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Aspen Winter Words: Paul Muldoon and more

Stewart Oksenhorn
Aspen Times Weekly
Aspen, CO Colorado
Peter CookPaul Muldoon appears in an Aspen Writers' Foundation Winter Words event on Thursday, Jan. 27.
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ASPEN – In the film “The Princess Bride,” the grandson, in bed with a cold, isn’t thrilled by the prospect that his sick-day treat will be his grandfather reading to him. “A book?” the boy asks. Hearing the title of the book – “The Princess Bride” – he gasps: “Has it got any sports in it?” The grandfather reassures him: “Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles.”

The boy gives it a chance, and is not only enchanted with a tale for the ages – funny, touching, surprising, action-packed – but has his eyes opened to the value of books and stories.

It is a solid analogy for the Aspen Writers’ Foundation’s winter program. The Writers’ Foundation’s Winter Words series kicks into gear with an appearance by a poet – not what you would call a blockbuster attraction, even when the poet in question is Paul Muldoon, a Pulitzer Prize winner who, in past local appearances, has proved to be an entertaining presence. Considering the less-than-mass appeal of poetry, the event, on Thursday, Jan. 27, is scheduled for a conference room at the Little Nell hotel.

But look at the bigger picture, and the Writers’ Foundation’s winter offers plenty for those not enticed by poetry: Rock ‘n’ roll, comedy, war stories, dress-up parties, art. And for fighting, torture, revenge, monsters and escapes, just crack the books by the authors featured in the months ahead.

In fact, you don’t even need to skip over Muldoon to get to the accessible stuff. The 59-year-old has several titles more attention-grabbing than poet. He’s a rock lyricist whose collaborators include the late Warren Zevon, and he plays in a rock band, Rackett. He has appeared in a music video by Ke$ha and written the libretto to four operas.

“We love poetry; we love having poets,” said Lisa Consiglio, executive director of the Writers’ Foundation. “But Paul loves rock, rock lyrics. He’s written children’s books. He’s funny; he’s Irish. He’s so down to Earth. He represents the literary world in so many ways.”

While in Aspen, Muldoon will have a chance to show off his various facets. On Sunday, Jan. 30, at the Wheeler Opera House, he is among the performers set to appear in Cabinet of Wonders, a modernized Vaudeville variety show. Muldoon is scheduled to do a poetry reading. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if he picks up a guitar. Or does a comedy routine,” Consiglio said.

• • • • 

Years ago, the Writers’ Foundation expanded its scope by reaching out not only to writers, but to readers too. More recently, the organization has sought out more avenues to focus attention on the written word. The Lyrically Speaking series, for instance, has presented musicians, including David Crosby, Michelle Shocked and John Oates, to perform and speak about the songwriting process. One of the pieces in the Writers’ Foundation’s Story Swap program brings together local writers and visual artists to collaborate on a gallery exhibition; the latest such exhibition opens Feb. 3 at the Red Brick Center for the Arts.

Like Muldoon himself, Cabinet of Wonders reflects the breadth of the Writers’ Foundation’s interests. The event, which is staged periodically in New York (and had an outing in Aspen last summer), is presented by John Wesley Harding and Eugene Mirman. The British-born Harding is best known as a singer-songwriter, but under his given name, Wesley Stace, he has written three well-regarded novels – including “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer,” which is being launched this week in Aspen. The Russian-born Mirman is a stage comedian who, in 2009, became an author with the publication of his humor book, “The Will to Whatevs: A Guide to Modern Life.”

Also on the Cabinet of Wonders bill are novelist Colson Whitehead, the recipient of a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship; singer-songwriters Evan Dando, of the Lemonheads, and Juliana Hatfield, who ventured into nonfiction with the 2008 memoir “When I Grow Up”; and Michael Arthur, a visual artist who will create a big-screen drawing of the performers as they appear.

“It’s everything,” Consiglio said. “It celebrates songwriting and fiction and poetry. And comedy – you can’t be a comedian without writing something.”

• • • •

Branching into performance and visual art hasn’t diminished the Writers’ Foundation’s dedication to books. The Winter Words series continues Feb. 23 with Emma Donoghue, whose recent novel “Room” earned the Irish Book Award for 2010. Also appearing in the series are Ethan Canin (March 16), author of two short story collections, and four novels, including 2008’s “America, America”; and Joyce Maynard, whose books include the 1992 novel “To Die For.”

In addition to contemporary work, the Writers’ Foundation is putting the spotlight on the 1925 classic, “The Great Gatsby.” F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story of high society and disillusionment on Long Island during the Roaring ’20s is the selection for The Great Read, a program that aims to get the community reading and discussing a particular book. Writers Andrew Sean Greer (Feb. 10) and Tobias Wolff (March 7) will speak about “The Great Gatsby.” On March 31, the Writers’ Foundation will throw a party that recreates the speakeasy atmosphere of the 1920s.

Ishmael Beah, author of the acclaimed memoir “A Long Way Gone,” about his experience as a child soldier in Sierra Leone, returns Feb. 17 for an appearance with Louis Gakumba, a native of Rwanda (and the adopted son of writer Terry Tempest Williams, who opened the Winter Words series earlier this month). The event is being billed as a “live story swap” – part of the program that has people share their stories with members of a different community. The evening will include a screening of the short film “Story Swap,” which documents the inaugural Story Swap, involving kids from New Orleans interacting with children from Haiti.

“This will be interesting,” said Natalie Lacy, programs manager for the Foundation. “We know that Ishmael was in Sierra Leone, and conscripted into the war, and was the hunter. Louis was the victim, the hunted, and he escaped.”

Further ahead, a group of Aspen High School students, as part of their ex-ed curriculum, will go to New Orleans in April, and the trip will have a Story Swap component. The students will meet with Louisiana writer Ernest Gaines, recipient of the 2010 Aspen Prize for Literature.

Stories of Africa and rock ‘n’ roll songs, art exhibitions and comedy, books old and new. It’s a lot to squeeze under the banner of a writers’ organization, but the Aspen Writers’ Foundation thinks it ties together well.

“There’s an integration to all our programming,” Lacy said. “You look at it all and say, Why not?”

“That’s the organization we’ve been striving to be,” Consiglio said. “And we’re there. It’s for everyone.”

stewart@aspentimes.com


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