Posts Tagged ‘2008: New Voices’


Wow, Wao

01/31/2008  by Arlo Haskell  Comment on this Post

Having been sufficiently wowed by Junot Díaz’ appearances at the second session of this year’s Seminar, I plunged in to his new novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. I am well-rewarded. Its fecund language is so shot through with Spanish-language slangs and arcane sci-fi references, that the experience of reading it resembles nothing so much as living in the strange real world, catching but what can be caught, and letting go what can’t. One could pause to translate each phrase and unearth each reference, but that’s hardly the point (as Díaz himself suggests in this podcast). Wao is a work about omission, and its power rests on the gaps in understanding central to the fukú which is the book’s subject. Díaz’ language takes as its primary target the person and reputation of Rafael Leónidas Trujillo Molina, the notorious dictator of the Dominican Republic. It’s not just the nicknames of “Fuckface” and “Failed Cattle Thief” which Díaz makes synonymous with Trujillo from the very beginning, but also the ways in which his actual name is tweaked that give the reader to understand that, no matter the horrors he perpetrated, Trujillo and the nation he bent to his singular will are no more. Referring to him as “T to the R to the U to the J to the illo” is not only a funny nod toward hip-hopper and cheerleader basics, toward the sort of free society that Trujillo feared, it also signifies that language is a realm eventually untouchable by even the most effective dictator. And that, even if “T–illo” succeeds in eradicating a character so completely as to leave behind not a single example of his handwriting, we know that he has by now failed in his fundamental quest to control the population and his own reputation. It’s too late, alas, for too many of this novel’s characters, and their omissions, in the end, are their heartbreaks: “Before all hope died I used to have this stupid dream that shit could be saved, … and I’d finally try to say the words that could have saved us.” But those words aren’t there; the text reads “—— —— ——.” Grasping, hoping, failing, our narrator is unable to find the words marking the path of escape from fukú, but Díaz, footnoting beyond him, and Oscar Wao too, in the otherworld he inhabits, have indeed transcended.

A Personal Essay?

01/23/2008  by kwlsguest  Comment on this Post

mikemelissa.jpgCan a personal essay be written by two people? If it’s never been done before, then our emerging voices will attempt it, in this blog, before your very eyes.

We are Melissa Ruby and Mike Cook, and (we believe) we were the youngest writers at the 2008 Key West Literary Seminar. Not that being the youngest guarantees that we have new voices or even distinct and worthy voices, but to be surrounded by writers so exceptional is to hope they find our voices new, distinct, and worthy.

Carolyn Mackler’s editor said that to find new American voices one has to look no further than Myspace, which, coincidentally, is why we’re here.

As reluctant as we are to admit we met on Myspace, we’re equally grateful that we did, because there was and is no other forum where we could have found that familiarity in such a chaotic ensemble of new voices. That recognition inspired a camaraderie.  

We met on a Myspace group called the Young Readers’ and Writers’ Network. A worthwhile Myspace group is an anomaly (can you even use “worthwhile” and “Myspace” in the same sentence?) but sometimes life allows for extraordinary fruit to come from really stupid shit. We heard our own voices reflected from the other coast in each others’ work.

How do you explain that another writer’s words pump the blood through your veins? How do you find other voices that do the same? A bar patron told one of us about Key West and the upcoming seminar on new voices. We’ll have to thank her, but mostly we have to thank Miles and the board, because without financial aid we would not be here.

We’re here to find solidarity in a world that’s really fucking lonely. We’re here because ultimately we desire to be those new American voices. Because we can’t imagine being anything else.

The new voices we heard in the seminar have inspired us to refine our own. Constant inspiration is vital. Unlike the others in the Keys, we were surrounded by writers who weren’t here on a vacation. We’ve had a lot of fun in Key West, but we didn’t come for the mojitos either. We’re not doing this for kicks; we’re doing this to breathe.

Mike and Melissa
Read more at: Literature Is Not Dead

A question of influences

01/21/2008  by Nan Klingener  1 Comment

At almost every literary event I’ve attended, writers are asked about their influences. This might get tiresome to them but it sometimes yields interesting results. At a panel (Friday? I think it was Friday), Billy Collins led a conversation with Kevin Young and Meghan O’Rourke. This was the occasion of Young’s now-famous iPhone reading.
The three poets started talking about influences on their work. The greats were mentioned: Wordsworth, Dickinson, Hughes, Ashbery. Then Billy pointed out that influences can also be “extraliterary”: “Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons were as influential on my imagination as any poetry I read.”

