Last Sunday, Buffalo Street Books (formerly The Bookery II) hosted its third Works-In-Progress reading for ten local writers. This was an opportunity for the writers to gauge the audience’s reaction to their unpublished prose and verse. For the audience packed into the small front room, the reading was a marvelous display of diverse talents. Maybe you’ve passed Elissa Cogan or Ann Day in the Commons without realizing it; these are local Ithacans who love to write, more then willing to share and learn from other artists.
For an hour and a half, the ten writers had eight minutes each to present their work. The only criterion for reading was that their work was a work-in-progress. This was an exhibition of what is happening in Ithaca right now.
The first reader was Elissa Cogan, an accountant and native Ithacan. She read from her collection of poems "Verse Case Scenario". With poems such as “Dinner at the Diner,” which describes her ultimate fall back plan – meeting her friend for dinner at the diner – when life gets to be too much to bear, Elissa started the event off on a joyous note. Her bright and cheerful voice and witty rhymes left the audience chuckling after each poem.
The next reader was Oliver French, who works with youth at risk but declared, “Today, I am a poet.” He read several poems, the first set from a collection named "Seasons", and the second from another collection titled "Lives". His haikus were especially beautiful in their brevity, some of them focusing on weather as a metaphor or a form of life. A pair of poems describing the ironic and delayed nature of seasons in Ithaca had audience members mm-hmm’ing in agreement. "Yes! Is this spring or winter?"questioned French. Later he read another pair of poems, one from the perspective of a broken alcoholic mother lamenting about the distance between her and her daughter, and the second from the perspective of the daughter, who tells a court judge that she cannot be sent to jail, for her mother needs her and the substance abuse is compelling evidence.
Patricia Dutt, a former teacher and current Technical and Grant writer, has been writing for several decades. She signed up for the reading for many of the same reasons as the other readers: to gauge the audience reaction; to share her work with the public and thus do something she has never done before; to meet other writers. When asked about her unfinished novel "Nightshift", Mrs. Dutt described it as the journey of a man to reclaim himself. He has lost everything he has ever loved; his path to redemption lies within. Mrs. Dutt also commented that she was “Surprised by the quality of the other writers,” saying that writers often write in isolation, and that this reading let us realize that there are other writers out there, writing about completely different worlds.
John McGwire, a teacher at Tompkins Cortland Community College, read from his manuscript "An Extraordinary Opportunity", a historical text focusing on a social justice- feminist movement fighting for working rights.
Beth Evans read from the beginning of her novel-in-progress "Nunc Dimitis", portraying a 60-year-old woman named Claire Rivers and her own personal battle with the emptiness that is created in her life by the absence of her husband David. Forced to buy a new single bed and throw away the double, both the empty space and time are opponents in the war happening in her mind.
Nabina Das, a former journalist recently turned full-time fiction writer, read from her poetry manuscript "Narrative Limits", drawing from idioms and metaphors she sees in her life as indicative of the cross-cultural path she has taken, coming from India to the United States.
Ann Day, who came to the US as a refugee during WWII, read poems from two separate manuscripts, "We Have Saved What We Can" and "The Name Of The Place Escapes Me." Her final poem described a child sitting in darkness, hearing a bomb explode outside onto his neighbors’ house and then contemplating his family’s own future—imagining them scattered in bits, hit by another projectile.
Katherine Klein’s reading from her novel "The Fifth Voice" was particularly arresting. The portion she read was just the start of an adventure for the narrator, who finds and takes a violin, a ticket going East from Kiev and a passport, thus transforming him / her into an entirely new person.
Emily Rhoads Johnson read from a biography of her brother George Rhoads, entitled "Wizard at Work." The sections that she read were rife with humor, and detailed several hair-brained schemes of her brother’s to find out more about the world, sometimes by making his sister (Emily) climb through a hole in a wall, or hold two pieces of metal while he cranked and generated an electrical charge through her. It’s all in good fun.
Kathy Kramer was the final reader, and she read from her poetry manuscript "Boiled Potato Blues." This collection featured many touching poems about her family living in New York Appalachia and thus she exploring among others, her grandmother’s past.
Events like Work-in-Progress reading are not a rare event for the Cornell and Ithaca community. Powerful in their scope, they offer us a chance to look into someone else’s work and even talk to them about the way they see life and how Ithaca has influenced their perspective. Incredibly famous authors have been drawn to our little town, so there must be something special about writing, this ten square miles surrounded by reality.