Fran Lebowitz May 3,2013 Tishman Auditorium
photos by Phil Richardson
Tararith Koe, Cambodian poet
(translator: Aisha Down)
The following blog was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Judith Benét Richardson.
Jeremy McCarter was the skillful moderator of this fascinating panel, introducing immediately the Festival’s theme of bravery.
Colm Tóibín, the author of the novel TESTAMENT OF MARY, replied that in a now more secular Ireland, he had only needed private bravery, to face the lurking Catholic attachments of his own youth. Fiona Shaw, the actress who plays Mary, also looked beyond what she felt was the arid Christianity of her childhood to old stories of the goddess. Deborah Warner, director of the play and raised a Quaker, felt it was extraordinary that no one had written as Tóibín has about Mary.
My notes are written like dialogue, but of course I am only paraphrasing and hope I don’t do these dynamic speakers an injustice.
JM: How did the novel become a play?
CT: It was better for them (FS & DW) that it was a novel, as it gave them more scope. They had to create the imagery.
FS: CT is a visionary like Blake, but the theater is more crude. It has to be more rooted, developing in action.
JM: how long did developing the play take?
CT: MUCH longer. We talked about it for years, but they had to leave me out of most of it. “Writer go home. Writer shut up.”
FS: You have to see what will stand up theatrically.
CT: They needed to get down to 5 or 6 stories.
DW: High energy stories. It is so great to have a novel behind you.
CT: I was writing for a voice.
FS: But Mary doesn’t speak the way she would have, because there was a literary mind behind her voice. You get strange tenses when Mary tells stories as “what I heard.”
JM: The Reverend Jane Shaw described the play as a sermon.
DW: It is not a sermon, but it is definitely a spiritual work.
FS: We needed to make the ordinary poetical and vice versa.
CT: It was a bit like Wallace Stevens’s SUNDAY MORNING, in the effort to understand the truth of the matter, the ordinariness of the extraordinary.
FS: Must meditate on the reality of what really happens. We thought of the mother of Osama bin Laden.
In answering a question about protests against the play, the panelists felt they were nothing like previous protests in the Irish theater.
DW: Twenty-five years ago when we did ELECTRA in Derry, the audience was totally silent at the end of the play. Then someone stood up and said they wanted talk about it. It was very exciting.
CT: We’d like to do MARY in Gaza…or Tel Aviv. We need to address beliefs that lead to violence.
FS: Mary tells us she is not without sin, which makes the play humane and compassionate.
JM: Has this been a spiritual experience?
DW: Theater is a spritual experience, close to what church can be.
CT: There is a close connection between church and theater.
JM: As a child in the Catholic church, I was told every week that I was going to see a miracle - a good preparation for the theater! Is it tiring to play the part of Mary?
FS: Tiring, but worth it, if I can carry the audience with me.
Question from audience: How did you feel about the nude scene?
FS: I just do it. It has its place in the play.
JM: It’s short.
Q: How do you feel about your play being called blasphemous?
CT: Freedom of religion is fundamental, but so is freedom of speech. Both must be honored.
FS: MARY is a work of the imagination, not theology.
Q: Why did you have Mary feed a rabbit to a bird?
CT: I wanted an image of pure cruelty, the cruelty that is within us all.
Q: How do you reconcile your story with Mary as the handmaiden of the Lord?
FS: That was a story as well.
CT: I took my bearings from 15th century painters who tried to paint a real person. And, I taught a course here at the New School called RELENTLESSNESS. I wanted to write a relentless play. I drove along the Turkish coast and worked toward finding my rhythm. The landscape helped me find my rhythm.
Q: How did you develop the stage setting?
DW: There was only one written stage direction: NOW.
We tried hawks, rabbits and finally a vulture. We had Mary in a glass box with the vulture for awhile. It was a very long process. Production is very difficult.
End of panel.
The following blog was written by PEN World Voices correspondent Judith Benét Richardson.
A.M. Homes seemed to enjoy drawing Fran Lebowitz’s fire for all to enjoy. In other words, they seemed to be friends.
Fran Lebowitz, famously witty and acerbic, showed that side of herself, but her remarks reflected a search for truth. She says herself that she is an observer. She pays attention, as fewer and fewer people seem to do.
Freedom of speech? Yes, but we should also have the freedom of not listening.
Bravery, the theme of this year’s PEN festival? Americans think they are brave if they are in a triathalon.
Micro-apartments Mayor Bloomberg hopes to build? We don’t need a billionaire to decide how big an apartment we need. Already the reason you see so much furniture on the streets is that there is no room for it in New Yorkers’ tiny apartments. But it does give tourists somewhere to sit, which Bloomberg loves because he does everything in NYC for tourists.
