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Assaying the State of the Essay March 24, 2013

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

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

Odd Words May 5, 2011

Posted by The Typist in 504, 504ever, books, literature, Odd Words, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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I am looking to organize a Bloomsday event in New Orleans on June 16. If you’re interested in participating join the group on Facebook Bloomsday NOLA or drop me an email. If you can’t manage to attend a Bloomsday event, you can always visit this project and get your fill of hearing the book read aloud at James Joyce intended it. And if I don’t get enough people, look for me on a corner in Frenchman Street the evening of June 16, reading to the crowd. If it comes to that, beer and relief readers will be most welcome.

Thomas Beller edited the esteemed New York literary magazine Open City for 20 years and 30 issues. It recently ceased publication, and Beller, now an assistant professor at Tulane, spoke about the magazine’s life and death, among other things, with a new local literary website started by the Press Street press, Room 220.

And so, the listings:

& I’m not a big fan of mysteries but former Times Picayune report Julie Smith has always come highly recommended to me, and she joins fellow New Orleans mysterian Greg Herren in celebrating the release of their new Young Adult novels at Octavia Books Thursday, May 5 at 6 p.m.

& Starting May 5, a free staging of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus will be held here. OK, not exactly on the FB page but at 612 Piety. It sounds, um, fun: “In a warehouse in the Bywater, a small ensemble of actors will unfold Shakespeare’s earliest, goriest and most absurd tragedy with lighthearted savagery.” Get you some epically dead people. You know you want some. Through May 14th.

& Because you can never have too much Shakespeare, the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is the idyllic setting for the NOLA Project’s dusktime performances of Shakespeare’s whimsical A Midsummer Night’s Dream Tickets $10, $8 seniors/students, $6 children, free for NOMA members and students from many local universities with student ID. 7 p.m. Friday May 6 through May 27. That sounds like tonic relief from Titus Andronicus indeed.

& The Ebony Center at 4215 Magazine Street hosts a weekly spoken-word, music and open-mic event. Tickets $7 general admission, $5 students. 11 p.m. Friday.

& Also on Friday, May 5 Maple Street Book Shop will host a reading with Eve Abrams and Thomas W. Jacobsen on Thursday, May 5, 2011, 6:00 P.M. Ms. Abrams conducted the interviews the Preservation Hall Band Members for the new book, Preservation Hall. Mr. Jacobsen is the author of Traditional Orleans Jazz: Conversations with the Men Who Make the Music. Gather with us for a night of music, culture and food!

& On Saturday, Poet Gian “G-Persepect” Smith and Alphonse “Bobby” Smith host Pass It On, a weekly spoken-word and music event at the George & Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, 2003 Carondelet St. Admission $6. 9 p.m G-Persepect is the poet featured in the Treme trailer.

& On Sunday, May 8 the Maple Leaf Bar hosts the Everette Maddox-founded poetry reading at 3 pm (ish) with an Open Mike.

& Don’t forget every Wednesday at 9 pm be sure to check out the open poetry forum hosted by Kate Smash in the amphitheater on Decatur across from Jackson Square. No list, no mic, just anyone who shows up free to read what they like. Musicians encouraged to join. Organizer Kate Smash said the first one was, well, smashing.

& Also every Wednesday Thaddeus Conti will revive the Dinky Tao poetry meeting (reading, discussion, drinking–coffee in this case) at 8 pm 5110 Daneel at The Neutral Ground Coffeehouse.