Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Pen World Voices Festival

I have been invited to blog about this interesting annual literary fest, taking place this week in our fair city. This post appears at the Pen page, but I post it here as well for my dear readers:
Opening Night for this festival used to be at Town Hall, which was cavernous and felt too big for something as intimate as literature. Last night it took place at The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, overlooking the coast of New Jersey and the Hudson river, which was very nice. The evening's theme, as far as I could tell, had to do with water, and that had something to do with freedom, though it is unclear to me exactly why. The concept was "Written on Water". I'm not sure I understand what this means. To me, whatever you write on water will disappear as you are writing it, and literature is quite the opposite, the only thing that remains of those who practice it. They turn to dust, but their written words remain. Perhaps the theme is meant as a reflection on the precarious state of literature these days, what with bloggers instead of writers, and screens instead of pages, and book shops going out of business. In any case, the Pen World Voices Festival is always a bracing reminder for us to read and to write.
   I have to confess that when I started attending this enlightening festival, I quickly discovered that I am not a fan of readings as much as I am of discussion panels, where there is more of a frisson as you listen to your favorite writers, or writers you don't know, discuss with each other (are they nasty, naughty, or nice?). The downside is the part where the audience asks questions, but that is a topic for another post.
   Perhaps literary writers do not suffer from ADD like the rest of humanity and are hence impervious to the concept of length. For some reason, the readers were seated at the back of the auditorium, and they walked down the main aisle like participants in a wedding, which made the proceedings longer. On the other hand, a festival of literature has every right to take its time; it is not a festival of twittering. It may be actually very beneficial to sit down, concentrate for a bloody second and listen to narratives of more than 140 characters.
   Happily, there was booze for sale. As a liquid, alcohol is a perfect, and very necessary lubricant for literary readings. I should have bought a drink, but since I was blogging for this august publication, I wanted to be extra sober. So to honor the the spirit of the evening, I drank water. It was very good.
   The evening started out with Iva Bittova, an artist who is some sort of a cross between Yma Sumac, Diamanda Galas and Jascha Heifetz. I thought that it would have been cooler to have an actual singer/songwriter who writes words for songs, which would have been more appropriate to a festival of writing (this is a euphemism for I wish they had cut the pretentious crap). 
   Another confession I have to make is that I came to this event because I am in love with Hanif Kureishi. It's been a while since my heart fluttered for any writer in a groupie kind of way, but this man makes it happen. And he did not disappoint. His reading was the funniest, most biting, entertaining and lovely reading of the evening. I have such a crush on him, that I spent a good while after his appearance debating whether to stalk him (I could see him standing in the side lines towards the end of the evening), confess my admiration and my passion and have a quick, torrid, fabulous affair with him. He is hot. And smart. And funny (and he has written some very nifty movies: My Beautiful Launderette, Intimacy, The Mother, Venus). As far as I'm concerned, he was the highlight of the evening. I also very much liked the poor soul who had to read right after him, Mircea Cartarescu, with a faux naive, pithy and sardonic poem about his crush on Natalie Wood as a way to escape Romanian reality.
   The foreign writers read in their own languages with a translation provided on screens. It is wonderful to listen to works in a language one doesn't understand and yet one tries to follow the inflection in the voice, or some similar words. As I speak Spanish, I could compare the original language in the poems of Gioconda Belli to the translation. I could not decide if the omission of certain words in the translation was an improvement or not. Belli likes to use words that only appear in literature: nenúfar, velamen, cardúmen, ingrimo, a word I had never heard before, and which means "alone". I also speak Hebrew, but the Hebrew in the poems of Agi Mishol was so poetic there were entire swaths of words that were new to me, even though they sounded like they came from an ancient, mysterious treasure chest.
   Malcolm Gladwell, who said he felt like the segment on Sesame Street in which there is something different from the rest, because he was the only non-fiction writer in the bunch, read a short and effective passage about planes spiraling down. Apparently, because of gravity, when a plane is in spiral descent, you can't really feel it. This will become a small comfort to me from now on every time I fly.  I may not know I am about to die until I disintegrate. Phew.
   In general, I think the writers were divided into two categories (insofar as my own personal taste): precious and non-precious. I am firmly in the camp of the non-precious. That is the reason why I stayed all the way to the end until Wallace Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg read (from Shawn's play The Designated Mourner). Non-precious is an understatement with Shawn. He read a bit in which a character describes how he urinated and then defecated on a book, simply to prove that it was possible. And that's the note the evening ended with. You want freedom? There you have it.

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