nces later, Dove has undeniably carved out her place in the contemporary American canon of literature.
Her work straddles the ever-shifting lines of personal and collective histories, of private and public stories. This is a poet who earned a Pulitzer in 1986 for Thomas and Beulah, a collection of poetry that interweaves the lives of her grandparents with the greater history of African Americans in the United States. This is a poet whose latest work, Sonata Mulattica, gives voice to George Augustus Polgreen Bridgewater, previously just a footnote in Beethoven’s biography, a black violinist who had a sonata dedicated to him and then renamed. In this groundbreaking book, Dove creates his story and thus captures a lost history of African Americans in classical music.
A classically trained cellist herself, Dove explains “there’s always been a special place in my work for people who drop out of history.” An interest in Bridgewater grew into a book about his world, an arching narrative of poems with a complete cast of characters. “I lived with my scribbled pages and file folders, with classical music blasting and period illustrations plastered all over the walls of my study. And I was in love with poetry again…as I was in my budding years as a writer,” Dove says.
Critics hail Dove for her musicality, for her passionate storytelling, for her technical deftness and unquestioned skill with language and form. “In her locating of the self, the family, and the ethnic and social group within a historical framework,” a biographer writes, “…She has brought African American history into the mainstream of American poetry.”
Other books include On the Bus with Rosa Parks, Mother Love, and American Smooth. Her verse play The Darker Face of the Earth premiered at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 1986. She was named Poet Laureate in 1993, the youngest person to hold the position and the second African American. She spent her two terms as Poet Laureate encouraging the American public to engage with poetry, giving readings across the country and appearing on Sesame Street beside Big Bird. In 2008 she was honored with the Library of Virginia Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2011, she edited The Penguin Anthology of 20th Century American Poetry.
She is also an accomplished singer, ballroom dancer, and holds over 20 honorary doctorates from American universities. She is currently a chancellor of the Academy of American poets, sits on several advisory boards, and is the Commonwealth Professor of Poetry at the University of Virginia. She lives in Charlottesville with her husband and daughter.
Two perfect guides for late summer literary adventuring: Two of the great traveler/writers who have appeared with SAL: Jan Morris (1993) and Pico Iyer (2008 and 2011).
“[Travel seems] not just a way of having a good time, but something that every self-respecting citizen ought to undertake, like a high-fiber diet, say, or a deodorant.” —Jan Morris
Jan Morris, born James Morris in 1926, is Anglo-Welsh and lives in Wales. She is a historian, travel writer, and former correspondent for The Guardian. Morris has written some 40 books, including the Pax Britannica trilogy about the British Empire; studies of Wales, Spain, Venice, Oxford, Manhattan, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Trieste; six volumes of collected travel essays; two memoirs; two biographies; and a couple of novels—but she defines her entire oeuvre as “disguised autobiography.” Check out her recent post “Rereading: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell,” which has the added thrill of sending you to Egypt.
“I am a global village on two legs. More and more people are in this position of having hundreds of different cultures singing and clashing and conspiring within them. I think that the global village is increasingly internalized within us.” —Pico Iyer
For nearly three decades, Pico Iyer has crisscrossed the globe (today he’s in Australia at the Melbourne Writers Festival), exploring questions of home and exile both in his global journeys and within himself. A hallmark of Iyer’s writing is how personal it is—in how he writes of his own life as it changes through his encounters with individuals and cultures, and in how he is open not just to observation, but to truly seeing the people he meets. He is the author of several books, including The Man Within My Head, Video Night in Kathmandu, The Lady and the Monk (a not-to-be-missed book) and The Global Soul.
This week we remember Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004), who appeared in the Literary Arts Series’ 6th season on December 1, 1993, in the company of Robert Hass, a poet and translator of several of Milosz’s poems, who appeared in SAL’s Poetry Series in 2000 and 2010.
“The purpose of poetry is to remind us how difficult it is to remain just one person, for our house is open, there are no keys in the doors, and invisible guests come in and out at will.”
Czeslaw Milosz was born in Lithuania in 1911, and lived most of his early life in Warsaw, Poland where he witnessed the rise of two of the most significant historical/political movements of the 20th century, fascism and communism. Following WWII, he spent a decade in Paris and then became a self-exiled émigré to northern California where he settled into a professorship in Slavic Languages and Literature at UC Berkeley.
Poet, essayist, novelist, critic and translator, Milosz was a pre-eminent literary figure of the last century, winning many significant awards including the most illustrious: the Nobel Prize for Literature (1980). He is known for nonfiction works such as “The Captive Mind,” “The Witness of Poetry, and “Visions from San Francisco Bay.” Milosz translated the works of Polish writers into English, and co-translated his own works with Robert Hass and also Robert Pinsky (who appeared in the Poetry Series in 2010). His translations into Polish include portions of the Bible (from Hebrew and Greek) and works by Charles Baudelaire, T. S. Eliot, John Milton, William Shakespeare, Simone Weil, and Walt Whitman.
