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Fall 2001
Volume 6, Number 1


Edward Albee

Edward Albee ranks among such remarkable playwrights as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, all of whom have won multiple Pulitzers. Of Albee’s plays, three have garnered this esteemed award, A Delicate Balance, Seascape, and Three Tall Women, while his most recent play, The Play About the Baby, was nominated for the 2001 competition. Surprisingly, this list does not include the most famous of his plays, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Sylvia Drake, in The 1997 Denver Center for the Performing Arts Colloquy with Edward Albee, remarks that one should really say that Albee is a three-and-a-half time Pulitzer winner. As the story goes, the 1963 jury agreed on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but the Pulitzer trustees overturned this recommendation because the play’s language was too "dirty." After two jurors resigned in protest, no Pulitzer Prize was awarded in Drama for that year (http://www.artslynx.org/theatre/orig/albee.htm). Certainly, Albee’s plays elicit strong emotions from proponents and dissidents alike.

Albee is not a playwright who allows his characters frequent chances to mince words. Often, the strong personalities in Albee’s plays are seen to play a game of survival of the fittest. Each character must fend for himself, and the stakes of the game are nothing short of emotional destruction. In his plays, Albee is extremely sensitive to the ways that his characters perceive themselves. These perceptions come together in an aggressive dance of exposure and retaliation. Albee is famed for his short, biting dialogues, and his longer, more halted and introspective speeches that reveal equal and opposite tensions: a sinewy will to live without being conquered, and a fragility that comes from mutual dependence. As Albee delves deeper into issues of identity, his characters often take on allegorical statures. The Play About the Baby and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? are both works that function in this manner.

Like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Play About the Baby involves the initiatory games that are played between an innocent young couple (Boy and Girl), and an experienced older couple (Man and Woman). Girl gives birth in the first few minutes of the play, after which the baby is whisked away by the older couple. Speaking as the voice of experience, the older couple sets out to convince the youngsters that the baby never existed in the first place. A play that explores memory, The Play About the Baby weaves back and forth through the characters’ imagined lives. The focus on the young couple’s Eden-like beginning is quickly shifted to the authoritative cynicism of their elders. The play progresses in a self-conscious fashion as the characters take turns addressing the audience and flamboyantly characterizing themselves through anecdote. The Play About the Baby is still playing Off-Broadway with Brian Murray and Marian Seldes as Man and Woman, and Kathleen Early and David Burtka as Girl and Boy. Of their performances, Ben Brantley writes in the New York Times that Seldes is "irresistibly watchable," "glorious, gothic [and] self-dramatizing," while Murray "suggests a cross between the weary title character of John Osborne’s ‘Entertainer’… and a satanic quiz-show host" (Feb 2, 2001).

While the baby in The Play About the Baby is undoubtedly real, the casting and plot might bring to mind Albee’s famous play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, this play is both critically acclaimed and a popular success. Alterations that were made to the screenplay did not dissipate the potency of Albee’s play, although some critics maintain that the female roles are slightly altered in the movie (Diamond; Literature and Film Quarterly, 1996). The sharply honed dialogue in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? reveals each character and his or her inadequacies in stark relief. Albee demonstrates a critical yet empathetic eye for human weakness that rivals Chekhov’s. While some feminist critics have cited this play as misogynist (Diamond), others remark that Albee’s "monster women" and emasculated men are simply products of individual personalities in reaction to societal evils (Drake 1997). Albee has always been interested in the societal context of his plays. American values, which are increasingly becoming the status quo for the industrialized world, are often the subject of Albee’s concern, Gerald Weales notes in The Jumping off Place: American Drama in the 1960s (LRC galenet.com).

A Delicate Balance, a play that was originally performed in 1966, is enjoying somewhat of a revival, having opened in 1996 in New York, and in 1999 in London. John MacNicholas says of A Delicate Balance that "[The play] concerns itself with loss: not loss which occurs in one swift traumatic stroke, but that which evolves slowly in increments of gentle and lethal acquiescence" (LRC galenet.com). Again, Albee deals with couples. Agnes and Tobias, seeming happily married, banter over after-dinner drinks; there is little small talk going on, however. At the fringes of their conversation, lie a host of un-marked graves: infidelities in their families, frigid marriages, failed relationships, surface friendships. Normally, Agnes and Tobias step gingerly around these subjects. It isn’t until Harry and Edna, who are long-time friends, knock on the door that the buried traumas of the past come to haunt Agnes and Tobias. Harry and Edna are looking for companionship, and Agnes and Tobias realize that friendship and love is often held in a delicate balance.

Albee’s plays have been described as "delightful and disturbing" (Brantley 2001), "experimental" (George Weales, LRC galenet.com), "powerful and relevant" (Jennifer Kiger, SCR.org). As a playwright who combines social critique and witty, often scathing, dialogue, Albee produces work that stands the test of time. His characters raise complexities that are, perhaps, unsolvable, but when faced with the comment that he has "written some very grim plays," Albee remarks that he is optimistic, saying, "If communication between people is impossible why would I write?" (Drake 1997).

Kerry Morris is a summer Program Intern at the NYS Writers Institute.

Edward Albee
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Bei Dao and Eliot Weinberger

Eliot Weinberger seems a thorough and insightful introducer/reader to Bei Dao, a Chinese poet whose innovations with language have garnered him much praise. Weinberger's interests are also in the subtleties of language—his poetry, essays, and translations are mediations of cultures and history through his stylistic virtuosity. Weinberger is most notably a translator of Octovio Paz; he has also translated Jorge Luis Borges, Cecilia Vicuna, Xavier Villaurrutia, and Vicente Huidobro. He is, most recently, a new editor/ translator of Bei Dao's book of poetry, Unlock. Weinberger is also critically acclaimed for his essays, the most recent of which—Karmic Traces—was praised for successfully intermingling Eastern and Western thought through non-traditional essay-poetic forms. John Palattella, writing in The Boston Review, says:

"What's particular about Weinberger's writing is that he has cultivated a modernist sensibility without falling prey to the prejudice and elitism that plagues the work of Pound, Olson, and others. His work as a translator and his interest in culturally hybrid poems and essays have bred in him a rare equanimity. His travels abroad and investigations of other cultures have made him not an indigenist or a regionalist well-versed in the modernist cult of the primitive, but a cosmopolitan. There's also the matter of rhetoric. ‘The battle between an elite of 'makers' and the 'destroyers' (or the indifferent) is the central myth of American modernism,’ Weinberger writes in ‘The Modernists in the Basement and the Stars Above…’" (Dec/Jan 2000) .

