Tuesday, May 10, 2005

An Evening with Anne Carson at the Herbst

Because Ilya Kaminsky couldn't make it and gave his ticket to Robert Thomas, and Robert couldn't make it and gave his ticket to me, I got to see/hear Anne Carson at the Herbst Theatre last night, in conversation with Wendy Lesser from THREEPENNY REVIEW. It was quite an experience, and I'm glad I went, despite having had to rush there from my workout without dinner and with only a cold shower (the hot water boiler had broken at the YMCA). It was not sold out, which really surprised me, and it seemed evident that the audience was made up of people quite familiar with Carson or Lesser or both.

After a brief introduction by Lesser, Carson and a group of four others performed something she called an oratorio. Appearing and disappearing behind a series of window frames, Carson and her group recited and sometimes sang. The piece, she explained later, had been written for a symposium on Gertrude Stein organized by Susan Sontag. Because it was written around the time the government went to war on Iraq, the emphasis of the piece was on guns. And that's about all I feel equipped to say about it, that it was "after" Gertrude Stein and about guns, and that it made use of the song The Lonesome Pine, a favorite of Stein's. I definitely enjoyed it, but I can't really describe it.

Following the performance, Carson and Lesser sat in armchairs and proceeded with the interview portion of the program. Carson seemed very low key and, while sure of herself and confident, she was not at all brash or arrogant. She talked about how she came to be a classical scholar: She came upon a bilingual edition of Sappho in an ordinary bookstore and became fascinated with the Greek side and then was lucky enough to have a high school teacher who taught her Greek. She discussed how she thought about her writing: in almost a painterly fashion; she would dab here and dab there and then look at the overall effect of what was on the page. She didn't put on airs. While Wendy Lesser, in her questions, showed herself to be intellectual and wide-ranging and profound, Carson's answers were for the most part simple, unpretentious, and straightforward.

I'm sure I'm forgetting a great deal of what was said. Questions and answers, both, were very interesting. What music did Carson listen to? Whatever her friends gave her. She would listen to a CD exclusively for about twenty days and then never listen to it again. She seemed to reject a comparison to John Cage, said she does not make her choices by chance, but artfully. That said, she doesn't define the reader's experience for them. She talked about how Greek drama is not character based, that the characters are masked and not allowed to change, but that the drama is pure action, and that it is that way because the ancient Greeks truly believed in destiny in a way that we do not and cannot.

At the end of the evening, Lesser handed one of Anne Carson's books to her and said that Sidney suggested she read the short portion the book was opened to. As luck would have it, I have the book they used (PLAINWATER, Essays and Poetry) so I can record what she read. It is an Introduction from the section called "Short Talks":

Early one morning words were missing. Before that, words were not. Facts were, faces were. In a good story, Aristotle tells us, everything that happens is pushed by something else. Three old women were bending in the fields. What use is it to question us? they said. Well it shortly became clear that they knew everything there is to know about the snowy fields and the blue-green shoots and the plant called "audacity," which poets mistake for violets. I began to copy out everything that was said. I will do anything to avoid boredom. It is a task of a lifetime. You can never know enough, never work enough, never use the infinitives and participles oddly enough, never impede the movement harshly enough, never leave the mind quickly enough.


David Koehn said...


I really wish I could have gone to this. In fact I have had it on my schedule for some time but life doesn't always work out according to schedule.

I wanted to here Lesser in particular so I could put a face on the name that won't touch my work with a twnety foot pole. ;-)

Thanks for this!

Hope the fish was tasty.


Robert said...

I also heard Anne Carson read this oratorio ("Lots of Guns") at AWP and found it fascinating and moving. In fact I just ordered the issue (16.2) of Gulf Coast http://www.gulfcoastmag.org where it appears to have been published, because I'm eager to read it on the page.

Robert said...

Tech question: How do I get an address to work as a link in a comment (as in my gulfcoastmag link above)? I can do it in my own postings to the blog, but don't know how to make it work if I comment on someone else's post.

Diane K. Martin said...

Robert, I think you can use the HTML tags for links, like:
Text to be displayed

You need the full URL, starting with http://

Don't know of a better way.

BTW, David and Robert, Anne Carson thanked Wendy Lesser for having helped with the development of the piece--by having rejected it when Carson sent it to Threepenny Review!

Diane K. Martin said...

Um just realized you can't see that HTML...

It won't let me show a partial tag. Check a HTML reference...

Robert said...

Uh, OK, so here's the link to Gulf Coast. Voila!

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