The Not So Vicious Circle: Saints & Sinners 2009 (Revisited)

“I think that God, in creating Man, somewhat overestimated his ability.” So said Oscar Wilde in one of his innumerably quotable lines that made him the standard bearer for writers everywhere.  I used to fantasize about growing up and going to a cocktail party where I’d meet Wilde and toss around bon mots.  Ah well…wrong century!

However from Mart Crowley to Sandra Bernhardt, we’ve been keeping up with his verbal jousting and searing retorts, like playing the dozens on an urban street corner.  And we love to gather together around a table, preferably one with a cocktail on it, to test our skills and admire our survival.  In these perilous political and economic times, survival of the LGBT writer is quite a miraculous feat.

When the habitués of New York City’s Algonquin Hotel—writers, publicists and actors of speculative sexualities—sat down to lunch and became known as the infamous Round Table, people hung on their tart words which fueled the decade before the stock market crash of 1929.  I made a pilgrimage to the Algonquin my first month in New York, as if I might hear the echo of Dorothy Parker interrogating in her best “Devil Wears Prada” voice:

“What fresh hell is this?”

Waiters must have been surprised that the cutting edge of the Round Table observations about people, fashion, literature and culture didn’t leave blood on the linen table cloth.  That set of wits remains one of the most quoted groups in popular culture.  However, even they just barely lived up to Wilde’s facility with language in the previous century.  But they set a high bar for…well, the bar.  My father was a bartender, so I take these things seriously.  People still travel from around the world for cocktails at the Algonquin Hotel in New York City because of the reputation of the denizens of the Round Table.  Perhaps there’s the illusion that elegant cocktails will turn you into a witty playwright like George S. Kaufman or a bisexual seductress like Tallulah Bankhead.

Now, we’re deep into another economic crash facing a sparse selection of independent book stores and publishers, so the number of ‘tables’ (both figurative and literal) we get to sit down to is quickly diminishing.  Right now we have two preeminent ones:  the oldest is the Lambda Literary Awards banquet that takes place annually at the Book Expo America.  It’s a starlit evening where the Lammies are delivered into the hands of deserving authors in evening clothes.  Having been one of those grateful authors in the past, I can attest to the fact that the evening lives up to the imagination.  It’s where you meet the writer who absolutely altered the course of your life, rubbing elbows with the pierced/painted youth of tomorrow.  And you get to thank all of your ex-lovers at once while they look on enviously.

The other table is the annual Saints and Sinners LGBT Literary Festival held in New Orleans.  No evening clothes here, it’s much too hot and muggy and the cobblestone streets of the French Quarter are not that amenable to high heels, unless you’re a drag queen with a lot of practice.  More halter tops than leather bustiers, but we do have the ghosts of Blanche DuBois and Stanley Kowalski.  What better place for queer writers to live out loud than in the delta city that is the home of the coolest jazz and hottest food in the country.

The kick-off reception for Saints and Sinners 2009 was held in the courtyard of the French Quarter W Hotel, one of the Festival’s sponsors.  I knew it was the “write” place to be when I entered the lobby—strategically placed was a vintage Underwood portable typewriter, as if Tennessee himself were expected to drop by and finish up a new play.  The W courtyard is one of those “only in New Orleans” venues with fountains of water and fire and a grand baroque staircase.  Workshop participants met their favorite writers like Ali Leibegott (The IHOP Papers), Amie M. Evans (Two Girls Kissing), Trebor Healey (Sweet Son of Pan) and Greg Herren (Murder in the Rue Ursulines), Ellen Hart (No Reservations Required) with the appropriate greeting in a town that gives you “to go” cups for your cocktails: “What can I get ya?”

The grand staircase was the setting for the opening night performance by lesbian ecdysiasts known professionally as Pidgeon Von Tramp, Spooky LeStrange and Nola Aureola.  They were sexy and humorous in the way only a queer stripper can be, complete with cardboard signage to camouflage the naked bits just in case unsuspecting tourists wandered in.

Incongruous as it might seem, it was the perfect beginning of a queer writers’ festival, emphasis on the word “festival.”  Publicist, Michele Karlsberg, who’s made some of the most famous people famous, observed: “You’re not going to find this at the Modern Language Association!”  Where else but a gay writers conference would you encounter a group of lesbians and gay men standing around a hotel watching women take their clothes off and everybody is taking notes?

The W Hotel reception resembled a compact contemporary version of the Round Table; you could tell by the wag of a head who was gossiping (in the creative sense) about somebody:

“Damn! Didn’t Jess Wells used to have red hair?”

