Anne Carson: Evoking the Starry Lad

The Irish Times, March 19, 2011

On Thursday the Canadian poet Anne Carson speaks at the Poetry Now festival. She tells PARUL SEHGAL about her elegy in verse for her late sibling, Michael

‘So, Pinhead, d’you attain wisdom yet?”

In 1979 Anne Carson’s brother fled Canada to escape being arrested for dealing drugs. For 22 years he roamed India and Europe under false passports, writing home infrequently and calling only half a dozen times. He resurfaced in 2000, calling the poet at her office, using his pet name, Pinhead, for his brainy younger sister. He lived in Copenhagen now. He wanted to see her. He wanted her to meet his wife and his dog. They made a plan, and a week before she was due to visit she received another call from Denmark. Her brother was dead.

“His widow says he wanted to be cast in the sea, and so she did this,” she writes in her astonishing elegy to her brother, Nox. “There is no stone and as I say he had changed his name,” she writes. Nox, a grey, squat slab of a book – a book in a box, as self-enclosed as grief; a book so bulky it cannot be carried but must be visited – is his headstone. In the months after her brother’s death Carson gathered his fragments, his letters and photographs. She pasted them into a blank book and inscribed his name, in her own hand, over and over again on the title page: Michael, Michael, Michael .

“He was such a puzzle,” she says. “I think by writing, and I wanted a way to think about him.” We meet at a cafe near New York University, where she is a “distinguished poet-in-residence” and a visiting professor in the creative-writing programme, and strain to be heard over the hissing cappuccino machines.

As visiting professor, in the autumn term, Carson teaches a typically idiosyncratic course on collaboration with her friend Robert Currie, who helped to design Nox. (“We just give the students tasks, like burn something and make something out of the ash.”) On Thursday Carson will deliver the keynote address at dlr Poetry Now, Ireland’s largest poetry festival, in Dún Laoghaire. She’s planning to talk about “untranslatable things” and draw on Detroit’s Heidelberg Project – prime Carson source material. In one of the American Midwest’s most ravaged cities, a local artist named Tyree Guyton has spent 25 years beautifying two blocks, salvaging materials and pasting them to the outsides of derelict houses. He’s covered houses with dolls, bicycle wheels, car parts. The ghost town gleams.

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Guest Post: Balakian Award Winner Parul Sehgal Accepts

(From Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle)

by Parul Sehgal | Mar-15-2011

This year’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing, to Parul Sehgal, whose remarks are here:

I’m a bit overwhelmed. And I must confess that I’m wearing a sari not so much to signal ethnic pride than to conceal the knocking of my knees.

First of all, I must express my immense gratitude to the board of the National Book Critics Circle. To be acknowledged by my gurus, by writers I so respect, is an unprecedented thrill. And to be in the company, if only for a moment, with the finalists—Sarah L. Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, Kathryn Harrison—tremendous artists, all—leaves me on the verge of a swoon. Honestly, I’m less delighted than disbelieving. I haven’t been sleeping so well. I’ve been having nightmares of a bacon-clad Ron Charles trying to reclaim the award and prying it out of my presumptuous little paws.

It’s customary for the Balakian winner to share some of his or her ideas about book reviewing, to make a soothing speech about why reviews are useful and necessary and will survive. It’s the kind of speech I’m frankly pretty lousy at because 1.) I’m not very soothing and 2.) I hate the criteria. Utility, necessity, longevity—that’s not our bailiwick. Orthodonture is useful. A functioning judiciary and sewage system are necessary—and even in their absence, cities thrive (c.f. New Delhi).

The book review belongs to the province of pleasure. It directs readers to ideas that will stretch their sensoriums, that will give them a gladness, an exquisite fright or sorrow. And of course, our most skilled practitioners in this business of bliss produce reviews that are a veritable education, reviews that remind of me nothing so much as Eadward Muybridge’s photographs of the horse running, the gymnast leaping–those photographs that isolated locomotion, frame-by-frame. That’s what Daniel Mendelsohn or Sam Anderson (both Balakian winners, I realize) do for me. Their reviews show me how a mind moves. How it gathers itself, pounces, pivots, preens, reconsiders, repents, creeps to a conclusion. A review is someone performing thinking, and our finest reviewers are, to my mind, no less remarkable than our finest athletes: what do they do but exercise their precision, subtlety, and stamina for our enjoyment?

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Scott McLemee on Balakian Winner Parul Sehgal

(From Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle)

by Scott McLemee | Mar-15-2011

Balakian award winner Scott McLemee, for three years chair of the Balakian committee, welcomes the newest Balakian honoree, Parul Sehgal:

Next month marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Nona Balakian, the founding member of the National Book Critics Circle whose memory we honor each year with the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing — presented to a member of the NBCC whose recent work best exemplifies her exacting standards of literary journalism. The finalists this year are Sarah Courteau, William Deresiewicz, Ruth Franklin, and Kathryn Harrison, with the award going to Parul Sehgal.

