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!

FPP Interview: Alexander Chee spoke via email with author Alexander Chee whose recent novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller. We spoke of what fame meant for his maverick female protagonist, what kind of community can be created at literary readings and via social media, and life in his Sugar Hill sublet back in 1996. Read Chee’s interview then plan to hear him read on Tuesday, May 9th, with Terry BlackhawkSonya Chung, and Deborah Emin at Shrine World Music Venue (2271 Adam Clayton Powell between 133rd and 134th streets) in Harlem.

Your latest book, The Queen of the Night, is a historically rich novel that tells the story of an American orphan turned courtesan turned opera singer in 19th-century France. You’ve mentioned that feminism informs the book. Can you talk about your choice to write a female protagonist, and to show a kind of “survivor’s feminism” through Lilliet’s story? 

1453787257096The novel is the result of a kind of feeling I followed, first to this character and then to the life I thought Lilliet, my main character, would lead. I was drawn by the apparent freedoms women like her had then–as celebrities–freedoms that approximated those given to men, but which mostly vanished as their fame did. The result being that their fame was this atmosphere that they manufactured to live inside of, through intense work, self-sacrifice, self-defense, even crime, petty or deadly, and inside of which they survived “at any cost”–a phrase which glosses over what that means, I think, all too often. There’s something Katie Roiphe has called A Stylish Woman Adrift novel–Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys–that I meant to unpack. Those women are describing the problem of being a woman and expecting to be treated as human, and instead being treated as a woman. That all comes from somewhere and that was part of what I was after, the root of that.

So George Sand, for example, who influenced a generation of writers during her lifetime, was the first woman to divorce in France and she did so to be a writer. The decision to include things like Sand’s idea of the New Woman, then, was pretty natural to me, and followed out of my opera singer heroine being taught voice by Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Sand’s good friend–the first woman director of the Conservatoire in Paris and one of the first women opera composers. I set out to imagine being someone who didn’t even know they wanted to be like these women, and meeting them for the first time. I rooted Lilliet, and her adventures, here.

You write Lilliet’s story from the first person singular point of view. Even so, was there a sort of collective “we,” a collective feminist identity, that you felt you tapped into for this novel (for example, by reading the work of other female courtesans, such as Celeste Mogador)? If so, how did this “we” manifest in your thinking about the novel?

I wouldn’t say that exactly, because it’s hard to explain how alone these women were then. Lilliet, my narrator, passes through a series of women who act as her teachers in her pursuit of the freedom she feels sure she must be able to find and which is never offered. A freedom she decides to take for herself. I did read extensively into the lives of women of the period in pursuit of this story, though, and populated the novel with some of the real women I found. So there are these tiny biographies inside the novel as a result. My acknowledgements page has details for the interested.

You’re savvy online, and a particularly effective Twitter user. You once tweeted that a lot of writers are on Twitter because “–surprise– text-based communication is fun for writers… Writers have traditionally published their notes, diaries, letters, marginalia, juvenalia–social media is only different in format.” Do Twitter, and social media more generally, provide you with a sense of literary community? How do you manage the balance between the stimulation, outlet, and inspiration that social media can provide, and the over-saturation that can also occur when one spends a lot of time online?

I live in a rhythm with it that I think is like the one most people do, but with accommodations to being a writer.  Twitter to me feels like text messaging the world. Instagram is like my visual diary. Facebook is a wedding toast contest–I don’t like it much–or a bulletin board. But I’m always manufacturing a story that is the story of doing my work, a kind of live action literary autobiography/biography, even as I participate in what I see as a community, or communities, really, of supporting writers–friends and colleagues from all over the world. And these communities are really what I love about this most. Nerds who photograph a favorite quote, complain about their process, or just talk books. And I’m on it for the book recs, basically.

We don’t live so much in the world where writers struggle with whether to be on social media anymore. I think we live in the world now where people are on social media, and then they become writers. And if you don’t know how social media works, increasingly, I think you don’t know how people live, and I think you’d have a hard time writing about their lives.

