Thursday, August 2, 2007

Wednesday Night at Tompkins Square Park: Ed Park, Lynne Tillman & Lore Segal for 100 issues of BOMB Magazine

This report by Richard Grayson first appeared on Jeff Bryant's blog Syntax of Things (go there for the original links) on Thursday, August 2, 2007:

So it was another Wednesday evening, another park: this time, Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. (These ParkLit events by the way have been sponsored by Open City, so thanks to Thomas Beller and company.) But no "literary death match" this Wednesday; instead, it was a celebration of a magazine I called "venerable" in a post a few days ago: BOMB, which has just published its 100th issue. And it featured readings by eminent or soon-to-be-eminent fiction writers of three different generations, befitting BOMB's role in the literary history of New York City. If BOMB were a building, the Landmarks Commission would make sure it would be standing forever (unless Donald Trump wanted to build on it).

BOMB first appeared in 1981, and while it's very much associated with the period of Lower East Side/East Village ascendancy in its early years -- best documented in Brandon Stosuy's excellent literary history Up Is Up But So Is Down: New York's Downtown Literary Scene, 1974-1992 -- the magazine has remained indispensible as it continues to fulfill its mission of "facilitating conversations between artists of all stripes" and paying close and serious attention to new developments in art and writing, regardless of their commercial appeal.

With the East Village undergoing what appears to be a similar process of gentrification that previously undid Soho (see Richard Kostelanetz's Soho: Rise and Fall of an Artists' Colony), one of the few advantages is that Tompkins Square Park, in the 1980s filled with homeless people and lots of drug addicts (although the spectacle of seeing them gather by the monument to Temperance was pretty funny), is a much more pleasant place to hang out today than it was in the old days, when I avoided it.

The park is filled with people bicycling, strolling, watching their pets at the famous dog run (supposedly one of the best in the world), doing tai chi, hanging out. It's about 87 degrees and humid at 6:30 p.m., the scheduled start for the event. About forty white plastic chairs are set out in front of a microphone and a banner for Park Lit, just in front of one of the park's amazing American elm trees (a rare collection now that Dutch elm disease has decimated most of them in the U.S.).

There's a crowd of about 35 as BOMB's Paul Morris gets the festivities underway, but another 25 or so will join the group as the reading goes on. Paul says it's an appropriate setting for the 100th issue celebration, since the East Village is where the magazine began (it's now headquartered in Fort Greene, Brooklyn).

Nicole Steinberg, whose poetry I enjoyed last Friday evening, joins Paul for the first of a series of re-enactments of the interviews for which BOMB is famous. From its plastic container, they take out a 1978 issue and Paul, as interviewer Craig Golson, questions Nicole, as playwright Christopher Durang (a favorite of mine; I was in the first-night audience at The Marriage of Bette and Boo at the Public Theatre; it contains the classic line: "I don't think God punishes people for specific things; I think He punishes them in general for no reason") about who Chris hates and whether he considers himself whimsical ("I change from day to day.")

Then Paul introduces the first reader, the young dynamo -- founding editor of The Believer, former editor of the Village Voice Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times Book Review's science fiction columnist and presidential adviser Ed Park, whose first novel Personal Days will be published next year by Random House. He's in the 100th issue, copies of which are being given away free this evening.

I've heard some truly great readings from novels which at the time hadn't been published -- at Bread Loaf thirty years ago John Irving's The World According to Garp and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon -- and I can't say if Personal Days will be a classic like those books but I haven't heard one I liked as much as I did Ed's book.

The little episodes --featuring a group of office workers who come to each other cubicles to speculate about co-workers' crushes, give unwanted back rubs, help with unwanted double lines popping up in MS Word documents (if it's your resume, you can't ask the IT people for help, can you?), Googling themselves and ex-lovers ("Every time you feel a tingle in your fingers, someone somewhere is Googling you") -- are insightful, hilarious and authentic. As one character notes, we spend a lot more time with our co-workers than we do with our friends or even with our significant others.

I anticipate reading the novel with pleasure. Its deadpan rhythms and knowing vignettes (you never want to be called into the boss's office to be told you're doing a fantastic job because it's sure to mean a layoff is imminent) remind me of a favorite novel of the 1970s, Renata Adler's Speedboat. As it would for the rest of the evening, the repeated bites on my legs of one or perhaps a series of flying insects didn't deflect my attention, though at the moment I am awaiting early signs of West Nile disease.

Just before Ed is finished, a young man comes through the crowd, handing out leaflets about an upcoming rally at City Hall Park to protest the new city policy on taking public photographs. Okay.

After Ed's reading, Paul and Nicole return to the mic and show us the four different versions of the magazine throughout 26 years. The BOMB I first knew was huge, perhaps even larger than Interview, and it's since gone through various formats. There's a funny re-enactment of a colloquy between Steve Buscemi and Tim Roth about why actors who look like they do often don't get the parts that go to Brad Pitt and then Paul introduces Lynne Tillman.

What can I say about Lynne Tillman? Many of us have idolized for years. Her Madame Realism stories have had a strong influence on me. I was introduced to Lynne and her work by my friend, the 1980s downtown scene writer/performer Peter Cherches, and I've never stopped enjoying reading her fiction, essays and art criticism. It especially gratified me when in this decade I met a number of younger artists and writers, like my friend novelist/filmmaker Brian Pera, who shared my admiration of Lynne.

