FPP Interview: Matthew Olzmann

FPP spoke with poet Matthew Olzmann via email about writing poems when Nazis are marching in the streets, what it’s like when people choose which “facts” they’re going to believe, and much more. Come out to Shrine on Tuesday, November 7th when he joins Ibrahim Abdul-MatinYarimar BonillaKeesha Gaskins-Nathan, Max S. Gordon, PJ MarshallSuzanne Russell and Carla Shedd for One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis.

Olzmann AJB 1Has the current political moment affected your art or work life? If yes, how so? It’s added an additional level of self-consciousness to the process. How do you write poems when there are Nazis marching in the streets?

What didn’t you see coming? People have been divided on a number of issues for a long time. But we’re no longer debating those issues; we’re debating and arguing about the nature of reality. People are choosing which “facts” they’re going to believe, then proceeding as if their beliefs are now reality. There’s no such thing as evidence. Science is a myth. There were a billion people at the inauguration. These hurricanes aren’t real. The news is fake. The sky is a liberal conspiracy.

When do you feel most “we” and when do you feel most “I”? Initially, I saw this as a “craft of writing question” as point of view is one of the first choices a writer has to make when writing almost anything. Each point of view offers the writer a set of opportunities, and each has its own disadvantages and challenges. The first person plural’s “we” is often, for me, the most challenging. It’s the voice of the collective. Using the “I” is easy. One can say “I believe in God” or “I don’t believe in God” and either claim might seem legitimate.  However, the same statement begins to feel exclusionary or oppressive once it’s applied to a collective. If “I believe” becomes “we believe,” additional questions come up. Who is “we”? Who is included and who is excluded? It’s difficult to use the word “we” in a broad or general fashion. With that in mind, I feel like an “I” all of the time. I feel most like a “we” when the community it includes is very specific.

Is there a person, or a community, or artwork, or anything at all that has inspired you these past days? Oddly, while the current moment has made me more self-conscious about my own writing, and probably pushed it, at times, in a more overtly political direction, it’s done little to change what I’m drawn to as a reader. All the art and poetry that has inspired me in the past continues to do so. In recent days, I’ve been reading or rereading a handful of poems by Szymborska, Hayden, Pat Rosal, Jamaal May, Jessica Jacobs, David Tomas Martinez, Jennifer Chang, Stephen Dobyns, Rilke, Cathy Linh Che, Frank O’Hara, Gabrielle Calvocoressi and C. Dale Young. The poems I loved a year ago, or many years ago, are still the poems I love now. They make me feel more engaged with the world, more connected to humanity, and remind me of both its terror and wonder.

 

FPP Interview: Max S. Gordon

FPP spoke with essayist Max S. Gordon via email about the struggle to keep Trump out of our thoughts and conversations, how Pence needs to know he is not going back in the closet for him, and so much more. Come out to Shrine on Tuesday, November 7th when he joins Ibrahim Abdul-MatinYarimar BonillaKeesha Gaskins-NathanPJ MarshallMatthew Olzmann, Suzanne Russell and Carla Shedd for One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis.

662F67E4-ED6C-4C62-B352-5297B7376F08What has this year been like for you? Bizarre.  Even now, a year later, when I watch the news it still has a surreal quality. I see Trump at the podium, and I feel like, “This couldn’t have really happened, could it?”  In some ways, I hope I never lose that feeling.  I am very determined that this never be okay.

One of the most difficult things is keeping him out of my head. I have friends who are anti-Trump, but they won’t stop talking about him, day and night. I understand following the news, but they don’t seem to understand that Trump is a narcissist, and on some level, narcissists don’t care whether you hate them or not, they just want you to keep them on the brain. It doesn’t matter, as long as they are the only conversation. I consider it a victory if I have a few hours a day where I haven’t thought or talked about him.

How have Trump’s politics and policies affected you and your communities? How have you been unaffected? I notice I’ve been keeping my eye on people, trying to locate who is a bit sassier during this administration, who feels more empowered to harm. I feel we are in the testing stage, it’s still pretty early, and we’re all watching each other, thinking, how far will this shit go?  What can I get away with? I think Trump feels the same way.  One wants to be vigilant without being paranoid, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The other day I was walking along a path in the woods in upstate, NY, and there was a white family in front of me. A couple in the group was distracted and stood completely in my way and they didn’t move. I had to very obviously walk around them. They didn’t acknowledge me or apologize for taking up the entire space on the road.  It was like I wasn’t even there. I was so pissed. And the first thought I had was, “Is this going to be life in the Trump era?  Black Invisibilty?”

