Friday, November 17, 2017

Pen Parentis Gift Bags Spark Lit World Controversy

Michael Greenberg at the Mic

Date: November 14, 2017
Authors: Michael Greenberg, Joanne Jacobson and Diana Geffner-Ventura
Venue: Andaz Hotel, Wall Street
Free Drinks: yes (self-serve white wine, red  wine)
Q & A - yes
Book signed - no
UE Check Number – benefits over 

The only thing I can find to complain about at last night’s Pen Parentis reading at the Andaz Wall Street Hotel that featured memoirists Michael Greenberg, Joanne Jacobsen and Diana Geffner-Ventura was that there was no chance of being electrocuted at it.
As the proprietor of New York City’s only readings blog that tells authors when they have droned on too long, I’ve learned to dismiss concerns about my physical well-being. I’ve come to enjoy the frisson of danger that often pops up on my daring expeditions into the far-flung corners of Brooklyn to attend readings.

But I didn’t need that bravado last night. Pen Parentis is a reading series and networking organization for parents who write. Founder M.M. De Voe moderated the reading at the posh hotel at the corner of Wall and Water streets. The lighting was subtle, the furnishings were tasteful, and it was, overall, a classy place.
This made the Pen Parentis event a different experience from the reading I went to in the basement of Unnameable Books in the Prospect Heights neighborhood of the city’s primary literary borough, Brooklyn. There were puddles on the floor and a lot of wires hanging out of the wall, some of them nearly touching the puddles.

So it was an adjustment to attend an event in such a sophisticated setting. It reminded me of the time I went to the Russian Tea Room though the Andaz management didn’t supply me with a jacket.
The evening’s theme was Health Matters and it was a consideration of how illnesses affect creative careers.

Greenberg read from his book about his daughter’s mental illness “Hurry Down Sunshine.” Geffner-Ventura’s material was about dealing with her husband’s brain cancer, while Jacobson’s presentation was the only one about becoming sick herself.
All three readings were well-received. In the discussion that followed, the authors were asked if they felt the grimness of their material might limit its audience. But they agreed that the universality of such afflictions compensated for its potentially depressing subject matter.

Greenberg said that he wrote “Hurry Down Sunshine” because there weren’t any other books that discussed the exact sequence of events he and his family went through.
Jacobson, the author of the memoir “Hunger Artist: A Suburban Childhood,” talked about how she was set to help her mother deal with aging and sickness, but was surprised to find herself confronted with her own mortality when she got sick.

Gefffner-Ventura’s selection described what happened when she tried to take a break from her everyday attendance at her husband’s bedside, only to have to run back to the city to deal with a crisis in his care.
One of the points that came up in the discussion after the authors read, skillfully moderated by De Voe, was about how great it is that with social media everybody who wants an audience can have one. Maybe I’m just bitter because I’ve been stuck at thirty-nine followers on Twitter for so long, but I noticed that Jacobson and Greenberg, the two most established writers on the program agreed that this was the case. I don’t recall Geffner-Ventura, the less established writer presenting at the salon, agreeing with this sentiment.

I don’t mean to speak for her, but for myself, I don’t think this is true. If you want to publish literary fiction or perhaps get anybody to read your memoir, you can tweet all you want, start a blog about your adventures going to readings and Snapchat your butt off, but I don’t think it will necessarily get you into the cool kids’ table in the cafeteria.
The other thing is that Twitter has rotted my brain, but that’s a topic for another post.

As Doubleday’s senior editor Gerry Howard said in a piece he wrote for the Millions, there aren’t too many manuscripts that arrive unannounced and make a dent in the industry.
“Over the past 70 years there has arisen, for reasons too complex to unpack here, an increasingly widespread and professionalized creative-writing industry, and just as the major college athletic programs groom and showcase top-tier talent for drafting by the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, so do the MFA programs groom and showcase top-tier literary talent for the New York publishing houses. There are these days about as many uncredentialled walk-ons in our literary fiction as there are walk-ons in major league baseball.”

Here Howard is talking about fiction, but I wonder if the same thing isn’t true for memoirs. I’d add that you need something more than social media to attract attention. Maybe it doesn’t have to come from an MFA program, but how important was Cheryl Stayed’s Rumpus column to the launching of her successful memoir “Wild?”

Since I liked the Pen Parentis event so much, I’m going to try to use it as the jumping off point for the next big lit world mystery to replace the question of who the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante is, now that she’s been outed. The new burning question should be, what are the contents of the gift bags authors receive at Pen Parentis salons?

