Weekly Dispatches from the Front Lines of World Literature

Reporting this week with news from Cambridge, New York, and the UK!

The east coast of the US is thriving this summer season with literary news celebrating new publications by Latin American poets in Cambridge, a reading series at the Bryant Park Reading Room, and many more notable events featuring acclaimed authors. Over in the United Kingdom, writers are also lighting up stages and claiming accolades. Our editors are taking you into this literary landscape.

Scott Weintraub, Editor-at-Large, reporting from the USA

On Friday, May 24, the famed Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, MA hosted a book launch for two spectacular volumes of Latin American poetry in translation, both of which were recently published by Ugly Duckling Presse: Materia Prima, by Amanda Berenguer (eds. Kristin Dykstra and Kent Johnson; reviewed in Asymptote in April 2019) and The Winter Garden Photograph, by Reina María Rodríguez (trans. Kristin Dykstra, with Nancy Gates Madsen). Grolier is truly hallowed ground; located on Plympton Street, around the corner from Harvard Square, this specialty bookstore has been in business since 1927 and boasts a collection of over fifteen thousand poetry titles. The launch of these two books took place off-site during the world’s largest conference of Latin American Studies, the Latin American Studies Association’s annual meeting, which featured over five thousand participants. 

With renowned translator Kristin Dykstra at the helm, the evening kicked off with a presentation of Reina María Rodríguez’s The Winter Garden Photograph, a book whose verses emerged from the poet’s exploration of the UNESCO-financed magazine The Courier. According to Dykstra—who read from the English translations (the originals were read by poet Eilyn Lombard Cabrera)—this book opposes and simultaneously melds Rodríguez’s life of the mind and the realities of everyday Cuban life, thereby “evoking the world where Reina wants to live.” This ekphrastic project thereby articulates the social, political, and economic difficulties of the Cuban “Special Period” of the 1990s with a profoundly introspective gaze. Including an insightful interview with poet, translator, and scholar Rosa Alcalá, The Winter Garden Photograph visualizes the specific modalities of the self-object relationship in photographs and beyond: “I’ve verified the otherness in objects / and they try to deceive me back. / reproducing my need to be anchored. in you, in them” (“possession,” 61).

The presentation then turned to Uruguayan poet Amanda Berenguer’s Materia Prima (2019). Edited by Dykstra and Kent Johnson and including impeccable translations by Gillian Brassil, Anna Deeny Morales, Kristin Dykstra, Kent Johnson, Urayoán Noel, Jeannine Marie Pitas, Mónica de la Torre, and Alex Verdolini—and featuring a prologue by Roberto Echavarren as well as an interview with Berenguer by Silvia Guerra—this first anthology of Berenguer’s poetry in English presents finely-crafted material by a true “best-kept secret” of Latin American poetry. Materia Prima carefully mines the raw material of a career that spanned six decades and demonstrates a startling range of form, discourses, and style. It moves effortlessly between rigorous explorations of cosmology and topology, visual and concrete poems, and sonorous odes, to name just three of Berenguer’s interests in this volume; at Grolier, essayist Reynaldo Lastre read selected Spanish-language originals alongside translator Anna Deeny, who—in addition to reading in both Spanish and English—poignantly described her work on the odes, for example, as a “sensuality of sounds moving closely together.”

Nina Perrotta, Assistant Blog Editor, reporting from the USA

Last month, the beloved literary magazine Tin House published its twentieth-anniversary issue. An occasion that would otherwise have been cause for celebration was overshadowed, however, by the fact that the issue was also Tin House’s last. Citing the rising costs of producing a literary magazine, editor-in-chief Win McCormack wrote that he had decided to “shift resources to Tin House’s other two divisions: Tin House Books and the Tin House Workshop.” The former, an independent press, will continue to publish books of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, while the latter will broaden its offerings of scholarships and classes. In the meantime, the American literary community will mourn the loss of the magazine, which the The New York Times described as a “literary haven for ‘brilliant weirdos.’” 

In lighter news, summer has come to New York, and the Bryant Park Reading Room is now open! Originally founded in 1935, the Depression-era “Open Air Library” provided unemployed workers with a place to read books and newspapers for free. The Reading Room was revived in 2003 and now offers readings, workshops, and children’s programming in addition to free reading materials. The weekly poetry series may be of particular interest to Asymptote readers: on July 9, the Reading Room will host readings by University of Iowa Press poets, and on July 16, it will feature poets affiliated with Letras Latinas. All readings are free and open to the public, and the Reading Room will remain open into September. 

Fiction readers, too, will find that the New York literary scene has much to offer in the coming weeks. On July 16, novelist Jennifer Egan, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, will join debut novelist Alexander Tilney in conversation at Greenlight Bookstore. Author Colson Whitehead, who won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for his novel The Underground Railroad, will present his new book, The Nickel Boys, at a Books Are Magic event on July 20. New York is the place to be for literature lovers this summer—but only if you can stand the heat!

Daljinder Johal, Senior Executive Assistant, reporting from the United Kingdom

Much to the consternation of its inhabitants, the countries of Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Wales are often marginalised in favour of England. However, this month draws our attention to the other countries that make up the United Kingdom.

June saw the Walter Scott Prize awarded to Scottish poet Robin Robertson for his book, The Long Take, a work of historical fiction. In the award’s 10-year history, he is the first Scot to receive the award. At £25,000, this prize is one of the UK’s largest and is awarded at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose, which also saw its own number of attendees soar to hit a new record. In an increase of 18% from last year, the fifteenth edition of the event from June 11 to 14 had almost thirty-four thousand visits. There were many sold-out talks and Festival Director Alistair Moffat explained the “amazing numbers” as being due to “not only the quality of the programme but its breadth.”

Heading elsewhere in the UK, the Wales Book of the Year 2019 was won by poet Ailbhe Darcy. The Irish poet received praise for her collection Insistence. The collection explores the six years spent by the poet and her family in midwestern United States and the experience of child-raising in an area that is economically and racially separated. Although this challenging experience is not unique to the United States, of course. Guy Gunaratne’s debut novel, In Our Mad and Furious City, was long listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize and shortlisted for others. Now it has won both the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a writer of colour and the International Dylan Thomas Prize for writers under forty in May.

However, it’s the Sri Lankan author’s recent interview in The Guardian that offers an interesting look into the experience of writers of colour working in the UK. While his novel is set on a housing estate during riots sparked by the murder of a British soldier, he discusses his experience of “code-switching,” a “superpower” explored in his book.

Authors Sunny Singh, Nikesh Shukla, and Media Diversified set up The Jhalak Prize in response to a report that found that only 8% of people working in British publishing came from a BAME background. However, after receiving a complaint about the award’s establishment and the continued novelty of seeing writers from non-BAME backgrounds from other areas of the UK, is there much hope of seeing progress for BAME writers?


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