Jonathan Franzen: March 5, 2012

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

Audience members filed into McAlister Auditorium Monday night–most clutching copies of The Corrections or Freedom–eager for Tulane University’s sixth reading in its Great Writer Series. Franzen joins the league of Toni Morrison, Salmon Rushdie, Joan Didion, Carlos Fuentes and Michael Ondaatje as a reader in the series, sponsored by the Department of English’s Creative Writing Fund.

Tulane Professor Zach Lazar introduced Franzen with praise for his recently published novel, Freedom. “Franzen has established himself as leading a new wave of psychological realism, rich with the nuances of individual experiences,” Lazar said. Channeling Walt Whitman, Lazar concluded: “In Freedom, Franzen is no stander above men and women, or apart from them,” beautifully articulating what he called the “sheer energy” Franzen uses to produce such kinetic fiction.

As if reading from Lazar’s introduction, Franzen himself “kinetically”leapt from a stage curtain, skipping–or perhaps hopping–over a wire on his path to the podium. Before reading from a chapter in Freedom titled “Mountaintop Removal,” Franzen described the auditorium as “frighteningly vast.” The audience chuckled, and, despite the space’s size, never broke focus with the novelist as he began reading. Franzen’s voice–and the inflections employed for his character Richard Katz–was more than capable of filling the auditorium’s vastness, and got several genuine laugh-out-loud moments from audience members. In a description of a teenager named Zachary (no relation to Professor Lazar, as discussed in during the post-reading interview), Franzen comically and piercingly writes:

“Rather than thwarting his father’s vicarious rock ambitions by pursuing entomology or interesting himself in financial derivatives, Zachary dutifully aped Jimi Hendrix. Somewhere there had been a failure of imagination.”

Professor Lazar conducted an interview with Franzen on-stage after the reading, which Franzen prefaced by describing what he called a “post-reading remorse.” The two novelists talked about the difficulty of writing about sex and sex scenes in fiction–“There’s only so many things people can do to one another,” Franzen observed–commenting that, like the trust required between reader and writer, good sex relies on trust between two parties. “You can’t be safely ironic,” Franzen stated later in the interview. “I’m committed to closure,” he said, echoing his earlier assertion, “I love structuring novels. I’d be so happy if I could just structure them every day without, you know, writing them.”

In the evening’s final fifteen minutes, audience members were allowed to ask Franzen questions. The first question about Twitter has attracted media attention in Slate and The Guardian but, along with his prompted response to social media, Franzen discussed various topics, including: German literature; readership for contemporary American fiction; the state of American literature (“there’s been something goofy about American literature since Modernism,” he said); the task of adequately developing characters in his own work; his growing-up in the Midwest; Enid, from The Corrections; and the challenges of adapting The Corrections into a screenplay. “We’ve got to make writing friendly,” he concluded. “You’ve got to dare to try to be moving.”

Jonathan Franzen is the author of several books of fiction and nonfiction, including: The Twenty-Seventh CityStrong MotionHow to Be AloneThe Discomfort ZoneThe Corrections, winner of the National Book Award; and, Freedom selected in December as one of the New York Times Ten Best Books of 2010.

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Naomi Shihab Nye: November 17, 2011

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

At approximately 7:03 pm Thursday night, as a crowd prepared themselves for Professor Peter Cooley’s introductory remarks for Tulane’s Fall 2011 Poet Laureate Series visiting poet Naomi Shibab Nye, the Lavin-Bernick Center’s fire alarms begin to sound. “Please evacuate the building,” an automated voice said over the Kendall Cram Ballroom’s speakers. The confused audience filed out, Ms. Nye laughing and commenting to a group of students: “It’s going to be an exciting evening.”

After the crowd stood outside the building for roughly twenty minutes waiting for the deactivation of what was later revealed to be a false alarm, Professors Cooley and Zachary Lazar escorted everyone back inside and to their seats. “Now we can begin,” said Professor Cooley, taking the stage.