I’d never been to a reading where the authors get gift bags before. I think the idea is you get to sell some books and you should be happy with that. But Pen Parentis honcho De Voe says “My gift bags are a closely guarded secret! We started the practice because I didn’t think it was fair that authors—who frankly work years to get where they are—usually get treated like marketing tools instead of like celebrities.” 

It’s possible the authors have been sworn to silence because I’ve never heard any alums of the Pen Parentis readings like Darin Strauss or Jennifer Egan mention what their gift bags contained. Maybe these writers are hiding the value of the gifts from the IRS. C’mon, Darin, what’d you get?

But getting back to the contribution Pen Parentis and groups like it make to the city’s cultural scene, it is a noble goal to foster reading and support those readers who are writers in various stages of their careers.

When it comes to creating these communities of writers, it doesn’t really matter what the organizing principle is. For Pen Parentis, it is parents who write though you don’t have to be a parent to participate. Other groups like the identically initialed IAWA groups, that is, the Irish-American and the Italian-American writers’ organizations, also create this kind of network. So does the HIP Lit group in Bushwick (see post below w/ the good picture and witty caption).
I’m grateful to be a member of one of the IAWAs and that Pen Parentis does the work it does. It’s worth the outer borough physical risks and facing agonizing choices like whether to go with the free red wine or the free white wine at luxury hotels on Wall Street to participate in these communities.

MFA or NYC? - Post-Mortem MFA To Have Scribes Knock Knock Knocking at Gate of Heaven

Date: October 14, 2017
Authors: myself, others 
Venue: Cell Theatre
Free Drinks:
Q & A: no 
Book signed - no
UE Check Number – benefits over 

Gate of Heaven Mortuary Services Inc. and the Writers’ Institute at CUNY are proud to offer the first graduate-level writing degree combined with long-term, high residency internment.

The Gate of Heaven-Writers Institute MFA (post-mortem) program constitutes an intimate creative apprenticeship that extends beyond traditional classroom and burial options.

Even writers who have enrolled in traditional MFA programs in New York have found that academic demands and late-night drinking sessions after readings have been hard to balance.

Now, for the first time, writers at all stages of their careers upon croaking will be able to take advantage of New York’s multifaceted literary community and networking opportunities.

Our campus is a paradise under and above the earth. The views of the Metro North train station and the surrounding Westchester suburbs are breathtaking. To be dead in this environment in what amounts to a lovely, private work station is simply a unique and memorable privilege.

Our jewel-like setting is close enough for your biographers to visit, but far enough, 15 miles, from the bustle of the city so consultations with your Muse will be undisturbed.

With our unique holistic approach, the Gate of Heaven – Writers’ Institute MFA (post-mortem) will offer an on-going, intensive reconsideration of your career up to the point of your death with yearly certificates of completion and priceless insights that belie commonly held notions that death need be the end of your writing career.

Like an anthology that uses a few big-name writers to attract readers, our logistics team will see that your final resting place will be curated so you can benefit from foot traffic that comes and goes from better-known writers’ graves.

Gate of Heaven’s 178-acre campus with its rich cultural history and literary attractions provides a four-season opportunity for students to learn the art and craft of being dead while faculty members, other staff and administrators endeavor to keep their work alive.

We guarantee that by enrollment in our MFA program, writers will be able to fulfill every artist’s obligation to their work to ensure its continued relevancy. Prior to our program, it wasn’t uncommon for deceased writers to find their work out of style and forgotten by readers and critics.

In fact, we expect to announce a deal with the New York Review of Books classics reissue program, which will reward students who complete our program with re-publication in the series.

While enrolled, students will participate in a calm community engaged in all aspects of decay, putrification and nasty gas production guided by workshops, craft talks, manuscript consultations, lectures and anniversary graveside memorial ceremonies if on-site staff are available or if we can get anybody else to come.

Degree requirements in the program stipulate that students complete five, year-long residencies and submit a Masters Thesis related to their personal impact on the grave-site environment that is the equivalent of 75 pages of fiction or 25 pages of poetry. Grass quality and nearby shrub growth will be among the metrics used in evaluating the Masters Thesis. It also requires the approval of the student’s faculty advisor, the program director and the head groundskeeper. 