A little baseball trash talk

01/21/2008  by Nan Klingener  Comment on this Post

Gigi Amateau, a Virginian, loves the Red Sox. This, for some of us, requires no explanation but people ask for one anyway. Gigi wears a Red Sox hat at readings and encourages attendees to offer the tribal call of Red Sox Nation (“Yankees Suck!”). She loves the Sox, she says, because they’re heroes of the underdog. She loves them because they’re individualists and goofballs. “They’re sexy men who love each other in the dugout,” she said. She also loves them because they’re Boston’s team. “I’m passionately in love with John Adams and that’s his city,” she said.
Billy Collins, who followed Gigi on stage after she disclosed her love for the Sox, could not refrain from commenting. Billy is a former poet laureate, a brilliant and surprising writer, and has probably done more than any person alive to make poetry part of mainstream American culture. But when it comes to baseball, I was dismayed to learn, Billy is an adherent the Evil Empire and just had to take some shots at the good guys.
Yankees fans, he explained, follow baseball during the baseball season and merely root for their team. Whereas you can go to Boston at Christmas, and they’re still talking about baseball, specifically about the Yankees and why we hate them. “It’s obsessive and unhealthy,” he said.
Even if that’s true, I’m sticking with Gigi and the reigning world champs. Yankees suck.

Random, not particularly germane quotes from KWLS08.2

01/20/2008  by Mark Hedden  Comment on this Post

“I have seen the greatest minds of my generation destroyed by small talk.”

Annie Dillard, on why she was introducing Jake Silverstein, then getting the hell off the stage.

“You don’t judge a painting by how precisely it portrays the object it depicts.”

James Gleick in discussion with Janna Levin

“Physicists are the only ones allowed to talk about beauty with a straight face anymore”

Janna Levin in discussion with James Gleick

“It’s like trying to get puppies to look in the mirror.”

Billy Collins on getting poets to discuss how they think about their work. 

Blogging about blogging

01/20/2008  by Nan Klingener  Comment on this Post

At an interesting panel of new voices (titled “Where Are We Going?”) today, Lee Smith asked the panelists (Jake Silverstein, Janna Levin, Gigi Amateau and Silas House) a question: What about blogs? Her opinion is that “blogging is to writing like karaoke is to singing.”
The panelists offered a range of responses. Silas House blogs with a group of Southern writers on a site with a great name: A Good Blog is Hard to Find. He posts about once a month, crafts his pieces carefully and appreciates the deadline that makes him write. Janna Levin doesn’t like the world of commentary that the Internet and blogs have created, where we’re commenting on comments about comments. (Later she told the audience that we should still check out her website.) Jake Silverstein commented about the awareness we all have now of how long it’s been since we’ve checked our email, that there’s an inbox and a blogosphere and posts to be read and commented upon. This awareness, he said, can make it hard for writers to find the calm and focus they need to write.
All of them agreed we’re not going back. Although we are not yet, as far as I know, writing novels on cell phones like they are in Japan, according to a story in today’s New York Times.

New Faces

01/19/2008  by Jason Rowan  Comment on this Post

mike-prose before hos.JPGIn previous years’ Seminars, attendees tended to skew older, with a pretty
meager smattering of under-30s. With New Voices as a theme this year
and a healthy scholarship program there’s a big influx of younger
attendees and tons of fresh energy, both onstage and in the audience.
26 year old Mike Cook here is a writer and blogger from Baltimore. Mike
heard about the Seminar from a couple who are regulars at the bar where
he works. When he told them he was a writer they said they’d just come
back from last year’s Seminar, that this year’s theme was New Voices
and that he should definitely come. A year later here he is. Check out
his blog at

More Photos on Flickr

01/19/2008  by Nick Vagnoni  Comment on this Post

We’ve added lots more photos from the Seminar to our Flickr page and there are more on the way.

Kevin Young’s iPhone Reading

01/19/2008  by Nick Vagnoni  Comment on this Post

kyoung iphone4.jpg
At today’s first panel discussion, entitled “Voice in Poetry,” Billy Collins started by asking panelists Meghan O’Rourke and Kevin Young to read a poem. In the spirit of newness, Kevin announced, he would read a poem about the birth of his son. He then produced his iPhone and read the poem directly from it. Surely an endorsement deal with Apple can’t be far behind. 

