Monthly Archives: October 2009

Dan Baum 10/14/09: Finding the Right Word

Report by Betsy Porritt:

Dan Baum cuts an interesting figure in a straw boater, sleeveless shirt and baggy, fuchsia pink trousers.  When he talks, it is with the confidence of a New Yorker reporter with hand gestures to match. He speaks with a warm eloquence and easy precision directly reflected in the clean lines of his prose. It’s easy to see how he gained the trust of the diverse cross section of characters that are presented in his book Nine Lives.  And characters they are, although this is a work of non-fiction. Baum has creatively re-constructed nine narrated lives of pre-Katrina New Orleanians as a way to explore the deeper issues within the heart of a city that is so much more than one awful hurricane.  While the whole world of journalism and storytelling was looking one way and “disappeared down the rabbit-hole” that was Katrina, Baum looked the other and found a wealth of stories itching to be told and begging for representation.  “New Orleans”, he said, discussing the secret to his success in gaining access to so many people’s personal narratives, “is a story-telling place.”

Baum discussed the way he applies fictional narrative techniques – character, structure, dialogue, point of view – to the stories of real people, obtained through interview and observation. He also uses his writers’ skill to adopt the tone and language of his interviewees, bringing us close to their experiences. The book may not always be completely factual – it may even contain a few outright lies – but the truth of the matter remains. This is a book about trauma and recovery: the depiction of Katrina as just another pot hole in the warped and bumpy lives of our protagonists makes this not tale of re-construction but an historical account of a city, filled with more heart than any fictionalized account of heroism could be.

A self-confessed “old journalist”, Baum has found his own way to get to the bones of a character and a story.  Experience has taught him about people and given him the skill of listening to them.  Somewhere along his career (as well as The New Yorker, he has written for Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and Playboy), any outright ego was knocked out of his writing and he learned how to present the world without infusing it with an overpowering sense of himself.

Maybe this is why he makes such a good journalist and why Nine Lives is such a compelling read.  His characters reflect his interviewing style and are all the more real and rounded for that.  We learn more about Joyce Montana through the way she sees her husband and son than we ever would if she were simply talking about herself.  In his talk last Thursday in Cudd Hall, Baum discussed some tricks of the trade – including fast typing; re-reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style; asking off-topic/unexpected questions; and approaching an interview as though it’s a “shrink appointment” to help the interviewee go truly “deep.” But it’s clear that an understanding of people is the real secret ingredient to journalistic success.  Well, maybe that and a flamboyant choice of leg-wear.

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Things You’ll Learn at the Angola Prison Rodeo

Reportage by Chris D.

Courtesy of Professor Morris and the generous donors of the Tulane Creative Writing Fund, the Advanced Fiction Workshop (and myself–recent grad/willing driver) had the opportunity to attend the morally ambiguous and spectacularly muddy forty-fifth annual Angola Prison Rodeo.  If you are lucky enough to attend this event, you will, as one should on field trips, learn a few things.

1) You will learn that Angola (or “The Farm”–Wikipedia article here) is the largest maximum security prison in the United States, with 5,000 inmates.

2) You will discover that around thirty of these inmates are insane.  The “Yes, though I have no experience and nothing to gain or lose, I will volunteer to ride a 2,000 lb bull that may or may not stomp on my head like an overripe cantaloupe”-type of insane.

3) If you read Tim Gautreaux’s short story “Rodeo Parole” (from Welding with Children), you will find it to have a more somber atmosphere (and drier setting) than the Inmate Poker event at Angola, though the details will be the same–four convicts sitting at a poker table and trying not to fidget when a wild bull is released into the arena.  The winner is the last man seated at the table.  The losers are the people who get a hide-covered battering ram to the ribs. (There will be many losers).

4) You will learn that monkeys with tiny saddles can ride dogs that herd sheep.  For some reason, this will be the most disturbing thing you see.

