The PEN Cabaret at FIAF (French Institute Alliance Française ) last night was both intense and wonderful. Performers, poets, writers, readers, musicians, film makers, actors, PEN members, and countless others came out for PEN’s annual cabaret celebration. Salman Rushdie, while not a reader this year was in the audience.Walter Mosley read from his newest work The Long Fall, which I think is the first of a series of mysteries to come, starring character Leonid McGill, and which Junot Diaz says is (Mosley’s) íBest work yet.ë The reading was gritty, poetic and New York-centric and the vibe would continue this way for the rest of the evening. While a cabaret of wonderful talent, the evening is still a part of PEN’s festival, and there was a point: The right to read and write were on the table, PEN’s point as an organization was on the table, the point of the evening was to celebrate our rights as American writers, but to remember the writers currently without the same freedoms.
Irish poet Nick Laird read from two of his larger works, To A Fault and On Purpose, mostly centered in Northern Ireland. I have a friend who came to study in New York from the same place earlier this year. He was sent by the Irish Arts Council and we cried together the first time I showed him the New York City skyline from my roof in Queens, íWhen you’re a kid,ë he said to me then, íyou think about things differently,ë and this sentiment chilled my blood through Laird’s reading. Again, a testament to the power of PEN’s touch. Laird would later touch the audience in a lighter way with his poem, íTo The Wife.ë
Horacio Castellanos Moya read from Senselessness and was translated by David Conrad. The two read in tandem, switching lines while a drummer played a Latino-jazz beat (and I apologize for not being able to find out who the drummer was, it’s driving me crazy, actually) The familiar famous line from the poem was, íI am not right in the mind,ë and the trio performed the work with the breadth and depth Senseless itself represents, which is all of us, and I was pleased to see some of the work presented was not entirely in English.
Mark Z. Danielewski read from his 2005 work, The Fifty Year Sword, wearing a punk t-shirt and a grim look, the story is a fable about giving friends money.
It was great to finally see Sean Wilsey’s State by State, which everyone has been talking about so much this year. State by State is a play performed by actors and writers, (my one time professor Myla Goldberg wrote the Maryland section), and the chosen bit last night was Jonathan Franzen’s New York piece performed by Parker Posey, Sean Wilsey, James Franco (as Jonathan Franzen), Peter Hirsch and Carrie Brownstein. It’s a telling of Franzen’s ímeeting with New Yorkë in which New York herself sees Franzen for a ten minute appointment in her office. This was a great segue into Steve Connell and Sekou (The Misfit) performing their piece from HBO’s 2007 Def Poetry Jam in which America leaves them voicemails. (Steve in a National Slam Poetry champion, by the way). They spoke about the freedom to speak being arrested: íMy name is speech, I have been here before,ë they said.
Laurie Anderson and Lou Reed played together, Anderson singing her íOnly An Expertë and the two jamming to electronic music and Lou at times playing with a synth and a bass. It felt like an avant-garde noise show you’d see in a warehouse in Brooklyn, or Stockholm, or London and it brought people in the audience to tears. Which was where the show was probably going all along, to remind us again of the people PEN is standing up for. I was happy to be there to support.