The Prague Writing Program is a splendid hatchery for apprentice writers, who get to study with experienced scriveners and be in a gorgeous city still crackling with intellectual excitement. Prague's charm is bittersweet; bitter because it was once the city of Kafka, Einstein and an explosive mix of pre-war Jewish genius that was pretty much devastated by the Nazis; and sweet because it's architecturally breath-taking and still feeding on Czech greats like Milan Kundera, Vaclav Havel, Ivan Klima and Arnost Lustig. These last four are novelists who teach in the program. One of them is, of course, the president of the Czech Republic. The opening remarks of this year's conference were delivered by the minister of culture, a hipster with an earring in his left ear, who managed to be not only funny but incisive. Imagine such an official in the United States. Impossible!
I felt obliged to give the description above to help set the scene for my real subject, which is the awkwardness of writers. The Americans teaching there this year are all distinguished in their field: Mary Karr, a poet; Willis Barnstone, great poet and translator; Jaimy Gordon and Elizabeth McCracken, genius fiction writers; Aliki Barnstone, poet extraordinaire; Joseph Parisi, editor of Poetry Magazine; and many others, including the program's founder, Richard Katrovas, who used to teach and live in New Orleans. The theme of the program was the Sixties, the decade we never tire of and where most of my generation's difficulties stem from, and the conditions were ripe for acrimony and debate. You may not know this, but in poetry we still fight a war about how we write poetry, though most of the combatants have by now forgotten what the fight is about. Instead of a fight, however, we had a heartening detente steeped in nostalgia. It turned out that what surrounded us in America in the Sixties was a lot bigger than our esthetic pickiness. In the end, however, the particular esthetics and sensibilities of our generation did produce what we now view and consume, so it's not all just academic.
Writers do not, generally, associate easily with other writers, for any number of reasons, the main one being that they are solitary beings who require only worship from other writers. They have a complicated relationship with the world and feel dissed 75 percent of the time by their peers. Consequently, encounters are fraught by extremes of flattery and flares of antipathy. This was not the case in Prague this year, partly because Prague itself is such an overwhelming beauty that at least 25 percent of everybody's attention was drawn by the city itself. Another 25 percent was the happy accident of genuine admiration some of these writers had for each others' work. Whatever was left over was complex enough for a novel or two, and it had to do with history, about a thousand years' worth. 1968 was not that long ago; you can still see the shadows of Russian tanks in Prague if you look hard enough. So the trouble with literary storms today is that they happen in a teapot. To get a real thrill you have to dip into history. You can have a provisional lovefest in 2003, but try getting one going in 1939. As if. Lovefests worry me, which doesn't mean I wasn't disarmed. Disarmed I was, and charmed.
In the old days, writers used to drink a lot more than they do now, mostly to get over being with other writers. This time around, my generation had a lot of coffee and a few drinks, but mostly they felt good about their business. And then there were the students, but that's another matter. The students, hopefully, had some questions.
For information on the Prague Summer Program for Writers, contact Richard Katrovas at Katrovas@aol.com.