Sunday, May 11, 2008

At the Artists' Colony

Too busy! So I haven’t written here, spending most of my work hours reading proof for the new edition of The Poem’s Heartbeat. The least appealing part of publishing a book, to my taste. Anyway, to pick up the thread from last blog: when I took Amtrak to Hudson, an unanticipated pleasure was the company of Ann Lauterbach, who happened to be sitting in the seat across the aisle. We caught up a bit, exchanging news and thoughts about friends in common. Time passed quickly, as though on automatic pilot, and there we were in Hudson. Jeffrey Lependorf was there to meet me. He is the ploymath, multitasking head of the CLMP, who also happens to be a startlingly original composer and virtuoso performer on the shakuhachi (ancient Japanese flute). And besides all that a kind, thoroughly likable guy.

I stayed as a guest at the Ledig Rowohlt artists’ colony (also known as Art/Omi since it’s located in the hamlet of Omi, several miles from Hudson). I asked if there were any connection between this Ledig Rowolt and a colony called the Château de Lavigny in Switzerland, formerly the country place of the German publisher Ledig Rowohlt. (His wife’s will specified that it should become a residence for artists after her death; or so I was told when I stayed at Lavigny eight years ago. (It’s in the Pays de Vaud, the French-speaking part of Switzerland, with perspectives onto vineyards, mountains and Lac Leman.) Jeffrey explained as we drove out that there was no administrative connection, even though Art/Omi’s founder named it after the celebrated publisher. Anyway, it’s in a beautiful setting, surrounded by broad pastures and distant wooded hills, plus a sculpture park. And I was reminded what an enormously helpful enactment of arts patronage the establishment of these residences has been. I’ve stayed at many of them, beginning with Yaddo and then the Djerassi Foundation, the MacDowell Colony, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Rockefeller Study and Conference Center at Bellagio (on Lake Como) and as said the Château Lavigny. In additionto allowing you to get your work done, residencies are a chance to meet other artists, many of them topnotch in their field. At Yaddo, nearly twenty years ago, I met the novelist Kathleen Hill, now one of my closest friends. A later meeting there with David Del Tredici led to his using a couple of poems of mine as the basis for musical works. At Bellagio, I got to know the mischievously funny Henry Louis Gates, Jr., whose keen and subtle intelligence I admired from the first. He was also the sharpest dresser amongst all the fashion failures exemplified by scholars and writers. At the Château de Lavigny, I got to know the first-magnitude Polish poet Adam Zagajewski and his astute, sensitive, and beautiful wife Maya. At MacDowell, there was the subversively ironic yet sunny Lisa Yuskavage. And so on et alia. You don’t always stay in touch with artists met under these circumstances, but when you do reunite, it always has the feeling of homecoming weekend.

Art/Omi has the reputation of being more international than most colonies, and the assertion was confirmed by the event. At table that first night were Samuel Shimon, a writer born in Iraq and now living in London, where he edits a journal for new Arab writing called Banipal; Denise Leith, an Australian non-fiction writer whose subject is human rights issues; Mercedes Cebrián, a new novelist and poet from Spain; and Claudia Schreiber, a novelist from Germany. Samuel and I soon discovered we had writer friends in common on the London scene and elsewhere. I was struck by the truth that there really is a kind of esprit de corps among artists, who are able to replace narrow nationalisms and sectarianisms with the more general values of human rights and freedom of expression. In an era where United States international politics come under fire nearly everywhere, it was a relief to see that this cosmopolitan group were aware of progressive American opposition to what’s going on. I don’t know if at this point Obama can pull the U.S. out of its nosedive, but I certainly hope he gets a chance to try.

I’m not gong to say much about the CLMP event the following evening in Hudson, though certainly it was a lift to see friends there, including the novelist Lynne Tillman, a new acquaintance I’ve quickly bonded with. The other reader was the novelist Amy Scheibe, and the emcee was Sarah Burns, a cheerful, down-to-earth literary agent. Afterward, some of us went over to the house Jeffrey L. shares with his partner Eric Kennahan and had a light supper. Then back to Ledig Rowohlt.

I dropped my stuff off in my room before going over to the main house to have dessert with the residents. Surprise! As I stepped out the door there was Ravi Shankar (see the blog for March 28), his wife and child, plus a man I didn’t know. That turned out to be Sudeep Sen, probably India’s best known contemporary English-language poet. Ravi and he had been making whistle stops in Connecticut to promote Ravi’s new Norton anthology of Asian poets; which is why I hadn’t met Sudeep the previous night. We all joined the other residents and spent several hours exchanging thumbnail bios, and discovering friends in common. In the week since we met, I’ve been reading over Sudeep’s poetry, trying to define what it is that this new Indian English-language tradition brings to the global literary conversation. I think it’s safe to say that contemporary Indian authors are the 21st-century equivalent to what Latin American writers were in the 1970s and 1980s. Who can explain how these shifts happen? (I’m going to use today's blog as an arbitrary excuse to say that I prefer those writers born in India to V.S. Naipaul, who seems laughably overrated to me; and who seems to enjoy underrating his competition.) But it doesn’t matter how or why it happened, the facts are what they are. And you can also point out that Indian artists were achieving great things a long time ago. There is the elder statesman novelist R.K Narayan, and one should place beside him the very great film-maker Satyajit Ray, surely one of the indispensable figures in 20th century cinema. India: Even to speak that ancient name strikes a chord for any inhabitant of this continent, which five centuries ago saw European visitors only because the latter were looking for the Asian Indies.

There’s more to say, but a blog shouldn’t try reader’s patience. I was going to comment on th experience of rereading of Akhmatova’s Requiem, but that can be put off till another day. Although, granted, the May 11 holiday, to the extent that it isn’t a pure product of the greeting-card industry, would be a good fit for the discussion. Can’t do everything.