FPP Interview: Carina del Valle Schorske

14670894_10101347945897414_8896494915559814349_nFPP spoke with poet Carina del Valle Schorske via email about her grandmother’s railroad apartment, the coercive word known as “America”, her work on Puerto Rico En Mi Corazón, and so much more. Come to Silvana on Tuesday, December 5th, and hear Schorske read with Nicole Sealey, Victor LaValle, and Nandi Comer. Silvana is located at 300 W. 116th St., near Frederick Douglass Blvd, on the SW corner. Take the B/C to 116th and you’re there. 7pm.

Tell us about your Harlem.  Harlem is in the corner of my eye. I can see it when I lean over the park with a cliff so sheer the grid couldn’t break its back. I walk back and forth across the park to bars and bookstores and the black archives of our extended Caribbean. To visit friends. I dance at the Shrine. My Columbia-subsidized studio drinks down its ration of blood.

IMG_2622My Harlem is Washington Heights and the railroad apartment where my grandmother has lived for more than sixty years at 156th and Broadway. The smell of her lobby is a wrinkle in time where I’m caught at the bottom of a pocket looking for the keys. I’m not invited to the parties that happened before I was born but I still spin the soundtrack.

IMG_9604My Harlem looks good in May when it’s wet and somehow I’m in love again. I’m late but he doesn’t mind. In my Harlem Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts is out with her pop-up shop selling rare magazines that shine like mirrors.

Sometimes in my Harlem I hallucinate Helga Crane and we suck each other up like Quicksand. I’m quoting from that Harlem novel now: “She was, she knew, in a queer indefinite way, a disturbing factor.”

In addition to your own poetry, you’ve done significant translation work. Will you share your personal joys and challenges of translating other poets?

I recently made a statement on the topic! If the statement were a tweet, it would be: “How else is anything born but through a foreign body?” Translation troubles the capitalist logic of ownership that governs so many aspects of global culture. To whom does a translation belong? Translation’s trouble is its joy and its challenge. Sometimes it’s straight up legal trouble: ask any translator who’s struggled to secure the “rights” to bring a poet into a new language across centuries, embargos, repressions, family traumas, redrawn borders, battle lines, colonial bylaws, crypto-currencies.

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

Tfw someone else’s “I” resonates so strongly with my own that a “we” gets born and then I have to learn how to care for it. Isn’t that what reading is? Recently I’ve been returning to a (Puschart Prize nomianted!) poem by my friend Sheila Maldonado called “Temporary Statement,” which begins as a kind of cantankerous refusal of the statement or manifesto form–so often written in the first person plural. She writes her statement in the first person singular. Here I want to quote her almost in full:

“…I’ve forgotten how to break a line. The line breaks me. I use I too much. I do get

that the I on the page is still not me. I do get that. I don’t know if you get that. I don’t

know who I am in this time. I have lost a great love. I am suffering through a terrible

leader. I don’t know where to turn or who to be. I am looking for my days to recquire

some rhythm. I can’t be kind in the morning. I can’t be kind. I am mourning. I miss

touch. I miss conversations I had in the past. I miss the conversation I had with my past.

It is leaving me. I don’t mind erasing. I want to know who to address though.”

Calling on Sheila to speak for me in a voice of profound doubt about the possibility of connection (even with something called the self) reveals how much we need each other even when we’re aiming to speak for ourselves. What actions do I have to take to protect the space that allows her–or anyone–to be someone I want to be a “we” with? Very soon we’re back to basics: food, shelter, the right to work and leisure and care.

But I’m very much a believer in “begin where you are” and most of the time I think of myself as an individual, even if that’s a modern delusion. So I begin with my “I” as a kind of technology for cutting through my own bullshit. “I” as a slender blade like in that Neil Young song (he’s still going!): “the love I got for you is a razor love that cuts clean through.” Maybe to a we. Vamos a ver.

A poem of yours, a poem of someone else’s that you wish all of America could hear right now. Why?

