We were rooting for Tony Blair's former spin-doctor, Alastair Campbell, to win the prize most writers try to avoid like the Clap: The Literary Review’s Bad Sex award. However, Campbell was outdone in the contest for supreme raunchy ridiculousness by Rowan Somerville, whose book The Shape of Her won the dubious honor. Somerville has joined elite company—including Norman Mailer, John Updike, and Tom Wolfe—in part for a passage that compared an act of copulation to "a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin."
Salon.com is looking for a possible buyer to help slow the site’s escalating financial problems; the Wall Street Journal’s Deal Journal blog profiles some possible suitors.
Tonight at the Broadway Barnes and Noble in Manhattan, eminent historian Edmund Morris will read from Colonel Roosevelt, the new third volume of his lauded Theodore Roosevelt trilogy.
Colin Robinson chats with GalleyCat about his publishing venture, OR Books, whose distribution motto—“No book printed until it’s sold”—could turn the Strand’s remainder tables into a ghost town. He acknowledges advertising’s sway, but asserts that what really sells books online is a variation of the brick-and-mortar bookseller’s greatest skill, "handselling".
We were cheered to see Justin Spring’s Secret Historian, Jennifer Gilmore’s Something Red, Elif Batuman’s The Possessed, and many other worthy titles on the New York Times's 100 notable books of 2010 list. The omissions, however, were sometimes inexplicable (Tom McCarthy’s novel C), and often indicative of how unadventurous the paper of record’s books section is these days (nothing like Eileen Myles’s Inferno or Joshua Cohen’s Witz in sight). Reading the list, we wondered: Is there a Times quota for mid-century baseball biographies?
The first batch of Vladimir Nabokov’s love letters to his wife Vera have been published in the Russian magazine Snob (an English translation of the 300 letters will be published by Knopf in 2011). The letters include this charming description of celestial mischief: “Heavenly paradise, probably, is rather boring, and there's so much fluffy Seraphic eiderdown there that smoking is banned . . . mind you, sometimes the angels smoke, hiding it with their sleeves, and when the archangel comes, they throw the cigarettes away: that's when you get shooting stars."
James Wood’s professorial New Yorker article on The Who’s drummer Keith Moon—punctuated with memories of choirboy practice and paraphrases from Bataille on the constraints of office life—is a bit too stuffy and yet still oddly endearing. Moreover, it provides an excuse for Wood’s droll finger drumming podcast and this YouTube clip of the author jamming on his kitchen table with his kids cheering him on.
With memoirs by Keith Richards and George W. Bush on the bestsellers list, you’d be forgiven for wondering if ghostwriting has become a better gig than writing.
Eileen Myles, photo by Leopoldine Core.
AN INTERVIEW WITH EILEEN MYLES
“If you’re interested in poetry, I’ll give you lesbianism, and if you’re interested in lesbianism, I’ll give you poetry.”
Inferno is the latest book by poet, novelist, essayist, performer, and one-time presidential hopeful Eileen Myles. (It’s true, she ran as a write-in candidate in 1992.) Eileen did not call Inferno a memoir, even though it sort of is. Maybe one could call it a remembrance. Eileen calls it a novel. In the process of remembering, she lets go a frantic and enlightened rush of recall, impressions, and wit. Loosely modeled on Dante, the novel traces the character Eileen’s dual coming out as both a poet and a lesbian (via hell, purgatory, and paradise). It starts in Boston (hell?) and quickly moves to New York, where she has mainly lived since the ’70s. She moves in and out of the punkier side of the NYC poetry world in a warm, complicated way. That’s mainly because Eileen is, let’s say, a pillar of that world. She’s published numerous books of poetry, including Not Me and Skies, the short-story collection Chelsea Girls, and an earlier novel, Cool for You (she also wrote the libretto for an opera). She’s a former steward of The Poetry Project at Saint Mark’s Church and was a caretaker of genius poet James Schuyler in his later years at the Chelsea Hotel. Inferno includes encounters, for better and for worse, with Amiri Baraka, Marge Piercy, Alice Notley, Ted Berrigan, and Patti Smith. Like many of Frank O’Hara’s poems, the seeming bits of real life in this novel take gossip and elevate it to the level of art.
