Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sunday Night in Wiliamsburg: Sunday Salon with Lara Stapleton, Charles Salzberg, Ebony Noelle Golden & Nancy Agabian at Stain Bar

Dumbo Books HQ has, for the last week, been laid low by a norovirus that's swept through our crew, with five people coming down with it on five successive days.

But on Sunday afternoon, three of us were well enough to enjoy our pad thai and other comfort food at Cheers Thai Restaurant around the corner on Metropolitan Avenue - even if we can only dream in February about its wonderful summer garden.

The pleasures of life without diarrhea, nausea and fever are so large that not even the Comic Book Network's most prescient supervillains, Doctor Doom and the Black Swan, could keep us down.

So tonight we briskly made our way to Stain Bar a few blocks to the southwest for their fabulous Sunday Salon reading series, which we've previously reported on in July 2008.

We've been going to stuff at the cozy, inviting Stain Bar since we read there in May 2007 in the P.E.E.L. Reading Series, and we wrote about the place and its owner, novelist Krista Madsen, in depth when we covered the MiPo Reading Series in July 2007.

Sunday Salon founder Nita Noveno was on her own this evening, thanking us for coming on a winter night when most NYC writers were in even colder Chicago for the AWP convention. (Nobody had told us, but then we only go to Chicago in June.)

Here's some of the first bio note Nita read:

Lara Stapleton was born and raised in East Lansing, Michigan. She also lived in the Philippines as a child, and now New York City is her home. Her 1998 collection The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing (Aunt Lute) was a PEN Open Book Committee Selection and an Independent Bookseller Selection. She co-edited Juncture (Soft Skull 2003) and edited Thirdest World (Factory School 2007). She is a writer of prose, poetry, and screenplays.

Lara teaches at Borough of Manhattan Community College (where the English Department also lets us work as an adjunct) and we've enjoyed her work in the past. Tonight she started with a poem called "Conspiracy Theory" and then a sly one called "The Barmaid Is an Empress" (we think Laura has tended bar in the past). She reads fast, not in the dull, pretentious way poets used to (some still do). We especially liked an image involving Shakespeare with flying spit.

But we were more fascinated by Lara's excerpts from a story - we didn't quite catch the title - that perhaps was somewhat autobiographical. Siblings Antonio and Violet are in high school in Lansing in 1980 but they're very different, with Violet headed for Brown and Antonio for God-knows-what. The episodes hung together even if they were only excerpts, and we'd like to read the story when it's done and published.

Up next was Charles Salzberg, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in New York magazine, GQ, Esquire, Elle, New York Times Arts and Leisure, and the New York Times Book Review.

Charles is a prolific author of over 20 non-fiction books, including From Set Shot To Slam Dunk, An Oral History of the NBA. He also teaches writing at and is a founding member of the New York Writers Workshop, and The Writer's Voice. Introducing him, Nina said that the only time Charles comes to Brooklyn is when he's invited to read at the Sunday Salon.

He read from his most recent novel is Swann's Last Song. Rather than the first chapter, Charles read from the second. The novel's narrator and protagonist Henry Swann is a skip-tracer in East Harlem, and he's been hired for something more lucrative than usual; a wealthy woman wants to find her missing husband.

The gritty, compelling narrative in this mystery's second chapter takes us on Swann's way from a Puerto Rican bar, the Paradise (it's the kind of place that brags about its failed Board of Health inspections), across from Henry's office, to the precinct house, where a nasty piece of work, Detective John Kelly, plays a kind of cat-and-mouse game with Henry regarding a hotel room murder. The book sounds like it moves fast, kind of like Mickey Spillane with a college education.

The next reader was the redoubtable and charming Ebony Noelle Golden, a native of Houston with both an MFA in Poetry from American University and a MA in Performance Studies from NYU. Ebony has been awarded grants from the Atlantic Center for the Arts, Fund for Southern Communities, North Carolina A & T University and New York University. She has been published by Black Issues and Books Review, American Book Review, Obsidian, Pluck, and Third World Press.

