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TWF14: The Law and Order Episode of Who Killed the Essay March 24, 2014

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, lyric essay, memoir, New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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“This is the Law and Order episode of Who Killed the Essay,” moderator John Freeman said to open the Tennessee Williams Festival panel “The Return of the Essay.” “Someone killed it. We’re going to find out later from Lennie Briscoe,” the character from the crime drama franchise. Panelists Dani Shapiro, Kiese Laymon and Roxanne Gay promptly put a bullet in the head of Freeman’s metaphor.

“The essay isn’t dead, it never died,” panelist Roxanne Gay shot back. “We have the arrogance in this age of believing that we’re going to be the end of literature when it has been around for millenia. That is always appalling to me. The book is dying. Are you kidding me? People were writing books on rice paper. Calm down. Books aren’t going anywhere, readers aren’t going anywhere. I think things are shifting. The essay from Montaigne to [fellow panelist] Kiese, we’re still doing it. I think we’re in the golden age of the essay. I’ve never read more stunning essays than the ones I read every single day and the art hasn’t been perfected because it can’t be perfected but people are practicing it at such a level. If the essay is dead, then the afterlife is quite wonderful.”

“The internet has done a lot of terrible things, but one of the best things it’s done has democratize this writing thing. It has allowed us to read all these amazing essays,” Laymon said. “I think there was a golden age. I think [James] Baldwin was the golden age. Every day, or every other day, I read an essay on the Internet that actually scares me as a writer. I think those are the best essays, I think s— I can’t do it. I just can’t do it as well as other people can do it. Now we have people not waiting for crusty editors to say: here’s your stamp that says, now you can put it out there. Also it puts out some art that is not so great, but it’s also allowed me to read some of the greatest essays that I have read in my life.”

“I don’t think we can know a golden age that we’re in one,” Dani Shapiro, countered. “I will admit tweeting this morning the title of this panel and saying, I don’t think it’s vanished. I also think it’s worth noting that the word essay means attempt, to attempt to get something right and true and universal and authentic down on the page. That’s like saying human nature is dead.”

Freeman asked his panelists: “If style is a struggle and essay is an attempt, what are you attempting in an essay? What makes you want to put the struggle in that form?”

“There’s an urgency when I’m writing an essay,” Gay explained. “Something has gotten under my skin. One of the first essays that got under my skin. One of the first essays that got my attention was “The Careless Language of Sexual Violence”. It was about a young girl that was raped in Cleveland, Texas. The New York Times wrote a story about the town–poor, poor town–and think of these poor boys but there were like 30 of them. The magnitude of the crime was horrific and the shoddiness of the reporting was also horrific. I went into this fugue state trying to temper my rage with understanding how we got to a place as a culture where we’re worrying about a town instead of this 11 year-old girl. The essays that I love writing the most are where I’m trying to make sense of this crazy world, but also acknowledge the god in this world.”

“Kiese, you [mention] the fact that an essay is going to deal some collateral damage to their family, because the wedge into a topic is not just your experience. It’s everything you grew up with. I wonder if you could talk about writing about your family and those essays and how you weighed what you would actually reveal because the truths you tell are quite difficult.”

“I feel like I’ve been writing about that question in my essays and my fiction. I come from a family in central Mississippi. I was raised by my mother. She was 19 when she had me. I went to graduate school and went to stay with my grandmother [also] in Mississippi. They’re both wonderful, brilliant people but whenever they got around white people their wonder and their brilliance and their thickness shrunk, and I think a lot of time they want me to also shrink my brilliance on the page. In [one] essay I talk about my mother pulling a gun on me when I was 19, partially because she wanted me to act right. I was trying to say in that essay there is a consequence to acting right in this country especially for folks of color…I think we talk about the consequences too often of not acting right, but there is a self consequence for acting right.

“Form is really important for me and I’m pushing back against forms and against my mom and I was trying to push back against my inclination to write predictable punditry. My inclination is to just write the traditional, standard essays that will make people say, ‘that’s a smart African-American man’ as opposed to being a potentially revelatory Black human being.” Later in the panel he added, “I come from a community where sadness, funk, funny happens all the time and I was being encouraged to take the funk and funny out.”

“Dani, you’ve written about your family in two memoirs, and this book Still Writing, it looks like a book about writing but then it’s threaded through with all these tiny memoirs,” Freeman asked Shapiro. “Did you find that to write about writing did you have to write about your family?”

“When it comes to form and when it comes to realism, it feels like in the last ten years of my writing life things have been breaking apart. The more I try to make something whole the more it breaks apart. I think what you just said about realism and the surreality that is at the core of it in some way is so true: the puzzle like structure, my last memoir Devotion was puzzle-like, every essay that I’ve written in the last five years. When I started Still Writing I was writing a blog because my publisher told me I had to write a blog. And I was thinking what can I blog about that’s not going to make me want to stick pins in my eyes every day. What I wanted to write about was how to do this every day. I didn’t want to write another book about craft. I wanted to write about what it takes: the courage, the tenacity, the persistence, the resistance. Then I started getting letters from people says, ‘I really needed this today’ and I thought, people are actually asking me to write a book. How often does that happen?”

“I’m reading this and what is it like to revise your life, the story of your life in public.” Freeman said.

“I think it would be an amazing thing for the same writer to spend an entire writing life writing the same memoir every ten years because it would be a different book every ten years because the relationship between the self and the story is the story. When I wrote Slow Motion [arising from the death of her father] I had feeling that this was the before and after moment. I wasn’t old enough to know that there is more than one before and after moment. It was also my son’s illness fifteen years later, and my mother’s death.

There was an essay in Ploughshares that was called “Plane Crash Theory.” I think it’s my best essay. It began shortly after 9-11, my infant son was dropped down a flight of stairs by a baby sitter and for months and months I couldn’t write a thing. It was all in the shadow of 9-11 and felt like a shadow had flown over our house and was hovering there. I was having coffee with a friend of mine in Brooklyn who’s a writer and I said, ‘I haven’t written a word since Jacob fell down the stairs’ and she said, ‘that’s your first sentence’. I couldn’t tell the whole story because the essay couldn’t contain that he was dropped down the stairs but that a few weeks earlier I had noticed these little movements and he was later diagnosed with this rare seizure disorder. An essay couldn’t contain both of those, so I took all of my anxiety and my fear and my feeling of–writing, what is the point of it–but finding a way to pour all of that into a very disciplined form and tell the whole story emotionally and not tell the whole story, what to leave in and what to leave out, which is such an important part of writing memoir and essay.”

“I think one of my most popular essays to write was the hardest to write,” Gay said in a comment that resonated for me in the post-Katrina room. “It was about The Hunger Games, because I love, love, love the Hunger Games to insanity. I started to think what is it about the Hunger Games that captures me as an adult because they are YA . There is a young woman in the novel Katniss, she has to endure the unendurable over and over again is that it showed PTSD as it is, as something that cannot necessarily be cured but something that you learn to live with, and as something that will shape the decisions you will make.”

Freeman asked the panelists if there was someone, an essayist, who opened a door and what they did. “I would say in a word [Joan] Didion if it was an essayist,” Shapiro said. “Grace Pailey was for me an example of the life of a writer, a life I wanted in some way. When I think of Grace I think of her sentences, I think of her fiction, the distillation, a certain kind of minimalism before there was minimalism. She was tremendously important to me.”

Gay, after citing the encourage of her parents from age four, cited Edith Wharton. “She was doing it when women weren’t encouraged” to write. “She is the master of the elegant sentence.” And Zadie Smith: “she is fierce. She makes me feel like I can do anything with the word.” Laymon also talked about his grandmother’s influence. “My grandmother taught me how to work. She worked at a chicken plant and the way she talked about it, the craft, she made me feel I was beautiful.” His essayist pick was James Baldwin. “The Fire Next Time was the first book that I really, really read. I would tear it apart. Ultimately I think I became the writer I want to be because in The Fire Next Time, someone who was so great could not make space for Black women. You could be so sublime and so great and not make space for this entire group of people you should make space for. Baldwin’s otherworldliness is something I could aspire for, not just because of his prose but because of the gaps in his prose.”

TWF14: Untangling the skein of memory March 22, 2014

Posted by The Typist in books, memoir, New Orleans, Odd Words, Tennessee Williams Festival, Toulouse Street.
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A book on authors who knit was not what I expected when I walked into the panel An Examined Life: The Mysteries of Memoir but as Ann Hood pointed out “knitting is a metaphor for life.” Both her personal obsession with knitting and her novel The Knitting Circle grew out of trying to cope with her own tragic loss of a child. She also authored a memoir about the loss of her daughter Grace, COMFORT: A JOURNEY THROUGH GRIEF but knitting proved to be her best coping mechanism “After my first knitting lesson I realize I got through two-and-a-half hours without crying.” She soon discovered other authors who knit, and decided to pitch her new book Knitting Yarns: Writers on Knitting. She took her editors grunt when she pitched the idea as a yes, and ended up with 27 essays by authors who knit and how it changed their life. When she read her own audio book, she imagined the “fedora-wearing Brooklyn hipster” who was her audio engineer must have thought he had drawn the worst assignment ever, but she said he confessed to crying by the end of the four days by the stories he heard.

An Examined Life covered a lot of ground, some of it at the edge of memoir, but the four authors on the panel–Hood, Blake Bailey, Lila Quintero Weaver and Emily Raboteau–all authored recent books that attempt to reclaim a part of their lives. Bailey’s story of his brother, who fell into drugs and died by suicide, is the closest to true memoir. “Scott was the better brother, the more promising of [us] two before he started to go off the rails. We should have landed in the same place and we didn’t and I decided to write [the book] to figure out why.”

Quintero Weaver’s Dark Room: A Memoir in Black and White, a graphic-novel approach to a tale of growing up a Latin American immigrant in rural Alabama during the civil rights movement is, by her description, as much a book about place: what Odd Words likes to call a geo-memoir. Her father was the town’s only photographer, but the illustrations in the book are all Quintero Weaver’s. Raboteau’s exploration of African-Americans who moved to Israel and Africa looking for a place that felt like home was driven by her own desire to find her identity as a bi-racial child of the 1960s who grew up in New Jersey constantly answering the question “where are you from?” and ends with a return to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, the town her parents fled after her grandfather was lynched.

Solace and closure, the discovery of one’s real place in life and the world, are the meat of memoir. Only Bailey’s and perhaps Quintero Weaver’s books would be easy to file in the bookstore under memoir, but all drew deep on the author’s desire to understand critical events of their own lives.

Asked by moderator Nancy Dixon how their families’ reacted to their books, Bailey replied, “it was brutal. If you’re the sort of person who frets about what your family will think you’re in the wrong genre.” Quintero Weaver responded about the reaction of the people of the small Alabama town she writes about. No one would tell her exactly why they didn’t like the book but suspects “they want to move on.” Marion was at the center of the Civil Rights movement and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson while the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was in town led to the historic march from Selma to Montgomery. She heard second-hand that the president of the Chamber of Commerce said, “we don’t want her book in our town.”

