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Kelleher's not-so 'Aimless Reading' made for many Big Nights

Tonight's Just Buffalo BIG NIGHT event features readings by poets Joel Lewis and Ryan Eckes, music by the five-piece Buffalo-based rock band The Mordaunt Sisters, and the food creations of gourmet chef and BlazeVOX Books publisher Geoffrey Gatza.  The festivities start at 8 p.m. at the Western New York Book Arts Center, 468 Washington St. (near Mohawk St.).   Admission is  $5, $4 for students, Just Buffalo members, and members of its affiliate organizations.

Lewis, a New Jersey native and literary anthologist, has taught creative writing at the Poetry Project, The Writer’s Voice and Rutgers University.  He is the author of “House Rent Boogie” (1992), “Vertical’s Currency” (1999), “Learning From New Jersey” (2007), and the forthcoming “Surrender When Leaving Coach” (Hanging Loose Press).  Eckes, a Philadelphia native, is the author of “Old News” (Furniture Press, 2011) and “When I Come Here (Plan B Press, 2007).

The program will be preceded, at 7:30 p.m., by a special farewell to Just Buffalo Artistic Director Michael Kelleher, who has accepted a new position at Yale University where he will become Program Director of the Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes, one of the most significant new series of literary awards to be established in the United States in recent decades.  The Windham-Campbell Literature Prizes will award seven to nine $150,000 prizes annually, in fiction and non-fiction categories, beginning in 2013.

Kelleher's 14 years with Just Buffalo Literary Center--at first as program director, and subsequently, for the past dozen years as Artistic Director--have elevated the organization and the entire Buffalo area literary community to unprecedented levels of visibility and support on the national, and even international literary scene.

While many of us who've tried our hands as literary programmers over the years in Buffalo may have thought that the audience for literature here was sizable and sophisticated enough to sustain a regular series of appearances by world-class authors, it was Kelleher and Just Buffalo Executive Director Laurie Torrell who did the heavy lifting necessary to make the BABEL SERIES the enormous contribution to intellectual life of this community that it has become over the past five years.

Also to Kelleher's credit is the too-little-noted fact that BABEL has not simply been a "great authors" series, but rather, that it has pursued a consistent theme: namely, America's unfamiliarity with many of the cultural issues outside our own borders, including post-colonialism and its legacy, globalisation and its consequences, and the attempt of contemporary English language literature to address the individual and societal challenges facing us in the 21st century.  Quite apart from his skills as series host and as a live interviewer, where he has succeeding in engaging even notoriously irascible Nobel Prize winning authors in surprisingly candid and revealing exchanges, Kelleher's greatest achievement may have been helping to make this mid-sized, Rust Belt city and its readers viable participants in the conversation that is world literature.

Kelleher's other laudable programming coup has been the series he hosts for the last time tonight.  Now in its third season, BIG NIGHT is at once both a showcase for important new trends and voices in contemporary writing and poetics, and an interdisciplinary event that always incorporates some additional elements of music, performance or media art.  Its real secret, however, is that it is as much a social event as it is a literary one, and is, in that sense, a throwback to the early days of Just Buffalo and the literary scene here in the 1960's and 70's, when every reading eventually evolved into a party, and every party featured an impromptu reading.  Kelleher, a cinephile whose own writing frequently includes film references, opened the first installment of the series in September of 2009 wearing a tuxedo--a homage to the character played by Stanley Tucci in the movie "Big Night"--and his stewardship of the monthly series (with the capable assistance of Aaron Lowinger) has been as refreshing an addition to the area cultural mix as it has been a triumph of his curatorial savvy and wit.

One of the more intriguing projects Kelleher has worked on in his own writing in recent years is his  Pearlblossom Highway blog, particularly the series of postings he began in December of 2008 under the facetious title "Aimless Reading".  Basically, the premise of the series is that Kelleher, having recently moved, is unpacking, archiving, and shelving his substantial personal library in his new apartment.  "I need a new project to help me produce blog entries, and this is it," he writes in the first posting, "I am going to photograph all of the books in my recently unpacked library, in alphabetical order, by last name of author, as they are mostly organized on my shelves, with brief entries on each."

What follows from this seemingly modest premise unfolds in daily or near-daily installments as a kind of Borgesian project--quite literally, The Library of The BABEL Series, and them some--in which Kelleher photographs the cover of each book (usually obscuring his own face in the process), describes the circumstances under which he obtained it, his relationship to the author and/or, in the case of a classic, the course and teacher or professor with whom he studied it.  Each entry concludes with a brief excerpt--usually 250 words or less--from the book.

Nearly all of these entries have a certain anecdotal quality, and many of them plunge headlong into a kind of personal narrative: Kelleher writing about his youth, his education, even aspects of his current life in terms of the books he has acquired and read.  Occasionally, as in this past week's entry on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, we catch a glimpse of what his life was like as teen-ager, how a single book can sometimes speak uniquely to an individual reader, changing his or her life utterly.

As a reader about a decade and a half older than Kelleher, but someone with a similar educational background, literary tastes and many of the same  books (though mine are organized "totemically" rather than alphabetically), I found myself following "Aimless Reading" closely and occasionally commenting on it. It took me about six months, however, to figure out that what this project was actually about was not the books per se, but rather, Kelleher's identity as a reader.  

Without the formality of constructing an "auto-biographical subject"--surely the most problematic aspect of mainstream memoir writing--Kelleher has discovered a way of telling the story on his own "languaged self" in a way that connects his writing directly with us as fellow readers.  It is that penchant for the prerogatives of the "languaged self," quite apart from literature's traditional sources of "power" or "authority" that has been the hallmark of Kelleher's work here in Buffalo.

As he, his wife Lori Desormeau, and their lovely baby daughter Emily prepare for their new life together in New Haven, we wish them the best and trust that the contribution they will make to their new community will be as substantial and lasting as the one they made here.

--R.D. Pohl

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