But the backbone of Inferno is identity and going for it. How to be a poet? How to be a lesbian? How to be vulnerable, or strong? How to be anything with a body? The book’s ride is Eileen’s life up to now. Spoiler alert: It has a happy ending. Bookforum recently talked with Eileen in the East Village the morning after she’d given a reading at the posh new Poets House in Battery Park City.
BOOKFORUM: I understand that Inferno took a long time to finish.
EILEEN MYLES: This book came into existence over ten years. My friends all feel like they’ve already read it because there are parts that they know so well.
From hearing you read them aloud?
Yes. When you’re writing a book and there are certain sections that you know you feel good about, you just read them repetitively. That’s why I was so weird about reading the opening of the book last night. I’ve been reading it for ten years now. But I had a really good time with it. You know, before you got here, I was thinking about Bob Dylan. Some of how he interests me is in that sort of Picasso-y sense of looking at an artist with a long career.
And with easily discernible periods, too.
Exactly. I heard him when he was performing in Woodstock a couple of years ago and I loved hearing him sing old songs and completely hit them differently. Totally different versions. Last night, it was fun to read that section of this novel, and to hit different emphases and make it play differently for me so that I wasn’t bored by my body and my voice. There’s this thing in the poetry world about the voice—not in my poetry world, but in a more academic one. Like “the voice” is this really fetishized thing. Yet I do actually feel like a vocal artist. That’s what I feel like I’m doing.
When you’re reading?
Yeah, and across the board. I imagine what I’m writing, whether it’s a poem or a novel, as a performance. A sound performance. I hear it, and it’s a listening thing. That’s always the measure. It stops according to sound. The silences really mean something.
The breath, the physical thing, really figures into it. Why did this book take ten years to finish?
Well it’s not like I was sitting down writing, writing, writing for ten years. I took an academic job for five years, and that wound up being more work than I’d suspected it would be. Then somebody (Michael Webster) walked up and said, “How would you like to write an opera?” I wrote an opera called Hell because I was already doing Dante. Somebody else (Chris Kraus) said, “How about a book of essays?” I was like, “No, No, my novel has to come first.” But it just didn’t work out that way.
Right, Semiotext(e) put out The Importance of Being Iceland, your book of travel and art essays, last year.
And then there’s writing poems. But it was good because as this book changed over time, my real life styled it. The stops and starts. It evolved really spasmodically. Often I’d have to wait six months for the next big piece of it. If I’d had that beautiful luxury that I’ve always wanted, to be able to sit down for a year and work on a novel.
Would you have done it that way if you could have?
Sure and it would have been a much smoother citizen. So I’m glad. As it was, it ended up being sort of a saga—the journey to write the book was the book.
What’s the act of remembering like for you? Do you access things from memory alone, or do you keep diaries that you are later able to refer to?
I do keep diaries, but I never referred to them for this book.
So were you true to events as they happened?
How would I know? It was really more like an assemblage of what moments in my life I wanted. I’d find myself saying, “Why am I thinking about this person” and so on. It’s always that some problem you’re trying to resolve now has a resemblance to conditions then.
Memory, I think, is triggered by present conditions, but often it’s kind of soporific or something, like "the past is the drug I need to take for what I’m feeling now.” Mostly when I think about memory, it’s all about filming. I just kind of think of a place and try to download it physically. I try and remember not so much what happened, but the room. If I get the details right—not that I use them all—but if I can kind of evoke a place . . .
You can build from there. So it’s more settings than situations that you recall?
Conversations, I don’t really remember. They’re the most made-up things.
And memories can be very impressionistic and shifting.
That’s why I didn’t call this book a memoir. I don’t really give a shit about my memories. I really feel like it’s not about Eileen Myles. I’m kind of like the camera or the recording instrument.
