"A slight Southern fetish, mixed with fear": Sufjan Stevens on his favorite writers

On Monday, Rick Moody talked with Sufjan Stevens and Wesley Stace about literature and music at the second PENultimate Lit event. The full audio should be up on the main PEN site soon, but in the meantime, you can watch short clips filmed by a few of the many Sufjan fans who were in the audience. In this one, Sufjan talks about his favorite writers, who are largely from the South-- Flannery O'Connor, Tennessee Williams, William Faulkner:

Sufjan's Illinois album, lent to me by one of our generous interns, reminds me more of the great Winesburg, Ohio than any other book I can think of-- and, indeed, at the very beginning of the clip, you can hear Sufjan briefly mention his fondness for Sherwood Anderson.

He also told a funny story about sending a short story to Harper's magazine back when he was writing fiction. Sufjan did an MFA at the New School; his thesis, he told the crowd on Monday, consisted of short stories set in two fictional Michigan towns (some of those stories, he said, led to the songs on his Michigan album). His story was rejected, and scrawled in hand on the standard rejection letter was a note that said, "Harper's fiction is impenetrable. Do not send any more stories." He appreciated the personal attention.

By the way, at the end of the clip above, you'll see links to two short clips from Sufjan's solo acoustic set at the event. And if you click here, you'll get moderator Rick Moody's thoughts on Flannery O'Connor, published in PEN America 2: Home & Away.

Update: The audio of the event is now online (along with some lovely photographs by Beowulf Sheehan).


"The Noble Beast": Joshua Furst on the courage of Norman Mailer

In the third of our end-of-year tributes to recently departed literary giants, Joshua Furst makes the case for Norman Mailer's importance-- to literature and to the culture at large. Mailer was a major figure in the history of PEN, and you can read other tributes and reminiscences here.

Joshua Furst published his first novel,
The Sabotage Café, in August. He is also the author of a short story collection, Short People, which Jay McInerney described as "scary, funny, brilliantly observed."

One of Norman Mailer’s great subjects—as the headline of his New York Times obituary so hostilely noted—was his ego. His ego and its discontents. This led, naturally, to an inconsistency in the work he produced—a sometimes embarrassing grandiosity, a sense that he was in love with his public platform and testing the limits of what it would withstand—that left him open to legions of jeers, scoffs and dismissive chuckles. What people often forget about him, though, is that despite—or maybe because of—his misses, when he did hit his punches landed with great force.

It’s hard to condone some of his more outrageous stances. His homophobia and sexism, the way he fetishized African Americans, so many of his ramblings read even worse, more naïve, less defensible today than they did when he wrote them. And they often came off pretty badly the first time around. He didn’t seem to mind.

At times, he appeared to be courting the ire of, as he would have it, “his public.” He’d say anything, piss anyone off, search out the most scandalous position he could muster and then wait, smirking, for the counterattacks. Or so it seemed. In fact, as frequently as not, he provided his enemies with their arguments against him, chiding and flaying his own persona as ruthlessly as he did everything else. For, what can be said about Norman Mailer that he hasn’t already said himself in copious detail? He published thousands upon thousands of pages, a great many of which were dedicated to the analysis of his own strengths and weaknesses, his appetites, his hatreds, his attempts to outpace the hard fact of his own mortality, his habit of sabotaging the public image he so doggedly groomed. He knew who he was and he neither allowed the threat of repercussions to silence him nor shirked them when they came. This, I believe, took courage.

All of which is exactly why he was such an indispensable voice in American letters and the culture at large. If Mailer often willingly played the buffoon, he did so with the knowledge that this was a sure way for him to slip free of the tyranny of his own fame.

Through the confluence of good writing and impeccable timing, he found fame early and realized soon after that this fame threatened to make him irrelevant, to brand him and box him in and squelch any relevance his future work might contain. So he made an existential choice: knowing full well that the journalists and ad-men, the publicists and politicians and marketeers and everyone else who believed more in sustaining the march of capital than in the freedom of the human spirit, would never forgive him for it, he unleashed his rabid nature, what he called in The Armies of the Night, his “beast.” He liberated himself from the expectations of his fame. This, too, took courage.

By loudly, publicly refusing to be accountable to anyone but himself, Norman Mailer was able to carve out a unique vantage from which to observe—and take part in—the national conversation. With his passing, I fear, a certain important animating spirit has disappeared from our national literature. Who among our younger generation of writers would risk his or her reputation and career as gleefully and frequently as Mailer did in his prime? Who among us is willing to rant and swear, and right or wrong, explode with indignation at the tyranny that surrounds us? And wouldn’t we be more vital if there were more brave sons of bitches like Mailer among us.

-- Joshua Furst

Joshua Furst is the author of The Sabotage Café, a novel, and Short People, a collection of stories. He has received fellowships from the James Michener Foundation and The MacDowell Colony, and was awarded the Nelson Algren Award for his short story "Red Lobster." He lives in New York and teaches fiction and playwriting at The Pratt Institute.


“Every gesture is gloved”: Wayne Koestenbaum on Elizabeth Hardwick

Elizabeth Hardwick died just over a week ago, at the age of 91. A great critic and essayist, co-founder of The New York Review of Books, Hardwick was also a long-time PEN member, serving on the board throughout the 1970s, including one year as Vice President.

Wayne Koestenbaum—like Hardwick, a critic and essayist, and also a poet—now serves on the PEN board himself. And those who have read his poem “Observations” (from Best-Selling Jewish Porn Films), in which he dreams of Hardwick correcting his choice of verbs, may already suspect his admiration for Hardwick’s writerly craftiness. I asked him to describe for our readers what he loves about her work, and he replied with this wonderful tribute.

