Monday, June 30, 2008
Meanwhile he dangles there, behind the fence.
We learned about Alan Pary from a Danish playwright named Michael Svennevig, who wrote a chronicle about him in the Copenhagen daily newspaper, Politiken.
A Kurdish Christian, born in northern Iraq, Alan Pary fled from threats of death for an offense against his society. His offense? Poetry. He was writing poetry about women, his fascination with women and their bodies. What young man is not fascinated by women? What man is not? But in Alan Pary’s society, to write poems about women is offensive. Fearing for his life, he fled. To Denmark, a country with a well-earned reputation for the high quality of its humanity and its democracy.
In Denmark, he was given a bed in a room just large enough to hold three other beds and a small coffee table. In that claustrophobic room he lives with sometimes two, sometimes three other men in a barracks with many rooms flanking a claustrophobically narrow hall in a camp with many barracks, holding in all six hundred men in a country with many camps holding in all, according to the Danish journalist Karl Johan Mikkelsen, 8,000 refugees.
While they wait, they are not allowed to work. Every fourteen days they are given $120 – about $8.50 a day – for food and incidentals. They are not allowed to earn more than that. “Good thing I don’t smoke,” says Alan with a smile that reveals a missing tooth. They are left to their own devices. They are not allowed to leave Denmark except to go back to their home countries, where death or torture or both awaits most of them.
Alan Pary dreams of a future where he might get an education, a job, where he might contribute to his society, pay taxes, find a wife, make a family, friends beyond those in the camp with him.
Aside from dreams, Alan also has patience. Waiting for nine years teaches patience. He maintains his humanity by writing poetry. He writes in Arabic rather than Kurdish because he is inspired by the long Arabic literary tradition, although after his many years in Denmark, he has begun to write in Danish as well.
Circumstances put Alan Pary into contact with Michael Svennevig, a playwright and member of the board of Danish PEN. Michael Svennevig and Karl Johan Mikkelsen visited Alan Pary in Sandholm Camp to make a recording of his poetry, but having discovered the conditions under which Alanpary has been living for all these years, behind the fence of Sandholm, Michael’s focus shifted to a broader scale. This is what is happening on the dark side of the otherwise so humanistic Danish society.
Michael Svennevig paid repeated visits to Sandholm and wrote a play – Fence – based on his observations there and on Alan Pary’s poetry. Fence premiered in Copenhagen for three days in late June – and hopefully will be staged again, many times, throughout Denmark, to call attention to this situation.
Fence consists of a monologue written by Michael Svennevig and performed by Niels Vigild with music and songs composed and performed by the Danish musician and sound technician, Thulla. No one involved in the play receives any monetary compensation for his or her work.
The little theater on the west side of Copenhagen where we saw it last weekend – Den Sorte Hest (The Black Horse theater) – was filled to capacity, perhaps a hundred people. The dramatic experience is strong – a naked stage, three walls painted black, a black door in the far wall through which two actors emerge, a man and a woman, fixed lighting. On the stage, two chairs, a keyboard table, a sound mixer.
The one actor (Niels Vigild) wears a dark suit, white open-collared shirt, his hair dark with strands of silver, his face large and strong. He is, in fact, Danish, but that is not apparent – he might as well be middle-eastern, and in the course of the monologue, one does not doubt that he is. The other actor is a woman (Thulla), slender with a glory of golden curls. She is barefoot, wears only a thin white sleeveless cotton gown to just below her knees, on one upper arm and shoulder an ornate abstract blue tattoo. Her face is long and slender, speckled with a trace of glitter, and her eyes seem to glow. She looks rather like an angel, and when the actor begins his monologue and you learn how in his youth, the man portrayed dreamed of angels, the connection is made.
The monologue is just under an hour, but in that time, you learn what you need to know about this man – about any man. That his dreams are simple really, much like our own: he dreams of love, of being part of a society, of family, of being able to work and having a home and being able to express himself freely. But there is one thing separating him from us: that fence.
