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Jun 23, 2008 4:51 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Dirty Words by Ellen Sussman

Jun 23, 2008 4:51 PM

Dirty words might seem an offbeat organizing principle for an Authors Round Table Dinner, but blue language was indeed the theme of the first such meal offered by Alison Restaurant at its new location at the Maidstone Arms in East Hampton last Friday in conjunction with East End Books.

The off-color language didn’t seem to dampen anyone’s appetite.

The special guests for the evening program were Ellen Sussman,


of “Bad Girls: 26 Writers Misbehave” and T.J. Parsell, author of “Fish: A Memoir of a Boy in a Man’s Prison.” The bad language theme derived from Ms. Sussman’s latest effort, “Dirty Words: A Literary Encyclopedia of Sex.” Ms. Sussman has been on a rigorous three-week book tour, presenting readings with different writers who contributed to the book—like Mr. Parsell—at each stop.

Ms. Sussman pieced together compositions by 97 writers who mused about different words and terms in the unconventional encyclopedia. “I contacted 20-somethings to get ideas for new terminology,” she said on Friday. The book consists of both old and new terms, and, by consulting with younger people, she was able to trace the evolution of certain terms, and how their meanings had changed.

The editor then contacted different authors to see if they would participate in the writing of “Dirty Words.” After the authors accepted the invitation and chose a word from the list that would “excite and inspire them,” they were asked to “write whatever they want.” There was no template to guide the writers, and Ms. Sussman declined to give the authors an example to follow. Each was an original piece and “each author brings something different” to the book, she said.

Contemporary authors featured in “Dirty Words” include, among others, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Stephen Dunn, Antonya Nelson, Philip Lopate, Martha McPhee, Jonathan Ames, Pagan Kennedy, Nell Casey and Elissa Schappel.

The authors used descriptions and definitions, poetry, essays or stories to describe their selected words.

“They’re writing about human relationships, love and lust, and that’s very intimate,” Ms. Sussman said. In the end, the book exceeded her expectations, she added.

Ms. Sussman has been meeting many of the writers on her book tour, and said the experience has been “phenomenal, and also great for the writers’ community.” People have asked her if this tour is work or fun, and Ms. Sussman said she always has the pleasure of answering, “both.”

“Writers get a chance to tap into unexplored territory. They push below the surface of relationships, of passion, of our urges and needs and dreams. They reveal truth about human behavior and about our society. Sometimes, they even get closer to that illusive concept: love,” Ms. Sussman read from the introduction to “Dirty Words” at the beginning of the night.

Terms were used in the book that many people might not consider “dirty,” including “kissing,” “commitment,” “celibacy” and “obsession.” These terms were included to “blur the lines of what’s dirty,” Ms. Sussman said.

She explained that the new book was pieced together to explore a new genre of writing and to make people consider whether or not there really are “dirty” words.

T.J. Parsell read his piece from the new compendium to Friday’s dinner guests and left the audience laughing, not with embarrassment, but with surprise and awe at hearing his term, one of many names for male genitalia, used in such different ways. When Mr. Parsell had finished, the audience applauded amid cries of “very well done” and “excellent.” To write about his chosen term, the writer said he had just “started to think about the word, the sound of the word. It was fun to do.”

Ms. Sussman then read one of 
the two pieces she contributed to the book, “Commitment.” Her reading elicited a completely different reaction. 
Audience members said that anyone could relate to this piece and everyone knew a person like the protagonist of the story.

East End Books and Alison Restaurant at the Maidstone Arms will host other author round table dinners, featuring James Brady’s “Why Marines Fight” on June 27, Rosalie Winard’s “Wild Birds of the American Wetlands,” and Paul Salzman’s “The Beatles in India 40th Anniversary.”

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