Friday, July 13, 2007

Updates on Oates, McGrath, Prose

Joyce Carol Oates read on the last days of Hemingway Wednesday night. She's JCO. What can one say?

And tonight, Thursday, remarkable Ecco Press poet Campbell McGrath read 30 haiku focused on the New Jersey coast in summer, a series of poems surrounding Miami, including one on Lincoln Avenue; and another mentioning Books and Books, the fine Coral Gables bookstore; and another reflecting Hurricane Wilma; and yet another on a toad in a garden fountain. His delightful reflection on all American poets being the children of Walt Whitman and Emily Dickenson took the subject literally, and looked at a house from the standpoint of children now fumbling through the leavings of now absent parents. McGrath is a true talent.

In the split reading, our old friend Francine Prose returned and read a nonfiction piece about a bus station that involved fiction techniques and a fiction piece, a supposedly lost letter from Felice to Kafka, written long after Kafka's death, written at the time that Kafka's letters to Felice were sold for publication. The piece, strange and funny and wondrous, was a tour de force.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Dancing in the Dark

Saratoga and the region suffered a huge power outage and the Skidmore campus, where the Summer Writers Institute is located, went on to generator backup, but that failed, and so a packed auditorium of 150 people sat patiently and enthusiastically in darkness and listened to Charles Simic heroically read his poetry by the light of some flashlights and battery powered camping lamps. Never seen any thing like it, and no one there will likely forget those marvelously odd, strangely surreal poems read, perhaps for the first time, in an environment perfectly suited to them.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Descartes and Rumford

James Miller and our old kinsman, Nick Delbanco read tonight. The former on a particular philosopher, the latter on a polymath who seems to have transcended categorization. Both historical figure, the one was presented in fact, the other in a rollicking, bawdy fiction somewhere among Richardson, Boswell, and, well Tom Jones himself, if he could write.

James Miller read from his new work on brief lives of philosophers (from Socrates and Aristotle to Kant and Nietszche). A very interesting idea, to focus biographies on the subjects least likely to admit to having lives: philosophers - seekers of truth and students of the queen of the sciences. James Miller read parts of his sections on Descartes, and we commend anyone who can lift Descartes back in to shared reality. Long we remember the Discourse on Method, and the Meditations, but Miller took us back, at least twenty years before their publications to recorded journals and diary notes that make Descartes appear somewhere between a jesuitical buddhist focused on the supreme eternal and a pre-freudian on the awareness of self and consciousness, the philosophically famous cogito.

We did not get the whole ball of wax, but Miller left us poised on a cliff's edge between Descartes's sense of meditation and dream, and Descartes sense of a divine force. One gets the impression Miller, who did after all write an intellectual study of Foucault (might there be another type?), will look at least deeper into Descartes's dreams, one of which was articulated by a voice that first said, "Yes, and No."

Nick Delbanco, a man of brightness, vivacity, and measure wrote from his finally completed effort of some twenty years, "The Count of Concord," (due in the spring of 08 from Dalkey Archive), a fictionalized life of Count Rumford, whom Delbanco described as one of FDR's choices for the three greatest Americans: Franklin, Jefferson, and Rumford.

Research Rumford on your own and you'll find that he was a very Ben Franklin-like figure, inventing things at will: from efficient stoves to elegant gardens. The historically accurate Rumford Delbanco gives us is charming, lascivious, sparkling with with and imagination. His reading was a sheer tour de force of nearly over-the-top echoes of eighteenth century purple prose that had people joyously laughing, to a point where Delbanco had to quiet them by breaking his reading mode and addressing the audience: "Look, it's the 18th century!"

There hasn't been a more delightful reading so far in the Summer Institute season so far.

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Sunday, July 8, 2007

A Conversation about Compassion and Writers

After Michael Ondaatje's reading there was a lot of talk about NANCA, the North American Network of Cities of Asylum ( Board members Russell Banks, Caryl Phillips, Carolyn Forche, and Michael Ondaatje were all on site and held an informal meeting. The Writers Institute remains very much interested in the project, and will seek to help in whatever way we can.

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Friday, July 6, 2007

A Nonfiction Night

Linda Spalding read tonight from her new book "Who Named the Knife: A Book of Murder and Memory". It focuses on a murder in Hawaii, where she was living at the time, but it also focuses on the murder's aftermath. Astonishingly.

So it was ironically appropriate that Caryl Phillips, known to us as Caz, read from his forthcoming book, Foreigners, a piece about a Nigerian homeless man in Leeds, a man who might well have been killed by the local police. Beyond that Caz read a terrifically moving piece of autobiography - in 10 chapters as he said - each about as long as the blink of an eye. But it was about as moving as a piece of work could be.

And all the way home we listened to Bruce Springsteen singing "I came for you."

Cheers to all.

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Thursday, July 5, 2007

Independence Day

Frank Bidart, as Mary Gordon so aptly said, sets the bar high. The two read together last night, 4th of July, and to be purposely trite, they created their own fireworks. Mary Gordon's story about a divorced woman and the cleaning girl who becomes her personal assistant has a perfect roundness, the projections of the woman, a writer, on to the cipher of Dillie, the girl, mark the writer's own movement through loss to re-inventing her own life. In the process the very nature of writing is put into question in a most compelling way.

Something is happening with Frank Bidart's poetry. Known widely as a writer of long poems, dramatic poems, book-length poems, Frank Bidart has turned to lyric poetry, and the power of his work has become more concentrated, so that one feels the impact of his work like a body blow. In a brief piece on Marilyn Monroe, Bidart writes: "what you came from is craziness, what your/ mother and her mother came from is// craziness, panic of the animal/ smelling what you have in store for it."

More to come.

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Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Independence Day Greetings

Tonight, Frank Bidart and Mary Gordon read - 8pm Palamountain Hall on the Skidmore Campus in Saratoga Springs. Wonderful day here, wonderful.

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Help Us Get the Word Out

Happy Fourth!

Liz Benedict read with Katha Pollitt on the 3rd of July, and the two were dynamic. Liz, who has worked extensively with the Institute read new work and a fun piece about sex-blogging (of all things) that she published with fellow teacher James Miller in his edited Dedaelus.

We slipped away to hear Jason Moran and his post-jazz trio, who were playing in the Summer Jazz Institute.

Wow. His "Artist in Residence" on EMI is one of the best Cd's we've heard in a long while.

We've agreed that we should focus on fashion across the summer. Peg Boyers wears a beautiful Missoni shawl. Marry Gordon wears beautifully symmetrical shoes. Frank Bidart's classic black on black on black on black is well saluted, as is the fact that William Kennedy inherited his father's 200 ties.

Let us look ahead to our literary 4th of July.

Cheers to all!

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Monday, July 2, 2007

New York State Summer Writers Institute opens

For all of us July brings a bounce in spirit and a sense of the magical. But at the Summer Writers Institute (AND the Summer Young Writers Institute this week at Lake George), there is a zany sense of possibility. Writers from all over gather, talk, share their work, and enjoy the pleasure of summer in Saratoga. We will try and blog through most of the time - tonight Lloyd Schwartz stood in for Richard Howard, our traditional opener.

Tomorrow, Liz Benedict and Katha Pollitt share the podium, and from there it's a week-long race with Mary Gordon, Caz Phillips, Linda Spalding, and Michael Ondaatje.

Join us for events at Palamountain Hall on the Skidmore Campus, or consider our retreats to the Parting Glass for darts, or the garden at the Adelphi Hotel after our receptions in Case Hall, but better, don't. Let us retreat in privacy and comfort and congeniality. We will demonstrate enough of that in our readings. Welcome to the glorious summer!

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