What is forgiveness? Forgiving people is Christian. The Jewish God is a judge. Lebowitz played a judge on TV and now in movies. She is hoping to become a Supreme Court judge, which is possible, as they don’t need to have gone to law school. (Insert here mean remarks about Clarence Thomas). The Supreme Court is the fountain of youth; they all live to be really old. Their cases are really easy, but even then, they get them wrong. Bush vs. Gore? Should we have counted the votes? Yes. That’s what democracy is. You count the votes.
Public school system? White people need to send their kids, and we need to forget about the business model. Business is only about making money, and schools are much more complicated.
There were many more riffs - weather channels, insomnia, Hurricane Sandy, writer’s block. And a story about going camping for one night so she could be on the cover of OUTSIDE MAGAZINE.
Gay marriage? She would vote for it, as many of her friends would like it, but she would not like it for herself, personally. Being gay used to have two perks: you didn’t have to get married and you didn’t have to go in the military. Why give these up?
Art world? There is no longer an art world, only an art market.
Contemporary art? Nothing new for 35 years.
Grammar? Only Catholics learned grammar, as the nuns were allowed to hit their students, which is the only way to teach a subject that has no logic, only rules.
Writing is so hard, she said, that the only worse thing is being a coal-miner. What she does mostly is read. But we should be glad she also likes to talk, as we came away refreshed from an encounter with a lively and insightful mind.
A.M.Homes did a wonderful job as Leibowitz’s companion on this whirlwind tour, goading and encouraging her to ever greater flights, not of fancy, but reality.
This star-studded panel presented some of their favorite poets to an appreciative audience on Wednesday evening at the New School. Alice Quinn introduced them as “all log-rollers,” and beamed through the readings like a benevolent deity.
Mary Karr introduced us to the “bitter wisdom” of Zbigniew Herbert, sometimes in the voice of his Mr. Cogito. Her compelling voice matched the fierceness of Herbert’s words.
Paul Auster spoke movingly of his friend George Oppen. Auster’s descriptive talents gave us a vivid picture of the poet at home in San Francisco, wearing a funny coat on a walk and putting only his pipe in a gym locker before exercising. Auster keeps a tiny etching of canaries by Oppen’s wife as a talisman of this poet’s humble songs. Humble he may have been, but politically brave and exiled in Mexico during the McCarthy years.
Yusuf Komunyakaa chose Muriel Ruykeyser, whom he wishes he could have known. He admires her “lack of hesitation” as a young woman; she went to West Virginia to write of the miners and the alternate Olympics in Italy in 1937. She seemed determined to learn of “the other,” and was drawn to folk lore, jazz and blues. Komunyakaa gave a powerful reading of her incantatory poem, each line beginning with “For that….”
Henri Cole, speaking of James Merrill, evoked other kinds of bravery. There can be great bravery in silence, Cole said. He sees Merrill as a visionary like Blake and Yeats, and his reading of “The Christmas Tree,” gave us a feel for Merrill’s vision and the courage.
Beautiful photos of some of these poets when they were young were projected on the screen behind the speakers. Who knew Joseph Brodsky was so handsome? Edward Hirsch gave a little history of the school dropout, the many languages, the “nostalgia for world culture,” the trial as “parasite Brodsky,” the tragedy of his emigration. But somehow, as with the other poets, the readings were so filled with life and power that it was hard to feel tragic.
When Eleen Myles read from Akilah Oliver’s poems, her own joy in reading them uplifted the audience.
Hilton Als read from Brenda O’Shaugnessy’s book INTERIOR WITH SUDDEN JOY and described poetry as “a burst of joy in an enclosed room.” He was a charming reader and interjected a bit of his own life story into “I Wish I Had More Sisters,” which is a daring thing to do, but in his case worked out just fine.
It was a wonderful evening - hearing such passion in the voices of these writers when they spoke of those who inspired or consoled them and listening to some great poems, reminded many of us what we really care about, and why PEN is so important.
Lyn Miller-Lachmann’s description of this event was excellent, but I did want to add a few further notes.
I attended this event with my daughter, an Asian-American teacher in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn. She was especially riveted by the story of Arn Chorn-Pond and his journey from the killing fields of Cambodia to Lowell, Massachusetts. His work in human rights, using the arts as a medium, was inspiring to her. Especially she was glad he spoke of the need to be there, on the ground, taking action. That we are now hearing his story NEVER FALL DOWN, though, is due to Patricia McCormick, who looks a bit like Shirley Temple, but is not afraid to venture into mine fields to interview members of the Khmer Rouge.