On the other hand, you mentioned, in the 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop Podcast, that you can’t stand emails, because of their never-ending treadmill-like nature. How do you deal with this as a writer? For example, do you limit the amount of time each day you spend answering/writing emails?  

John Freeman has written about email as the task list you don’t choose and that’s just so true for me. Melissa Febos wrote a great column at Catapult about the importance of being a little unreliable on email and I think that’s healthy. The problem becomes when you’re like me and you have potentially hundreds of people relying on you professionally, former students and editors, and so you can’t flake out much. So I just try to schedule everything. Emails at this time and never this time, writing at this time, reading at this time, walks and exercise at this time, class at this time, conferences at this time, cocktails at this time, food at this time and sleep at this time, etc. And while a friend has used Google invites for setting dates for sex, I haven’t done that yet. But we’ll see.

You curated your own reading series: Dear Reader, at the Ace Hotel in New York. What can a reading series offer to the community—both the literary and the expanded/public community—that other forms of literary engagement, and online communication, cannot?

When I curate a series I am not picking writers, to my mind, as much as I am putting communities into conversation.  With the Ace Dear Reader series, each year I tried to paint a picture of New York. The first year was a way to honor the different literary communities of the city. The second was about Who Belongs, and featured a mix of writers of color, queer, immigrant, refugee and native New York writers. I also always want to show that you can have a kind of programming that went past token gestures toward diversity–too often diversity means white majority with one of each “other kind”. I want to have more than one of each, as it were. Ace was very supportive of this, and we had fun. Great work happened in those hotel rooms. Still does.

You’ve taught at Columbia University in Harlem, and lived many years in Manhattan. What are your experiences with, and what is your relationship to, Harlem? Can you describe your experiences, impressions, sights, of this neighborhood?

I lived in Harlem, Sugar Hill, near 145th and Amsterdam, back in 1996, in a sublet that lasted three months. I was a steakhouse waiter working on my first novel and the rent was 200 a month for my room. It was a hot summer and we kept the windows open for the breeze as we didn’t have AC, and clothes at home were sometimes a burden. I remember the neighbors who never drew their shades, a kind of night theater of nonchalance in the heat. I also remember finding out not everyone was like this–and accidentally flashing a neighbor who kept her shade closed toward me after. I felt guilty about this until I left. Some windows are closer than others.

Back then I kept moving every month or three months, my things mostly in storage, as I worked to earn a deposit on a place of my own, and I lived up and down the island and in Brooklyn as I did so. That period of moves was my education in how the city works. A lot of my friends live in Harlem now, and I love going up to see them, and to see what’s new and what’s the same. Harlem is one of the neighborhoods where New York still feels like New York to me. So I’m grateful whenever I go–and I very much looking forward to the reading.


FPP interview: Sonya Chung

SonyaChung_Headshot_12x300Sonya Chung is a writer and teacher living in Harlem. FPP caught up with her to discuss her relationship to Harlem, her favorite spots in our neighborhood, and where and why she writes. We also talked about the “we” POV as “a fundamental world view in Korean culture.” Catch Sonya Chung alongside Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, and Deborah Emin this Tuesday, May 9th, 7pm, at Shrine World Music Venue (at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem).


You live in Harlem and teach in upstate New York. Where do you do most of your creative writing?

West Harlem / Morningside Heights is home—the first and only place I’ve ever felt truly at home. Like most New Yorkers, I think of my neighborhood as a micro-neighborhood that is essentially a 5-block radius; and I live at the cross-section of multiple neighborhoods, cultures, histories, racial groups, institutions, and social classes, which is exactly the sort of place where I always feel most comfortable and myself.  I watch the neighborhood change, for better and for worse, daily; and I also witness the diverse groups and forces colliding and converging in endlessly interesting ways.  All this to say that I get most of my real writing work done here, at my desk, which is in the kitchen of a small (studio) apartment I share with my partner and two doglets (here you can see a video of them, because you all need to watch this when you are feeling low or stressed and need a burst of endorphins).  Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 12.34.02 PMWhen I get itchy or need to breathe new air or my partner (who also works at home) needs to make a long work phone call, I walk—five blocks this way, 10 or 20 blocks that way—and I can be in a completely different world.  Just yesterday I found a café run by a Venezuelan opera singer in lower Washington Heights, and I got good work done there.  Sometimes I go to Joe Coffee at Columbia.  I have to mention that I often get good work done at Silvana (while enjoying the best uptown falafel hands-down), which I know is connected to Shrine, where FPP is hosted.

