Sunday, May 04, 2008

PEN World Voices: Resonances

Well, 2 out of 3 isn’t bad.

I thought the Crisis Darfur event was informative and worthwhile: as enjoyable as being lectured at on genocide can rightly be. And the Witness event was a model of how to engage students in reading and activism: I was moved and amazed.

The Resonances Event at Baruch, by contrast, was dull, dull, dull.

I was so disappointed.

I arrived a little early and sat down in the middle of a row only to have a professor come up, stand right before me, ostentatiously count the empty seats to my right and left and ask if I was bringing my class. (Do I look that much like a teacher?)

No. I just thought it was a good seat and, if I sat in the middle, I wouldn’t have to keep getting up as people file in.

Ok, she said skeptically, but you’re going to be surrounded by my students.

Oh, sorry. So I got up and moved. She seemed confused as to why I didn’t want to stay and insisted that she hadn’t meant me to move….

Things went downhill from there: the moderator had gathered an impressive group of writers from all over the globe--Charles Simic, Antonio Munoz Molina, Fatou Diome, and Ma Jian--to speak about canonical works that continued to resonate for them. Of these writers, I know and admire Simic’s work quite a lot and was looking forward to learning more about the others. But they got up and rambled and rambled; the mic didn’t work well; Simic read his remarks on the eroticism of Ovid with all the panache of John McCain; the next two writers’ choices were predictable and nationalistic (Molina chose Cervantes; Diome, Cesaire and Senghor); each writer lectured us about basic facts and then rambled.

In short, the event was really disappointing and I was not sorry that mild illness gave me an excuse to cut out early.

I hear from others that Ma Jian was great on Kafka, but even that would have been too little, too late for me.

It’s so disappointing because, as a reader of old and new books, a scholar, and a professor, I welcome the notion of this event: I was excited to hear what these writers made of their precursors and excited to have contemporary writers speaking about reading. It should have been an event to inspire. Alas, it was not.

1 comment:

Richard said...

I couldn't even bear to post about this event myself although I'd been supposed to cover it for the PEN member blogs.

As I told you, I didn't stay until the end, either. Charles Simic began by saying he expected to be on a panel "arguing with other writers," and I think a panel would have been far more interesting.

Each of the lecturers (and that's how I perceived them) made some interesting points, but this could have been so much better had it more resembled the other events I went to, moderated by someone like Sam Tanenhaus (or in one case, by one of the panelists serving as "ringleader") throwing out questions and getting some interplay between the writers (as well as preventing anyone from going on too long).

As with classroom teaching, lectures are not always the best way to go. In this case, a discussion would have been more suitable.