Honestly, I’m hung up on what “all of America” could possibly mean right now. Does that include Guantanamo? Guam? Everyone who’s crossed the border or is making plans to cross it right now? America Online? More pointedly for my own family, does that include Puerto Rico? Most of my cousins on the island would affirm the citizenship status of Puerto Ricans in a strategic bid for justice, especially in the wake of the hurricanes Irma & Maria. If we’re citizens, if we’re Americans, maybe FEMA will step up–that’s the logic. But if there’s a “we” that connects Puerto Rico and the mainland, El Salvador and California, Ismael Rivera and the Isley Brothers, I wouldn’t want to call it “America,” which has always seemed like a coercive word to me. It’s better in Latin America where they say it plural, Las Américas. I don’t know that there’s a single poem that can turn this imperial disaster into the right kind of “we.” But I’ve been listening to “Dime,” off of the classic Rubén Blades / Willie Colón salsa collab, Siembra, which came out in 1978. That’s New York, and one of the earliest album covers with babies on the cover way before Biggie: Untitled

The chorus asks, “Dime cómo me arranco del alma esta pena de amor” // “Tell me how I can pluck this pain of love from my soul.” But the song is so sweet, you want to stay in it. You don’t want to pluck it out. I guess for me the “America” question is, what would it mean to allow the pain of loving these plural places to form my soul? So my poem prescription is actually a song.

As for my own work, I’d probably direct you to an essay rather than a poem: an essay in which I ask how we bring migrant women–especially migrant women in Latin America–into the fold of U.S. literature as we translate them into English.

I realize now I’ve been answering your final question: “How has the natural and man-made disaster in Puerto Rico affected you and your work?” Answering it directly still feels too stark.

When Hurricane Maria hit, one of my cousins–we’ll call him my Tío José, because he’s that generation–was in the hospital. He was elderly and unwell. Last week, he passed away. The hurricane didn’t kill him but it certainly hastened his death. The last time I saw him was not this summer, but last, when he showed me the memoir he’d been writing for his daughter, and photographs of the farm where he was born. I want to honor the documentary impulse that sanctifies each bend in the river. That teaches me to trace its shape. When he showed me a map of the island he took my hand to point with his.

A solace these past few months has been the new connections with Puerto Ricans across the diaspora, especially Raquel Salas Rivera, who was already a friend, Erica Mena, and Ricardo Maldonado, who’ve let me help out as a translator and co-conspirator gathering and translating poems from contemporary Puerto Rican poets to print and sell as broadsides for hurricane relief. The project–Puerto Rico En Mi Corazón–will finally go live next week, just in time for the holiday season! Some of the poems included were written just days after Maria: that documentary impulse again. From the other side of a humanitarian flight off the island, Xavier Valcárcel writes, “Supongo que también las palomas tendrán que regresar al principio” // “I guess even the pigeons will have to go back to the beginning.”

Join Us on December 5th for the Final 2017 Reading!

Join us for our final reading of 2017 with poets Nandi ComerCarina del Valle Schorske, Nicole Sealey, and novelist Victor LaValle. We start at 7pm on Tuesday, December 5th 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! Admission is free. Cake will be served!

NandiComer-sm (2)Nandi Comer is the author of the forthcoming chapbook American Family: A Syndrome (Finishing Line Press). She has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, Cave Canem, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Arts. Her poems and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in To Light a Fire: 20 Years with the InsideOut Literary Arts Project (Wayne State University Press, 2014), Detroit Anthology (Rust Belt Chic Press, 2014), Crab Orchard Review, Green Mountains Review, Pluck!, Prairie Schooner, and Southern Indiana Review.

