PEN Festival: Opening Night Reading

PENOn Monday night Malvern Books attended the opening night reading of the ninth annual PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature in New York. And if there’s one thing more exciting than attending a book reading, it’s hearing a blogger recount their experiences of attending a book reading, amirite?! Okay, hang in there, let’s try and make this fun.

First up, there were protesters! They were milling about outside the event center, politely encouraging attendees to sign a petition calling for PEN’s new Executive Director, Suzanne Nossel, to resign or be dismissed. As a former State Department official under Hillary Clinton, Nossel championed a strategy of “smart power” (i.e. using ‘soft’ diplomacy in conjunction with ‘hard’ military might, including preemptive strikes), and the protesters felt this made her an odd choice to lead an organization that supports peace and human rights. The leaflet quoted Chris Hedges, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a leader of the Occupy movement, as saying “this appointment makes a mockery of PEN as a human rights organization and belittles the values PEN purports to defend.”

The protesters seemed very pleasant and sane—they looked like kindly middle-aged librarians—and nearly everyone they spoke to accepted one of the bright yellow leaflets before filing inside. I wondered if Nossel was going to give a speech at the event, and if so, what it would be like for her to talk to an audience whose members were fanning their faces with neon sheets that demanded her dismissal. But it turned out to be a bit more… confrontational than that, because one of the protesters, John Walsh, had purchased a ticket for the event, and managed to sit himself and his giant placard right near the front of the stage. The event’s organizers urged him to leave before the readings began, but he muttered something about the right to free speech and they decided it was best to let him stay.

Nossel never appeared, but Salman Rushdie came out to give the opening address. Rushdie is always slightly exciting, because you get to sit there having all sorts of tricky conflicting emotions about him. Genius? Lecherous old coot? Lecherous old genius coot? And on Monday night Rushdie’s presence was especially exciting, because he got heckled by Walsh as soon as he came onstage. Walsh and Rushdie had a bit of an electrifying barney about PEN/Rushdie’s human rights record, which ended when Rushdie dropped the F-bomb:

Walsh: “You supported the war in Iraq!”
Rushdie: “As president of this organization at the time, I led our stand against the war, so you can shut the fuck up!”

The crowd went wild when Rushdie lost his temper, and Walsh was silent after that. The whole thing was a little odd. Why was everyone cheering so vigorously for Rushdie? Why was everyone so enraged by Walsh’s interruptions? After all, the official theme of the event was “bravery,” and PEN is all about supporting VOICES, so you’d think there’d be room for a little heated debate. Also, Walsh doesn’t seem to be a crackpot—he’s a Professor of Physiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School—and he’s certainly not the first person to criticize Rushdie’s position on the war, which is complicated at best. But I guess the good people of New York had paid their $25 entry fee to hear Rushdie give a speech, and they didn’t want that experience interrupted by anything as messy as, you know, an argument about human rights. Ah well, on with the show!

PEN

The first two readings were not really my cup of tea, and I had a little debate with myself that went something like this:

I do not like the line “When I thought you couldn’t walk, I wanted to make sure you could fly.” I think it is a bad line. NicholasSparksian. But since it’s from a fictionalized account of one woman’s experiences with the Khmer Rouge (spoiler alert: NOT VERY GOOD EXPERIENCES), am I allowed to say I don’t like it? What kind of person criticizes the prose stylings of someone whose family has been massacred by a despotic regime? Then again, it’s a novel. It was published. It’s open to spirited review, right? Then again, the Khmer Rouge murdered over a million people, so…

Thankfully, and in the spirit of Mr. Rushdie, I soon told myself to shut the fuck up:

Oi, Ms. Cynical-britches! This is the PEN World Voices Festival, not the PEN World Writers Festival. It doesn’t claim to be a celebration of the world’s most excellent prose. It’s a chance for thoughtful people from around the world to share their experiences without fear of reprisal, and this is a Good Thing. And if the smug middleclassness of the audience makes you feel a little… uncomfortable—lady, your conflict diamonds and sweatshop blazer clash mightily with your polite clapping for the words PEACE and FREEDOM—just remember that there are plenty of smug middleclass people out there right now who are kicking Golden Retrievers and arguing with each other about what kind of cheese to buy, so the ones who voluntarily go out into the night to hear stories and poems read aloud are probably sorta a-okay. In other words, shut the fuck up.

So I did. I stopped having tedious, sneery debates with myself and decided to pay attention—and there was lots of wonderful stuff.

ShishkinHarjo

Mikhail Shishkin (pictured above left) is considered one of Russia’s finest contemporary writers, and his work has won all of Russia’s major literary awards. He read an excerpt from Vzyatie Izmaila (The Taking of Izmail), which was awarded the Russian Booker Prize in 2000. Although the novel is apparently non-linear, with no plot, no chapters, and no ongoing characters, the brief passage he read was a straightforward account of a man’s relationship with his mother, as seen through a series of childhood incidents, including a fight over that most precious of Cold War commodities, a pack of chewing gum. The story was very funny and moving, and made me want to read the rest of the book, although I’ll have to be patient—an English translation of The Taking of Izmail has yet to be published. (Get on to it, someone!)