I love Elizabeth Hardwick’s sentences. They’re strange and wayward. They veer. They avoid the point. Sometimes they are specific, but often they grow soft-focused and evasive at the crucial moment. They fuzz out by adopting a tone at once magisterial and muffled. When I was writing my biography of Andy Warhol, I told myself, “Imitate Elizabeth Hardwick.” By that advice, I meant: be authoritative, but also odd.

How to explain or summarize the Hardwickian tone? It offers tenderness where another critic might offer trenchancy. Its every gesture is gloved. From her introduction to The Susan Sontag Reader:
Essays lie all over the land, stored up like the unused wheat of a decade ago in the silos of old magazines and modest collections. In the midst of this clumsy abundance, there are rare lovers of the form, the great lovers being some few who practice it as the romance this dedication can be.
Strange syntax that second sentence has. I love, in this opening salvo, her articles, their proffering of a misleading specificity. “Essays lie all over the land...” Which land? Another piquant “the”: “like the unused wheat of a decade ago...” Her use of this (article? adjective?) astounds: “this clumsy abundance”; “the romance this dedication can be.”

From her essay “Wives and Mistresses,” in Bartleby in Manhattan:
The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives. Footnotes worry a lot. They, loved or unloved, seem to feel the winds of the future always at their back. The graves of the greatly known ones are a challenge to private history...
Everything here is tone, sonorous yet gracefully stumbling, a tone cemented by judicious, generous articles (“the famous,” “a great weight,” “the footnotes of their lives”) and by weird, sudden personification, a metaphor coming alive without warning: “Footnotes worry a lot.” I love, too, the insertion of the appositive “loved or unloved” immediately after the “They” of the second sentence: “They, loved or unloved, seem to feel...” Divorcing “they” from “seem,” she inserts “loved or unloved” like a great raw piece of beef soliciting our appetite.

In her later work, her effects grew bolder. The following, from a 1999 review of Andrew Morton’s Monica’s Story:
The shabby history of the United States in the last year can be laid at the door of three unsavory citizens. President Clinton: shallow, reckless, a blushing trimmer; Monica Lewinsky, aggressive, rouge-lipped exhibitionist; Judge Kenneth Starr, pale, obsessive Pharissee.
Her art there lies in the immortal, cruel epithet, the wine-dark sea of precise excoriation.

Final example, from her novel-which-is-not-a-novel, Sleepless Nights: “Every morning the blue clock and the crocheted bedspread with its pink and blue and gray squares and diamonds.” No verb. She means: “Every morning I wake up to confront the black clock and the crocheted bedspread.” But she omits the seeing, knowing “I,” and she omits the verb. Every morning the blue clock gives forth the bleak yet solacing fragrance that is the Elizabeth Hardwick sentence, worth our careful study.

-- Wayne Koestenbaum

Wayne Koestenbaum, poet and critic, is the author of several books, including the recent Hotel Theory. His biography of Warhol was published in 2001. His tribute to Gertrude Stein appeared in PEN America 5: Silences. He teaches at the CUNY Graduate School.


“Let the Olympic flame burn the prisons of thought down!”

Earlier today-- International Human Rights Day-- PEN President Francine Prose, along with Nelofer Pazira and Zheng Yi (the presidents of PEN Canada and Independent Chinese PEN, respectively) issued a letter to Hu Jintao, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and to Procurator General Mr. Jia Chunwang.
We are writing on behalf of our members and the entire community of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers, to urge you to release 40 of our colleagues who are in prison in your country in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

This past August, China launched a publicity campaign proclaiming “We Are Ready” to host the Olympic Games in August 2008. Today, on the 59th commemoration of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we challenge you to demonstrate that China is in fact ready – not just to stage the Olympics, but to acknowledge, protect, and celebrate the full rights of its citizens.
Read the rest here. They also included case work on those 40 writers, descriptions of which you can read here. More details about this campaign are here. You can also get help writing a letter to the Chinese government or to your US Representative.

Update: Salman Rushdie weighs in. “There are 40 of our colleagues in Chinese prisons who shouldn’t be in prison. It will be an embarrassment for China if even one of them is still in prison when the Games begin next August. There’s only one good number: zero.”

(The title of this post comes from Zheng Yi.)


News & Notes

The Sufjan Stevens/Wesley Stace event at Southpaw, organized and moderated by Rick Moody, has been rescheduled for December 17.

PEN pays tribute to Norman Mailer, with thoughts from Gay Talese and many others.

Also at the main PEN site, a remarkable audio slide show about torture, with voice-over by ACLU attorneys Jameel Jaffer and Amrit Singh.

Government officials in Turkey are promising to reconsider Article 301, which makes "insulting Turkishness" a crime. (Background info here.)

And, as the holidays approach, "ways to give back with books."


Guest Post: Amy Bloom on Tillie and Grace

Ever since its first issue, which included tributes to Virginia Woolf, Italo Calvino, and Jorge Luis Borges, PEN America has paid homage to the great writers of the 20th century, publishing essays and talks about them by some of the great writers of our own day. Extending that tradition to our blog, we're excited to share this tribute by Amy Bloom, author of the critically-acclaimed and best-selling Away, among other books, to two writers who left us this year: Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley. As Bloom notes, both were not only groundbreaking short story writers, but devoted political activists who embodied the mission of PEN.

Az mir leben, muz mir tuun.

As long as we live, we must do the work.

To lose Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley in one year is a bad year, even if a lot of people didn't know it at the time, Tillie Olsen would have said, and she would have been right. To have had them both for so long was a privilege, even if a lot of people didn't know it, Grace Paley would have said. And she would have been right.

