Remembering Ernest Gaines by Joe Flaherty

On November 5th, I saw in the New York Times the announcement of the death of the writer Ernest Gaines. Reading his obituary immediately took me back to the time that Gaines had spent in Rochester. It was in March of 2000, the year that Writers & Books launched the community-wide reading program, “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…” The first book we selected was Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. But, let’s go back earlier in time to have a look at what led up to his appearance here. 

In 1995 the sociologist Robert Putnam published the essay “Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital.” His thesis was that we Americans were no longer joining organizations at the rates we had in the past, that participation in various clubs and organizations such as the Elks, the Rotary, and the Chamber of Commerce were declining due to the inroads that television and the internet had made into our lives. He chose bowling as the signature example of this trend because although the numbers of people bowling had actually increased, those doing so as part of a bowling league had dropped significantly. People were now, as the title of the essay stated, bowling alone. 

At about that same time, we at Writers & Books were seeking ways to use literature as a means to bring people closer together. Reading as an activity was (is) primarily thought of as a solitary activity—the lonely reader communing with the lonely writer—but we believed that literature had a much broader role to play in the creative life of our community. What if we were not only a community of readers, we asked, but a community that read together? Out of that germ of an idea, and conversations with other literary presenters from around the nation, sprang the impetus for launching “If All of Rochester Read the Same Book…”

It has now been nineteen years since Gaines and his book kicked off the program (renamed “Rochester Reads” in 2015). We chose A Lesson Before Dying for a number of reasons. First, it was both deceptively simple and exquisitely well written, and thus accessible to the widest possible audience. Next, the book dealt with a subject—the death penalty—that could generate discussion and personal interaction with people throughout our community. And, finally, and perhaps most importantly, we knew that Gaines would be the perfect writer/ambassador to introduce the idea that writers, and their books, can bring people from very diverse backgrounds together to talk face-to-face. One of our main goals in beginning the program, and one that know we achieved, was to bring together in the same room individuals who would have no other reason to be there than the fact that they had read the same book.

And, it turned out, Gaines was the absolutely best writer we could have selected to launch the program. He was open and generous, always interested in what people had to say, and willing to engage in sharing his thoughts on his writing and how experiences from his own life helped shape the book. He talked about growing up in rural Louisiana and the limited education available to the region’s African-American children. He talked about his own discovery of libraries after he had moved to California at age 15, and the enormous impact reading had on his views of the people around him and of the larger world.

Two events in particular stick out in my mind from his days here. The first took place at the Penfield Library when a white woman stood up to say that this was the first book she had ever read by a Black author, and the only reason she was able to read it was because her two sisters had recently died, because while they were alive they wouldn’t let her read those kind of books. She then added that A Lesson Before Dying was, it turned out, one of the most important books she had ever read.

The second moment transpired at the Central Library in downtown Rochester. In that instance an African-American woman stood up to say that this was the most integrated audience she had ever been a part of at the library and that it was the community reading Gaines’ book that had made that possible. 

For people to stand up and make statements such as these was a real tribute to Gaines and the sense of calm and openness that he projected, as well as a genuine interest in what each and every person he came into contact with had to say. Within that environment people felt safe to speak their minds and to share their thoughts not only on the book, but on the subject of racism in our community. 

Throughout his residency here in Rochester Gaines was accompanied by his wife Diane. He had married late in life, protecting his time and energies to devote to a career of writing and teaching, rather than to the demands of family life. It was obvious when you spent time around the two of them that with Diane he had found a true life’s companion, and she was a great addition to the time we spent together during that week.

Based on the overwhelming success of that first year, Rochester Reads has gone on to present eighteen other writers and their books to the greater Rochester community. But it was through Ernest Gaines, and his stately presence, that we continue his legacy to this day. His writings and wise counsel will be missed in this community and in many others throughout the country. 

In Memoriam: Norm Davis

—by Nick DiChario, former fiction editor of HazMat Review and former director of Adult Education and Programming at W&B

Writers & Books and the Rochester writing community suffered a great loss on Friday, September 13, when Norman Lorain Davis died in his hometown of Wellsville, New York, at the age of 85. Norm was a mainstay of the Rochester poetry scene, making it his mission to promote local poets, writers, musicians, and artists. He curated W&B’s own Wide Open Mic for more than thirty years and supported many literary events in and around Rochester, including readings and performances at the Greenhouse Café, Java Joe’s, Jazzberry’s, and Daily Perks, among others. He was a brilliant teacher and staunch advocate for W&B, and he loved to help people of all ages and backgrounds discover their voices, express their unique worldviews, and celebrate their talents.