What are some of your favorite spots in Harlem?

Oh, so many.  I just mentioned Silvana.  Kuro Kuma on Tiemann Place is the best coffee in the city—and I’m a big coffee person—so please everyone go there and keep them in business forever.  Maison Harlem is our go-to for happy hour and special occasions.  The church ladies outside the Baptist Church on 125th and St. Nich sell homemade coconut cake slices that will change your life (and probably save your soul).  The best vegetable and fruit vendor (he’s from Bangladesh) is at the corner of St. Nich and 124th, and the Korean fish market on St. Nich/125 not only has good fish & chips but is one of the most interesting places, sociologically speaking, in the neighborhood. In Morningside Park we love the handball courts, where we smash tennis balls against the wall, racquetball-style, to de-stress. On long walks I love to stroll around City College and St. Nicholas Park, and up to the Trinity Church /Church of the Intercession Cemetery, which is amazing; and just a few blocks beyond that is Sister’s Uptown Bookstore, which has been there 17 years, and everyone should know about it.

What does the “we” point of view mean to you, and how does it enter your work?

I’ve never written in first person plural, strictly speaking; but I think about narrative POV constantly.  I am not exaggerating when I say I think it is the most important decision a writer makes when writing fiction (when teaching, it is always the first topic I introduce to students, via James Wood’s How Fiction Works).  There is not only the question of “which POV?”—first person (singular or plural), second person, third person (omniscient or limited)—but also narrative distance, reliability, consistency and/or shifts.  When settling on a narrative POV(s), you are essentially determining the work’s “aboutness.”  If you are writing from the “we” POV, or, say, the second person, this is especially evident. Or if your narrator is unreliable, this is not simply a “formal” decision but rather a driving force of content/meaning as well.  Finding the right POV for your fiction is often, necessarily, a trial-and-error process; it happens simultaneously as your story and characters find their own aboutness. Form and content shape each other.

The “we” POV is in fact a fundamental world view in Korean culture: in the Korean language, it is a grammatical rule that one must say “our” house, “our” mother/father/grandmother, etc., “our” church; there are other words for which this is the case (money?  I’m not sure, but that would make sense), but these are the ones that come to mind.  The communal-vs-individual tension is always, always pressing for me—in life and in art.  If there is a way in which I feel my soul-level Westernness, it is in this tension—my natural (while at the same time conflicted) leaning toward individual liberty/identity over communal obligation/conformity.  The characters in both my novels struggle with all this as well.  They are shaped by and beholden to their family cultures, while at the same time deeply, conspicuously at odds with them.  The I/We tension is endlessly difficult and interesting.  I seem to have thus far coped by writing ensemble casts. I have yet to be able to write a novel featuring a sole protagonist.  The novel I’m working on now does feature a single protagonist, and I am writing her in first person; and frankly I’m having a heck of a time with it!

At a recent reading Teju Cole, another New York-based writer, said he started writing because it was “a way to be intense about my life.” Is writing for you a way to be intense about your life, or is it a way to escape from your life, or something else? In sum, why do you write?

Writing is definitely a way to be intense about my life.  All throughout my adolescence I was told that I was “too serious,” and finally when I found my vocation as a writer, I was allowed to immerse in that seriousness. In life we live on the surfaces and interact via simplifications, and that can be enjoyable and entertaining and nourishing in various ways; but in books we plunge deep into complexity and the real.  Life has always felt unsatisfyingly fragmented to me; in novels we aim for something like wholeness.  If I didn’t have writing, I think I might have (more) serious mental health issues, because the gap between the call of reality and how we live day-to-day would trouble me a lot.  In that sense I suppose writing is both intensity and escape.