Gate of Heaven – CUNY Writers’ Institute MFA Post-Mortem Year Abroad

Qualified students may apply for a competitive slot in our Post-Mortem Reburial Abroad option. In collaboration with the Cimetiere Montparnasse in Paris, we are pleased to offer a select group of our students, not only a two-semester interment in this famous cemetery, but also a funeral service that is based on Susan Sontag’s noted ceremony there.

Yes, the whole package including someone playing the Debussy Flute Sonata “Sphinx” and mourners who are members of the Académie Francaise or passers-by is exclusively available to Gate of Heaven – Writers’ Institute MFA (post-mortem) participants.

Please note that the other famous Parisian burial ground, Pere Lachaise, with its tacky Jim Morrison grave attracts only low-brow tourists who wouldn’t know the Times Literary Supplement if they tripped over a pile of them. Despite its recently announced reburial abroad deal with the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, we are confident that writers will eschew this down-market option. By the way, good luck getting visitors to your grave if its home site is in Nowheresville City, Iowa.

Prospective student comment: “I’ve been to all the writing “spas.” McDowell in New Hampshire, Yaddo in upstate New York and a couple of the Italian ones and none of them will hold a mortuary candle to what Gate of Heaven is offering.”

Prospective student comment: “Even if we could, I can’t imagine any writer not completing their degree, dropping out or transferring to another school, once they’ve experienced the Gate of Heaven program.”





Friday, April 28, 2017

Gerard and Febos Sparkle, Caldwell MIA, BookCourt Closing Bad Vibes

Date: April 20, 2017
Venue: Pete’s Candy Store
Authors: Melissa Febos, Chole Caldwell, Sarah Gerard
Lit Celebs Present: Molly Prentiss
Free Drinks: Yes, I got there before the register opened
Drone-On-Meter : negative
UE check : N/A
It took me forever to write this because I’d planned to mash up a million things. At first, I was going to lead with the brilliant memoirist Chole Caldwell not showing up for her second straight booking in the Pete’s Candy Store Thursday night reading series.
But then I thought that since the other two writers on the bill, Sarah Gerard and Melissa Febos, gave such great performances, why not concentrate on that?
So, yeah, someday Caldwell will be booked again for the Pete’s Thursday reading and she’ll probably show up. Why make myself sound like a jerk complaining about how I rode my bike over the Willy B Bridge twice to hear her with no success?
Before the event started, co-curator Jill Capewell was talking to the sound guy as they were setting up the audio and he said, “Our microphones don’t use any hormones.” Sound guys are the coolest. Jill is no slouch, either. She not only helped set up the sound, she showed co-curator Brian Gresko how to adjust the microphone.

Brian gave a nice intro about how we may be living in a golden age of memoir. He said that the form is being used in new ways and that the two writers reading that night are examples of this blossoming.
I sat next to Schlmo from Seattle. He's a copywriter who might start writing non fiction. We had a nice chat, which is an example of the admirably high congeniality factor that you get at Pete's. It's not one of those reading venues who nobody talks to anybody and just files out like robots when the reading is over.

I tried out my joke with him about how, since I’m so much older than anyone at these readings, if only I took the trouble to dress better and didn’t talk to anyone, people might think I was someone important, a sort of Jonathan Galassi trolling the Brooklyn writing scene. I love the image of FSG head Galassi going to a reading deeper into the borough than Pete’s, say in the basement of Unnamable Books, to visit one of the Manhattanville readings.

I think Schlmo laughed. I've had to retire the "I'm the Harry Dean Stanton of" joke cause nobody knows who the actor is.
The first reader was Sarah Gerard, touring and giving a lot of readings, in support of her new book “Sunshine State.” She said that parts of the book are memoirs, but that it includes other forms including poetry. One passage she read at Pete’s was addressed to a lover or former lover with whom she got complementary hip tattoos. She skipped around in the book and all the selections sounded good.
Melissa Febos read from her second book “Abandon Me.” She mentioned that before a reading in Portland, she and a friend set up a classification system for audiences in which they are either “hickeys” or “criers,” depending on whether they respond to the hickeys or the crying sections in the book.
She pegged those of us in the Pete’s audience as criers and read a section of the book that would appeal to us. Some of the passages she read were lyrical and touching and just as a reading is supposed to do, her performance at Pete’s insured that I’m going to read “Abandon Me.”
In other readings news, somebody told me the closing of the Cobble Hill bookstore “BookCourt” pissed off a lot of authors and publicists because there was no advance notice. The closing of the store last December resulted in a lot of cancelled events early this year.
It’s always a terrible, terrible thing when an independent bookstore closes. Importance of presenting alternate voices, loss to the community, and they’re easier to shoplift from.

