of Eggers' star power (or is it Deng's?), I'm surprised to find a nearly hysterical crowd scene outside the library as non-ticket-holders jockey for standing-room positions. I can't generalize about all the events in this festival, but every one I've been to has been surprisingly well-attended.
The Eggers/Deng presentation gets off to an exciting start when Valentino Achak Deng proudly announces his news: he became a citizen of the United States of America just yesterday. He shows the crowd his new certificate of citizenship (to happy applause) and quizzes us with the questions he was asked, like "When was the Constitution written?" (most in the crowd say "1776", I try "1789", but Deng informs us it was 1787).
Unfortunately, though, it's all downhill after this exciting beginning, because Eggers and Deng seem a bit tired of their ongoing road show, and fail to light any literary sparks. The problem here is structural: Dave Eggers is playing the role of moderator, prodding Deng to tell stories, but it's clear that Eggers already knows the answer to every question he's asking (e.g., Eggers asks "Was it hard to leave any of your family members behind in Sudan?" so that Deng can tell the story of how it was hard to leave his family members behind in Sudan). Like the Beatles in 1970, this team needs to be broken up, and I have no doubt that either Dave Eggers or Valentino Achak Deng could do a better presentation on his own than they are currently capable of doing together.
Moderate complaints aside, my Friday sessions at PEN World Voices leave me feeling excited about the state of African literature and eager to read every one of these writers more. Based on the evidence presented today, contemporary African literature is thriving, and there's a lot I want to dig more deeply into.
My festival-going today will include a rare appearance by Patti Smith and Sam Shepard together at the Bowery Ballroom (the fact that Smith and Shepard are not only former artistic partners-in-crime but also former lovers may provide some extra chemistry at this event). I'll certainly be writing a report on this tomorrow.
After a quick Russian-doll-like unpacking of introductions (Esther Allen introduces Dedi Felman who introduces Margo Jefferson) we hear Marilynne Robinson recite Children of the Sky, a dreamily tragic prose poem by Seno Gumira Ajidarma of Indonesia. This contrasts nicely with the irreverent next piece, an excerpt from Revulsion by Horacio Castellanos Moya of El Salvador in which a couple of citizens critique their nation's grand monuments (one of which looks like a giant urinal).
I'm not sure of the title of Haitian author Dany Laferriere's story, which he reads in a deep gravelly rumble (he finally gives up on his attempt to read in English, and Dedi Felman gamely joins him to complete the reading). We then travel to China, where the esteemed Ma Jian and his interpreter treat us to a Where Are You Running To?, first in Chinese and then in English (interestingly, as his interpreter notes, the English version of the same piece somehow adds up to a much longer text). I'm intrigued enough by this piece, and by Ma Jian's soulful countenance, that I can't help buying a copy of his book Stick Out Your Tongue (I'll let you know how I like it later). I'm also intrigued by Jian's comment that he did not know, until he arrived in America, that there was such a thing as a "live reading" in which an author recites from his or her own work. The concept, he says, does not exist among Chinese writers.
The globe-trotting continues as Heidi Julavits presents a very affecting and lyrical piece, Vietnam. Thursday. by Johan Harstad of Norway, followed by a performance of the first few pages of African Psycho by Alain Mabanckou (who I also enjoyed hearing at the Town Hall event yesterday). I'm not sure how to place this powerful and sinister novel (about a wannabe serial murderer who idolizes a more famous murderer who once terrorized his city) in the context of African literature, but I catch top and bottom notes of Camus, Dostoevsky and Edgar Allen Poe in these clever words. I get a chance to chat with Mabanckou after the event, and I ask if he's aware of Bret Easton Ellis's similarly-titled American Psycho. Mabanckou smiles conspiratorially and says that, yes, he is fully aware of both the book and the movie.
Indonesia to El Salvador to Haiti to China to Norway to Congo-Brazzaville -- not bad for an hour and a half! You can't help but feel enriched after an event like this.
Salman Rushdie played the host of last year's event as well, and once again I find his MC'ing skills underwhelming. He speaks with grandiose elocution as he delivers mild chuckle lines about turning off cell phones and feeling old among all the young faces in the room. (To my surprise, Rushdie will go on to deliver the best reading of the night, but more about that later).
