Books are great—we all love books around here—but seeing a writer in person, giving a reading or a talk, can stimulate the intellect, illuminate the work, and delightfully entertain.
Mary Oliver is one of Beacon's most popular writers, and, according to the Poetry Foundation, author of five of the top seven best-selling poetry books last year. When she tours, she fills auditoriums, which, as any poet in America can tell you, doesn't often happen for poetry readings. In fact, her reading on Monday as part of Seattle's Arts and Lectures series sold out in record time, and tickets were reported to be changing hands on Craigslist for as much as $100 per seat.
So does she live up to the hype? Beautifully, says Seattle Post-Intelligencer book critic John Marshall, who says "the poet orchestrated her reading like a maestro, alternating poems of humor with poems showcasing bittersweet truths and honest emotions."
Many were drawn to the Oliver event by her approachable verse with its intense focus on the natural world and its quiet delights, but she soon dispensed with any notion that the evening was destined to be some sort of ecumenical worship service of nature or the poet herself. That seemed a possibility when many in the crowd of 2,500 gave Oliver a standing ovation even before she had uttered a word.
But Oliver's self-effacing sense of humor soon punctured such awe, delivered with a Seinfeldian sense of timing.
"I have a little dog and I'm working hard to make him famous," Oliver said.
Knowing murmurs rippled through the crowd.
"And he deserves it," she added, to widespread laughter.
Another Beacon author, Sherrilyn Ifill (On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-First Century), recently spoke at University of Maryland Law School about a troubling time in the history of race relations in America. Introducing the documentary film Banished, scheduled to air on Independent Lens on PBS later this month, Ifill discussed "'racial cleansing' of blacks from communities that have remained virtually lily-white, even in the 21st century." In this Baltimore Sun article, columnist Gregory Kane talks about the importance of acknowledging the history of banishments, and of making reparations to citizens whose property was stolen from them after they were driven from their homes in at least twelve different counties:
That dreaded "R-word" is indeed dredged up in Banished. When blacks were driven from Forsyth County in 1912, many left behind land that they owned. They were never paid for that land. It was simply gobbled up and sold by whites who saw an opportunity to make a quick - and easy - buck. Neither the blacks who lost land nor their descendants have been compensated.
But you don't need to leave your house to see a reading or a book talk anymore—in fact, you don't even need to leave your desk chair! The Cambridge Forum, which has featured Katherine Newman, Philip Winslow, and Fred Pearce, among other Beacon authors, has audio and video available on their website. Unfortunately, we can't link to the Cambridge Forum videos via our new YouTube profile, but there are a lot of other good tidbits to be found: Thich Nhat Hahn, Eboo Patel, even Wallace Shawn reading Howard Zinn. For your enjoyment, here's one of our favorites at the moment: Lester Young and Billie Holiday performing "Fine and Mellow".