Speaking of Woolf….

I’ve now done two of four sessions on Woolf for a book discussion series at the Brooklyn Public Library. They have been amazing. Preparing to talk about Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse with a group (how big? somewhere between twenty and forty) of adults, some of whom have been reading Woolf since before I was born, others who’ve never read her is thrilling and nerve-wracking. I can do little else on the day of a talk.

But then, to get into a room with other adults who’ve chosen to spend part of their day thinking and talking about a writer is a deeply moving thing and, once we get going, the time takes care of itself.

The conversation I had on Sunday, however, was unlike any other conversation I’ve had about Woolf in all my quarter century of studying her.

Luna Stage, just down the road from me in West Orange, is mounting the New Jersey Premier of Vita and Virginia (Eileen Atkins’ wonderful adaptation of letters to tell the story of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf’s love affair and of their continuing friendship thereafter) and they invited me to give a talkback after one of the performances. Of course, I said yes. A friend and I were already planning to go.

Then they asked me if I would speak with the director and the actresses.

On Sunday, I did.

We planned to talk for an hour, but it quickly grew to two. I did my best to tell them how to pronounce Lytton Strachey and Violet Trefusis. I tried to explain, not as an intellectual, but in ways that would help an actress, what I thought drew these women to each other, how I understood their sexualities and their attraction to each other. By the end of the time, the actresses were more in character than out, “I think I’m jealous…” “I say you don’t get anything done, but you get so much done…”

What a magical thing: to knock on a door, meet a group of strangers, and, within moments be passionately debating what it might have been like to be another woman altogether.

I’m still smiling.

If you’re in the area, I’ll be talking about Between the Acts on Wednesday, 9/19, 3:00-5:00 and about Moments of Being two weeks later, on 10/3. Both of these events are at the Brooklyn Public Library. These discussions are free and open to the public.

My talkback at Luna Stage is after the 3:00 PM performance on Sunday 9/30. The actresses are amazing and tickets are only $25.

Virginia Woolf in Uruguay, final dispatch: food edition

The beginning of the term has me spinning like a top. So much so, that I forgot to mention that my account of the Woolf Conference in Uruguay was published at the wonderful Words Without Borders site, a terrific resource for literature in languages other than English, with many supporting materials for teachers and students and a beautifully designed virtual space. You can go directly to my dispatch by clicking here.

The one thing that was just too non-literary to mention was how great and interesting the food was, but, especially since I got teased for my enthusiasm about it, before, during, and after, I’ll share that with you here, now.

Forty percent of Uruguayans are of Italian descent and pizza was everywhere. When I asked how it differed from Italian or American pizza, I was told it didn’t, but a group of us went out for pizza on my first night there and I learned different. The slices came to our table on individual, dessert-size melamine plate, each slice cut into strips for sharing. The delicious brick-oven pizza had no tomato sauce at all. It was served with fainá, a flatbread made with chick pea flour. Both were delicious, but neither the food nor the generous way it was shared, down the middle of a long table cluttered with tumblers of water and red wine, was much like eating a slice in New York.

The chivito, the national sandwich of Uruguay, surpassed its reputation. This sandwich, with a thin layer of steak, ham, bacon, mayonnaise, hard-boiled egg, and pickles on a sweet soft roll is messy, delicious, and too much. It’s everything a Big Mac dreams of being: too many meats and condiments, too much juicy flavor, all coming together into a perfect sandwich.

Alfredo Zitarrosa

Last week, after the conference was over, two of the English professors from the University of the Republic of Uruguay were kind enough to take me and another visiting American on a drive to the charming vacation town of Colonía.

While there, I spotted a music store and asked my new Uruguayan friends to help me pick some Cds to remember Uruguay by. I had read about Luciano Supervielle as the hot new Uruguayan artist on the plane, so I picked up his album. I also got a two-cd compilation of Candombe, the distinctive, highly percussive Afro-Uruguayan music (and, I’m told, the only music that this solely Uruguayan—tango, being, of course, shared with Argentina). Both are terrific.