Now, to be fair, the same thing could have happened if I had been white.  They might have just been rude people. But I’m not white. And the fact that I was thinking that, that I was worried, means that Trump is affecting me on a deeper psychological level.  The way you know he’s won is when you wake up one morning and decide not to go for a walk in the woods because you don’t want to have to risk dealing with that humiliation, that shame.  The park then becomes all white.  And that’s how it begins – that’s how the world gets smaller and smaller.

Has the current political moment affected your art or work life? If yes, how so?  I’d like to think it has encouraged me to be bolder, to take more risks. That’s why I chose this picture. I think there is a process of coarsening that is taking place right now, a cultural homogenization. We can talk about walls, and bans, but it’s really all the same – it’s a war on difference.

Now Trump, on some level, no matter how much he panders to his base, is a New Yorker, and his time on The Apprentice means that he will always be a part of the celebrity freak show.  It’s Mike Pence I’m really talking about here.

I wrote about Pence when he was governor, and my message to him was, in short, I’m not going back into the closet for you.  People act like “the closet” is some cosy little space where you hang your shirts and jackets, where you keep a rack for your shoes, and a shelf where you tuck your sexual orientation until you’re ready to tell the world.  But I think the closet for many LGBTQ people looks more like those tunnels in the movie, It.  Sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to make it out of that shit alive.  That’s why we have to keep telling the truth, and boldly.

What didn’t you see coming?  Megyn Kelly hosting the Today Show.  For some reason I feel really violated by that. I read her book, Settle for More when I was in London and what I found out about Kelly is that she comes from a pretty liberal family and community–we could have gone to the same high school. In other words, I think she had to contort herself into this racist thing she became on Fox News.  She’s deeply contrived. And I’m offended that now on The Today Show she’s what she should have been all along–and she seems to be getting away with it.

I watch her studio audience sitting behind her and it feels like something from The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’ve heard her talk about sexual harassment and I very much admire her sexual harassment fight against Fox.  But I’d love for someone to ask her, “Has your consciousness about victimization and women translated to having more compassion for people of color and racial injustice?”  I can hear her now, “And we’ll be right back.”

What should people focus on right now?  A good friend of mine, the filmmaker Iyatunde Folayan, often talks about finding sanctuary.  I think we need to locate those places where we are accepted 100% for who we are.  In some cases, that may only be the bathroom mirror.  We need to know where we are welcome, where we can express ourselves and not be reduced.  I’m experimented right now with resistance through sensuality.  I’m not saying we don’t still march, and act up, but when the black body is in peril, bath oils and candles can be a form of resistance.  Right now, I’m dealing with my addictions to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s again because I’m really frightened when I read about Trump and North Korea and those are my childhood “fear foods” – they always pop up when I’m terrified.

Resistance for me must involve examining my self care as a man who is gay and black.  It’s what my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction is about.  I saw a black woman the other day in New York, beautiful in a yellow dress, so vibrant, absolutely radiant.   Seeing her, in some way, helped me to deal with this whole Trump thing in a way I can’t exactly describe.  But I do know that self care is an important part of one’s personal protest – especially when you come from a targeted group.

What gives you hope? The truth telling that’s been happening around bullies, and in particular, bullies and sexual assault.  I’ve written at length about Bill Cosby, but it is amazing to see the conversation taking place now around R. Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and especially Harvey Weinstein. With Harvey, there seems to be an unprecedented level of accountability. Anyone who was near him has to come forward and answer, “What did you know? And why didn’t you do anything?” It’s like Judgement at Nuremberg. And because of Weinstein’s power globally, this news has influenced the world. I’d like to think we’re moving closer to ending the reign of the entitled male, (and we’re finding out he can be a Democrat or Republican, straight or gay). If we are, the whole world is going to change, maybe overnight.

Is there a person, or a community, or artwork, or anything at all that has inspired you these past days?  I’ve always been interested in Harriet Tubman. For me, she’s the original Wonder Woman. I marvel at her courage and her accomplishments. And she inspires me because it’s so tempting to think, “I can’t shine right now or be in my full glory because things are so bad in 2017.” But, I imagine things were pretty shitty in 1849, and that didn’t stop her from escaping in her late twenties and returning 17 more times to help others go free. Harriet teaches me: you shine where you are from who you are. The rest is weather.

