2014 Summer Supper & Book Club: A Dispatch

This first dispatch from our Summer Supper & Book Club comes from Kangsen Feka Wakai, who is focusing on Writers in Schools-related projects during his summer internship with us. Stay tuned for more updates from the Book Club right here at the Writers in Schools blog!

 

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The 2014 Summer Supper & Book Club Is Here

Tuesday July 1st marked the beginning of this year’s Summer Supper & Book Club, an offshoot of PEN/Faulkner’s Writers in Schools program, which provides DC area high school kids with complimentary copies of contemporary literature and the perk of meeting the writers behind the works.

This summer’s first guest was Susan Richards Shreve, prolific novelist (and co-chair of PEN/Faulkner’s board of directors!).

Susan Richards ShreveShreve’s 2001 novel Plum & Jaggers was the summer book club’s first offering. The novel tells the story of a traumatized eldest child’s obsessive tendencies towards his three siblings in the aftermath of the train bombing that murdered their parents while the family was vacationing in Italy.

So, on that balmy Tuesday evening, between bites of cheese and peperoni pizza, our assembled DC high school students, copies of Plum & Jaggers nearby, sat around a rectangular table in a second floor room in DC’s Hill Center awaiting the writer’s arrival.

Described by author Stuart Dybek as,one of the more risky books I’ve read in a long time and certainly one of the best,” most of Plum & Jaggers takes place in DC, the city the writer calls home.

A fan of David Sedaris’s ability to morph pain into laughter, Shreve told the students how Plum and Jaggersone day while thinking about the comic, she realized she wasn’t scared to die because her children were all grown and could take care of themselves. She tried to imagine what would have become of their lives had she died abruptly while they were young, and the seeds of Plum & Jaggers were planted.

After reading from chapter six, a scene in which a bomb explodes in the Cleveland Park train stop, the students wondered if familiarity with the city was a factor in her decision to base most of the story in the city.

“DC is a contradiction of a place; people who don’t live here don’t think it’s a place and I like writing about the DC that people live.”

When asked by a book club member if it was her goal to make Sam, the oldest son and protagonist a tyrant, the writer, pointed out that even though the siblings were victims of Sam’s control, they still saw him as their leader.

She added that her affinity for Sam’s character might have its roots during her time in DC’s public schools when she was drawn to troubled kids not unlike Sam.

While most of the book club members seemed repulsed by Sam’s antics, Shreve revealed her sentiments about Sam, “I like Sam, but would I want him to be my elder brother? No!”

A new edition of Plum & Jaggers was recently reissued as part of the Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust Rediscoveries Series.

This week the Summer Supper and Book Club read Elliott Holt’s novel You Are One of Them. Next week students will read Danielle Evans’s collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self.

Stay tuned for more updates on the Writers in School program and the Summer Supper and Book Club!

On June 19th, Give Where You Live & Help PEN/Faulkner Buy Books for our Summer Program!

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On Thursday, June 19, the United Way of the National Capital Area will once again hold its Do More 24 campaign aimed at fostering a sense of community among residents of the greater Washington, DC area and the organizations that make the capital region a great place to live and work.

Last year, 11,000 individual donors participated in Do More 24, contributing $1.3 million to area nonprofits in just 24 hours. For organizations like PEN/Faulkner, those contributions help fund critical programming. This year, PEN/Faulkner is looking to raise $1,125 — the cost of the books used in our Summer Supper & Book Club.

Since 1980, PEN/Faulkner has been dedicated to bringing readers and writers together to celebrate the finest American fiction. Nowhere is that mission more fully realized than in our Writers in Schools program, where we introduce local middle and high school students to authors from their own communities.

Our Summer Supper & Book Club continues the good work we do through Writers in Schools during the school year over the summer months. Students will meet once a week for a bite to eat and to examine writing by a local writer, who’ll join them for supper and to discuss their work and the writing life. The meal is free, the books are the students’ to keep, and the experience of meeting an author—or, in this case six authors over the course of the program—is unforgettable.

