Thursday, October 8, 2009

Thursday Night in Williamsburg: Donald Breckenridge, Susan Bernofsky and Lewis Warsh at Spoonbill and Sugartown

On this lovely early October evening, we walked over to Bedford Avenue for a 7:00 p.m. reading at the wonderful Spoonbill and Sugartown, Booksellers. The event featured three top-notch writers: Donald Breckenridge, fiction editor of The Brooklyn Rail; our old friend Susan Bernofsky, an extraordinarily fine translator of an exquisite and under-appreciated major writer, Robert Walser; and Lewis Warsh, now a grand not-so-old man of literature, a brilliant poet whom we last heard read circa 1976.

It was an enjoyable evening. First up was Donald, who is also editor of The Brooklyn Rail Fiction Anthology (Hanging Loose Press, 2006) and co-editor of the Intranslation web site. In addition, he is the author of more than a dozen plays as well as the novella Rockaway Wherein and the novel 6/2/95. His novel This Young Girl Passing is forthcoming from Autonomedia.

He read several passages from his novel You Are Here, about the relationship of various New York couples; the parts Donald read were about one particular couple, Janet and James, from the start of their romance to its inevitable dissolution, set around the time of the 2004 presidential election.

As Bookforum noted, the novel is
very much about New York and its inimitable inhabitants—not the Upper East Side soirees and anecdotal Central Park moments that so entrance filmmakers, aging novelists, and the New Yorker, but Lower East Side bodegas, nighttime baseball games at McCarren Park, and dingy Queens apartments . . . much more than just an exquisite exercise in form.

All tonight's writers were enjoyable to listen to, but for us, the highlight came in the middle of the program with Susan Bernofsky, who, as The Brooklyn Rail said, is "widely considered to be one of the best English translators of German literature today." Perhaps best known for her translations of the great Walser, she's also translated Hesse and other writers, is a terrific fiction writer herself, a brilliant scholar who can write with equal precision grace on the nuances of translation or Donald Duck's German popularity.

We've known Susan since she was a high school student at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts in the early 1980s, when we were a guest in her creative writing class, and we've followed her spectacular career as a scholar, translator, author and teacher, but tonight was the first time we'd seen her since she visited us at our summer apartment on the Upper West Side around 1988. So it was great to see her (afterwards she greeted us by saying we looked just like our Facebook pic).

Susan read a couple of wonderfully quirky passages from her latest Walser translation, The Tanners, which the Village Voice justly called "a contender for Funniest Book of the Year" and Time Out New York selected as a "top pick" for this summer's reading.

She also read from her novel-in-progress, a beautiful passage set in wartime Dresden where the grandmother of one of the book's New Orleans characters is hiding her Jewish identity as she makes her way as an art student. Susan has always been one of the smartest and most productive people we've known; we're looking forward to the full novel as well as her forthcoming biography of Walser.

We've known Lewis Warsh's work since the early 1970s; later in the decade, we were honored to appear in a couple of the same little magazines with him.

Born in 1944 in the Bronx, Lewis is co-founder, with Anne Waldman, of Angel Hair magazine and books, and co-editor, with Bernadette Mayer, of United Artists magazine and books. He is the author of over twenty-five books of poetry, fiction and autobiography, most recently Inseparable: Poems 1995-2005 and the forthcoming A Place in the Sun. He is director of the MFA program in creative writing at Long Island University (a great school where we began our teaching career from 1975 to 1978).

The last reading we saw Lewis at was somewhere in SoHo sometime in the Ford administration. He looks remarkably youthful and his recent poems are as crisply crafted and sparkling as the ones we loved decades ago. No surprise that The Brooklyn Rail, in reviewing Inseparable, wrote:

You can get wonderfully lost in these poems where “We float out past the reef & the rocks.” Present and past commingle, propelling the words into the future. Memories, places, people and experiences are banked. The poet’s steady voice kindles them as he breathes through the lines.

To give you an idea of the pleasures of Lewis Warsh's poetry read aloud, here he is with "Eye Contact":

Thanks to tonight's wonderful readers and to Spoonbill & Sugartown for a great evening.

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