When you visualize a bright future, what do you see?  What do you hear? I am a child of the Seventies, inspired by “Free to Be…You and Me”, “Big Blue Marble”, “Vegetable Soup“.  I feel those works encouraged compassion and understanding, an appreciation for difference. So I am not ashamed to say, I visualize love and kindness.  I think Republicans and Democrats both have a lot to answer for. We play so many bullshit games when there is serious need out here in these streets. The bright future I see is an end to so many people’s suffering and pain.  Life is challenging, I think we all know this, but it shouldn’t be this hard for so many.  I keep seeing all these news reports about the opiod crisis, the opiod crisis.  We don’t have an opiod crisis, we have a crisis of heartbreak.

The beautiful singer, Nancy Lamott had a song called, “We Can Be Kind“.  And it’s true.  I think we have to look for sanctuary in small acts of lovingkindness. Sometimes I don’t know if we have ten years or ten minutes left with this man in office, but I do know that I can go downstairs to the deli in the next moment and be kind to someone. And maybe the next moment is the only one that matters.

Suzanne Russell and the Deep Black Hole

Suzanne Russell is an attorney, artist, and activist who splits her time between New York City and Copenhagen. She shared a bit of what the past year has been like for her. Come out to Shrine on Tuesday, November 7th at when she joins Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Yarimar Bonilla, Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Max S. Gordon, PJ Marshall, Matthew Olzmann, and Carla Shedd for One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis.

IMG_2391This year has been psychologically challenging. I have never experienced depression before, but Trump’s election really made me fall into a deep black hole. I joined the YMCA and started exercising for the first time in my life. I am feeling better now, but I was in shock. I have lived in Denmark for 28 years and never wanted to become a Danish citizen. In December 2016, I took and passed my citizenship exam. In January 2017, I applied to become a Danish citizen. I have learned to stop obsessively checking the news. I wear a giant anti-Trump button wherever I go. I never approach other people, but those who need to talk about politics feel free to chat with me and I think that this is mutually beneficial. The other day, I spoke to a construction worker and toothless man in a deli on Canal Street. The toothless man said, “If you had told me in the 80s that Bruce Jenner was going to become a woman, Bill Cosby was going to be accused of rape, and Donald Trump was going to become the president of the U.S.A., I would have called you crazy.” I have hope in all the intelligent Americans who are doing whatever they can to stop Trump from destroying our environment and our humanity. I am saddened that Trump was elected, but I am hopeful for the future of the country I love.

One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis

One year ago, Donald J. Trump was declared winner of the 2016 US Presidential Election. We’ve been coping with crises – new, and continued – ever since. Join us on Tuesday, November 7th (7-9pm) at Shrine Harlem as acclaimed writers, artist, and advocates respond. Bring your responses, too – they’ll be room for audience participation. Featured participants: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Yarimar Bonilla, Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Max S. Gordon, PJ Marshall, Matthew Olzmann, Suzanne Russell, and Carla Shedd. Shrine is located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd between 133rd and 134th, near the 2/3 135th stop and the B/C 135th stop. Admission is free.

ibrahim headshot (1) (1)Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an author, radio contributor, and environmental policy consultant. He has appeared on FOX News, Al-Jazeera, ABC News, and contributed to “The Takeaway.” As a writer, he’s appeared in The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Daily Beast, GOOD Magazine, ColorLines, Wiretap and Elan Magazine. His is the author of the book Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and contributor to All-American: 45 American Men On Being Muslim. He is a former sustainability policy advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and member of the founding team of the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment. He currently serves as the Director of Community Affairs at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and on the board of the International Living Future Institute. Ibrahim earned a BA in History and Political Science from University of Rhode Island and a master’s in public administration from Baruch College, City University of New York.  

Yari B&WYarimar Bonilla is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latino & Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University and currently a visiting scholar at the Russel Sage Foundation where she is completing a manuscript about Puerto Rico’s political, economic, and environmental crisis. She is the author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment and one of the founders of the website: Puerto Rico Syllabus: Essential Tools for Critical Thinking about the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis.