Her current projects include Gumbo Ya/Ya or This is Why We Speak in Tongues, Images: for Younger SiStars, The Community Writing Intensive, i hear you breathing for me/ an embodied blues for meagan williams (multi-media performance) and again, the water carriers (a full length book of poetry), which Ebony read from tonight.

You could tell immediately that Ebony's a teacher; she made her reading interactive in a way rarely seen these days, starting off by asking people about their first memories (some of the things people called out were "riding Hot Wheels," "first ballet contest" and "eating mothballs") and proceeded into a prose performance.

And after reading a bit, Ebony asked questions - jokingly (we hope), she said, to make sure we were paying attention. She wanted some feedback about her imagery in the poetic narrative taking place in the rural South from a child's point of view.

We'd never seen before a reader ask after she read a bit, "So what resonated with you? Anything? What do you have questions about" At first there seemed to be an uncomfortable silence, but then some people offered some tentative images, like the wind being caught in someone's knees.

It ended up to be an interesting give and take, though it brought us back to our own writing workshops as teacher and student. As Ebony said, mischeviously speaking of herself in the third person, "What is she asking us stuff for? She's supposed to read for a while and sit down!" It was a very real moment at a time when lots of literary readings seem passive and perfunctory. We look forward to seeing Noelle's book.

The final reader of this Sunday Salon was Nancy Agabian , the author of Me as her again (Aunt Lute Books) a memoir on her Armenian identity and the history of her Armenian American family, and Princess Freak (Beyond Baroque Books, 2000), a collection of autobiographical, coming-of-age poems, stories and performance art texts. Her writing has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals, including Birthmark: A Bilingual Anthology of Armenian-American Poetry, Hers 2: Brilliant New Fiction from Lesbian Writers, and KGB BarLit.

From 1997-2000, Agabian - that's what we call her - collaborated with Ann Perich as the folk-punk duo Guitar Boy, writing and singing lyrics that skewered pop culture and the art world; they released a CD in 2000 entitled Freaks like me. A Fulbright scholar to Armenia for 2006-07, she is a tri-author of the experimental book (An)daratsutian Mej, or In the (Un)Space, with writers Shushan Avagyan and Lara Aharonian.

In 2002, she founded Gartal, an Armenian literary reading series at the Cornelia Street Cafe in Greenwich Village. She lives in New York and teaches writing at CUNY and NYU. Did we mention that we worship the sidewalks Nancy walks on.

Her reading begin by setting the scene: she's 24, in L.A., far from her family in suburban Boston, taking a workshop at Venice's Beyond Baroque Foundation (Beyond Baroque published several of our stories in the mid-1970s and we were relieved to learn recently that this endangered 40yo Southern California treasure is now safe in its quirky, wonderful home for another quarter-century). It's the frame for her reading of chapter three of Me as her again (the title is a pun in Armenian).

Beginning with the story of Wonder Woman from the Lynda Carter TV series - pre-teen Nancy is clearly enthralled by the boobalicious Amazon - the narrative takes our dutiful Armenian immigrant daughter from her role as a subordinate friend to two blonde, bubbly girls (they don't have mustaches) who steal her seashell collection (they at least later feel guilty and admit their crime) to her almost accidental leadership of a suburban triad with two younger girls.

There's danger here, on a tween level anyway, as Nancy excites her friends by becoming the giver of fire (she builds a kind of fort in the woods where she lights matches and the hypnotized girls watch the flames) and there's an initiation into more forbidden and exciting stuff as she and a younger girl play Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor, eventually getting around to the good stuff: kissing.

There wasn't an unsure move in Nancy's narrative, and her reading made us want to go right to a bookstore as the reading at Stain Bar ended and order her audacious memoir right away. But it was a cold Sunday night and so we just bundled up and walked across Grand Street and down Leonard Street instead, doing our ordering online at the cozy Dumbo Books HQ.

Thanks to Sunday Salon, Stain Bar and tonight's readers for putting some warmth into a bleak winter.

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