Category Archives: Visiting writers

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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Amy Hempel: March 15, 2010

Report by Sara Sands:

With her long, white hair framing her face, she looked exactly like the photo on the cover of The Collected Stories.

But her voice – serious but playful, frank but inviting – spoke to Amy Hempel’s power as a writer, reader, and overall master of her craft.

As the 25th Zale-Kimmerling Writer-in-Residence, Hempel read seven of her short and short-short stories to about 200 people on Monday. The reading ended with a brief Q&A session that provided yet another means for the audience of Tulane affiliates and community members to connect to the critically acclaimed writer.

Hempel began the night with a reading of “The Harvest,” a two-part story published in her second book At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom. In both her anecdotes before the story and the story itself, Hempel entertained, engaged and amused the attentive crowd.

By her third story, “Memoirs,” a one-sentence narrative that Hempel celebrates as her “shortest published story,” it seemed as though she was engaged in an intimate conversation, sharing her secrets with a group of friends.

In addition to “The Harvest” and “Memoirs,” Hempel read “The After Life,” which was published in Playboy; “Weekend,” a story from her third book Tumble Home; and three new works entitled “I Stay with Syd,” “The Correct Grip,” and “Sing to It.” The questions that followed her reading included queries on the challenges of teaching, the importance of setting in stories, and her favorite recent reads.

During the reception, Sarah Manthey, a senior and English major, commented on just how enjoyable the reading was. “She created a very intimate atmosphere even though there were a lot of people. It just felt very natural, like she was talking to the audience.”

As this year’s Zale-Kimmerling Writer-in-Residence, Hempel joins a growing list of stellar visiting writers, including recent guests Claire Messud, Elizabeth McCracken, and Curtis Sittenfeld.

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Poet Laureate Series: Rita Dove, 3/8/10

Report by Nicola Wolf

In a much-anticipated public appearance at Tulane’s McAlister Auditorium on March 8, former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove read thirteen poems from her latest book Sonata Mulattica, a book she said she hadn’t expected to write.  In 2003, while watching IMMORTAL BELOVED, a fictional account of Beethoven’s life, Dove noticed a black violinist in an orchestral scene.  Her subsequent investigation lead to George Augustus Polgreen Bridgetower, a prodigy of African and European descent, who at age twenty-three, had met and befriended Beethoven, who named his ninth violin sonata “The Bridgetower.”  Later, they fell out over a woman, and Beethoven removed the dedication, renaming his famously difficult masterpiece “The Kreutzer Sonata” after another acclaimed violinist of the day.

Dove couldn’t let Bridgetower go.  Fascinated by what it was like to live as a prodigy, as an outsider of mixed race, and to have encountered the pinnacle of one’s career so early in life, she embarked on what would become years of meticulous research, “following the direct line” wherever it took her.  Sonata Mulattica blends fact with fiction.   In the poem “What Didn’t Happen,” Dove slyly places Sally Hemmings and Thomas Jefferson in the audience of Bridgetower’s first Parisian concert.

After the reading, Dove took questions.  She spoke of the challenge of writing from so many different voices, of “capturing the rhythm and cadence” of Bridgetower, Beethoven, a street musician, the Mistress of the English queen’s wardrobe, and many others.   Anxious about whether she could pull it off, she wrote a poem in Beethoven’s voice first.  While Dove had “obsessively” immersed herself in research, once she started writing the poems, she didn’t touch her notes until a final fact check right before deadline.  The same was true about the Kreutzer; she listened to it repeatedly, but stopped once she began writing her own composition.

When asked about spoken word, Dove called it “poetry for the stage – for performance” which, while sometimes too simplistic, may need to be so, because “you can’t go back.”  However, she also commented that “poetry for the page can be a bit too elusive.”

Continuing on the subject of poetic elusiveness, Ms. Dove addressed her remarks to a class of high-school boys who had come to the reading with their teacher.  In her opinion, students become conditioned to “approach poetry with fear … because so many of us are given poems to read, asked to analyze them, and then told we are dead wrong … that because poems are made of words, we tend to address poetry at the intellectual as opposed to the gut level.”  She recommended approaching poetry like music, “because nobody makes us analyze that,” and “we can just take it in.”  When first encountering a poem, one should read it aloud to yourself, “in a voice like you are talking to a friend,” and not to worry if you don’t understand it.   She cited her own high-school English class experience with Ezra Pound’s Cantos as an example of having to let go of the need to know exactly what a poem meant.

Earlier in the day, Ms. Dove had valuable advice for college students when she attended Professor Peter Cooley’s advanced poetry class.  Her warm manner, radiant smile, and wry sense of humor quickly put students at ease.   She also sported a festive set of gold, green, blue, red, and orange-striped fingernails.