Like Bei Dao, Weinberger is concerned with the flux between making and destroying during the process of writing. Both are very much interested in the practical realities that envelope the lives of artists today, as much as they are involved in issues of language and cultural hegemony. In a short essay, entitled "Three Footnotes," Eliot Weinberger places the pen name "Yasusada" at the juncture of the contradictory multiculturalist and deconstructionist viewpoints in today’s English Departments (http://bostonreview.mit.edu). A name, he goes on to say, is attached to a series of writings, and invisible authorship could only occur if an author published under a different name from piece to piece. It is the identity of an author, a claim to his "authentic" voice that is contested by enterprising researchers. "Readers, of course, want an author attached to the text, and lately prefer an attractive author or one with a sad life (or best of all, both)," Weinberger continues. "This literary parish of the American cult of celebrity becomes grotesque with the new category of ‘witness poetry,’ a set of biographical criteria that favors verifiable experience over imagination."

Weinberger’s tongue-in-cheek humor on the position of world poetry in the global market today rings appropriately true next to his straight man, Zhao Zhenkai, better known as Bei Dao. The empathy between Weinberger and Bei Dao is understandable: both write and speak from a global perspective, each having lived in translation between western and non-western cultures. Bei Dao relates his similar aversion to icon mania in a recent interview: "I remember once in Sichuan. We were holding a reading. Several thousand people had come, so they burst down the doors. We were treated like pop stars at pop concerts in the West. I am rather suspicious of this. Poetry is a minority occupation; their interest was a political interest" (11th Prague Writers’ Festival interview, http://www.pwf.globalone.cz/RozhovorEn/Dao.htm).

While Bei Dao’s poetry is not expressly political, his pen name has gained significant political notoriety: during the Tiananmen Square uprising of 1989, poems published under this name were used as chants (www.galenet.com, LRC). "Bei Dao" was chosen arbitrarily for Zhenkai by one of his friends as they were discussing names that they could use to avoid being harassed by the police. Ironically, the name, which means "North Island," has become Zhenkai’s most widely recognized name because it was the name under which his work was criticized by officials. Zhenkai has also published fiction under the pseudonym Shi Mo and poetry under various other names during the 80s, when tight restrictions were passed on the publication of poetry in China (1983-4, during the "Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign" no official poetry was published) (interview, the Journal of the International Institute, 2:1, 1994). The August Sleepwalker, a collection of Bei Dao’s poems written between 1970-1986, was published in the US in 1990, and was quickly banned by the Chinese government.

Before his controversial writing career, Zhenkai was politically aligned with the communist movement for some time. Born into a traditional middle class Shanghai family (his father, an administrative cadre; his mother, a medical doctor), Zhenkai attended the best school in Beijing, but didn’t enjoy the controlling atmosphere of the school (interview, UMich; prelecture, Stanford, http://prelectur.stanford.edu/lecturers/dao). When the Cultural Revolution broke out in 1966, Zhenkai was 17. Swept into the political turmoil, Zhenkai joined the Red Guard, in which he took part in various factional struggles, even organizing book raids on libraries. In 1969, he was sent to the countryside to work for a construction company. During this time, he experienced the immense poverty and "backward conditions" of the country—conditions that differed vastly from the propaganda he had read. It was this shift in perspective that caused him to lose enthusiasm for the revolution and which motivated him to study and write (interview, UMich).

During the 70s, Zhenkai developed a group of literary friends with whom he cultured a free verse style of writing that many Chinese writers experimented with as a result of publication restrictions. The linguistic style has become known as "menglong shi," or "misty" or "shadows poetry"—a label that was originally a criticism (prelecture, Stanford, prague interview). Poetry of the misty school is closed in a "hermetic, semi-private language, characterized by oblique, oneiric imagery and elliptical syntax... subject, tense, and number are elusive and transitions are unclear" (prelecture, Stanford). Bonnie S. McDougall writes that misty poetry "spoke of dreams and illusions" in a way that more directly critiqued the ideology of communism than a social reality of the time (Contemporary World Writers). Because his poetry invents its own language, so to speak, relying on mixed metaphor, extended, often surreal imagery, abrupt transitions, slogans, and oblique references to social issues, Bei Dao’s poems have been compared to those of Paul Celan and Cesar Vallejo. Bei Dao’s poetry gathered a passionate, faithful following; it was used in peaceful demonstration at Tiananmen Square during the April Fifth Democracy Movement of 1976 (prelecture, Stanford). This movement was responsible for a heightened freedom of expression, and it was during this time that Bei Dao and his friends printed the second unofficial magazine that would be posted on the wall in Beijing. The publication, which was called Jintian, or "Today," became famous almost immediately: between 1978-80, the journal reached a circulation of 1000, and was sent to every province in China except for Tibet (interview, UMich).

What is striking about Bei Dao’s poetry is, despite the political tension that surrounds his work, there is an absence of overt political statement in his work. David Hinton’s explanation for the political appropriation of Bei Dao’s poetry is that his work concerns "the rescue of subjectivity from a government that depends upon its suppression" (introduction, Forms of Distance). In his most recent collection, Unlock, one can see the opportunity for extremely subtle political readings through his use of extended, somewhat allegoric nature imagery.

In "Étude," Bei Dao personifies the wind, which seeks solace, a vacation, in the horizon: "Wind, the poor relation of the woods/ goes to the horizon to spend its vacation/ throwing lemons." In the next stanza, the lemons are sunlight, which has illuminated a camera shot: "those little deaths/ pure tone color." In the third stanza, the movement of the wind is war and writing, going onward though detached of their humanity, which has become stagnant—"people sit there like rumors/ waiting to start out" (53).

In the next poem, "Deleting,"

weeds sing

weeds making us think

of a general election about the wind

sing

singing making us think

of searching for a way of screaming (55)

Wind becomes rumor, that, when stagnant, is the all-too-palatable absence of action; later, wind rises to the top, is a topic of election, one feels, only to fall as new winds rise in the breaths of voices. Wind, Bei Dao seems to write, is like a collective voice, a collective need.

Unlock speaks with a rare combination of humility and forthrightness: the questioning of voice, the poetic voice’s assertion. In this collection, Weinberger is uniquely sensitive to preserving the original poetic structure as well as its meaning. Weinberger worked in collaboration with Iona Man-Cheong and Bei Dao himself in the translation of these pieces. The effect is magical. Unlock is a title that asks a question of its readers; its poems are densely interwoven yet luminescent, like the tangled phosphorescent strands of seaweed. They are poems that explore an "I" that surfaces again and again, only to fade continually into the negative space of a more communal voice. Perhaps the best way to approach this collection is via the metaphor of translation. Bei Dao’s strange, elusive imagery allows him to translate a world filled with foreignness and mystery. As Weinberger says in "Mislaid in Translation," "Translation is not a means for allowing the foreign to speak... Translation is one of the ways that lets us listen."

Kerry Morris is a summer Program Intern at the NYS Writers Institute.

Bei Dao & Eliot Weinberger
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Mark Doty

Although Mark Doty, "one of the most celebrated writers of his generation" (Mark Wunderlich, Ploughshares Spring 1999), is perhaps best known for his collections of poetry—such as Turtle, Swan (1987), My Alexandria (1993), Atlantis (1995, and Sweet Machine: Poems (1998)—in the last five years his three non-fiction titles have drawn considerable critical attention.