This year, as it happens, four of the five are women. Nobody on the Balakian committee discussed this, or even noticed it, until well after the voting was done and the results announced to the board. But admittedly it does seem like grist for the old “what message was the NBCC trying to send?” speculation mill.

Parul Sehgal has written for Bookforum, Time Out, and Publisher’s Weekly (where she is an editor). Her reviews – marked by a knack for apt characterization – are marvels of compression, which remains a virtue even in an age when one may publish five thousand words as easily as five hundred.

I can’t resist quoting from an interview she gave to the Columbia Spectator last month.The first reading of a book is, she says, a matter of confronting “knee-jerk responses to techniques or topics. The second time I read it, I really am looking at what does the book say it’s going to do and does it fulfill that. The third time, I kind of dip in and out of it as I’m actually writing the review…and often as I’m writing my opinion of the book radically changes.”

This is reviewing as engagement, rather than pronouncement.

I have chaired the Balakian committee for the past three years, but tonight is the end of my time on the board, and that means I am liberty to reveal something:  namely, the message that the NBCC is trying to send by honoring Parul Sehgal with the Balakian Citation. And that is, simply, that the culture can use more critics like Parul Sehgal.

Read Scott McLemee’s interview with Parul Sehgal here.

Scott McLemee writes Intellectual Affairs, a weekly column about books and ideas, for Inside Higher Ed. His reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Bookforum, Newsday, and elsewhere. He was a contributing editor for Lingua Franca from 1995 until 2001, and the senior writer covering the humanities for The Chronicle of Higher Education from 2001 to 2005; and he won the NBCC’s Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing for 2003. As a member of the NBCC board, he chaired the Balakian committee for three years. He blogs at Quick Study.

A critical look at criticism with Parul Sehgal, SOA ’10

By Allison Malecha

(from the Columbia Spectator, 2/14/2010)

Words on someone who writes words on words—this is the result of a profile on a book critic. Parul Sehgal, Columbia University School of the Arts ’10, is the Nonfiction and Audio Reviews Editor for Publishers Weekly, a regular contributor to Time Out New York and O Magazine, and the 2011 recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation in Reviewing, announced Jan. 22.

“Only in doing book criticism are you doing criticism in the exact same mode that the work was done. Dance doesn’t have it. Music doesn’t have it,” Sehgal said, referencing contemporary critic Sam Anderson. Sehgal is currently working on her own thrice-riddled project of words—The Art of the Review, in which she discusses method with 10 to 12 of her favorite critics.

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Scott McLemee Interviews Balakian Recipient Parul Sehgal

(From Critical Mass, the blog of the National Book Critics Circle)

On Saturday, the NBCC announced that this year’s recipient of the annual Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing was Parul Sehgal. Here, in his regular column at, NBCC board member Scott McLemee speaks with Sehgal–Ed.

Nona Balakian was an editor at The New York Times Book Review who joined its staff in the 1940s, after studying with the legendary modernist literary critic Lionel Trilling at Columbia University. She was one of the founders of the National Book Critics Circle, which, following her death in 1991, created the annual citation for excellence in reviewing named in her honor. Upon receiving the award a few years ago, I wanted to find out more about Balakian and tracked down Critical Encounters, Literary Views and Reviews, 1953-1977, a collection of her writings published by Bobbs-Merrill in 1978. Balakian sent an inscribed copy to Diana Trilling, who, apart from being the professor’s widow, was a critic of some eminence in her own right. Eventually the volume ended up at a secondhand bookshop, which then sold it to me, via Amazon — evidence that sic transit gloria, as if a book reviewer needed any more proof of it.

In a sharply worded essay by Balakian from 1968 called “The Lowly State of Book Reviewing,” she complained that literary journalism often consisted of “mere puffs based on publicity releases, but less well written and edited.” The selection of books that newspapers covered was at times inscrutable. “When a frivolous book by Patrick Dennis (author of Auntie Mame) was given equal space with a Cambridge historian’s biography of the Earl of Southampton,” Balakian wrote, “one wondered if the juxtaposition of these reviews was dictated by anything aside from the fact that the Earl and Mr. Dennis sported similar beards!”

But there were exceptions. She noted the rare occasions when she’d found reviewers who wrote about new titles out of genuine engagement with the books, rather than just “drifting with the tide,” and who expressed their judgments forthrightly, with some individuality of expression.

On Saturday, the NBCC announced that the latest recipient of the Balakian is Parul Sehgal, a young critic whose work appears in BookforumTime Out New York, and other publications. (A list of finalists in fiction, biography, and other categories is available here.) Despite chairing the Balakian committee, I had no real sense of this year’s winner — apart from a certainty that her writing admirably met Nona Balakian’s demands. So I contacted Sehgal for an interview by e-mail. A transcript of the exchange follows; a PDF containing the work she submitted for consideration by the NBCC is available here.

Q: From Facebook one learns that you are 29 years old and a nonfiction editor at PW. Would you please say a little about yourself — family background, education, any unpublished novels you may have on a hard drive, that sort of thing?