Each semester, the advanced poetry students must complete a set of poems around a specific project or theme.  Ms. Dove approved, saying that a project “gives you a wall to butt up against, to trick the unconscious.  A wall is the edge of something that is new and dangerous, where you are scared but ecstatic, and this is where you are full of life.”

On the subject of getting published, Dove acknowledged that “you do want to touch someone, a stranger” – that this is one of the reasons we write.  However, she cautioned that “none of us know if we are going to survive as a poet,” explaining that history is full of poets who were immensely popular in their time but are now all but forgotten.

She advised student poets to learn other genres like fiction or playwriting “to see how you push up against it.”  Dove considers playwriting the closest to poetry “because of all the things that must be left out.” The pivotal point in Sonata Mulattica, where Bridgetower and Beethoven disagree, is written as a short play, complete with detailed stage directions.  She also told students that they should learn another language because they will learn more about English in the process.  A fluent German speaker, Dove observed that “every language does something that no other language can.”

Ms. Dove is an accomplished ballroom dancer.  She sees dance as an application of the physicality of music, and like poetry, is iambic, with stress and non-stress on the beat.  She noted that “we tend to syncopate because that’s the way we talk.”   She has been a musician for most of her life (cello and viola da gamba), and considers the music of poetry a tool for engaging the reader.  “You must create your own music so the reader breathes when you breathe.”  In comparing poetry to visual art, Ms. Dove said the visual often “gives it to you immediately,” whereas poets must go “one step at a time,” using the medium of “the word, the silences on the page, and the density of the language.”

On the creative process: Dove writes what moves her at the moment, but the struggle is always in how to communicate.  She drafts her poems in longhand, saying that “it gives her time to think,” and because she “needs the tactile, to feel it.”  The instancy of computers and internet, “fractures one’s attention,” and that screens lead us to read faster.   She pointed out how we usually tend to think of e-mail as “provisional.”  With typewriters and computers, she found herself “coming up against the tyranny of the right-hand margin.”  She also does not want to read online.  However, she thought computers can be very useful, because when a student is struggling, they can play with the font, turn a poem sideways, and use other techniques “to make it strange,” which can help them make a breakthrough.  When she puts poems together for a book, she spreads them out on the floor and continually rearranges them like tiles to see which ones naturally come together.

On poetry in the schools:  Dove offered this recommendation – “Read a poem to the kids at the end of every day, and then just send the kids home.  Don’t talk about it.”  When the kids are ready, they will naturally start talking about the poem, discovering, engaging, and learning on their own terms.  For Dove, “to love poetry was one of the luckiest things to happen to me in my life.  Poetry is the ultimate – it is the pearl.”

Rita Dove’s visit to campus was sponsored by the Great Poets Series of the Tulane Creative Writing Fund. This was the third annual event in the Poet Laureate Series, following visits by Louise Gluck and Billy Collins.

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Edmund White 02/01/10

Report by Katie McGinnis:

When contrasted against the commanding power of his work, Edmund White is surprisingly genial in person. Students, faculty and community members were treated to his reading on February 1st in the LBC’s Kendall Cram Room. White read from his famous work City Boy, an autobiographical documentation of the New York gay scene in the 1960s and 70s, and then answered audience questions.

Edmund White has lived an extraordinary life, which needless to say has influenced his writings. Born in Cincinnati, he was raised in Dallas, Texas with virtually no connection to the art scene. He explained that the first published writer he met was in New York when he was thirty, and that before then he had fantastical expectations of writers. He thought them to be sacred, wealthy people who never left their limousines. However, what White proves is that writers are everyday people, with pasts of struggle, hardship, and self-discovery.

Penniless, White moved to Paris, and then to Rome. He returned to America after going broke again by “taking people out to dinner.” After this, he drove a fruit-juice delivery truck to support himself in New York until finding a job with Time Life Books. His first job as a paid writer, he said, was writing three one-thousand page textbooks on history and psychology.

The subject of City Boy is uniquely important to White. He described his first biography, My Lives, as difficult to construct because it required dividing his life into sections and drawing conclusions about choices in his life, which he often found himself unable to make. City Boy is not only an autobiography, but a sketch of a New York that has been forgotten to history. In terms of sexuality, White said, “the 80s were a total step backward.” The freedom allowed during the previous thirty years, when AIDS was nonexistent, religion lax, and society accepting, was gone in a moment.

In the years to come, many of the most outspoken members of the gay scene succumbed to AIDS, allowing a very different crowd—which demanded not just acceptance, but the rights to marriage and adoption—to take the stage. He suggested that the rally we see today for equality of marriage and family is “not always what it used to be like.” City Boy documents this, and also explores the literary fixations of New York in the 60s and 70s – when it was, White says, “a junkyard, with serious artistic aspirations.”