In an NPR interview commemorating his death on August 14, 2004, Robert Hass said “For people who want to read him, the way to do it is to begin at the beginning and read through his enormous, 70-year record of the experience of a life in the 20th century. I think there are a couple of things that one could say about him. He’s a realist. That line, ‘My Lord, I love strawberry jam,’ is not a bad place to begin with his work. He tried to make a record of the world as he saw it. He saw some of the most terrible events of the 20th century. They tortured his imagination. He loved life. He was a man of large appetites. He felt like he shouldn’t love life that was so terrible and that conflict and the need to express the world, to find a way to say what it was like to live here, is at the core of his work. And it’s a powerful, powerful, powerful engine, this work, this hunger to understand why, why suffering; what is the nature of things, what is being, where does it go. In that way, he’s a philosophical poet, I guess, or a poet of amazement at least, of puzzlement.”
5. Wendell Berry
This week we celebrate the birthday of Wendell Berry (August 5) who appeared in SAL’s 23rd season.
“When despair for the world grows in me and I wake in the night at the least sound in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be, I go and lie down where the wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds. I come into the peace of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief. I come into the presence of still water. And I feel above me the day-blind stars waiting with their light. For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.” ― Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom, and Community
Wendell Berry has been called farmer, poet, novelist, essayist, and teacher. Born in Henry County, Kentucky, in 1934, the families of both of his parents farmed there for five generations, and it is where he has lived and farmed for most of his life. Berry has written over 25 books of poems, 16 volumes of essays, and 11 novels and short story collections, which when read as a whole, form a chronicle of the fictional small Kentucky town of Port William. Berry's latest works include The Mad Farmer Poems (2008) and Whitefoot (2009). He has received numerous awards and honors, including the Vachel Lindsay Prize from Poetry (1962), a Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship (1965), a National Institute of Arts and Letters award for writing (1971), the American Academy of Arts and Letters Jean Stein Award (1987), Membership in the Fellowship of Southern Writers (1991), the Ingersoll Foundation's T. S. Eliot Award (1994), the John Hay Award (1997).
This week we celebrate Nora Ephron (1941-2012), who appeared in a SAL special event in November 2010 and Nathan Englander, who was part of SAL’s 1999/2000 season and who remembers Ephron this week:
“Every step she took in this life is one in which it would be wise to follow.”
After nearly five decades as a screenwriter of such films as Silkwood and When Harry Met Sally; a director (You’ve Got Mail; Julie and Julia), an author (Heartburn and Crazy Salad); and a blogger for the Huffington Post, Nora Ephron’s cultural influence—in the words of one reviewer—“is so elemental you’re not always even aware of it; she’s like hydrogen.”
Ephron’s collections of essays I Feel Bad About My Neck, from 2006, and I Remember Nothing, from 2010, offer terrific summer reading. They embrace a host of topics like “hating your purse because it’s a reflection of negligent housekeeping, hopeless disorganization, a chronic inability to throw anything away, and an ongoing failure to handle the obligations of a demanding and difficult accessory such as matching what you’re wearing”; and experiencing both success and failure in filmmaking, learning from the flops, as she calls them, “that when you shoot a movie where the crew is absolutely hysterical with laughter and you are repeatedly told by the sound guy that you are making the funniest movie in history, you may be in trouble.”
Ephron also wrote about The D Word, as in divorce—she had two—and about The O Word—as in old, as in forgetting, being digitally illiterate, sagging, losing one’s friends, and at a certain point understanding that you can’t keep putting things off. She said, “I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”
You won’t go wrong reading Nathan Englander’s story collections this summer either, from his 1999 For the Relief of Unbearable Urges, to the recent What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which earlier this July was awarded the prestigious 2012 Frank O’Connor Short Story Award.
Renowned playwright and screenwriter Tony Kushner was born July 16, in 1956 in New York City. Kushner won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for his extraordinary play Angels in America, which was later made into an award-winning television mini-series. In “After Angels,” a profile of Tony Kushner published in The New Yorker, John Lahr wrote: “[Kushner]…takes an almost carnal glee in tackling the most difficult subjects in contemporary history—among them, AIDS and the conservative counter-revolution (Angels In America), Afghanistan and the West (Homebody/Kabul), German Fascism and Reaganism (A Bright Room Called Day), the rise of capitalism (Hydriotaphia, or the Death of Dr. Browne), and racism and the civil rights movement in the South (Caroline, or Change). But his plays, which are invariably political, are rarely polemical. Instead Kushner rejects ideology in favor of what he calls “a dialectically shaped truth,” which must be “outrageously funny” and “absolutely agonizing,” and must “move us forward.” He gives voice to characters who have been rendered powerless by the forces of circumstances – a drag queen dying of AIDS, an uneducated Southern maid, contemporary Afghans – and his attempt to see all sides of their predicament has a sly subversiveness. He forces the audience to identify with the marginalized—a humanizing act of the imagination.”