Doty’s first memoir, Heaven’s Coast (1996), appeared a few years after the death of his long-time partner, Wally Roberts, and deals mostly with this subject through a "patchwork quilt of memories"(Contemporary Authors Online). Doty wrote the memoir "in the flux and rush of new grief" and "wanted to represent that state of being, without the mediating and shaping influence of distance"(Atlantic Unbound interview). Chris Freeman in The Gay and Lesbian Review called Heaven’s Coast "one of the most powerful memoirs we have of the AIDS crisis and of love between men."

A few years later Firebird: A Memoir (1999) appeared. Here Doty turns his inner eye to his experience of growing up gay in 1960s suburban America. While maintaining his trademark attention to luscious detail, Doty emphasizes "the nature of memory and the perspective of years" (Michael Upchurch, NYT Book Review). In an interview with Katie Bolick (Atlantic Unbound, 1999) Doty explains the primacy of memory as his subject: "I’m especially drawn to those memoirs that place the act of remembering in the foreground—those that take memory itself as part of their subject and examine the action of making a story out of what is remembered." In the same interview Doty offers his own definition of "beauty": "In my heart I feel that the only real beauty is broken beauty, fallen from the ideal." This goes far to explain Doty’s preoccupation with broken or tarnished items, not unlike the objects that make up a still life painting.

Mark Doty’s latest work, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon (2001), fuses his skill for memoir and critique. The "essay as novella," as Patricia Hampl calls it, begins with the critical observation of Jan Davidsz de Heem’s painting Still Life with Oysters and Lemon. Here Doty explains the beauty of the still life objects:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away . . . These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time. (Still Life, 40).

Doty later recounts the morning he purchased a "large blue and white china platter," which makes him "feel linked to something of [his] mother’s childhood and [his] own" as he walks home, where the platter will hang for ten years. Doty evokes the enduring beauty of the platter by drawing our attention to its imperfections; these imperfections remind us of the passage of time, of what will be and what was. For Doty, the platter acquires meaning for both: "If it is a reminder of loss—my mother, my lover vanished in the slipstream of time—then it is equally a token of what can be kept: a sense of home, of permanence, of the ground for ourselves we can make"(43).

Doty’s poetry, like his prose, draws us near with unsentimentally rendered details ("the snow this morning/comes in great casual gusts") that eventually reveal the narrator’s, and by extension our, condition of being in the world. Yet, Doty does not offer us rage, derision, or pity; we have a world in which life’s sometime ruptures become occasions for reflecting on its beauty.

After the publication of My Alexandria (1993), Doty’s third collection of poetry, Philip Levine remarked that he was "…a maker of big, risky, fearless poems in which ordinary human experience becomes music." We can see such music in poems like "With Animals," even in the description of a tragic winter scene: "And I crouched into the brush/and saw what called: four paws thrust up//from a hole the heat of a body had melted;/it must have been lying there all night,//running on its back." The narrator has followed a sound into the woods, where he finds the source to be an executed dog. This discovery leads to an ethical dilemma: "And feeling half foolish and half entirely real/I said You can go if you want to,//it’s all right if you want to go." Though the images are gruesome and of the dead, Doty ends with an assertion of life: "…the life needed to continue,/the life was larger than cruelty,/the life denied the obliterating gesture//where only kindness had been expected."

Doty teaches Creative Writing at the University of Houston, where he received an award for Outstanding Professor of the Year from the Graduate English Society. This fall he will conduct a poetry workshop at Columbia University. Among his many awards, he is the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award (1994) and The T.S. Eliot Prize (1996) for My Alexandria. Currently, he is a Fellow at the Center for Scholars and Writers, New York Public Library.

Tyler Kessel is an Intern at the NYS Writers Institute and graduate student in the English Department PhD program.

Mark Doty
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Stephen Dunn

Although Stephen Dunn has been highly praised for his teaching at Richard Stockton College in New Jersey, where he is a Trustee Fellow in the Arts and Professor of Creative Writing, most recently attention has focused on his latest collection of poems, Different Hours, winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize. In this collection Dunn continues a tradition of strongly personal poems that reach beyond the mundane and into the philosophical. In a recent interview with Philip Dacey Dunn talked about a shift in his writing: "Somewhere over the last ten or fifteen years, I also tapped into my philosophical tendencies, have learned to argue with myself as I go, to assert then doubt a claim, to compose dialectically." Even though Dunn is often cited as a New Jersey poet, he resists the claim that his poems be read as regional: "All my landscapes, all the localities in my poems, provide occasions for exploring and discovering various concerns of mine: desire, loss, joy, disappointment, otherness, the impingement of the larger world on my little world—the usual stuff (http://www.cortlandreview.com/features/00/03/)."

Different Hours, Dunn's eleventh collection of poetry in almost thirty years of publishing, contains many such poems. In one of the last poems in the collection, "Backwaters," Dunn explores the state of society with a dry lament. Through a winter walk along the beach, Dunn creates a world in which reasons are manufactured and intention is ex post-facto formed in the mind of the observer. In coming upon a "used condom" the narrator feels an odd pleasure, only to have it dissolve into a blank awareness of the "trash" around him. The narrator then states, "I looked seaward, forced myself back/out into the bracing wind" as if he can overcome the trash society produces. But out at the end of a "crude jetty made of rocks" sits a lone, "hooded man [sic] staring into the monotony"--perhaps the narrator's dialectical other forcing him back.

Much like John Cheever did with short stories and novels, Dunn takes middle-class suburbia and infuses wonder and pain. Michael Schneider describes Dunn's work as "a restrained and, at the same time, relentlessly inventive voyage of discovery through the rituals of daily living." (http://www.post-gazette.com/books/bookreview.asp?ID=801) In the title poem, the weary narrator arrives home and wakes the next morning "amazed/that the paper has been delivered,/that the world is up and working." This moment of amazement is followed by a seemingly petty indulgence of real cream cheese, "the good stuff," on his bagel; but this moment leads directly to a thought brought in with the paper: "No Hope for Lost Men." Is the narrator the lost man? Humanity? Lofty questions for one sitting down to "Homestyle" juice and a bagel. But this shift is characteristic of Dunn's ability to overlay the grand with the inconsequential.

Loosestrife(1996), Dunn's tenth collection and 1996 National Book Critics Circle finalist, has been described by David Baker as "darker…than his other" books (Poetry, August 1997) and by Publishers Weekly as "graceful and stirring."

Dunn's foray into prose poetry, Riffs & Reciprocities(1998), in which he has what Bruce Murphy calls a "well-developed moral-philosophical viewpoint,"(Poetry, Dec 1999) represents a more pointedly philosophical side of his writing. Through prose pairs, Dunn ruminates on evil, democracy, technology, and vengeance. However, Dunn firmly situates his ideas and insights in experience (C.K. Williams).

