Back on September 17, Community Bookstore in Brooklyn celebrated their 40th anniversary with a reading at the Old First Reformed Church. I'm told 900 people were in attendance, and judging by the pictures here, I'm inclined to believe them. I was there, sitting near a column, my view of the stage almost entirely blocked, but I could see the podium. The presenters were asked to read from their favorite book of the last forty years, and although event coordinator Stephanie Valdez managed to keep their selections under wraps until the day of the reading, she did tip me off to the fact that both Paul Auster and Siri Hustvedt (who live nearby and are frequent customers) would be reading from New Directions books!
First, Mr. Auster read from George Oppen's New Collected Poems after providing a beautiful biography of Oppen's fascinating life. Ms. Hustvedt was later in the program, and she read from Bollinger Prize winner (and Blaney lecturer) Susan Howe's book My Emily Dickinson. Alas, as far as I know there isn't any video footage, so you'll have to trust me when I say that any time you can see them read and talk about poetry, jump at the chance.
I can, however, share the following with you. These are Ms. Hustvedt's introductory remarks about Susan Howe and her book, reproduced from the notes she gave me after the event:
* * *
My Emily Dickinson is a critical, scholarly, poetic, subversive, mordant, brilliant book written by the poet Susan Howe. It is by far the best work about our greatest poet I have ever read, and I have read many.
It is not easy to read from this book, as Howe's sentences are sometimes dense. She plays with the poet's play. Dickinson's poems come and go unannounced. Howe is so deeply immersed in Dickinson's language and in the multiple sources of that inimitable language that the reader must be attuned to Howe's particular kind of erudition, a form of knowing that refuses to bow to the conventions of literary criticism, but more importantly, she resists the very idea of binary oppositions, hot and cold, high and low, man and woman. Meanings are not fixed. They slide.
The book's epigraph is from William Carlos Williams's In the American Grain, a work that foreshadows My Emily Dickinson.
I will read the epigraph, Howe's first sentence, and then part of a section called "Identity and Memory." I would like to stress that Howe's insights about the lot of a woman writing are relevant now. The cheap platitudes and truisms of our culture, which proclaim that although women writers may once have suffered from condescension by the patriarchal powers-that-be, they no longer do, is utter bunk. Things have changed, and they have stayed the same.
* * *
The epigraph, in case you're curious:
It is the women above all — there never have been women, save pioneer Katies; not one in flower save some moonflower Poe may have seen, or an unripe child. Poets? Where? They are the test. But a true woman in flowe, never. Emily Dickinson, starving of passion in her father's garden, is the very nearesy we have ever been — starving.
Never a woman: never a poet. That's an axiom. Never a poet saw sun here.
(William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain)
And Howe's first sentence:
My book is a contradiction of its epigraph.
ND editor Michael Barron interviewed Elaine Lustig for Bomb's blog. Read it here.
May 2013 News from New Directions
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Rebecca Ariel Porte, in a beautiful essay written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, dicusses Susan Howe's Sorting Facts: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Marker, addressing Chris Marker's films, as well. Definitely worth a read — here.
Writing for Bookslut, Christopher Merkel reviews the 65th anniversary edition of the classic modernist text. Read it here.