During the Q&A session, the author provided words of wisdom to the new generation of writers sitting before him. He expanded on a statement made during a dinner with students, when he asserted that being a writer means being a failure. White explained that “writing does not fit into normal life” and that one must “make time for it by taking away from other things.” He bravely claimed that when “a writer is born into a family, a family is destroyed.”

White also warned about the uniqueness of our literary generation: more is being produced than is being read. Aside from technological phenomena such as blogs, the tradition of the past—where friends would hurry out to read a book so they could discuss it—has degenerated into our present literary world of numerous genres produced in unreadable amounts. “The world is becoming more fragmented,” White contended, “not specialized.”

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Peter Bogdanovich class visit 01/27/10

Report by Marissa Blake:

You don’t have to read about Peter Bogdanovich’s many accomplishments – both in front of and behind the camera – to understand that he is an entertainer. You only have to listen to him for a few moments to realize it. Bogdanovich visited Tulane’s campus last week, spending the afternoon advising creative writing students (from the Advanced Fiction, Advanced Screenwriting, and Honors Colloquium in Screenwriting classes) and the night hosting an audience in Tulane’s Freeman Auditorium. When sharing tales during both talks, Bogdanovich frequently assumed the accents of famous actors and directors he has worked with during his career. The broad range and devilish accuracy of these voices kept his audiences laughing throughout the talks.

During the class visit, Bogdanovich shared how he began acting and directing. His career started at a young age, beginning with poetry recitals for his parents’ dinner guests to spending Saturday afternoons at the American Academy for Dramatic Art in New York City. His success at the AADA earned him a spot at Summer Stock, and led to classes with Stella Adler. Acting turned into directing one afternoon at Adler’s studio when the teenaged Bogdanovich directed a scene with his fellow actors. Bogdanovich explained how Adler praised his direction with, “Bravo darling, bravo!”

He talked about how he took another step as a director after persuading Clifford Odets to give him the rights to perform an Odets play off-Broadway. Why did the playwright agree to this request from a 20-year-old unknown? “I took a drop in the ocean,” Bogdanovich said in his Odets voice. After work as a film journalist, and an opportunity to write for director Roger Corman, Bogdanovich was able to write and direct his first full length film, Targets, in 1968. His second feature was the classic The Last Picture Show in 1971 and, remembered Bogdanovich, “it was smooth sailing for a while.”

The conversation in the Tulane classroom included discussion of screenplays and on-set habits. Bogdanovich  said that he likes screenplays where the construction is solid, but sometimes likes to change the dialogue while shooting. Furthermore, he always knows where he wants to shoot, especially with close-ups – for example, the famous scene at the water tank in The Last Picture Show. The cloud movement and sudden sunlight while shooting made him worry about the lighting: he wasn’t sure if the scene would be ruined. However, it turned into a “wonderful mistake.” He quotes Orson Welles on the subject, complete with perfect impersonation: “You could even say that an director is a man who presides over mistakes.”

When asked about favorites among his own movies, Bogdanovich said that What’s Up, Doc? was his favorite to shoot, and that They All Laughed is the film that is most like him. Bogdanovich’s final story about going to see What’s Up, Doc? on opening night at the Radio City Music Hall. He took the advice of Cary Grant, and stood in the back, disguised and alone. He said it was like being in heaven that opening night because “there is nothing better than making people laugh – because you can hear it.”

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C.D. Wright: 11/09/09

Report by Nicola W.

C.D. Wright recently spent an hour with Professor Cooley’s Advanced Poetry Writing Workshop.  While her work can be mysterious and surreal, Ms. Wright is herself plainspoken and unassuming and was generously forthright in her answers to our many questions. She said she got into poetry “rather late” after a short-lived try at law school, confessing that as a young adult, she was afraid of not being good at anything and that she felt “a great longing to be part of something I liked and cared about.”  As a child, she cared very much about words, in part because she did not have access to any of the arts except for literature (her father was an enthusiastic reader), and that “books were my families … words were like real things to me.”

Her fascination with language remains; Ms. Wright described poetry as “a process of faith to the language … a truth of the word.” She loves all types of language, sacred, foul, archaic – “all the different layers of language” – and advised us to learn another language, because “when you learn another language, you can see the skeleton of your own.”

When asked about her writing methods, Ms. Wright said she likes to work with phrasing, adding “I never felt I had that much control over line,” that she couldn’t “artificially exact line” on her work, and often prefers to work with internal line breaks. The nature of what she is working on determines how she goes about writing: she is “always waiting for the poem to teach me something.”