Among Dunn's other collections are Looking for Holes in the Ceiling(1974), Work and Love(1981), Local Time(1986), and New and Selected Poems: 1974-1994(1994). In addition to the 2001 Pulitzer Prize, he has received an Academy Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the Levinson Prize from Poetry magazine, and the Theodore Roethke Prize from Poetry Northwest.

Tyler Kessel is an Intern at the NYS Writers Institute and graduate student in the English Department PhD program.

Stephen Dunn
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Pierre Joris

Pierre Joris’s poetics glides along that smooth space where poetry and theory, words, sound, and art, coincide. In his ‘manifessay,’ The Millennium Will Be Nomadic Or It Will Not Be [vers. 1.02b], Joris asserts his stance on the direction of contemporary world poetry:

A nomadic poetics is a war machine, always on the move, always changing, morphing, moving through languages, cultures, terrains, times without stopping. Refueling halts are called poases, they last a night or a day, the time of a poem, & then move on. (http://www.albany.edu/projren/9697/mackey/nmanif/html).

The pun on oasis forms an apt metaphor for the volumes of poetry that are excerpted in Joris’s newest publication, Poasis. The collection takes from Janus (1988), The Irritation Ditch (1991), Turbulence (1991), Winnetou Old (1994), h.j.r. (1999); each sampling creates a slightly different poetic landscape that bespeaks a vibrant mutability in Joris’s work. Included, as well, are several longer poems and poem-cycles. "Canto Diurno #1" (1986) opens the collection. In this poem, short, halted lines reminiscent of Robert Creeley’s work interchange with newspaper-speak and quotes that stylistically remind one of William Carlos Williams’s Paterson. The image and sound clusters often combine in a way that slows the reading of a passage, forcing the mind to contemplate the startling and beautiful juxtapositions:

8:10 a.m.

a

tempted

au

bade

pros trate

sun

cloud claw (6-7)

In "for Nate Mackey," Joris pays homage to the lyrical, strophic rhythms of Nathaniel Mackey (School of Udhra, etc) in the first few lines:

the morning after the Bedouin reading

the streaked skies tending West

& old sense of south-north

drift und Drang verified (143)

The poem quickens at its midpoint, where the lines break into an alliterative cross-language that is a trademark of many of Joris’s poems:

yes you hear

that depth in the flamenco,

that deathert inn

the fla the fla

the men co

flamenco flames of

flamen, flamina

priestesses, (143)

The sonorous word-play stamps the beat of a dance that we hear briefly before the direction of the poem changes and its rhythm is drowned out.

"Aegean Shortwave" is written in a radio broadcast style that slowly disintegrates as the scope of the poem narrows. The excerpts from The Irritation Ditch are also written in a more narrative style, this time in the tone of a newspaper-clip, list format. Always, in Pierre Joris’s poetry, there is a thought-provoking incisiveness. There is a bent for the philosophical, the passage, the phrase arrangement, that calls for a third or fourth reading. Often, his poems are concerned with the idea of translation. For Joris, a nomadic poetics is always a translation; it is a poetics of movement and re-inscription directly opposed to Wordsworth’s romantic ideal of "emotion recollected in tranquility" (Notes Towards a Nomadic Poetics).

The nomad poet is the "NOET: NO stands for play, for no-saying & guerrilla war techniques, for gNOsis & Noetics. ET stands for etcetera, the always ongoing process, the no closure: it stands for ExtraTerritorial, for the continuous state of being outside... for Electronic Terrain, where the poem composes, recomposes, decomposes before your eyes..." (Notes Towards a Nomadic Poetics). Many of Joris’s poems have silent spaces, gaps in the flow of idea, which the reader fills, aided only by the exactness of the phrase. In this way, the poem becomes a continuous translation into the new, altered by the fluid act of reading.

The strangeness of writing, in Joris’s poetry, is like the dream that comes from the self but is at once absented from memory, leaving only traces to be interpreted. Nicole Brossard, author of Picture Theory and Installations, writes on Poasis: "To read the poetry of Pierre Joris is to listen to the ticking of the words, to observe them preparing to move and alter themselves so as to expose the nature of what a split second of fervor in language can do to meaning." Joris confronts the problems of translation and meaning, translation-as-interpretation, in a close reading and analysis of Paul Celan’s "Todtnauberg" (http://wings.buffalo.edu/epc/authors/joris/todtnauberg.html, 1988). In his translation from the German, Joris runs through the possible English word-choices, settling on those that take into account the historical setting of the poem and Celan’s poetic standpoint. Joris’s "Canto Diurno #1" includes a translation of "Todtnauberg" amongst his own short pieces. This juxtaposition in the opening of his selected poems allows the following poetry to take on the ever-present metaphor of translation, the voice-through of foreignness. The flux between original work and a re-inscription of other ideas, other languages, is a primary concern throughout Poasis and in Joris’s approach to translation. Writing on his work with Celan, Joris remarks, "A poem can only translate into another poem—maybe a completely other poem, in a completely other language, in a completely other century. If there is anything that is completely other. Which is exactly what translation, in order to exist, has to refuse to believe..." (Celan article). Pierre Joris has already translated two volumes of Celan’s poetry, and is currently working on two others, Lichtzwang and Eingedunkelt.

In addition to his seminal translations of Paul Celan, Joris has translated Jack Kerouac, Herman Melville, and Sam Shepard into French, and Habib Tengour and Edmond Jabès into English. His sensitivity to the subjects that he translates and his precision with language have earned him a standing among the best translators of modern/post-modern and avant-garde poetry. In 1999, he was awarded a Creative Writing Fellowship in Poetry and Translation from the National Endowment for the Arts, which is enabling him to translate more of Celan’s work. Joris, a native of Luxembourg, is fluent in French, German, English, and Arabic. While some of his own works incorporate these languages, he publishes primarily in English.

Joris is also well-known for the Poems For the Millennium anthologies, which he co-edited with Jerome Rothenberg. The first volume of the two-volume set received the 1996 Pen Oakland Josephine Miles Award for Excellence in Literature (http://arts.endow.gov/explore/Writers/Joris.html). When asked what the future holds for this series, Joris commented, "There now exists the possibility of extending the work by creating an open-ended Web-based third volume, thus constantly tracking and mapping new work in transnational, experimental poetry" (article by Tim Heinz; http://www.albany.edu/tree-tops/docs/updates/1998/10-14/inprint.html). Poems for the Millennium was so successful that the University of California Press asked the two writers to edit a book series, Poets for the Millennium, which started in the year 2000. Each book presents a 60-70 page selection of an author’s work, with an essay and documentary section. Pierre Joris’s academic projects establish him as a scholar on the fringe of innovations in art, but he is also a poet existing simultaneously in the new.

Kerry Morris is a summer Program Intern at the NYS Writers Institute.