With your support, PEN/Faulkner can continue getting great books into the hands of great kids!

For more information about Do More 24, visit them online here:
https://domore24.org/#home

You can also bookmark PEN/Faulkner’s Do More 24 page here:
https://domore24.org/#npo/pen-faulkner-foundation

 

Who’s Afraid of Poetry? Derrick Weston Brown Visits the Summer Supper & Book Club

Derrick Weston Brown at PEN/Faulkner's Summer Supper & Book Club

Last night, the Summer Supper and Book Club talked about A Tribe Called Quest and bar brawls in Adams Morgan—all for the sake of poetry week and our discussion of Derrick Weston Brown’s Wisdom Teeth, of course. We started by talking about the music and musicians who we felt were the most poetic. Emma and Amuche cited poets-turned-musicians while Tatyana stuck by Frank Ocean. Manny said that the late, great Freddy Mercury was a true poet, and Donovan selected Jimmy Hendrix as a man who spoke through his guitar.

Author photo: Derrick Weston Brown

We discussed our own relationships to poetry and asked why the form is so often charged with negative associations. Ariel shared her own anxieties about poetic analysis, and Sanjayah and Tatyana commiserated as they revealed their own frustrations with poetry’s occasionally cryptic themes and images. Amuche on the other hand said that she enjoys poetry because it offers a more intimate medium for expressing emotions. Nate asked the group to consider why we apply such a different mindset to understanding poetry than we do to a song or a painting, and adamantly asserted that poetry is not a puzzle to be solved but a form that can be enjoyed just as readily as a sculpture or a song.

With Nate’s impassioned defense of poetry in mind, we took the plunge into Wisdom Teeth. We moved from the poem “Hourglass Flow”—a work that ends with the comforting message that every day is just a draft—to “Malcolm X’s Glasses Speak”—which inventively tells the iconic figure’s story from the point of view of his most iconic accessory. We seemed to spend the most time, however, discussing “Remembering Bonita Applebum,” a poem that centers on a woman described as “the pentatonic scale squeezed into form fitting denim overalls” and “your daddy’s woman before your mama came into the picture.” (She’s also the eponymous subject of the 1990 song from A Tribe Called Quest’s debut album.) 

Derrick Weston Brown stopped by at just the right time to provide some insight into the creation of the poem, which he revealed was an ode to his history and to his ongoing relationship to and love of music. He traced a series of poetic and musical genealogies, connecting A Tribe Called Quest to Kanye West and Keorapetse Kgositsile, the acclaimed South African poet and activist, to Earl Sweatshirt, the L.A.-based rapper who is also Kgositsile’s son.

Book jacket: Wisdom Teeth by Derrick Weston BrownBrown went on to talk about a particular method of writing that he employed in penning many of the poems in Wisdom Teeth: people-watching. More specifically, he called this method “ear hustling,” as it involves being in public and turning an ear toward the people and interactions around you. When he first came to D.C., said Brown, he and his writing buddies would head to Adams Morgan at bar time to watch as patrons spilled into the street and found inspiration in the form of the animated (and often drunken) conversations and interactions had on the street. These late nights of dedicated research have yielded some of his funniest and most vivid poems including “Color Commentary,” which narrates a bizarre street brawl that Brown and his friends witnessed one night.

Bre jumped in to inquire about the poem “Snagglepuss Spills His Guts on E! True Hollywood Story,” which has apparently spurred a fair share of questions over the course of Brown’s many Writers in Schools visits. While he declined to read the satirical poem, which tracks the dysfunctional behind-closed-doors relationship between Snagglepuss and The Pink Panther—he did, however, recite a moving poem about his father from memory. His recitation was met with a room full of snaps. He recounted sending a copy of Wisdom Teeth to his father who acknowledged that he felt he knew his son better than ever after reading his work.