Patricia McCormick was interesting on the part of the UN charter article 14 that gives children the right to leave dangerous areas in time of war, though it might be difficult to put into effect. Wojciech Jagielski spoke of human and children’s rights in war, when of course rights are violated on every side, saying it should be a crime to have children in the army, even in a “noble cause.” Jagielski spoke to warlords in Africa who especially recruited 9 and 10 year olds, because they could be molded into good soldiers; the warlords said the children volunteered. These two speakers embody the best of journalism and non-fiction writing for young adults; both of them are courageous seekers after stories the world needs to hear.
It was too bad this event was so sparsely attended, but the timing, 5:30 on Saturday, probably didn’t help. I hope next year any panel like this could be more highly featured.
-Judith Benét Richardson
Aleksandar Hemon was a wonderful moderator for this interesting group of writers, as he takes so seriously the idea that we must read works from other countries, translate them, discuss them, and understand where they are coming from.
Róbert Gál from Slovakia, Nöelle Revaz from Switzerland and Patrick Boltshauser from Lichtenstein each in their own way, made us see the rewards of making this effort. Appropriately enough, we met at the New School, in a classroom.
Gál studied philosophy for many years and prefers to write aphorisms. Hemon joked with him about the impossibility of publishing a book of aphorisms in Slovakia and reaching readers. Gál said that for this reason he embedded his aphorisms in a novel and published in English; he feels philosophy is useful to any writer, as it is the art of asking questions.
Noëlle Revaz wrote WITH THE ANIMALS in a kind of invented French with “mistakes,” to forge her identity as a Swiss writer. Some French readers believed she was writing in a Swiss dialect. She travels widely in Europe and teaches at a bilingual Institute, which helps to enlarge her world.
Patrick Boltshauser felt liberated in writing by high German, and by the first adult novel he read: Crime and Punishment. His mother was a bookseller. On the website of the Dalkey Press you can read more about these writers.
All of them agreed they feel European, even though Switzerland and Lichtenstein are not actually part of Europe. Gál said he never felt more European than when he lived in Israel, though he is Jewish. They are all at least bilingual.
Hemon quoted Brodsky’s saying “poetry is what is gained in translation,” as a rebuttal to Frost’s “poetry is what is lost in translation.” As to the difficulties, Revaz spoke of tranlators having to find their own music, especially in a book like hers which is somewhat invented. A representative of the Dalkey press was on this panel and spoke of the way they choose books for the BEST EUROPEAN FICTION volumes. They could not even read all the contributions unless they were translated.
As for American writing, Revaz always thinks of the “new” as coming from America. Gál finds Americans more experimental, but on the whole the writers seemed to agree with Hemon that “literature is an open field to which there are many entrances.”
The audience for this charming and erudite group seemed to agree that we had expanded our horizons and should rush to the back table to purchase THE BEST OF EUROPEAN WRITING 2012.
- Judith Benét Richardson
This extremely crowded event in a small room of Deutsches Haus in Washington Mews could certainly have been held in a larger venue, but was riveting to those who managed to squeeze in the doors.
The dramatic-looking Müller, who in her photos can resemble a Japanese noh actor, revealed her personal side as an impassioned partisan of language and truth.
The Nobel speech, which she read, is posted on the Deutsches Haus website and I believe a video will be also. Though she made intellectual points, the thoughts were grounded in imagery which dramatized her stories.
When we arrived, the words on the screen were:
When we don’t speak,/we become unbearable,/and when we do,/we make fools of ourselves./ Can literature bear witness?
In the question period, at first Müller almost seemed shy and to be searching for words, but soon warmed up to the very appreciative audience. Though slowed a bit by translation, (which was very well done), Müller made long answers; in the end of course dealing with both English and German helped to make points about language and communication.
Müller spoke of her childhood languages: a German dialect, high German and Romanian, each of which had its own role in shaping her voice. For instance, for a long time she rejected her childhood dialect, out of fear that it would come after her and trap her.
She spoke a great deal about fear, silence and lies. She is really very difficult to paraphrase, but fascinating to listen to about the politics of her countries. She gave us an interesting view of PEN during the reunification of Germany. Many writers, she among them, left PEN as the difficulties of unification were not addressed when GDR PEN and PEN in West Germany were joined. Müller said, sounding bitter, that the joining of the two PEN groups had been rushed by, among others, especially Günter Grass. The result was not an organization she could participate in. She spoke of this in answer to a question about why she was not a member of the Academy of the Arts in Berlin.
A last question was, what is being silenced in democracy?
“There will always be silence,” Müller said. New taboos arrive, in private or public lives, and the past will come back to haunt you.
- Judith Benét Richardson