IMG_3846Victor LaValle is the author of seven works of fiction. His most recent novel, The Changeling has been named one of the 10 Best Novels of 2017 by Time Magazine and a New York Times Notable book of 2017. He is also the author of a comic book mini-series, Destroyer. He teaches creative writing at Columbia University. (photo by Teddy Wolff)


AuthorPhoto_delValleSchorske-2Carina del Valle Schorske is a poet, essayist, and Spanish language translator at large in New York City. Her work has appeared at the Los Angeles Review of Booksthe New Yorker online, Lit HubThe PointNew York Times MagazineThe OffingPhantom BooksThe Awl and elsewhere, always elsewhere. She recently won Gulf Coast’s 2016 Prize for her translations of the Puerto Rican poet Marigloria Palma. She is the happy recipient of fellowships from CantoMundo, the MacDowell Colony, Bread Loaf, and Columbia University, where she is a doctoral candidate studying Caribbean literature and culture.

temp_0517_Sealey_Nicole-3Born in St. Thomas, U.S.V.I. and raised in Apopka, Florida, Nicole Sealey is the author of Ordinary Beast, forthcoming from Ecco in fall 2017, and The Animal After Whom Other Animals Are Named, winner of the 2015 Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize. Her other honors include an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant, the Stanley Kunitz Memorial Prize from The American Poetry Review, a Daniel Varoujan Award and the Poetry International Prize, as well as fellowships from CantoMundo, Cave Canem Foundation, MacDowell Colony and the Poetry Project. Her work has appeared in The New Yorker and elsewhere. Nicole holds an MLA in Africana Studies from the University of South Florida and an MFA in creative writing from New York University. She is the executive director at Cave Canem Foundation.


Citizenship May Not Save Us, but the Power of Fannie Lou Hamer Compels Us: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond One Year After the 2016 Presidential Election


From upper left: Carla Shedd, Yarimar Bonilla, Matthew Olzmann, PJ Marshall. From lower left: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Suzanne Russell, and Max S. Gordon.

Just over a year ago, Melody Nixon and I planned a special politics-focused night at the First Person Plural Reading Series in Harlem. We called it “What Just Happened? Writers Respond to the 2016 US Presidential Election.” I was excited. Politics is my thing. And the stakes were so high. I imagined participants would show disgust over what had been a truly degraded campaign year. I assumed some would pay homage to Hillary Clinton’s historic win. While many, I knew, would speak to how we must push the President-elect so that we could feel felt progress on equal rights, equal opportunity, and equal protection under the law.

I thought I could see it all.

Then Election Night came and went and it felt like death. We faced a future where progress could be pulled up like cheap carpet, revealing the hard American truths beneath. If you’re a person of color in this country, you know that none of this mess started with Trump. But his election has been kerosene thrown on all of the other crises we’d been coping with. The fires burn, yet we live with the knowledge that no matter how bad things are, they can still get worse.

This past Election Night, I was honored to present this diverse lineup: artist/attorney Suzanne Russell, essayist Max S. Gordon, anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla, attorney/organizer Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, actor PJ Marshall, poet Matthew Olzmann, sociologist Carla Shedd, and activist Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. Each participant has been a voice to heed in their respective fields. How would they remember the year? What beauty, pain, guidance would they share with us?

I couldn’t wait to find out. Neither could the packed tables at Shrine Harlem.

Attorney/artist Suzanne Russell kicked off the night with Howard Zinn readings that have inspired her over the past year and supplied the text for the artwork she created and hung from a building downtown, and tonight above our Shrine stage. An excerpt:

While some people think that dissent is unpatriotic, I would argue that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. In fact, if patriotism means being true to the principles for which your country is supposed to stand, then certainly the right to dissent is one of those principles. And if we’re exercising that right to dissent, it’s a patriotic act.

Artwork by Suzanne Russell

In moving remarks that reaffirmed how much “life wants life” but that it’s up to us to save ourselves, essayist Max S. Gordon shared with us intimate moments that illuminated our present situation, including scenes from a childhood filled with domestic violence, and how they helped him understand the abuse we experienced during Trump’s presidency.

Then Gordon had us cheering when he conjured the spirit of Fannie Lou Hamer in this passage:

I like horror movies, not the slasher genre, but psychological horror, and especially 70’s horror — Rosemary’s Baby, Omen, Carrie, The Exorcist. There is that amazing scene in The Exorcist where the priest says to the devil who has possessed the young girl, Reagan, ‘The power of Christ compels you. The power of Christ compels you!’