Physical location and geography exert a strong influence on the work.  (“One Big Self,” her collaborative work with photographer Deborah Luster about Louisiana prisoners was the example she gave.) Her poems often start with just fragments “of things that are giving of a resonance.”  As the work progresses, she is always looking for ways to add texture.  When writing “Deepstep Come Shining,” Ms. Wright had been very concerned about how it looked on the page, posting pieces of the poems on walls and rearranging them to heighten certain patterns and threads.  She was drawn to writing book-length work as she was attracted to “the possibilities of including everything instead of distilling,” but noted that after writing a book-length poem, one must relearn how to write a lone poem!

She addressed the issue of personal courage.  When asked about how she had been able to write her more explicit poems, Ms. Wright described herself as “afraid of everything – except on the page,” a point she reiterated at her public reading a few hours later.   She shared that the hard part is always “breaking the silence. Even though I find the prospect of breaking into the page terrifying, I have the love for the adventure.” This leads her to keep learning new things and working with different forms.  She is not “one of the poets who find their form early on and stick with it.”  She likes to turn the page – “to see what’s on the other side.”

On practical matters, she called herself “not much of a planner,” but added that she does keep good notebooks.  For us less organized beings, it was inspiring to hear such an accomplished poet call herself scattered, that she felt like “a cat who can talk,” that she “can’t reproduce yesterday, can never find her car keys, and never drives the same way twice.”

Our class readings this semester have focused on work by non-American poets, so it was also interesting to hear Ms. Wright observe that in America, poetry was still “an invisible practice,” that our poets were the “unacknowledged legislators.”

Our time with Ms. Wright went far too quickly but, for me, continues to resonate.

C.D. Wright was the 11th Florie Gale Arons Poet. This annual program is sponsored by NCCROW (Newcomb College Center for Research on Women.)

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Deborah Eisenberg 11/04/09: An evening with a genius

Report by Jenny Douglass:

Until this past Wednesday, when I thought of Deborah Eisenberg I pictured the photo on the back of Twilight of the Superheroes: a woman with rigid facial features looking at something unseen by the camera, her expression calm, her demeanor austere, and her thoughts transfixed in the wrinkles of a new story– a person whose intellect and presence would be nothing short of intimidating.

Eisenberg has written four collections of short stories since 1986 and has been the recipient of the Rea Award for the Short Story, a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and was recently awarded a MacArthur Fellowship (otherwise known as a “genius grant”).

On Wednesday, Eisenberg read from “Some Other, Better Otto”, which appears in Twilight of the Superheroes (2006), to an audience crowded into the common room of Cudd Hall. Since that evening, when I think of her I think of the richness of her expressions.

As she read from her story, she raised eyebrows into deep, sympathetic angles. The words she spoke were deliberate and full, as though they had taken shape deep within her rather than simply in her mouth. When different characters spoke, her voice took on nuances with such fluidity that it was clear she had become entirely intimate with the complexities of each character. At times, her whole body would be compelled by a character’s mood and tendons would push from her neck in frustration or her shoulders would slouch in disappointment. At the end of her reading, while the audience applauded, she bobbed her head gently up and down and a smile of genuine gratitude spread across her face.

These rich and genuine expressions should come as no surprise from someone who, in the words of the MacArthur Foundation, “continues to produce elegant explorations of the human psyche in tales of increasing complexity, fluency, and moral depth.”

Following her reading, Eisenberg opened the floor to questions, adding,  “I’m willing to answer anything at all.” Many of the questions she was asked centered on her writing process and all of her answers invariably commented on the subconscious, organic nature of writing. When developing characters, she explained that uses no methods. Instead, she said, “I use my eyes and ears, let them say what they have to say, and try not to block them.” And when asked why she writes stories a certain way, Eisenberg smiles, looks up at the ceiling with her hands in the air and says, “I honestly have no idea. It just seemed right.”

In a recent interview, Eisenberg responded to being a genius with “Uh, I’m not”. But what emerged from the questions and answers was the feeling that she in fact has an exceptional ability to acutely perceive and represent the human condition. Yet rather than estrange or intimidate, Eisenberg left the audience full of creative writing students with inspiration from her own life. When asked where she was when she was our [college-student] age, she said bluntly, “Well, I was sort of in the gutter.”

Having not started writing until she was thirty, she remembered feeling “utterly useless” and that “everyone was miles ahead of [her]”. She continued, “If you find [writing fiction] hard going, don’t be frustrated and don’t think necessarily you’re unequipped to do it. It is unbelievably painstaking and takes a lot of patience.” She said she would have given up if she hadn’t been living with a fellow writer, Wallace Shawn, who explained to her, “Everyone writes like a five-legged pig at first.”

This was the first event in our new Writer’s Writer Series. The next is a reading by Edmund White on Monday, February 1st.

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