The presence of Steve Martin on the bill must have presented a conundrum to the event organizers, since the seasoned humorist can obviously blow any mumbling poet or novelist off the stage. The only solution is to put him on first or last, and the organizers wisely place him in the leadoff spot. The event's theme is "Writing Home", so Martin chooses a chapter from his upcoming memoir Born Standing Up that describes his arrival as an unknown comedian in 1965 San Francisco. His performance is great, of course, especially when he acts out some of the material he originally performed in these North Beach nightclubs. The audience loves him, I do too, and I'm looking forward to the publication of Born Standing Up in December.
Pia Tafdrup, a Danish poet, follows Steve Martin with a few gentle poems about her mother and father. Next is a rare appearance by Don Delillo, who reads a scene from his new Falling Man in which the novel's taciturn hero visits his apartment near the wreckage of the World Trade Center. I'm not surprised to discover that Delillo reads with an unsmiling demeanor and a gravelly voice that complements his written work well.
Delillo is followed by Russian novelist Tatyana Tolstoya (yes, there is some relation, though she is not a direct descendant of Count Leo), who reads a moving narrative, complete with "suffocating stars". Iraqi poet Saadi Youssef makes a strong impression on the crowd, especially when he seems to become lost in reflection while reading about being lost in Paris.
I'm excited to see Kiran Desai, who acts out the charming Chinese-restaurant delivery scene from The Inheritance of Loss. Desai turns out to be a terrific reader, emoting delightfully along with her characters as she reads their words. She's the first performer of the night to actually "project", which makes a big difference in a theater this large.
The best-dressed writer of the night is Alain Mabanckou, a novelist born in Congo-Brazzaville, who looks great in a long white coat and cloth cap. I've been reading a translation of his African Psycho that's just been published by Soft Skull. African Psycho is a bitter and clever tour de force about a devious murderer, with a strong and quirky narrative voice that loudly recalls Albert Camus. I'm therefore surprised when Mabanckou's English translator delivers a gentle, scenic poem that seems completely removed from the violent satire of his novel. But even his smirk belies his scenic words as the translator reads, and I have a feeling this novelist knows exactly what impression he wants to deliver to this crowd.
Neil Gaiman saunters to the mic to much applause, and reads first a dull piece about travelling abroad on July 4th, then a good second-person piece about what to do if you find yourself inside a fairy tale ("If a creature tells you it's hungry, feed it").
Nadine Gordimer is impressive in the penultimate slot, speaking first about the crisis of political and economic refugess in the world right now, then reading a story narrated by an 11-year-old from Mozambique seeking refuge in South Africa. Gordimer is followed by Salman Rushdie, who finally unleashes his considerable talent. His "The Ground Beneath Our Feet" points out that humans have always located themselves on earth by looking to the east, and that words like "orientation" and "disoriented" are rooted in the concept of "the orient". He then asks what it would feel like to allow ourselves to become completely disoriented, to "let go", to exist without moorings, and then as we ponder this he lets us know that we will never find out, because we are afraid. It's a beguiling, melodic performance, a crowd-husher, and I am thrilled to finally discover what Salman Rushdie can do with an audience.
Wednesday night's "big show" ends on a satisfying note, but there is much more PEN World Voices to come.
This is the work of The Movement Group, a very original dance troupe founded by a young woman named Aynsley Vandenbroucke. She conceived and choreographed this 50-minute work, which begins tensely as Dawn Springer, Djamila Moore and Kristen Warnick take tentative steps around a wide floor, muttering the poem's opening lines, "Let us go then, you and I." Typing paper appears as the first symbolic element, as the dancers box themselves in with stacks of blank pages and try fitfully to sleep, until one of them has a burst of inspiration and sends a jet of white papers flying into the air. But moods change again, and they sadly sweep the mess up, embarrassed. Two of the dancers engage in a hilarious dual-voiced pastiche while spinning coffee cups, and eventually the three dancers curl up like crabs, become old, turn into crashing waves and then into spinning mermaids, attempt to hug and touch each other, and finally find peace, falling asleep in three separate spots on the floor.
I am no expert in modern dance, but I found the experience dazzling. I got a chance to ask Aynsley Vandenbroucke a few questions about this work in an email interview this week:
Where did the idea come from? Have other choreographers done work like this?
