This Thursday, September 7, 2012, Columbia University’s School of the Arts held the first of its Columbia Selects reading series, which is an annual series of monthly readings that runs from September until May. The event took place at KGB Bar in the East Village, from 7 P.M. until 9 P.M., and featured three up-and-coming writers affiliated with Columbia’s Creative Writing MFA program, Anne Dyer Stuart, Priya Chandrasegaram, and Christina Rumpf.
When I arrived at seven, the little red room (in both decor and sentiment, given the Communist movement posters that hung on the crimson walls) was packed to the seams, with standing room only. I pushed my way through the crowd, most of whom I recognized as Columbia writing students, and only barely managed to order a beer and grab a spot by the bar before the program began.
The two curators, Bryan VanDyke and Emily Austin, stepped up to the small podium situated in the front corner of the room, announcing, amidst feedback from the mic, that this year’s selection process was wildly different from those of years past; there had been a relatively rigorous application process that the three readers had endured before being selected to read their work as part of the series. VanDyke announced that something like 100 writers had applied, and therefore, this group of readers deserved special attention.
Stuart read first, speaking in her “native Mississippi accent” to heighten the effect of her fiction piece, which concerned an unpopular cheerleader’s experience at a uniform fitting in her hometown, just outside of Jackson. To me, the piece was most impressive in that Stuart’s voice was evident throughout; the nuances of Southern culture pervaded the work. Stuart’s award-winning prose has been published in several literary magazines, and she is currently working on a novel called, How to Behave After Murder.
Next came Chandrasegaram,who, after being introduced as a U2 trivia expert, read from her fictional Gothic romance novel, which seemed to me to recall Susanna Clarke’s bestselling Gothic novel from 2004, Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, in its clever use of footnotes and commentary to provide a modern perspective to the body of the novel itself, which is intended to be read as though it were a found manuscript, written in the same time period in which the action takes place. As with any reading of a work featuring extensive footnotes, the interruptions in the narrative were somewhat distracting, but certainly entertaining and well-written. Here, I was most impressed by the sheer imagination that drove the piece and the pointed sense of humor which characterized the commentary.
The final reader of the night, and in my opinion, the most technically impressive, was Christina Rumpf, a 2009 nonfiction MFA recipient and the director of Columbia’s Summer Creative Writing Program for high school students. Though she is currently working on Burn, her memoir, Rumpf chose to read from a newer piece called “Hearing,” which centered around a family drawn closer together by both the recent death of the speaker’s brother and subsequent legal proceedings, and a thunderstorm which racks the matriarch’s country home. As a piece, I thought that the level of detail was particularly excellent, especially in the skillfully subtle use of motif and nuanced characterization.
The reading, being a relatively casual affair, concluded with drinks and conversation, though the readers themselves chose not to hang around at the bar afterward. Columbia Selects will present a new reading on the first Thursday of every month from now until May. For more information, feel free to email the curators here.
Get in touch with the author @kellitrapnell .