PEN World Voices: Cabaret Night with Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed, et al

By Jane Ciabattari

By Saturday night, the week-long PEN World Voices Festival felt like a village where 160 writers from 41 countries, speaking 18 languages, gathered, bringing New York’s cultural vortex close to a boil. Time for a slight respite, the PEN World Voices Cabaret.

Savvy Walter Mosley read a brief chapter from his Leonid McGill, NYC detective novel. Northern Irish poet Nick Laird read a few poems (with self deprecating humor thrown in). He introduces his poem “To the Wife” as “a sonnet in a sentence, not a boast.” (In his case, the wife is Zadie Smith.)

Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya’s read (in Spanish, with simultaneous English by actor David Conrad, and a drum backup) from Senselessness, his eighth novel. The haunting and repeated opening line, “I am not complete in the mind,.”  is taken from human rights testimony by the survivor of a village massacre in Guatemala. The novel, by turns horrifying and caustic, is a monologue by a journalist hired to proofread a human rights report not unlike Guatemala: Never Again, gathered by the Catholic archdiocese to document the decades-long genocidal attacks on the Mayan population by the military.

Poetry slam champs Steve Connell and Sekou, fresh from the memorial for Nigerian writer/martyr Ken Saro-Wiwa, energized the crowd with their Freedom of Speech rhyming.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Lou Reed and spouse multimedia artist Laurie Anderson squeezed in next to Salman Rushdie in the audience to watch a one-act adaptation of Jonathan Franzen’s New York section from State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America, the update of the WPA state guide edited by Matt Wieland and Sean Wilsey. Actor James Franco, known for his portrayal of James Dean (and author of a novel coming out next year from Scribner), plays Franzen, with Patricia Carlson as “New York,” Parker Posey as New York’s ditzy and controlling publicist, Peter Hirsch as the smarmy NY State Historian. Subtext: How the city has changed since its wild and dirty 1970s, with money replacing art as the dominant engine.

Mark Danielewski started his set with a shoutout to Laurie Anderson. He confesses he owes her money for all the free downloads of her Moby-Dick album. He reads a spooky story called “The Fifty-year Sword,” involving a quest for a weapon created by “the man with no arms.”

Laurie and Lou were onstage last for a long set, a preview, I gather, from this summer’s “The Yellow Pony and Other Songs and Stories” tour.Lots of electronic bits and pieces to juggle,a few tech troubles, but Laurie A carries on.

“And now what?” she asks via her electronic alter ego. “How do we begin again?What are days for?”

Lou Reed sings of growing older, of “psychic savagery.”  And then the performance is over. 

All the way home I keep thinking back to the power of Castellanos Moya’s work.  “I am not complete in the mind.” And what we all have witnessed in the world these five years since PEN’s World Voices Festival began.