Why must he stay behind the fence, dangling, waiting, struggling to maintain his own humanity? Michael Svennevig suggests the answer; that fence is there, he says, those six hundred people are corralled behind it, as a message to others who might think of fleeing here: Stay away!
After the performance, we met Alan Pary, and he gave me permission to translate one of his poems into English for this blog:
Just do it – kiss me
by Alan Pary
Before time ends
To end the war
So I can become a flame against the cloud
And dance gently upon the earth
Because we must teach others to kiss and forgive
Kiss me and make me happy
Come with your red lips
because when you smile the world falls so still
because there are those who hate kisses.
Alan Pary is a gentle-mannered man with a gentle smile, tall and slender. How does he maintain that gentleness through all his waiting?
When will we ever let him out from behind that fence?
Greetings from the ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Perhaps Robbe-Grillet’s leading contribution to the novel and to film is the ambiguity of his narrative strategies, tantalizing in their allusiveness and their “openness”--that is, their refusal to limit themselves to one “correct” reading. The prime device responsible is the particular novelistic or filmic narrative voice utilized. The novels make use of both the third and first person, frequently with shifting narrators and conflicting fields of vision. The films resort to similar techniques appropriate to cinema.
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
photo (c) ASME
From the dynamite opening poems by Janus Kodal and Jørgen Leth, the "unreal traffic" of Martin Glaz Serup, the wandering mysteries of Benn Q. Holm's new novel and Naja Marie Aidt's picking of strange berries on through five heart-breakingly beautiful poems by Pia Tafdrup and ten of Henrik Nordbrandt's awesome linguistic prestidigitations and five of Niels Hav's charmingly erotic lyrics through to Suzanne Brøgger's tale of animal abuse written specifically for this issue – and so much more – the anthology issue is, if I may say so, a powerful taste of Danish literature now. To read the rationale behind the selection process, please see my introduction to the issue.
On the cover is a striking and unusual painting by one of my favorite Danish artists, Wiliam Skotte Olsen, who – until he died an untimely death in 2005 – had been living in the Free State of Christiania in a construction wagon decorated inside and out with his own murals. Someone should write a book in English about Skotte – or translate the couple that exist; he was a tragic, enigmatic figure who, despite all, continued to paint until the day he died, at the age of 59. Skotte had been hurt some years back by dropping too much acid and in a night of what could only have been terrible hallucinations set fire to a tent in which two children were sleeping. The children, thank the gods of little ones, were saved, and Skotte was put away for some years. He was never quite the same. But through it all, he never stopped painting. I recently met an artist who knew him well and told me that he died with his brush in his hand.
The picture on the cover of The Literary Review Danish issue is one that Lady Alice discovered at an exhibit at Bredgade Art Dealers in Copenhagen about a year ago. I arrived after she had already looked at all the pictures, and I asked if there were any we might want to make space on our walls for.
"There's one," she said.. "But you have to find it yourself."
So I wandered the exhibit, saw many I liked but not any that made me feel we needed to make room for another Skotte – we already had half a dozen. But then I peeked into an illuminated alcove and saw it! It could only have been that one. A six square foot oil of a staring face – red eyes, red face, yellow-green nose and brow, lips parted slightly over dark teeth, as if in amazement at what it is seeing, or awe, or horrified incredulity. And what the face is seeing, of course, is me, you, us
I had never seen a Skotte like this one. It could only have been from his peak period in the '70s and early '80s.
It was a bit pricey for me. As is the case with most artists, ironically, the value of his pictures has risen since his death. But it cost only a little more than, say, an Armani suit and topcoat and gives me far more – is the word pleasure? inspiration? – than any such wardrobe additions would.
So we have it now, mounted high on the wall above one of the door lintels in our living room, diagonally across from the place where I most like to sit and write. And when I sit there, spilling out words from the nib of my Montblanc on the lined pages, from time to time I glance up at Skotte's powerful staring face, the red eyes. If what I am writing is as good as I can do and true as I can make it, those eyes share my awe at the privilege of being a worthy instrument. If I am groping toward what is as good and true as I can write, the eyes urge me not to turn away from the place where the stories are. But if I am working badly, indulging my wish for ease, the whole face radiates horror.