He continued: “It’s a cliché in our time to say the personal is political, but in the work of Naomi Nye, author of more than thirty books, the personal is political is incarnational. Her poetry is a needed poetry.”

Nye thanked Professor Cooley before saying it was a “precious time” to be in the city of New Orleans. “It’s everyone’s favorite city!” she said, evoking head-nods from everyone in the audience. Before reading her poem “Every Window,” Nye read W.S. Merwin’s “Native Trees,” commenting also that she was glad “the building didn’t burn down.”

From here she read poems about her father, poems about lost pets, and a poem she was requested to write by prisoners she once taught in a workshop in an upstate New York prison. Entitled “Maximum Security,” Nye read: “There are one hundred ways we could go wrong/ and they are very close by.”

During the Question and Answer session, an audience member asked Nye about her poem “Kindness,” about Nye’s experiences in South America after being robbed in Colombia. Begins the poem “Before you know what kindness is/ you must lose things…” Nye continued to talk about her personal travels, saying that “when you write—or, when you experience kindness or grief—you’re learning how to carry a body of voices. We may lose things, but more continues to be given to us.”


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Sherman Alexie: October 24, 2011

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

“When reading Alexie’s work, you’re jolted by contradiction,” said Zachary Lazar, Tulane’s new Professor of Creative Writing, in his introductory remarks for the evening. Professor Lazar continued: “You approach Alexie’s work with what Hemingway called a Bullshit Detector, and, well, Alexie’s fiction has a sense of what really matters. He writes in a Bullshit-Free Zone.”

Upon taking his place on the stage in the Kendall-Cram Ballroom, Alexie responded to the introduction with, “Zach is such a sweetheart. I could never imagine him telling anyone, ‘Hey, I’m gonna kick your ass!’”

Alexie told the packed house of audience members he’d left his manuscript on the airplane, and would therefore be reading poems from his iPad. Before any poems were read, however, Alexie reflected on an incident he’d seen while driving from the New Orleans airport—catching what he called the “interracial eroticism” of “black, Drew Brees-jerseyed” women grinding on older, similarly jerseyed white males. “Is Drew Brees some sort of sex symbol for interracial eroticism?” he asked an audience already bent over in laughter. “Everyone is so sexual in New Orleans,” he continued. “This morning in the hotel I woke up to the housekeeper grinding on me in my bed.”

Like Alexie’s hilarious remarks on race, Drew Brees and Saints fans, his poetry rides the beautiful line that bridges comedy and serious concerns for contemporary social issues. From his crowd-pleasing and laughter-inducing poem “The Facebook Sonnet,” Alexie read:

Welcome to the endless high-school

Reunion. Welcome to past friends

And lovers, however kind or cruel.

Shortly after reading “The Facebook Sonnet,” Alexie took questions from the audience. When asked about the hilarity of both his poetry and his performance that night in the LBC, Alexie said: “Comedy is simply a funny way of being serious.” The magic of Alexie’s work, and his reading on October 24th, cannot be more succinctly described.

Sherman Alexie is Tulane’s visiting Writer’s Writer for the Fall 2011 semester. He is the author of Reservation Blues, Indian Killer; The Toughest Indian in the World, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, winner of the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. His 2009 collection War Dances won the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction.

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Robert Hass: January 24, 2011

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

Before he took the stage at Dixon Auditorium last night, Professor and English Department Chair Molly Rothenberg said, “Robert Hass is appropriate for our region.” Referring to the recent oil spill, Rothenberg welcomed the former Poet Laureate and environmental activist to Tulane.

Professor Peter Cooley praised Hass’ poetry for its “sensual qualities and political engagements.” Before reading selections of his own work, bespectacled Hass told the audience that, as a medium, “poetry can do anything.” His first poem was “Iowa, January,” a selection from his book Time and Materials. On the short poem he said: “sometimes all you want to do is capture a moment.” Hass peppered his reading with short anecdotes, recalling his friendship with Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, whose work Hass himself has translated into English. Discussing his own poetry in the context of Milosz and Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa, Hass said the poet’s task is to “capture lightning in a bottle.”