5) You will discover that there is only so much punishment your delicate, aesthetically advanced sensibilities can take.  You may scoff at prisoners trying to milk wild cows, gasp at convicts scrambling away from bucking Brahmas, and shake your head in indulgent disapproval at inmates trying to wrestle the smaller bulls.  But during “Guts & Glory,” the final event, during which thirty or so current-cons attempt to retrieve a poker chip tied to the nose of a bull that probably gets tasered for a warm up, all ideas of “taste” and “exploitation” go out the barred window.  By the time the eighth guy gets charged into and flipped eight feet in the air, you really won’t be capable of much more than a benign and slightly stupefied grin (or grimace, depending).

6)  When you go to the crafts fair, you will learn that prison business-savvy includes knowledge of what cartoon characters will inspire children to harass their parents into buying handmade leather goods and woodwork from people behind chain-link and barb wire.  (Actually, though Dora is spot-on, Spiderman seems a little 2007.)

7) You will learn, again, how smart your girlfriend is, when she asks, “Do you really need a snakeskin visor?”

8) You will learn that having already graduated from Tulane Creative Writing doesn’t necessarily preclude you from drawing on the wonderful benefits of being a student in the program.

9) You will learn that having already graduated from Tulane Creative Writing doesn’t necessarily preclude you from having to do homework for Paula.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Jonathan Ames

Report by Faine Greenwood:

I never thought I would see a man discussing, ahem, evacuating his bowels in the South of France at an officially Tulane sponsored event. Yet I have: I have seen Jonathan Ames.

Ames, a NYC-based personal essayist, novelist, and screenwriter (among other talents) is a bizarre and neurotic presence, the sort of gentleman who fades into the background until he says something entirely outrageous. His simple, casual-sounding writing has the sensibility of an off-kilter and sexually depraved P.G Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster with a scatological sensibility and a delicately concealed transsexual fetish. Yet Ames cedes to moments of haunting, almost delicious sweetness in his prose and in his stories. He has a surprising eye for important detail and for on-point and hilarious dialogue. He shows us things we would never think to look at (or might, in all honesty, want to look at).

His delivery is utterly deadpan and, on stage, Ames personifies the down-trodden “bald and impotent” figure that shambles through so many of his essays. Yet his calm is what kills the audience dead: there’s something about how matter-of-factly he relates his experiences with a Ugandan colonic doctor. He keeps a straight face even when discussing the aforementioned South of France episode, in which he’s totally humiliated. We’re still laughing with him. That’s a knack.

Jonathan Ames is, at the same time, totally depraved and totally charming, a gentleman who has merely lost his way. He was a pleasure to have at Tulane and did not engage in any socially unacceptable behaviors on campus: I think we should invite him back.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Chris Rose

Report by Sarah Manthey:

Chris Rose, local newspaperman turned spokesperson for post-Katrina New Orleans, half-read half-performed works from his book 1 Dead in Attic as the third contributor in the symposium on the personal essay. His book is a compilation of articles he published in The Times Picayune.

Rose began as a social columnist for the paper, but after Hurricane Katrina his column turned into more poignant pieces.  He attributed this transition to the transformation everyone was going through at the time.  For him writing acted as therapy the way that post-Katrina New Orleanians used talking as therapy.  “All anyone wanted to do for the first year after the storm was have someone listen to their story,” said Rose.  “I was able to get up on a soapbox and yell.”

Rose began the reading with a piece entitled “My Introduction to New Orleans” which described how, ironically, a hurricane during Thanksgiving break his sophomore year of college initially pushed him toward the city.  He read other essays such as “The City that Hair Forgot” wherein he links amusing vignettes to a larger message that to experience “a New Orleans moment” is not simply to walk down Bourbon Street but to delve into something much deeper and harder to describe.  The end of his piece begs the question: “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”

In their discussion, Professor T.R. Johnson pointed out how similar his writing is to the way Rose talks.  Rose advised writers to read aloud their material, either to themselves or a friend. Much more than “regular newspaper fodder,” Rose’s column allowed him the opportunity to speak about extremely personal experiences in such a way that everyone could relate.  “I like to call it literature in a hurry,” said Rose.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Phillip Lopate