Well, actually someone (Ariane Anthony) created a dance/theater piece based on "Prufrock" a few years ago. I didn't get to see it, but her work is really interesting. I was annoyed when I found out she was doing it, because I'd had this piece in mind for a few years. For a while, I thought I shouldn't go ahead and make mine because she'd just done one. But then this year, I realized I really needed to make it. And that it would be my own take and style anyways.
Another choreographer I can think of is Alexandra Beller. I think she did a piece related to Sartre's "No Exit". I can't think of other pieces in dance that are built around particular poems or existing works of writing, but I'm sure they exist.
Working on this piece also brought home strong similarities between the art forms of poetry and modern dance. I felt like they're both working with images and essences in a way that is very experiential and not necessarily linear. I think that way of working is the beauty of both forms and also what sometimes makes them hard for new audiences.
Can you tell me about your own personal encounter with T. S. Eliot's poem?
I first read the poem senior year in high school. We had to memorize and recite a few lines for the class. At the time, I thought the memorizing assignment was silly. But then the poem really stayed in my head... I would find myself repeating lines and thinking about it regularly. When I think back on it, it was a lovely poem to have people read as they're about to leave home and high school. It was a time when we were all asking questions, wondering what to do with our lives, how to find meaning.
The poem has always touched me deeply. Here is this man experiencing the nuances and concerns that I feel. They're not so wierd or unusual and they're not made pretty in a fake way. I've always been particularly pierced by the lines about "one turning her head should say, 'That is not what I meant at all, that is not it at all'." This human (and artistic) experience of trying to share what is inside, to be met.
When I first heard that your piece dramatized Eliot's poem with three women dancers, I was wondering what role gender would play. Of course, Eliot's poem is about a man who sees women as somewhat alien -- and yet in your poem it seems the women *are* T. S. Eliot (or, to be more precise, they are J. Alfred Prufrock). Was this gender switch part of the meaning of the work, for you, or was it an incidental choice?
My company is generally all women, just because that's the way it's worked out, not for any particular statement. I too was curious how we would deal with these beautiful young women being parts of Prufrock. At the same time, what I wanted to explore was human experiences that I think transcend gender. I've always related to Prufrock and I've always read his concerns as more universal, fundamental than being about a particular man relating, trying to relate to a woman. We had some interesting discussions in rehearsal about Eliot and his relationship with women. But again, I felt that what he is getting to in the poem is much bigger.
I understand that you are involved in Buddhism (as I am as well, and as T. S. Eliot was too). Do you see "Prufrock" as in any sense a Buddhist-themed work, a meditation upon "desire", and did this play a role in your conceptualizing of the dance?
Yes! For me "Prufrock" is deeply related to a Buddhist focus on awareness of life and death. If I am aware of the preciousness of my life and that it is going to end, I want to make sure I spend every minute of it taking advantage of being alive. Prufrock seems aware of time slipping away and yet he is not quite able to take charge of how he is going to spend it. I find myself constantly checking in during my every day life. Am I worrying about parting my hair? Am I worrying about eating a peach? Is this the way I want to spend my life? If I've only got a short amount of time, how do I want to spend it and what kinds of risks make it worth living?
I've written elsewhere on LitKicks about The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. We each have our own favorite poems in the world; this is mine. In fact, the only other poem I like nearly as much is Eliot's later, longer The Waste Land, which has much in common with Prufrock (both deal with the dread of sexual intimacy, both are "purgative" works infused with nearly pathological honesty, and both personify human beings as cities, and cities as human beings).
If Aynsley Vandenbroucke and her talented dancers ever decide to take on The Waste Land, I'll be there on opening night. Till then, try to catch this show while you can.
I attended an interesting display of speed poetry last night at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two acclaimed practitioners of the verse form, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. An eager audience of literati, blogerati and peoplorati had gathered to watch, quietly munching on grapes and cheese or sipping wine, as the two poets nervously typed into laptops connected to QuickMuse.com. The odd experiment made for a good evening of spoken word, and the finished poems aren't bad at all.
2. FSG Poetry is going wacky with a live speed-writing contest on April 16 at the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, New York featuring two poets who are quite esteemed, Paul Muldoon and Brad Leithauser. It's a co-production with Quickmuse.com. This should be something. I'll be there.
3. Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach is getting raves, though Mark Sarvas is skeptical. I caught a preview of this novel at Hunter College a few months ago, and I've been looking forward to the rest of it ever since.
4. I like the excerpt of Don Delillo's soon-to-be-released novel that's excerpted in the current New Yorker, though this time it's Ed Champion who's skeptical. I enjoy some Don Delillo more than other Don Delillo, but I've got hopes for this new book based on the first sample.
5. Chuck Pahlaniuk's eighth novel, Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey hits the stores on May 1. This I'm excited about.
6.There's another literary-minded actor in The Office. Perhaps in emulation of his onscreen rival John Krasinski, who has been working on a film of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, Riann Wilson is appearing in a Shakespeare Marathon at Hunter College in New York City this Thursday, April 9 at 6:30 at the Lenny Kaye Playhouse.
7. "I write against Gabriel Garcia Marquez". Brave guy. Alvaro Enrigue at Words Without Borders.
8. The meaning of markets and branding.
8. Douglas Hofstadter is back.
9. What is it that makes a rock songwriter "literary"? I don't know, but whatever that thing is that Patti Smith has and Bob Dylan has, Neil Young has it too. He's just released a vault recording of a legendary and much-bootlegged acoustic concert from 1971, Live at Massey Hall. This journey through the past offers many revelations, like a bouncy take on the Brautigan-esque "On The Way Home" and an incisive, keening "Cowgirl in the Sand". An intimate version of "There's A World" emerges as possibly the most personal statement on this classic recording.
10. It was ten years ago today (also see Silliman).
This mammoth tale of betrayal and human folly is running at the Public Theater in Greenwich Village, New York right now in a James Lapine production, and you better believe I ran out to get tickets the minute I heard Kevin Kline would be playing the lead. I love King Lear, though I'm not always sure why.
It's a difficult play. Unlike Hamlet, which presents a clear howl of existential rage, King Lear lurches, cries and mumbles through a ragged plot, a woolly tapestry of pre-medieval succession struggles that doesn't really make sense (there was a true King Leir, though this play mangles his story). This is Shakespeare at his least articulate, but that's not always a bad thing, since you can have a great time discerning (or inventing) metaphysical meanings for many aspects of this play.
The plot follows two separate narrative threads, both involving elderly parents with good and bad kids. I'll try to briefly summarize the two plots here.
First, there's King Lear and his three daughters. The play opens at a royal banquet where the elderly Lear is planning to divide his kingdom equally between the three. Kline plays the King as a proud and impulsive wounded animal, smarter than he is wise, and a heavy drinker. At the banquet, Lear suddenly banishes Cordelia for speaking truthfully to him while Regan and Goneril flatter him with bad poetry. He casts her away, along with another of his trusted advisers, and divides his kingdom between Regan and Goneril, who proceed to scheme against him and each other until nearly everybody is dead. Towards the end (and before the part where everybody gets dead), Lear has a brief reunion with Cordelia, the one child who has truly loved him all along.
The story of Lear and his daughters could have been a play in itself. But then there's the Duke of Gloucester and his two sons, Edgar (who is noble but gullible) and Edmund (an evil semi-outcast bastard, literally). Edmund fabricates evidence that Edgar is hiding weapons of mass destruction, and Gloucester completely falls for the ploy and attempts to arrest Edgar, who escapes, leaves town and covers himself with dirt to impersonate a madman. Gloucester later joins King Lear in the battle against Regan and Goneril and is caught and blinded (on stage, with much fake blood) by his enemies. A war ensues between Edgar (the good guy) and Edmund (the bad guy). Edgar and Cordelia join forces near the white cliffs of Dover, and they triumph over evil in the end, though by this time virtually everybody but Edgar is dead.
Two remarkable long tableaus form the dramatic core of this play, and I was very curious to see how director James Lapine would handle these key scenes. The first is the storm at the end of Act One, after the ungrateful daughters Regan and Goneril cast King Lear out of their castle along with a local "fool" and a couple of village ruffians who have joined Lear's entourage. The vision of the raging King, the sanguine fool and the helpless clowns splayed out on a stage floor as thunder blasts and fake-rain curtains shake should wash over the audience like a glorious hurricane of metaphors, and that's what I came to the Public Theater to see. I'm happy to report that Kevin Kline and his fellow performers handle the famous storm scene beautifully, and watching it is certainly the greatest pleasure of the night for me.