One of the blurbs on the Pete's web site says it is the KGB of Brooklyn. While that is true as far as it goes, it overlooks the central role of Lou, KGB's superb bartender, in the LES bar's event schedule. For a readings venue to really rock you need a bartender who has just finished all of "Remembrance of Things Past." But keep trying, Pete's Candy Store, curators Brian and Jill are running a great series even without their version of the sublime Lou.  

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Smitten With Jimmy Breslin


Date: April 22, 2008
Venue: McNally Jackson Books
Author: Jimmy Breslin
Lit Celebs Present: Ronnie Eldridge, spouse, host of public access TV show
Free Drinks: No
Drone-On-Meter : negative
UE check collect: #276534

I was new in the Bergen Record’s Wayne, N.J. newsroom in 1988. A part-timer working nights, covering meetings mostly, I wrote my stories at the day shift reporters’ desks.

Some nights I landed at Jim Dao’s desk and I briefly registered that it was a shrine to Jimmy Breslin. No votive candles, just Breslin’s books strewn around in the causal disorder that characterized the bureau.

Working on deadline at 10 or 11 pm, trying to parse the details of the Butler Planning Board meeting I’d just attended, I didn’t give Dao’s décor much notice except that as I struggled to sort out which commissioner had said what in my reporter’s notebook, I felt that I was in the right place, doing the right grunt work, and this dayside guy got it too.

A few years later, I’d gone to journalism school and come back to the city to keep working as a reporter, our trade at which Jimmy was the best. I was working for the Chemical Marketing Reporter, writing about price increases in polyethylene.

There was a young guy from Douglaston covering some other kind of chemical. Because he also wrote for a weekly in Queens, he’d somehow wrangled a meeting with Breslin. They had breakfast at a dinner on the Upper West Side. He told me Breslin gave him a lot of advice and that his table manners weren’t the greatest.

My chemical reporting colleague was lucky to score his one on one with Jimmy but like Jim Dao at the Record and so many other reporters, we are all Jimmy’s acolytes. Maybe we couldn’t all be Jimmy, but we could try. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one faced with the problem of finding my own Marvin the Torch or Klein the Lawyer and sticking him into a story about the ’94 autumn increase in polyethylene prices.

To put it mildly, the newspaper business has changed since Jimmy got his start at the Long Island Press. I got caned at a corporate finance magazine in that recession thing of ’08. Even as I suffered the indignity of having to buy my reporter’s notebooks at the Columbia University bookstore, it was still Jimmy’s voice I wanted to emulate.

And even on the mundane topic of where to get your notebooks, the Master had some advice to the rest of us. I remember him being quoted someplace saying that whenever the paper he was working at was about to fold, or he was jumping to another outlet, he made a point of loading up on notebooks from the stockroom of his soon to be former employer.

After I got fired, I started going to a lot of literary readings. Eventually, I figured out that this was my new beat. I try to write for my little-read blog, “In the Front Row, On the Dole,”  with the same Breslin voice, Breslin values, that all of us Irish-American columnists employ. In fact, a masterpiece like Jim Dwyer’s story about 9/11 and Inwood must have been inspired by Jimmy.

When Jimmy’s book, “The Good Rat,’ came out, he gave a reading at the McNally Jackson bookstore on Prince Street in Soho back in 2008.

When my hero popped up on my beat, of course I showed up to review his reading. That’s what my stupid blog is all about. While I don’t have a Marvin the Torch, I do have a Lou the Bartender. He works at the KGB bar where there’s a reading most nights. Lou told me he can tell when a reading is going to have an older audience because he gets all these calls about how steep and how long the stairs are.

Jimmy’s crowd that night at the bookstore on Prince Street might have had trouble with the bar’s stairs, but they turned out in force for his street-level gig.  Half the small audience seemed to go back decades with him. He read an excerpt from the book and then sat around talking to his fans. I knew this was my moment to talk to my hero, to get a quote for my blog, which although it is missing a classified section, a sports section and a lot of other sections, is informed by the work of our Master, this guy from Ozone Park.

I approached my hero and knowing that cheeky was preferable to solicitous, asked him, “If you’re such a big deal writer, how come it’s your wife that has the TV show? He laughed and said, “That’s a good question.”

Podcasts may blossom, papers will continue to fold. Reporters may have switched from the bar to the gym, a development that he lamented. But we will never touch a keyboard without trying to match you, Jimmy.