By the end of the night, any apprehension about poetry seemed to have disappeared as Brown entertained the crowd with his verses and anecdotes. We found that even the uncertainties in analysis—which had at first seemed intimidating—actually sparked some of the most interesting discussions. 

Although this was the second-to-last meeting of the Summer Supper & Book Club, it was my last meeting with the group. Thanks to all of you book clubbers for being such an amazing, interesting, and intelligent group. It was a pleasure getting to know all of you, and I’m relieved to hear that I’ll still be seeing some of you around Hill Center. Congrats to Tatyana who just landed an internship in the main office! I’ll be coming to you when I need someone to let me up to the third floor.

 — Jack Nessman

 

 

 

 

PEN/Faulkner’s Summer Supper & Book Club Talks Beats, Books, and Baltimore with Felicia Pride

Felicia Pride author photoLast night, we kicked off our session with a warm-up exercise in which Summer Supper & Book Club participants were asked to imagine that they were in a band and that they had to pick their favorite characters from literature and film as their bandmates. Book Club members also had to pick a literary name for their band, and the results included such gems as Crazed Expectations, Random Sounds, Purgatory (because they’ll never be as good as Nirvana), The Ultimatum, and Man. Bands featured members as diverse as a drumming Atticus Finch backed by a horn-section composed of Little Women’s March sisters to a DJ-ing Cat in the Hat hyped by Thing 1 and Thing 2. Edward and Jacob from Twilight found work in a couple of bands as well. 

We dived into a discussion of Patterson Heights, a young adult novel by Felicia Pride that centers on a fictional Baltimore neighborhood—actually a recognizable amalgam of a couple of Baltimore communities—where stable families and gun violence tragically collide. We talked vengeance and honor, and asked whether violence and withholding information from friends and the police is ever justifiable. Conclusions ranged from Donovan’s assertion that violence is a form of weakness to Mecca’s pithy reminder that “snitches get stitches.” Ultimately, we realized that there are no easy answers when a violent drug dealer lords over a community, as one does in Patterson Heights.

Felicia Pride stopped by to talk about her transition from journalism to fiction, the occasionally necessary pressure of writing under deadline, and the nightmare of switching her novel’s point of view from third-person to first-person when she was three quarters of the way through her draft. Asked by Amuche if she’d change anything about the novel, Pride admitted that she tends not to reread her own work once it’s published. Asked if a film was in the works for Patterson Heights, she joked that students were always more interested in the idea than she was.

Patterson Heights book jacket

“And who would play Avery?” asked Pride.

“I’m an actor,” Ta’Kwon subtly volunteered to laughs from the Book Group.

Pride questioned Book Club members about their own writing interests. Sanjaya volunteered her love of fantasy, Tiara talked about writing short stories inspired by her life, and Mecca revealed that while she writes poems, she finds it challenging to be asked to perform them.

Pride, who writes about hip hop and got her start by writing a Mary J. Blige review, went on to discuss the book she considers her baby—The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs. Asked to pick the song she’s living by today, she quoted a verse from Common’s “They Say”: “Writin’ for my life cause I’m scared of a day job.” And she’s doing a good job avoiding one. Right now she’s collaborating on a screenplay, working on a mutli-media project about her family’s history in Baltimore, and doing consultancy through her company, Pride Collaborative. In the future, Pride says, she might like to switch it up again and attempt a Malcolm Gladwell-style idea book—possibly about the pull towards the creative and the challenges of balancing one’s creative inclinations and practical realities.

When Pride asked students if they played instruments, we discovered a host of surprising musical talents. It turns out that Manny plays the cello and violin, Takirra sings and plays the saxophone, Donovan plays guitar, and Tiara sings, plays piano, and even drums a bit. In no time, it looks like we’ll have a PEN/Faulkner Book Club Band.

Oh, and Ta’Kwon reminded us once again that he’s an actor. Keep an eye out for him if Patterson Heights ever comes to the silver screen. He will, of course, be playing the lead role of Avery Washington.

— Jack Nessman