Hood summed up what is required of the memoir author: “You have to write like you’re an orphan.”

Earlier in the day, novelist Justin Torres spoke of his own approach to putting a life’s experiences down into words in his bildungsroman We The Animals,the story of his own gradual “orphaning” from his family. “When I started, I was writing back to my family…I’d been ejected [for coming out queer] and the original motivation was anger.” Torres brief, 125-page tale of three brothers is fictionalized, although after reading it one brother told him of an episode, “I remember that.” “You can’t,” Torres replied. “I made it up.” Later he added, “I did not write my memoir. This is not my life. This is the emotional texture of my life.”

Asked toward the end how his family initially reacted to the book, Torres said “I hurt them. You don’t tell family secrets. I don’t know that I did the right thing but I believe in art.”

Torres’ interview with Festival Programming Director J.R. Ramakrishnan was titled “The Super Sleek Novel” and a great deal of the discussion was about the brevity of the novel and how it achieves its goals in such a short space. When he went to New York, every publisher he met with told him they loved the book, but he needed to write another 100 pages. Novels are supposed to be 250 pages long, he was told over and over again. The last editor he met with also responded positively to the book, and Torres told her, “but you want me to write another hundred pages, right?” but she said no.

The book unfolds as a series of very short chapters, each unveiling one small aspect of the character’s life growing up with his two brothers. “Super compressed, super distilled chapters: that’s what works for me. I could be very poetic and still get to the point…little movements that were so complete and yet captured the world. What I really like about the short form is you are always creating tension and then there is a little climax.” Most of the chapters begin in the first person plural before moving to the first person. “The idea of we is we feel a collective personality as children, [my brothers and I] had this non-verbal way of understanding each other” and as the book progresses the characters gradually lose that, subtly depicting the gradual unraveling of childhood and Torres’ own place in his family.

Asked if he could write with the same passion if he were not writing from his personal experience, Torress said, “I think that what is true is the kind meaning you make out of your experience. We’re all thrown here on this earth and there’s no meaning, it’s chaos. A lot of writers are communicating the way they found meaning in this world. That’s inherently personal You have to find a way to create meaning. I choose to write from personal experience. I choose to keep it close. Also, because I feel [as] a mixed-race, queer, working-class dude, it’s political in a lot of ways. I’m really interested in intersectionality, I’m very interested in the ways i which my various identities are constructed socially…its absolutely possible to due to that in fiction” as well as writing from personal experience.

Torres never names the parents in his book. “They really are archetypes of our ideas of masculinity and femininity. I made a myth out of them to essentialize them….[t]here is a lot of opportunity for projection” in the book, and he says he frequently is told by readers that’s exactly what my experience was like. “There’s such a universal element in the book” a lot of people see their own families and experiences in it. “I hope the book breaks people’s hearts because we need to keep breaking people’s hearts.”

TWF14: Our Steampunk Copyright Law March 20, 2014

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Current copyright “is something of a steampunk law…full of Rube Goldberg contraptions,” New Orleans intellectual property attorney Marie Breaux told the Tennessee Williams Festival Master Class on copyright. “The copyright is not of our time…was drafted to address analog issues.” It does not fit any longer because publication is defind in very physical terms. “What happen to a journal that is only published online? We have some guidance from the Registrar [of Copyrights] but we just don’t know.”

“It may be OK for a library to scn a work and email it to a patron but not to post it on the website,” she gave as one example. And shoe-horning software into the literary copyright box is equally problematic, expecially the idea of work-for-hire when we “live in a freelance world.”  Most distrubing of all, she suggests that copyright is killing books. “You’re more able to find a book from 1880 than 1980.” As books fall out of print getting rights clearances discourges other publishers from reissuing a title.

“It’s time for a new law. This is not Marie Breaux, coyright attorney from New Orleans ,” but she says the Registar has said it is time for a new law. Breaux gave an excellent summary of the history of copyright, from the earliest recorded pronouncement of an Irish king who asserted that St. Columba had no right to copy a psalter written and illuminated by St. Finian. He ruled, “to every cow, it’s calf. To every book its copy.”  England produced the first copyright law, protecting the exclusive rights of printers who reproduced ancient works. In the United States the basis of copyright was written into the Constitution, the authors anxious to encourage innovation in writing and inventions by providing the protections of copyright and patent.

Nation-based copyright law ran into problems with internationalization in the 19th century. Herman Melville first published Moby Dick in Britian to secure copyright there before the American edition was issued, Breaux explained. However the British publisher accidentally omitted the Epilogue, and British reviewers uniformally panned the book as nonsensible. American newsapers picked up with British reviews (as there were no international copyright agreements), and the book flopped into obscurty based on the British reviews. Charles Dickens also had problems with the United States. He had an official U.S. publisher but no protection from others who reprinted his works without permission or compensation.

Today’s problems with antiquainted law is “we are all infringers,” whether we are forwarding an email (violating the implied copyright of the original author), or coying content from the web and sending it to a friend or reposting it, and even by singing “Happy Birthday”  without permission of the publisher. The last illustrates one problem with current copyright law. Over the last century the length of copyright has been continally extended. Breaux used the example of the first Mickey Mouse cartoon “Steamboat Willy.” Everytime that work approaches falling into the public domain, there are amendments to extend the life of copyrights.

The landsape is already changing in response to the Internet and other technologies. She cited the Creative Commons License, which does not alter the copyright but establishes various grants of rights for works put into easiy reproducable forms such as on the Internet. She also cited a growing movement among scholars for Open Source Publication. Many scholarly articles produced by goverment-education scientists doing goverment-subisidized work wind up in scholarly journals that are only available on the Internet behind paywalls. Getty Images, the long-time enforcer of copyright protection for professional photographers, has created an application that allows embedding non-water marked images inside an embedable application that allows Getty to retain control.

“Can we put the toothpaste back in the tube?” one of her cloing PowerPoint (c) slides asked. “Nope” was her answer. “The [current] copyright [law] is not for our time.”

Assaying the State of the Essay March 24, 2013

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Sunday’s panel on Creative Non-Fiction at the Tennessee Williams festival spent much time answering Adam Kirch’s infamous (well, to some of us) essay in the New Republic, “The New Essayists, or the Decline of a Form? The essay as reality television.” Novelist and Tulane professor Thomas Beller, the author of a series of personal essays titled How To Be A Man suggested that the readers and writers of the current explosion of personal essays have mixed motivations. Essayists look to be “a legitimate [interior] voice speaking to the outside world” but that too many writers suffer from what Dorothy Parker called “the frankies”, the desire to share beyond their own best interest and that of the reader.” Readers, he said, were often “looking for somebody to make a fool of themselves.”

Panelist John Jeremiah Sullivan was one of Kirsh’s first targets: “A talented writer such as John Jeremiah Sullivan might, fifty years ago, have tried to explore his complicated feelings about the South, and about race and class in America, by writing fiction, following in the footsteps of Walker Percy and Eudora Welty. Instead he produced a book of essays, called Pulphead, on the same themes; and the book was received with the kind of serious attention and critical acclaim that were once reserved for novels.” The Southern Editor of the Paris Review and contributor to GQ, Harper’s Magazine and Oxford American took exception to the idea that essayists, especially those who write for magazines are somehow beneath literary notice. He called it “cultural eugenics’ and a reject of 300 years of English literary history to attack magazine writers or suggest the essay was dead. “Lamb, Hazlitt, de Quincy were all writing for magazines” but are presented now cleaned up and anthologized.

Beller said that too many essays today are predictable. “Too many essays even in the best magazines, from the first two paragraphs you know where they’re going.” He praised Sullivan’s work for its twists and turns. comparing them to early Paul McCartny songs. “They are like three or four songs all strung together.” Panelist Elena Passarello, author of Let Me Clear My Throat and a contributor to Creative Nonfiction, Oxford American and Slate, turned to writing and essays in particular after a career in acting. says she tries to creative performative moments on the page. “The essays that fire on all cylinders show the workings of a human mind, [the author’s] or another’s.” Beller, who suggested something similar earlier (see above) said the form also allows writers to take “their eccentricities out into the world,” which lead to a discussion of his own contribution to the New York Times Food section on the peanut butter and pickle sandwich.

Exotic Romancing March 24, 2013

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Is New Orleans truly the most exotic locale in the United States, or just the victim of good press? Panel moderator David Johnson started out the Tennessee Williams Festival panel on Writing New Orleans: The Most “Exotic” Place in America with a famous quote by Williams: “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

Noted geographer and author Richard Campanella was quick to challenge the prevailing notion. Buying into the exoticism “privileges for the picturesque” when the residents of the city do not spend 365 days a year at Carnival or second lines or watching Mardi Gras Indians. He traced the notion of the city’s reputation as the initial collision of newly arrived Americans with the original Creole settlers and the Spanish Administration, and writers of that initial period set the stage for those who would follow and set the exotic tag firmly in place: Grace King, Lafcadio Hearn and Lyle Saxon. “They romanticized it and it was picked up by the city’s industrialized tourist industry.”

Kim Marie Vaz stood up for the city’s exotic reputation. “We generate our own exoticism because our culture is unique,” the author of a recent work on the carnival Baby Dolls asserted. Writer Nathaniel Rich suggested the city preserves its exotic aspects because it is “the most self-referential city in American. It doesn’t care what’s going on outside” which he said was the source of the city’s “wonder and problems.” New Yorker Thomas Beller, now a Tulane professor, said when he first moved to New Orleans he was trying to impose his own internal geography onto the city, and came to recognize the city’s troubled side as “the New York I grew up in the 1970s.” He found the city’s character was created in part by a disposition to holding onto things and investing objects with an emotional value.”

Campanella said much of the current influx of new residents to the city can be traced to its exotic reputation. Beller said the influx of new residents more inclined to progress and preservation “provokes kind of allergic reaction” among many New Orleanians. “They really are upset about the erasure that goes along with that. And I’m a bit more inclined to favor the holding onto things. New Orleans is very good for that.” Asked about the city’s continuing ability to absorb new residents into the existing culture without erasure, Campanella said “it’s not the end of history. It’s the next chapter.” Vaz said the culture would continue to change and grow. “You have a lot of people who are working 365 days a year to preserve the culture.”

Vaz and Campanella traced much of the city’s exotic reputation to early writers like Heard and King, but called out Lyle Saxon of the famous WPA Guide to New Orleans and Robert Talent, author of several books promoting the city’s exotic legend. “My work is a reaction of the exoticism of Talent and Saxon,” Vaz said of her work on the Baby Dolls, an old carnival tradition that grew out of the city’s segregated prostitution district as a marching krewe of Black sex workers. “People are surprised that [much of the culture] came out of intense segregation.” Campanella agreed that academic writers are questioning the past focus on the “exoticism and exceptionalism.”