If you want old music, traditional music, they said, maybe try Alfredo Zitarrosa. But, the man warned, his music is very sad, very depressing. He has one song, my new friend continued, in which he likens his failed love, his failed life, his failed nation, to the slaughter of a calf which is vividly described in the 16-minute song. By the end of the 16 minutes, you’ll want to kill yourself, too, he said. This music may not be for you.

But my fellow American and I took one look at this face—that sad, manly bassett hound topped with a lot of hair and a bit too much gel really does it for me—and picked up copies of a collection of Zitarrosa. I can’t stop listening to it and it seems to me that his is the music I have been needing all my life. Gorgeous, lush, and melancholy, with beautiful clear masculine vocals and a sweet Spanish guitar, the music moves me to my core.

To hear this man singing mi pais, mi dolor, mi gente, mariposa is to feel, all facts to the contrary, almost able to understand Spanish.

I love Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but there is something about melancholy songs in another language that just slays me. My love for Jacques Brel will never abate, but I needed someone new. Zitarrosa forever!


I would give the current revival of the Anne Bogart-Ellen Lauren collaboration a mixed but generally positive review. I would give the talk-back after Tuesday night’s show five stars.
Room is a one-woman show about Virginia Woolf, from a script drawn from Woolf’s writings, selected by Bogart and adapted by Joceyln Clark. Lauren starts the show in an aisle seat in the audience, severely dressed with a severe expression on her face. The only thing distinguishing her from a really mean English teacher (or Miss Hathaway in the Beverly Hillbillies) is the spotlight. There is no curtain on the nearly bare stage; just three huge scrims of the palest blue and an armchair. The play begins when, from row F one hears a commanding “GOOD EVENING.”

The show is largely drawn from A Room of One’s Own and Moments of Being and, I think every word uttered is a quotation from Woolf (although the interludes about a pear tree were said to be from Between the Acts and were not familiar to me, to my shame). The first few minutes are strangely discomfiting: Lauren is stern and a bit goggle-eyed and the play feels like parody, although it’s hard to discern what’s being parodied. However, as the play unfolded, the uncertainty about what we were to think and feel took an encouraging shape: the play deals honestly (albeit indirectly—I wanted more) with war, alludes to mental illness, and is direct about sexual abuse without imposing a reading and always, always with tremendous interest in and respect for Woolf as a mind.

Lauren’s movements are jerky and constrained and, as quickly becomes apparent, she is restricting herself to a very limited range of gestures: a Cassandra-like pose, hands upraised; a pedagogical gesture, finger pointing down at an imaginary text; an inward twist of pain, hands folded together and low to protect her most private parts and thoughts.

Some of the editorial decisions struck me as brilliant. All the names of women writers are stripped from the famous opening of A Room of One’s Own, so we just have the catalog of what one could do (anecdote, mention, etc.) without the list of forgotten women that would distract a 21st century theater audience (even one as literary as those likely to attend a one-woman show on Woolf). She recites the long quotation from Jane Eyre and Woolf’s ensuing commentary brilliantly and the gothic lighting in that segment is fabulous. There is a gorgeous sound cue of an air raid, during which Lauren lies on stage, breathing hard. I only wish that afterwards she’d recited from “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”—I longed for that 1, 2, 3, 4… that Woolf uses in that essay to mark how impossible it is to think during a bombing. Toward the end of the play, Lauren works herself into a frenzy of movement, a kind of final crescendo of word and gesture, emphasizing, over and over again, how hard it is to know a person.

At other moments, because there is no clear through-line to follow, I found myself a little bored. Sometimes, because Woolf is the chief intellectual companion of my life, I could float off on Woolf’s words, even when I disagreed with Lauren’s interpretations; sometimes Lauren brought new meaning to familiar phrases; sometimes I just worried about what my students in English 3502: Modern British Writing thought.

But the talk back was absolutely brilliant.

Lauren and Bogart described rehearsing in Bogart’s upstate home where the rule was that Lauren was to work on memorizing the script then, at some point in the day, to come upon Bogart in a room and intone “GOOD EVENING.” From there, Lauren would recite all that she’d thus far memorized, stop, and withdraw. Bogart then followed Lauren to a new room where they’d discuss what they’d done before.

