Last Thursday I played the role of Sound Guy at a salon hosted by the journal Little Star. The party planner, the vivacious Elena Siyanko, told me she’d feel better having someone next to her as she set up the AV equipment. Excited to have entry to the reading – which featured Jamaica Kincaid, Mark Strand, and others – I volunteered, though I wasn’t sure I’d know what I was doing.
I ended running the sound during the reading, sitting on stage as it were with the authors.
The night unfolded in what could have been the set of a Woody Allen movie, this rambling Harlem brownstone with an expansive sunken kitchen dominated by a black behemoth of an oven, pop art sharing wall space with family photos, and books crammed everywhere, in some rooms from floor to ceiling. The lighting, somewhat yellowed at the edges, added to the filmic atmosphere. As did the audience, packed with writers, agents, and the like in various states of finery, from trim black suits to elbow-patched corduroy coats. Or in Siyanko’s case, a lovely dress that looked made of crimped paper. A good number of people spoke Russian. It could only be New York.
Kincaid lead the line-up, looking like a figure from the Harlem Renaissance in a long, powder blue dress and pillbox hat, with white socks turned down so their embroidered edges splayed over her brown leather shoes. She read an excerpt of a novel-in-progress—I didn’t catch the title if she even gave one. The narrative was in a modernist, stream-of-consciousness vein. She warned at the start that the sentences would be long and some of the references lost, and they were. But no matter. Her angular prose was resplendent. Its lyricism blurred into poetry, especially as the images gathered thick over the course of the rambling lines.
A story lurked in the details about the narrator’s sister, “the beautiful Penelope,” and his brother Herodotus, and something about a mother who he wished dead. A narrative of mythic proportion, to be sure. To hear Kincaid’s honeyed, slightly accented voice reading was both immersive – I felt like a kid, lulled by her cadence into a relaxed reverie – and extremely funny when she delivered a joke or cursed. Like hearing a queen say “shit!”
Kincaid’s interest in the sound of language – she said, for example, that the family lived in a house once occupied by Shirley Jackson simply because she loved the way Shirley Jackson’s name sounded when repeated throughout the piece – reminded me of the novelist Lynne Tillman. A couple of years ago I interviewed Tillman for my MFA thesis, and asked about how she developed the richly textured voice of her novel American Genius, A Comedy. She spoke about the rhythm of music, and Ray Charles in particular, and how she heard the narrator’s voice in her head as she wrote. She said that when developing the character, the sound of that voice preceeded the setting or the movement of the situation. Kincaid’s project seemed similar.
Poet Mark Strand took the stage after Kincaid, deadpanning that after Jamaica’s poetry, he was going to read rather pedestrian prose pieces about “nothing.” I immediately liked him because of this Seinfeld approach, whether the reference was intentional or not I don’t know.
His poems (for despite what he said, that’s what they were) blew me away. It was funny, always, and full of insight about relationships and masculinity and aging. Though a sorrowful pall hung over them, they never became depressive. My favorite involved a man who realized that his every word and action created a self who was not quite himself. He apologized to his wife, as she would never know who he truly was. But she dismissed this, saying that she could always see the real him beneath the multitude of fake ones that had passed before her during the years. It captured something real and tender about relationships, especially the way that men sometimes feel their wives understand them better than they understand themselves.
At one point in between poems Strand said he would read “a few more – perhaps twenty.” And while everyone laughed, I think we would have been game for him to go through his entire collection.
Three readers from Little Star took the stage afterward, the standout being Cynthia Zarin, whose wondrous house we were in. She read two pieces from The Ada Poems and one from Little Star #2, all were lovely. She also, like Kincaid and Strand, had a powerful presence. Gazing off a bit into the distance, her voice dropping just low enough so that you had to lean forward a bit to hear her. And no, that wasn’t a fault of my running sound, it was the way she managed her tone to draw you in. I would’ve loved to have heard more from her.
Afterward, the event devolved into wine and cheese and a lengthy conversation on the couch with my friend, super-agent Erin Harris. I dropped my persona and relaxed, happy to fade back into the crowd. After a while the chairs disappeared and the theater space returned to a sitting room, or perhaps a dining room. I accompanied Harris into the brisk spring night to find a cab back to Brooklyn. Though the specifics of the reading faded fast, as these things tend to when you haven’t seen the work on the page, the feel of the language lingered. Like a haunting film, I took the mood with me, and it colored how I saw the city on the ride home. New York never looked more beautiful, and I felt witness to a secret part of it.