Monday, May 18, 2009

Leaving Ledig House

A little backtracking. As described in the previous blog, the procedure at Ledig House is for residents’ arrival and departure to be staggered. So Amy Waldman and David Machado left, and after that, Christian Haller, and Dy Plambeck. But then new people came: Rob Schouten, a poet and critic from the Netherlands; Kaspar Schnetzler, a novelist from Switzerland; Alex Halberstadt, a writer of non-fiction who was a class member in a poetry course I taught in the Graduate Writing Division of the School of the Arts at Columbia, I think about ten years ago. And just a few days after, Chloe Aridjis left, and Joanne Wang arrived. Joanne, originally from Beijing, is now living in New York and working as a translator. Xu Xiaobing, the Chinese novelist whom Joanne recently translated, was scheduled to arrive at the same time but, finally, was denied permission to travel, which is too bad.

The international character of Ledig House sharpens your perspective on what it means to be a writer outside the U.S.A. in the 21st century. Among the short-term visitors to L. House was Taslima Nasrin, who had to leave Bangladesh fifteen years ago because of her controversial publications about the difficulties women have to face in Bangladesh. Since then Taslima has lived the life of an exile in Sweden, Germany, France, India, and now New York, where she has a fellowship from N.Y. U. to do her work. But she would like to return to Bangladesh, her home, and the place where she feels there is a lot of work to do. That same weekend we had the fiction writer Ma Thida, on a fellowship at Brown this year, but expecting to return to Myanmar at the completion of her stay. She was imprisoned there for six years on the sole basis of her publications. I found both women (who have medical degrees, incidentally) formidable in their courage and commitment to basic freedoms that Americans take for granted. I mentioned Abiye Teklemariam in the earlier blog. He received the news that several people he knew in Addis Ababa have been arrested, and that the outlook isn’t good—which raises questions about his own return to his homeland. All of this can make being a writer working in modern Western-style democracies seem very easy indeed, with our freedom to say anything we like (and be unread or ignored), our comfy teaching posts, our well-paid reading tours, and (blush) our subsidized stays in artists’ colonies. But of course we know that there are things we can do to help others in countries where circumstances are riskier.

Other weekend visitors have included Binyavanga Wainaina, a Kenyan, who now directs Bard’s Chinua Achebe Center for African Culture. Before doing that he founded a literary magazine in Kenya called Kwani?, which was innovative in several ways. For example, it published what is probably the first short story by a Kenyan dealing with gay themes. Also up from Bard that same evening was Gabi Ngcobo, South African, who is doing a graduate degree there in curatorial studies. We had a lively conversation about contemporary South Africa (whose post-apartheid constitution guarantees gay civil rights, by the way), and the recent inauguration of Jacob Zuma, about whose government-in-formation there is a lot of discussion.

We also had visitors from the publishing world: Jill Schoolman, who is the publisher of Archipelago Books. Almost everything Archipelago brings out is translated from other language traditions, which of course sets them apart from the bulk of contemporary American publishing. Jill is extraordinarily nice, and it’s instantly clear how dedicated she is to getting important foreign-language works to an American readership, which tends to fall behind in this area. We had one literary agent, Jen Auh, who works at the Andrew Wylie agency and happens to represent Alex Halberstadt. Finally, a night's visit from Anna Moschovakis and Matvei Yankelevich, who run the Ugly Duckling Presse [sic] in Brooklyn, also mainly concerned with translated work, poetry in particular.


As for the writing, my main reason for being here, it went sailing along, with only a few days when the anchor dragged. I’ve written several new poems, done some translation, and gone through the ms. of a new collection of poems and unmistakably improved it, adding, dropping, rearranging. And, finally, I have a draft of my two-act play about Robert Lowell.

Weather was unusually changeable. Though we had sun most days during the latter part of April, days were on the chilly side. And then mid-month the temperature suddenly jumped to the high eighties, a heat not recorded locally for April since the 1920s. It rushed up the flowering of the apple trees and the lilacs, but also their leafing, so the blossoms were quickly crowded out by foliage. Then things got cooler, and back we went to the expected cloudy, damp springs of the Hudson Valley.

I gave a reading in Hudson at Carrie Haddad Gallery, an event that was arranged by Bill Sullivan. My co-reader was Star Black, who came up from New York just for the day. We were both still upset at the news that our friend Darragh Park, whom I hadn’t been in contact with for a long time, had died by his own hand a few days earlier. Darragh was a painter, whom I met more than thirty years ago through John Ashbery. I used a painting of his for the cover of my second book, a New York cityscape, and among the best of those he did in that decade. Apparently he’d lost his eyesight and had become dependent on others. His death is understandable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t regrettable. Star dedicated her reading to him, which seemed right. Other friends in the audience were the poet/art-critic Carter Ratcliff and his wife Phyllis, Karen Clark and Jonathan Bernstein, who drove up from New York, and Brooks Peters, who now lives across the river in Athens and whom I first met when he was a Yale undergrad back in the 70s.

It’s been a spring with a lot of sad news, beginning with deaths from the H1N1 flu, both here and abroad. And then, the poet Deborah Digges. Though I wouldn’t claim a friendship, I did meet her once, just after her first book came out, and liked her. Opinions differ on whether her death was a suicide, but in either case, a terrible thing. Equally hard to come to terms with was the death of Craig Arnold, whom I didn’t know but whose poems I’ve read. Exploring a volcanic island off the coast of mainland Japan, he fell into a deep ravine, a shock his family and friends haven’t yet recovered from.

Finally, I had an email post from Langdon Hammer the first week of the month saying that my friend Eleanor Perényi had died, at the age of 91. (In the blog describing my visit to Budapest last June, I speak of our friendship.) The immediate cause was a brain hemorrhage, and at least things went very quickly. A sad event that had an effect on my last week at L. House. We won’t see Eleanor’s like again.

I’m beginning to feel that television has been following the same track as this blog. Last June, when I was in Warsaw, I wrote here about the heroic figure Irena Sendler, a nurse who rescued 2500 Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto. One evening during my residency, I turned on the TV and there was her story on something called “The Hallmark Hall of Fame.” Well done, gripping, and at moments hard to watch. And then, this past February when I was in New York, I wrote about seeing Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, a story based on the Soviet slaughter of more than two thousand Polish officers shortly after Soviet troops occupied Poland. Another night I randomly went through several channels and happened on a documentary about the period following the Nazi-Soviet pact, which once again told this terrifying story.

I realize the above paragraphs are shadowed with sadness, but I don’t want that to alter the fact that I had a stimulating and productive month at Ledig House, with the non-negligible bonus of making several new friends. Let me close with a brief mention of a dinner the painter Stephanie Rose gave in Hudson during my last week. Guests were the novelist and poet Jaime Manrique, Bill Sullivan, Carter and Phyllis Ratcliff, and Al Roberts, who collects paintings and curates shows for the Albany Institute of History and Art. I spoke of a commission from the Gulbenkian Foundation to translate fado (Portuguese popular song), something that my friend Mimi Khalvati arranged. So Stephanie played a disc of Amalia Rodrigues, the classic performer of fado, while we had our meal. Raised glasses, jokes, eye catching an eye, laughter, quiet moments of reflection, warm goodbyes.

Tomorrow I fly to London.

1 comment:

Maggie May said...

I would love to go to London, for most any reason not involving war or death. I found you through Top 100 and enjoyed browsing round here. I am grateful, always, for the freedom I have in my writing.