Sunday, February 6, 2011

AWP Conference;Bridge St Books; Multiple recommendations;

I was fortunate to have attended the AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) Conference and Bookfair last week in Washington,D.C..This event, which features hundreds of seminars and readings,and 600 exhibitors,honors among other things the nation's poets and poetry programs, as well as MFA and seminar programs.It is the one place to see Susan Howe,Rae Armantrout(Pulitzer Prize winner),as well as a host of other poets from Rita Dove to Yusuf Kumunyakaa, Carolyn Forche,et al.Writers including Jhumpa Lahiri,Joyce Carol Oates, Mary Gaitskill and Junot Diaz were in attendance, but it is the plethora of literary magazines, small presses and the like that stamp the uniqueness of the event- New Directions was one of the largest exhibitors- Really refreshing-
I attended a couple of readings one night at Bridge St Books, 2804 Pennsylvania Ave, just over the M st bridge.Bridge St is a lovely two-storey building owned by Philip Levy, who grew up in the area, and managed by poet extraordinaire Rod Smith, who also teaches at the Iowa school.The first floor of Bridge St Books contains some good fiction and nonfiction new titles, art, film and theatre, but it is the second floor with its fabulously chosen fiction, philosophy, and especially poetry and poetry criticism that gives support to the claim by many aficionados that this is the best small to medium independent bookstore on a book for book basis.And the discerning book buyer here will find over and over again titles seen nowhere else, even in NY or San Francisco.
One great new title is Against Expression, an anthology of conceptual writing edited by Kenneth Goldsmith and Craig Dworkin(published by Northwestern U.Press), which covers a wide swath of writing from Duchamp to Beckett to William Burroughs to numerous poets, Oulipian writers(Georges Perec) and a host of others whose found, appropriated, and material written under mathematical or other constraints can change one's views forever about the poetry of unoriginal genius, as Stamford Professor Emerita Marjorie Perloff would have it.

One writer included in the anthology is Vanessa Place. She is the publisher of LA based Les Figues Press, which publishes an avant-garde collection of surrealist and Ouliponian works.Place has herself written several books,including La Medusa, and other works including"Dies" a giant book consisting of one extended sentence . Place is also a criminal defense appellate lawyer specializing in sex abuse and violent predatory crimes. In Tragodia, Pt I Statement of Facts she has assembled a remarkable number of narratives fashioned from court testimony virtually verbatim that dwarfs any contemporary gothic. Marjorie Perloff, the author of the brilliant "Unoriginal Genius, Poetry by other Means in the New Century",(University of Chicago Press 2010), has called Vanessa Place's new work a superb piece of conceptual writing. It's the first of a three part series, with the second devoted to the procedure of the cases and the third volume to appeal and resolution. The publisher in this case is LA based Blanc Press. Buy it- your interest will not be Ms-Placed.

Karen Palmer's Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps is a record of the Canadian journalist's time spent in the witch camps of rural Ghana, where hidden colonies of women exiled after the accusation of witchcraft proffered against them in a society caught between tradition and modernity eke out a bare existence.These women suffer a horrible plight from the use of witchcraft as a means of social control. The book is a complex and well researched piece of reporting and concerned journalism from a reporter who lived and worked in West Africa. Highly recommended. (The Free Press, 2010)

The Last Jew Of Treblinka, a memoir by Chil Rajchman, one of 60 survivors of the Nazi extermination camp,has finally been published in English for the first time in 2011 by Pegasus Books; it was first translated from Yiddish into French in 2009, (having been written in the1940's ).I read it all night and cried myself to sleep in the hotel room in DC. Treblinka was not a concentration camp cum extermination facilities like Auschwitz with its sister death camp Birkenau, but one of four camps the Nazis built in Eastern Poland solely for the purpose of extermination.Approximately 1 million people were killed in that mechanized slaughterhouse between 1942 and 1943 when it was closed down. Gitta Sereny has shown in her brilliant book Into That Darkness, (an account of Treblinka and her interviews with Franz Stangl, the commandant who was captured in South America and sent back to Germany for trial (he was convicted and committed suicide shortly after the interviews and after being handed dowm a life sentence.),that the Treblinka story is one of the most frightening tales of human evil , occurring in an advanced European culture in the middle of the 20th Century.

There were only several hundred Jews chosen upon arrival in the stinking trains at Treblinka to survive. Their job was to do the heavy work as the hundreds of thousands sent out of the trains immediately upon arrival were whipped in the "tube", a line between Nazi or Ukrainian thugs with whips, on to the gas chamber. Thousands were despatched this way each day.
The author served as a "barber",, having to cut the hair of all female lost souls for subsequent industrial use, then transporter of the bodies to the places they were burned and eventually the crematoriums, and later as a "dentist" where the task was to pull off the gold teeth of the fresh corpses and extract valuables hidden in body cavities as fast as possible.

The Jewish inmates of Treblinka staged a rebellion on August 2, 1943. 600 of them escaped, but many were found and killed by Germans, Ukrainians, or Polish villagers in the forest. There were only 60 or so survivors and only three or four of them attempted to capture and memorialize in writing what had transpired at this death camp.

The book is short, factual,and its power comes not from metaphor but from the salient facts of bearing witness against the slaughterhouse- of Treblinka and history. Much too important not to be read by every living soul with a conscience, and even more for those without one.

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