Muscogee poet Joy Harjo (above right) chanted/sang “Equinox”:

I must keep from breaking into the story by force
for if I do I will find myself with a war club in my hand
and the smoke of grief staggering toward the sun,
your nation dead beside you.

I keep walking away though it has been an eternity
and from each drop of blood
springs up sons and daughters, trees,
a mountain of sorrows, of songs.

I tell you this from the dusk of a small city in the north
not far from the birthplace of cars and industry.
Geese are returning to mate and crocuses have
broken through the frozen earth.

Soon they will come for me and I will make my stand
before the jury of destiny. Yes, I will answer in the clatter
of the new world, I have broken my addiction to war
and desire. Yes, I will reply, I have buried the dead

and made songs of the blood, the marrow. 

A sort of collective I-feel-moved murmur went through the crowd when she recited the last few lines.

KincaidKrechel

Jamaica Kincaid (above left) announced, “I’d much rather read from a book I didn’t write,” and proceeded to read from Milton’s Paradise Lost. How cool is that? As a disobedient child, Kincaid was made to copy out Books I-II as a punishment, but she claimed it was far from a punishment: she fell in love with the naughty protagonist.

German writer Ursula Krechel (above right) read from her most recent novel, Landgericht (State Justice), winner of the 2012 German Book Prize. It’s the story of Richard Kornitzer, a German-Jewish lawyer who flees to Cuba in 1933 to escape the Nazis, and then returns to Germany—and his wife—after the war to try and resume his old life. We’re big fans of Ursula here at Malvern (wearing our Host Publications hat, we published her bilingual poetry collection, Voices from the Bitter Core), and it was wonderful to hear her read.

James Kelman read something in a thick Scottish accent. I think it was about a leg wound.

LovelaceAnd then there was my favorite, the Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace, who was very, very funny. He read from the novel Is Just a Movie, which was awarded the 2011 Grand Prize for Caribbean Literature. The book recounts the misadventures of Sonnyboy, a minor and hapless figure in Trinidad’s Black Power movement. In the section Lovelace read, he describes what is expected of you when you’re hired as local color for a Hollywood movie being shot in Trinidad: “The natives’ role is to die.” Sonnyboy is outraged by the ease with which his fellow local extras take a bullet. His pride won’t let him die “like an ass”—“even as a child playing stick-’em-up, I composed my dying like a poem”—and so he resolves to die deliberately, with drama and dignity.

I began the exquisite choreography of my dying.
“Cut,” the director said.

Sex, Death, and a Mince & Cheese

Meat PieRecovered from AWP yet? Isn’t it cozy to imagine that writers all over the country spent yesterday tucked up in bed with a pile of shiny new books, a bottle of Advil, and a plate of greasy meat bits? Here at Malvern Books, we’ll offer a graceful no comment on the more sordid excesses of the past week, and simply say, golly, yes, we met heaps of lovely people and came home with a ton of books.

Of particular note: John Gallas’ Fucking Poets Vols. 1, 2, & 3, a series of chapbooks from New Zealand publisher Cold Hub Press. (Cold Hub also published a collection entitled Ballad of the Last Cold Pie, which is almost but not quite the best possible title for a collection of New Zealand poetry. The best possible title for a collection of New Zealand poetry would clearly be You Think You’re a Flowerpot Because You’ve Got a Hole in Your Bum.) As the title suggests, Gallas’ poems are about famous poets having sex. Featured rutting writers include Rupert Brooke, Christopher Marlowe and, of course, that old rogue Mr. Shelley. The poems are full of “merry obscenity,” as the blurb insists, and bloody brilliant.

But lest you think Kiwi poets only write about sex and meat pies… wait, there’s more! They do pretty well on the usual gloomy death stuff, too. Here’s one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed poets, Bill Manhire, with a sad poem that makes me very happy. (And if you’re ever in New Zealand and find yourself wanting to express your post-meat-pie-eating joy in the local vernacular, be sure to say “I’m a box of fluffies, mate.”)

“Kevin”—Bill Manhire (from Lifted, Victoria University Press, 2005)

I don’t know where the dead go, Kevin.
The one far place I know
is inside the heavy radio. If I listen late at night,
there’s that dark, celestial glow,
heaviness of the cave, the hive.

Music. Someone warms his hands at the fire,
breaking off the arms of chairs,
breaking the brute bodies of beds, burning his comfort
surely to keep alive. Soon he can hardly see,
and so, quietly, he listens: then someone lifts him
and it’s some terrible breakfast show.

There are mothers and fathers, Kevin, whom we barely know.
They lift us. Eventually we all shall go
into the dark furniture of the radio.

AWP is Nigh!