If there were ever two people, and not coincidentally at all, two women, who epitomized PEN's goals: advancing literature, defending free speech and fostering connections betweens writers everywhere, Tillie and Grace were it.

I knew Grace Paley, for about seven short years, but I only knew Tillie Olsen by her work and by her life. I knew Tillie Olsen's husband lost his job for his labor organizing work and I had read that Tillie herself was accused of being a Stalinist working to infiltrate the city's school's through the PTA (and she had been a Young Communist and for all I know she was a Stalinist, but I do like the image of Grace and Tillie together as they never were, Nebraska and the Bronx, happy to be out of jail for civil disobedience, happy to be back with their kids, unpacking sandwiches on the playground benches, chatting up a couple of other young mothers and bringing about the Revolution. They did try.)

They were both revolutionary writers, writers who told the stories not only about people no one had seen on the page, but in language no one had constructed before. And they were both women who lived their lives in accordance with their political principles and built their lives, as best they could, around the people they loved: Grace and her Bob and her son and daughter and her beloved grandchildren, Tillie and her handsome Jack, her four daughters and eight grandchildren. And so, they didn't have quite as much time to write as some other people. And they didn't have such large advances. And you never saw their names in glossy magazines, or in a fashion ad, modeling turtlenecks, or writing fiction to promote a new martini. They wrote about the hard lives of working class women: hotel maids, secretaries, salesgirls; and they wrote about all of the world's outsiders; and they wrote about human rights and the obligations of fairness and decency; and they both wrote with language that came from the mouths of real people who struggled; and they wrote durable, innovative, poetic and celebratory sentences, both of them. And as much as Ray Carver and Norman Mailer shaped American fiction and were known for it, Tillie Olsen and Grace Paley shaped the American short story, as if they were God and it was clay, and however much or little known they were for much of their writing lives, the short story itself is now different than it was, because of them, and we know better how we should live and write, because of them.

-- Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom, a member of PEN American Center, has published two novels, two story collections, and a non-fiction book on gender (Normal). The recipient of a National Magazine Award, she has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, and many other publications. She is a practicing psychotherapist and teaches at Yale University.


Baumbach on Baumbach: "The Return of Service"

At the close of the inaugural PENultimate Lit event on November 11, an audience member asked Jonathan and Noah Baumbach a wonderful question: “Is there a moment in the other’s work,” he asked, “that each of you particularly admires?”

Noah-- whose new movie, Margot at the Wedding, opened over the weekend; Jonathan's latest novel is out next week-- mentioned his father’s short story, “The Return of Service,” which I hadn’t read before this weekend, though it has been collected and anthologized multiple times. Here’s how it begins:
I am in a tennis match against my father. He is also the umpire and comes to my side of the court to advise me of the rules. “You have only one serve,” he says. “My advice is not to miss.” I thank him—we have always been a polite family—and wait for his return of the opposing side. Waiting for him to take his place in the sun, I grow to resent the limitation imposed on my game. (Why should he have two serves, twice as many chances, more margin for error?) I bounce the ball, waiting for him—he takes his sweet time, always has—and plan to strike my first service deep to his forehand. And what if I miss, what if ambition overreaches skill? The ordinary decencies of a second chance have been denied me.
Fans of The Squid and the Whale may recall that it, too, opens with father and son (and mother and younger son) playing tennis against each other. (Noah cited his father's story as an inspiration of sorts for this scene.) Christian Lorentzen noted the movie's opening line back when it was still in theaters: "It's Mom and me against you and Dad."

“The Return of Service” uses the metaphor in a less straightforward fashion—the story is dreamlike rather than realistic. But it still packs an emotional punch: after the son wins the match, he hears from a friend that his father is off crying somewhere. This moment surprised Noah Baumbach—as he explained to the audience at Southpaw the other day—and moved him.

My own favorite moment in the story is at the end:
The ball is arriving. Before I can ready myself, before I can coordinate arm and racket, before I can coordinate mind and arm, the ball will be here and gone, a dream object, receding into the distance like a ghost of the imagination. The first point is lost. And so the game. And so the match. Waiting for the ball's arrival-- it is on the way, it has not yet reached me-- I concede nothing.


Day of the Imprisoned Writer

On November 15 each year International PEN stages the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. PEN members do what they can to "raise public awareness of the plight of their colleagues worldwide," writing protest appeals, staging events, and calling attention to imprisoned writers around the globe. Five writers in particular are selected "to represent the global spread of the problems as well as to illustrate the types of attacks."

This year, PEN is focusing on these five writers:

Burma (Myanmar): Zargana

Burma (Myanmar): Zargana Well-known comedian and poet among the many arrested in recent crackdown against pro-democracy demonstrators

Cuba: Normando Hernández González

Cuba: Normando Hernández González Journalist imprisoned under crackdown on dissidents in 2003 and since held under dire conditions

Gambia: Fatou Jaw Manneh

Gambia: Fatou Jaw Manneh Journalist on trial and facing a heavy sentence on charges of sedition for her articles criticizing the Gambian president

Iran: Yaghoub Yadali

Iran: Yaghoub Yadali Novelist given a one-year sentence for his fictional characterization of the ethnic minority of which he is himself a member

Uzbekistan: Dzamshid Karimov

Uzbekistan: Dzamshid Karimov Journalist who has covered human rights abuses and written critical articles, and who has been held in psychiatric detention for over a year


“I haven't got your shoulders”