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 1.40.12 PMKeesha Gaskins-Nathan is the director for the Democratic Practice–United States program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan is a long-time organizer, lobbyist, and trial attorney. Prior to joining the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, she was senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, serving as the director of the Redistricting and Representation program. Her portfolio included redistricting reform, voting rights, and elections, with a focus on voter suppression issues. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan is a frequent lecturer and writer on issues related to women and politics, movement building, and democratic reform. She is the author of a number of articles and publications related to voter suppression, voting rights, and redistricting. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan served as executive director for the League of Women Voters Minnesota, where she worked on a wide range of voting rights and civil rights issues. Prior to that, she was the executive director for the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus. She worked for a number of years as a trial attorney, most notably with the firm Bowman and Brooke, LLC. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan also served as a special assistant appellate public defender for the State of Minnesota. She is a frequent commentator on voting rights and redistricting reform and regularly appears on numerous news and public affairs programming, including past appearances on PBS’s NewsHour, MSNBC, and Bill Moyers.

IMG_0985Max S. Gordon is a writer and performer. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), and Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996).  His work has also appeared at The New Civil Rights Movement, openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.  His published essays include, “Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”; “Be Glad That You Are Free: On Nina, Miles Ahead, Lemonade, Lauryn Hill and Prince”, “The Cult of Whiteness” and “Faggot as Footnote: On ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’, and ‘Moonlight'”.

Olzmann AJB 1Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was
selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books.  His writing has appeared in Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day and elsewhere.  He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Kresge Arts Foundation. Currently, he is a lecturer at Dartmouth College and also teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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PJ Marshall is an American actor known for his versatility, forceful onscreen presence, and athleticism. He began his career with guest roles on television, appearing on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Oz, and Law & Order: L.A. Marshall soon added movies to his resume, appearing in a variety of films, from Mississippi Grind, staring Ryan Reynolds, to Catch .44, starring Forest Whitaker, to Maggie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Recent television credits include the plantation overseer Bill Meekes on WGN’s Underground, Detective Jack Colquitt on American Horror Story. His stage work includes Off-Broadway productions of Reservoir Dogs, Getting Out, Trailerville, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind and Fool for Love, for which he received a Garland Award nomination. Prior to becoming an actor, Marshall was a professional dancer, martial artist, and competitive surfer. He studied acting at the Wynn Handman Studio.

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Suzanne Russell is an activist artist, writer, and lawyer living in Copenhagen and New  York. A big part of her social art practice for the past ten years has been providing free legal and social support to refugees, mostly unaccompanied teenagers in Europe. Since the election in 2016, Suzanne has been focusing on changing the political system in USA through a combination of artistic and practical actions. She is currently a graduate student at San Francisco Institute of Art and a volunteer lawyer for immigrants in the USA and Europe.

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 1.37.17 PMCarla Shedd is Associate Professor of Urban Education and Sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Shedd received her Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Her research and teaching interests focus on: race/ethnicity; crime/criminal justice; law/inequality; urban education, and urban policy. Shedd’s book, Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice (October 2015Russell Sage), has won multiple academic awards including the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award given to the top book on social inequality each year. Unequal City deeply probes the intersections of race, place, education, and the expansion of the American carceral state using Chicago’s stratified education and residential landscape as its site of investigation. Shedd’s current research focuses on New York City’s juvenile justice system assessing how young people’s linked institutional experiences influence their placement on and movement along the carceral continuum. 

Tonight at Silvana!

FPP-082717-webTonight’s the night! Join us for our Season Premiere featuring Olivia Kate Cerrone, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Natalie Eilbert, & JP Howard! 7pm at Silvana Harlem (300 W. 116th Street, SW corner of Frederick Douglass Blvd/8th Ave). We will be downstairs waiting for you. And after the last reader: cake! Free admission.

 

FPP Interview: Nicole Dennis-Benn

Author_New_Photo_NDB_Ozier MuhammadFPP spoke via email with author Nicole Dennis-Benn about coping with a new country, what makes her feel most “we”, and so much more. Read Dennis-Benn’s interview then plan to her read on Tuesday, September 12th at Silvana (116th & Frederick Douglass) in Harlem.

Hope Wabuke in The Root called Here Comes the Sun “a superbly realized take of gender, class, race and sexuality in Jamaica.” Is there a particular theme (or themes) you feel most drawn to in your work? Do you seek these themes in your own reading?

Identity and belonging are big themes for me. I read a lot, but I find that I gravitate toward those themes in my own reading, too.