In addition, during his lengthy career as an educational psychologist, Norm helped hundreds of highly creative, at-risk youth find purpose and direction—and many of those young people stayed in touch with him throughout the years.

A gifted writer in his own right, Norm often read publicly from his volume of poetry Rome Gothic, a book that is still cherished among the Rochester literati nearly twenty years after its original publication in 1991.

In 1996, Norm realized a lifelong dream by founding and becoming editor and publisher of his own magazine, HazMat Review, and used this forum for ten years to print socially and politically hazardous material featuring mainly local authors.

Well known for his skills as a conversationalist, Norm was intensely curious about every individual he met. He looked at human interaction as a challenge and opportunity to help us think critically, look deeper into ourselves, or simply laugh harder at the ironies and absurdities of life. He considered poetry a living thing that carried its own meanings, messages, and social implications far beyond the author’s vision. Most importantly, he believed that words could heal, and he never missed a chance to convince others of this truth.


Norm was profoundly antiwar, a recurring theme in much of his writing, and he often struggled with his role in what he called “the industrial war machine.” In addition to being a Korean War veteran, he served as a special weapons technician in the mid-1950s, responsible for loading and arming thermonuclear bombs. He returned to Korea after the war where he learned the Korean language, taught school, met and married his sweetheart, and eventually came home to America, much to our advantage. Along with countless friends, he leaves behind two sons, Foster and Walter; his daughter Lorraine; and his granddaughter Hana.


On a personal note, Norm was one of my oldest and dearest friends. He was among the first people I met at W&B (at an open mic) when I was a young man in my twenties. I remember thinking “Who is this strange guy in the black leather vest, wrinkled T-shirt, and frayed flat cap, wearing dirty glasses and carrying an armload of books?” Imagine my surprise when I saw he was running the show. I learned later that his wife, who could never quite master the English language, regularly accused him of dressing like a “bill-hilly.” He found this so funny that I think it shaped his wardrobe for the remainder of his days.


I was fortunate to see Norm a week before he died. While his health had been failing for some time, he was alert and in good humor that afternoon, and we sat outside on the porch with a group of friends reminiscing about the old days at W&B, our HazMat editorial meetings at Salena’s Mexican restaurant, and the quirky characters of the early open mic scene. I loved him dearly, and I’ll remember him always.

Of course, now that Norm is gone, we can only thank him for his service and commitment to the arts in Rochester. To say that he was a special person who will be greatly missed is a vast understatement, but it must be said nonetheless. Soon W&B will announce a celebration of Norm’s life and work. In the meantime, let us all remember him for the way he enriched our lives, for the gentle spirit, kind soul, and inspiration he was to so many.

Writers & Books Celebrates 19th year of Community Reads Program

Rochester NY: Last week, Writers & Books wrapped up the nineteenth year of its annual community reading program, Rochester Reads. This year the organization hosted Omar El Akkad, author of the award-winning novel American War. El Akkad’s residency in Rochester included 5 days of events, readings, book signings, and lectures. El Akkad visited various locations in Rochester and the Finger Lakes area including libraries (Central, Penfield, Wood, Greece), college campuses (MCC, FLCC, Geneseo, Nazareth College, St. John Fisher College), high schools (SOTA), a senior living center (Valley Manor), and the Monroe Correctional Facility. This year more than 1100 people attended these readings.

 

American War is a powerful and surprisingly prescient novel about a second US Civil War in the late 21st century. After climate change led to political upheaval and a decimation of the population, a plague is unleashed and further devastates the country’s population. One family is caught in the middle of the divided regions and conflicted alliances and the effects of this fractured country on a young girl has consequences for generations.

 

This is a narrative that asks what might happen if America were to turn its most devastating policies and deadly weapons upon itself. It is a story of ruin, of revenge, of division—but also a lesson in empathy, connection, and the ties that can either bind or break us.