Did digging through the past like this bring up any feelings of regret?
I suspect that I try to avoid writing about those things and instead write about the things that I am glad happened. But, I mean, there’s a sex scene in the book that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to write. I thought, many times, “How can I write that and not feel humiliation?”
Is this the sex scene in the tent?
Yeah. Which is like, so vulnerable. The character in my writing is much more of a dog than I am. And so to have this kind of sexual awakening happen in the book, where the narrator is so vulnerable, was hard to write. I had to kind of piece my way through that slowly.
I think that the novel sort of had to go there at that point. And even though it’s sort of fraught with your character’s over-thinking, it’s warm too.
I’m a writer who always rejects metaphor, but I felt that if I could just make the women be a couple of soldiers around a campfire after it, I would feel more comfortable.
The parallel between becoming a poet and becoming a lesbian is very explicit here.
Part of the heaven section is a bait and switch where I thought, “If you’re interested in poetry, I’ll give you lesbianism, and if you’re interested in lesbianism, I’ll give you poetry.” I wanted to put the power of the two together in the section that’s most about writing poetry because that’s a big part of what drives it. That collision.
The book also seems to put your lesbian stature at risk repeatedly. There can be a lot of rules in certain gay circles—a lot of codes, and transgressing them can mean exile.
It’s wildly coded. Also—it’s really funny to even think of such a thing as lesbian stature. Really? Where? I mean we, lesbians or even just women who write about sex I think are the true underground, the real thing. Everyone I know who is a great female writer is largely writing in the independent press. We’re like modernists. But yeah among us it is difficult. There’s a lot of self-hate. It’s true of all women but especially us. There’s always a new model for the right, cool way to be a lesbian. Everyone is always prey to the accusation that they’re doing it wrong—either in how they’re presenting themselves publicly or how they’re presenting themselves sexually. And generationally, it’s so disconnected. I mean there are always younger men who outright attack the older poet or fiction writer. Kill the father thing. Women don’t do that exactly, but there’s a kind of hatred for the older woman from younger women. Well from everyone, really. But among females it’s like everyone drank the Peter Pan Kool-Aid and now nobody believes that they’re going to become an older female, that hated creature. So female aging becomes the greatest crime. You know? “Whoa, I thought she was a boy. I thought she was a dude." And there she is being a sixty-year-old female! Whereas the older and rottener William Burroughs became the better they liked him. Guess I’m not old enough.
Have you ever found that your writing that breaks with lesbian orthodoxy has led to personal trouble for you?
I think I just wouldn’t limit trouble to lesbian orthodoxy. Aren’t we just in an anti-female culture? I’m reading Naked Lunch and Burroughs endlessly is railing about Matriarchy. He’s such a reverse lesbian. Everything that Matriarchy represents is for him something that demands conformity and rebellious men always stop right at the door of gender, and can’t look at their own part in subjugating half the race. In my fiction I believe I’m doing something special and incredibly dangerous and against all orthodoxy. I’m constructing a world that resembles my own sense of mystery and existence, and even the symbolic existence of a public lesbian who’s willing to talk about her sexual life as something that’s very rich and full of rivulets. That is a dangerous and explosive thing. To suggest. To be human, we have to have all those strands. Something I’m really dedicated to is always writing “it” wrong—figuring out, stylistically and aesthetically, how to write the wrong thing. During the AIDS crisis, there was a sex-positive, forward, strong thing, and even then I was like, “Mmm, that’s not exactly the story I’m feeling or telling.” It’s the wrong wrong that I’m really interested in, not the kind that’s just against the culture.
Once you name and make public what could really hurt you, you sort of declaw it.
And you’re giving the version. I think that’s what writing is, is giving the version. Even going back twenty years in publishing, there’s been a tendency that’s like, “If you’re going to be female, we just don’t want some raped person. We want a strong, forceful top who wins. The super female. Blah! But that’s “the story.” And yet look at the vogue in films right now with the sort of abject guy.