This is the face on the cover of TLR's Danish issue which I had the privilege of guest-editing and the further privilege of being joined by TLR Editor-in-Chief Walt Cummins and his wife Alison for the launches. Many people came to the two events – the first in the excellent premises of the bookshop and café Tranquebar, the other in the outstanding Paludan, also both a bookshop and café. For more information about these visit-worthy places, see my earlier bookshop post on this blog and for more information about Wiliam Skotte Olsen, see www.gallerikampmann.dk as well as Skotte's richly illustrated biography, Like a Rolling Stone: Wiliam Skotte Olsen and His Art (in Danish) by Ole Lindboe (Big City Books, published by Galleri Henrik Kampmann and Bredgade Kunsthandel, 2005.)
If I may be permitted an aside here – also about Skotte – the cover of the story collection I published last year, Cast Upon the Day (Hopewell Publications, 2007) is also a Skotte. It depicts 11 figures – 5 grinning, leering, unclassifiable creatures (are they men? living candles? evil saints?) and 6 multi-colored houses with wide-eyed windows and gaping mouth-doors. What attracted me to this picture for the cover of my collection beyond its colorist qualities is that the 11 figures were numerically and perhaps thematically equal to the 11 stories in my book. The cover can be viewed on my website (www.thomasekennedy.com). End of aside.
However, this blog is less about covers than content – specifically the content of TLR's "New Danish Writing" (http://www.theliteraryreview.org/current.html). The anthology is an attempt to give the readers of The Literary Review the possibility of sampling a taste of newer contemporary Danish writing – which is ordinarily not possible because Danish writers, naturally, write in Danish, a language that is not accessible to more than a few million people in the world.
I have done several mini-anthologies of Danish writing over the past twenty years – one in 1987 in Frank: An International Journal of Writing & Art, published in Paris, others in 1990 in Cimarron Review and in the Review of Contemporary Fiction in 1995 – as well as publishing translations of individual Danes in a variety of literary journals: In American Poetry Review (a selection of Henrik Nordbrandt poems, 2008), in Absinthe: New Danish Writing (which has published half a dozen Danes in the past couple of years), in Agni (2007), in TLR, in New Letters, and forthcoming, a Nordbrandt chapbook in MidAmerican Review. While TLR has published a scattering of Danish work, particularly in recent years, including an interview with the dean of the Danish writing school, Hans Otto Jørgensen, we must go back 44 years to the last all-Danish issue of TLR – to 1964. The authors included then are now the seniors by far of Danish literature – and some are no longer with us.
Such anthologies and mini-anthologies, unfortunately, always require a process of selection. There are so many good writers one would wish to include, but the limitations of space and economics always require that some who might have been there are not.
Although there were a few sour words on behalf of all the excellent writers I did not have the possibility of including in TLR's "New Danish Writing" (including a complaint by a Danish lady philologist that a writer had not been included who was, in fact, very much present –but of course some find it hardly necessary to read something before criticizing it), the anthology issue was generally welcomed with reviews in three of the leading culture organs in Copenhagen, on Danish radio and in the local press.
Some of the writers not included in the TLR anthology are, however, included in current or coming issues of other journals – most notably Absinthe: New European Writing which I am also privileged to be associated with as an Advisory Editor.
Others not included – Ib Michael, Peter Høeg, Christian Jungersen, Carsten Jensen, Klaus Rifbjerg, to name but five – are already sufficiently well known in the US that they hardly need showcasing in a literary journal.
But instead of bemoaning the absence of some writers, I hope that readers will take advantage of the presence of those who are there – a fine array of the younger generation of Danes and on up to those in late middle-age (or, as one of my professors liked to refer to it, "Late Youth").