The other day Donald Trump came up on the screen — and now, I don’t know much about exorcisms, but the shit seemed to work on that devil — and so I thought, why not? So I just blurted out, ‘The power of Fanny Lou Hamer compels you!’

Now for those who may not know or remember, Fanny Lou Hamer was a black organizer in the Deep South, a civil-rights activist, who fought to exercise her right to vote in a virulently racist Mississippi. She was tortured, her life was threatened, and she even had to battle for the right to be heard within her own political party. Fanny Lou said, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired’ and ‘Nobody’s free, until everybody’s free.’ She had what the old folks call Holy Ghost power.

And if any human power could neutralize Trump’s malice, it would certainly be Fanny Lou Hamer’s.

Rutgers anthropologist Yarimar Bonilla spoke to the weirdness of being a Puerto Rican on Election Night, given that those in PR cannot vote for representation as those of us on the mainland can. She made the poignant observation that educated mainlanders can know all about Native genocide, slavery, and Jim Crow, but know little, or nothing, about American colonialism. She spoke to feeling conflicted reading well-meaning people declare “how could [what’s happening to Puerto Ricans] happen to American citizens?!”, because as Bonilla would later say: “citizenship doesn’t save you.” We only have to look as far as Flint, Michigan to know this is true.

Next spoke attorney Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, director of the Democratic Practice — United States program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, formerly of the Brennan Center for Justice. She compared the election of “45” to the election of 1876 and the Compromise of 1877:

Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote, won the electoral college and was installed by vote of Congress. The compromise to hand the election to Hayes was for Hayes to pull federal troops out of the South, effectively ending Reconstruction — and ushering in the Jim Crow era. That would not end until the Civil Rights movement in the beginning of the early 1950s and ending in 1965 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act and the Immigrant Act.

While clear-eyed, Gaskins-Nathan remained hopeful, noting how many resistance groups have emerged since the election. Though she asked: “Where can resistance take us if our voices of resistance are not connected in relationship, strategy, or vision?” She concluded this way:

As we find our collective voice, we need not have a singular strategy but we must have a movement that recognizes a multicultural future where our destinies are not segregable but a shared voice for a just and prosperous future. And for that we must fight. We must fight for the freedom we seek.

Poet Matthew Olzmann joined us from Detroit via Dartmouth, and his short reading of his poems stopped breath and hearts. Below is an excerpt of his poem “Letter Beginning with Two Lines by Czesław Miłosz”:

Actor PJ Marshall, who played overseer Bill Meekes in WGN’s Underground, spoke poignantly about having his consciousness raised during the two years he live-tweeted during Underground broadcasts and interacted with “Black Twitter”, acknowledging how much he never had to know about American history and American right now because of his racial status. He spoke about the peculiar experience of having Russian trolls target his tweets with racist responses, in seeming attempts to stoke discord. He shared that he now engages people, especially pro-Trump people, on race, risking uncomfortable, but necessary conversations with those who’ve historically benefited from silence.

Urban sociologist Carla Shedd, author of Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice, asked us to think about the place of justice in our democracy. After noting how demoralizing it can be to vote in general elections where down-ballot choices are not choices at all, she shared a bit of her current research on the carceral continuum, focusing on juvenile justice here in New York City. Shedd’s research investigates what’s working, and what’s harming our youth as they move through juvenile systems that seem to punish more than they protect.

And we finished with return participant, environmental activist and writer Ibrahim Abdul-Matin. Last year, he helped us remember a time before concrete and capitalism. This time, we shared a glorious ode to cities, from antiquity to today. He concluded with the assertation that when you have New York City, you don’t need the federal government — and can kiss Trump, and others who look down on cities as burning hellholes goodbye…

We finished the night with Keesha Gaskins-Nathan reading a few Election Night results that left us happy, hopeful. I left Shrine feeling fatigue and grief for what people have suffered over the last year, but I also felt determined. It’s up to us to band togther and help each other. And listening to these readers, I knew we’d have the vision, that there are possibilities ahead for us that are brighter than anything the 45th President could imagine.

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.


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.


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