From his literary agent, the Steven Barclay Agency:
Born in New York City in 1956, and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Tony Kushner is best known for his two-part epic, Angels In America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. His other plays include A Bright Room Called Day, Slavs!, Hydrotaphia, Homebody/Kabul, and Caroline, or Change, the musical for which he wrote book and lyrics, with music by composer Jeanine Tesori. Kushner has translated and adapted Pierre Corneille's The Illusion, S.Y. Ansky's The Dybbuk, Bertolt Brecht's The Good Person of Sezuan and Mother Courage and Her Children; and the English-language libretto for the children’s opera Brundibár by Hans Krasa. He wrote the screenplays for Mike Nichols’ film of Angels In America, and Steven Spielberg’s Munich as well as Spielberg's movie Lincoln. His books include But the Giraffe: A Curtain Raising and Brundibar: the Libretto, with illustrations by Maurice Sendak; The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to the Present; and Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Palestinian/Israeli Conflict, co-edited with Alisa Solomon. His latest work includes, a collection of one-act plays, entitled Tiny Kushner -- featuring characters such as Laura Bush, Nixon’s analyst, the queen of Albania, and a number of tax evaders -- (Fall 2009), and The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism & Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (which premiered at the Guthrie Theatre in May 2009, opened in New York in May 2011). During the 2010-2011 season, a revival of Angels in America ran off-Broadway at the Signature Theater in New York, winning the Lucille Lortel Award in 2011 for Outstanding Revival.
Kushner is the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for Drama, an Emmy Award, two Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, an Oscar nomination, an Arts Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, the PEN/Laura Pels Award for a Mid-Career Playwright, a Spirit of Justice Award from the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, and a Cultural Achievement Award from The National Foundation for Jewish Culture, among many others. Caroline, or Change, produced in the autumn of 2006 at the Royal National Theatre of Great Britain, received the Evening Standard Award, the London Drama Critics’ Circle Award and the Olivier Award for Best Musical. In September 2008, Tony Kushner became the first recipient of the Steinberg Distinguished Playwright Award, the largest theater award in the US. He was also awarded the 2009 Chicago Tribune Literary Prize for lifetime achievement. He is the subject of a documentary film, Wrestling with Angels: Playwright Tony Kushner, made by the Oscar-winning filmmaker Freida Lee Mock. He lives in Manhattan with his husband, Mark Harris.
2. Susan Sontag
This week, as part of SAL’s 25th anniversary season, we’re celebrating the work of Susan Sontag (1933-2000), who appeared in a SAL special event in March 1991.
“Literature was the passport to enter a larger life; that is, the zone of freedom.”
For four decades, Susan Sontag’s work was a vivid, sometimes controversial, part of the contemporary canon. A highly visible public figure since the mid-1960s, she wrote four novels, dozens of essays, and a volume of short stories, and she also was an occasional filmmaker, playwright, and theater director.
As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh, the second of three volumes of Susan Sontag’s journals and notebooks, was just published by FSG. It begins where the first volume left off, in the middle of the 1960s, and traces and documents Sontag’s evolution from fledgling participant in the artistic and intellectual world of New York City to world-renowned critic and dominant force in the world of ideas with the publication of the groundbreaking Against Interpretation in 1966. As Consciousness is Harnessed to Flesh is an invaluable record of the inner workings of one of the most inquisitive and analytical thinkers of the 20th century at the height of her power. It is also a remarkable document of one individual’s political and moral awakening.
Remembering her after her death, Christopher Hitchens wrote: “Susan Sontag passed an extraordinary amount of her life in the pursuit of private happiness through reading and through the attempt to share this delight with others. For her, the act of literary consumption was the generous parent of the act of literary production. She was so much impressed by the marvelous people she had read—beginning with Jack London and Thomas Mann in her girlhood, and eventually comprising the almost Borgesian library that was her one prized possession—that she was almost shy about offering her own prose to the reader. Look at her output and you will see that she was not at all prolific.” —Christopher Hitchens, “Susan Sontag: Remembering an intellectual heroine,” Slate, December 29, 2004.
We're beginning with world-renowned Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe (Things Fall Apart, Anthills of the Savannah, Arrow of God) who was in the 1997/98 literary series. This fall, Penguin will publish Achebe's long-awaited memoir There Was a Country: A Personal History of Biafra, about the Nigerian civil war or Biafran War (1967-70), which the publisher calls "the defining experience of Chinua Achebe's life."
Achebe masterfully relates his experience, both as he lived it and how he has come to understand it. He begins his story with Nigeria’s birth pangs and the story of his own upbringing as a man and as a writer so that we might come to understand the country’s promise, which turned to horror when the hot winds of hatred began to stir. To read There Was a Country is to be powerfully reminded that artists have a particular obligation, especially during a time of war. All writers, Achebe argues, should be committed writers—they should speak for their history, their beliefs, and their people.
Marrying history and memoir, poetry and prose, There Was a Country is a distillation of vivid firsthand observation and 40 years of research and reflection. Wise, humane, and authoritative, it will stand as definitive and reinforce Achebe’s place as one of the most vital literary and moral voices of our age.