Norman Mailer was president of PEN American Center from 1984 to 1986. In that last year, he “used all his powers of persuasion and charm,” as Salman Rushdie recently recalled, “to raise the funds that brought more than 50 of the world’s leading writers to Manhattan to debate, with almost 100 of America’s finest, the exalted theme of ‘The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State.’” According to Rushdie—who was, he confesses, “more than a little awestruck”—the “atmosphere” at this grand PEN congress was “electric from the start.”
Much to the chagrin of PEN members, Mailer had invited Secretary of State George Schultz to speak at the opening ceremony, at the Public Library. This prompted howls of protest by the South African writers Nadine Gordimer, J. M. Coetzee and Sipho Sepamla, who accused Schultz of supporting apartheid. Other writers, including E. L. Doctorow, Grace Paley, Elizabeth Hardwick, John Irving and many more, also disapproved of Schultz's presence, protesting that writers were being set up “as a forum for the Reagan administration,” as Doctorow put it.
Rushdie goes on to quote Mailer’s welcoming remarks, in which he spoke of New York: “If it is one of the great cities of our civilization, it is, like that civilization, in peril from above, from below and on the flank.”

Links to interviews and remembrances of Mailer have abounded on literary blogs over the last few days, and here’s one more: Hilton Als recalling the unusual, combative friendship between Mailer and James Baldwin in PEN America 2. (The title of this post comes from a remark-- ironic? sly, surely-- by Baldwin, directed at Mailer, in his 1961 essay, “The Black Boy Looks at the White Boy.”) As Als notes, the written exchanges between Baldwin and Mailer were charged with questions not only about race but about sexuality.

There is something remarkable and even inspiring about the willingness of both men to so publicly engage with each other on these fraught, personal subjects. Among the many public relationships in Mailer's long and varied career, this one is certainly worth remembering.

(Photo of Mailer by Doug Elbinger, Elbinger Studios; photo of Baldwin by John "Hoppy" Hopkins.)


A Tribute to Grace Paley

Last night, PEN American Center held a beautiful tribute to long-time member Grace Paley in the nearly-full Great Hall at Cooper Union.

The evening began with remarks by current PEN president Francine Prose, who was blown away by Grace’s stories in college, and later was a colleague of hers at Sarah Lawrence. Prose hated the job. But while walking with Grace across campus, she saw that the “sullen brats” she was teaching became the “radiant children that they were” in Grace’s presence.

One of Grace’s own children, Nora Paley, spoke next. Noting the illness of her mother’s last years, she said that Grace’s “interest in the world did not diminish with her red blood cells.” Happiness, she said, was her mother’s “default position.”

Victoria Redel recalled a reading late in Grace’s life, which Grace began by saying how wonderful it was to be there with so many of her friends—“and two of my enemies.” (“Grace, you old showgirl,” Redel thought at the time.) Scott Spencer read her first published story, “Goodbye and Good Luck,” about a young Russian-American woman who takes a job at a Russian theater on 2nd Avenue. Richard Price read “The Burdened Man.” There were murmurs of recognition when Gerry Albarelli read Grace’s poem, “The Hard-Hearted Rich.” (Grace, Albarelli said, taught him that history takes a long time to make up its mind.)

Sonia Sanchez said that Grace’s life was about “what it means to be human,” a line she repeated—and even sang a little. Grace called her, she said, after Sanchez's last arrest, which followed a visit to an army recruiting center. (“Take us,” Sanchez and her fellow activists told the recruiters, “not our sons and daughers and grandchildren.” When a reporter from NPR asked her what she would do if the army actually accepted her, Sanchez said she would go to the training camp and do her push-ups—“push-ups for peace.”)

Michael Cunningham spoke about Grace’s literary voice—as indelible, he said, as Austen’s or Faulkner’s. She was the “master,” he explained, “of the plain-but-not-plain sentence.” He read the wonderful and hilarious story, “The Loudest Voice.” Walter Mosley said that Grace was one of our greatest short story writers, along with Isaac Babel and Flannery O’Connor and a few others. She had a “bluntness” that he saw in her personal manner as well as her work, naming the things she saw flatly as she saw them.

Katha Pollitt read from the amazing essay “Six Days, Some Rememberings” (which appears in PEN America 5: Silences) about the time Grace spent in a women’s prison in Greenwich Village. (The threat of jail became familiar to the devoted political activist.) Eve Ensler read “Midrash on Happiness,” in which a woman defines happiness—and several subsequent terms—in dialogue with a friend: “By silence she meant refusal to speak; by stupidity she meant refusal to listen.”

Ensler saw Grace as a voice of “the corner,” out on the block, “telling stories.” “Now we have blogs instead of blocks,” she lamented, inviting—urging—everyone to “meet me at the corner,” where “we’ll gather,” she said, “until the world finally changes.”

To close the evening, Vera Williams spoke about her friend, that “beloved busybody,” and read “The Unity Statement,” which Grace wrote along with the other members of the Women’s Pentagon Action. They took the statement with them to Washington in 1980. The Great Hall became nearly silent as Williams read: “We understand all is connectedness.” “We will not allow these violent games to continue.” As she continued, the reading was punctuated by calls of “Amen!” and “Here here!” When she finished, there was shouting, and many people stood to applaud.


A Few Friday Notes

The Chinese government finally frees Ven. Ngawang Phulchung (left), one of the leaders of the Drepung printing group, a dissident Tibetan publishing collective, and an Honorary Member of PEN American Center.

Saadi Youssef eulogizes fellow Iraqi poet Sargon Boulos (in Laila Lalami’s translation): “He stood against occupation because the poet, by necessity, stands against occupation.”

Those in NYC, don’t forget: Grace Paley tribute this Tuesday, in the Great Hall at Cooper Union.