For anyone unfamiliar with Lynne's groundbreaking work, here's a bio note that doesn't do her justice, compiled by me from various sources:

Lynne Tillman is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, one collection of essays, and two nonfiction books. Lynne’s No Lease on Life was a New York Times Notable Book of 1998 and a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel, American Genius: A Comedy, was published by Soft Skull Press last year. Other novels are Motion Sickness, Haunted Houses and Cast In Doubt. Her work has appeared in many anthologies, including The New Gothic, New York Writes After 9/11, The Show I’ll Never Forget, The Penguin Book of New York Stories, and This Is Not Chick Lit. She’s a professor and writer-in-residence at the University at Albany, and last year she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Once the mic is lowered ("It's pathetic to be so short," Lynne says), she reads an excerpt from American Genius, A Comedy. The narrator is in an institution -- whether it's more like Yaddo or Rockland State, we're not really sure -- and she looks at the cosmetics sitting on the bureau, focusing on her anti-aging creams.

From there we have digressions on and meditations about belief in one's work (the narrator imagines that her Polish cosmetician trusts that her work actually helps her clients), imaginings of the lives of those who serve us, the nature of library solitude, and finally to some of the novel's riffs about American history: how John Winthrop's "City on a Hill" compares with his affectionate and even salacious letters to his wife, reflections on mythology, the songs of the past, Manifest Destiny, Bloody Kansas, the sanity of Mary Todd Lincoln, and more. If we don't wish to memorialize memory, the narrator asks, how do we perform our obligations to it?

-- I fear I am making some of the most exciting prose in recent American fiction sound tendentious by my inadequate description, so just let me say: read this book for yourself. Lynne is always a good reader in public; about a year ago I heard her in Bryant Park, along with other contributors to Elizabeth Merrick's anthology This Is Not Chick Lit, and Lynne's reading was equally powerful.

Before bringing on Lore Segal, Paul and Nicole re-enact part of an interview from issue #68, with Chuck D on the cover, by Albert Mobilio of Robert Altman, who discusses his then-forthcoming film Dr. T and the Women and wistfully says that one genre he hasn't attempted but would like to is a murder mystery. It's nice to know that he did get his wish.

I've known Lore Segal and her work for both kids and the rest of us since the early 1970s. I was introduced to her by my Brooklyn College undergrad and MFA professors Jonathan Baumbach (a continuing inspiration: his most recent book, On the Way to My Father's Funeral, is probably his best) and Peter Spielberg, then co-directors of the Fiction Collective, where I worked as an editorial assistant for several years.

I also helped coordinate a conference at BC -- directed by Jon Baumbach, Jack Gelber and John Ashbery -- called "Literature and Publishing: Can They Co-Exist?" at which Lore Segal was one of the panelists.

But it's her 1976 novel, the woefully underrated Lucinella that made me a Lore Segal fan. It seems to be out of print, but it's the best novel about the 1970s New York literary scene I know. Writing in the New York Times Book Review, John Leonard said of the eponymous character, a poet struggling to find her way, "the nicest person ever to appear in a novel about New York writers, yet she doesn't know it and she is, gently, cracking up."

Her 1985 novel, Her First American, is Segal's masterpiece. While there are some similarities in the backgrounds of the author and the character Ilka Weissnix (see also Other People's Houses), for me the most brilliant creation is Carter Bayoux, the brilliant, self-destructive and unforgettable black intellectual who is the book's hero. The Times Book Review said of Her First American: "Lore Segal might have closer than anyone to writing the Great American Novel."

Check out Han Ong's interview with Lore Segal in BOMB #99 for more. (BOMB's relaunched website will soon include the complete archive of 26 years of its famous interviews.)

After Paul Morris introduces her, Lore Segal comes to the stage, where a chair is placed for her. "There comes a time in life when you get to sit down," she says.

She reads from her new book, a collection of linked stories, most already familiar to her fans who read The New Yorker. It's called Shakespeare's Kitchen, again featuring her "Zuckerman," Ilke, here involved with the petulant and quirky intellectuals she works with at a maddeningly insulated think tank.

The passage is tenderly funny and sad as Ilke tries to connect, via a series of uncomfortable, pathetic phone conversations, with people who friends or friends of friends have claimed might make boon companions in her new isolated Connecticut setting. Segal's ear for dialogue, particularly that in family households -- especially when it's misunderstood by listeners who should know better -- remains as acute as ever.

As she gets up to enthusiastic applause, Segal offers the audience a sentence of advice: "Don't leave New York." When Segal herself was on the faculty of the University of Chicago, she refused to live in that city and commuted from New York. Similarly, Lynne Tillman's been an East Village resident since 1982 (see her novel No Lease on Life for presumed details) -- so I guess she doesn't have to go far to get home now.

But before we go, there's a raffle. Everyone's filled out these slips with their names and e-mails (so they can get on BOMB's mailing list, I guess) and Paul and Nicole pick the winners of five classic issues from the past. Once that's done, the Parks Department and the audience is given thanks, there's more applause, and the evening's over. Of all the events I've had the privilege of telling you about in the past couple of weeks, this is the one I've enjoyed the most.

Thanks very much to all for bearing with me. Thanks again, Jeff; it's been a blast.

(Oh, and as always, full disclosure: BOMB's repeated rejections of my submissions throughout the Reagan administration -- I had better luck with that other downtown-scene magazine, the shorter-lived dot-matrix-printout-in-a-plastic-bag Between C and D -- have perhaps unduly influenced my impressions of BOMB as a publication dedicated to bringing readers the best innovative work available.)

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