Like the shlumpy Sideways guy?
Yeah, or, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, with the guy who comes out dancing naked and gets betrayed. Like a big naked baby. As a woman, I really want to write to present my own kind of beautiful abjection. I have the right to get crucified too. And be funny about it.
Are there things in Inferno that you wouldn’t have been comfortable revealing five or ten years ago?
Well, even that scene with the plethora of pussies. Which I have to say is kind of Virgil. There’s a chapter in “The Aeneid” where there’s this decorated shield that tells a story . . .
You’re referring to the section that’s sort of an inventory of pussies you’ve known.
Yes. A gay man who loves my work said to me, smiling, “I love your book, but I couldn’t read those four pages.” Like I was supposed to smile and get down with his misogyny.
A lot of men, both gay and straight, are terrified of female anatomy.
And culturally, there’s a casual assumption of misogyny that’s a little bit like the pill that everybody has to swallow. We’re to understand that there’s a good reason why there’s never been a female president in the United States, that there’s a good reason why Congress is mostly men. And as an adult, you’re meant to have achieved some kind of comfort with that reality. So we have a persistent anger of course, a special engine, when you live in a world where a lot of your social life and sex life is running differently, and not wrapped around the true pole of the man being the human of greater value.
What’s problematic about a lesbian is that there’s an abiding sense of cultural betrayal. And that’s ironic, because any woman I think is betrayed by her culture, and then the lesbian implicitly betrays the culture by her wrong polarity. Like she’s not playing the game. But the fact of the matter is that most of us are playing a game, some game, me included, just to function, to survive.
I love that the second part of the novel, the Purgatory section, is written as the answer to a grant application asking for a summary of your career. It’s funny because it’s the most digressive summation ever. It’s grant suicide.
That’s the joke of it. I wrote it in a year when I was thinking, “Should I apply for this grant again? It’s been twenty years that I’ve been applying for this grant. I should have gotten it by now.” When I realized that I could make the grant application be part of the book, I even wrote to the funding organization and told them I was doing it. And did it. Of course, again, I didn’t get the grant. But writing that section gave me a way to frame all my writing as a kind of claim—a request!
It’s a great response to the absurd request to write a career history in this little space. Your life, in many ways, has been your career. That’s how it is with most poets. How are you supposed to summarize that?
It’s a rich parent saying, “Lie to me so you’ll get the money.” What’s so weird about poetry is you don’t sell the thing. Finally, all you’re selling is the person. I make my living doing readings. Deliver the body. And when a poet dies, it’s all about who got him last. Like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe that I missed Creeley. I didn’t know he was going to die the next weekend.” It’s kind of really crazy.
There’s also the way that, as a young person getting into poetry, you might be attracted to the persona before the work.
Right. Bukowski would have a refrigerator full of beer on stage with him. When I worked at the Poetry Project, I remember trying to get Burroughs to come and his secretary saying, “William’s really at the sunset of his performance career.” It was so beautiful, and I bet he trotted it out all the time. Who wouldn’t pay for that? The tawny lights come up and the checkbook comes out.
Two threads that attract me throughout Inferno, and in most of your work, are the ex-Catholic thing and the class thing. There’s the mention in this book of some artists being faux working-class and very conscious of it.
That’s all artists.
And Catholic, for me, usually equates with working class.
Yes. I know there’s the patrician Kennedy thing . . .
Or William F. Buckley, or Annie Dillard.
But my personal experience of Catholicism is more Rust Belt working class.
That’s where the mass manipulation occurs, you know? That’s where abortion gets sabotaged. That’s the manipulation within the Catholic Church, the refusal of birth control and population control. It’s the ruling class controlling the working class.
It would be a way to ensure a workforce, if there were any jobs left.
It’s a way to ensure an army, because I don’t know what else it predicts. There are no jobs, so all you’re going to have is too many people; it seems genocidal. I don’t understand it.
Sometimes it seems like a person needs to be more stringent as an ex-Catholic than they do as the average, practicing, casual Catholic.
