Translators rescued the honor of literary types last Sunday at the 1994 PEN Center USA West literary awards ceremony held at the Pacific Design Center. In elegantly staged dramatic readings from the award-winning texts (announced in these pages last week), the advantage fell to scripts, with the clear crowd-pleaser being a scene from the teleplay laureate, "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom" (written by Jane Anderson for HBO).
To celebrate Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg's award-winning German translation of Kurt Schwitters' "Poems Performance Pieces Proses Plays Poetics" (Temple University Press) Rothenberg gave a reading verging on performance art that called for a lot of shouting of letters of the word London and rat-a-tatting of syntactically unrelated rhyming words, all piercingly punctuated by a sound that can perhaps only be transcribed as: RRRRRRRRRR.
The actors didn't come close.
But it is ungracious to make a distinction between literati and glitterati at an event that so clearly and uniquely seeks to draw them together. Although some literary award programs make a bow to the entertainment industry (the Edgar Awards for mystery writing include a screenplay category, the West Coast PEN awards have gone out of their way to honor the craft in all its forms. In her acceptance speech, Jane Anderson, the "Texas Cheerleader-Murdering" author, acknowledged the oddity--and gratification--of being honored on the same stage as poets and novelists. Or, as the drama award presenter put it: "This feels like a pep rally for writers."
This year saw the creation of a new award category, Criticism, in which the award winner, art historian T. J. Clark, also noted (by proxy) the rarity of writers recognizing the efforts of his brothers in critical arms.
As at any event where writers gather, there were gems of ironic comment on the scribbling life. Children's Literature award-winner Kathleen Krull had the houselights single out her somewhat reluctant eighth-grade English teacher (formerly Sister Marie Tollstrup). After years of meticulous research on "President Kennedy: Profile of Power," researcher Peter Keating, accepting for the absent Richard Reeves, could confidently report that the most frequently asked question about J.F.K. (from the dining rooms to the taxicabs of Washington) is: Did he really sleep with Marilyn Monroe? Drama winner Steven Dietz publicly thanked his "retired train-conductor" father for encouraging him in his chosen profession with the immortal words: "Seems like it'd be easier to write 'em down than think 'em up."