Thomas Beller is the author of two works of fiction, Seduction Theory and The Sleep-Over Artist, and a collection of personal essays How To Be A Man. Richard Campanella is a geographer with the Tulanue University School of Architecture and the author of six critically acclaimed books, including Bienville’s Dilema: A Historical Geography of New Orleans. Nathaniel Rich is the author of two novels, Odds Against Tomorrow and The Mayor’s Tongue. Kim Marie Vaz is an associate dean and professor at Xavier University and author of The BABY DOLLS: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition.

The Geography of Pleasure March 23, 2013

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That was the money quote at Friday’s panel on New Orleans in the 1920s: Bohemia, Baby Dolls and Storyville, from panelist Alecia Long, author of The Great Southern Babylon: Sex, Race and Respectability in New Orleans, 1965-1920, along with fellow panelist John Shelton Read’s pun about serious works of non-fiction suffering from colon:itis. Delving as far as an hour and a half allowed into the world of prostitution and the original Baby Dolls–all sex workers who broke the convention against woman masking at the time–it was Read’s somewhat drier but headline fresh description of the birth, brief flowering and decay of New Orleans as a bohemian center to rival Greenwich Village that was headline fresh for Orleanians watching the struggle over gentrification along the river.

Read described the cohort of young artists and writers who came to New Orleans to create in the French Quarter “a vest pocket Greenwich Village [where] living was cheap and the neighbors tolerant. Writers such as Pulitzer Prize-winner Oliver Lafarge, Sherwood Anderson and a young William Faulkner were among those who settled for a spell into the then run-down Quarter, and Anderson entertained visitors including Theodore Dreiser, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, and Bertrand Russell. What fascinated about his presentation was his almost anthropological dissection of the rise and fall of Bohemias, from the first artists who arrive in search of local color and cheap living, the Beatnik-like hangers-on and slumming Uptowners who soon follow until the French Quarter in particular was an attraction for “Uptown ladies and tourists” and one writers’ description of the neighborhood at the end of Bohemia’s blossoming would sound familiar to today’s visitors: “stale beer, garbage, drunks and tourists.” The tea shops established by the original Bohemians for their own pleasure became popular with visitors, Le Petite Salon brought book-club ladies from Uptown and Le Petite Theatre was founded the original writers and artist found themselves being pushed out by rising rents and less congenial neighbors. Read details all of this in his book Dixie Bohemia: A French Quarter Circle in the 1920s.

The pre-1920s French Quarter would surprise local residents but not the bohemian settlers of the period. Bourbon Street was a family block filled with working class people, largely Italian, and the remnants of old Creole families. Royal Street was the center of licentiousness, lined with clubs and served as bars, gambling dens and houses of prostitution combined, and even the now staid-Hotel Monteleone serviced the trade that brought to the quarter. New Orleans after the turn of the 19th century was changing, with new high rise buildings going up across Canal Street and a new sense of boosterism sought not only to drive sin out of the quarter, but even threatened to demolish much of it for a new civic center, the only remnant of which is the old Municipal Auditorium. Storyville, Long tells us, was a compromise. There was too much money to be made off of the “below the neck pleasure business”, as much if not more from alcohol sales as from prostitution, and much of that found its way into the pockets of the city and its employees down to the cops lucky enough to draw that beat. Relocating the vice industry into a single district a bit further away from downtown was the solution, although Long reminds us the district stood directly behind the old Krauss and not two blocks from the Maison Blanche department stores, and would have abutted right up to the planned civic center running from Treme Street all the way to Royal.

Storyville finally fell victim to the ultra-conservative war-time Federal government which decreed that no troops could be stationed in a city with a sanctioned red light district. Not that the business went away entirely–“you can make prostitution illegal but you can’t make it unpopular,” Long quotes an unnamed politicians–it simply moved into other parts of town. The famed district met its final end when most of it was demolished for the Iberville Housing Project.

There are vestiges of the old sex workers still alive in New Orleans culture today, thanks to the revival of the traditional of the Baby Dolls by Antoinette K-Doe. The original Baby Dolls according to Kim Marie Vaz, author of “BABY DOLLS”: Breaking the Race and Gender Barriers of the New Orleans Mardi Gras Tradition, the original Baby Dolls were black sex workers of the era who marched with their “sporting gentlemen” (pimps) in contravention of the understanding that women did not mask in the streets, and in stark contrast to the more formal Black carnival krewes that survive today with their elaborate and exclusive balls Invitations to those events were as sought after and hard to get as invitations to Rex in the white community, and the organizations were quite conservative. Today’s Young Men’s Illinois Club emerged as a break away from the original group after the scandal of a married man escorting a young woman not his wife into the ball, much as today’s Krewe d’Etat grew out of a desire to parade among the younger generation of Momus who rejected the old krewe’s decision to refuse to parade rather than integrate.

The original Dolls used none of the props seen today, no baby bottles or suckers. Instead they dressed in the finest clothes they could manage and paraded shamelessly through the streets, drinking and dancing all the way, escorted by their sporting gentlemen often attired as police. The latter is rather funny if you consider the relationship to the sex workers who were the original Dolls to the law. The revival of the Baby Dolls contributes another facet to New Orleans Black carnival of fancy dress balls and Mardi Gras Indians.

All of the panelists books are available in the Festival Book Shop located in the Hotel Monteleone.

Tennessee’s First Flower Blooms at the Allways Lounge Theater March 23, 2013

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Odd Words, Review, Theater, Toulouse Street.
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While the smart set at the the Tennessee Williams Festival is settling into watch the third part of John Biguenet’s Katrina Trilogy, Mold in a small bar room/theater Off-Off-Royal Street Tennessee Williams’ first produced play–A Battle of Angels–is given a compelling production at the Allways Lounge Theater. The Allways has become the Southern Rep of the St. Claude and Bywater set, and director Glenn Meche’s production keeps up the high standards the theater has set for its small space. The tale which most of the world knows from its much re-written version as Orpheus Descending and the film The Fugitive Kind is still riveting theater in the Circle Repertory revival version presented by the Allways.

From the moment the excellent Nicole Gruter as Beulah Cartwright and Lillian Claire Dodenhoff as Dolly Bland burst gossiping into the mercantile store the audience is swept back in time and up to the Mississippi Delta. A more perfect pair of haughty southern matrons could hardly be wished for. As soon as Diana Shortez sweeps into the room as the flawed and fallen Cassandra Whiteside the hammer is cocked and ready for the volley of familiar Williams themes of sex, death and redemption to follow. Shortez, with her commanding physicality and chameleon abilities is perfectly cast as the the loose-moralled scapegoat and by the last act the play’s one-woman chorus.

At the end of the first act one wishes Eli Grove as snake-skinned Val Xavier had some of the animal magnetism of Shortez, but he brings his best duck-tailed Cool Hand Luke to the table and as the complexities of his character are revealed through the remainder of the play he wins the viewer over with a brooding Kerouacian charm. The strong cast of women delivers the reflection of the character’s reptilian charm in their own performances. He is convincing as the (one part Tennessee) thoughtful drifter with a head full of ideas running from a troubled past. The delight of the night is Veronica Russell as Myra Torrance. Her slow transformation from a bitter shopkeeper with a loveless marriage and a dying husband as reptilian as Xavier’s jacket into the lovelorn victim of Xavier’s charm is at the center of the plot and she carries the spotlight with a quiet but powerful performance. Years seem to melt from her face as she moves backwards in time from pinch-faced shopkeeper to the charmingly coquettish victim of Xavier’s promise of escape.

Rebecca Myers as the deeply religious Vee Talbot wears the character’s convictions well and does a fine job of carrying the difficult task of tying together the almost Old Testament bombastic imagery–from Xavier’s snakeskin jacket to the frightening cane-of-God Doug Mundy wields mostly off-stage–in this tale of temptation and fall set at Easter Week with the wild Whiteside making whoopee up at the town’s Golgotha. The text is freighted with symbolism almost past the Plimsoll mark but Myers and the rest of the supporting cast manage to keep the bowl of apples off the table and give Russell and Grove the space to play out their doomed romance. There is not a weak performance in the ensemble which also includes Barry Bradford as a genuinely threatening Sheriff Talbott and Patrica Raw and Rebecca Rae as the comic spinster sisters. Director Glenn Meche has shaped a fine cast into a compelling night of drama.

The Allways’ small proscenium theater is turned sideways as it was for last year’s The Future is a Fancy Land Place and while you might find yourself rubbing your neck at the end of the night, it gives the actors room to move and the feeling the audience is in a much larger space without the loss of intimacy. While far from the center of the Tennessee Williams weekend at the The Hotel Monteleone, festival goers would do well to find their way down to St. Claude Avenue and the rest of us have until April 6 to see the root of Tennessee’s genius in its first blossom.

Sex on a Hot Tin Roof March 25, 2012

Posted by The Typist in literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, Theater, Toulouse Street.

“I was thinking about what might entice the crowd in on a beautiful day in the Quarter and I thought: put sex in the title,” moderator Robert Bray explained, and the title William’s Sexual Politics is partly why I find myself at the Tennessee Williams Research Center.

How do you resist a title like that, suggesting Stella on the staircase, Maggie astraddle a conquered Brick?

I had started out in a room full of biographers talking about presidents, dutifully scribbling in my notebook until I came to the end of a line, stopped, and asked: what am I doing here? I scoured the program until I found the panel I had noticed earlier, the one with the come hither description.

This was the first time in several festivals attended I set foot in the Tennessee Williams Research Center, which is usually filled with academics and their acolytes, the people who own every word every written by or about Williams. In dog-eared hardback. They sit through days of panel discussions that start out with a session for the reading of abstracts. If two hours listening to academics reading abstracts isn’t enough to keep you away you should seriously step back from your life and reconsider.

The room at the Historic New Orleans Collection where the master classes are held is the porcelain blue tea room for the well dressed lady’s book club sort who, with their walkers, fill the place with just a scattering of writers hunched in the front and another set in the very back where they stumbled in late. The Research Center is just as formal a space but instead of the pearls and porcelain chatter of the Collection this room is hushed as a temple, the last panelists renewing their long-standing acquaintance with the next set. The walls are a barely discernible light olive, the lighting largely directed at the portraits of vague historic figures in the front (is that Governor Claiborne?) and modern canvases of New Orleans in the back: a second line, a shotgun street, a scene out of Katrina. I take a seat under one of the few spotlights in the ceiling to I can take notes.

Moderator Bray starts out with William’s cover article in Time magazine in 1961 which called him a “kind of peddler of sex…intent on shock” and went on to catalogue play-by-play his written sins: rape, homosexuality, nymphomania, alcoholism, drug addiction, castration, masturbation, cannibalism. It concluded, Bray said, but calling him the world’s greatest living playwright.