The strangely limited choreography came from a series of 29 photographs of Woolf, the poses of which Lauren memorized. These were limited back down to 9 gestures which then became the language of movement for the play.

They said that they wanted Woolf to seem old-fashioned, limited as the play began and that then, as we were more and more confined in our seats and we saw, more and more, how much she had in her mind, how bravely she faced her life—its beauty and its despair—we would see that she was far more free than we.

I left thinking the show was interesting, feeling that the thought behind the show was brilliant—beyond what I’d been able to detect as an audience member. Was that failure mine or that of the production? I don’t know.

Room is playing through Sunday, 3/27, at the Julia Miles Theater on 55th and 9th and, if you’re interested, there are tons of discount codes on the theater’s website.

Here's an interview with Ellen Lauren: 

In New York magazine, Scott Brown says:

Lauren's delivery sounds a wee bit Mrs. Doubtfire at first, and for a good half-hour we wonder if we're watching nothing more than highfalutin semaphore. But halfway through, the flint hits the steel, and the show's soul catches the flame. Room isn't a perfect translation of Woolf's gestalt, but watching Lauren climb the walls of Neil Patel's terrifyingly empty set leaves one images, both haunting and heroic, of a great mind abandoned to itself — free and unmoored, equally.

Uncanny Room

About six weeks ago, a colleague whom I admire tremendously was diagnosed with acute leukemia. She died on Tuesday morning, a fact I learned just before going to teach the first class after spring break, the first class on Mrs. Dalloway.

My colleague, Margaret (Mimi) Lamb was an older woman, a Vassar grad who left North Dakota and never looked back. More than once she told me that her Vassar professors used to say “our marriages are our failures.” She was a pistol: kind to people but utterly straight-shooting and uncompromising about literature and plays. She was a great, great New Yorker: the kind of person who, without pretense, would always know one deeper, cooler, richer thing about any place, any theater, any stone, any street corner, you happened to mention. She loved being alive—in spite of years tending to a chronically ill husband (who predeceased her) and poor health herself)—she was full of a zest for life, curiosity, engagement, sharpness. I so admire her. We both loved our Norwegian sweaters and had the same J. Jill corduroy jacket.

When her diagnosis came, it fell to me to staff her freshman class. Still, she had been teaching at Fordham for 33 years and, for all that I admired her, she was not a close friend. Nonetheless, through a friend who knew her better, whose loss is so much greater, I sent her a card and a copy of Dolen Perkins-Valdez’ Wench to keep her company in hospital.

On Sunday, we learned she’d been moved to hospice and would be glad for visitors. Four of us planned to visit Tuesday afternoon. I put on a vivid flowered skirt and tried not to worry about the hospice. Tuesday morning, right before class, the word came that she’d died.

Such a strange feeling. At once, the sadness of knowing that never again would I see her shambling by my office, papers under her arm, maybe stopping to tell me what was on her mind, maybe wearing one of the sweaters that she and I both love. At the same time, the guilty relief of not having to learn, yet again, how bad I am at hospitals and, worse, the recognition that I had my afternoon back to catch up on email.

But there was that class to teach. Sure, it was on Mrs. Dalloway, but I didn’t have a plan.

I talked—about moments of being, about Septimus’ madness in the park, about Woolf’s esteem for Jane Harrison.

After class, a dear friend who has a real West Coast 70s yoga vibe stopped by my office. He offered his condolences, admired my skirt, and said he could tell that my “energy” was with Mimi, that I was helping her make her transition.

I didn’t think much of it--I love that sincere spirituality, but do I believe it?--until I went to the play. Somehow, the intensity of my loss, of my love for Woolf, of my raw unpreparedness for class meant that I quoted for my students almost every passage that was central to Anne Bogart’s production. It was uncanny and beautiful. Maybe we can count it as a tribute to Mimi. May she rest in peace. We miss her here. 

BareBurger Japan benefit, 3/22

One of my wonderful former students manages the Village location & he convinced the owners to donate 20% of sales (not profits, but SALES) to Japan relief on Tuesday. Of course, direct gifts are better, but sometimes, it's also good to get a burger. If you need a burger anyway, show Joe and BareBurger that it does matter when our businesses support relief efforts. 

