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The Most "Famous" Writer You've Seen Read?

This might seem like a superficial post, and perhaps it is, but I am curious about something.  Who is the most "famous" writer you've seen read in person?

That's right, who is it?  And think about it for a second.  Because that brings up the issue of "famous."  How do we determine fame?  What's the criteria?  Is it their craft as a poet?  Is it their superstar popularity?  (Maybe.)  Perhaps it's their longetivity.  I'm not going to define it for you.  That's something you'll have to do for yourself.

Me?  It's a tough call.  My first "famous" poet I ever saw read was Garrett Hongo in Knoxville TN.  He was pretty interesting, although I didn't get to speak with him personally.  However, at the risk of offending Mr. Hongo, I would wager he's not as "famous" as the next two writers I'm about to mention.

Let's see ... Hongo was in the 1980s.  Maybe this is the best way to do it.  In the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to see Diane di Prima read in Santa Monica CA.  That meant a lot to me, because I've been a big fan of the Beats in general for decades, and because she and I had corresponded for a while and it was nice to finally meet her in person.

In 2004, I drove to Atlanta, in part because I was scheduled to give two poetry readings of my own, and in part to meet some friends to go to Emory University and see Gerald Stern read.  I have a hard time believing he's more "famous" than di Prima, but then I'm biased.  All I know is, the auditorium was freakin' PACKED and he definitely was enjoying rock star status (on a literary scale).  He put on a good show, but it wasn't my style.  He was trying out some new work, and it didn't resonate as much with me as much as his older material.  But that's subjective, isn't it?

I was going to go on here and write about others I've enjoyed, but that would be off topic, wouldn't it?  And I didn't really answer my own question, did I?  To me, di Prima and Stern would be tied in terms of fame, with di Prima due more to cultural history and Stern due to academic literary acceptance.  Am I wrong?   Maybe another day I'll write about some lesser known authors I've seen read who I have seriously enjoyed, although perhaps they were not as "famous" as other people out there.  OK?

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Seamus Heaney.... and Derek Walcott

In 1996 I took a trip down to New York City from Poughkeepsie to see Seamus Heaney read. He'd just come out with The Spirit Level, had won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I was working through a lot of his stuff for my thesis (on Padraig Pearse and matyrdom in Irish literature, poetry in particular), and I'd heard he was a brilliant reader, so I figured I was in for a brilliant time. He led off, and was quite good. As expected. He was reading with Derek Walcott, whom I'd also read, as a part of a poetry workshop with Lorrie Goldensohn at Vassar College. I enjoyed his poetry, but didn't have high expectations, as Seamus was the main draw.

 But it was Derek Walcott who just blew me away. He started reading in his great deep voice, and he captured the sadness and the sea and it was like hearing the ancient mariner, himself, speak. With Seamus, you knew it was a man, he made jokes about using the word 'Massachusetts' in a poem, and how awkward it felt. But with Derek, he transcended this earthly realm for those few minutes for that intimate crowd. It was beautiful.

So I think the most "famous" person I've seen read, especially at the time, was Seamus Heaney. But the most famous, the one I've remembered most, was Derek Walcott.

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Very Interesting -- Thanks!

I would very much like to hear both poets read.  I admire their craft, although I still prefer Bukowski and the Beats.  Heaney and Walcott = good stuff though.  Excellent writers.  I'm quite jealous.  Were you able to meet either of them?  Just curious....

How did your thesis turn out?


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I was able to meet Seamus,

I was able to meet Seamus, briefly, in the pub after the reading. There was a group of us, and I think we worked out that he knew my thesis advisor (a Dublin-born poet named Eamon Grennan).

Derek I met a few years later at an Elizabeth Bishop (speaking of the word  'Massachusetts' in a poem) Conference in her birthplace (and mine) of Worcester, MA (at Clark University - the setting for the conference, not either of our births). I managed to corral him after his reading and chatted with him about that reading in NYC and his plans (he was retiring from his post at BU in the near future).

The thesis turned out. It was neither particularly good, nor was it particularly bad. During my research for it (which included a trip to Dublin and its environs) I think I would have been better served writing a thesis on Flann O'Brien's characters. A second semester poetry focus turned out better, and included a poem I wrote following the Walcott reading, which I'd also been able to share with him, following his reading at the Bishop conference. 

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not to flog my own blog but

I posted about seeing robert pinsky read to a small crowd and frank bidart as well in a separate post. I saw Heaney read perhaps four times, once when it was standing room only from behind him on the stage. I saw Ginsberg read several times, Thom Gunn, Gerald Stern several times, James Merrill, more if I thought about it.

Among prose writers, Eudora Welty, Saul Bellow, John Irving, Julian Barnes but I would have to say that the biggest shebang was attending a taping of the Phil Donoghue Show right after the Rushdie Fatwa came down and he had a bunch of big guns on to read statements in support of Rushdie: Norman Mailer, Erica Jong, Howard Fast, several others

Among theorists/philosphers, Stanley Fish, Fred Jameson, Noam Chomsky, Alain Badiou, Harold Bloom

But at the top: Bellow, Mailer, Welty and Grace Paley, and Richard Ford too, Jane Smiley, you know I have been at this game for too long . . .