I would welcome feedback from readers of the Danish issue either through a comment on this blog or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Greetings from the ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy
Tuesday, June 17, 2008
Over the next few weeks we made our way through Sick Connections, The Paper Will be Blue (directed by Radu Muntean), and How I Spent the End of the World (directed by Catalin Mitulescu). The latter film was presented at the festival we did at Oakland University last month and is my favorite of these three films.
While in New York at AWP I snuck out for a bit to see 4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days (directed by Cristian Mungiu), a powerful film about a student seeking an illegal abortion in 1980s Romania. This film is now available on DVD and at the Borders web site you can view an interview with the film's cinematographer Oleg Mutu.
The Romanian new wave has received a lot of press recently: the New York Times writes of the "New Wave on the Black Sea," Variety notes that "Romanian Cinema is on the Rise," the Los Angeles Times interviews director Cristian Mungiu, the Christian Science Monitor describes the "new force in world cinema," and Sight & Sound considers the "Eastern Promise."
I still haven't seen The Death of Mr. Lazarescu but intend to remedy that soon. If you're unfamiliar with these films I recommend adding one or two to your Netflix list.
Thanks again to Bogdan for introducing me to these fantastic films.
Monday, June 16, 2008
Volkov states in the first paragraph of the introduction that his book covers a period of "world wars, convulsive revolutions, and the most ruthless terror," but thereafter he dispenses with moral outrage in favor of cool analysis, often looking for rationales behind the state's hideous behavior. In any case, the accumulation of assembled facts is more than sufficient to drive home the pervading grimness. The suicides of some of the era's finest poets supply a telling example: Sergei Yesenin, the "New Peasant" poet, in 1925; Vladimir Mayakovsky, who as a good Soviet denounced Yesenin's suicide yet killed himself anyway, in 1930; and the tormented Marina Tsvetaeva, in 1941. Empress Maria Fyodorovna told Yesenin that his poetry was "beautiful but very sad," to which he replied that so was all of Russia.
Wednesday, June 11, 2008
This fall, Of Kids & Parents by Emil Hakl, translated from the Czech by Marek Tomin will be published in the U.S. Hakl was born in Prague in 1958 and has published a volume of poetry, three novels, and two collections of short stories. Of Kids & Parents was awarded the Magnesia Litera Book of the Year prize in 2003 and was adapted into a feature film.
This description is from the Twisted Spoon website:
Taking its cue both from Joyce's Ulysses and Hrabal's freely associating stream of anecdote, Of Kids & Parents is about a father and son taking a walk through Prague, over the course of which, and in the pubs and bars they stop into, their personal lives are revealed as entwined with the past sixty years of upheaval in their corner of Europe. One's "small history" is shown to be inseparable from the large history played out on the world's stage: families are uprooted, relationships fail, jobs are gained or lost, and still life goes on. Hakl's genius is his ability to mesh the two into a seamless flow of dialogue.
Check out this work and their other interesting titles at the Twisted Spoon Press web site.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Mixing screenings, readings, concerts, performances and exhibitions, the intimate nature of this event forms an essential part of its vision. In an increasingly fragmented and alienating contemporary landscape, the need for a meeting on a human scale, for an experience that unfolds over several days in a distinctive space and atmosphere, outside of the turbulence and distraction of the modern urban zone, seems more important than ever, and one felt by many people, in numerous ways, worldwide. Under the Linden is about building an international community of mutual intent, about defending and promoting what matters.
Participants include John Berger, Don DeLillo, and Sally Potter, among others.
Under the Linden: A Gathering for the Enduring Arts takes place on August 20-25, 2008 in Kamenice nad Lipou, Czech Republic. Additional information is available at their web site.
Monday, June 9, 2008
We've recently read and enjoyed I'd Like by Amanda Michalopoulou, translated by Karen Emmerich; Factory of Tears by Valzhyna Mort, translated by Franz Wright and Elizabeth Oehlkers Wright; and Diary of a Blood Donor by Mati Unt, translated by Ants Eert.
