It will be a bittersweet celebration Thursday night at the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South in New York City when the Poetry Society of America awards its highest honor -- The Robert Frost Medal for distinguished lifetime achievement in American poetry -- posthumously to Lucille Clifton. The Frost Medal typically involves a guest lecture on the part of the recipient, but this year the format has been changed to incorporate a tribute to Clifton's life and work featuring several of the leading figures in American poetry.
Clifton -- a Buffalo-area native, National Book Award winner, two time Pulitzer Prize nominee, and the first African-American woman to receive the prestigious Ruth Lily Prize from the Poetry Foundation -- had been selected to receive the award earlier this year, but died on February 13th following complications of emergency surgery. The award to Clifton was to carry special significance as it was intended to mark the centennial celebration of the Poetry Society of America.
In the weeks following her passing, we've read many fine tributes to Clifton's work and career, but two especially worth noting are Elizabeth Alexander's insightful appreciation "Remembering Lucille Clifton" in The New Yorker and fellow former Buffalo area native Kazim Ali's more closely read analysis of the formal aspects of her poetry in Adam and his mother: Lucille Clifton’s Prosodic Line originally published in the little known Barn Owl Review, but soon to be included in Ali's Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence forthcoming from the University of Michigan Press.
The plight of the great Iranian poet Simin Behbahani was the subject of an entire hour of the NPR program On Point with Tom Ashbrook this past Thursday. Three leading Iranian-American literary scholars discussed her work and the implications of her recent arrest in Tehran.
Behbahani -- widely considered the greatest living Persian language poet and a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize in literature -- was detained by Iranian authorities on March 8 at Tehran airport as she prepared to board a flight for Paris to attend an International Women's Day conference. At the conference, Behbahani -- known throughout the Middle East and much of the literary world as the "Lioness of Iran" for her advocacy of Farsi literature and human rights causes -- was scheduled to speak on the rights of women in Iran and other Islamic countries, and read from her poems.
The 82-year-old Behbahani, now reportedly nearly blind, was led away by Iran security officers, who confiscated her passport, interrogated her for several hours and told her she would have to schedule a hearing before the Iranian Revolutionary Court to seek the return of her passport and international travel privileges. She was then released, but has since indicated that she will not agree to appear before the secretive, all-male cleric led Revolutionary Court.
Despite the ongoing recession, Census figures that continue to indicate population losses across the Western New York region, and the widespread perception that book culture is a creative anachronism in an increasingly digitized world, there's something remarkable happening in the Buffalo literary and book arts community that not only defies these trends, but seemingly stands them on their heads.
We offer as exhibit # 1 to anyone skeptical of this claim this week-end's fourth annual Buffalo Small Press Book Fair, a growing local early spring tradition that combines art with commerce, literacy with viral marketing, and the community-at-large with a joyous cacophony of widely disparate voices representing the varieties of book-related expression across Western New York, southern Ontario, the Finger Lakes and Great Lakes regions, and points aesthetically beyond.
According to organizer Chris Fritton, who was one of the co-founders of the book fair in 2007, last year's event featured more than 80 vendors and drew more than 2,000 attendees. Demand for vendor space at this year's fair peaked so early that Fritton sold out all available exhibition space for the event more than three weeks ago. While comparisons with similar events in other (usually much larger) cities in North America are inevitable, there is little doubt that the Buffalo alternative publishing scene thrives on an indigenous, low overhead business model and a do-it-yourself ethos that is sui generis.
The two day event begins tonight (Friday) at 7 p.m. at Western New York Book Arts Collaborative, 468 Washington St. (at Mohawk St.) with a Small Press Poetry Fest featuring a series of readings by what amounts to an all-star cast of small press authors curated by several of the region's leading small press publishers, ranging from Buffalo's "post-avant" BlazeVox Books, Habenicht Press, and House Press to Toronto's Book Thug; from the multi-generational feminism of Earth's Daughters to the experimental poetry & text-based art of Outside Voices Press.
Then tomorrow (Saturday), it's on to book fair itself, running from noon to 6 p.m., once again this year at the Karpeles Manuscript Museum, 453 Porter Avenue (between Normal Ave. and Plymouth Avenue) on Buffalo's West Side. As has been the case since the inception of this community's largest annual celebration of National Small Press Month, admission to the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair and its related events is free and open to the public.
Easy as it would be to sulk around and lament the absence of a local regional playhouse (i.e. Studio Arena Theatre), it might be more gratifying to spend that energy on the hour-long drive to Rochester, where the estimable Geva Theatre is alive and thriving.
Geva, founded in 1972, announced its 2010-11 season last week, which I'll reprint in full after the jump. To round out the rest of the current season, Geva will mount August Wilson's "Two Trains Running" from March 30 to April 25 and the musical "Five Course Love" from May 5 to June 6. It just finished up a run of Arthur Miller's "The Price," which, at least judging by word-of-mouth, was well received.
In 2011, Geva will mount a production of "Over the Tavern," Tom Dudzick's popular play about growing up in Buffalo. It will also feature a production of "Radio Golf," the last piece in Geva's five-year August Wilson retrospective. Check out the full season after the jump.