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"you know I have been at this game for too long . . ."  Hee hee.  True, apparently.  No, I'm just kidding.   ;-)

But that's really an impressive list of authors you've been privileged to see.  I'm insanely jealous!  I've met and known some quite famous authors, such as Ferlinghetti and I even had Ginsberg's home phone number at one point, and a number of others, and I have personally autographed books by Bukowski to me and Burroughs and Ferlinghetti and a ton of others, but I've never gotten to see these people read.  I was supposed to go to Santa Monica once for a Ginsberg reading but became sick and didn't go -- I've always regretted that.

I would have been very interested in hearing Bloom, Fish, Jameson, et al, as at one point I was very into theory.

How was Jane Smiley?  In tooting my own horn (what little I can...), as far as I know, I was the first person in the world to publish a paper on A Thousand Acres when it came out -- at least as far as MLA-indexed journals go.... Strangely, that's the only book of hers I've ever read.

Well, it's late and I have a big day at the office tomorrow, so I'll close by reiterating that I'm quite envious and I am also grateful to you for sharing.  I hope you'll get to see and hear plenty more wonderful authors read as time passes.  Cheers!

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I saw Doris Lessing read at Wits University in Johannesburg. The Four Gated City had been a formative book in my life, but I had just discovered Norman Mailer having been blown away by Ancient Evenings. Come question time I raised my hand and asked Lessing what she thought of Mailer. She spoke most fondly of him as a colleague and a friend.

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Smiley et al

I taught adjunct style at Iowa State for two years and saw her read from Moo U while she was working on it. It is was all very in-jokey given the material and location. I thought she was very modest and seemed like a nice person. I like her posts on the Huffington page. I like her two novellas--Ordinary Love and Good Will, though I was never fully taken in by her renderings of male psychology. Ginsberg was always a treat--I remember him saying that the next poem was dictated to him by William Blake who was sitting in tree and by god I think he meant it. His work is under-rated in my opinion. I took two classes with Bloom and Fish and Jameson were both on my dissertation committee so that was perhaps the closest I have come to being in a charmed circle. Grace Paley was a doll, seems like all my idols are dead or retired, or semi-retired. Where are the snows of yester-year?

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Ray Bradbury

We listened to Ray Bradbury at Fresno State University a few years back. And he couldn't have appeared more unpretentious in dress and manner.

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Love that Ray Bradbury!!!

I love Bradbury...  I read once that even after all this time, with all the money he's earned, his two favorite foods are Campbell's Tomato Soup and hot dogs.  You know what?  Me, too!

 OOOOPS!  I just noticed that I've accidentally posted under my husband's name.  This is not Scott replying to you, Dennis.  This is his wife, Jennifer, who loves to teach Bradbury to her high school English students!  Cheers!

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Jeffrey Archer...

...at an authors' lunch in the UK Midlands. Guess that defines my league, then. Can't deny he's a past master at telling a good tale!

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Head Ralph Ellison read to

Head Ralph Ellison read to an auditorium of college students.  Heard Bukowski at a gym in North Beach.  But the richest experience I ever had was at a reading  Anne Sexton gave in Philadephia.  I was 22 or 23.  I'd never heard of her and had no use for poetry, but an uncle had given me a ticket and I thought maybe I'd pick-up a girl.  Anyway, I'd never heard anything like Sexton.  The raw, piercing personal just tore me up.  I tried, afterwards, to tell her how moved I'd been, but I was so awe-struck it was like I was eight years old and asking Ralph Kiner for an autograph.  I wrote her a fan letter -- the only time I've ever done that.

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I'd choose from these two ...

Allen Ginsberg -- late in his life. Promoting the release of a boxed set of his collected works. He was great. Very funny and very inspirational.

Joe Jackson -- at a show where he started off by reading the first chapter of his autobiography. He then launched into a memorable solo performance of his songs. He might not be the most famous "writer" I've seen, but he's probably the most famous person I've seen read their own writing.  

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i'm a readings junkie

That said, a few variously "famous" writers I've seen read:

Toni Morrison / Seamus Heaney / Derek Walcott / Amiri Baraka / Gwendolyn Brooks / Alice Walker / Chinua Achebe / Sharon Olds / Rita Dove / Gerald Stern / Billy Collins / Aaron McGruder / Edwidge Danticatt / Chimamanda Adichie / Dave Eggers / Yusef Komunyakaa.

These are off the top of my head, limited to creative writers, and all meet one (or more) of these criteria: (a) superpopular-filled-the-room; (b) prize winner/honoree at the national or international level (e.g., Nobel, Pulitzer, Booker, Orange, Poet Laureate, etc.); (c) wide, wide distribution (either by crossing over into film/tv or translated into multiple languages).  I'm not with my books right now, or I could probably name several more.  I truly am a readings junkie!

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I posted



in response to your question, Scott.