Pierre Joris
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Pablo Medina

Pablo Medina is a haunting, evocative writer whose prose and poetry are visitations of place and memory. A strong autobiographical thread links Medina’s works, which largely evoke his native Cuba. In his most recent works, The Return of Felix Nogara: A Novel and The Floating Island, a book of poems, Medina revisits the cultural and topographical landscapes of the island in a manner that brings his sense of Spanish rhythm and history together in the English language. Medina, who is an exile from Cuba himself, is a master of the well-placed phrase, the simple understated facts. Within his descriptive passages and his toned, precise dialogue, he sprinkles Spanish phrases that add elasticity to his narrative voice without disrupting the style or confusing the passage for an Anglophone reader. Medina’s poetic style has been equated to Whitman, Ginsberg, and Walcott; of The Floating Island, Henry Taylor writes in The Washington Times, "Pablo Medina is a gifted poet with a piercingly memorable vision." Carl Phillips, author of Pastoral: Poems, more fully states, "The eponymous floating island of Pablo Medina’s provocative new collection of poems is partly the Cuba of the poet’s childhood, partly childhood itself—country where heart and spirit were strangers equally to loss and to irony…"

The Return of Felix Nogara likewise inhabits this place where fact and fiction, loss and memory coalesce. Felix, whose name means ‘happy,’ is an ironic, detached man whose happiness is found in the small everyday contributions that he makes to those he cares about. Often, however, these connections prove futile. Felix has been an exile of Barata (an island strikingly similar to Cuba) since he was twelve; as such, he lives a life of continual displacement. He travels from Florida, to New York City, to Upstate New York, then back to New York City. He floats in and out of Baratan political groups, works as a store clerk, a farm hand, a warehouse worker, and a ‘saboteur,’ a bomber who executes his jobs with skill and stealth. Unable to form roots in any one place, estranged from his mother, Felix embarks on a journey to his homeland 38 years after his exile. Felix’s homecoming is contingent upon the death of the island’s dictator, who has finally succumbed to old age. Felix comes back to an island in political turmoil, where everything is for sale, and where long lines of exiles are forming with claims to land and businesses. Felix, however, has not set out to reclaim land, but his past:

"From the country to the north, he had brought with him the illusion that his life had a meaning—beyond itself—and that that meaning could be found by recovering a lost history, a lost happiness. Returning to Barata was like going back to Eden. It was like showing god who was really in control." (27)

Felix’s life-story is a quest for origins, a search for meaning that can be found only in the journey itself. His story would be tragedy were it not for Medina’s imaginative and sometimes comic interludes. Lourdes Gil, a Cuban-American writer who writes in both Spanish and English, calls the novel "a true novel of exile," in which "the unexpected combinations of authenticity and fiction seem both surprising and obvious as Medina reinterprets the variant faces of political control over the centuries and reconstructs the crucible of modernity and a colonial historical tradition." Medina structures Felix’s tale in a cross-cutting style that takes us into the lives of the dictator and the archbishop, various revolutionaries of Barata, and even Barata itself. The Return of Felix Nogara begins in an historical mode that breathes life into the island and will set the outline for the story to come. Barata looms at first as an historical certainty, yet, as Felix’s journey begins, he will question the history for which his friends are willing to sacrifice themselves. Bob Shacochis, in The New York Times Book Review, praises Medina’s technique and the beauty of his prose in The Return of Felix Nogara: "Gluing a dazzling veneer of imagination over the reality of Cuba’s difficult walk into the future, the author evokes the island in all of its decrepit sensuality, its strangely exuberant pathos and the contradictions of its resilience."

Felix’s life-story is a quest for origins, a search for meaning that can be found only in the journey itself. His story would be tragedy were it not for Medina’s imaginative and sometimes comic interludes. Lourdes Gil, a Cuban-American writer who writes in both Spanish and English, calls the novel "a true novel of exile," in which "the unexpected combinations of authenticity and fiction seem both surprising and obvious as Medina reinterprets the variant faces of political control over the centuries and reconstructs the crucible of modernity and a colonial historical tradition." Medina structures Felix’s tale in a cross-cutting style that takes us into the lives of the dictator and the archbishop, various revolutionaries of Barata, and even Barata itself. The Return of Felix Nogara begins in an historical mode that breathes life into the island and will set the outline for the story to come. Barata looms at first as an historical certainty, yet, as Felix’s journey begins, he will question the history for which his friends are willing to sacrifice themselves. Bob Shacochis, in The New York Times Book Review, praises Medina’s technique and the beauty of his prose in The Return of Felix Nogara: "Gluing a dazzling veneer of imagination over the reality of Cuba’s difficult walk into the future, the author evokes the island in all of its decrepit sensuality, its strangely exuberant pathos and the contradictions of its resilience."

Pablo Medina’s Cuban heritage strongly influences his work. His 1990 Exiled Memories: A Cuban Childhood is a memoir that details his own experience growing up in Cuba and then having to leave at the age of twelve. In the memoir, Medina interweaves Cuban political history with his own childhood adventures. The memoir was praised for its engaging and vivid account of Cuban life in the 50s. Medina is also the author of a novel, The Marks of Birth, and three volumes of poetry. His many honors include an award from the CINTAS Foundation and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Medina is currently on the faculty of the New School University in New York City.

Kerry Morris is a summer Program Intern at the NYS Writers Institute.

Pablo Medina
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Susan Minot and Kate Walbert

A well-known writer of both short stories and novels, Susan Minot has most recently turned her unflinching gaze toward the timeless subjects of love and death. Minot’s latest novel, Evening (1999), scans between two irrevocable points in the life of its anti-heroine: the moments leading up to Ann’s death, and the weekend that she truly fell in love. Time is central to this novel. Ann’s yearnings for a past self that cannot be reclaimed except through memory allow the narrative to take dips and turns through time, disclosing Ann’s inner life piece by piece. As she remembers, the desire of her youth takes on mythic proportions, whereas her familiar day to day existence becomes a ponderous mass of details:

"Later her life would be full of things, full of houses and children and trips to the sea and husbands and hats with brims and dogs catching sticks and tables to set and lists to cross off and she would have left singing behind and the stars would never look this way again, they would be further away but at odd unexpected moments something of the stars might strike her and it would be as if someone had branded her forehead with a hot iron." (p. 199)

The sweeping sentences and precise details that characterize Evening might bring to mind the style of William Faulkner. Indeed, Minot prefaces this novel with a quote on time from The Sound and the Fury. In it, a watch is given, ‘not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it.’ Evening is a novel that looks backwards as Faulkner’s does, towards moments in the past that cannot be reclaimed and moments in the present that are shaped by the past. Like Faulkner’s characters, Ann is haunted by the ‘what if?,’ the possibilities that lie buried in her past, roads forever untaken. In elegiac wanderings, the novel segues between Ann’s youthful vitality and her morphine-fogged present. As she nears death, Ann blurs the boundaries between her past and present selves; the memories of the suspenseful and tragic weekend in her youth become sharper while the faces around her deathbed are blurred. At times, Ann’s memories are vital and anguished, at others, they are long sighing lists. While Ann is a passionate woman, the story of her fatally torrid love affair and the tragedy that follows would seem an unlikely portraiture of Ann to the visitors who come to her deathbed. Her loves and disappointments have left her a bitter, cold woman whose finest attribute is perhaps her stoicism. Ann’s attending nurse has only to remark that "it was notable when she came across someone, man or woman, who did not weep... Ann Lord was one of the ones who didn’t weep." Minot’s prose is elegant and powerful as she links together these two women who seem so different yet are one in the same.