The following is reprinted from a Geva Theatre press release:
Reverse-engineering the movies has always been a favorite trope of postmodern writing and performance art, but at Wednesday night's "Cinema Cabaret" at Hallwalls, poet-performers from Los Angeles, San Francisco and Buffalo collaborated on new variations seemingly attuned to the current cultural appetite for mash-ups and self-conscious "hybridization" in the arts.
In a news release for the event, Buffalo Poets Theater co-founder David Hadbawnik had described the performances as "live film narration," an "inversion" of traditional filmic production involving use of "Benshi" techniques of oral interpretation adapted from Japan and Korea during the silent film era.
To describe the resulting work as "Neo-Benshi" in its effect is perhaps a bit of an understatement. An observer expecting these performances to incorporate a certain degree of interpretive improvisation might be surprised at how tightly scripted ("pre-written" as one questioner in the post-event Q & A would put it) the performances were, to the point where they asserted their own "authority" over the film footage.
The work of poet Bill Berkson hovers between the directness of idiomatic speech and the formal processes of linguistic abstraction in a way that reminds us of his early ties to Frank O'Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch, James Schuyler and the poets of the first generation of the "New York School," even as it anticipates the postmodern concerns of the "language-centered" and conceptualist poetries that would follow:
You hope the Earth is equitable, Because why else are you here, Fraught with the extra time And sure-fire energy, clear And in the same breath, not.
--"Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently"
Berkson, who will be the featured guest of Just Buffalo Literary Center's "Big Night" event at 8 tonight at Western New York Book Arts Collaborative (468 Washington St., near Mohawk), is the author of 18 books of poetry, the most recent of which are Our Friends Will Pass Among You Silently (Owl Press, 2007), Goods and Services (Blue Press, 2008), and the half century career spanning Portrait and Dream: New & Selected Poems (Coffee House Press, 2009).
The Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and Music Director JoAnn Falletta, above, are turning up the heat down in Florida. The South Florida Classical Review, a site run by former Miami Critic music critic Lawrence A. Johnson, waxed rapturous over the BPO's concert in the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale.
The concert featured the Rachmaninoff Second Symphony, which the BPO played here right before it left town, and Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto, with BPO Concertmaster Michael Ludwig as soloist.
A few excerpts of the review that I liked:
"The orchestra’s rich, full string tone—sounding more Central European than American—is its greatest asset and Falletta exploits it to maximum effect."
"Although the concerto is an overplayed warhorse, Ludwig’s performance was anything but hackneyed. Former associate concertmaster of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Ludwig has glistening tone and technique to burn."
About the Rachmaninoff: "A crisply articulated Allegro molto with plenty of brassy bite brought the orchestra’s strong horn section into the spotlight. In the Adagio, Falletta distilled heart-on-sleeve sentiment, giving the luminous strings full rein with John Fullam’s evocative clarinet solo also shining brightly."
The review closed with some criticism for the acoustics of the venue. It makes you think how spoiled we get with our world-class Kleinhans Music Hall.
The Philharmonic is playing tonight at Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall in Sarasota, Florida, with pianist Fabio Bidini as soloist. The orchestra will be back in town this weekend, unwinding by playing a pops concert Saturday, "Three Broadway Divas."
This Friday, we'll run an interview with Amanda Benzin, an Orchard Park native and member of the prestigious Chicago company Jump Rhythm Jazz Project, which performs Friday night in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts. The company, whose approach is based primarily in rhythm and the emotions that drive it rather than classical technique, has a very cool series of webisodes it produced to mark its 20th anniversary.
Here's a quote from JRJP Artistic Director Billy Siegenfeld to give you an idea of the company's philosophy:
I feel good about this idea that there was a universal language that we could speak and it was built around rhythm, and that that universal language was something that could appeal to not just one kind of dancer, but all kinds of dancers and not just one kind of audience, but all kinds of audiences. Because rhythm is so much at the core of our biology. It's at the core of the way we speak. It's at the core of the way we walk. I was very passionate about finding a system that could both teach that an also use choreographically.
Check out the first one here, or visit the JRJP's library for more.
California-based poet Rae Armantrout and British novelist Hilary Mantel were winners in their respective categories at the New School's Tishman Auditorium on Thursday night in New York City as the National Book Critics Circle announced its winners for the 2009 publishing year.
Armantrout, a poet associated with the West Coast wing of what came to be called "language -centered" poetry in the late 1970s and 1980s won for Versed, her tenth collection of poems published by Wesleyan University Press.
Versed moves toward a deceptively simple, almost lyrical concision, but always in service of probing the dizzying discontinuities in language and thought. In its two long sections "Versed" and "Dark Matter," she writes unsparingly and unsentimentally on the occurrence of cancer (her own) not only as a physical ailment, but also as a crisis of representation for the language of illness, the body and the self. The poet-critic Ron Silliman has described Armantrout's work as "the literature of the vertical anti-lyric, those poems that at first glance appear contained and perhaps even simple, but which upon the slightest examination rapidly provoke a sort of vertigo effect as element after element begins to spin wildly toward more radical (and, often enough, sinister) possibilities.”