And next Tuesday (11/13): M Mark introduces PEN America contributor Sarah Messer befor a reading at NYPL. Stellar Kim and Beth Woodcome will also be reading.

More amusing Proust.


Michael Ondaatje; Davis on Proust; "Urban Virgins"

Amitava Kumar describes Michael Ondaatje’s visit to Vassar, where he delivered the annual William Gifford lecture and told students, “What I love about English is that it is revived every fifty years by someone who is not English”—for example, G.V. Desani, with his novel All About H. Haterr. Also check out Ondaatje’s conversation with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in PEN America 7.

This Space calls attention to The Cahiers Series from Sylph Editions, the fifth installment of which will have three linked pieces by Lydia Davis.
First is 'A Proust Alphabet', which gives an account of several words and issues of particular interest, encountered during the author’s recent translating of Marcel Proust's Swann's Way. There follows a short article on the French thinker and novelist Maurice Blanchot, entitled 'The Problem in Summarising Blanchot'. Finally comes a series of dreams and dreamlike moments, recounted in 'Swimming in Egypt: Dreams while Awake and Asleep'. The cahier is accompanied by photographs by Ornan Rotem.
The cahier comes out in a month; in the meantime, you can read Davis’s thoughts on Proust in PEN America 2.

Lastly, as if the new Latin America issue of The Virginia Quarterly Review was not impressive enough on its own, they have also created some fanastic web features, like this interactive map which links to various pieces from the issue-- or this collection of photographs and poetry:
Urban Virgins” shows a series of paintings by Ana de Orbegoso paired with poems by Odi Gonzales. De Orbegoso has created 5′ tall wearable Spanish paintings of saints and virgins that have been mashed up with photographs of contemporary Peruvian women. Then she has people walk around Cusco, Peru in these costumes, bringing art to the streets.
(And speaking of Latin America, here’s yet another November event: The News from Latin America, hosted by the Overseas Press Club and the National Book Critics Circle, featuring Francisco Goldman, George de Lama, and Peter Kinoy, and hosted by Calvin Sims.)


Online Gass

Courtesy of the Literary Saloon, news that William H. Gass has won the St. Louis Literary Award, and, on the occasion, has been profiled in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, under this lovely headline: "In the heart of the country, an honor for Bill Gass."

I thought of that article yesterday when I read, over at Conversational Reading, about Tunneling, an online archive and directory of Gass's work with links to everything available online. Stephen Schenkenberg, the editor of St. Louis Magazine, is behind the project.

All of this sent me back to two pieces by Gass that appeared in PEN America: the first, "Toward Total Recall" is a tribute to Marcel Proust, from our second issue; the second, "Lifetimes Out of Moments," is a tribute to Gertrude Stein, from PEN America 5: Silences.

Here's the end of Gass's beguiling tribute to Stein:
The human mind makes lifetimes out of moments, particulars into generalities, quirks into characters. The human mind can entice human nature into Elysium; though it can do nothing with the quaint, for, as Stein said, quaint ain’t . . . yet we are all witness to that transformation, when the human mind sips the tea and tastes the biscuit, to turn the simple offer: Have some? into a summation; for we’ve seen how a paltry pun, a phrase, those perceptions personal to style, how the right writing can drag daily life in its drudgery and exhilaration, with its restless elevators, its solemn ceremonies, from one present tense to another and another and another—for today my little dog did deign to know me, and though I was not a warrior returning in rags, I was a warrior returning in rags; a saucer enabled my cup to warm my fingers, and I felt an old friend on the lip of a story, for Gertrude Stein, as so often, was right: Every rhyme in Mother Goose is still well with us, and so, for that matter, is the Mother Goose of Montparnasse.
Read the rest here. And the tribute to Proust here.

Also, Chekhov's Mistress praises Gass's translations of Rilke, and Stephen Schenkenberg reads The Tunnel. Above, an illustration of Gass by Charles Burns for The Believer.


More November Events: Grace Paley Tribute & Periodically Speaking

A few weeks ago I mentioned the upcoming events at Southpaw in Brooklyn: Noah and Jonathan Baumbach with Amanda Stern on the 11th; Sufjan Stevens and Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding, with Rick Moody on the 28th.

Here are two more November events of note, on the first and second Tuesdays of the month (that's the 6th and the 13th):

A Tribute to Grace Paley: An Evening of Readings and Remembrance

When: Tuesday, November 6, 2007
Where: The Great Hall of Cooper Union: Cooper Square, New York City
What time: 7 p.m.

Participants include: Michael Cunningham, Eve Ensler, Amy Hempel, Walter Mosley, Richard Price, Katha Pollitt, Francine Prose, Victoria Redel, Scott Spencer, Sonia Sanchez, Vera B. Williams


Periocially Speaking: Editors Introduce Emerging Writers

When: Tuesday, November 13, 2007
Where: DeWitt Wallace Periodical Room, The New York Public Library, Fifth Avenue and 42nd
What time: 7 p.m.

A reading series put together by CLMP and the NYPL. Editor David Hamilton (Iowa Review) introduces fiction writer Stellar Kim; Editor Robert Arnold (Memorious) introduces poet Beth Woodcome; and Editor M Mark (PEN America) introduces nonfiction writer Sarah Messer.


For more information on these two events, go here and here, respectively.


"Neatly transcending space-time"

On the spot where I write all this hodgepodge of verses
stands Edward Hopper, in fact, who engenders them

and who, neatly transcending space-time, sends me

the signals.
Lawrence Venuti translates Ernest Farrés for Words Without Borders, devoted this time around to literature in Catalan.