FPP Interview: Terry Blackhawk

FPP spoke via email with Dr. Terry Blackhawk, who besides being an acclaimed poet is the founding director of Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project.  We spoke of birds, early influences, rejecting and embracing the “we”, and more. Read Dr. Blackhawk’s interview then plan to hear her read on Tuesday, May 9th with Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung, and Deborah Emin.

Protea performance

You are the author of four full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks. Would you tell us about your latest chapbook The Whisk and Whir of Wings (The Ridgeway Press)?

This book came together rather quickly, in response to an invitation from my friend Scott Boberg to give a birding-themed reading at the Toledo Museum of Art during their biennial Festival of Birding. Scott is Manager of Programs at the museum. Birding is a big deal in northwestern Ohio, and the annual spring migration draws thousands of visitors to the marshes around Toledo and the Lake Erie shore, so every other May TMA features a ‘bird artist’ to engage this audience. They featured Fred Tomaselli in 2016. Birds have often launched me into poetry, so I gathered bird poems from my four full-length collections, to have something ready for the reading and thought – well, what a nice chapbook these would make. I worked with Ian Tadashi Moore to design the book. M.L. Liebler brought it out with Ridgeway Press, and I was cover The Whisk and Whir of Wingsoverjoyed when Karen Klein let me use her fabulous print “Yellow Woods” (which is collected in the Detroit Institute of Arts) for the cover. I enjoyed pulling the poems together and finding how they range, within the birding theme, from meditative to humorous, erotic to political, free verse to form. Birding has long been one of the ways I lose myself in nature and refresh my spirit. Travel as a birder as well as my volunteer work banding birds or pitching in on the annual Christmas bird count found their way into a lot of poems, so it was nice to remember and collect those adventures and see how they connect.

Would you share your earliest memory of poetry – and how you began creating poetry yourself?

I was fortunate to grow up in a literate family, with many books and a father, a professor, who shared poetry with me. I “wrote some verses” (his words) when I was a little girl, and recall him sharing his enthusiasms with me. e.e. cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s]” and Frost’s “The Runaway” are vivid memories. A high school creative writing teacher who, for the times (1962) was pretty iconoclastic and challenging, made a lasting impression, and I was his editor for Manuscript, our school’s first literary magazine. I wrote some during my years as an English major at Antioch College, including a senior thesis heavily influenced by Gertrude Stein, but after college I put aside writing or thoughts of writing. Poetry didn’t find me again until I was teaching high school in Detroit, in a kind of sudden “muse attack” – a watershed life moment in the late 1980s that led me to seek out poetry for myself as well as my students.

As a reading series, we are curious about the first person plural voice, and what the collective means for our work and for our lives. Do you find notions of “we” influence – or infiltrate – your writing? 

I’m not sure that I think of myself in terms of a ‘we’. Pronouns are so critical, for example, to poems and I often tell my students to pay attention to the pronouns and their relationships when reading or writing a poem. I have not tried (yet) to write in the first person plural voice. It may be an aspect of white privilege not to need or see the collective as an alternative or as a source of one’s identity. There’s an atavistic quality to the “we” of Amurricanness that I resist, of course. I have never played on a team, for better or worse, and have in many ways been an outsider throughout my life, but as the political situation under Trump degenerates by the hour, I think we need a united voice of shared humanity more than ever. It occurs to me that the great African American poets, even when working in an individual, lyric mode, bring an awareness of a shared identity and, with that, a sense of belonging. Think of Lucille Clifton’s “jasper, texas” or Robert Hayden’s “The Whipping”. Our beloved Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett’s “City Nights” ends with these lovely first person plural lines:  But the front porch is cool and quiet./ The neighbors are dark and warm./The grandchildren are upstairs dreaming/and we are grateful for their presence. Her sense of family in this poem spills out into the community and neighborhood with a calm and a depth of connectedness that blows me away every time.

When you think of “community” what comes to mind? 