What was it like to immigrate to America, particularly New York City, at age 17? What guidance would you give young immigrants now, especially in light of current persecutions?

Nicole bookAt 17, I was young, but I was also focused on doing the best I could to stay afloat in my new country. It took years to acculturate. However, what kept me positive and motivated was journaling my thoughts and writing down what I wanted to accomplish in America. It was the one private thing that not only helped me to escape the painful experience of adjusting to a new environment, but gave me hope and strength to pull through. I also read a lot of books during that period. I think my motivation to write now is to create solace to those who feel that they are alone in their struggle. I want to remind them that they’re not alone.

Tell us about your Harlem. Do you remember your first time here?

I came to Harlem for the first time back in 2006 to start my dreadlocks. The salon was located on the first floor of a brownstone on 120th and Lenox Avenue. I remember that unseasonably cool August day, because Denzel Washington was shooting a film right across the street!

Bed-Stuy v Harlem.

I love Harlem, but I can’t afford it. Not yet, anyway.

What delights you about NYC life?  What makes you crazy here?

I love people watching. It keeps me on my toes as a writer. One thing that drives me crazy is rudeness. I realize how rude we are as New Yorkers when I visit the suburbs and am shocked when someone says “Good morning” or “Excuse me” if they accidentally step on your toe.

Do you think about returning home to Jamaica?

Homesickness never goes away. I think about it sometimes. Though I would never say never, home is Brooklyn, New York now.

What urgent advice would you offer emerging writers?

Be persistent. Don’t be deterred by rejections. Rejections are always going to be there, but think of them as hurdles, not blocks.

Would you share any books, art, music, food that we must seek out right this moment?

Kendrick Lamar’s new album, DAMN. Sanderia Faye’s new novel, “Mourners Bench” and Tracy Chiles McGhee, “Melting the Blues”.

When do you feel most “we” and most “I”? Is there a time you truly feel first person plural?

It wasn’t until I married my wife that I began to understand the concept of “we”. Then when I sold my first book, I realized the importance of teamwork, as well as what it truly means to support other writers, especially other writers of color.

Photo by Ozier Muhammad

FPP Interview: Olivia Kate Cerrone

oliviaFPP spoke via email with author Olivia Kate Cerrone about the silence surrounding child slavery in Sicily, the powerful stories that haunt her as a writer, and so much more. Read Cerrone’s interview then plan to her read on Tuesday, September 12th at Silvana (116th & Frederick Douglass) in Harlem.

In your novella The Hunger Saint, you write about soccorso morto, a child slavery system once practiced in Sicily. Was there a particular fact, image, or story that pushed you to go deeper with your research and write this story?

The ages of the children (some as young as five and six years old) when they were first forced into a life of hard labor in the sulfur mines disturbed me the most. I was desperate to understand what could drive a family, let alone a society, to engage in and normalize such a brutal practice. Of course, the tragic presence of child slavery, the exploitation rooted in severe poverty and lack of labor laws or legal protection, is not exactly new, and continues throughout the world today. Perhaps it was also the fact that the carusi were never spoken about, and had become largely forgotten among most people, that drove me to delve into research and write the book.

Cerrone_CoverI discovered the carusi largely by accident, while taking a Sicilian language class to gain a more intimate connection to my own sense of identity. Booker T. Washington’s description about the carusi also haunted me. He also visited the mines in Sicily to witness the child laborers for himself, as part of the research for his sociological book The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe. Washington compared the suffering of the carusi to that of African-American slaves: “the cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected…are as bad as anything that was ever reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery. These boy slaves were frequently beaten…in order to wring from their overburdened bodies the last drop of strength they had in them.”

I was driven to create a compelling story, one rooted in hope and survival, that shed some greater light and awareness to this history, while examining how systemic oppression within a corrupt society can distort and limit the greater humanity of its citizens, fostering suffering and cruelties against its most vulnerable members.

The Historical Novel Society calls your writing “lucid, precise, often lyrical when describing Ntoni’s world.” Do you feel there’s anything that particularly prepared you to create this world? Any writing before, or personal connection?

The most powerful stories are those that haunt us. It’s those felt-life details that get under our skin and leave a lasting impression. In my fiction, I strive to craft compelling narratives that also work to engage readers on a sensory level too, absorbing them in a character’s very specific experience of being that allows for greater nuance and complexity to be expressed. Anthony Doerr, Toni Morrison and Alice Munro are authors I am constantly rereading and learning from in this capacity. Richard Wright’s Native Son, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, and José Saramago’s Blindness are books that continue to haunt me for these reasons.