David Savran, co-editor of the Journal of American Drama and Theater and Distinguished Professor of Theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, offered a quick explanation: “In historical terms, the period from 1946 until the early sixties was the most conservative period in American history, a time when McCarthy linked Communism and homosexuality, and here homosexuality was central to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and A Streetcar Named Desire.j Williams was making the theater going public confront issues they didn’t want to confront but where incredibly curious about.

Will Brantley of Middle Tennessee University quickly agreed. In plays like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Sweet Bird of Youth Williams built a play around the penis, took a word that couldn’t be said in his era and “made it the center of his drama [but] the controversial was presented as symbolic and metaphorical so it stays with us.” Savran also noted the intense homophobic reaction to Williams in criticism through the author’s career.

Actress and filmmaker Jodie Markell, the one woman on the panel disagreed, with categorizing Williams as sexually political. “I think of Tennessee Williams as a poet, not political but writing from the heart about what makes people want to connect, what makes them want to desire each other. He speaks to so many people about human vulnerability. It was so universal..how brave it was to explore these territories without being perverse and not judgmental of his characters.”

Bray asked about depictions of Blance as a nymphomaniac, and Savran again asserted this was w symptomatic of a time when “any woman of strong desires was called a nymphomaniac.” Markell says was drawn to Williams as an actress and now as a director of The Loss of a Teardrop Diamond because “I was interested in the women in Williams who were too sexual, too bright, too too too…women who project their desires onto idealized and flawed men.”

Ah, finally the audience were (OK, I was) being released from prurient curiosity and into the meat and bone of what the Research Center programs are about, the reason we were all here: peering deep into Williams and finding ourselves.

Bray paraphrased Night of the Iguana: “nothings disgusts me except intentional cruelty”. Savran chimed in immediately, “Williams’ theater is a theater without villains [but one] of connections, not villains but antagonists of desire. In so many of his plays there the meeting and the parting, ” which Savran said is found in Chekov as well. Markell said Williams was interested in sexual alienation. “He enjoyed the play of how opposites attract.”

Bray returned to sexual politics, suggesting that characters in Williams approach sex with a manipulative praticallity, citing Maggie and Amanda Wingfield in The Glass Menagerie stuffing her daughter’s bra. He suggested Williams women were sometimes sexual predators. Markell agreed with the practical sexuality of William’s women and said that is what her film is about, but disagreed with the idea of the women as sexual predators.

The panel also considered the differences in endings between Williams’ plays and the film versions. “He was up against the Production Code Administration, which not only censored but encouraged happy endings.” One panelist (my notes get blurry here) suggested . “Williams wanted people to supply their own ending, to leave the end ambiguous,” and Savran agreed. “Modern drama is about asking not answering questions. It doesn’t tell us how we should think or feel.”

An Odd Sense of Color March 24, 2012

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, Louisiana, New Orleans, Theater, Toulouse Street.
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OK, I just have to say it: it was Odd that three of the four panelists on the Tennessee Williams Festival panel New Orleans Free People of Color were white. The garrulous playwright John Guare tried to steal the show and not in a good way, and managed to annoy mystery writer Barbara Hambly when she disagreed with him but wouldn’t stop talking long enough to let her say her piece. Guare put his hand on the back of her chair at some point and it was funny to see Hambly leaning away from him to the point of tipping over.

Guare is the author of a successful Broadway play A Free Man of Color, Hanbly has penned a dozen mysteries featuring the Creole private detective Benjamin January, and the panel was rounded out by Daniel Sharfstein, author of The Invisible Line: A Secret History of Race in America and Gregory Osborne, a child of the Creole diaspora to Los Angeles in the post-World War II period and an expert on the subject who manages the archives at the New Orleans public library.

Sharfstein and Osborne thankfully stole the show away from Guare. Sharfstein’s book drew out of a a stint of volunteer work in South Africa where he met a Black woman who had been registered as Colored (of mixed race) by a census taken who was a friend of the woman’s father. He recounted a fascinating tale of a couple prosecuted f under South Carolina’s miscegenation laws, a charge from which they were exonerated after the state’s Supreme Court ruled that it was impossible to determine if the woman’s grandfather had himself been pure Black, which would have made her an octaroon and invalidated the marriage.

Hanbly said she switched from writing science fiction to mysteries because “I wanted to write a mystern novel about a free man of color since I was in high school [and] a mystery is the best way to investigate a society because the character has a reason to be explaining” his milieu in the course of his work. Her central character is about viewing the state of antebellum Blacks and the through the lens of color. When she spoke of the history of the gens de colour it was clear she has done her research over decades of writing about her character.

Osborne, who worked closely with historian of New Orleans Creoles Gwendolyn Hall, shared the details of his own life growing up in a Creole family in which his grandmother still spoke Creole French with her cousins and a thumbnail history of the free people of color in Louisiana. Growing up “I knew I had deep roots here and my father would call himself Creole but I didn’t know what that meant,” he explained.

He is writing a book looking at several hundred interracial relationships, mostly in New Orleans and dating back as far as the uprising in San Domingue (Haiti). In the eighteen and early nineteenth century a white man could leave his inheritance to his Creole family if he had no friends or other family in Europe or New Orleans, but as the antebellum American authorities began to crack down and categorize all persons they declared legally Black extensive searches were made for relatives to deny these families their inheritance.

Guare began his play–a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize–after his friend the African-American director George Wolf asked him to write a play about race. “Why me, an old white guy?” he asked, but never explained Wolf’s answer. Wolf wanted a play about the history of race in Louisiana and do it as a Restoration comedy, sexually charged comedies of manners with their collision of subjects and elaborate costumes explains why the show was a Broadway hit with a long run. The only criticism he heard was of his historically accurate depiction of a Black man opening slaves. True to a restoration comedy, his protagonist has a hard time keeping him pants zipped in the present of both white and women of color, which explains why a serious subject would manage a long Broadway run.

The panel managed a good thumbnail sketch of the history of free people of color, mostly through the contributions from Osborne and Hambly, with Sharfstein filling in the details of race and miscegenation from the Revolutionary War through the start of Jim Crow. And it is hard not to want to see the mounting of Guare’s play at Louisiana State University in the fall, if only to see how such a serious subject plays as a comedy of manners.

It’s Like Gone With The Wind on Mescaline March 24, 2012

Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, Theater, Toulouse Street.
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“Its like Gone with the Wind on mescaline.”
— Character John Kelso in the film adaptation of John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

I was going to write a short review of last night’s Literary Late Night: Lafcadio Hearn but frankly it was one of those events where you had to be there. That and I left my program on the bar at Cafe Istanbul. Fortunately there is an online copy of the poster and cover, which gives me the names of all the readers and actors to go with my beer-stained notes.

Things started a bit flat with Chris Lane’s initial reading. It’s hard to imagine an MC for Fleur de Tease being too low key but that was just the slow climb up the first hill of the roller coaster. C.W. Cannon and Andrew Vaugt (the latter of Cripple Creek Theater) brought their best game and had the audience in stitches with Hearn’s satirical pieces, especially Vaught’s rendition of the calls of street vendors chronicled by Hearn. Cannon’s delivery of the dryly hilarious “A Visit to New Orleans” by the devil was archly perfect and would have had Mark Twain standing to applaud. Once the players had the audience in their hands the show just got better and better.

I thought at first that spoken word artists Chuck Perkins and Kataalyst Alcindor were too understated in their reading, but in fairness I am used to them in a spoken word/slam environment which calls for a much difference sort of performance. I am still undecided if Kataalyst should have brought his angry to the piece The Indigent Dead, but that may just be my expectation of what he would do with his own work. Reading Hearn’s account of 310 murders in New Orleans with only five persons hung worked in an understated delivery, especially for a New Orleans audience, and as delivered was more in character of a 19th century author than a full on slam performance. And then Perkins brought on the Hip-ocracy belly dancers for his reading of “The Dawn of Carnival” our own private carnival was well underway

Ratty Scurvics was Ratty Scurvics and once again proved that an essential element of stage presence is an animal magnetism that crackles around him like a vast static charge. He was in good voice singing behind the curtain for Trixie Minx’ performance as a clown at a crab boil after Scruvics read “Why Crabs are Boiled Alive”, and Minx’ performance was a fantastic mix of slapstick and burlesque moves. When Madame Mystere of Fleur de Tease came out on her belly riding a dolly and dressed in an alligator mask and tail and not much else for a reading of Hearn’s “The Alligators” you knew you were at a literary event that could only happen in New Orleans.

Yes the festival is supposed to be all about Tennessee but the People Say Project put on a show at Cafe Istanbul with enough tragedy, comedy and sex I am certain Williams would approve.

Creative Non-Memoir March 23, 2012

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, memoir, New Orleans, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.

Today’s Tennessee Williams Festival panel SPEAK, MEMORY: WRITING THE MEMOIR was Odd. Only one of the four panelists was a true memoirist. Here at Toulouse Street, where Creative Non-Fiction is one of our cornerstones, this made is all the more interesting

Zachary Lazar wrote a book about the killing of his father decades ago by members of the Mafia. Jesmyn Ward wrote a book about the death of five young Black men in her small, Gulf Coast Mississippi town, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts has written a book about Harlem, base both on research and on her interactions with the people of Harlem when she moved there in 2002.

Only Claudia Sternbach, author of Reading Lips: A Memoir of Kisses wrote a true memoir, an account of how kisses mark important points in a person’s life, focusing on her own experience.

Rhodes-Pitt kicked things off by pronouncing “I don’t consider my book a memoir. I write essays and Creative Non-Fiction, the ugliest genre name in all of literature.” Lazar, with one novel under his belt, was up next and said he wanted his second book to be a novel but his publisher refused. “I thought writing it as a novel would be a better way to get readers engaged…I invented dialogue between people I never met and imaginistic descriptions of places I’ve never been. My model was (Truman Capote’s) In Cold Blood.”

Ward, the author of two novels who is working on a memoir, said her book The Men We Reaped is the story of five young men who died in her small hometown of DeLisle, Mississippi. “I knew these young men … and I wanted to try to get them to live again on the page.” By their author’s descriptions, all these books except Sternbach’s skirt the boundary between memoir, creative non-fiction and journalism.

Sternbach’s book, a compendium of kisses and how each played a prominent role in her life, an intimate personal history of kisses sounds like memoir gazing straight at the navel, she asserts that “I don’t think memoir is a style of writing that’s predictably about the author. I think it’s more universal. People come up to me all the time and say, ‘ah, that happened to me’.” The editorial board board chair of Memoir Journal and edit in chief of their publicaiton Memoir (and) has been a daily newspaper columnist and wrote her first memoir in 1999. Between the column and the memoir she said she had “lost a few friends but made some, too.”