 

“This year’s program offered an important novel that leaves an indelible impression on readers. And the myriad audiences who came out to see the author in person were treated to a thoughtful, engaging, wide-ranging conversation—and that community engagement is at the core of this program,” said Karen vanMeenen, Coordinator of Rochester Reads.

 

Copies of American War are on sale in the Writers & Books bookstore. Video is available of Omar El Akkad speaking at both Penfield Library and Wood Library.

 

Writers & Books is Rochester’s nationally renowned non-profit literary center located at 740 University Avenue, in the heart of Rochester’s Neighborhood of the Arts. In 2001, Writers & Books initiated the Rochester Reads program. The program seeks to encourage people to connect to others in our community through reading and discussion, and through the shared experience of literature. Each year Writers & Books selects one book for our community to explore together, leading to a residency by the author.

 

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Local Poet Craig Morgan Teicher to Share Poetry From Latest Award-Winning Book

Writers & Books hosts award-winning local poet in celebration of National Poetry Month

Rochester NY: Join us on Friday, April 12th at 7:00 PM to hear Craig Morgan Teicher share poetry from his latest award-winning poetry book as well as previous publications. This event is $3 for members and $6 for the general public and takes place at Writers & Books on 740 University Avenue, Rochester, NY.

Craig Morgan Teicher received an MFA from Columbia University in 2005. He is the author of The Trembling Answers (BOA Editions, 2017), winner of the 2018 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize, To Keep Love Blurry (BOA Editions, 2012), Brenda Is in the Room and Other Poems (Center for Literary Publishing, 2008), and Cradle Book (BOA Editions, 2010), a collection of stories and fables.

 

Teicher is a literary critic, and his essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications. He teaches at The New School and New York University and lives in New Jersey with his wife, the poet Brenda Shaughnessy, and their children. More information on Teicher and praise for his work can be found on his website here.

April is national poetry month and Writers & Books is pleased to be hosting several award-winning poets and poetry events over the course of the month. This event follows the poetry and music performance by Ad Hoc Music at Writers & Books on April 11th at 7 PM titled Words and Music, Music and Words.

Media questions can be directed to Chris Fanning at chrisf@wab.org

Alison Meyers named new Executive Director of Writers & Books

Rochester NY, April 2019: Bruce Gianniny, president of Writers & Books Board of Directors, announced that after a nationwide search, the Rochester-based literary center has named Alison Meyers as its next executive director.

“We are excited to begin working with Alison Meyers in mid May, when she will be moving to Rochester,” said Gianniny. “We are confident Alison has the skills and experience to build programs at both our University Avenue location and the Gell retreat in the Bristol Hills.”

Meyers is a veteran nonprofit leader, currently working as a literary arts consultant. From 2006-2016, she was executive director of Cave Canem Foundation in Brooklyn, N.Y., the nation’s pre-eminent organization for African American poets and poetry. She also has served as director of development at the Community of Literary Magazines and Presses in New York City, poetry director and director of marketing at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Conn., and general manager of the Oberlin (Ohio) Consumers Co-op.

“I’m thrilled to join the committed Writers & Books team, and look forward to building on an inspirational legacy bequeathed by founding director Joe Flaherty,” said Meyers “I look forward to partnering with the organization’s terrific staff, board of directors, and volunteers; engaging with Rochester’s rich history and diverse communities; and helping advance the critical role literature has to play, regionally and nationally, in our complicated times.”

Meyers is a Pushcart Prize-nominated poet and fiction writer, whose work appears in journals, in the anthology Gathered Light: The Poetry of Joni Mitchell’s Songs (Three O’Clock Press), and at http://www.alisonmeyers.com. For many years, she owned and managed Everyday Books & Café, a Connecticut-based independant bookstore.

“Choosing a new leader for an organization is a difficult but energizing task,” said Flaherty, who returned to the organization in November to serve as interim director. “The selection process must take into account both the history and culture of the organization as well as the direction that the organization would like to go.

Flaherty adds “Alison’s extensive experience in the non-profit literary world, and her obvious passion for promoting reading and writing within a community setting, allowed us to know that we had found the ideal individual to confidently lead Writers & Books into the next exciting chapter in our role as Rochester’s world-class literary center.”

For further information, or to set up an interview contact: Chris Fanning, Director of Communications at 585.473.2590 ext 104 or email at chrisf@wab.org

 

(photo credit is Rachel Eliza Griffiths)

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