In your recent The Rumpus interview, you said that as a writer, you are “very interested in trauma…that’s where the story lives.” Could you tell us more about what this approach has meant for your work?

I write to understanding suffering that is essentially rooted in social oppression and discrimination. Fiction can be a very powerful means of creating a deeper, more compassionate awareness and insight into complex and difficult realities that work to polarize and alienate people both politically and emotionally. Individual trauma so often reflects the injustice and oppression within a society on a larger scale. It is said that “the path to the universal runs through the individual.” I am driven to produce fiction that speak to larger issues of human rights, identity and belonging. Right now, I’m working on DISPLACED, a contemporary novel set in Boston that questions what it means to be an American in a time fraught with political and social tensions over current immigration policies, living undocumented, rampant fear, and discrimination. The novel also wrestles with themes of exploitation, homelessness, and deportation.

What urgent advice would you offer emerging writers?

Never give up. Read widely to understand what great writing looks like on the page, from sentence-level to scene, and how compelling novels are crafted together. Keep revising your work and striving to achieve greater clarity and deeper nuance through the stories and characters you bring to light. Root yourself in this work and keep going, no matter the rejection or the disappointment. Every “no” is closer to a “yes.”

Author photo credit: Ashley Inguanta 

 

FPP Interview: JP Howard

JPH-Fire&Ink1FPP spoke via email with Harlem-born & raised poet JP Howard about what it was like writing about her model mother Ruth King, her Audre Lorde and James Baldwin work, and much more. Read Howard’s interview then plan to her read on Tuesday, September 12th at Silvana (116th & Frederick Douglass) in Harlem.

SPD called your debut collection SAY/MIRROR a “socio-historical-emotional” retelling of the life of a diva through a daughter’s eyes”. What was it like to create this book? Are there images or poems that stay close to you after publication?

RK Say_MIrror cover-2It was a really wonderful project to work on SAY/MIRROR and to have the opportunity to gather vintage modeling photos of my mother (Ruth King), who was a successful black model in the 1950s and 1940s and also to include some cherished family photos to complement my poems. I also used a few excerpts of found journals of my mom in a few of my poems. Using objects of significance is often a big part of my writing process including using photos, cherished family objects and written and oral histories to work their way into poems. My Mom lived to see the first edition of the book and passed away in December 2015 mama me teenthe first year the book was published. My editor, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson of The Operating System was so generous and invited me to add more poems and include a memorial to my Mama in the second expanded-edition released last year. One of poems that stays close to me, even now is “What to Say to A Friend Who Wants to Give Up”. I’ve experienced a lot of loss, both personally and in my extended poetry community since losing my Mom, so that poem about What to Say to a Friend has taken on even greater meaning since I wrote it. So many folks have responded to and asked to share it. It’s now one of my signature poems and can be found republished on the HIV Here and Now Project.

 

 

What to Say to a Friend Who Wants to Give Up

 

Say I love you, even when you can’t love yourself.

Say please, please not today,

Say too much life unlived.

Say mirror, say beautiful,

Say this arm, take this arm,

Say grab, say hold, say let tears fall,

Say tears heal, Say forgive your mama,

Say she did the best she could.

Say tomorrow, say sleep,

Say split second, split the seconds,

Say let the seconds turn into days,

Say today, Say tomorrow, Say sun.

Say warm, Say skin,

Say warm skin, say sunlight,

Say new day, Say breathe,

Say inhale, Say exhale.

Say not today baby girl,

Say so much life to live,

Say love, Say I love you.

Say hold on, hold on to love.

In addition to being a poet and a teacher, you are a public interest attorney (!). Please tell us about these intersections, how your different roles inform one another.

Since I deal with the public all day in court, literally some days I can interact with between 50 and 100 people (litigants and attorneys) I’m incredibly patient and also really great at multi-tasking—a bit out of necessity and a bit out of habit. I think having my day job as a public interest attorney really helps me appreciate my creative life and creative work as a poet and educator. The attorney role doesn’t necessarily intersect with my creative life, but it does give me a greater appreciation for my creative work.

Tell us about your Audre Lorde & James Baldwin work.