When some people talk about poetry, they talk about line breaks. But I mostly think about measure. I’m not the only poet who thinks about that. I’m still kind of structured around a Catholic measure because they got me when I was young, and they made me pray, and they made me stand up and sit down and believe and withhold and be afraid of my body—all those things. The very mosaic of my existence is Catholic. I even get weepy and love it. There’s so much. I have so much buried treasure [laughs].
The Guardian reports that the sublimely gruff-voiced singer Tom Waits is publishing his first book of poetry, Hard Ground, a collaboration with photographer Michael O'Brien. In a 1975 interview Waits said, "I don't like the stigma that comes with being called a poet . . . So I call what I'm doing an improvisational adventure or an inebriational travelogue."
Rand Paul has scored a book deal with Hachette Book Group’s Center Street division. The tome, The Tea Party Goes to Washington, will appear in February, just as Paul begins his senatorial debut.
Journalist Johann Hari had never met a fried food he didn’t like—until he converted to the Church of Exercise. We will keep his inspiring example in mind as we overindulge in food and drink during our Thanksgiving break.
Next month, the University of Chicago will publish e-book editions of all twelve volumes of Anthony Powell’s “A Dance to the Music of Time,” a series of books beloved by tweedy, genteel eccentrics such as the narrator of Jonathan Ames’s Wake Up, Sir!. In December, the U of Chicago will give away the first volume, A Question of Upbringing, for free—call it a gateway drug for Anglophilia.
Granta’s brand-new “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” is their first fully translated issue.
There’s more bad news for the beleaguered editors of the Anthology of Rap, who have been criticized over the past few weeks for transcription errors in their volume. Now, some of the book’s advisory board members are trying to distance themselves from the project: “The board lent its credibility to the editors and in turn, the editors did not approach the subject matter with the proper rigor.” And, even worse, Grandmaster Caz, one of the artists who supposedly checked his songs in the anthology, says he never “signed off on the lyrics,” citing several mistakes. As another of the book’s board members writes, “The stakes are always high with hip-hop; it's a perpetual battleground in the culture war being waged in this country, and we can't afford to be mangling the words of our most articulate spokespeople.”
Publisher’s Weekly presents a guide to “literary boozing” in New York City, information that those in the slumping publishing industry may desperately need.
Listen to This author Alex Ross.
Was Gawker’s posting of scanned pages from Sarah Palin’s forthcoming book illegal? Gawker has been court-ordered to take them down, with a trial set for later this month. Denton v. Palin may be the car-crash/catnip trial of the century.
The Google team has posted an e-book, 20 Things I Learned About Browsing and the Web, which is perhaps a preview of what the long-rumored Google Editions publishing imprint’s product would look like. If so, the format is what we’d expect from the slightly evil geniuses at the G-team: slick and user-friendly, but still an anemic approximation of an actual book.
In the new Vanity Fair, there’s a disarming dispatch from Christopher Hitchens, detailing his struggle with esophageal cancer (he notes that the disease is in Stage Four, and “there is no such thing as Stage Five”). Writing with suave directness, he describes the awkwardness of encounters with friends, family, and strangers as they seek to find a common language to discuss his illness, and in his usual fashion, holds himself to a rigorous standard of candor and intellectual honesty, proposing that “as the populations of Tumortown and Wellville continue to swell and to ‘interact,’ there’s a growing need for ground rules that prevent us from inflicting ourselves upon one another.”
Tonight at the Housing Works Bookstore Cafe, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross (Listen to This), Ann Powers, Robert Christgau (the “dean of rock criticism,” who has a new blog called Expert Witness), Greg Tate (author of Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking from Black Culture), and other contributors to The Best Music Writing 2010, kick off the first night of a two-evening reading. This year’s volume of the famed series is especially engrossing; as Blogcritics.org author Glen Boyd writes, it is “the broadest, most diverse collection of music criticism offered up to date.”
At MobyLives, Nathan Ihara posits “2010 was a tipping point when it comes to our concept of originality, art, and theft.”