Speaking of translation, you can download a PDF of To Be Translated or Not to Be, "a report on the state of international literary translation" put together by International PEN and the Institut Ramon Llull of Barcelona.

PEN American Center is currently accepting nominations and submissions for the 2008 literary awards-- including the new PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography. There are also awards for drama, poetry, work in translation, and debut fiction. Deadlines are in December and January; more details here.


"I sympathized with Tarzan"

The new issue of PEN International, the literary magazine published by International PEN, is now online. (Click on "Magazine Download" at the bottom of the page; it's a PDF file.)

The issue is called Context: Africa, and includes poems, stories, interviews, and essays in English, French, and Spanish.

In an excerpt from her debut novel, Everything Good Will Come, Sefi Atta provides a young girl's impressions of watching television in Nigeria in the late 1960s:
Television in those days didn’t come on until six o’clock in the evening. The first hour was news and I never watched the news, except that special day when the Apollo landed on the moon. After that, children in school said you could get Apollo, a form of conjunctivitis, by staring at an eclipse too long. Tarzan, Zorro, Little John, and the entire Cartwright family on Bonanza were there, with their sweet and righteous retaliations, to tell me any other fact I needed to know about the world. And oblivious to any biased messages I was receiving, I sympathised with Tarzan (those awful natives!), thought Indians were terrible people and memorised the happy jingles of foreign multinational companies: “Mobil keeps your engine – Beep, beep, king of the road.” If Alfred Hitchcock came on, I knew it was time to go to bed. Or if it was Doris Day. I couldn’t bear her song, “Que Sera”.
Everything Good Will Come received the inaugural Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature in Africa, and it comes out in paperback from the independent Interlink Books next month.


Monday Miscellany

Tonight at 7, at the Donnell Library in midtown Manhattan, PEN will celebrate the winners of this year's Beyond Margins awards: novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (for Half of a Yellow Sun), poet Harryette Mullen (for Recyclopedia), critic Ernest Hardy (for Bloodbeats Vol. 1), and poet Alberto Álvaro Ríos (for Theater of Night).
Jaime Manrique and Sonia Sanchez will host an evening saluting the winners of the 2007 Beyond Margins Award. Joining in the celebration will be writers Adam Haslett, Marie Ponsot, and Monique Truong.

The evening will feature readings and conversation with this year's winners, as well as a reception following the event.
It is free and open to the public.

John Freeman has been blogging from the Frankfurt Book Fair, and he gives a mention to Eurozine, the multi-lingual online magazine with some great pieces on literature in several different languages. (Don't miss the "set language" button to the above right of those pieces.) Freeman mentions a piece on the "next great Estonian novel"; looking it over quickly, I didn't see any mention of the Truth and Justice pentalogy. Too old? (See also: Conversational Reading.)

Lastly, courtesy of Janaka Stucky of Black Ocean, those who have either worked on or submitted something to-- or possibly even read-- a literary magazine may enjoy The Futility Review, "dedicated to the non-publication of the best works of the best poets in the English-speaking world," where "any poet, no matter whether accomplished or beginning, will be rejected in the same open-handed manner." Be sure to check out the submission guidelines:

Does your submission contain any of these words: shard, limn, or numinous?

Regrettably, Yes

Do your poems mention grandma or your first dog?

What's wrong with that?

Is there any mention of butterflies or unicorns in your work?

Just in that one place

PS. Italo Calvino was born on this day in 1923. (He died on September 19, 1985.) Read tributes to Calvino by Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie, from PEN America 1: Classics.


Satrapi & Spiegelman

This Sunday, Persepolis, a movie based on Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, will close the New York Film Festival. So far, the reviews are terrific.

While you wait for the movie’s post-festival run, have a listen to this 2005 conversation between Satrapi and Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-winning author and illustrator of Maus and, more recently, In the Shadow of No Towers. (From which the below image is taken; the above image is from Persepolis. Both books are published by Pantheon; click on the photos to enlarge.)


Doris Lessing and the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952

Doris Lessing, the newly crowned Nobel laureate, was one of many writers once barred from entering the United States thanks to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which became law during the height of the Cold War.

As you might imagine, that law has taken on new resonance in recent years.

For more on Lessing, go here, here, and here. And here.


"One on one with a world that does not want you"

The one-year anniversary of Anna Politkovskaya's murder took place over the weekend. Yesterday, the New York Times passed along a report from her old paper, the Novaya Gazeta, that Russian prosecutors know the identity of her murderer, but have not yet arrested him. They do not, reportedly, know who ordered the killing.

PEN has been following the case since the news first broke, and, in December of last year, held a tribute to Politkovskaya called "The Writer's Conscience." There, Katrina Vanden Heuvel read a piece titled "Conversations in the Kitchen" from a collection of Politkovskaya's writing translated by Alexander Burry and Tatiana Tulchinsky and called A Small Corner of Hell. In "Conversations," Politkovskaya talks with a group of women in Grozny enduring the second Chechen war.

Here is the end of that piece:
The women at the table do not cry, although they would like to. You rarely hear crying in Grozny. They've all cried their eyes out long ago. Whether or not a woman cries indicates how long it's been since she returned to Grozny from the refugee camps.

Outside, it is dark and quiet. Even the dogs haven't been barking for a long time.

Somewhere far off, there is a glow from sporadic, noiseless bombing. It resembles thunderstorm lightning a bit. After midnight, the armored vehicles start screeching again. Everyone bends down and hunches over, making herself smaller. Is it coming for you?

In five minutes, there's a feeling of relief. It's not for you. The armored vehicle rumbles past.

