PEN 2011: Opening Night, Liquid Emergence (Flow)


Event: Opening Night: Written on Water, PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature 2011

Date: 04/25/2011

Time: 7:30PM

Panel: Gioconda Belli, Iva Bittová, Mircea Cărtărescu, Deborah Eisenberg, Evan Fallenberg, Malcolm Gladwell, Hanif Kureishi, Andrea Levy, Agi Mishol, Amélie Nothomb, Salman Rushdie, and Wallace Shawn

Location: The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers, Pier 61, W. 23rd Street and Hudson River Website:

"Voices of the world meet American voices." (quote from PEN 2011 Opening Night)



The haunting sounds of the witch of the colored cloth, the tapestries she paints beyond words, emerging from flows of violin and frenzied hands, renowned Czech violinist-vocalist Iva Bittová washes the ears of those in the audience with lapping waters of the calm and distressed. Salman Rusdie, Malcolm Gladwell, Wallace Shawn, Deborah Eisenberg, Gioconda Belli, Mircea Cărtărescu, Evan Fallenberg, Hanif Kuresihi, Andrea Levy, Agi Mishol, Amélie Nothomb: each, one after the other, recurring waves of words from poems, plays, short stories, sections of longer novels.


I watch each and every person come forward, listen to their cadenced speech, am immersed within a fold with my brethren of the written word. And something which has been formulating for some time now emerges:


What I wish to say approaches this:


I say that it is not Salman. It is not Gioconda. It is not Malcolm. Rather, that which touches us, brings us to tears, is the sweeping of our minds close to the universal, close enough to feel its presence yet ever out of reach. It is what will be called the flow; that which communicates through each person, a universal essence which we pick up upon. And our voices respond, "No! It is me! I, so-and-so, state thus..." and such. But the truth remains that when our bodies leave, the essence remains upon the air, within the minds of those that have listened, upon the written page, etched into our eyes, precariously balanced upon the vibrating tips of our nerves. Imperceptible yet thoroughly felt. Palpable palabras.


Each universal is different. Seemingly contradictory, I state (as so many have before) that we exist within a world of contradictions and that our challenge is not to take the simple route by choosing one side or the other, but to hold within our minds two seemingly contradictory positions, such as the unique universal approach to the flow. Out of this approach, as drops of paint varying in hue and intensity upon canvas, a more interesting and representative picture of the complexities in which we wade emerges. Each of us, as each of the speakers at the night's PEN event, take a unique approach to the flow, each of us manifesting that which we dive into in different forms and to varying degrees. It is perhaps those whose work touches us the most that we can say to ourselves, "It is clear that this person emerged from the flow dripping wet, their prose or pictures closer than any other artist has come to that which we all seek in varying forms, on varying scales, to varying depths." It is to state this within one's own personal context; that out of the experiences which we ourselves have amassed we can state that comparatively, this artist has moved closest to the flow. 


I believe we are deeply touched at times because something which has been before inexpressible has found the closest semantic emergence that we have experienced thus far. The flow is that which each artist attempts to bed, attempts to rip from the ether to manifest within differing forms. It is to take a mere snippet from the inexpressible, cordon it off from everything else and say defiantly, "This is my work, my words, my novel, poem, painting, play."  As if to claim ownership over that which never belonged to anyone. This is a clear mistake made all too often. The beauty and that which touches us closest is that which, like water, cannot be held by anyone but moves between us, within us, around us; that which we live to experience if but for one moment within that space and within that moment when clarity emerges from being connected to something much larger than ourselves, that which connects us, emerges through the contradictory relations of our lives with one another, within ourselves, within the natural ebb and flow of the world's energies.


Our manifestations of the flow emerge in different forms as we are different beings, encapsulated within us a plethora of different experiences and sensual impressions. It is this uniqueness in being (as in living) which the differing manifestations of the flow owe their existence to. And so around us arises art forms on varying scales, within different forms that reach to that which is within constant movement, to the flow which lends itself to lights and darks, morbidity, sensuality, humor, love, detestation, to all that which, when we are intently attuned, is shown to exist around, within and between us at every moment.


As conduits to something much larger, those who tap into the flow to express a creative will touch upon something which cannot be encapsulated within a poem, nor a short story or novel. One cannot point to a painting and state, "There. This is it. This is the flow, that which everyone for centuries has attempted to express." Taken as but elements of a tapestry, the bodies of human beings emerge as but one manifestation of the energy which moves constantly as flow, as current, as connector, dissipator, condenser. Our words and images, taken as single entities one at a time, emerge as attempts to express the flow, some more valiant than others, some more truthful than others (truth being the subjective experience that anyone that has ever created anything knows: the feeling that one has been true to oneself within that moment, that mindset, that frame within the millions of frames clicking by daily).


One spends hours upon hours attempting to capture a moment while the very moment passes one by as one sits encapsulated in constant crashing waves of change. To snip time and change away while creating something, to cordon off space and time to be able to say, "My book is here and it is complete," -- when we are most honest with ourselves and others, we know that never can such a statement be made of any creation for creations are simultaneously created and never created. This sad and at times, maddening irony is only beset by the notion that while change is ever-present there remains a patterned and perceivable intangible: that of the flow. And perhaps it is the goal of so many of us to bring this to light in our own truthful and honest attempts as a movement of sharing, of giving. In a multitude of forms, creatives give of themselves that which they can gather of the flow. As stardust farmers, shell collectors, knitters of the relational tapestry, each of us as creators struggle to make tangible that which may never be. To be tangible and finished, movement must cease and it seems that this will never happen nor would we wish it to.


I then take people's words and works within this light. That not one of us may legitimately lay claim to what we produce; that is not of individual ownership nor that of an imagined collective. Our words emerge, as the writer's words at the PEN Festival emerged, as but essence within a much larger body of fluid emergences. It is in this light that their words become at once our words and no one's words. Words of water, that liquid ebb and flow. Upon that Chelsea pier immersed within that foggy night, the flow showed its face in various forms, through the conduits of varying voice to lay bare upon us all the significance of what it means to live wide open.


"My name will be written in bytes." (quote from PEN 2011 Opening Night)



PEN 2011