Evening has been praised for its "polished and seductive prose" (Sara Peyton, Womenswire) and the virtuosity with which it creates an "atmosphere charged with risk and possibility" (Roxana Robinson, NY Times Oct. 11, 1998). Michiko Kakutani, in her Oct. 2nd review with the NY Times calls Evening "a kind of emotional bookend to Monkeys... Whereas [in] the interlinked tales in that earlier volume... a group of children struggle to come to terms with the death of their mother and their own emerging identities, in Evening, a woman on her deathbed struggles to come to terms with her family and her memories of who she was." Kakutani goes on to say that the complexity of the form and style in Evening "attests to Ms. Minot’s growing ambition and assurance as an artist."

Monkeys, Minot’s first novel, is the most critically acclaimed of her works. Having received the Prix Femina Etranger, Monkeys also garnered praise from such magazines as The New York Times Book Review, Vogue, People, and Time. Speaking on Monkeys, Jayne Anne Phillips writes, "Susan Minot’s quietly luminous children are voyagers in a past marked by seaside privilege, ritual Catholicism, and the mysterious loneliness of adults. Her oblique prose establishes a country of childhood in which grief exists like a premonition, and children are the saviors of children." Anne Tyler simply states: "Monkeys takes your breath away."

Since Monkeys, Minot has shown an interest in film adaptation. In 1994 film director Bernardo Bertolucci contacted Minot about developing an idea he had for a movie. In collaboration with the director, she wrote the screenplay for Stealing Beauty, which was released in 1996. The film is a coming of age story starring Liv Tyler and Jeremy Irons, who, in Bertolucci’s words, are meant to reflect "the strength and fragility of youth" (Teminant, online.mq.edu.au). Gillian Temiant, in her review of the film, says that "Stealing Beauty is a compelling film... through its vivid imagery and the insightful portrayal of its characters, Stealing Beauty realistically explores the emotional journey from childhood to womanhood" (online.mq.edu.au). Stealing Beauty has been noted for the bare and direct manner that characterize its dialogue. The screenplay celebrates youth without passing into melancholy yearnings for lost innocence. Both Monkeys and Evening have been optioned for films, and Minot is currently working on the screen adaptation for Evening.

If there is one overwhelming commonality between the prose of Kate Walbert and Susan Minot, it is the luminous and deftly arranged detail that gives their characters a life that exceeds the page. Kate Walbert writes in a fresh and vivid style that compliments Minot’s. Her stories are often lyrical yet detached; the narrative moves in a dorian mode that flourishes with the understated passions of its main characters. Of her first book, a collection of connected short stories, reviewer Nancy Pearl writes that "Walbert’s use of fractured narrative works like a prism to reveal the broken lives of her two main characters" (Booklist, galenet.com LRC). The fractured style of Where She Went reflects the broken dreams of the mother and daughter whose interwoven lives dominate the collection. Don Lee, writing in Ploughshares comments on the likeness of the two women who lead "mislaid, unrealized lives," women who travel to find themselves, yet are unable to locate the source of their woes.

In The Gardens of Kyoto, Walbert fashions a narrator who is likeable despite herself. A self-described female Iago, Ellen is a detached, aloof woman whose passions form strong currents that motivate her to deceive. Unlike Iago, however, Ellen’s sins are those of omission. Ellen is a shy, sensitive woman born in the mid-west of the late ’30s whose life is shaped by the extraordinary events that take place around her precipitated by WWII. Surprisingly, Ellen rarely seeks to participate in these events. Forming a polished exterior that rarely reveals her inner anguish, Ellen instead reacts to the horrors that befall the people she loves as would a person in shock. She coils into herself, where she leads a fantasy life that begins to bleed into reality as her circumstances worsen. In the hands of another novelist, such a protagonist might be dull, or at best, clumsy. Walbert, however, demonstrates her talent for the elusive and strange by creating a narrator who is chillingly absent yet unmistakably emotional and real.

Walbert’s talent for understatement allows her uncluttered dialogue to reveal the unsaid through its juxtaposition. When Randall, Ellen’s cousin and soulmate, dies in WWII, Ellen’s family travels to the uncle’s large plantation-era house to help him sell it. Ellen’s mother is direct and lively; her spring cleaning mode contrasts in comparison to Ellen and Sterling (the uncle), who are lost in wordless grief:

"Anyway," [Mother] said, heaving herself up. "I’ve got to get your father to help me move a few things down in the attic. Keep your uncle company, sweetheart." Then she left.

I sat next to Sterling in Mother’s wing chair and waited, though Sterling didn’t say a word. He had a dark blue shawl on over his legs, and his old hands, resting on top of it, looked like two exhausted white animals that had crawled a great distance. (60)

Coming from a family that is not used to emotional display, Ellen allows her emotions to become the scenery around her. In this way, The Gardens of Kyoto is appropriately named. Throughout the novel, Walbert paints short still-lives of the famous Japanese gardens. In these gardens, it is said, placement, the illusions created by light, and the angle at which the garden is seen, are all integral parts of the garden; it is the effect on the person walking through that is the most important aspect. Ellen, as a main character, is drawn with the enigma and beauty characteristic to a Japanese garden. Reserved yet passionate, she is like one of the gardens that she speaks of, in which the fifteen stones are arranged so that only fourteen are visible from any point in the garden.

Alida Becker of the New York Times (April 8, 2001), compares Walbert’s "cross-cutting narrative technique" to that of Alice Munro and Alice McDermott. Becker acknowledges the "understated power" of Walbert’s book; through Ellen’s "secondhand shading," "we... hear the stories of people whose lives illuminate the emotions [Randall] may have felt, the horrors he may have experienced." Randall’s ghost follows Ellen like a second self. Throughout the novel, his presence allows us a glimpse of the wholeness that Ellen feels she has lost. Amy Bloom, the author of A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, praises this graceful and haunted novel: "Kate Walbert’s fine, delicate prose captures voices that we don’t hear much anymore, and she guides us from past to present, and from death to life, with affectionate detail and deep understanding. The Gardens of Kyoto is a ghost story, a mystery, a love story, and an intentionally modest chronicle of the middle part of this past century." The Gardens of Kyoto, based on a Pushcart and O. Henry Prize winning story, lives up to the expectations that these honors confer. The novel has been received as a beautifully fine debut that can only leave us in expectation of more to come.

Kerry Morris is a summer Program Intern at the NYS Writers Institute.