"This is what we've come to: we're glad it's for someone else," Fatima concludes.

It's five hours until the next blockade dawn, and we need to survive them. This is a very intimate affair. You survive as you are born, alone. You need to part company, so you can lie down, close your eyes and remain one on one with a world that does not want you.
Listen to the rest here, and read more of Politkovskaya's writing here.


Friday Miscellany: Fantastic Women

PEN member Natasha Radojcic has co-founded, with Alison Weaver, a new literary journal, H.O.W., "dedicated to publishing quality fiction and non-fiction while giving voice to those suffering in silence worldwide." (H.O.W. = Helping Orphans Worldwide.) Jonathan Lethem is a contributing editor.

The new Tin House (pictured at left) is called Fantastic Women, and has work from Rikki Ducornet, whose "Tangible Dreams" appeared in PEN America 5: Silences. ("The best books cause us to dream," she writes there, "the rest are not worth reading.") It also has an essay from Rick Moody about Angela Carter, whose "The Kiss" appears in PEN America 2: Home & Away.

Three Percent provides the list of Prix Goncourt finalists, including Lydia Salvayre and PEN America 6 contributor, Marie Darrieussecq.

Lastly, Laila Lalami has some interesting thoughts about
Albert Camus' L'étranger, which she first read at fourteen:
Meursault's killing of the character referred to simply as "the Arab," the complete absence of any dialogue from the three Arab men who confront Raymond and Meursault on the beach, the fact that the only Arab character who says anything is Raymond's abused and oppressed girlfriend, the absence of the Arab man's family or any Arab witnesses at the trial: these are not coincidences, naturally, but clear narrative choices Camus made. One might argue that Meursault's fight with the chaplain and his realization at the end are an assertion of the Self in the face of an indifferent universe and a moralizing society, but I think that assertion about the absurdity of life comes by way of victimizing the Other.
Afternoon update: The amazing Edwidge Danticat testifies before the US Congress' Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law.


Noah & Jonathan Baumbach + Sufjan Stevens & John Wesley Harding

Some exciting news from my colleagues here at PEN: The PENultimate Lit series, put together with the help of Rick Moody, has its first two events penciled in for November.

On Sunday, November 11, at 7 pm, filmmaker Noah Baumbach will speak with his father, the fiction writer Jonathan Baumbach. Amanda Stern will host.

On Thursday, November 28, at 8 pm, songwriter and highway enthusiast Sufjan Stevens will speak with songwriter and novelist Wesley Stace, aka John Wesley Harding. Rick Moody will host.

Both events will be at Southpaw on 5th Avenue in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

PENultimate Lit "explores the intersection of literature and the arts and poses the question of what, in the 21st Century, makes writing matter."

(Speaking of Noah Baumbach and PEN, check out this interview with the filmmaker by fellow Brooklynite and devoted PEN member Jonathan Lethem, from the great and venerable arts & culture quarterly, BOMB.)


George Plimpton meets John Steinbeck, writes letter to Jean Seberg about Marianne Moore

Mark Sarvas sheds some light on an unusual and unfinished opus: "Steinbeck's incomplete attempt to render the Arthurian tales in 'plain present-day speech for my own young sons.'" A new edition of this book, which Steinbeck began in 1956, will be out from Viking in November.

The idea that he was writing the book for his "own young sons" reminded me of this story, told by George Plimpton in PEN America 4: Fact/Fiction:
Many years ago, I met John Steinbeck at a party in Sag Harbor, and told him that I had writer’s block. And he said something which I’ve always remembered, and which works. He said, “Pretend that you’re writing not to your editor or to an audience or to a readership, but to someone close, like your sister, or your mother, or someone that you like.” And at the time I was enamored of Jean Seberg, the actress, and I had to write an article about taking Marianne Moore to a baseball game, and I started it off, “Dear Jean...,” and wrote this piece with some ease, I must say. And to my astonishment that’s the way it appeared in Harper’s Magazine. “Dear Jean...” Which surprised her, I think, and me, and very likely Marianne Moore.
Jean Seberg is most famous today for her beguiling turn in Jean-Luc Godard's Breathless, from which the above picture is taken. That film came out in 1959, just as Steinbeck was abandoning his Arthurian project. Plimpton wrote the article for Harper's five years later, in the fall of 1964. Is it possible he had just seen Lilith-- also featuring Warren Beatty, Peter Fonda, and Gene Hackman-- and fallen for Seberg's portrayal of a "seductive, schizophrenic" woman staying at "an elite sanitarium in New England"? ("Before Eve there was Evil... and her name was Lilith!")

Plimpton wasn't kidding, by the way: You can check out the first page of his Harper's article on the right (click on the photo to enlarge). And you can read the rest of Plimpton's tribute to Steinbeck-- entitled "Lonesome Animals," a term Steinbeck applied to writers-- here.


Wednesday Miscellany: Proust, etc.

Edmund White lists five novels “reviewers should have in their libraries” for the “Critical Library" series over at the NBCC blog. Among them: In Search of Lost Time, which he has read thrice (!), the first time in high school (!, again). For more of White's thoughts on Proust, check out PEN America 2: Home & Away, and his piece, “The Consolations of Art”:
Of course Proust is also popular because he wrote about glamour, rich people, nobles, artists. And he wrote about love. It doesn’t seem to matter that he came to despise love, that he exploded it, reduced it to its shabbiest, most mechanical, even hydraulic terms. By which I mean he not only demystified love, he also dehumanized it, turning it into something merely Pavlovian. The love Swann feels for Odette is in no way a tribute to her charms or her soul.
Seems a bit less cheery than Alain de Botton's version. (Among the other writers who consider Proust in PEN America 2: Marilynne Robinson, Lydia Davis, Nadine Gordimer... check it out. And for a lighter-- and very amusing-- take on reading Proust, try Barnaby Sandwich.)