Detroit Portrait Series Poster 6I think of the Detroit cultural community, of which I am happy to be a part. So many poets and writers are writing and growing and sharing their work in Detroit. We benefit from a rich overlap and synergy among writers, musicians, artists of all kinds, and the major cultural institutions have grassroots connections that make the city feel very much like home. I’m fortunate, too, to be a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellow, and to have gotten to know so many fabulous creative people through the gatherings and trainings that the Kresge team has curated for almost ten years. In addition to the monetary award, the fellowship creates community and brings people together in ways that have enriched our lives as individuals and have added immeasurably to life in the city. Dozens of galleries, bookstores, art studios, outdoor spaces, museums, and festivals provide venues and I like to think that a map of the connections among all of these people and places would be eye-dazzling and universal – something rendered along the lines of Australian Aboriginal art. I’m especially honored to be featured, as part of this community, on Trumbull Ave as part of artist Nicole Macdonald’s “Detroit Portraits” project — for her “Poets and Publishers” installation along with fellow Kresge fellow Lolita Hernandez and Kresge Eminent Artists Naomi Long Madgett and Bill Harris, who was on the founding board of InsideOut.

You built a visionary literary arts nonprofit in Detroit, bringing poets and writers into local public schools. Could you tell us about the legacy of InsideOut – in Detroit and in the world?

This question brings me back to the matter of pronouns! Looking back on my years as leader of InsideOut–an organization that required a sense of common purpose and often felt very much like family–I realize that we functioned at our best when we were all pulling together (definitely as a “we”) and that my best memories come from those times. I retired from iO in 2015, after twenty years as its founding director, and am pleased to say that ‘my baby’ is even stronger than ever.  Just this week we hosted our sixth or seventh annual high school writers’ conference, which brought 150 high school students from across Detroit together for adult-style workshops and a luncheon with Pulitzer Prize winner and Detroit native Tyehimba Jess as guest speaker.  We have served over 60,000 young people over the years (conservatively estimated I am sure) and have thrived despite working in one of the most beleaguered urban school districts in the country. We have an amazingly stable and dedicated staff, team of writers, and a board who keep iO afloat – all of whom take great joy in the work. IO writers in public school classrooms from grades 2-12 inspire – and then help to publish — thousands of Detroit youth every year. Every spring iO publishes a literary anthology for each school we serve, over 400 separate, beautiful titles so far. This beauty energizes! Our mission – to encourage youth to “think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world”  — informs iO’s in-school work as well as Citywide Poets, one of iO’s signature projects, which is a literary community for young people who address the issues of their city and their lives through poetry and performances.

The scope of ALL of iO is too wide for this interview, but I am happy to refer you to the iO website and Facebook page, as well as my last Detroit Huffington Post blog before my retirement. I was fortunate to be invited to blog for the Detroit HuffPo in late 2011, and my columns give insights into the way the work intersects with arts in the city and with students’ lives. InsideOut and Detroit itself, as this blog points out, are “Curiously Strong.” I like to think our legacy is the self-confidence of youth who learn that their voices matter, that their lives matter, and that they have important things to contribute to the world.

Terry Blackhawk_studio




FPP Interview: Deborah Emin

Deborah Emin-headshotFPP spoke via email with author, activist, and publisher Deborah Emin. She founded Sullivan Street Press and is the creator of the Scags series whose compelling female protagonist copes with family challenges, love, sexual identity, and resistance politics in America. Hear Deborah Emin read with Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, and Sonya Chung at the FPP Season Finale at Shrine in Harlem on May 9th!

Tell us more about the Scags series – how did Scags at 7 come about? Did you know from the beginning that this would be a series?

The character Scags came to me on a ride on the LIRR. I watched her and Pops talking, enjoying being together. He sat with Scags in the middle of the day wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, more casual than most “dads” that time of day. Scags was her irrepressible self, enjoying being with him. By the time I got home, I knew I had found the novel I needed to write. I slept on it. Got up and wrote the first draft in 2 weeks at night from 10 pm to 4 am with a list of vignette titles to guide my writing each night.

By the time I began revising the novel, I knew it was part of a series. I knew she would tell her story in a variety of first-person formats (diary, letters, memoir).


Tell us about Sullivan Street Press.  What’s it like to go from writer to publisher – and to do both at the same time?