Overheard, Midtown Pret

Around the corner on the banquette, and to my right, sat two strikingly beautiful businesswomen, late 30s. The suited blonde ate her salad while the ballerina brunette in navy pashmina and dress and orange Prada bag talked, without cessation, about her amazingly perspicacious people skills. These skills seem to have lead her to work, unhappily, in consulting, for many years, and to have been a contributing factor in her divorce from a man who made a lot more money than she. Ballerina drank a diet coke, left her boxed salad unopened and untouched, and, when blonde went back for a lemonade, got herself a still water. I think ballerina was being recruited by blondie.

To my left, two scruffy cute Euro-hipster men, sweatshirts and jean jackets, early 30s. They purchased one cup of coffee between them. The one seated immediately next to me pulled two sandwiches out of his backpack and they proceeded to have a conversation that moved between English and a second language (Italian? Russian? Portuguese? I’m ashamed to be able to come no closer than that). So I would hear, “Well, it’s not really human nature, I mean it’s more xxxxx, xxx xxx Spinoza.” “Ah, Spinoza! Well, xxx xxxx xxxxx Heidegger xxx.”

To my immediate left in the corner seat sat, first, a middle-aged women, eavesdropping, and then a businessman reading the Knicks box scores from last night’s loss.

I was reading Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. The Morroccan chicken soup was good.

Room at Women's Project in March

Three years ago, I took students to a wonderful production of Woolf's only play, Freshwater, at the Julia Miles Theater. Now, the Women's Project is back with an adaptation of A Room of One's Own. It should be wonderful! I'm taking my students--though they don't know it yet! 
based on the writings of Virginia Woolf
directed by Anne Bogart
adapted by Jocelyn Clark
starring Ellen Lauren

Harvested from a lifetime of Virginia Woolf's writing, Room traces the movement of a creative spirit in exquisite crisis, an artist in a pressure cooker of articulation who seeks room to move, room to breathe, and room to imagine. The New York Times calls it “a theatrical representation of the writer's mind, an abstraction painted with theater's animated tools.” And the L.A. Times raves “Ellen Lauren's masterly economy of movement, combined with Anne Bogart's unerring compositional sense, is breathtaking.”
Only 16 Performances!
MARCH 12-27, 2011
Tuesdays & Wednesdays at 7:00
Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00
Sundays at 3:00 & 7:30 
Exceptions: Matinee only--no 7:30 show--on Sunday March 13.

Join Anne Bogart & Ellen Lauren for a post-performance discussion on Tuesday, March 22nd & Wednesday, March 23rd. 
Julia Miles Theater
424 West 55th Street, just west of 9th Avenue, New York City

Tickets on Sale 
Click Telecharge.com
Call 212.239.6200
Regular Tickets = $60
Premium Tickets = $75 
Groups = $25/ticket for 9+ at 212.765.1706 or "tickets at womensproject.org".

Traffic Lights and Full Stops

This poor little blog has come to a full stop. I miss it and I miss you. I gave a lecture on Woolf on October 21 at the New York Public Library. On October 22, we closed on a house. On October 27th we moved. We hung pictures during the snow days that followed the Boxing Day blizzard. We are all still tired, still disoriented, loving our new house and our new community, but reeling from the loss of friends and neighbors in Jersey City.

It’s true, Jersey City is just thirty minutes away, but I lost three great women friends whom I would see a couple times a week, just in passing. About twice a week, I would walk my dog in the mornings and would often see Kadee taking her kids to school. Usually, I didn’t even bother to flag her down—I had just bid my kids good-bye, she was in her last few moments of the morning with them, she would have two in tow, I had my elderly dog and often, a poop bag. It’s hard to imagine that luxury now. Then, I could count on seeing Laura in the mornings when I dropped the kids off at school or, more often, in the late afternoons, as we passed her apartment on the way home. And checking to see if Lizzie was home—and to see if she looked like she wanted us to bug her—was a nightly ritual for the girls and me. These are big losses.

Having enough room, having a proper study of my own with a door are big gains and we love the community.