Vladimir Nabokov dedicated every novel he wrote the same way: "to Vera." This weekend, the Russian magazine Snob is publishing a selection of love letters from Vladimir to his wife over a fifty-year period (she burned her half of the correspondence).
Literary longshot: Jaimy Gordon's surprising National Book Award win for her horse-racing novel, Lord of Misrule, is perhaps even more inspiring than the Seabiscuit story. The book was ignored before it was nominated for America's most prestigious literary prize, and as the New York Times reports, even afterwards it only received two reviews—one in The Daily Racing Form.
Sloane Crosley, the Vintage and Anchor publicist famous for her sassy memoirs I Was Told There'd Be Cake and How Did you Get This Number is saying "See ya!" to the publicity grind, so she can concentrate on writing full-time. Crosley announced in an email to her colleagues, "I will phantom-limb miss this place but I very much look forward to keeping in touch."
There's a predictably ridiculous culture-war skirmish going on over Obama's children's book, Of Thee I Sing; meanwhile, Sarah Palin is under the impression that it is illegal to write about her book before it comes out.
The National Book Awards were announced last night, and the honors for nonfiction went to rock icon Patti Smith for her memoir of Robert Mapplethorpe, Just Kids. (Read Greg Milner's review. Listen to the Bookworm interview.) "There's nothing more beautiful in the material world than the book," Smith said in her acceptance speech. (Smith will appear again tonight at a tribute for the late novelist Jim Carroll.) We were excited to see that the relatively unknown Jaimy Gordon won for her novel Lord of Misrule. Tom Wolfe won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters (a.k.a. the lifetime achievement award)—and spoke for what seemed like a lifetime. As Edward Champion tweeted during the ceremony, "Tom Wolfe: the National Book Awards's answer to Fidel Castro."
At the Faster Times, there's a funny and thoughtful conversation between Deb Olin Unferth and George Saunders about the "state of the creative-writing degree." Particularly great are Saunders's opening remarks about MFA programs, in which he advises: "Don’t apply just because you think it’s the thing to do or is a 'good career move' or everyone else in your school is doing it. Apply when you really feel you need ... something: shelter or focus or good readers or just some time out of the capitalist shit-storm."
Guernica Magazine has posted a previously unpublished interview with John Updike, in which he discusses at length his admiration of Nabokov, though he critiques Nabokov's maddening novel Ada or Ardor: "It was too much of a good thing in that his, what you might call his narcissistic side, the self-reveling side . . . there was a kind of vanity and a preening and a dandyish cruelty. There is a cruelty in Nabokov, which—you know, life is cruel, so why can’t a writer be cruel? But in that case, it seemed to me to be too much, and in some ways the book was very aristocratic."
The brainy literary-arts magazine Triple Canopy has a new design.
The Bard of Brooklyn, novelist Paul Auster, is appearing tonight on his home turf at BookCourt to promote his new novel, Sunset Park, which largely takes place in the eponymous neighborhood.
Farrar, Straus & Giroux president Jonathan Galassi has just completed an impressive new translation of Giacomo Leopardi's Canti, the nineteenth-century collection of forty-one poems that Joseph Luzzi characterizes in the new Bookforum as covering a "dazzling variety of styles and themes, from confessions of private pain and humiliation to philosophical satires and grand pronouncements on current events." At the Work in Progress blog, Galassi shares images of his Canti proof pages, offering a fascinating glimpse at the revisions and edits that went into making his musical and faithful en face edition. As he writes: "Trying to make Leopardi sound plausible in English has been very, very laborious—and exhilarating."
One of our favorite Brooklyn bookstores, Unnameable Books, is the type of carefully curated new and used shop that has become increasingly rare, if not nearly extinct (Atlantic Books is also a precious exemplar of what a good used bookshop should be). Unnameable's owner Adam Tobin chats with The Prospect Heights Patch about what it takes to thrive as a local independent bookseller in the age of e-books and Amazon.