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The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence

By Susie Linfield (University of Chicago)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, December 2010

The girl in the photograph wears her black hair tucked behind her ears. Her part is slightly crooked, and there is a small mole low on her throat, right above the top button of her blouse. She might be anywhere between five and ten years old. She’s been posed against a wall or a screen. Stripped of its context, this is a lovely but unremarkable portrait of a small, serious looking girl, an image that’s easy to look at and easy to forget.

But let’s restore the context and look again. Pol Pot liked to have his prisoners photographed. Like the fourteen thousand or so others imprisoned at Tuol Sleng, the Khmer Rouge’s “torture center,” this girl slept shackled to the floor or wall, was likely tortured, photographed, and eventually shot—or bludgeoned to death, if the price of ammunition was high that year.

Is there a “right” way to respond—intellectually, emotionally, aesthetically—to such an image? Do we honor her by looking at her photograph or by refusing to? If we look, can we learn anything about how she lived and why she died? What if we can’t help but notice her beauty—or worse, the inadvertent beauty of the snapshot itself? What does that say about us—or photography? Are these considerations offensive: Do we have a right to make sophistries out of real suffering?

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Go East, Young Man

Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Dec. 6, 2010

It’s been a truth universally acknowledged that a young man in pursuit of his fortune travels West. So in 2008, when Anand Giridharadas, writer of the “Currents” column for the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times online, observed in the Times that not only were India’s best and brightest increasingly likely to stay put, but the children of immigrants were being lured back to Chennai and Chandigarh—it caused a small splash (and an e-mail forwarding frenzy) among South Asians.

The article is now a book, India Calling (Times Books, Jan. 2011). It’s both part of a crop of books analyzing India’s economic boom—and utterly distinct. Giridharadas’s interest in modernization is about how it alters “the stories people tell themselves about themselves.”

Back in the U.S. after reporting for the Herald Tribune and the Times from Mumbai from 2005–2009, Giridharadas is pursuing a doctorate in political philosophy at Harvard, but still he’s taking four months a year to travel and report on everything from eating turtle in Chengdu to Obama’s recent visit to India. We met—auspiciously—on the Hindu festival of Diwali, which celebrates an end of exile and a return to homeland.
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Harlem Revisited: PW Talks with Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

By Parul Sehgal, Publishers Weekly, Dec 06, 2010

In Harlem is Nowhere: A Journey to the Mecca of Black America, Texas transplant and journalist Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts tracks the storied neighborhood in history, literature, and daily life.

What was it like living in a place and writing about it at the same time?

It was a real conundrum. I’d always imagine that I was running back and forth between two worlds—the library and the street—and I knew I had to bring those two experiences into the same frame. And there was a stage when I just had to shut it all out, and Harlem just had to be where I lived. These are all the questions of the book. How do the stories we’re told in everyday life measure up with the stories that get written into history books? How are these stories transmitted?

You write about Harlem both as a literal and metaphorical place. Why did you choose this approach?
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Saul Bellow: Letters

Edited by Benjamin Taylor, Viking, $35

Parul Sehgal, Time Out New York, November 5, 2010

Collected and annotated by Benjamin Taylor, these letters reveal in Saul Bellow a rare consistency: From the first letter in 1932 to the last in 2005, Bellow’s ex-wives accrue, his fortunes rise and fall, but his character, his generosity and obsession with literature remain fixed.

In the earliest letters, Bellow is a young writer, learning how to lift observations and emotion from real-world experience and alchemize them into art. He hones his work amid the clamor of a full life, occupied by the needs of an ever-growing family and those of his fellow writers. Bellow spilled a prodigious amount of ink stumping on his friends’ behalf, recommending promising unknowns like “Jimmy” Baldwin and Philip Roth for residencies, tending to John Berryman’s blues and taking on Martin Amis as an adoptive son. His missives could be severe, as in one letter to Roth critiquing I Married a Communist, or they can be flooded with feeling, as his correspondence with John Cheever shows.

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Cleopatra: A Life

by Stacy Schiff (Little, Brown)

Parul Sehgal, Bookforum, November 2010

They called her the Queen of Kings. She built a kingdom into a mighty empire that stretched down the shimmering eastern coastline of the Mediterranean. She married—and murdered—her two younger brothers. She bankrolled Cesar and Antony and bore them both sons. She was worshipped as a goddess in her lifetime. She was lithe and darkhaired. She was not beautiful.

The scribes of her time were awestruck by her wit and money, never by her face—she was no Olympias, no Arsinoe II. The coin portraits she issued, our most accurate depictions of her, reveal a beaky little thing with a wide mouth and avid eyes, looking rather pleased with herself and resembling, of all people, Saul Bellow.

Why then this curious conspiracy (from Plutarch on) to recast Cleopatra VII, who lived from 69 B.C. until 30 B.C., as a great beauty? To market her—she who slept with only two men in her 39 years—as an insatiable sexual savant? (That the men in question were Julius Caesar and Mark Antony seems to speak more to her political ambition than any wantonness.) Why has this pragmatic and unprepossessing stateswoman been reduced to “the sum of her seductions?”

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