Susan Minot
Kate Walbert
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Caryl Phillips

Even among the many giants of contemporary literature to write of and from former British colonies—including Nobel laureates Derek Walcott and V.S. Naipaul—Caryl Phillips stands out for the volume and variety of his work and the consistency of its subject matter. Born on the island of St. Kitts in the West Indies and educated in England, Phillips' career began at the age of 22 with the production of his first play, Strange Fruit (1980). Since then, he has become a true Renaissance man of letters, turning out more in two decades than most writers produce in a lifetime. Through half a dozen novels, two books of nonfiction, three stage plays, six screenplays and numerous documentaries and journalistic writings, Phillips has probed the troubling questions of identity, race, and belonging endemic to formerly colonized people in his native Caribbean as well as in the United States, England, Africa, and the Middle East.

His latest work, The Atlantic Sound (Knopf, 2000), is a unique blend of history and memoir that proves just how original creative nonfiction can be. Phillips frames this multi-layered narrative with an account of his travels from the U.S. to Guadaloupe, to Liverpool, England, to Accra, Ghana, and Charleston, South Carolina, exploring the locations which once served as centers of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. His writing pursues a double mission: to describe the current conditions of blacks living in these cultures, as well as to excavate and humanize something of the awful, dehumanizing events which transpired there. To accomplish the first, Phillips is well equipped with a keen ear and the writer's gift for isolating the telling detail, as demonstrated in "Leaving Home," which describes a racially divided Liverpool and the growing anger of the black community in this city which grew rich on the profits of the slave trade.

"Liverpool people don't want to acknowledge their own history," says Stephen, the author's well-spoken and combative guide. "They don't want you to know what built this town and how the exploitation of black people has formed the basis of all the wealth around here. . . They have a kind of guilt problem. They don't know what to do about us, because we're not going away."

But it is in accomplishing the book's second goal that Phillips distinguishes his creative powers. With equal parts exhaustive research and formidable imagination, he constructs stories around historical figures whose experiences bring to life the real human consequences of slavery. Whether reading of a young man from the Gold Coast, trapped in Liverpool in a Dickensian maze of alienation and legally sanctioned racism, of a British chaplain at a slave-trading fort in Ghana who "looked the other way," or of the travails of the courageous South Carolina judge who dared give blacks the vote, readers are treated to an engaging and serious examination of history with all the human appeal of a good novel.

The Atlantic Sound continues the expansion of Phillips' talents and interests which began with his first novels, The Final Passage (1985) and A State of Independence (1986). Inspired by his own return to St. Kitts after growing up in England, these two works examine the conundrums of identity that continue to haunt the residents of the former British territory. With Higher Ground (1989), Crossing the River (1993), and The Nature of Blood (1998), Phillips' historical perspective widened, each volume presenting multiple stories, from the experiences of freed slaves, Holocaust survivors, and black nationalist radicals to those of a white English woman dating a black soldier during World War II, Othello the Moor visiting the Jewish ghetto, and an 18th century slave ship owner. The Final Passage was awarded the Malcolm X Prize for literature; Crossing the River received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and was a finalist for the Booker Prize.

What has unified these diverse works is Phillips' attention to the tensions between England and its former colonies, and how West Indians in particular find themselves adrift in hostile cultures, torn between their English and Caribbean heritages, feeling loyal to and embraced by neither completely. His work has been compared to that of V.S. Naipaul, but Phillips distances himself from the Trinidadian writer who was awarded the Nobel Prize this month. Naipaul "has been reluctant to see any ills in the Third World that could be intimately connected with European 'barbarity,'" he told The New Republic. Phillips prefers to see his work aligned with that of younger authors, expressing particular respect for the Antiguan writer, Jamaica Kincaid.

Caryl Phillips’ own life has been nearly as diverse as the concerns of his writing. Since graduating from Oxford, he has taught in London, India, Sweden, and Ghana, and spent most of the last decade as a member of the English faculty of Amherst College. A former recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Phillips was awarded the Lannan Literary Award in 1994 for his entire body of work and was made, last year, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.

Andrew Altschul is a Presidential Scholar and is in the Doctoral Program in the English Department at UAlbany.

Caryl Phillips
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Richard Russo

Empire Falls, Richard Russo’s newest book, sweeps its readers along with all the energy of its central geographic feature, the once stagnant, newly gushing, Knox River. As the Knox is reborn as a swift, unpredictable force of nature, the small industrial town at the river’s border, Empire Falls, Maine, becomes a cesspool. Empire Falls is a rust-belt town whose once-thriving factories have shut down, leaving its inhabitants with few choices and little means to leave. The hand of fate lies in the jurisdiction of the richest family in town—the one time owners of a factory chain, who likewise hold the deeds to most of the businesses on Main Street. As the story opens, the son of this family, C.B. Whiting, decides to change the peculiar destiny of the Whiting family with two somewhat impulsive decisions. He engineers a plan to increase the velocity of the river in order to rid his property of the trash that washes ashore, and, he resolves to get married. He is most wary of the later decision, since he comes from a long line of megalomaniacs, all of whom in later years become obsessed with the impulse to kill their wives. Both of these resolutions set the scene for the drama that ensues.

Russo’s novel burbles with the dense subplots of the stunted and perhaps misunderstood personalities that populate this backwater town. There is Walt, a fitness buff who has become a ladies’ man in mid-life and who can never resist the urge for a good arm wrestle. Miles, his favorite opponent and the main narrator, is an unwilling contender, in arm-wresting as well, it seems, as anything else. Then there is Jimmy Minty and his son, Zack; two conniving SOBs, whose attempts at self-redemption are heart-wrenchingly pathetic. Miles’s daughter, Tick, is shy and sensitive to the point of physical weakness. Like Miles, she becomes an easy target for the outcast and lonely. Enter the new boy in Tick’s art class; his silent awkward manner renders him mysterious and perhaps dangerous. Presiding over this mis-matched cast is the wife of the late C.B. Whiting—the man, who at the beginning of the novel, changed the course of the Knox River. Francine Whiting, a tenacious, hardened widow, has developed an uncanny sense of what her assets are and how to use them. She is a woman who knows what she wants; when she offers to give a young Miles driving lessons, she has one eerie refrain: "Power and control" (250).

In Empire Falls, Russo yet again conjures small town frustrations in the tragicomic style that characterizes his previous novels. Once more, Russo puts together characters that honestly and unabashedly walk into life’s mistakes, only stopping to consider the route after they have traveled too far. Writer Annie Proulx says of Russo’s fiction: "After the last sentence is read, the reader continues to see Russo’s tender, messed-up people coming out of doorways, lurching through life. And keeps on seeing them because they are as real as we are." Hilma Wolitzer places Russo in an American realist tradition, alongside Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. Others have compared his heavily populated books to Dickens and his character sensitivity to John Irving (www.galenet.com, LRC). The Risk Pool, written from the point of view of Ned Hall, is a novel about coming to terms with the high stakes involved in family peace. Ned’s family lives in a decaying tannery town in upstate New York. His dad is a drifter; his mom has just about had it with the lack of stability in their lives. The perceptiveness and grace with which Russo approaches the outlandish predicaments of the family has been likened to the styles of Thornton Wilder and Anne Tyler. Jack Sullivan of the New York Times Book Review calls the novel "a superbly original, maliciously funny book… It is Mr. Russo’s brilliant, deadpan writing that gives their wasted lives and miserable little town such haunting power and insidious charm" (1988).