In addition, in an interview with Haaretz, Jonathan Littell, the American-French author of the notorious novel Les Bienveillantes, states that there are no authors he'd like to meet: "most writers are totally uninteresting." ArtInfo.com interviews the Picasso biographer John Richardson. The Goethe Institut discusses new trends on the German stage: "many of the most striking new plays ... have been penned by very young playwrights." The Financial Times profiles the "Sons of Sartre," and Bernard-Henri Levy (BHL) is called "a pretentious little jerk" by French president Sarkozy's speechwriter, Henri Guaino.
Wednesday, June 4, 2008
We were up against essays in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, Harper's, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly – all magazines with millions or at least hundreds of thousands of circulation while New Letters has about 3,000. Among the other five essayists was Stephen King, the irony of that being that I am a "literary" writer, with very few readers, while Mr. King is a "commercial" writer read by millions all over the world. Augmenting the irony was the fact that Mr. King's essay was about J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter books – millions upon millions of readers.
Surprisingly I won. Or the magazine that published me won. Or we both won. It was a heady evening at Lincoln Center's Frederick P. Rose Hall where for $480 a ticket (fortunately I didn't pay!), we ate canapés of the gods (bits of goat cheese and beef on chips of toasted rye, shrimp to die for, lobster tails – all served by handsome young people who looked pleased to please us), drank from an open bar (three kinds of vodka) and rubbed tuxedo sleeves with the magazine magnificos of America. The "Ellie" itself is a large, many-bladed sculpture designed by Alexander Calder, and it looks like something you could hijack a plane with.
Bob Stewart, editor of New Letters, and I sat shoulder-to-shoulder in the theater for nearly two hours stuffed into our penguins, speculating whether it meant something that we were trapped on the inside end of the row, and I don't know about Bob, but I needed to micturate and didn't dare. At the urging of Lady Alice, I had worn my tux – fortunately I could still button it after 20 years (I must have already been fat back then) – but not a black tie; instead I wore a black tee shirt with a Sheela na Gig pendant she had silversmithed for me and my "leopard skin" pillbox hat (no red paint, please – it's synthetic), which she had commissioned the Danish Queen's hat-maker to design for a birthday present.
Finally, Charlie Rose was on stage to present the award in the essay category, and we experienced this surreal moment of having the pages of Bob's magazine with my essay projected up on a huge screen on the stage while 500 people looked on and the voice of a woman who sounded equally educated and merry was saying over the sound system, "Wince-inducing, outrageously honest and wickedly funny, Thomas Kennedy's account of his prostate-cancer scare is essay writing at its most original…"
Then Charlie Rose was saying, "The winner is New Letters, Robert Stewart, and Thomas E. Kennedy's essay, 'I Am Joe's Prostate.'" Bob yelled in triumph, pumping his fist in the air, while his wife Lisa and staff members Betsy and Amy screamed from the balcony (that scream was reported by the New York Observer), and I muttered, "Holy shit."
Then we were on the stage in the spotlight, and Charlie Rose was shoving the big-bladed "Ellie" at me and saying, "I'm gonna give you this!" as blitzes flashed, and Bob was making a speech of thanks, and we were coming down the stage steps again. I asked Bob, "Who was that?" and he looked incredulously at me. "That was Charlie Rose." I've been away a long time.
As all 500 of us bottlenecked out of the theater toward the post-ceremony champagne, people kept nodding, smiling, saying, "Congratulations," and "Love your hat!" and "Is that a leopard skin pillbox hat?" In the men's room, the guy at the next urinal smiled at me – something a man is never supposed to do! -- and said, "Congratulations!"
As we entered the reception area, I saw Albert Goldbarth, standing with the contingent from Virginia Quarterly Review (they also won, in the single-topic issue category), and he beamed and said, "If only I were drunk, I would kiss you!" A woman came over and introduced herself as the editor of Reader's Digest and another as editor of Good Housekeeping and then a tall dark-haired man shook my hand and said, "I haven't read your essay but I hear it is very funny and I look forward to it. And I hope your health is okay." I thanked him and then looked at Bob. "Who was that?" Bob smiled incredulously. "That was David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker !" I've been away too long.
