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November 29, 2018

An Evening With Igor Webb, Village of Crickets and Christopher Smart’s Cat

by Kurt Gottschalk

Igor Webb, Ph.D., author, critic, professor, and director of the Adelphi University Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program, and poet John Matthias spoke like old friends on the small stage in the basement of The Cornelia Street Café in Manhattan’s West Village. They are, in fact, old friends, but the spirit of the evening also carried the congeniality cultivated by Village of Crickets, the unique student/alumni/faculty literary association that is an outgrowth of the program.

The November 7, 2018, gathering was in celebration of Dr. Webb’s latest book, Christopher Smart’s Cat (Dos Madres Press, March 2018), an unusual amalgam of memoir, short fiction and lit crit. It’s a work not easily described in a single word. Cheeky and humble, Dr. Webb called it “part memoir, part contemplation,” making it “unclassifiable and unmarketable,” at the reading. It’s also a book that deals with the most serious of subjects in human history and experience, one that ranges “all the way from terror to joy,” in Matthias’ estimation.

The book is, in part, a journal of Dr. Webb’s return to his Slovakian home for the first time since his childhood. It’s also a meditation on the Holocaust and how his family survived.

“One of the things that nobody has said about the Holocaust is that people lived as people have always lived, experiencing agony and pleasure,” Dr. Webb said, relating the often overlooked experiences of a small town on the periphery of Nazi atrocities.

“Writers form associations and cut them out to leave the reader to make connections,” he said of the unusual construction of the novel. “Actually, that’s how the process of thinking and discovering what you’re meaning to say occurs.”

The evening was introduced by Village of Crickets co-founder Danielle Barnhart, M.F.A. ’15, adjunct English professor at Adelphi, and typified the sort of coming-together she and Iris Mahan, M.F.A. ’14, had in mind when they conceived of this unusual group.

“We had this idea for a literary community so that you didn’t just walk off a cliff at the end of your M.F.A.,” Barnhart said. “It was a way that we could start to build a community that was beyond the program but still connected to it.”

She and Mahan are active in their professions—they co-edited Women of Resistance: Poems for a New Feminism (OR Books, March 2018), for example—while remaining active with their Village. Barnhart serves as director of events for the organization.

The November event “was an extra-special night,” she said. “Students got to see their professor up there and see what it’s like to be a working writer. It’s really important for them to get a sense of what life is like day to day working as a writer, working as an editor, working as a publisher.”

They were also able to turn the tables and put the questions to their professor. One student asked if Dr. Webb had advice for pitching a hybrid book in a marketplace that wants things easily categorized and shelved.

“It was hell,” Dr. Webb replied to a round of laughter. “Don’t do it.”

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