Ward, winner of the National Book Award for fiction for her second novel Salvage the Bones, wrote Reaped to explore “why we would have an epidemic like that happen in a place where I live, a small down on the Mississippi Gulf Coast?” The deaths all took place in a short period of time, and her book could just have easily been a non-fiction title had she not chosen to make it a personal exploration of five young men she knew before their deaths. Asked by moderator Ted O’Brien to compare working on this book to working on a novel, she said it was much more difficult.

Rhodes-Pitts, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, Vogue and Essence, said her book Harlem is Nowhere grew out of a move to Harlem in 2002, where she was working on a novel in progress. She would walk the streets of her new neighborhood. “I was constantly inundated with people’s stories and the conversation always turned to something that happened forty or fifty years ago.” Hearing the stories she set her novel aside and wrote instead about “this place that held such a large place in African-American culture.” She now plans to make this the first part of a trilogy, with books on the African-American experience in Haiti and the American South to follow.

Lazar is also a novelist, whose book Sway fictionalizes an actual meeting between the Rolling Stones and the Manson family. “I found myself in the head of Keith Richards,” he said to the laughter of the crowed, “and strange as it sounds he was the voice of reason” in the story. He wanted his father’s story to be a novel at first because “fiction is always a weird sort of autobiographical work. I’m interested in appropriating people and figure out what they’re like.” He said he didn’t mind writing about difficult things like his father’s death, because “all writing is that, or it’s hard to make it interesting to the reader.”

The panel may have wandered far from its announced topic, but we live in an age saturated with memoir and navel gazing blogs like, um, never mind. Face it, we are not all Joan Didion. I left the room inspired not to open a new Word doc and Kindle my way from an online audience of hundreds into several more hundreds but instead itching to spend far too much money adding to my monstrously unstable “to read” pile. Except perhaps Reading Lips, unless I can get a deeply discounted copy to send to the notoriously crabby memoir bashing Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times Review of Books.

Odd Words March 22, 2012

Posted by The Typist in books, literature, New Orleans, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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“How to write beautiful and 100% true nonfiction.”

First you take a magic wand. No, wait. First you probably read this review, then decide if you want to read the book. If you ever worked as a journalist in the days when working a microrecorder without a foot pedal (and no, the newspaper wasn’t going to spring for any such fancy thing) required a reliance on notes by people who never learned shorthand, notes that in my case were legible to me for about 72 hours after which they became cuniform gibberish.

Do you something approaching accuracy or something approaching truth? Do you want to be moved or run a ruler down a table of figures? What the hell is truth anyway? Swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth then try to explain under cross-examination why your truth differs from someone else’s truth.

The closet you will come to Truth here are these listings, and once I start inserting my own remarks and not just cutting and pasting from the bookstores web sites or email people send me we have started down the slippery, black-diamond slope. And who says the author is as wonderful as the website or the New York Times or Publisher’s Weekly claims?

I’m afraid if I add another book to that unread pile, it will come crashing down and take out several pedestrians and close the street for the rest of the day, but that doesn’t mean I won’t.

Rant over. Listings begin here.

& Yes, its Tennessee Williams Festival week and I put up the listings through Friday in a separate post. I think I’ll do the same for the weekend listings as well. In fact I may have already done so by the time you read this. (Forget truth. Forget accuracy. We’re fucking with the time-space continuum here and there’s no telling what will happen).

& 17 Poets hosts poet and songwriter Jessica Ruby Radcliffe is the child of an Irish Gypsy and a Spanish aristocrat. She was taught by nuns until the age of 13 , when she hit the road. Her writing has been published in several magazines which she cannot remember because there was no money involved. She has performed throughout the USA and in England, Ireland, Canada, Japan, France, Italy and Hong Kong.She created and presented the performance group BOA Poets for a few years in the 1990′s. Jessica does not read very often and is delighted to be coming to The Goldmine. Thursday, March 22 at 7:30 p.m.

& Also on Thursday, at the Maple Street Books Bayou location Alex V. Cook will perk up your weekend with his book Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in Louisiana’s Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls. A map, a journal, a snapshot of what goes on in the little shacks off main roads, Louisiana Saturday Night provides an indispensable and entertaining companion for those in pursuit of Louisiana*s quirky and varied nightlife. Thursday, march 22 at 6 p.m. at 3141 Ponce de Leon.

& OK, this goes on the TWF list as well, but it’s so damned New Orleans and one of the few events I know I am absolutely not going to miss: on Friday the Festival presents Literary Late Night: Lafcadio Hearn, a choreographed evening of readings, music, and dance, the People Say Project, Cafe Instanbul at the Healing Center. $15. (Yes I posted “horeographed” in the TFW list. Stop snickering. You probably laugh when you see a Hotard bus in front of you. What is this, 6th grade?)

& Oh, and the Friday routines:spokenwordnola.com’s weekly event at the Red Star Gallery on Bayou Road at 9 pm and the No Love Lost Poetry Reading at the Love Lost Lounge at 5:30 pm. Take you pick, or take two for the same price, as NLLP doesn’t charge a cover.

& On Saturday, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation will host “Between Heaven and Earth: Soothing the Troubled Soul With the Arts of our Ancestors” Two of the world’s top experts on African and African-American culture will speak on art as a healing force in a Jazz & Heritage Foundation symposium on March 24 at the Joy Theater.“Between Heaven and Earth: Soothing the Troubled Soul With the Arts of our Ancestors” will explore the origin of art as a spiritual release from Earthly pain – and its continuing expression in modern culture. Starting at 10 a.m. at the Joy Theater. Lots more detail here.

& This is rich, as in if you go to this you will eat only celery the following day and no, Bloody Mary’s don’t count. Join us at the Royal Sonesta Hotel kickoff of the 4th Annual New Orleans Roadfood Festival for an unforgettable evening that includes food (of course), live music, libations, and books (naturally). Featured authors include:

* Lynne Rossetto Kasper and her producer Sally Swift signing The Splendid Table’s HOW TO EAT WEEKENDS: New Recipes, Stories & Opinions from Public Radio’s Award-Winning Food Show and HOW TO EAT SUPPER: Recipes, Stories, and Opinions from Public Radio’s Award-Winning Food Show;

* Jane Stern and Michael Stern signing ROADFOOD: The Coast-to-Coast Guide to 800 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners, and Much, Much More;

* Poppy Tooker signing THE CRESCENT CITY FARMERS MARKET COOKBOOK. Books will be available from Octavia Books onsite at the event.

To purchase event tickets ahead and for additonal details on the evening, see go here. Or you can support the station that brings you Susan Larson’s The Reading Life and make a generous pledge to WWNO local public radio here. In the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Sonesta, Friday March 23 at 6 pm

And yes I’m sensing a bit of a competition here between Octavia at the Sonesta and Garden District at the Monteleone.

Octavia will also host the participants over the weekend at Roadfood Street Festival in the French Market.

Saturday, March 24th
1:00 PM – Lynne Rossetto Kasper and Sally Swift
3:00 PM – Jane and Michael Stern
3:00 PM – Poppy Tooker

Sunday, March 25th
3:00 PM – Jane and Michael Stern

& Sunday in the patio of the Maple Leaf Bar the Maple Leaf Poetry Series hosts at open mike, starting at 3ish or as soon as everyone gets their drink. Bar scotch available at reasonable rates.

& On Monday, Garden District hosts Cory MacLauchlin and Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces. The saga of John Kennedy Toole is one of the greatest stories of American literary history. After writing A Confederacy of Dunces, Toole corresponded with Robert Gottlieb of Simon & Schuster for two years. Exhausted from Gottlieb’s suggested revisions, Toole declared the publication of the manuscript hopeless and stored it in a box. Years later he suffered a mental breakdown, took a two-month journey across the United States, and finally committed suicide on an inconspicuous road outside of Biloxi.

Following the funeral, Toole’s mother discovered the manuscript. After many rejections, she cornered Walker Percy, who found it a brilliant novel and spearheaded its publication. In 1981, twelve years after the author’s death, A Confederacy of Dunces won the Pulitzer Prize. In Butterfly in the Typewriter, Cory MacLauchlin draws on scores of new interviews with friends, family, and colleagues as well as full access to the extensive Toole archive at Tulane University, capturing his upbringing in New Orleans, his years in New York City, his frenzy of writing in Puerto Rico, his return to his beloved city, and his descent into paranoia and depression. Monday, March 26 at 5:30 p.m.

& Mondays at 9 p.m. The Writers Block meets on the steps/amphitheater on Decatur across from Jackson Square. Readings and all other performers welcome.

Even if you’re not crazy about the TWF there is so much going on this weekend you have no excuse not to get out and buy a book at your favorite local, independent bookstore. Yes, I see that tiny little spot on your bookshelf where one book is leaning just ever so slightly. You better fill that spot before that one tipping book pushes that entire shelf onto the floor.

Odd Words (Doesn’t) Go to the Tennessee Williams Festival March 19, 2012

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, Odd Words, Toulouse Street.
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Yes, I posted only an abbreviated Odd Words last week, and I’ll fill out the rest of the week later today but I had best get out the details of the Tennessee Williams Festival which kicks off in earnest on Thursday. And no, between work and school I’m only going to have a chance to do weekend sessions, which stinks. Prices for events are noted. Everything is included in the All Access Pass unless noted otherwise. I’m skipping dinner features and A Streetcar Named Desire at Southern Rep, because if you don’t already have tickets, well, I’ll tell you all about it.

11 a.m. Constance Adler & Randy Fertel present First Impressions — Making the Memoir’s First Mark at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Master Class Pass or $25.

1:30 p.m. Radclyffe & Julie Smith: Tips on How to Integrate E-books with Print Publishing — Formats, Timing, and Marketplaces. I don’t know what or who Radclyffe is but Julie gave an interesting presentation during the throwdown between paper publishing and e-books at last year’s Faulkner Festival. Master Class Pass or $25

6:30 p.m. This sounds rich: The Glass Mendacity (The Festival’s Opening Night Theater Celebration) Join literature’s most dysfunctional family, the DuBois clan, for some “Tennessee with a Twist.” Imagine Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, A Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie, thrown into a blender to create a hilarious cocktail of Southern silliness. Featuring an all-star New Orleans cast with John “Spud” McConnell, Becky Allen, Maureen Brennan, Kris La Morte, Lara Grice, Jerry Lee Leighton, and Ann Mahoney. Cocktails, dessert, and a little southern decadence will sweeten the night at this don’t-miss event. Hotel Monteleone, Queen Anne Ballroom. $50.

8:00 pm Literary Late Night: Poetry Slam Plus Music hosted by Chuck Perkins at Cafe Instanbul in the Healing Center. $15


9:00 a.m. Agents: Arielle Eckstut & David Henry Sterry: Code Blue — Surviving and Thriving in the Publishing Market. Historic New Orleans Collection. Master Class Pass or $25.

9:45 a.m. offers Tennessee Williams Scholars Conference: Opening Remarks followed by presentation of abstracts at 10 a.m. If you’re in that deep you probably know the rest of the Scholar’s Conference Schedule. These events will be at the Williams Research Center, 410 Chartres Street.