The inimitable New Yorker music critic Sasha Frere Jones is becoming an editor of the forthcoming iPad newspaper, The Daily, headed by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. New Yorker editor David Remnick doesn't sound worried: “People who write here do all sorts of things—books, other writing—so he can do what he wants as long as the work here doesn’t suffer.”
Alix Christie estimates that there are ten million people currently writing novels, the majority of which will never be published. What keeps these writers going?
Jay-Z at the New York Public Library, photo by Jori Klein.
Bookworms and b-boys (and girls) were buoyant last night at the New York Public Library’s Jay-Z appearance with Cornel West. Fans showed up hours before the 7pm event, giddy with anticipation at seeing the music biz's "number-one supplier." Jay-Z is promoting his lavish new autobiography, Decoded, which mixes memoir and a labyrinthine self-deconstruction of his lyrics. Tickets were notoriously hard to come by, and those lucky enough to have them weren’t above gloating (“We’re all VIPs!” someone in the general admissions line shouted during the long wait to get past the security area). Inside the normally hushed Celeste Bartos auditorium, the mood was an odd combination of library colloquy and hip-hop concert: The crowd a mix of fervent Jay-Z fans and those more familiar with the LOC than the HOV’. But an A-list celebrity like Jay can easily bridge such divides, and his charisma enthralled the audience after the packed house had been warmed up with soul songs (Marvin Gaye, James Brown), Jay-Z’s Black Album track “December 4th" (featuring a recording of Jay-Z’s mother talking about his childhood), and a Louis Armstrong tune. The moderator, the NYPL's Paul Holdengraber, said he was experiencing a “euphoria of ignorance” about hip-hop. He quipped that he grew up comparing the merits of various versions of The Magic Flute, and drew a noticeable blank when Jay-Z mentioned the rapper Ol' Dirty Bastard, saying, "You will lose me at times." But Holdengraber said that he loved what he had learned from Decoded, and his new-found enthusiasm for Jay-Z's work was genuine and infectious, as he gamely and capably steered the conversation with Jay-Z and West, reading selections from Decoded, and pronouncing Jay-Z to be a major poet, a statement that garnered roof-rocking applause.
During the wide-ranging, nearly two hour discussion (which was live blogged at The Guardian), Jay-Z answered questions from West and Holdengraber honestly and eloquently. He spoke about growing up in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn (as described in the song "What More Can I Say:" "I remember vividly/What these streets did to me"), and the thrill of discovering rap: "It made language new." Jay-Z repeatedly stressed the importance of context in understanding hip-hop culture, explaining that that was the main reason his lyrics are annotated in Decoded. He cited the song "99 Problems" as an example, because the word bitch features prominently in its catchy chorus. Jay-Z told the song’s story, which is about “driving while black,” and offered the not-quite-convincing explanation that "bitch" refers to a dog in a police K-9 unit, adding, "I was being provocative . . . it struck me as deeply funny that people thought I was talking about women." (Perhaps not as funny to women who would love to see that degrading word banished from pop-culture.)
The trio also talked about God (Jay-Z is a believer, opining that all religions are "praying to the same God," though he admitted a moment of doubt when the Notorious B.I.G. was murdered), fame ("It's more of a challenge than a burden"), Obama imitating Jay's famous gesture, and how Jay forgave his father for leaving his family, an encounter chronicled memorably in the song "Moment of Clarity." Jay-Z gave Harry Belafonte, Lupe Fiasco, and some old friends in the front rows shout-outs along the way, but there was no sign of his wife, Beyonce. The evening ended with Jay-Z's “Empire State of Mind,” a song that catpures both the beauty and grit of NYC, blasting on the PA. The audience bobbed their heads and clapped along. Wrapping up, Holdengraber asked West if he had any more questions for Jay-Z, and West, obviously moved by the music, simply said, echoing the chorus: “I am inspired." Kudos to the city's finest cultural institution for bringing together a Princeton professor and a poet from the projects to inspire us all.