Report by Faine Greenwood:

Phillip Lopate has been a particular delight for me to discover. I’ve got my reasons: I have often been critiqued in the past for providing too much background information in my essays: it is the fetish of a life-long information whore, the kind of person who enjoys being good at Trivial Pursuit. I admit it all. The advent of the Internet has made back-research entirely too tempting to me. I can Google up a library of Alexandria; every factoid is instantly accessible to me in purest format. And here we have Phillip Lopate, who did this kind of exhaustive research prior to the Internet, who provided back-story and context in a readable and elegant fashion, who nailed it. As Peter Cooley noted, in his introduction at the Symposium, Lopate could write an essay about shoelaces, an essay in which we were given the history and origin of shoelaces, an essay we might actually enjoy.

Lopate’s style is cool and intellectual. His is not the enveloping bear hug of the new-age personal essayist. He is not here to make us feel better about ourselves, or drag us along on his personal spirit-quest (and thank God he does not). Lopate remains at a bit of a scholarly distance, a role he is comfortable with. Mr. Lopate is the shusher in the back of the movie theater, he is the man who spoke out (finally!) against the horrifying rise of joie de vivre. He says what he wants to say, and he does it so smoothly that we do not immediately file him away as a simple rebel.

And there is emotional depth to Lopate, beyond his initial New York City (Brooklyn!) veneer. Lopate worked as a “poet in residence” and teacher at the District 9 middle school in New York City for years, teaching writing and art to a host of not always willing pre-teen kids. The observations and the material he gets out of those years is superb. Look at the brilliant Chekhov With Children from the Getting Personal compilation, in which Lopate audaciously produces and puts on an ennui-sodden Russian play with a bunch of middle schoolers. The miracle? He pulls off the play, and the children personify the characters, envelop themselves in the part. He does not talk down to the kids or assume that they are incapable of doing what they do: so too does he approach his readers. He assumes we will sit beside him for the duration, and listen to what he has to say, because he has invited us in.

That Phillip Lopate is fearsomely intelligent and eternally measured serves him well when he reverses things. The Tulane reading was a case in point. Lopate followed a rather dense essay about his experiences in poetry with an essay discussing (in great detail) the vagaries and insecurities of his sex life. It worked perfectly, in my mind: the fog of scholarly thought the audience had succumbed to subsided, and we were all laughing together over Lopate’s particularly clever turns of phrase. (“Sex is like parenting: someone, somewhere, is doing it better then you.”) Lopate proves that we can have the high and the low together in personal essay, and perhaps emphasizes that we do not even need to make the distinction. Every part of life can be examined and considered, and every bit of it can be made interesting.

Lopate is an impeccable stylist, the man who has defined the personal essay in America. It was very good to meet him: we discussed pierogis briefly, and I mentioned that I agreed entirely with the thesis of Against Joie De Vivre. I wrote him a brief thank-you email that weekend. He replied immediately and graciously: we can’t ask for much more from those who come to Tulane to talk to us. He said in the email that he hoped he’d be invited back. I hope so too.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Meghan Daum

Report by Sara Tobin:

Writer Meghan Daum opened the “Less-Than-Secret Lives” symposium on the personal essay Saturday Oct. 3 with a reading from her most recent work, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.  The book is a collection of personal essays that explores the concept of “home” in the many places she has lived, from New York to Omaha to Los Angeles.  Daum is also the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth and the novel The Quality of Life Report, and her articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker.   She currently lives in Los Angeles and writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.

The selections Daum read from Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House focused on her parents’ background, her childhood home in New Jersey, and her life in New York City as a young adult.  Both Daum and her parents were obsessed with the myth of New York as a place full of bohemians, intellectuals, and artists, which did not reflect much of the reality of the pre-Giuliani and pre-gentrification city in the 1980s.  She manages to get out of suburban New Jersey and become a real New Yorker who loves the city, but the lifestyle leaves her with crushing debt that forces her to eventually leave it.