10 a.m. A Reading from the Poetry and Fiction Contests with Judges Amy Hempel and Julie Kane, which is just toward the end of my first Thursday class. Damn. Hotel Monteleone Queen Anne Ballroom.

10:00 a.m. also kicks off the first Tennessee Williams Literary Walking Tour. Tour meets in the Hotel Monteleone Lobby. $25.

11:00 am offers Ace Atkins: Finding Your Character’s Voice. Historic New Orleans Collection. Master Class Pass or $25.

11:30 am features Speak, Memory: Writing the Memoir, with panelists Zachary Lazar, Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts, Claudia Sternbach, and Jesmyn Ward and moderator Ted O’Brien. Hotel Monteleone, Queen Anne Ballroom. $10 or Panel Pass or Day Panel Pass. Not included with your Penal Pass.

1:00 p.m. Singular Women, Singular Worlds with panelists Ellen Baker, Lucy Ferriss, Laura Ellen Scott, and Jessica Maria Tuccelli and moderator Bev Marshall. Same location, same admission as the 11:30 a.m. panel.

1:30 p.m.A master class with Nigel Hamilton: On Biography. Historic New Orleans Collection. Master Class Pass or $25.

2:30 p.m. panel will be Got that Swing? with panelists Alex V. Cook, Alison Fensterstock, Keith Spera, and John Swenson and moderator Tom Sancton.

3:00 p.m. master class offers Leaning Into Language: A Short Story Master Class with Amy Hempel. Historic New Orleans Collection. Master Class Pass or $25

4:00 p.m. New Orleans Free People of Color, with panelists John Guare, Barbara Hambly, Gregory Osborn, and Daniel Sharfstein and moderator Pat Brady.Ho tel Monteleone, Queen Anne Ballroom. $10 or Panel Pass or Day Panel Pass.

Also at 4:00 pm. Bon Operatit! on the Balcony: Songs from Andre Previn’s Opera, “A Streetcar Named Desire”, from the balcony at 520 Chartres. Free and open to the public.

8:00 p.m. features Literary Late Night: Lafcadio Hearn, a horeographed evening of readings, music, and dance, the People Say Project, Cafe Instanbul at the Healing Center. $15. Now this I can get to and probably won’t want to miss.

OK, that’s it. I have to go read System Requirements (don’t ask) or Chaucer. Or maybe I’ll translate System Requirements into Middle English for extra credit, and to see if they are any more comprehensible that way. I’ll post up the rest of the weekend in Thursday’s Odd Words.

The Porch and the Neutral Ground May 21, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, NOLA, Odds&Sods, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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Thanks to Rachel at Dangermond.org for accepting my request to cover any event at the Saints & Sinner’s Festival, the GLBT literary weekend sponsored by the Tennessee Williams Festival. I wanted something for the blog after our extensive write ups of TWF, but since I know doodly squat about GBLT Lit I had to reach out to another literary blogger to help.

By Rachel Dangermond

Here in New Orleans all things are learned on the front porch and so it was on the second weekend of Jazz Fest after too many glass of rosé wine that I exclaimed to four female and two male guests the resounding declaration that if anyone wanted to know what becoming a lesbian was like it was like this – relentless incessant talking, which was what the five women (me included) were doing. And so it was that I came to write about a gay poet at the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival because in Googling the attendees I accidentally came across a poem by Michael Montalk that struck a nerve with me, The Hummus Sexual, where he writes:

The first time he felt he didn’t fit in

was in an all-male bar—so amazed

and disturbed by the artifice

of a completely womanless world.

After coming out as I approached 50, I was not prepared for the manless world that emerged from the lesbian community that surrounded me. It was so disconcerting I became more enamored by men than I had when I married and slept with them.

So on this gorgeous afternoon where the Mississippi is threatening to crest our levees, and news of some barges having struck the old Mississippi River Bridge in Baton Rouge has caused massive traffic jams, and too many art exhibits are occurring simultaneously throughout the city, the Saints & Sinners Literary Festival is under way and 11 people went to hear five gay poets read from their current work at the Bourbon Pub.

I sat next an author who was on panel that followed, Merri Lisa Johnson, who said as I sat down that she had browsed the books at the Bourbon Orleans and Michael Montalk’s looked like one she had to have, his hot off the press, Cool Limbo, and she also said Montalk was a stylish dresser as indeed I had noticed – his awesome brown plaid pants.

And much as I was liking Montalk more and more, especially after he read a poem inspired by his twin sister who he called a drag queen and later admitted that he had been called a hag fag when he first arrived in New York because of his penchant for gal pals, it was the collective voices of these poets that made me realize there should be more than 11 people sitting in the audience.

Bryan Borland, a poet and the editor of Sibling Rivalry Press, read Theresa Senato Edwards’ Touch: The Journal of Healing a poem called The Touch of the Notch:

She’d done absurd things as a child:
the counting of steps up stairways,
the repeating grip of the doorknob in her palm,
always the going back to the knob,
going back to the corner of the door,
it had a notch in one of its grooves,
a smooth wooden pool of calm.

And again my mind went back to my porch, where days ago, during Jazz Fest, my neighbor, a music therapist with OCD problems herself had stopped to sit a spell on the porch, always counting the stairs on the way up and down, and always fighting back the blues that she knew were approaching. Borland’s range from Editor to Publisher to Poet was impressive, and he read We Left Early, his own poem about the lost generation of gay men who came before him.

I was taken by how much Sally Bellerose’s frank verse sounded more like a shout out to my own middle agedness as she read from her Married Ladies Have Sex in the Bathroom, which made me wish that my coming out had occurred when I was much younger, but then I would have missed all the men in my life. As she compared nursing to the Bourbon Street nude who lay there with glazed over eyes, I heard the same plea I had heard for years from my own mother, a nurse, who wanted to reach out to every patient that crossed her path but reality sterilized her noble thoughts.

Brad Richard dissected Thomas Eakins’ painting entitled Swimming down to each symbol of desire he found there; while Jeff Mann’s Thor poetry fit his bear demeanor all the way down to his fur fetish and manly feast imagery. I went back again to Montalk, who I had come to hear, on learning he was adopted, and so was his twin sister and older sister, I rushed to him afterwards to show him a photo of my adopted son, Tin.

I had asked the panel, but pointed it at Montlack, that is now not the time to put aside all these references to other – the heteros, the woman or the men, the family as Borland had described his gay friends and to incline ourselves to inclusiveness? Isn’t that what I was feeling on the porch the other night, where two twenty something year old boys were in our company, bringing some maleness into the mix for a change. That diversity feels better than same?

Montlauk said he had gone to a LAMBDA literary retreat in Los Angeles where it was noted that the 50 to 60 year-old lesbians were hanging out with the 20 to 30 year-old gay boys, who commented in the 1970s that would have never happened. And recently in New York at a reading by David Trinidad who had published a collection of the late Tim Dlugos poems, a young lesbian asked if she could read one because yes, lesbians read what gay men write and vice versa.

And still I wonder why with five poetic voices such as these, this afternoon in the Parade dance club in the Bourbon Pub, only 11 people were there to hear them. Thankfully, you can still buy their books. I picked up Montlack’s on the way out and will look for the others online.

Writing the Subterranean March 27, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Got sidetracked last night and tonight I must do laundry, but I promise to get back and finish off these posts from my notes shortly.

The panel Johnnys in the Basement: Writing the Subterranean could have gone in any number of/directions but moderator Miles Harvey  and his panel took a hard turn into the macabre. Authors who have tackled the ugliest nooks of the American psyche tried to answer the question of our modern fascination with serial killings, abductions and all the dark crimes that spawn not only endless segments of cable news but a dark genre of fiction.

I’m back to telegraphically thumbing the Druid so a few choice quotes will have to do for now:

“The trope for a long time was the human being with the monster trying to get out. Tony Soprano is a monster with the human being trying to get out,” Scott Blanchard said. He focuses on the vulnerabilities of his dark characters.

Amanda Boyden said, “it can be a daunting task to inhabit the head space of characters but its the ultimate escape.” She said her fascination with such characters focused on the “gradiations” between the mundane  and the murderous. “The notion of redemption and forgiveness enters into it; that tiny, little bit of hope.”

Thomas Beller said he was interested in the different ideations of love including “the love that fucks you up and makes you insane, a state of love that leaves you wrapped up in anxiety.”   He suggested no one word summary like Blackwood’s “vulnerabilities” or Boyden’s” gradiations” so I asked him afterwards for one and he suggested” the act of self immolation.”

Dark stuff indeed and completely fascinating. More later

Fan On The Run March 27, 2011

Posted by The Typist in books, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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There comes a point in any event where your program is starting to come unstapled, you’ve torn several pages loose in your notebook and the folks in the PJ’s Coffee know your order and you’re exhausted but you are up at 6:30 a.m. going over your notes and your program circling the day’s offerings. You sip your thirdish cup of coffee (hard to tell when you keep refreshing half way) and starting wondering how you could hire yourself as a blog, Facebook and Twitter hack for events like The Tennessee Williams Festival because scurrying around the French Quarter taking copious notes with a digital recorder balanced on your knee and hammering out blog posts, some on the Chiclet keyboard of your Droid, is too much damn fun. You remember why you willingly submitted yourself to the newspaper business for a salary in the high four figures (pause: yes that’s right and it included your car allowance). You are uncredentialed, running yourself ragged and having the time of your life. You haven’t enjoyed yourself this much since you got the often pathetic West Bank Guide community newspaper to hold the presses four hours and organized comprehensive coverage of the 1984 local elections that kicked the Times-Picayune’s ass.

Tales of Two Cities March 26, 2011

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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First a confession: I have not read Armistead Maupin. He is someone I know of but don’t know,’whom I thought of as primarily a gay writer and a San Francisco writer. And given the natural affinity of NOLA and The City (as San Francisco likes to think of itself) and my own focus on what I call geo-memoir he seems a natural fit, someone I should have read before now.* That is how I came to finish Saturday at the Tennessee Williams Festival attending Tales of the Master: A Conversation with Armistead Maupin and the master immediately addressed that affinity. “I’m a Southerner who lives in San Francisco, and New Orleans merges the best of both” the South and the City. San Francisco like New Orleans is “physically charming and seems smaller than it is.”

Any New Orleanian, especially any who have spent the slightest time in San Francisco, could not help but immediately be infatuated with Maupin, the feeling this is someone you would want to have dinner with. In fact the moderator doesn’t wait too long to toss off a quote from Salon.com, which describes Maupin’s Tales of the City series this way: “…as with the Beatles, everyone seems to like Maupin’s Tales—and, really, why would you want to find someone who didn’t?” Even grey haired and in his sixties, Maupin gives off the boyish charm of the young Fab Four in their early years.

