Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Billy Collins, Pete Hamill, Philip Levine, Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, many others at the 2012 Brooklyn Book Festival

Johnny Temple, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, and Pete Hamill
Jonny Temple, Edwidge Danticat, Paul Auster, Pete Hamill at Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Joann Jovinelly
More than ten thousand booklovers reportedly attended the seventh annual Brooklyn Book Festival, which packed readings by 280+ authors onto more than 100 panels between 10 AM and 6 PM on Sunday, September 23. While all the readings were free, multiple concurrent events meant no one person could attend more than seven or eight, fewer if you cared to patronize any of the 100 outdoor stalls hosted by publishers, authors, journals, and associations in the square outside Brooklyn’s Borough Hall.

Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz annually awards the “Bobi,” the Best of Brooklyn, Inc. Award, to an author whose “outstanding contributions to literature reflect the spirit of Brooklyn.” This year’s recipient, Pete Hamill, joined previous winners Paul Auster, Walter Mosley, and Edwidge Danticat in participating in the festival.

“Brooklyn is my Old Country, my true home place,” said Hamill, in accepting the award, “the place that shaped me, the place where I learned to read, to listen, to fill myself with visions. The place of music and laughter and decency, punctuated now and then by tragedy. I will carry that Brooklyn with me to my grave.” Asked at a panel where the ideas for his novels came from, Hamill replied, “Anywhere. Walking the dog or overhearing a conversation on the street.” If you read the notebooks of Henry James, Hamill observed, that’s what you will find. “He wrote down something that happened during the day. Then he would explore possibilities. What if the person were a woman rather than a man?”

Many other authors had advice for aspiring writers during Q&A’s following their readings. The “Fiction Triumvirate” panel at cavernous St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church featured authors Bernice L. McFadden, Joyce Carol Oates, and Colson Whitehead. Reading from her story “Black Dahlia & White Rose,” Oates imagined monologues from two aspiring actresses, Norma Jeane Baker and Elizabeth Short, victim of one of California’s most infamous, unsolved murder cases. “How is it that one person becomes Marilyn Monroe and the other becomes the Black Dahlia? That gets to the heart of the great mystery, the phantasmagoria of our existence.”
Joyce Carol Oates, Colson Whitehead, Bernice L. McFadden at Brooklyn Book Festival
Photo: Kathryn Kirk
McFadden read from Gathering of Waters, her novel based on the gruesome 1955 murder of Emmett Till. In response to the question “what was the most difficult part of writing,” McFadden replied, “I don’t have a linear process. It’s very spiritual. I know when the end is coming because I get very emotional. Then I have to sit down and work it all through.” Oates, by contrast, said that she “has to get the last line first.”

Whitehead published his most recent novel, Zone One, a year ago, which may explain why his “reading” was more performance art. He intoned the book’s first line, “He always wanted to live in New York,” four times—each time breaking off to riff on the agony of writing (“If you remembered what it was like, you’d never do it.”) , his wife’s reaction to his novel, Sag Harbor (“I liked Lila Mae in The Intuionist better.”), seeing Clockwork Orange at age eleven, and the mystery of R2D2 (“The first Star Wars had the Death Star, light sabers, and hyperspace but couldn’t give R2D2 a voicebox?”) until he was out of time. When it comes to his work habits, however, Whitehead described a very structured routine: “I work up on an outline and plot an assignment for each day, from beginning to end, so I know where I’m going.”

Other panels also offered privileged insights into an author’s work. The “Poets Laureate Past and Present” panel featured Billy Collins (U.S. Poet Laureate 2001–2003), Philip Levine (U.S. Poet Laureate 2011–2012), Tina Chang (Brooklyn Poet Laureate) , and Ishmael Islam (New York City Youth Poet Laureate). After reading his poem “The Sandhill Cranes of Nebraska,” which begins “Too bad you couldn’t have been here six months ago,” Collins noted that when poet Howard Nemerov was asked to make up a word to “fill a hole in the language,” he came up with the verb “to azaleate,” meaning “to commiserate needlessly with some visitor about a local natural phenomenon that they either missed because they arrived too late or will miss because they are leaving too early.” Collins then confessed, “I couldn’t have written my poem without that word in the background.”

Levine prefaced his reading of “Black Wine” with a personal revelation:
This reading is a kind of experiment and this poem is about the same experiment and the experiment is sobriety. This is the first reading in about seventeen years that I’ve given sober and for that reason will probably be the worst. . . It may work and then I’ll keep doing it.
Listen to Philip Levine read “Black Wine”



Also of interest:
Related LOA works: At The Fights: American Writers on Boxing (includes pieces by Pete Hamill and Joyce Carol Oates); American Religious Poems: An Anthology by Harold Bloom (includes two poems by Philip Levine); Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes an essay by Colson Whitehead)

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