I am moved, and a bit amused, that Just Buffalo would invite me to look back on a reading I did three decades ago, sharing an afternoon monologue marathon in June of 1989 at Ujima Theatre’s then-current space on Elmwood with Eileen Myles, the late, great Manny Fried, Tammy Ryan, Susan Hodge Anner, and Francine Witte. (What connected us, I think, was the fact that we had all either worked within a theatrical setting or at least wrote material meant to be read aloud.) I’m moved because it’s always nice to be remembered, and amused because the main thing that I remember about my own contribution to the event was that it was a flop. I have long believed that—as writers, performers, human beings—our mistakes teach us a lot more than our successes. And I approach pretty much every creative opportunity as an experiment: What can I do in this setting that I haven’t done before? How can I build on what I know I can do well before it turns into something I am terrible at? Sometimes, particularly when I was younger, the question was How far can I take this crazy idea before the audience turns on me? On this particular occasion, the experiment had to do with what I will call “instant history.” For the last ten years or so—inspired by both New Journalism and the first-person theater of folks like Laurie Anderson and Spalding Gray—I had been honing a persona in prose and onstage as a character. I saw, and still see, this character primarily as an observer of and a witness to things going on in the world around me. (Another big inspiration around this time was Frank O’Hara, writing poems about relatively trivial matters on his lunch hour from his day job.) The experiment this time was to give this narrator figure something much bigger to ponder, and to ponder it in public while it was still fresh. I was moved to try this because the protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing had begun on April 15 of that year and climaxed on June 4, exactly a week before the Just Buffalo reading. It may be hard to remember or imagine a period when “the news” was not a vast ocean of tweets, livestreams, and text crawls, but more like a single stream (technically three streams, from three major networks) that was only turned on for half an hour every evening. The ill-fated democracy movement in China changed that, thanks to the recent introduction of CNN and the birth of the 24-hour live news cycle. I decided to use my 20-minute slot in the reading to capture these two “historic” moments—the uprisings on the other side of the world, but also the birth of the new medium that was feeding us nonstop images of them in real time—in a very old-fashioned way, that of the storyteller, albeit equipped with a still-somewhat-novel word processor and dot-matrix printer. (Or was it a typewriter? I was a very late adopter of
photo: Nancy J. Parisi You know BABEL is a world-class series that takes place right here in Buffalo, but did you know one of the most magical aspects of BABEL is the student event that takes place in the afternoon? Click here to read the reflection of Fiona S. (Park, '20) who introduced Min Jin Lee in March.
Mark Sommer writes, "Some of the nation's most celebrated writers are coming to Buffalo for the Babel literary series' 2019-2020 season." And we couldn't agree more! Read the article here.