SXSW: Pushing the Envelope With People of Letters

The Australian literary event revives two dying arts

Dear People of Letters,

Well, where should I begin?

I know it was quite a trek for you, what with you being an Australian cultural mini-institution and all, to drag the concept of a literary salon/letter reading across the Pacific and then a few more states over. That's bold. That's two dying concepts melded together. And yet you bring a freshness to both. I mean, a postcard would have been fine, but the luxury of a handwritten letter, all that semi-extinct cursive.

Amanda Palmer at last night's People of Letters event (photo by Gary Miller)

And I know, yes, more traditionally and technically you are Women of Letters, but if you're traveling anyway, it's always nice to change your own rules (vacations, the one time when a change and a rest are not just as good as each other, but absolutely indistinguishable). Kicking off the recitations last night, Buck 65 leaped into the clouds with "Dear 'Fuck off, ya punks' written in correction fluid the wall outside the Green Bean Cafe in Halifax, Nova Scotia." And if you've ever been to Halifax, Nova Scotia, you'll know there're a lot of clouds to leap into.

The theme for the evening was letters written to something you wished you had written. Yes, there's more to this than just rattling through old filing cabinets for communiques with Aunt Agnes about the declining quality of Tim Tams. Each guest was invited to tackle the subject in the oldest medium since we moved away from vellum and parchment, but this being SXSW, there was the inevitable musical accompaniment. Or, at minimum, a musical rumination. I wonder, do the two still go hand in hand because of the quasi-nomadic lifestyle of musicians? I have a sudden image of Slayer dropping by a kikki.K on Collins Street and hunting for that particular eggshell finish, the one that says, just by feel, just by touch, without having to look at the address, yes, this is from us, and we're fine. This is the paper we always use, and this little folded missive has made it all the way from us to you. It's not just the words on a screen, it's the ink leeching out beyond the letters into the fibers. Or Justin Bieber, banging away on that Royal KMG he found in a swap meet, the one with the "Q" that never settles right and always looks like a lower case u with an umlaut, the one he loved instantly because he knew that Saul Bellow and Joan Didion used the same brand of typewriter.

Last night, Buck reminisced about old haunts and old crushes and the rabid determination of painting on a wall in an off-brand Tipp-Ex. Antipodean Americana devotee Emma Swift penned a belated response to "Dave," her self-appointed arbiter of what was right and wrong for her musically, while Jenny Owens Young swooned over her first true, life-reshaping love: Nirvana's Nevermind. Kim Boekbinder, the Impossible Girl herself, laid bare the imperfections, shortcomings, and nuances in the simple word "love," before tremulously laying waste to "The Glory of Love" (Billy Hill and Benny Goodman, not Pete Cetera). And finally there was that last great unholy bastard son of American culture, John Sayles, ruminating and fulminating on the tunelessness, both literal and cultural, of "The Star Spangled Banner."

It would be churlish to say that the big draw wasn't alt-culture's power couple. Erstwhile Wil Wheaton impersonator Neil Gaiman, talented bastard that he is, took his brief career diversion as letters editor for two British softcore magazines and turned it into an optimistic letter to his pre-teen self. But it was former Dresden Doll and sometime (as one half of Evelyn Evelyn) musical Siamese twin Amanda Palmer who sliced to the core of the evening: the idea of a message lost in time. Written in a semi-drunken haze Monday night at Magnolia Cafe, she worried about struggling over the scribbles. "I wrote it once," she said, "and I only want to read it once." And she did, and it was textured and tragic and wistful and plaintive. I thought I had seen an inherently confessional artist reach the outer points of her power a few years ago at SXSW, with an unaccompanied rendition of "The Wind That Shakes the Barley." I imagined that the cleaning staff at the Central Presbyterian must have been grateful, because she must have dislodged the cobwebs from the highest corners. Again, no instruments to back her up or hide behind, but just an intimate, heartbreaking true story that must have shook the Hilton Garden Inn's foundations from where we all stood, craning necks on the 18th Floor.

Did we get it? I think we did. It was powerful and personal enough that you were kind of glad that Neil and her friends were there, just as moral support.

Oh, and a quick apology. The shushing sound you might have heard was from me. But better a shushing sound than the constant yammering of conversations chit-chat-chittering away in the background. This is a reading, a moment of communion and communication between author and audience. They are a rare enough moment. I'll happily be the asshole at the back, taking surly looks for shutting down rudeness.



P.S. Hey, Buck? I kind of liked Halifax. It was cold as shit when I went, but it's kind of OK. Some great graffiti artists up there.

Visit our Photo Galleries page for photos from last night's event.

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SXSW, SXSW 2013, Neil Gaiman, Amanda Palmer, John Sayles, People of Letters, Women of Letters, Hilton Garden Inn, Emma Swift, Jenny Owens Young, Kim Boekbinder

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