Russo’s other books, Mohawk (1986), Nobody’s Fool (1993), and Straight Man (1997), likewise confront the dashed hopes and futile dreams that pepper small town Northeast America. Russo has a talent for voice, and his characters range from college professors to factory workers to waitresses. His subject matter is dense, and often socially incisive. In an interview with Dave Weich in Powells, Russo says, "the class stuff, writing about blue-collar folks, is something I’ve been doing right from the start, with the invention of Mohawk," a small town in upstate New York (Powells.com, June 6, 2001). Many of these books have become enormously popular while garnering significant literary acclaim. Nobody’s Fool was made into a movie in 1994 starring Paul Newmann, Jessica Tandy, Bruce Willis, and Melanie Griffith. In an interview with Alden Mudge, Russo commented that his experience in working with Robert Benton on the screenplay for Nobody’s Fool was a successful and creative experience (www.bookpage.com). He is now working on a script for Straight Man, a satire whose "wisenheimer" narrator is stuck in the "dour, paranoid college English department" of a third-rate University in a small Pennsylvania town; Tom DeHaven in his New York Times book review calls it "the funniest serious novel I have read since—well, maybe since "Portnoy’s Complaint" (July 6, 1997).

Empire Falls addresses the issue of schooling in America, but from opposite perspectives—that of Tick, whose high school art teacher cannot explain the difference between the work of Andrew Wyeth and Jackson Pollock, and her father, Miles, whose one failed ambition was to become a college professor. As usual, however, Russo deals with the social constraints which often bind such dreams. In Powells, Russo explains that his own childhood experience growing up in Johnstown, NY, is instrumental to his formation of small town characters and his sensitivity to the problems that they face. The atmosphere of rural New York or Maine, he says, forms "a world I know pretty well, and its people seem worth talking about to me... They’re connected, the Miles Robys of the world and the other people of Empire Falls, somewhere deep in my imagination, as a result of growing up in that kind of town in upstate New York. These towns I write about, even Railton in Straight Man, are swept up in changes the people there don’t begin to understand" (Powells, 2001). Janet Maslin, in her New York Times article, praises Russo’s ability to interweave a small town drama with an insightful critique of American values; she writes, "[Empire Falls is] a rich, humorous, elegantly constructed novel… easily Mr. Russo’s most seductive book thus far" (May 10, 2001).

Kerry Morris is a summer Program Intern at the NYS Writers Institute.

Richard Russo
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Michele Serros

Michele Serros has been compared to the great literary likes of Sandra Cisneros, Gary Soto, Ana Castillo and others for her "gift for the conversational aesthetic" (San Francisco Chronicle). Indeed, her strong, individual voice fills the page immediately and continues throughout each poem, vignette, and story. Sandra Cisneros calls Serros’s humor her "brilliant weapon," which she wields against cultural and racial prejudice no matter whence it comes.

Serros’s first book, Chicana Falsa and other stories of Death, Identity and Oxnard, appeared when she was attending Santa Monica College in 1993. These poems and short stories present us with a young girl coming of age, a teenager forging a sexual identity, a writer beginning to write. For example, in "Shower Power Hippie Man," a coming-of-age story, four young girls regularly spy on a man from the "other neighborhood" as he showers. Serros draws the distinction between this man and "real men" from their neighborhood based on the length and color of his hair. Much of Serros’s fiction and poetry explores the space between "pure" cultures—in her case, between "Mexican" and "American." In the very first poem of Chicana Falsa, "La Letty," Serros’s childhood friend "Tish" accuses her of occupying this space:

You know what you are?

A Chicana Falsa.

MEChA don’t mean shit,

and that sloppy Spanish of yours*

will never get you any discount at Bob’s market.

HOMOGENIZED HISPANIC,

that’s what you are.

One may ask: With language at the heart of any culture, how could Serros be anything but a "chicana falsa"? The charge that she’s "homogenized" evokes perhaps milk, which is white, and assimilation into white American culture. One of Serros’s gifts is to navigate the cultural in-between without privileging one culture over the other. Serros’s family has been here for four generations, making her an "all-American" woman; yet, her Mexican heritage remains a strong and important force in her identity. In fact, Serros didn’t learn Spanish until she took it upon herself to take an intensive language course in Mexico in 1996, an experience she later dramatized in How to Be a Chicana Role Model.

Serros’s stories and poems exemplify the diversity of U.S culture and what it is to be an "American." One such example, "Role Model Rule Number 8: Reclaim Your Rights As a Citizen of Here, Here," is a fictionalized dialogue between "Me" and "El Other" in which "The Question"—So, where are you from?—is humorously teased out. Here, Serros reverses the question in order to highlight the oft-assumed connection between "white" and "American":

Me: So where are you from?

El Other: Me?

Me: Yeah.

El Other: Oh, I’m from here.

Me: From Los Angeles?

El Other: No, from here, here.

Me: You mean the corner of Venice and Inglewood?

El Other: No, silly. You know what I mean.

Perhaps Serros’s "gift for capturing the emotion of a moment in dialogues between family members" (Christine Granados, Hispanic Dec. 2000) emerges most poignantly in "The Big Deal," when the fictional Serros is slowly revealing unsavory facts about a new white boyfriend to her Auntie Alma. The story begins with an allusion to the showering man from Chicana Falsa when Alma inquires about the length of Doze’s hair. Other facts emerge: his whiteness, tattoos, time in "juvi," agnosticism, and, most importantly, veganism. Alma eventually accepts all of Doze’s oddities but his veganism; for her this represents a line she will not cross and for the fictional Serros represents a new understanding of her aunt and her relationship with Mexican culture. Serros does not take frivolous jabs at cultural/racial difference in order to get a quick laugh; rather, "[h]er ability to find the truth and humor in any situation--including a politically charged visit to a supermarket or an appearance on The Price Is Right--makes this an enjoyable read" (Jessica Joisten, Hispanic Jan. 1999).

Serros has been a commentator for Morning Edition and Weekend All Things Considered on NPR, a "Road Poet" on tour with Lollapalooza, and a teacher through PEN Center USA West’s high school program and at the California Youth Authority prison. She’s currently working on a young adult novel and putting together a short documentary film, while living in New York City. Much more information about Michele Serros, including photos, press, and bio, is available on her web site: www.muchamichele.com.

Tyler Kessel is an Intern at the NYS Writers Institute and graduate student in the English Department PhD program.

Michele Serros
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