RaptureWith The Rapture Index approaching an all-time high (“news reports claim there is a surge in demand for exorcists”), it’s time to get packing for AWP! This year’s boozy MFA reunion conference kicks off in Boston on Wednesday, and Malvern Books will be there with bells on. We’ll be looking to stuff our tote bags with all manner of splendid wares—bookstore shelves don’t stock themselves, people!—so please do keep an eye out for us (us = tall; Texan; curly of hair and black of shoe), and feel free to thrust catalogs and cookies in our general direction.

And, in entirely related news, here are our favorite collective nouns for geese (painstakingly curated from the handy Collective Nouns for Birds website):

  • A plump of geese
  • A christmas of geese
  • A skein of geese
  • A covert of geese
  • A gagelynge of geese
  • A knob of geese
  • A little knot of geese
  • A string of geese
  • A wedge of geese
  • A chevron of geese

What should a group of publishers be called, I wonder? A gossip of publishers? An intoxication of publishers? A hatchet of publishers? A palimpsest of publishers? Whatever you are, publishers en masse, we look forward to seeing you shortly.

Basement Living

StressballIn the interests of stocking our bookstore shelves with the very best and brightest, we spent last weekend roaming the aisles of the American Booksellers Association conference, aka the ABA. (Yes, book people love acronyms; if one were so inclined, one could fill one’s days shuffling from AAP to ALA to BEA—though one might question the National Writers Association’s decision to join in this mania for initials.)

This was our first time attending a conference as a bookseller; previously we sat at the Host Publications table, behind a neat fan of jolly nice books. But whether you’re there to sell, buy, or browse, the commercial arm of the book conference is always the same: you are in a drop-ceilinged basement somewhere, surrounded by tote bags, and it’s fifteen degrees too hot or too cold. The room manages the amazing feat of being simultaneously vast and claustrophobic, and the carpet’s psychedelic swirls suggest that vomit concealment was the interior decorator’s primary concern. You wander the aisles for two or ten or possibly seventeen-hundred hours, filling your arms with catalogs and small cards inviting you to Hear Mike Michaels Read Tonight in Room 12B. Wine Provided! At every third table there is a woman selling a self-published poetry collection called And Then My Uncle Touched Me.

If you sit at a booth, a man visits your booth to ask if you sell books about fishing; he is persuaded to buy a book of Romanian poetry with a picture of a fish on the cover. Another man with a thick Polish accent and a helmet of ginger hair stops by to tell you about his cat, Eric, who was a stevedore in a former life. People pick up your novels, smear them with fingerprints, and place them back askew, with a cutting remark: “I really only read non-fiction.” (“I’m sorry to hear you broke your imagination,” you say, but only inside your head, which fills to bursting with horrible rudenesses as the minutes, hours, days go by.)

Somewhere above you, writers and academics host and attend panel discussions entitled Oh Do Shut Up, Mother!: Liminal Masculinity in the Works of Edith Wharton and Weeeee!: How To Write a Play in Ten Minutes. You pretend you are sad to be missing out on these panel discussions.

There are tchotchkes everywhere (and yet you will never, ever learn how to spell tchotchkes). Publishers fling Hershey’s Kisses and earth-themed stress balls at unsuspecting poets, while tchotchke sellers try to convince bookstore owners that finger puppet squids and miniature plastic flamingoes will sell. (And they will. A transcendent work of literature may be an axe for the frozen sea within us, but it doesn’t look all that cute in your office cubicle.)

The day ends—you thought the day would never end—and you grab a glimpse of sunlight and a shot of vodka at the hotel bar, surrounded by exhausted conference attendees who appear to be playing the drink-whenever-someone-says-paradigm drinking game. People take sides about Sebald. People kiss people who are not the people they should be kissing. People weep about the kissing, and about their tenure prospects, and possibly even about the Sebald. (“What’s so great about a picture of a flamin’ teas-maid?!” “You imbecile!”) You trudge back to your hotel room smelling like $1 bills. You watch ten minutes of a reality TV show called Too Much Lovin’, about an obese man who hoards lizards, and then you fall asleep in your clothes, clutching a tiny can of minibar Pringles.

And on it goes. Rinse and repeat. At some point on the last day, every vendor at every table begins to drink from a hip flask of Jim Beam stashed in their Tin House tote bag. The drunkest vendor vomits quietly in a corner; the carpet will not betray his secret. And then it’s over and the professional dismantlers appear and begin to reduce your recent past to a huge pile of mangled 50% OFF signs and a sea of abandoned catalogs.

And yet! In a triumph of hope over experience, you look forward to the next conference, and the one after that. The voices of the barking mad fish enthusiasts fade in your memory, to be replaced by fond recollections: of that grilled cheese you ate in the hotel restaurant, and of the conversations you had with all those charming, passionate dorks. My people, you think, thrilled to belong to that earnest tribe of bookish folks who wear their Smartish Pace t-shirts with pride and think reading is the best possible use of one’s hours. So do your worst, AWP 2013! Have at us with your branded key chains and your novelty erasers. We’re ready for you and your disgusting carpet.