I had the honor to facilitate an inaugural “James Baldwin’s America” Humanities New York readings and discussion group for The Brooklyn Community Pride Center in 2016 and facilitated it again in 2017.  It was a wonderful opportunity to blend current day politics with the brilliant essays and novels of Baldwin and discuss with a diverse community of thinkers.

I’ve been commissioned by Humanities New York to be a scholar-advisor to create an Audre Lorde Readings & Discussions series. This includes creating a full syllabus, book list, & introductory series essay which will be used as part of a toolkit across New York State. It’s an exciting project which I’m in the process of completing.

You are a native-born Harlemite. What are some of your earliest impressions of your legendary hometown?

Oh my heart will always be in Sugar Hill, Harlem no matter where I live. Because my family had such longstanding roots in Harlem, I grew up learning about the Harlem Renaissance and the great writers who had rolled through Harlem over the years. My idea for starting Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon came from learning about the great Harlem literary salons that often moved from home to hone with great writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes and so many other influential black writers. Every month I pay homage to them when I host my literary salon.

What does your Harlem heritage mean for your writing, your work?

My Harlem heritage means that it is a place that I always carry with me and often visit or revisit in much of my writing. I think to learn from the past, we have to often revisit it or honor/recognize the role it serves in our lives. For me all the best parts of growing up in Harlem are still a part of me, double dutch with my friends on the sidewalk in front of the apartment building where I lived, talent shows at the Apollo, learning to tap dance at Grace Giles dance school on 125th Street, Sundays at Abyssinian Baptist Church, sweet potato pie and delicious meals at the original Red Rooster Restaurant after church each Sunday with Mama and the church ladies. There was 8 year-old Juliet reciting Margaret Walker‘s poem “For My People” before church in the basement to the ushers and church ladies while Mama stood by proudly watching and encouraging me. I may have moved from Harlem physically, but Harlem is all up in me.

Tell us about your Harlem, 2017.

Harlem 2017 is so different. Sometimes I can hardly recognize it. However, I am grateful that each summer I am able to return to the block I grew up on, 149th and Convent Ave, to host my summer BBQ Salons. Every summer now there is poetry family, a powerful open mic, brilliant creative minds, delicious food grilling on the grill and it always feels like a welcome nod to the Harlem that once was when I return each summer but with some current day poetry swag and Leo flare.  I’m grateful to my childhood friend Stephanie Penceal who has opened her home and her building’s garden courtyard to the Salon community for these last six years.

When do you feel most “we” and most “I”? Is there a time you truly feel first person plural?

I feel most “we” when collaborating with community, which is often, as a curator of a literary salon. That feeling of “we” keeps me going and often inspires me. I feel most “I” when I am alone and in my writing “space” – really that mental space is what I’m talking about. I think when I am with my Salon community I truly feel that sense of “we” of being a part of a larger community/creative family. It’s a great feeling and definitely inspires me.

What urgent advice would you offer emerging writers?

Find a supportive writing community where you can get helpful feedback on your writing, that allows you to share work and really soar as a writer. Community is important -particularly a community that will uplift you and help you to become a better and more effective writer. 

Would you share any books, art, music, food that we must seek out right this moment?

Listen to anything by the musician and filmmaker Be Steadwell! Her latest album “Breakup Songs” is amazing.  She often says: “I am an activist because I am a black, queer, woman singing about love.  I believe that is radical” and her music speaks to this all the time.

Right now one of my favorite books is t’ai freedom ford‘s debut poetry collection “how to get over” and of course I’ve been revisiting everything by Audre Lorde, especially her essays, since working on the Audre Lorde syllabus and essays. I highly recommend the Black Power! exhibition at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. It’s there until the end of the year and is part of their yearlong examination into the 50th anniversary of the Black Power Movement. Some amazing and influential poets who were part of the Black Power Movement, including Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni and the late Amiri Baraka, are included in this necessary exhibit.

 

 

The Sixth Season is Here! Join us for the FPP Season Premiere on Tuesday, September 12th

Join us for what promises to be an extraordinary Harlem night with authors Olivia Kate Cerrone, Nicole Dennis-Benn, Natalie Eilbert, & JP Howard.  Season Six begins at 7pm on Tuesday, September 12th at Silvana in Harlem at 300 W. 116th Street, SW corner of Frederick Douglass/8th Ave. Take the B/C to 116th and you’re there!