That discussion of “the place of the political in poetry” that Ted Genoways called for last week-- and which is mentioned below-- elicited some interesting remarks, both at the VQR blog and at The Chronicle of Higher Education. As part of the discussion, Don Share, senior editor of Poetry, called attention to this piece by Nathaniel Fick about “recent war poetry.”

As others have noted, the 2007 MacArthur “Genius” Grants were announced this week, and three members of PEN were among the recipients: fiction writer Stuart Dybek, playwright Lynn Nottage, and editor Peter Cole.

The New York Times
ran a profile yesterday of “two leading Brazilian novelists of Amazon themes”: Márcio Souza and Milton Hatoum.

Mid-day update: PEN and The Campaign for Reader Privacy applaud "the introduction today of legislation to safeguard the privacy of ordinary Americans and curb the FBI’s abuse of the National Security Letter power granted under the USA Patriot Act." Read more.


Saadi Youssef on the freedom of Arabic

The September edition of Wild River Review is up, and it contains a long, illuminating interview with Saadi Youssef, the Iraqi poet who left his native country in 1978 and "lived in many countries in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe before settling in the U.K. in 1999." The interview was conducted during the PEN World Voices festival by Wild River Review founder Joy E. Stocke, who asks Youssef about the Arabic language, and gets this reply:
Well it is a very free language. I mean you can create new words in Arabic. So, you can say that it is an open language, a language that a poet can always renew. If you know Arabic well with a classical formation, in a way you will be more free because you will see more things. You can work within the language to create a new word and it will be understood. It will not be considered strange.

For example, when you hear the church bell toll, or ring. In Arabic, if you take the past tense for the sound of a bell ringing — the bell rang — I can extend the sense of time that it takes for a bell to ring. Instead of saying rang, I can use the language to create a new word that shows the extended way a bell rings, how the sound moves through the air. I create a new word because I need to do so, and a reader of Arabic will understand. In fact a reader of Arabic will expect it.
We printed a selection from Youssef’s first major English collection, Without an Alphabet, Without a Face, in PEN America 5: Silences. The collection was translated by Khaled Mattawa and published by Graywolf in 2002. It won the 2003 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation.

More about Youssef, who was born near Basra in 1934, here.


"The poem one simply did not expect"

Ted Genoways has an amusing take on the news that Paul Muldoon has succeeded Alice Quinn as poetry editor of The New Yorker:
"The Irish-born Muldoon (who also edited the Best American Poetry anthology in 2005) joins the ranks of English-born Glyn Maxwell at The New Republic and Yugoslav-born Charles Simic at Paris Review. And Simic is also now the Poet Laureate of the United States. Has anyone spoken to Lou Dobbs about this? Should we be concerned that Europeans are taking jobs away from American poets? Or is editing the kind of work that Americans are no longer willing to do?"
"All kidding aside," Genoways continues, "this seems another example of the healthy internationalization of American literature that has been going on recently." And he also hopes "that an Irish poet such as Muldoon will have an eye for harder-hitting, more topical poetry than we’re used to seeing in mainstream American magazines."

Certainly Muldoon has written poetry one might call "topical," but who knows what to expect from the poet who wrote "Hummingbird"?
At Nora's first post-divorce Labor Day bash
there's a fluster and a fuss and a fidget
in the fuchsia-bells. "Two fingers of sour mash,
a maraschino cherry." "So the digit's
still a unit of measurement?" "While midgets
continue to demand a slice of the cake."
"A vibrator, you know, that kind of widget."
Now a ruby-throated hummingbird remakes
itself as it rolls on through mid-forest brake.
"I'm guessing she's had a neck-lift and lipo."
"You know I still can't help but think of the Wake
as the apogee, you know, of the typo."
Like an engine rolling on after a crash,
long after whatever it was made a splash.
What should we expect from this poet as an editor? Probably the unexpected. That is, in fact, just what Muldoon told Motoko Rich he plans to look for: “One would want to be absolutely open to the poem that one simply did not expect to have made its way into the world and somehow suddenly falls on one’s desk.”

What fell on the desk of PEN America when we were putting together Issue 5: Silences was this:

Her grandfather’s job was to cut
the vocal chords of each pack-mule
with a single, swift excision,
a helper standing by to wrench
the mule’s head fiercely to one side and drench
it with hooch he’d kept since Prohibition.
Why, Carlotta wondered, that fearsome tool?
Was it for fear the mules might bray
and give their position away?
At which I see him thumb the shade
as if he were once more testing a blade
and hear the two-fold snapping shut
of his four-fold, brass-edged carpenter’s rule:
And give away their position.

Post-script: Do you think Paul Muldoon is honoring Leonard Cohen’s 73rd birthday today? In one of his “sleeve notes” from the collection Hay, Muldoon wrote, of Cohen, “his songs have meant far more to me / than most of the so-called poems I’ve read.” Fellow PEN-ster Sven Birkerts asked him about that line in the profile he wrote for Ploughshares. “It does seem a little excessive, I suppose,” Muldoon conceded, “but I’m going to stick to it."

Update: Jennifer Howard at The Chronicle of Higher Education questions Genoways's generalization about Irish poets, then asks, "Is Muldoon’s appointment (or Simic’s, or Maxwell’s) really an example of a new internationalism in American literature or something less dramatic?" Genoways responds, and calls for a discussion of "the place of the political in poetry."