Introducing …

01/18/2008  by Nan Klingener  1 Comment

One of the cool things about the Seminar, as someone usually explains early on, is that we don’t do introductions. Everyone’s listed in the program and it saves a lot of time. Still, introductory remarks, even by the speakers themselves, often provide great moments. Yesterday there were two:

Nell Freudenberger read her story, “The Virgin of Esmeraldas.” She said she wished she’d paid more attention to the program and realized she was following Junot Diaz. Because her story is about a Dominican teenager growing up in the Bronx. “It’s sort of like finding yourself at the Key West Literary Seminar of 1928, and finding yourself on the program after Hemingway — and the only thing you’ve brought is your bullfight story.”

James Gleick, science writer and KWLS board member, did provide an introduction of sorts to Janna Levin (who has the world’s coolest job description: physicist/novelist) before the two embarked on a fascinating conversation about science and art, how they differ and how they don’t. Gleick told us that Levin, before writing her novel, was widely published in scientific journals and read a couple scary-sounding titles of her papers. Then he read one that was refreshingly comprehensible: “Is the Universe Infinite or Is It Just Really Big?” (She never answered that question from the stage, by the way, since the conversation took a different direction.)

A new beginning

01/18/2008  by Nan Klingener  Comment on this Post

lee smith 2.JPGNovelist Lee Smith delivered the John Hersey Memorial keynote address to start off the second session of the Seminar Thursday night and it was, in turn, funny and heartrending. Smith described her own journey to becoming a writer: “I think mostly we write because we’re good at it and we’re really terrible at everything else,” she said. And, she said, “I was a deeply weird child,” who started writing to extend books she loved and just didn’t want to end (though she often added herself as a character in the extended plots). “Even the Bobbsey Twins rapidly because the Bobbsey Triplets,” she said. Her favorite books were “anything at all about horses and saints” and her all-time favorite book was called “God’s Girl”: “Not only did I love Joan of Arc, I wanted to be her.”

When she went off to college and wrote her first novel, her mother was Not Pleased, fearing the neighbors in their small Virginia town would see her in a character who runs off (even though, as Smith pointed out, her mother was still there). Since Smith’s father ran the Ben Franklin five-and-dime, the only place to buy books, and the librarian was her mom’s friend, there was no finding the book in her hometown. The second book met the same fate “because there was sex in it,” Smith said.

She later became a journalist and found much more rich material, in places from an Alabama majorette contest (her third novel was “Miss Fancy Strut”) to the mountain women whose voices were disappearing among a flood of fast food restaurants and satellite dishes.

Then Smith described how she came to write her most recent novel, “On Agate Hill.” Her son, Josh, died at 33, of heart failure, brought on by medications he had been taking for half his life for bipolar disorder. Lee’s grief and rage were oceanic. She finally sought psychiatric help; her doctor took out a prescription pad and wrote a new order: She was to write for two hours a day. So she did. And Josh is there, a blues musician who shows up at the end of the book. “Writing is a source of nourishment and strength,” she said. “It cannot bring our loved ones back, but it can fix them in our memories as they were in life.”

Tangential Required Reading: Meghan O’Rourke on John Ashbery

01/16/2008  by kwlsguest  Comment on this Post

One of the ancillary pleasures of the Literary Seminar is learning which writers “our” writers are reading. Whether inspired by the topic or our locale, or whether it is simply coincidental, trends inevitably emerge to offer a sort of tangential required reading list. Most pleasing to my mind, last week, were the references to poet John Ashbery, a 2003 alum of the Seminar, made separately by Ann Beattie, Maggie Nelson, and Edmund White. As an unabashed fan and former student of Ashbery’s, I always enjoy a discussion of his work, and lament the reputation of “difficulty” which is often attached to it. One more reason, then, to be excited about this weekend’s session, is Meghan O’Rourke, whose “How to read John Ashbery”, from Slate in 2005, peels away this reputation in one of the most refreshing, graceful, and charming discussions of Ashbery’s work in recent times. You can catch O’Rourke in discussion with Billy Collins and Kevin Young on Saturday, and on Sunday afternoon (free and open to the public) with Daniel Menaker, Nell Freudenberger, Silas House, and Tayari Jones. –Arlo Haskell (Sand Paper Press), KWLS stage manager

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