In this play's other flagship scene, young honest-son Edgar has found the Duke of Gloucester wandering in agony, having recently had both eyes gouged out with a knife. Gloucester wants to kill himself, so Edgar tricks his father by taking him to the Dover cliffs and walking him out to the edge. Edgar allows Gloucester to "kill himself" by leaping over the cliff, but Edgar has not actually taken him to the edge, so Gloucester simply falls on his face and passes out. Edgar then pretends to his awakened father that he has miraculously survived a fall. In Larry Bryggman's and Brian Avers's quiet hands, this father-son scene is a marvel of tenderness and forgiveness.
Kristen Bush is likable as the too-smart for-her-own good Cordelia, and Logan Marshall-Green stands out as a slacker Edmund the Bastard. But a production of King Lear will live or die by its most symbolic character, the fool, and scrawny Philip Goodwin is a standout in this role. Like Puck in A Midsummer Night's Dream, this character has no will or motivation of his own except the will to always tell his King the truth. He speaks mainly in bawdy songs and riddles, and I'd be lying to you if I said I understood half of the jokes Shakespeare wrote for this great character. But the fool's comic sensibility neatly balances the portentous heaviness of the play's main plot, and provides several of the best moments. Maybe the reason King Lear is a better play than Macbeth or Othello is that King Lear has a fool and Macbeth and Othello don't.
Find a ticket to this show if you can. It won't be easy (it's near sold out), and it won't be cheap. But it's a fabulous night of theatre, and a hell of a lot better than that most of that Disney crap they're running up on Times Square.
I'm in the Brooklyn home of Danny Simmons, artist, novelist, poet and creator of HBO's groundbreaking Def Poetry. Danny's living room is like an art gallery -- no, it's like three art galleries all packed together in one room, and the good-natured eclectic chaos I see around me reminds me of the welcoming attitude of the long-running TV show I'm here to ask Danny about.
Danny doesn't seem to care if anybody thinks of him as a media mover-and-shaker or not, but the facts speak for themselves: the only successful TV show about poetry ever created has just begun its sixth season on HBO. But Def Poetry wasn't born from a business plan or a power-lunch napkin sketch. It grew and evolved out of a nucleus of Danny's friends, who would gather and perform open mic's at art galleries (visual art seems to be Danny's original passion) in the early 1990's.
The industry is buzzing about chick-lit again. I don't know much about this whole phenomenon, except in a strange way I do, because I was raised on chick-lit. As a kid in the 1970s, the first grownup books I read (and really enjoyed) were the racy, funny and wise novels that my grandmother, my mother and my older sister left lying around the house. These books had a big influence on me, and I wonder if the chick-lit of today could possibly be as good.
Bob Dylan was in fine form at the Nassau Coliseum. I guess I've seen him about 16 or 17 times (it's always different, you know), and tonight's show was one of the 3 or 4 best. Dylan's mood was upbeat, and the evening's rotation was well-chosen. "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" must have been for Iraq, or at least that's the way it seemed to me. "High Water Risin'" didn't need a Cliff's Notes either. Anybody who thinks Dylan doesn't do protest songs anymore is wrong; he's just a bit underhanded about it.
Other lyrics he graced us with include "Maggie's Farm", "Visions of Johanna", "When The Deal Goes Down", "Tangled Up In Blue", "She Belongs To Me", "Ballad of a Thin Man", "Honest With Me", "Highway 61", "Like A Rolling Stone", "All Along The Watchtower" and "Spirit on the Water", which includes this intriguing koan:
Have you seen a ghost? No!
But you have heard of them
The show felt surprisingly intimate, particularly so because we were in a large hockey rink. The opening act was the Raconteurs, featuring Jack White. They complement Dylan well, and in fact when their show started they reminded me of the Band (though by the end they reminded me of Crazy Horse, which is probably better). Oh, and Jack White sure can play guitar.
Don't forget to check back for my big report on the Existence of God tomorrow, by lunch time if I'm lucky.