Saturday, May 21, 2016

New Directions' 80th Birthday Party at Greenlight Books

The sandwich board announcing
the event (Photo by Sachyn Mital)
In 1936, while still an undergraduate student at Harvard CollegeJames Laughlin, the heir to a steel company fortune and a poet himself, founded a publishing company devoted to experimental and innovative literature in his dormitory room. 80 years later, that small house, New Directions Publishing Corporation, now headquartered in Manhattan, is still around and still marking out new territory in the literary world, with a position as one of the major American publishers of non-US and non-Anglophone literature. It is hardly hyperbole to say that New Directions has influenced peers, spawned successors, and played a vital role in transforming the landscape of US and global literature.

From perennial favorites like Arthur Rimbaud, Charles Baudelaire and Herman Hesse to Modernists like H.D. and William Carlos Williams, to Nobel Laureates Boris Pasternak, Octavio Paz and Tomas Tranströmer, to Pulitzer Prize winners Tennessee Williams and Gary Snyder, to less well known international figures like Rene Philoctète, Raja Rao and Inger Christiansen, to singular figures like Robert Walser, W. G. Sebald and Fleur Jaeggy, to contemporary literary pathblazers like Kamau Brathwaite, Susan Howe, Roberto Bolaño, César Aira, Nathaniel Mackey, and Jenny Erpenbeck, New Directions has kept up the cause of writing that challenges and resets expectations and conventions. I personally feel quite fortunate to have become one of the writers on their rich and expansive (1500+) roster!

Yesterday at Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New Directions held a celebration for its 80th anniversary that featured six writers offering toasts in various forms, with readings included, for no more than three minutes each. The lineup consisted of yours truly, who went first; Rivka Galchen, whose The Little Labors appeared just weeks ago; Eliot Weinberger, whose new nonfiction collections The Ghosts of Birds and Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei are forthcoming this fall; Bernadette Mayer, whose newest collection of poetry, Works and Days, will be issued this summer; Anne Carson, whose The Albertine Workout was a standout among its 2014 pamphlet series; and László Krasznahorkai, the great Hungarian novelist, whose previous New Directions book, which won him and his translator Ottilie Mulzet the 2014 Best Translated Book Prize, is one I consider to be one of the greatest works of 21st century literature so far, Seiobo There Below. (Krasznahorkai also received the 2015 Man Booker International Prize, and has two books, in one volume, forthcoming from New Directions this fall: The Last Wolf, and Herman I: The Game Warden & Herman II: The Death of a Craft.)
Group portrait: L-R: László Krasznahorkai, Bernadette Mayer,
me, Rivka Galchen, Lauri Callahan, Mieke Chew (crouching),
Barbara Epler, Eliot Weinberger, Georgia Phillips-Amos,
Anne Carson, Tynan Kogane, Chris Wait, ND friend, ND Friend,
Declan Spring, ND friend (Photo by Sachyn Mital)
After a warm introduction by Mieke Chew, New Directions' Co-Director of Publicity, in which she introduced all the staff members present, we each read. I actually included a toast and read from the final page of "Rivers"; Rivka Galchen read from two different New Directions authors, including Stevie Smith; Eliot read a distilled version of an erotic poem to goddesses, dedicating it to ND's "goddesses"; Bernadette read two short poems, including one with hip hop rhymes; Anne Carson read two footnotes from The Albertine Workout, and her "Epithalamium," or marriage poem, to her husband, who was present; and finally, closing the event out, László Krasznahorkai--whom I gushed to in the back as he was signing books and with whom, after the event ended, I briefly chatted about Gerald Murnane's study of Hungarian--delivered a concise, lyrical and enigmatic poem of abnegation, in which he suggested that he would give up everything. Except New Directions! It was the most fitting end to the reading one could imagine.

Afterwards the large crowd filled the bookstore and spilled out onto Fulton Street, enjoying the champagne, the writers, and books, the marvelous Brooklyn evening. It was a special delight for me to see some of our Rutgers-Newark MFA students and recent graduates, including Laura Spence-Ash and Evan Gill Smith, there! Among the people I had the pleasure of chatting with were critic Christopher Byrd, and John Madera, a writer and the force behind the Franklin Park Reading Series. Many thanks to my dear friend, author and filmmaker David Barclay Moore, who came to the reading and afterwards showed me a perfect little wine bar not far away that I'll have to head back to in the future.
Barbara Epler, at center, and Bernadette
Mayer, at right (with cane),
(Photo by Sachyn Mital)

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