In any case, to re-ignite this blog, I bring you the link to my October lecture, available here and on the NYPL website.

T-16 days and counting

Gentle readers, I know that posting has been light. I am writing--more than ever--but the work I'm pouring into my lecture (just eleven days away!) on Mrs. Dalloway is sufficiently consuming that I'm finding it hard to digest it into little blog-friendly tidbits.

On top of that, we have bought a house--or are buying one--and will close on the sale the very day after my lecture!

I pack a box. I write a paragraph. I lie awake at night worrying about where the couch will fit, what the new daycare will be like, and whether I really should include that anecdote about Lytton Strachey in my lecture.

All of this makes for a rather manic interior life, but not one that I want to blog about.

Never fear. In November, I'll be unpacking at my leisure in our new home (with my very own study) in the melodiously named and lovely town of South Orange, New Jersey (where, yes, the middle school does have a giant orange on a pole out front!) and blogging should resume at its usual sporadic pace.

Until then, I hope to see you--in reality or in spirit--on 10/21 at 4:00!

The Art of Captivity

My friend and colleague Lenny Cassuto has curated a wonderful small exhibit on the idea of captivity. In American literature, captivity narratives have a very particular connotation: a subgenre of stories of whites who were kidnapped by (or ran off with) Native Americans and then wrote of their experiences. And, of course, in American history, the word captivity always recollects the sorry fact of slavery. This exhibit keeps its focus on the political while opening that category up, for us to think about mythology (Demeter and Persephone).  As I walk past the show up to work each morning, I find myself particularly drawn to the play on celebrity wives, looking on in poses of “Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” by Karen Yama.

But that is not the only amazing image. Kara Walker never disappoints, and four of her gorgeous and disturbing silhouettes are on display. As is an amazing, Jasper Johns or Glenn Ligon-like print of the lyrics of Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire.” And then, anchoring the gallery with a stunning pop of color is Anne Sherwood Pundyk’s painting.

If you’re around Lincoln Center, pop your head into Lowenstein and ask the security guard to let you see the art. Or better, pop by tomorrow.

The show will have a formal opening receptions and artists’ panel discussion tomorrow, Tuesday, October 5th. Reception is 5:00-6:30; panel discussion is 6:30-8:00. The gallery is located on the street level of Fordham University’s Lincoln Center Campus, 113 W 60th St., just west of Columbus Circle.

Part two of the exhibition will be held at Susan Eley Fine Art (46 W 90th), beginning on October 26, 2010.

Community Soccer, Jersey Style

My seven-year-old is playing community soccer for the first time this year. Her team is sponsored by the Friendly Son’s of St. Patrick. I both love and cringe at the apostrophe error on the back of her uniform. With her blue eyes and freckles, she certainly has the map of Ireland on her face much more than I do and that makes her very cute indeed in that dark green jersey. 

So, last night, I sat on the aluminum bleachers and watched her first practice. Two men, looking like extras from central casting for “Jersey dad/Sopranos extra” called out “Hey, kick the ball at the goal!” to their son, and I began to fear a season of coaching from the sidelines. (It’s actually decent advice, of course, and not very aggressive, but I am a timid mommy when it comes to sports.) Still stereotyping all these strangers, I glanced at the Patagonia-clad, athletic-professional dad for support, but he didn’t look at me. A few minutes later, his beautiful daughter came to him in tears. She had been hit in the face with a ball. He gave her a sip of water and a hug and then, confirming she was o.k., sent her back on the field, “all right now, go out there and kick someone else in the face.”

Jersey is as Jersey does.

A Room of Her Own Foundation: Kenny Fries Scholarship

If you would like to support a woman writer with disabilities or if you ARE (or know) such a woman whose writing would benefit from a retreat, here is a great opportunity:

In honor of my friend, the writer and disabilities advocate Kenny Fries' 50th birthday, A Room of Her Own Foundation (AROHO) is sponsoring a scholarship for a disabled writer who without financial support could not attend the AROHO 2011 Retreat for Women Writers. Kenny will choose the recipient in an open application process.