Everyone who writes should study publishing. I fortunately got to live in the publishing world from my first job in NYC. Sullivan Street Press was not my first priority when I became more serious as a writer. It evolved, as things tend to do in my life, out of a need and in this case a need to protect Scags. I had two ideas going in. The first to protect Scags. The second was to change the publishing paradigm. Things were going wrong, had been going wrong and will continue that way until writers, in particular, wake up to the situation.

Being a publisher has always been a form of activism as well as a way to continue to study a topic I love–books and the production of books and their effect on our environment.

I’ve never been good with balancing things. Publishing can take over my life just as writing can. I don’t recommend this joint occupation to anyone unless you have a partner like my wife who understands and forgives.

You have a strong history of advocacy and community-building. How did this become important to you? Can you share a bit about what works, and what you’ve learned?

As with so much of my life, it began in high school. (See below regarding my connection to Harlem.) I had an extraordinary English teacher in my junior year. She ran a tutoring program in Cabrini Green Housing on the South Side of Chicago. Every week, we went there by bus to work with kids who needed help with their schoolwork. Chicago is and was a very racially-divided city. Going from our rather easy life in Skokie to that project gave me a relationship with a young boy, James, whose love of music helped me to help him with his math homework.

This teacher took me with her to lots of things, including a march with Dr. King where I had to be protected, they thought, from the crowds. It was for me an adventure. I did not know what was happening. But when Dr. King was assassinated and Chicago’s South Side blew up, I was more radicalized than with the riots during the Democratic Convention.

I read a lot after that. Everything changes the more you know.

When do you feel most “we”? When do you feel most “I”?

I unfortunately feel too much an “I” in my life. But the “we” always appears in church, when marching with other activists and when I attend a concert, opera or any event whose intention is to join us together. Books do this as well. When they make me feel a part of a whole.

What has Harlem meant to you?

I have a funny story about Harlem. Growing up in Skokie I had one link at first to Harlem, James Baldwin. As I said, I read a great deal so it is no surprise that I’d discover his writings early on. I remember pulling his essay, “The Fire Next Time” and George Bernard Shaw’s story, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God” from the library shelves and walking home to read them both. (Sometimes I think Amazon’s algorithms should be modeled on adolescent minds.) I could not say precisely when I gobbled up more of his writings but they implanted a sense of Harlem in me that was not disappointed when I moved to NYC in the late 1970s. The same police racism in the midst of real neighborhoods, just as Baldwin described. Baldwin led me to Langston Hughes. Eventually, in the midst of such cultural barrenness even the voice of Lorca’s, the King of Harlem, gave me an entree that took several years to find its own physical presence in the city. But then one lives here, meaning in this large metropolis, and wanders everywhere, learning everything and filtering a Harlem borne out of Baldwin’s precision and Lorca’s fears. That is not the best way to know a place. But that was my way.

Which writers should we be reading now?

I don’t read much current fiction because I have stupidly downloaded all of Virginia Woolf’s work onto my devices. Given how much she wrote and how much her writing teaches me about writing (and that is why writers must read) I feel compelled to stick mostly with her. Though because I am branching out under Scags’s name to write political thrillers, I am reading those too, again, to study. But in general, I am bad at recommending because my reading habits focus on self-education.

What urgent advice would you give emerging writers?

This final question is important. I believe we need a new nation of storytellers who want to embrace what e-book technology can do. We need writers to both create these new forms and to teach them.

I’m a member of the old tribe. I have ideas and suggestions but have not figured out how to do it. But there is such a deadness, in fiction, as I see it, and I include my work as well, when it comes to exciting forms, engaging adventures. We have seen some examples of people trying to find this new way. Cloud Atlas comes to mind as does David Chowes’s book. But there is something that needs to happen, to explode us out of our stuck-in-a-rut way of telling stories to match both the possibilities of change on a dying planet and to mobilize more people to feel that sense of “we” when they read.

If we could find those writers and support their work, that would be the real test of our faith in books. And if a writer starting out can see that way forward, then please step up. We need you.