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Heather Hartley's Book Launch Party at Shakespeare and Co.

Heather_04 Text: Brendan Seibel

Monday's book launch of Knock Knock, Heather Hartley's first collection of poems, could only take place in the attic of Shakespeare & Co. The American writer serves as co-director of the bookshop's annual literary festival and master of ceremonies for their weekly readings. An editor with Tin House magazine and instructor of creative writing at The American University of Paris, Hartley belongs amongst the pages and ghosts of literati past. The pieces which comprise Knock Knock have been previously published across a broad swath of literary journals: Post Road Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, The St. Petersburg Review, Pharos Magazine among them. The diversity of venue mirrors that of Hartley's work, which ranges in the broadest of terms from traditionalist two line stanzas to a more modern form of short prose.

At her best Hartley is an insightful observer of the people which surround her, be they strangers on the subway or those she's known her whole life. At her worst she's a clever wit more concerned with an arrangement over content. Throughout the dazzling heights and darkest sewers, from meditations on decaying beauties and aging drunkards to flippant forays of sexual trysts and worn romances, an arsenal of pop culture references, wry humor and common vernacular keep any lofty airs from drifting too far above the reader's head. It's a deceptively simple device, incorporating everyday artifacts such as Barbie dolls with academic references to European art and culture. Strength is found by walking the tightrope between feckless tourist and wide-eyed visitor.

Hartley is schizophrenic. The choppy cadence and free associations which mark even her biggest head-shaker, the lukewarm Anaïs Nin after school special The Pledge, fail on paper but beg to live and breath as performance. The eschew the shrill Lydia Lunch school of confrontational rants for the barroom bard schtick of Tom Waits' Beat-bum years. Her best pieces, including the exceptional Elegy in India Ink, are more reflective, more bared, more direct and, most importantly, give Hartley enough time to stop playing and get serious. Which makes for poor group entertainment.

Balancing the hopscotch with well-timed pop quizzes requires a wealth of material and a deep understanding of what the audience wants. Hartley's experience in the world of literature will undoubtedly lend well to a thoughtful selection of poems and shorts, feeding the crowd popcorn with undemanding breaks of slower, more ruminative fare.

Knock Knock Launch Party
Monday, 1 February, 19:00
Shakespeare & Co.
37 rue de la Bûcherie
75005 Paris
Mº St-Michel

Bonapart Paris apartments


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