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We gathered in a theater looking into the center well of the glassy NYTimes building; the stage was backed by green grass and a white birch forest.

A.L. Scott was an excellent moderator who seemed to enjoy the jousting of these three luminaries. In discussing their Times essays of April 29th on the future of America, they had agreed that Atwood’s was the silliest, involving the views of visiting Martians. In fact, to me this group all seemed to be visiting from their special planets in our literary stratosphere, favoring us with their god-like views.

In discussing their essays, the group moved on to the great American novel. Atwood and Doctorow disagreed about Moby Dick. He felt it could not be merely, or at all, about oil and money, as she viewed it. Amis leaped forward to The Adventures of Augie March as the great American novel. Doctorow and Atwood reached back farther to Twain, and Poe (the latter as the greatest bad writer.)

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This extremely crowded event in a small room of Deutsches Haus in Washington Mews could certainly have been held in a larger venue, but was riveting to those who managed to squeeze in the doors.

The dramatic-looking Müller, who in her photos can resemble a Japanese noh actor, revealed her personal side as an impassioned partisan of language and truth.

The Nobel speech, which she read, is posted on the Deutsches Haus website and I believe a video will be also. Though she made intellectual points, the thoughts were grounded in imagery which dramatized her stories.

When we arrived, the words on the screen were:

When we don’t speak,/we become unbearable,/and when we do,/we make fools of ourselves./ Can literature bear witness?

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This was a mystifying event. In the enormous atrium of NYU’s Bobst Library, we gathered under purple banners to find that our venue was the side of the lobby and some stacks in which we were to wander. So far, so good. We like books and libraries. But when the mash-up began, the questions started to form. What was going on? My companion said it was exactly like a cocktail party at which you know no one and overhear random bursts of talk.

Actors strode among us, their lines scrolling on ipods taped inside “books.” The three books colliding here were The Sun Also Rises, The Great Gatsby, and The Sound and the Fury. (The Elevator Repair Service is well-known for their staging of Gatz.)

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One thing I really missed at this year’s Festival (wonderful though it was) is the empty chair. In past years, at every event a chair was placed for the writers who could not be with us for various reasons. We thought especially of those imprisoned or not allowed to travel. Some of us thought of the dead. Moderators and speakers often made moving statements involving the empty chair. At the half-dozen events I attended, the chair was nowhere to be found. Please bring back the empty chair!

 - Judith Benét Richardson

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Seven on Seven: Bravery in Poetry

This star-studded panel presented some of their favorite poets to an appreciative audience on Wednesday evening at the New School. Alice Quinn introduced them as “all log-rollers,” and beamed through the readings like a benevolent deity.

Mary Karr introduced us to the “bitter wisdom” of Zbigniew Herbert, sometimes in the voice of his Mr. Cogito. Her compelling voice matched the fierceness of Herbert’s words.

Paul Auster spoke movingly of his friend George Oppen. Auster’s descriptive talents gave us a vivid picture of the poet at home in San Francisco, wearing a funny coat on a walk and putting only his pipe in a gym locker before exercising. Auster keeps a tiny etching of canaries by Oppen’s wife as a talisman of this poet’s humble songs. Humble he may have been, but politically brave and exiled in Mexico during the McCarthy years.

Yusuf Komunyakaa chose Muriel Ruykeyser, whom he wishes he could have known. He admires her “lack of hesitation” as a young woman; she went to West Virginia to write of the miners and the alternate Olympics in Italy in 1937. She seemed determined to learn of “the other,” and was drawn to folk lore, jazz and blues. Komunyakaa gave a powerful reading of her incantatory poem, each line beginning with “For that….”

Henri Cole, speaking of James Merrill, evoked other kinds of bravery. There can be great bravery in silence, Cole said. He sees Merrill as a visionary like Blake and Yeats, and his reading of “The Christmas Tree,” gave us a feel for Merrill’s vision and the courage.

Beautiful photos of some of these poets when they were young were projected on the screen behind the speakers. Who knew Joseph Brodsky was so handsome? Edward Hirsch gave a little history of the school dropout, the many languages, the “nostalgia for world culture,” the trial as “parasite Brodsky,” the tragedy of his emigration. But somehow, as with the other poets, the readings were so filled with life and power that it was hard to feel tragic.

When Eleen Myles read from Akilah Oliver’s poems, her own joy in reading them uplifted the audience.

Hilton Als read from Brenda O’Shaugnessy’s book INTERIOR WITH SUDDEN JOY and described poetry as “a burst of joy in an enclosed room.” He was a charming reader and interjected a bit of his own life story into “I Wish I Had More Sisters,” which is a daring thing to do, but in his case worked out just fine.

It was a wonderful evening - hearing such passion in the voices of these writers when they spoke of those who inspired or consoled them and listening to some great poems, reminded many of us what we really care about, and why PEN is so important.

(via judithbenetrichardson)