Hass told personal stories as well, recounting his job of writing a poem on the state of the planet for Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory’s fiftieth anniversary. “State of the Planet” is a poem that juggles and unifies many elements—a schoolgirl walking in the rain, the speaker’s conversation with long-dead Roman poet Lucretius, and the luminescent properties of jellyfish, to name a few—and, at one of the readings most intense moments, proclaimed:

It must be a gift of evolution that humans

Can’t sustain wonder. We’d never have gotten up

From our knees if we could.

Following “State of the Planet” Hass read a four-part poem entitled, “August Notebook: A Death.” “I like to keep journals of poetry and ideas for each month of the year,” said Hass. He concluded the reading with a poem about the California coastline—“an elegy, of sorts,” he said—which began:

Late afternoon in June the fog rides in

across the ridge of pines, ghosting them,

and settling on the bay to give a muted gray

luster to the last hours of light and take back

what we didn’t know at midday we’d experience

as lack…

After the reading Hass took questions from the audience. In response to a question about his own writing process and experiences as a poet, Hass echoed his earlier statement to students in Professor Cooley’s advanced poetry workshop by saying: “I work a little everyday—to do “work,” properly speaking. I like to show the Muse I’m showing up. But really, I’d like to become a better reader.” “To make art,” Hass said, addressing another student, “you’ve got to be dedicated to it.”

Robert Hass served as the Poet Laureate of the United States from 1995 to 1997. He was awarded the Yale Younger Series of Poets Award for Field Guide in 1972, the William Carlos Williams Award for Praise in 1979, and the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 2008 for his collection Time and Materials. Hass has translated the works of Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz and Japanese haikus in his book The Essential Haiku: Versions of Basho, Buson, and Issa. His other awards include the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He is the Distinguished Chair of Poetry and Poetics at the University of California, Berkeley.

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James Salter: November 10, 2010

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

In her welcoming remarks for the evening, Professor Molly Rothenberg called James Salter “a national literary treasure.” James Salter, Tulane University’s Fall 2010 visiting writer in the “Writer’s Writer” series, took the stage after a more personal introduction by creative writing Professor Thomas Beller. “There’s something about Salter’s prose,” Beller said, “that lingers in the imagination. His writing has a magic feel, where individual lines are talismans.”

Salter shuffled onto the stage and comically proclaimed, “I won’t fulfill all that.” As audience members chuckled and speculated as to what story or excerpt was inside the manila folder Salter brought to the podium he said, “I’m going to read something new tonight. It’s called “Charisma.””

The unpublished short story traces the observations of male and female characters around the relationship between Paolo, whose face is “beyond age,” and Leila, “whose beauty was ennobling.” In characteristically deft strokes Salter painted the volcanic relationship between these two characters, his narrator making the observation: “To know someone, you must know what they fear.” Salter’s narrator said later of Paolo, “you could not enter his world without him.” The same could be said for Salter the author who, like his character, “ignores ordinary reality, the kind everyone knows.”

Following the reading, Salter conducted an interview with Professor Kevin Rabalais, answering questions on his history as a writer, serviceman, and screenwriter. “I spent about twelve years in the service, twelve in the movies, and twelve writing,” said Salter. When asked specifically about his novels and short stories, Salter had to say: “There’s a little bit of luck involved in getting published. When you’re young you have the energy to write—to stay up late into the night.” Rabalais asked of Salter’s early days as a pilot secretly writing fiction, keeping it, “his third life,” hidden away in a drawer. “What kept me writing?” Salter replied. “Well, you just can’t stop.”

James Salter is Tulane’s visiting Writer’s Writer for the Fall 2010 semester. His novels include A Sport and a Pastime, Light Years and Solo Faces. Dusk, one of his short story collections, received the PEN/Faulkner Award. He was elected to The American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2000.


