Ian Frazier

April 17–18, 2006


Ian Frazier
"Clear and thoughtful - with a fillip of the outlandish, Ian Frazier's work is the stimulating, ardent writing that one always hopes for and rarely finds."
--The Houston Chronicle

Nonfiction writer and humorist Ian Frazier combines first-person narrative with in-depth research on topics including American history, Native Americans, and fishing. As a staff writer for the New Yorker for twenty-one years, Frazier wrote feature articles, humorous sketches, and was a frequent contributor to the magazine's "Talk of the Town" section. In 1982, he left Manhattan for Montana, where he began the research for Great Plains (1989), a journey of more than 25,000 miles through the American West. Frazier returned to the West for On the Rez (2000), an account of the friendships Frazier made in his travels. Family (1994) is the story of Frazier's own lineage, as well as a chronicle of 19th- and 20th-century American history. Frazier's humor essays have been published in Dating Your Mom (1986) and Coyote v. Acme (1996). His most recent book, Gone to New York: Adventures in the City (2005) is a collection of essays about his relationship with the city itself.

At the heart of Frazier's writing is a willingness to engage with other people, to experience and accept them as they are. While his work inevitably outlines familial and cultural differences in society, it is always bound by Frazier's strong sense of commonality. "I wanted to point out what we have that's different, but how below that, we know many of the same things," Frazier has said of On the Rez. "We have a huge amount in common."

April 18th Discussion Segmented By Content

  1. introduction by Al Filreis (3:36): MP3
  2. populism and Francis Parkman (5:20): MP3
  3. the tension between the head and the heart (8:08): MP3
  4. the relationship between Episcopalian practice and humor (3:18): MP3
  5. lists and the way they sound (8:49): MP3
  6. democratic writing and the "poetry of the way things are" (2:37): MP3
  7. choosing subjects, starting to write (1:04): MP3
  8. list structure, choices (3:07) MP3
  9. use of the narrative eye, inclusion of self as a character (6:09): MP3
  10. imitation and writing (2:18): MP3
  11. perceptions and resonance of the Great Plains (4:49): MP3
  12. obsession with research (4:13): MP3
  13. lists and observational skills (2:46): MP3
  14. fishing, family and constraint (3:05): MP3
  15. on the open hearted place (3:40): MP3
  16. reading a passage about the summer pow-wow from On The Res (4:02): MP3

Kerry Cooperman's introduction

It was 2 AM, two Fridays ago, and I was lying supine in bed in my West Philly apartment. Sandy Frazier's The Fish's Eye was six inches or so above my face. I came to page 99, the last paragraph of Sandy's essay titled "A Lovely Sort of Lower Purpose." I read, then re-read, then re-read again these words: "A plan will claim the empty acres Ö The place's possibilities, which at the moment are approximately infinite, will be reduced to merely a few." I stopped. I sat up. I wrote in the margins: "Holy shit! He's talking to me!" and in capital letters: "IMPLICATED!" At that moment, Sandy was raising the stakes for me. His words were pushing me to ensure that my own plans - for next month, for next year, for the rest of my life - would never erase those crucial places where wandering without a purpose is not just ok, but necessary; where asking myself "what are you doing?" is the point.

I got out of bed, put on a sweatshirt, and took a walk down Walnut Street to the edge of campus, above the Schuylkill and beside the ice rink. I stayed a while, then walked back. I had never been challenged so directly by a writer. I had never felt so known by a stranger and so unsettled by a text.

That night, and every day since, Sandy's words have been a presence in my mind - a tension, a reminder, a push to lay myself bare. He inspired me to continually seek out that site we have taken to call the Third River - the sort of out-of-the-way, unlikely American place that one only really sees when one is paying special attention. His texts challenge all of us - as citizens, writers, readers, professionals, family members, companions - to preserve those essential spaces in our lives that are constantly in danger of disappearing: the marginal places where we can try out odd ideas; the salmon streams and mountain trails and rivulets; the easy-to-wander-into, anything-goes sort of places where we can still fish, hunt, drive tanks, ride dirt bikes, fly kites and model airplanes, snatch plastic bags out of trees, play in the snow, write poetry - in Mr. Frazier's words "sit and drink wine and watch the sunset." Sandy couldn't have known that he was referring to this space, the Kelly Writers House Arts CafÈ at this moment - tonight. He couldn't have known that he would inspire a student in our class to drive west in search of the Great Plains and the lodge of Crazy Horse and the land that SuAnne Big Crow claimed for all of us. Sandy couldn't have known that his writing would bring us to tears, or that his writing would send me on that 2 AM walk.

I am a graduating senior - an English major, a writer, a nervous wreck about to start law school in a new city in the fall. So much about this scares me. So much about this makes me turn to Sandy's texts and, at once, find anxiety and comfort. I am terrified that my plan to be a lawyer will claim all the wonderful marginal places in my life and reduce my infinite possibilities to merely a few. I am nervous about the prospect of abandoning the writing, learning and relationships that sustain me now. I am worried that wandering and openness will become extinct for me starting in September. I will miss the relationships that might never be the same, the experiences I can't take with me, the memories that somehow depend on my staying right here. I will miss sitting with my best friend in her apartment every Tuesday night, remembering, together, our West Virginia road trip, reading our most recent writing aloud to one another, talking about what will become of me next year. I wish times like these weren't so rare. Needless to say, I'm not the only pre-nostalgic senior in this room tonight.

What Sandy Frazier has given all of us is a way to hold onto each other no matter where we are, a way to locate ourselves in a tiny part of the world that feels as we want it to, a way to recreate realness - if only for a few minutes at a time. Through dreams and writing and caring, Sandy shows us why our own Third Rivers - places to wander or scope out or cast a line - are never entirely out of reach. He shows us what Crazy Horse and SuAnne Big Crow showed him: that with our bodies, our attentiveness and our courage we can stake out a place to stand. We can glance somewhere and call it home. Sandy demonstrates how a gesture as simple as taking a walk to a nearby empty acre or as involved as trekking the Great Plains can give us joy so rare as to feel endangered.

At the beginning of this year, before I ever read a word of Sandy Frazier's writing, I began an independent study project that has since become a collection of personal essays - about my family, my anxieties, my future. Everything about this frightened me from the start: I had never written about myself before; I had never confronted myself in an honest way; I wouldn't have the language to say what needed to be said. Sandy gave me the language to accommodate the impulses and tensions I'd been agonizing over. He gave me an aesthetic to believe in.

This is the moment in my life when I need Sandy Frazier's gentleness, humor, intellect and humanity. I need his words and his model. I am endlessly grateful to have read Sandy's work, and am thrilled that he is here with us tonight.

It is with great admiration that I introduce to you now, Mr. Sandy Frazier.