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Agni explores a father’s suicide

BU literary journal event features reading by novelist Joan Wickersham

Agni Senior Editor William Pierce:

When a biographer writes an emotional essay about her father — who committed suicide — is it possible that she is far too close to her subject? Novelist Joan Wickersham, who did exactly that, explores this question in the latest issue of Agni, the twice-annual literary magazine of Boston University. Wickersham will read from her work “An Attempt at a Biographical Essay” at the celebration of the publication of Agni 63 on Wednesday, May 10, at 7 p.m.

The “reading and release” party will also feature readings from fiction writer and poet E. C. Osondu and poets Kathleen Rooney and David Daniel.

Wickersham’s work tries to investigate what the suicide of her father really means and whether it’s possible for her to ever come to grips with it, says William Pierce, Agni senior editor. At the same time, he says, “she’s trying to figure out how to write a biography about somebody that she knew so well.”

“A formal biographical essay won’t work,” Wickersham writes. “In this case, with this writer, it gets too emotional, too easily gets out of hand. It may well act like a well-schooled horse, but the minute it gets out of sight of the stable, into the open countryside, it gallops away with its rider clinging desperately to mane and saddle.”

Wickersham’s ride, it turns out, is a haunting journey of self-discovery. “She’s almost writing an autobiography,” Pierce says. That much Wickersham admits: “The biographer isn’t supposed to cry, shiver, or feel like she’s about to throw up,” she writes.

Pierce, for his part, seems genuinely thrilled that Wickersham is constantly challenging the biographical form. “Again and again,” he says, “we are drawn to writers who resist the form they’re working in — and as a result expand the form. We always say that we don’t want work that’s willfully experimental, but we like work that experiments.” In fact, says Pierce, similar challenges to preconceived writing conventions can be found throughout Agni 63, which he calls the publication’s “best issue ever.”

Wickersham’s first novel, The Paper Anniversary (Viking, 1993), was described by Publisher’s Weekly as a “wry, candid, and often beguiling” depiction of a young couple’s troubled marriage. Her writing has appeared in Agni, The Hudson Review, Story, Ploughshares, Glimmer Train, and Best American Short Stories. She recently had a fellowship with the MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, N.H., where she worked on a new book.

Osondu, a native of Nigeria, won the West African First Book Award for editing the poetry anthology For Ken, For Nigeria: Poems in Memory of Ken Saro Wiwa (Service and Service Publications, 1996). His story “A Letter from Home” is now available on Agni online. Osondu has received grants from the Heinrich Boll Foundation of Cologne, Germany, and is a Syracuse University creative writing fellow.

An accomplished poet, Rooney’s poems have been published in Agni, Crab Orchard Review, Blue Mesa, and Main Street Rag. Rooney has also turned her hand to nonfiction, and her first book, Reading with Oprah (University of Arkansas, 2005) explores the social phenomenon of Oprah Winfrey’s Book Club, the largest in the world.

Daniel is the author of the poetry collection Seven-Star Bird (Graywolf, 2003), which won the Larry Levis Prize. His poems and reviews have appeared in Agni, Harvard Review, The Literary Review, Post Road, and Witness. Daniel, whom Harold Bloom has called “an authentic heir to Hart Crane,” is the poetry editor of Ploughshares and director of creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Agni, edited by Sven Birkerts, has been a Boston institution for more than three decades. PEN America calls it “one of America’s and the world’s most significant literary journals.” The publication’s celebration of its latest issue is free and open to the public and takes place at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Ave., on May 10 at 7 p.m. For more information, e-mail agni@bu.edu, call 617-353-7135, or visit Agni online.