“You think Winston James could get any more muscles into that muscle shirt?!”

The guests kept tossing out their lines as if somebody was taking them all down…until the vodka ran out and people realized we had to get ready for the next morning’s panels!

Saints and Sinners has been slowly growing its reputation as a place for writers to hang out with each other and fans since the first festival in 2003.  It survived Katrina because its director Paul J. Willis was determined to keep it going both as a way to support local writers recover from the emotional stress of the catastrophic hurricane and to help bring people back to the Big Easy.  The panels and parties take place throughout the French Quarter from the host hotels, like the W, to the House of Blues Voodoo Lounge.  Past years have featured literary luminaries such as Dorothy Allison, Mark Doty, Julie Smith, Karin Kallmaker, J.M. Redmond, Patricia Nell Warren, Val McDermid, Michelle Tea and David Rosen.

In addition to dancing, drinking and dish, the workshops are eclectic and fun; they covered everything from the sublime to nuts and bolts.  I never know where I’ll get an idea for a short story so I bounced around like a ping pong ball!  Former surgeon Radclyffe (the author of 20 medical romances) led a session entitled “The Truth about Blood and Guts—Writing Realistic Physical Scenes.”  Her descriptions made “CSI” sound about as graphic as an episode of “Gumby.”  Greg Herren’s workshop on “Using Eroticism Effectively…in Prose” was—not surprisingly—full!

I was especially thrilled about the first ever panel for playwrights, which was held at the Bourbon Pub—another spectacular round table, so to speak.  I’m finishing a play about James Baldwin and as I get closer to the final draft, my dread builds—will this end up just a sheaf of papers that’ll be discovered in my file cabinet after I’m gone?  The vagaries of how a play gets from page to stage seem mountainous, so I’ve tried not to think about them as I’m writing.  At the festival David-Matthew Barnes lead the playwrights’ discussion as a cross between a how-to session and a pep-rally.  We learned get out those pitons and carabiners and start on up the hill.  Suggestions—everything from joining the Dramatists Guild to regularly attending local theatre productions to scout out producers—helped cut the intimidation factor in half for more than one workshop participant, myself included.

Playwrights, both experienced and nascent, then slipped down from the bar stools and ambled over to the theatre to attend the reading of the winning submission in the S & S Annual Playwriting Competition: “Hand Over Fist,” by Michelle Embree, a 2006 Lambda Literary Award fiction nominee.  The play, a lively tale of con artists with a Feng-Shui racket that backfires, was a great reminder that the theatre is not dead!

Of course, there are continuous literary readings: pick a genre or gender and there is a writer for you.  Often the readings come with a burlesque and drag show!

A highlight of the weekend was the awards ceremony where Elana Dykewomon and Michael Lowenthal received the Jim Duggins Outstanding Novelists Prize.  Duggins, a novelist, educator and activist, established the awards to recognize and promote LGBT novelists who are mid-career and to honor their extensive work and service to the community.  Past winners have been Dorothy Allison and Jim Grimsley; and like them, both of this year’s winners expressed lingering surprise at just how long a career they’ve had.  Lowenthal has published three novels since his first appeared in 1998 and Dykewomon’s 1974 novel Riverfinger Women; was a generative work for the lesbian/feminist movement.

But most encouraging was that neither author shows any sign of slowing down.  Dykewomon is on a book tour reading from her newest novel, Risk, and Lowenthal is celebrating the new paperback edition of his historical novel, Charity Girl.

The weekend makes it clear to me there is profound vibrancy which enables this city to continue to struggle back from the battering of Katrina and the US government. New Orleans is the actual place where the cocktail was invented by a Creole apothecary in the 1800s, so New York’s Algonquin Round Table had nothing on the New Orleans Saints and Sinners Literary Festival.  I wonder sometimes how to make it through the isolation that is part of making a novel or a play take shape. Then I remember the tables I get to sit at and the people who sit with me.  New Orleans’ humid air, languid pace and frosty drinks provide the perfect ambiance for a gaggle of harried writers who come to amble through historic neighborhoods, enjoy each other’s words and share what we know about writing.  And if you do a little too much imbibing along the way, take a nap in your air conditioned hotel room and you’re good to go in time for a midnight poetry reading.

The next festival is May 13-16, 2010. I can happily quote Round Table wit Tallulah Bankhead about this extraordinary literary event: “If I had to live my life again, I’d make the same mistakes, only sooner.”  But I guess I can hold off until then.