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“Red Bank River Read” Features Monmouth Professor

Valentine’s Day is known for chocolate, candlelit dinners, Hallmark cards, flowers, and lovers exchanging gifts. This year, the holiday was also marked by the February installment of the Red Bank River Read series, which included Suzanne Parker and Monmouth’s own Melissa Febos, assistant professor of English. The Manhattan Bagel was packed to near capacity as people of all ages joined together to hear the writers read.

Parker is a winner of the Kinereth Gensler Book Award from Alice James Books for her poetry collection Viral, written in response to Tyler Clementi’s suicide, which was also a finalist for a Lambda Literary Award and was on the National Library Association’s Over the Rainbow List of recommended books for 2014. Her poetry has appeared in Barrow Street, Cimarron Review, Hunger Mountain, Drunken Boat, and numerous other journals and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

Febos is the author of Whip Smart. Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Post Road, Salon, New York Times, Portland Review, Dissent, The Brooklyn Rail, and Hunger Mountain. Her essays have won prizes from Prairie Schooner and Story Quarterly, and she is the recipient of a 2012 Bread Loaf nonfiction fellowship, a 2013 Barbara Deming Memorial Fund artist grant, a 2014 Virginia Center for Creative Arts fellowship, a 2015 Vermont Studio Center fellowship, a 2015 Lower Manhattan Cultural Council “Process Space” fellowship, and MacDowell Colony fellowships in 2010, 2011, and 2014. 

The event began with a brief introduction by Linda Muhlhausen, who thanked everyone for coming out on the holiday. “Regardless of what you feel about Hallmark holidays,” she said, “it is Valentine’s Day.” 

“I think that’s what all writer’s write about… it all comes down to love,” she added.

Parker soon took the mic, noting the great turnout. “I’ve never seen a bagel shop so full!” she said. Her first readings were from a new manuscript she is working on, which focuses on her mother, the aging process, and questions of health and mortality as life draws to a close. The opening piece was “We Set the Bed on Fire,” in which her mother recounts her honeymoon, and how Parker’s father knocked over an ashtray and literally set the bed aflame.

Her selections also included pieces like “The Boarder” and “M F K Fisher Has Lunch.” These pieces were filled with powerful yet enigmatic lines, like, “Be prepared for fatigue and light mattresses,” and, when describing Paris, “It is a society built on hello and goodbye.”

She also read a piece recounting taking her mother to Paris, though the trip is hindered somewhat by her mother’s failing mental health. Lines here included, “Agenda for Monday: Be a good daughter,” and, when the narrator is standing in a crowded restaurant, “Thinking she will search for you, her daughter, but she does not.”

Parker then read from Viral, pausing between poems to note the tragedy of young people committing suicide and the difficulty she faces commuting from New York City to Brookdale Community College to teach, as the bridge she drives over is a major suicide spot. 

“These young boys commit suicide in very definitive ways,” she said in reference to gay college-age men who choose violent methods of suicide. Thus, her first poem from this section was “Momentum,” which read, “Pills demand that you eat your grief.”

Other selections included “Practice” and “Splash,” the latter of which referred to a popular gay bar in New York. “Only Kissing” looked directly at the Clementi case, highlighting that his life was destroyed simply for kissing a man.

Febos was welcomed to the microphone shortly thereafter and opened with a joke: “If you haven’t read Whip Smart, don’t worry, I’m going to read it right now,” she said. “I hope you all carb loaded. It should only take five hours.”

She then clarified that she wouldn’t be reading from her memoire at all, and instead read selections from a new work-in-progress that looks to tell all the stories she previously couldn’t, many about her youth, currently titled Abandon Me. The overall arc of the collection is about meeting her birth father, an alcoholic and drug addict who left her family soon after she was born, “which is something I never thought I’d want to do.”

Her first reading was two separate sections from “Salt.” Some lines included, “Tom was a short list, a tiny suitcase my parents unpacked for me when I was young,” and “I looked through the glass bottle and saw my parents on the other side.” She also recounted when she began to eat pancakes with butter and salt, and her mother noted that her father would always eat his pancakes that way.

“I’m writing my way to insight about my own experience,” Febos said.

She moved on to an essay called “Topping from the Bottom,” which tells the story of her meeting a woman named Lola, who was suspended by hooks from the ceiling at a party in New York City. “The puncture wounds wept, but Lola didn’t,” Febos recalled.

“Sometimes the difference between what is holy and what is pathological is just a matter of fashion,” she continued.

Her reading ended with a section from “Call My Name,” where she recollects her love of words growing up, tying this into her family struggles. In reference to her two fathers, she said, “Both taught me how to watch them leave and not chase them.”

The reading ended with a brief open-mic where a number of University members read, including Jennifer Filannino and Professor Frank Cipriani. The next Red Bank River Read will be taking place at the Red Bank Manhattan Bagel at 2:30 pm on March 14, so be sure to head out and get a taste of the local literature scene.

PHOTO TAKEN by Kevin Holton