I phoned Alice in Copenhagen where it was four in the morning and said, "I won." She began to cry. "I knew you would." It's true. She had assured me I would win – as had my friends Duff Brenna and Greg Herriges and Mike Lee and even Bob Stewart had seemed pretty confident.
I did not really think so and had been assuring everyone who would listen that I did not expect to win at all, that I was content with the honor of being a finalist – although the evening before, at another reception for the event, in the New York Public Library, somebody with a high position in the proceedings asked if my essay was available for Best American Magazine Writing, and another had looked at me in a certain way that seemed to intimate she knew something I didn't.
Then when Charlie Rose was going down the list of essay finalists, suddenly my nostrils were filled with longing to savor that famous sweet smell of success, and I knew that if I did not win, I would be disappointed, perhaps seriously so. The transformation from content-to-be-a-finalist to lust-for-victory had been instanteous. Suddenly I wanted it. Bad!
I would be a liar if I denied that it was nice to be called, but soooo much nicer to be chosen.
This prize is described variously as the Oscar of the magazine world and the Pulitzer of the magazine world. Oddly I bought the NY Times next day and took it to breakfast, to scan the pages for any mention of the "Ellie" – all except the real estate and the business sections, which I dumped in a refuse basket. There was not a word – but I found out later, there had been an article in the business section, I had even been mentioned by name, also in the Washington Post and some other places as well. Even some of the newspapers in Denmark reported that their American-in-residence had won the most distinguished prize in the American magazine world.
When I got back to this ancient kingdom, dear Lady Alice and my kids, Isabel and Daniel, had a "surprise" party waiting for me with about thirty guests. I was feted with flowers and wine and champagne and gifts. Tonny Vorm of the Danish magazine Euroman came bearing an amazing three-liter bottle of finest ecological beer in a gala wooden case – a gift from Euroman which offered to buy Danish rights to the essay for a nice fee. A journalist from the prestigious Weekendavisen scheduled an interview. There were scores of emails of congratulations. I was invited to read the essay at a bookshop in the city center – more flowers and champagne. Fairleigh Dickinson University invited me to be visiting writer in creative nonfiction for another nice fee. Apparently the essay will be reprinted in Best American Magazine Writing 2008. And I don't know if it has any relation, but I received word that a novel I published in 2007 was also a finalist for ForewardMagazine's Book of the Year. Ripples keep rippling.
But let me put this into perspective. I was lucky. As Ken Kesey said when he wrote the phenomenal Cuckoo's Nest, "I caught lightning in a bottle." I certainly do not mean to compare my 5,000-word essay with that world-changing novel, but I know what Kesey meant. I had something I wanted to write about and this voice had occurred to me – this second person voice of extreme irony and wicked humor was handed up to me from wherever it is that our words come from and it began to say outrageous things to me that made me snicker, and all I had to do was write them down. Maybe the King of the Word Factory within had decided it was time for me to get a good shot of encouragement after 47 years of trying and decided to give me that voice with which to tell that essay.
So, my profound thanks to the King of the Word Factory for giving me the ammunition for this little coup. And my thanks to New Letters and Bob Stewart for their support and encouragement over many years and my thanks to Lady Alice for the leopard-skin pillbox hat and to my prostate for keeping on – and a salute to the other essay writer finalists – Walter Kirn in the Atlantic, Katrina Onstad in Elle, Sallie Tisdale in Harper's, Tim Page in the New Yorker, and most particularly Stephen King.
One of the local newspapers in Denmark ran an article about my winning the award that was entitled, "Kennedy Dethrones King." But I didn't dethrone Mr King. He still has millions of readers all over the world who have never heard of me and will never read my stuff.
Pst! Stephen - -could you loan me about a hundred thousand readers for my next book? No? Twenty thousand? I promise I'll be good to them. I promise to show them a good time.
Greetings from this ancient kingdom!
Thomas E. Kennedy