After the reading, Tulane Creative Writing Professor Paula Morris interviewed Daum about the art of the personal essay and its importance as a branch of literature.  Daum said that the personal essay should reveal everything about the narrator and nothing about the author, and that it should tie into something larger culturally.  She also considers her status as an outsider in the various places she’s lived as important to her work, and said that writers always have to be outsiders to see with “a fresh pair of eyes.”  When asked about the place of the personal essay in the “Age of Over-sharing” with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Daum said that she found the unfiltered “first thoughts” people express through these mediums are “unproductive and uninteresting.”

My Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House will be released in June 2010, and Daum’s column can be found in the Los Angeles Times every Saturday.

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Less-Than-Secret Lives: Symposium on the Personal Essay 10/03/09

Report by Joey Von Hoven:

The Personal Essay Symposium at Tulane on Saturday, October 3 was an intriguing chance to see, up-close and in sharp comparative relief, four writers’ different styles, positions, personalities, and takes on the personal essay and on writing in general. This revealed some interesting dichotomies, intersections, and comparisons that could have fueled a much longer panel discussion.

Phillip Lopate, the acknowledged elder statesman of the personal essay, seemed to have the role of sagacious and judicious patriarch of the symposium. His reading on his experiences with poetic insiders and his subsequent shift to his hallmark role as personal essayist shed a lot of light on the topic (and left me with a great impression that it’s okay if it turns out you’re not great at something, because that leaves you to discover what you are great at … If your parents won’t tell you that, you at least have Phillip Lopate). Lopate’s essays are intended to be insightful and thought-provoking (and sometimes amusing) investigations on a topic. Even an essay about his own sexual experiences is full of reverberating reflections on the human condition (“Fornicating is like parenting…you feel someone somewhere else is doing it better”).

Meghan Daum believes that essays have an intellectual hook, using the writer’s experiences to reflect on issues of contemporary society. In My Misspent Youth, her first collection of essays, Daum tackled image obsession and the fetishization of life and culture through the lens of her own disillusionment with the trappings of being a cultured, classy intellectual. In Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, from which she read at the Symposium, she develops these themes by exploring the lives of her parents. Allen. When she read – in a tone of wistful pity – the scene in which she leaves her mother, recently moved to New York City, Daum seems more like the parent than the child. There’s an undertone – of the culture of superficiality and aspiration claiming her family as casualties – running through a lot of Daum’s work, as though she’s pursuing and indicting something like a victim-detective. This may be an intellectual hook, but it’s sharpened and it’s personal.

Chris Rose, wired and high-strung, gave a bard-like, animated reading of some of his pieces on post-Katrina New Orleans. For Rose, “it’s all heart, passion, and soul, which doesn’t seem to be rational at all.” His work is a series of shots of life, impressionistic scenes meant to get at the truth—of a city, of life. His Kerouac-like account of his discovery of New Orleans reveals Rose’s vital identification with the city, while his pieces focused on children were rendered with a tender, sensitive voice. But this voice also occasionally rises to outright indignation at failures, neglects, and persistent stupidities that have made life in New Orleans harder than needs to be. (When Rose talks about his banal first-name-basis acquaintance with a decomposing body, the incongruity isn’t lost on him.) His short-essay collection, 1 Dead in Attic isn’t just Rose’s story of a hurt and desperately struggling New Orleans, but also of his own personal succumbing to traumatic stress—something as far from the trite pretenses of journalistic objectivity as one can get.

Jonathan Ames is the jester, bawdy and lighthearted. He makes fun of himself and his misfortunes and awkward situations, but even when he’s kvetching about it, the joke is never really on him. (I wonder if I was the only person who was left wishing that I, too, had “shat my pants in the south of France”?) Ames admitted to playing with the line between fiction and non-fiction, though there doesn’t seem anything deceptive in his portrayals. Actually, by writing creative and funny accounts of what it’s like for Jonathan Ames to live in the world (which sometimes seems like the Tao of humiliation), he is probably the writer in the symposium who most breaks down even the idea of the distinction between fact and fiction.

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