Tales of the City began as a column for a small Marin County suburban newspaper with a San Francisco edition, the Pacific Sun, attempting to describe young San Franciscans for whom the meat market was a downtown grocery’s produce aisle. Unable to get anyone he spoke with to admit they were there not shopping for groceries but as Mapuin bluntly puts it to “get laid,” he fabricated a young woman freshly arrived in the city: one Mary Ann Singleton who finds a man at the grocery but he turns out to be gay, a man named Micheal Tolliver. This grew into a series of pieces for the Sun that led him to pitch the idea as a feature in the San Francisco Examiner. Could he write five pieces a week, they asked? Of course, he says he naively answered.

And so began the saga of Mary Ann and Tolliver and their eccentric landlady and other residents of 28 Barbary Lane, which ran daily for years in the Examiner and was collected into four books, which continued through several more unserialized collections and later, novels about the central character of Mary Ann and Micheal. He was one of the first popular authors to address the AIDS crisis, and one of his characters he asserts was the first AIDS fatality in fiction.

Maupin spoke at length about his own coming to terms with his gay identify after settling in San Francisco following a Vietnam-era stint in the Navy, getting drunk and blurting out to a straight friend that he was, “using the h-word, ho-mo-sexual,” dragging out every syllable as he tells the story. His friend, who was bathing her children in the tub at this moment, stood up and looked at him and said “who the fuck cares?” In his series, he explored the lives of characters gay and straight, working in topics of the day (because it was a daily column with a very short lead time to publication), including AIDS.

He caught flack from some readers, including gay readers, who resented his insertion of AIDS into the series, spoiling their morning’s entertainment of reading his usually humorous yarns about his assorted characters’ life in The City. “I was made uncomfortable by a lot of people [who said] humor has no place in this debate” but said he wanted to make a point: “I wanted people to feel his death, to use him like Dickens used Little Nell.”

The series was tied up with becoming comfortable with his own identity, he told the crowd. Someone suggested that Micheal Tolliver was the person Maupin wanted to be and Mary Ann was the person he was afraid he was and he suggested that wasn’t entirely wrong but spoke of them as his “characters…I try not to judge my characters. I was having fun with local people, but I was mining parts of myself.” He told the festival audience he felt an overwhelming need to be myself, to be true to who I am.”

He discussed the PBS mini-series based on his book and his own participation in it, describing it as a groundbreaking moment in television which treated gay characters honestly and openly. He spoke of the ugly reaction of the American Family Council, which produced a pirated 12 minute video showing occasional scenes of female nudity taken completely out of context. “These weren’t sex scenes” he said but just people who had appeared nude in the course of life. What really bothered the AFC, Maupin suggested, was its frank and sympathic treatment of gays. The scene that really bothered them (and which appeared in their pirate video) was one toward the end of the series in which two young men are in a convertible kissing. “I was there the night we shot that and I new we were making history, showing gay people as romantic.”

The author was not afraid to mine all parts of his life, describing a later non-Tales novel in which he stole an eccentric habit of a distant member of his family. His sister called to tell him how strange his mother-in-law was and he was being “a typical older brother” and standing up for the mother-in-law. To make her point, his sister told him the woman wore a bag over her head for her cervical exam every time she went to the gynecologist then caught herself and said, “you’re not going to write about this.” “I lied,” Maupin said and included it in a later work it became a favorite excerpt at his readings. When he arrived in North Carolina on the book tour, his sister showed up mother-in-law in tow. He read the excerpt, concerned what the reaction would be, until his sister told him that when he reached that part the mother-in-law said, “See, other people do it, too.”

The Tales series ended on Book Six with what moderator Ted O’ Brien described as “a dark pall over some of the characters, especially Micheal Tolliver, a feeling that Tolliver was going to die. That was the traditional fate of gay characters in 20th century fiction, they had to die or kill themselves, Maupin said, “and that’s why I stopped where I did. I didn’t want Micheal Tolliver to die.” He wrote several intervening novels, but returned to 28 Barbary Lane with a book titled Micheal Tolliver Lives and another Mary Ann in Autumn.

He has written other novels not involving the Tales characters, including the dark The Night Listener about a hoax he became involved in revolving around the tale of a young boy abused by his parents, sold into prostitution and later rescued by a suicide prevention hot line operator. He became involved when someone gave him a copy of a manuscript purporting to be the boy’s story, but he later surmised that the boy never existed and that the when he thought he had conversations with the boy on the telephone, it was actually a woman who had fabricated the entire tale.

He became suspicious when he called the boy back rather than the boy calling him, and got a woman on the phone who sounded a lot like the boy who said she was his mother. People often confuse us, she said, but he doesn’t like it when people say he sounds like his mother. He noticed how alike the boy and mother sounded and grew suspicious, coming to believe that the woman had fabricated the boy and his story but he couldn’t prove it. (Others were duped by the hoax, which as finally exposed by a journalist who hired a private detective to investigate). Before his happened, he took his suspicions and the outline of the story and fictionalized it as the novel The Night Listener.

Asked about returning to the Tales series for the later novels, he said it seemed natural to return to them later in life and he didn’t rule out further Tales. His imaginary citizens will “probably come back because there are some characters I want to come back to. I don’t have children, so I can measure the passage of my life in the people in my stories.”

* Because I haven’t cracked my copy of the first Tales book, some of the material on his works come from Maupin’s own website and his Wikipedia entry.

New Southern Voices March 25, 2011

Posted by The Typist in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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If this post seems telegraphic I am already regretting my decision to try and live blog from the Druid as Google’s OS insists I must mean when I type Droid.

The short version of the New Southern Voices panel is that all of the panelists have written historic novels, prompting me to ask them about the role of a sense of history in Southern writing. Skip Horack, author of a new novel The Eden Hunter set in post War of 1812 Spanish Florida gave the short version: “there are ghosts everywhere.”

Minrose Gwin whose The Queen of Palmyra recounts a fifty something woman’s recollections of the Civil Rights summer of ’63 gave a response in keeping with her book and background as a Southern literary scholar, “I think Southerners are mire aware of history because of the Civil War and the vexed history of race.” She grew up in her grandparents’ house in which “people were always telling stories of the old times…the stories always changed but were about the past.”

To Be Continued: my Pimm’s Cup is here at the Napoleon House and soon my lunch will soon follow.

LATER: The Druid app for WordPress filled the first version of this with unwanted blockquotes. Weird.

Josh Russell, asked about their place in the Southern tradition said” we’re new Southern voices in the new South. The”NY publishing establishment has this thing for stories about the old South.” He suggested to succeed as a Southern writer be sure to include hog jowls. And a dead mule and some sorghum, Gwin added. Horack brought up a remark made about Eudora Welty that she was a Catholic writer in the South, suggesting newer writers like themselves are” more a _________ writer in the South.

“How do I position myself in the tradition of Southern writers? I don’t do that. I’d probably be paralyzed,” he added. Minrose said she worried about being “derivative” if she spent too much time worrying about her place in the tradition. Russell said he was not a Southerner by birth, and had lived in New Orleans “which is not a typical Southern city” and Atlanta “which doesn’t look like a Southern city.”

The panelists spoke at some length about their decision to write a historical novel, and about the mechanisms for writing such a work. Horack said his grew out of his interest in the story of a British fort on the Apalachicola River in north Florida est aablished by the British during the war of 1812 to recruit run-away slaves to fight the United States. The fort never saw action, but when abandoned by the British was left in charge of the slaves. He found the story fascinating, but made several false starts until he began a draft from the point of view of a slave, an African pygmy who escapes his missionary owners, the character an outside even among slaves. He even traveled to the Ituri forest, home of the Central African pygmy people.

He said his real fascination is the natural environment of the South he loves dropping a character into tha setting “and see what they will notice.” and got off perhaps the best line of the morning and proved his point about himself when he described the “psychic distance” of his voice in The Eden Hunter as “like a hummingbird hovering 10 feet over my character and swooping down into his head now and then.”

Minrose’s tale of a women reconsidering her childhood in rural Mississippi in 1963 as the daughter of a “nighthawk” of the Klu Klux Klan and the town’s alcoholic cake lady grew out of an academic book she has been working on about Medger Evers. “I wanted to write a novel with these characters.” Minrose’s character is a fifty-something woman recounting her girlhood, and she said the “biggest challenge was getting that ebb and flow of the older voice and the younger voice” as the story slips into the events of the period.

Russell recounted a conversation the panelists had by email before Friday, and the term “hyperreal” he coined to describe the way some historical fiction has this obligation to “make things very real.” Modern writing, he said, tends to be very sketchy about scene favoring character but in historical fiction a lot of time is spent on scene setting. He explained that he did take some liberties with history, some accidental (such as transposing events a year) in writing his novel Yellow Jack, and how worried he was at his first reading in New Orleans. “Everyone who lives in New Orleans is a historian” and he thought he’d be picked apart for his changes to geography and chronology. Instead, he learned later that docents at the Cabildo are required to read Yellow Jack as their primary text on the yellow fever epidemics in the city.

He expounded on the difference between “literary” historical fiction and “genre” historical fiction, insisting listeners put quotes around those words, calling genre historical fiction “hoop skirts on the veranda” works. History, he suggested, can be improved by “telling lies. Never let history get in the way of character-driven fiction,” he concluded.

“Tell Me About It”–Jason Berry at the Tennessee Williams Festival March 24, 2011

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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Today I was working but took a long lunch hour to see Jason Berry, a journalist who has also published a novel and a play on Earl K. Long and an excellent book on New Orleans music, Up From The Cradle of Jazz. One of the flaws of the “master classes” in the festival schedule is that they are not really master classes, but really featured lecturers, but Berry’s “Finding the Non-Fiction Narrative” was worth the price of admission just for the Earl K. Long anecdotes.

He spoke at length about the genesis of several of his works, including the play Earl Long in Purgatory, his book on New Orleans music and his forthcoming non-fiction book on Vatican finances. The cadances of speech have always been a large influence in his writing style, Berry said, a “primary lure” into writing.

He related an annecdote about a friend who worked in the Democratic Cloakroom in the U.S. Senate when Berry was at Georgetown University. His friend’s job included answering the telephone and telling senators the agenda for that day on the Senate floorm, and he would frequently do his best imitations of various Senators for Berry. Th e one that stuck in Berry’s mind was Sen. Lloyd Bentson who, when the phone was answered would just say: “Tell me about it.” The line stuck with him so long, he attributed that same line and manner on the phone to one of his characters in his novel about Louisiana politics, Last of the Red Hot Poppas.

Berry, who started out writing about politics, found inspiration for his fiction in reading Latin American Magical Realists, citing Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa: “they were writing about where I live” was his immediate reaction, and he cited a Parish Review interview with Llosa in which that author spoke of his experience reading William Faulkner and finding techniques for describing an world at once as imaginary and real as Faulker’s Yoknapatawpha County.

