The poet’s reading style has always been dry and stripped bare of theatrical gestures. He strikes a tone and establishes a rhythm and remains loyal to it throughout the length of the individual poem. On this bleak Monday night in November 1996, four years after he received the Nobel Prize in Literature, Walcott is not about to change his lifelong game plan. “I’m going to read from ‘The Bounty,’” he says. “The first poem, which is long, is an elegy for Alix Walcott.” And so the sombre mood is quickly established and Walcott begins to recite this rich, densely allusive poem about his recently deceased mother with an almost deadpan mellifluousness. It is only in the final section that the performance slips, albeit momentarily. “She took time with her,” he says. But then he quickly adjusts his voice, as one might a crooked tie, and the poem flows insistently toward its conclusion.
Listening to this old recording of William Carlos Williams reading at the Y made me think again about the whole question of voice and where it resides: is it on the stage or on the page? I must confess a predisposition to the page.
It was Dr. Williams who gave the very first Poetry Center reading on October 26, 1939. The price of admission that night was 50 cents.
From the 92Y Poetry Center Archive: W. S. Merwin and John Ashbery
“The two most distinctive and influential voices by which American poetry has spoken in the last twenty years.” That is how J. D. McClatchy introduced an evening of readings by W. S. Merwin and John Ashbery here at 92Y on November 21, 1983—the first such occasion on which the two poets shared a stage. “Each has his own special slant of vision, his own richness of language,” McClatchy went on to say.
Merwin opens with “After a Storm”—a poem that deals both with the evening’s ostensible theme (autobiographical poetry) and McClatchy’s earlier reference “to the program which some of us saw last night and that was an understatement of what we all expect.” He was referring to "The Day After"—an ABC-television film about the consequences of nuclear war—that aired on Sunday, November 20, and was viewed by more than 100 million Americans.
Today we’re sharing never-before-released audio of a panel discussion recorded at 92nd Street Y in 1972, featuring Nora Ephron, novelist Elizabeth Janeway and poet Carolyn Kizer, with literary critic Helen Vendler as moderator. The discussion was titled: “Women Writers: Has Anything Changed?"
Ms. Ephron began the panel discussion by talking about some "sloppy statistics” she did on 50 book reviews in The New York Times between 1971 and 1972.
“There was 697 major reviews,” she noted. “And of that, 101 of those reviewed books by women. So that’s 14.5 percent.”
Explaining the same examination undertaken with the 1956 Book Review, she continued, “I went through 26 issues of it. Of 725 books that were reviewed, 107 were by women, which is 14.4 percent. So has anything changed? 0.1 percent, I don’t know."
We will miss Nora Ephron, friend and favorite of the 92Y community. She spoke here 15 times, often on women’s issues. Videos from some of those appearances can be seen on our YouTube channel.
In an ongoing effort to share with our readers some of the great literary moments which the Unterberg Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y has presented across the decades, we’ve begun to feature regular postings of archival recordings. For access to other recordings from the Poetry Center archive, please click here.
Sam Waterston, Charlotte Rampling and Robie Porter in James Salter’s lost film, “Three” (1969).
Susan Sontag introduced James Salter at a 92Y reading in 1997 with “If he can be described as a writer’s writer, then I think it’s just as true to say he’s a reader’s writer; that is, he’s a writer who particularly rewards those for whom reading is an intense pleasure and something that is a bit of an addiction. I myself put James Salter among the very few North American writers all of whose work I want to read and whose as yet unpublished books I wait for impatiently.”
Salter returns to 92Y on Monday night (Apr 29) with Richard Ford.
This is the first public reading of the classic Breakfast of Champions, three years before it was published, on May 4, 1970 at 92nd Street Y. Vonnegut appeared at 92Y a total of seven times and had much admiration for the audience at the corner of 92nd Street and Lexington Avenue in Manhattan. From an interview with Joseph Heller in Playboy, 1992:
VONNEGUT: The best audience in the world is the 92nd Street Y. Those people know everything and they are wide awake and responsive.
HELLER: I was part of a panel there on December seventh. The fiftieth anniversary of Pearl Harbor.
VONNEGUT: Were you bombed at Pearl Harbor, Joe?
VONNEGUT: Of course, James Jones was. I was saying this would be sort of a valedictory interview because our generation is taking its leave now. James Jones is gone. Irwin Shaw is gone. Truman Capote is gone.
It was sixty years ago today—May 14, 1953—that Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood had its premiere on the stage of 92Y’s Kaufmann Concert Hall, with Thomas himself reading a number of roles (1st Voice and Reverend Eli Jenkins, among them). To celebrate the anniversary, we’d like to share this recording of Thomas reading the play’s opening monologue.
“I had hardly begun to read I asked how can you ever be sure that what you write is really any good at all and he said you can’t you can’t you can never be sure you die without knowing whether anything you wrote was any good if you have to be sure don’t write”
—W. S. Merwin from “Berryman"
Upon the publication of his Collected Poems by the Library of America, Merwin is making a rare New York appearance and will be coming out on stage at the 92Y Poetry Center any minute. (8 pm!) We’ll be live tweeting. Merwin will be interviewed by J. D. McClatchy and also read from his work.
Tracy Smith reads from Life on Mars, November 15, 2012 at 92Y. She began:
“I often start, kind of preface my readings from this book Life on Mars, by just saying two things. This first is, that, when I was initially thinking about space and the universe, and science fiction as devices, they really were just that, devices. I was trying to figure out a way of finding a different kind of distance from the kinds of topics I find myself drawn towards. At the simplest level, they’re basically questions of why we do the things that we do to one another."
Watch the full reading above.
Related: the deadline for our "Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Contest is this Friday! Submit your work! Find out more.
This week we are sharing, in celebration of 92Y Unterberg Poetry Center’s 75th anniversary, five new installments—one per day—of our 75 at 75 project, which features recordings from the Poetry Center’s archive and personal responses by contemporary authors. Today it’s Dubravka Ugrešić on a recording of Susan Sontag from 1992. Susan Sontag: The Complete Rolling Stone Interview will be published next week.
Asked what a writer is, Sontag pauses for a second and cautiously responds that “there are all kinds of writers” and that “every definition of a writer is true,” before clearly articulating her own definition: “A writer is someone who pays attention to the world.” “A writer is a professional observer,” she adds. And onwards, like a flash flood, as if to assert her manifesto in a single breath, Sontag speaks of the loneliness that is a prerequisite to writing (“writing does require solitude”); about political activism (how writers “should allow themselves to be drafted”); of how the contemporary writer is “a handworker in the era of mass production”; of how one becomes a writer simply because one “couldn’t help not to be a writer”; of writing as obsession and “auto-slavery”; of both American anti-intellectualism and the trap of elitism, not infrequently a mask for anti-intellectualism. “A writer is someone who creates or tries to create literature,” says Sontag, yet “literature is a tiny percent of what is produced in book form.”
Photo from the Poetry Center archive of Kurt Vonnegut giving the very first public reading of Breakfast of Champions at 92Y on May 4, 1970. “A world premiere,” he told the audience. “Not even my wife has seen it.”
James Salter is 87. He’s written his first novel in 30 years – and The New Yorkerwonders whether he’s finally about to become a “Famous Writer.”
Salter gives the only NYC reading of his new book at 92Y on Apr 29.
The New Yorker piece got us thinking. Are there other writers who should be household names, but aren’t? Let us know below. We’ll do a round up of your answers in a later post. And we’ll randomly select one entry and award them two tickets to the reading!
What other writers do you think should be famously known, but aren’t?