Sunday, February 28, 2016

Jessica Hagedorn's "Dogeaters"

Drawn from different sectors of Manila society in the 1950s, the characters in Dogeaters are so vividly drawn, so complexly animated, that they appear primed for the big screen that they love so much. Through their interactions, often indirect, Hagedorn lays bare the obsession with American glamor, the ruthless suppression of political dissent, the awkwardness of coming-of-age, the irrepressible yearning for love. The novel is artfully constructed with alternating points of views, supplemented with fabricated news reports and surrealistic dream sequences. The plot curves with great speed towards its denouement, a political assassination and its shattering consequences.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Roger Smith Annual Poetry Dinner

The Roger Smith Annual Poetry Dinner is held at the Roger Smith Hotel in Midtown East in the spirit of Scottish-American cultural exchange and in honor of a Scottish poet. The poet is usually returning from the Poetry Festival in Nicaragua, as I learned last night from the honored poet Gerrie Fellows. After the opening remarks by organizer Danika Druttman, Gerrie began the dinner by reading her lovely poems. The phrase "the grit and oil of matter" stayed with me. As the dinner continued, every guest read a poem he or she brought.

It was to be expected that the Scottish connection would be strong. One of the best poems of the evening was a witty parody of a Scottish ballad. More surprising was the international flavor of the evening. Two poets of Indian heritage read, as well as a woman from Mexico and a man from Peru, the latter two reading in Spanish. There was also a poet of African heritage; she did not say what part of Africa. Sitting across from me, as I discovered later in the evening, was one of the co-editors of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry. Irina Mashinski was there with her husband, John, who introduced her as someone crazy about Scottish culture. Irina had read at the StAnza poetry festival, and co-edited the Penguin book with Boris Dralyuk, who teaches at St. Andrews. She gave me a quick preview of an upcoming lecture, about the myth of singularity in translation. The idea that there is one best word for another is particular strong in the Russian tradition, and Irina compared it to having one father, one Patriarch, one Tsar. She favors instead, a "variation," which she likened to jazz. She was a fascinating and intense conversationalist.

GH and I also enjoyed meeting a young poet Spencer Elliot, originally from Colorado, now lecturing on English literature at Brooklyn College. He read a good poem about his dad the car salesman. When the daughter of the hotel owners recited a Frank O'Hara poem, Spencer recited it too, just under his breath.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

HIV Here and Now

Michael Broder started the HIV Here and Now Project as a poem-a-day countdown to 35 years of AIDS on June 5, 2016. Yesterday I joined some contributors--Michael, Lonely Christopher, Guillermo Filice Castro, Debora Lidov and Sarah Sarai--to read our poems at the Bryant Park Word for Word poetry series in nearby Kinokuniya Bookstore. Michael suggested that I read a poem by John Humpstone from the project.

John Humpstone grew up on Long Island. After graduating from Pratt Institute, he became an interior designer and was one of the founders of Lexington Gardens, a design and garden store in Manhattan. A lifelong artist and writer and a lively conversationalist, he wrote this poem when he knew he was dying of AIDS, and left it behind unpublished. John died on June 23rd, 1996, a few days before his 40th birthday.


The fireflies who drifted on summer's evening
Warm and reassuring dark
And seemed to my young eyes a thousand
Tiny boats afloat on sunset's lapis sea
Called to us still playing hide and seek
To keep night's magic dancing in the air.....

Read the rest of the poem on the HIV Here and Now website.

After the reading I met Brad Vogel when he asked me to sign his copy of my book.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Alexander Chee's The Queen of the Night"

How many literary epics are also page-turners? The Queen of the Night is one of the very few. Intricate plotting, unforgettable characters, marvelous coincidences: this is life writ large on a huge canvas, covering frontier and urban America in the late nineteenth century, France in the last days of her Second Empire, and Bismarck's Prussia. Under all the historical bustle, however, is a story about love, what we are willing to give up and what not, for the sake of love. And though our very being yearns for freedom, we give ourselves up at every turn to chains. Turgenev, who appears in the novel in a reverential light, is the presiding spirit. In its sympathetic insight into women, The Queen of the Night pays a handsome tribute to the Russian master.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Nabokov's "Pale Fire"

A Game of the highest sort, but still only a game. The characters remain cartoonish figments of a madcap imagination, and do not acquire flesh and blood. There is no Lolita at stake here, only the idea of exile and the chimera of fame.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Writing Prompt

An imaginative writing prompt taking off from "Broccoli" in my book!

"Our prompt this week comes from Jee Leong Koh’s collection of poetry, “Steep Tea.” We’ve been going around the room in groups, reading the poem five or six times before stopping to talk about it. By doing so we create the mundane that the poem refers to. Then the prompt is to open with, “I think, I am going to get out of bed, and I…” And somewhere in the writing include “I watch myself…” It can be just once, or a repetition. Whatever you need. 20 minutes, loves. Watch yourself. If you don’t like what you see, make some changes."

Image from Seema Reza's blog

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

Saturday, February 06, 2016

Theater Week

Tuesday night, WL and I watched Pan Asian Repertory Theater's production of A Dream of Red Pavilions, adapted by Jeremy Tiang from the classic Chinese novel by Cao Xueqin. The set was beautiful and the period costumes stunning, but I could not shake off the feeling that it was strange watching and hearing Asian American actors speak in English with a mixture of Asian and American accents as members of the upper-class Jia clan in the Qing Dynasty. Things were not helped by the weak acting, most unfortunate in the case of the actor playing the teenage protagonist Bao Yu (Precious Jade). It was hard to see what was adorable about this celestial being reborn on earth. The actor with the strongest stage presence was the one playing the Fairy, the seductive Aunt, and the Emperor's concubine. Bold yet subtle in her delineation of each character, she lit up the stage each time she appeared.

Wednesday night, I watched a cabaret show titled The Way We Were at Joe's Pub at The Public Theater. The conceit was for each performer to show a video of himself when young and then respond to it on stage. I was there to support a friend and colleague in the show, as were other members of the audience, I presumed. The expensive pub was packed. TM, my friend, had the best script of the evening, witty and self-deprecating and literary without being too serious. The others ... I had not seen a less talented bunch of people on a NY stage. With one or two glimpses of color, they were all white, a succession of thirty-somethings, straight women and skinny gay guys, many of whom escaped from the suburbs to the "bohemia" of NYC. So much self-absorption on show. One performer made fun of the broken English of her Chinese veterinarian. The best of the lot was a woman from Australia, who sang in a faux-naive style a funny song about getting a green card. My server was a stunner. I just couldn't stop smiling at him as he served me first my Malbec and then my Syrah. He smiled back.

The week was saved by the Brooklyn Repertory Theater production of Anton Chekhov's Three Sisters. Playing in the tiny basement theater of 4th Street Theater, the production was a genuine downtown revelation. It was adapted and directed by Victor Cervantes Jr., and energized by an updated setting and a multi-racial cast. The ensemble acting was uniformly good, although special mention must be made of Anna Tempte's emotionally affecting turn as Masha, the second sister. Erick Betancourt as Colonel Vershinin, and Fabio Motta as Baron Tuzenbach were wholly convincing. The pacing in the first half of the play was exceptional, but it slackened somewhat in the second half. I had seen another production of the play in NYC years before, where all was dust and sadness, very poignant in its own way, but last night's performance was very moving for highlighting the shiny promise (all the actors were so young!) and its darkening.