He traced his interest in Louisiana’s bizarre politics and Earl K. Long in particular to his introduction to politics as a young boy by his father, who called him in one night to see Long on television, ” a man in a wheelchair flanked by two state troopers being dragged into a mental institution and (WDSU-TV) Channel Six was bleeping out the curse worlds. My father said, ‘This is your governor’.”

Berry also spoke about the re-issue of Up From the Cradle of Jazz by University of Louisiana – Lafayette press, and the 110 pages he added to the new edition focusing on musicians in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, starting from the lyrics of songs written in the aftermath. “What I tried to capture was the resiliance of the musicians, and the writers and visual artists,” Berry said. Calling out both the White House and City Hall he said “government failed and culture prevailed.” The recovery of the city was closely tied to the determination of perhaps five thousand musicians and cultural workers without whom the city would never have recovered, he explained.

He began the new chapter starting from lyrics to songs written after the storm, which he said he said were primary sources for the expanded edition, “as valid as the depositions and other legal documents that I used in the book about the [Catholic] Church.” He did not limit himself just to musicans such as his friend clarinetest and educator Dr. Micheal White but to other cultural contributors, including Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison Sr.’s wife Herreast who was a fifth generation quilter. It was the culture leaders and their commitment to return to the city that made the recovery for everyone else, for “all the service industries that depend on them” possible.

Berry finished up regaling the crowd with wonderful stories of the past misdeeds of Bishops and others Catholic clergy that came up during his early research in his forthcoming book on the finanaces of the Catholic church, but the red meat in his lecture was, for Toulouse Street at least, in his discussion of Earl Long and the role of musicians in the city’s recovery.

For more information on the Tennessee Williams Festival Master Classes and other programs, visit their website. The festival runs through Sunday. I’m done with master classes for this year, but I have my festival discussion panel pass and I’ll see y’all there.

Odd Words October 22, 2009

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It looks like a quiet week for Odd Words, but there’s a few things to call out and some events down the road I want to mention.

§ It’s the last week to catch Mondo Bizarro’s production of Moose Jackon’s play Loup Garou in City Park. I’m going Friday (and maybe again Sunday). By the time you read this, expect Friday to be sold out, or so they tell me.

§ I will probably not make it to the Tennessee Williams Festival Literary Legends Hollywood Bash. That’s probably the night I will see Loup Garou, and I don’t have a costume ready, but if you’re the sort who keeps your Darcy duds or Samuel Clemens get up pressed and ready in the closet its 8 p.m. Friday at the Gazebo Cafe. It’s a benefit for the festival so go help and support their programs.

§ Halloween is right around the corner and I think I’ve found what I want to do. Octavia Books is hosting a party to try to lure Neil Gaiman to a future event at the store as part of a contest Gaiman is having sponsoring. Whoever throws the best Halloween party using ideas from his novel, The Graveyard Book, is going to receive a visit from the author. The party is Oct. 31 (‘natch) and starts at 5 p.m.

I am a tremendous fan of Gaiman so I’m going to have to do my bit to get him to come. When I have nothing at hand to read I often pick up and reread his collection Fragile Things. Gainman is up there in my personal pantheon with Borges, de Lint, Cortazar and Crowley as a master of the fantastic.

§ Looking further ahead there is the NOLA Bookfair on Frenchman Street Nov. 7 from 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. Reading by authors will run from noon and 3 p.m. at the Apple Barrel Bar. Books will be for sale at tables in a couple of Frenchman Street bars all day.

I will be reading something, either from Carry Me Home or possibly something else from this blog in the vein of memoir and “the genie soul of place.” but I haven’t figured it out yet. And I’ll be at a table the rest of the day hawking copies of Carry Me Home. Stop by and at least say hello. And watch the table while I get a beer and go to the bathroom. I trust you.

§ That evening I’ll be heading straight uptown to The Dinglerization of America, an art opening featuring Rex Dingler along with a video installation by Christa Rock, performance by Bella Blue and music by DJ Stress. This invite came along with a copy of ReX’s latest chapbook, which I’ll post about at more length later. If your favored haunt seems a little quiet that night, well its because all of the cool people in New Orleans will be at the Coup d’Oeil Art Consortium, 2033 Magazine Street for this soiree’.

§ Speaking of the Tennesee Williams festival, just a reminder that the deadline to enter their fiction writing contest is Nov. 16. So get busy. And if you’re not busy get back to me with comments on that manuscript I sent you to look over.

§ Also on my calendar for November, poet C.D. Wright will read as the 11th Florie Gale Arons Poet at The Newcomb College Center for Research on Women on Monday, Nov. 9 at 7:30 p.m. in Freeman Auditorium. I had not read her until someone affiliated with NCCROW called this out to me, and after looking at some samples in the Internet I will certainly be there.

§ So I made it over to Antenna Gallery to here Stephen Elliott Tuesday night and he was in fact all that. He had a full house in the small space, and read partially in response to the questions he was asked. If you missed it, have a look at his TheRumpus.net piece Why I Write (where I largely found the answer to the question I reference in an earlier post before the reading).

The most interesting story for this space is how his book tour is organized. Before publication, he asked readers of his online space who wanted a pre-publication copy of the book. All they had to do was ask, and they got added to a sort of chain letter in which one person got the book and the list of people to forward it to. He went to this same 400 people who signed up for this exercise to ask them to find a place to host a reading (their home, a place, preferably anything but a bookstore).

His publisher is no longer paying for his flights, and he usually stays at the home of the person who organized the local event. I didn’t have enough cash (oversight, not poverty) to buy another book but brought the copy I have of The Adderall Diaries to get signed. The man needs to tell the story of the self-organizing book tour on his website and stick up a PayPal. I’d gladly wire him a few bucks for the pleasure of meeting him, getting to ask him a few questions about how he writes and hearing him read.

The genie-soul of the place March 28, 2009

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Odd Words, Toulouse Street, Writing.
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Not a single thing I remember from the first place but this: the sense of the place, the savor of the genie-soul of the place which every place has or is not a place.
–Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

The room was a tiny palace of Wedgewood blue walls with white pillars, every free space filled with baroque, gilt-frame portraits in dark oils, the floors carpeted in federal blue with gold medallions. I expected Sieur de Bienville to walk in from the rain gray slate patio and through the row of French doors on the exterior wall at any moment. The room announced in understated ostentation: here at the Historic New Orleans Collection we are about the business of history.

I hunched in the back with a tattered dimestore notebook balanced on my lap, an Oddity in the mostly female crowd dressed to meet for lunch under the clock at D.H. Homes. I had surrendered my cafe au lait at the door and as I sat damp from the steady spring drizzle outside, I waited for someone to announce that tea would be served, and hoped they would serve me.

At 51 I was one of the youngest people in the room and the most ill dressed, until that spot was taken by a guy in a ball cap who arrived and sat two rows up. One of the older book clubbers who filled the seats asked him to remove it, and I felt instantly more comfortable in my own shabby jeans and t-shirt. I had taken off my own driving cap when I sat down.

Author John Berendt seemed just another fixture in the room, looked himself a character from the history of the novel in his neat dove gray suit, perfect silver hair and Harvard tie. I could see him stepping out of his Upper West Side townhouse in this same costume, the Review of Books sharply folded under one arm, a tightly furled umbrella raised to hail the passing cabs. Somewhere in the city John Cheever would be waiting to lunch.

His theme was “Capturing the Character of Place”, something he has famously done for Savannah, Georgia in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and for Venice in The City of Falling Angels. Place is something of an obsession for us here on Toulouse Street so it seemed irresistible when I decided to sign-up for one of the master classes offered by the annual Tennessee Williams Festival. Sadly, the closest he came to teaching this class was his advice to “always trust your first impression and write it down.” The description of Midnight’s main character’s entry into Savannah by car, he told us, came almost verbatim from the author’s notebooks of his own first visit.

His other theme was eccentricity. His novels feature main characters who are clearly eccentric and a solar system of secondary figures who test the limits of eccentricity, approaching escape velocity. Berendt explained that eccentrics “live on the periphery of normal and so define what normal is.” In seeming defense of his focus on outre characters, he cited Robert Penn Warren: ““Write a story about a man with one arm, and you have written a story about a man with two.”

Here on Toulouse Street where our main theme is postdiluvian New Orleans, it seemed good advice. Our subtitle is Odd Bits of Life in New Orleans, and we admit to a fondness for the Odd. Like Berendt’s Savannah and Venice, this city is full of those who live on the periphery. And we share with Savannah a splendid isolation, “surrounded by piny woods, marshes and the ocean. In [this] isolation, things seem richer, brighter, more stark”, to borrow Berendt’s own words.

Bingo! I wanted to holler and waive my program in the air.

And like the characters he found in Venice, who “confront their history everywhere” and whose history, he told us, “gets altered, and they make their own dreams” our is a city of dreamers, of actors, of fabricators of the fabulous. It is why were are here, and why I suspect Berendt has been spending time in New Orleans, as he did in the two other cities he celebrated. He demured when asked if he would write a book about the city.

As a visitor and an alien in the places he wrote about, Berendt stressed his ability to see Savannah and Venice with the clear eyes of an outsider. This is a challenge for those of us who live in the place we choose to write about, but I think I have the advantage of my 20 years in exile to the North. I first began to write about New Orleans from Fargo, North Dakota in the days after the Flood, and I wrote from and about memory. Since that time I have returned home and see the city anew, a place at once familiar and yet transformed as only war or cataclysm can change a place.

Unlike Berendt or other famous tourists, I have the advantage of fresh eyes augmented by a visceral understanding of the place I spent the first 30 years of my life. Asked how he would write about his own environs of Upper West Side New York, he said he would focus on character. I don’t feel this constraint. I identified immediately with the Flannery O’Conner cite he offered: “The thing I do first is the surroundings. The characters step out of the landscape.”

He told a long anecdote of Eudora Welty’s understanding of character in place as reflected by a piece she wrote for the New Yorker immediately after the murder of Medgar Evers. “Who ever the murder is, I know him, how he came about, what is going on in this mind,” he quoted. I like to think that I share Welty’s understanding of this place and yet come to it anew and fresh, as anxious as a new visitor to discover the details my life away had erased from my mind, the details that are the building blocks of that character called New Orleans and of every word I write.

My first foray into the festival was a bit disappointing. Berendt gave a wonderful lecture but not a real master class, more a display of his erudition than anything else. But the quotes like the one from Walker Percy above were an interesting trip through the thoughts of prominent authors on place. My final jotting in my notebook was this. Berendt spoke of southerners as story tellers, and we are. Yankees, or at least the variety Berendt represents tell anecdotes instead.

Ah, but when he sits a the typewriter, he can take all of his carefully jotted notes and captured conversations over cocktails and weave a story steeped in the mystique and character of place. Knowing he is here, the challenge for us poor yokels is to beat him to it. For him, it will be another tour de force in a storied career. For a few of us capturing the genie-soul of New Orleans is jihad. We’ll just have to best him at his own game.