AROHO is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that champions women writers. The suggested donation is $45. But any amount, even $5 or $10, will help us come closer to a fully funded scholarship. Donations to AROHO are tax-deductible. You can give online by choosing "Kenny Fries Scholarship" from the drop-down menu here, which will take you to PayPal. If you prefer you can mail a check to AROHO, PO Box 778, Placitas, NM 87043, mentioning that the check is for the Kenny Fries Scholarship for a Writer with a Disability.

The Flu at Sissinghurst

Vita Sackville-West to Leonard Woolf, January, 1940: 
“Dear Leonard, I ought to have answered your letter long ago, but both the boys came home fro 24 hours leave and immediately took to their beds with ‘flu. You may imagine that Sissinghurst is at no time an ideal place for invalids, but when it means carrying trays, hot water bottles and other requirements through snowdrifts some sixteen times a day it is really hell….Pipes froze; lavatories ceased to function; snow came through the roof and dripped on to my bed. So perhaps you will forgive the delay.”
From Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst.

And one in URUGUAY!

I was interested to see that the University of Montevideo in Uruguay was dedicating its 7th annual literature conference to Virginia Woolf this coming June, 2011. The call for papers (due February 28th, 2011) makes lovely use of the South American setting of The Voyage Out to explain the thinking behind the focus.

But I cannot remember a more exciting email ever than the one I got a few weeks later inviting me to give one of the talks there. I am still gobsmacked and very excited.

All my fantasies of Tobermory are on hold as I imagine the reality of a few days in Montevideo next June. Wow. In honor of the trip, my student sent me the song "Skipping Down the Street" by My Little Pony which includes the lyric If I'd fallen in love in Montevideo....

I’ll be speaking about The Common Reader and eating a chivito, the national sandwich.

From the CFP:
These South American places imagined by Woolf are an invitation to the possibility of reflecting on her work from a transatlantic perspective, as Victoria Ocampo did in 1929 when she first read A Room of One´s Own. The essay confirmed many of Ocampo´s ideas on the woman-writer, and inspired her to promote critical readings and translations of Virginia Woolf´s work in the River Plate, especially through Sur, the literary journal she founded in Buenos Aires in 1931.
Seventy years after Virginia Woolf´s death, Montevideana VII calls for papers presenting innovative readings, translations, and exchanges in connection with the multiple dialogues which her work continues to establish, either directly or indirectly, with this part of the world.
Abstracts should be submitted by February 28th 2011.
For further information click or email.

Two New York Appearances

Part of the quiet around here comes from the overwhelming wave of adminstration that crashed upon my head at the end of my sabbatical. Part of it comes from my need to prepare for two upcoming public events. If you're in New York--or inclined to visit--please come to one or both--and say hello!

On Tuesday, October 16th, I’ll be participating in the post-matinee talk-back of Orlando, Sarah Ruhl’s adaptation of Woolf’s novel. It’s in previews now. 

Then, on Thursday, October 21st at 4:00, I’ll be giving a free, public lecture on my ongoing work as the editor of the Cambridge University Press edition of Mrs. Dalloway at the New York Public Library on 42nd & 5th. My lecture will be the third in a 3-day festival of lectures on Woolf: Jean Mills will speak on Woolf and Jane Harrison on Tuesday at 4:00 and Isaac Gewirtz will speak on the proofs of A Room of One's Own on Wednesday at 4:00. 

Sissinghurst, again

Having loved the op-ed on Sissinghurst earlier this summer, I’m writing a review-essay on Adam Nicolson’s Sissinghurst, a very engaging book about his life as a donor-tenant on the NT site. How engaging is it? As an aristocrat who doesn’t use his title and who lives as a tenant in his grandma’s castle, Nicolson has a wonderfully wry sense of humor about other lords, as here, in a description of a National Trust committee meeting:
When a man called John Smith was proposed as a member, the chairman, Viscount Esher, said ‘I suppose it is a good thing to have a proletarian name on the Committee—anyone know him?’ ‘Yes,’ said the earl of Euston, ‘he is my brother-in-law.’
As the descendant of a long, long line of New Hampshire Smiths (I have the forehead to show it), I loved this.