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Michael Ondaatje: October 25, 2010

Report by Engram Wilkinson:

In her introduction of Michael Ondaatje Professor Molly Travis said of his work, “his are haunting and haunted characters.” Her introductory remarks summarized the whole of Ondaatje’s work and his October 25th reading beautifully. With Dixon Hall filled by students, professors and members of the community, Michael Ondaatje took the stage as Tulane’s most recent participant in the Great Writers series.

Ondaatje began by reading two poems, “The Cinnamon Peeler” and “The Great Tree.” One line from “The Great Tree,” a poem about 14th century Chinese artists, spoke of “no flamboyant movement.” There exists no better description of Michael Ondaatje as a public speaker: there was nothing flamboyant as he read line by line, his voice powerfully unassuming and quiet, never once rising to loud theatrics.

When finished with “The Great Tree,” Ondaatje read an excerpt from Anil’s Ghost, his Giller Prize-winning fourth novel. His passage focused on the character Gamini, a doctor performing surgery on a small child whose heart “was the size of a guava.”

A reading from Ondaatje’s most recent novel and Governor General’s Award recipient Divisadero concluded the evening’s reading. Ondaatje read three passages from the novel, each about the adolescence lives of three different characters. “It’s my way of giving this reading an odd structure,” he said facing the audience. The first passage dealt with Anna, a girl living in California who, in a field at night, “counted the seconds between meteor showers.” The second character, Raphael, was caught on a runaway horse during a storm as an eleven-year-old boy. The final character presented from Divisadero was Lucien the poet, who observed his stepfather the clockmaker and concluded—in contrast to a clockmaker and his rolled-up sleeves—“the skill of a writer offers little to a viewer.” The large audience in Dixon Hall clearly refuted Lucien’s claim as all sat ensnared by the imaginary worlds and characters of Ondaatje’s prose.

Ondaatje’s reading was followed by an interview with Professor Molly Travis and questions from the audience. When asked about film and film editing, Ondaatje called himself a “child of film” and said of the creative process: “editing is as important as creating…that the quiet act of writing is part learning.”

Michael Ondaatje is Tulane’s visiting Great Writer for the 2010-2011 academic year. He is the author of the novels Anil’s GhostThe English PatientComing Through Slaughter, In the Skin of a Lion, and Divisadero. His works of poetry include The Cinnamon Peeler, Handwriting, There’s a Trick with a Knife I’m Learning to Do, and The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. He edits the literary journal Brick with his wife Linda Spalding.

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Prizewinners, May 2010

From left: Sara Tobin, Daniel Grossberg, Emily Couvillon, Joanna Kauffmann, Chanel Clarke. Photo: Guillermo Cabrera-Rojo.

Paula Morris here, posting from New Zealand.

This picture was taken on the stage of McAlister Auditorium during the Newcomb-Tulane College Prizegiving ceremony last Friday, May 13. I was very sorry to miss this.

Four of the above won creative writing prizes. Sara Tobin: the Academy of American Poets Prize. Daniel Grossberg: the Writer’s Residency Award for an Outstanding Senior in Creative Writing. Joanna Kauffmann: the Quarante Club Prize for the Best Short Story by a Woman. Chanel Clarke: the Senior Achievement Award for Excellence in Creative Writing. Chanel will be moving to Austin, TX soon, to take up her three-year MFA fellowship at the Michener Center for Writers at UT Austin.

Also pictured is Emily Couvillon, who won the Henry Clay Stier Award in English, for the highest GPA in the major. Coincidentally, Emily is a native of Marksville, Louisiana, where Daniel Grossberg will be spending his week-long residency in June. Daniel won a second prize this year – the Donald Pizer Award in American Literature, I think.

Not pictured here is another prizewinner, Kenneth Lota, who was the department’s Senior Scholar. Kenneth is taking up a place this fall in the MA program at the University of Virginia.

Another coincidence: Sara Tobin, Joanna Kauffmann and Kenneth Lota were all students (as freshmen) in my first-ever TIDES class at Tulane, on ‘Literary New Orleans’. That was a lovely class, and I’m delighted to have seen them develop into such smart, articulate, accomplished individuals.

Congratulations to all our brilliant seniors.

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