Cerrone Author Photo 2Olivia Kate Cerrone is the author of THE HUNGER SAINT (Bordighera Press, 2017), a historical novella about the child miners of Italy. The book was praised by Kirkus Reviews as “a well-crafted and affecting literary tale,” and was named a 2017 Fiction Bestseller by SPD Books. Her Pushcart Prize-nominated fiction won the Jack Dyer Prize from the Crab Orchard Review, the Mason’s Road Literary Award, and first place in Italian Americana’s annual literary contest. The Hunger Saint won a 2014 “Conference Choice Award” from the SDSU Writers’ Conference. She has received fellowships at Ragdale, the VCCA, the Vermont Studio Center, and others, including a residency at the Hambidge Center, where she was awarded a “Distinguished Fellowship” from the National Endowment for the Arts. She is at work on a novel called DISPLACED and currently lives in Boston, MA.

Author_New_Photo_NDB_Ozier MuhammadNicole Dennis-Benn is the author of the debut novel, HERE COMES THE SUN (Norton/Liveright, July 2016). Dennis-Benn is a Lambda Literary Award winner, named by Time Out Magazine as an immigrant making a stamp on New York City. Her debut novel has received much acclaim including: a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, a NPR Best Books of 2016, an Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Entertainment Weekly, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2016, a BuzzFeed Best Literary Debuts of 2016, among others. Dennis-Benn’s debut novel has received a starred Kirkus Review and is deemed one of the best books to read this summer and beyond by New York Times, NPR, BBC, BuzzFeed, Book Riot, Bookish, Miami Herald, Elle, O Magazine, Marie Claire, Entertainment Weekly, Flavorwire, After Ellen, BookPage, Cosmopolitan, Brooklyn Magazine, among others. New York Times Book reviewer, Jennifer Senior describes HERE COMES THE SUN as a “lithe, artfully-plotted debut”; Pulitzer Prize finalist, Laila Lalami, as well as Booklist have deemed it a “fantastic debut”; and Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James says “[Here Comes the Sun] is a story waiting to be told”. Dennis-Benn was shortlisted for the Texas Library Association 2017 Lariat. She has been named a finalist for Lambda Literary Award, the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Award , and The New York Public Library Young Lions Award. (Photo credit: Ozier Muhammad)

Photo_NENatalie Eilbert is the author of INDICTUS, winner of Noemi Press’s 2016 Poetry Prize, slated for publication in early 2018, as well as the poetry collection, SWAN FEAST (Bloof Books, 2015). Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Granta, The New YorkerTin HouseThe Kenyon Reviewjubilat, and elsewhere. She was the recipient of the 2016 Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellowship at University of Wisconsin–Madison and is the founding editor of The Atlas Review.

JPH SF Cover ShotJP Howard’s debut poetry collection, SAY/MIRROR, was a 2016 Lambda Literary finalist. She is also the author of bury your love poems here (Belladonna*). JP was a 2017 Split this Rock Freedom Plow Award for Poetry & Activism finalist and is featured in the 2017 Lesbian Poet Trading Card Series from Headmistress Press. She was the recipient of a 2016 Lambda Literary Judith A. Markowitz Emerging Writer Award and has received fellowships and grants from Cave Canem, VONA, Lambda, Astraea and Brooklyn Arts Council. JP curates Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon, a NY-based forum offering women writers a monthly venue to collaborate and is an Editor-at-Large at Mom Egg Review online. JP’s poetry and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Academy of American Poets, Apogee Journal, The Feminist Wire, Split this Rock, Muzzle Magazine, and The Best American Poetry Blog. JP holds a BA from Barnard College and an MFA in Creative Writing from The City College of New York.

 

Thank You to All Who Made FPP’s Fifth Season Wonderful!

IMG_9245As our fifth season ends we want to thank our 2016-2017 participants for giving us incredible readings to remember: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Grace Aneiza Ali, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Amy Benson, Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung, Desiree Cooper, Deborah Emin, Hajar Husseini, Hafizah Geter, Max S. Gordon, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Morgan Jerkins, Daniel Jose Older, Chris Prioleau, Camille Rankine, and Charles Taylor. As always, thank you to Team Shrine for hosting us, and to Yuri Lopez for designing our posters. Wishing a happy bon voyage to digital editor Melody Nixon as she begins her PhD program. We’ll see you in September!