Announcing the First Person Plural Season Finale: Tuesday, May 9th!

New York City is warming up: join the First Person Plural collective and Shrine bar in Harlem for the final reading in our 2016-2017 showcase, and let our literary heat carry you through to summer! Tuesday May 9th, 7:00pm, will feature readings by Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung and Deborah Emin.

Shrine is located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free.

TerryBlackhawkA former Detroit high school teacher, Terry Blackhawk founded InsideOut Literary Arts Project in 1995 in order to encourage children and youth in Detroit classrooms to “think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world.” She is the author of three chapbooks and four full-length collections of poetry including Escape Artist (BkMk Press), winner of the John Ciardi Prize, and The Light Between, from WSU Press. Her poems have been published in numerous journals and anthologies and on line at sites such a Verse Daily, Solstice and The Collagist. She was twice named Michigan Creative Writing Teacher of the Year through the Michigan Youth Arts Festival. Other awards include the Pablo Neruda Poetry Prize from Nimrod International, a Michigan Governor’s Award for Arts Education, and grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and Michigan Council for the Arts. Blackhawk holds an honorary doctorate as well as a Ph.D. from Oakland University. She is a Kresge Arts in Detroit Literary Fellow and blogs for the Detroit Huffington Post.

Photo by M. SharkeyAlexander Chee is the bestselling author of the novels The Queen of the Night and Edinburgh. He is a contributing editor at The New Republic, an editor at large at VQR, and a critic at large at The Los Angeles Times. His work has appeared in Best American Essays 2016, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Guernica, and Tin House, among others. He is an associate professor of English at Dartmouth College. His first collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is forthcoming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2018.

Photo credit: M. Sharkley

Sonya Chung is the author of the novels The Loved Ones (Relegation Books, 2016)—
SonyaChung_Headshot_12x300selected for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, Indie Next List, TNB Book Club, and Buzzfeed Books Recommends—and Long for This World (Scribner, 2010). She is a staff writer for The Millions and founding editor of Bloom—a community and literary site that highlights the work of authors who debut after the age of 40—and is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Residency, a MacDowell Colony Fellowship, and a Key West Literary Seminars residency. Sonya’s stories, reviews, & essays have appeared in The Threepenny ReviewTin HouseThe Huffington PostBuzzfeedThe Late American Novel: Writers on the Future of BooksShort: An International Anthologyand forthcoming in the anthology Wherever I’m With You (Seal Press), among others. Sonya has taught fiction writing at Columbia University, NYU, Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and College of Mount St. Vincent. Currently she lives in New York City and teaches at Skidmore College. Sonya was born in Washington, DC, and has lived in Seattle and New England.  She loves wandering urban streets, growing vegetables, dogs, Paris, bourbon, good TV, cigars, audiobooks, three-minute poached eggs, baking, boots, motorcycles, and kindness.  She is passionately DIY, an introvert, and prefers small living spaces to large ones.

Photo credit: Robin Holland/robinholland.com

Deborah Emin-headshotDeborah Emin is the founder/publisher of Sullivan Street Press which she began in order to help bring the publishing industry into a more supportive relationship with our environment. She also began the company in order to protect her own intellectual property (that is, her first novel, Scags at 7, which had been pulped in the course of its first publisher going bankrupt). Deborah is completing the final volume of this Scags Series in 2018 with the publication of Scags at 45, which brings the number of novels in the series to four. Not able to let go of her character, Scags, Deborah is creating a brand new set of novels that are political thrillers, written by her character, Scags Morgenstern, with the first one, Born Loser, Born Lucky, due out in early 2018 as well. Besides working in the publishing field, she has also worked as a creative writing teacher, primarily for Gotham Writers Workshop, as a writer for Gay City News and Thrive, as a political blogger for Dennis Kucinich’s 2008 presidential campaign and has volunteered for City Harvest, the Bowery Rescue Committee, the Richmond Hill Library and has run a reading series in her neighborhood of Queens for a number of years. Deborah is married to Suzanne Pyrch and with her, she travels every summer all over the country. In addition to car camping, they run the Itinerant Book Show, a meet and greet with bookstores and libraries along the routes they follow.

The First Person Plural Season Finale takes place on Tuesday, May 9th 2017, 7:00pm, at Shrine World Music Venue, 2271 Adam Clayton Powell in Harlem, NYC.

Find us on Twitter here, @fppharlem, on Instagram here, @fppharlem, and on Facebook here, First Person Plural Reading Series—Harlem,

The Next First Person Plural Reading is Tuesday, March 7th – Join Us!

Tumultuous times call for talent and light – join us on Tuesday, March 7th for a stellar lineup featuring authors Hannah Lillith Assadi, Amy Benson, and Kaitlyn Greenidge The reading begins at 7pm and we’ll be at Harlem’s Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free. Cake will be served!

Hannah-Assadi_UlyssePayet-1Hannah Lillith Assadi received her MFA in fiction from the Columbia University School of the Arts. She also received her bachelor’s degree at Columbia and was awarded the Philolexian Prize for her short stories and poetry by the University’s English Department.  She was raised in Arizona and lives in Brooklyn. Her first novel Sonora, an Elle Magazine Most Anticipated Novel is forthcoming in March.

Amy Benson is the author of Seven Years to Zero (forthcoming, Dzanc Books May 2017),ACB_author(3)-2 winner of the Dzanc Books Nonfiction Prize, and The Sparkling-Eyed Boy (Houghton Mifflin 2004), winner of the Katherine Bakeless Nason Prize in creative nonfiction, sponsored by Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference.  The Sparkling-Eyed Boy was selected as an Elle magazine “Must Read Book” and a USAToday Top Ten Summer Reading book 2004.   Recent work has appeared in journals such as Agni, BOMB, Boston Review, Denver QuarterlyGettysburg ReviewKenyon Review, New England Review, and Triquarterly.  She currently teaches creative writing at Rhodes College in Memphis, and taught previously in the writing programs at Columbia University and Fordham University.  She has been a fellow at Bread Loaf and a resident at Ledig House International, and was the co-founder (and co-curator until 2016) of the First Person Plural Reading Series.

Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (Algonquin Press). KG-Author-Photo-HR-7-390x390She’s a graduate of Hunter College’s MFA program and has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and Fortnight Journal. Her work has appeared in The BelieverAmerican Short FictionAt Length MagazineAcrobat JournalGreen Mountains Review and The Feminist Wire, and been reprinted in The Believer‘s collection Always Apprentices. She is originally from Boston.

 

What Just Happened? Writers Respond to the 2016 Presidential Election

fpp-poster-111516-finalOn Tuesday, November 15th, FPP will focus on the 2016 presidential election. As in: what just happened? We have a fantastic lineup of writers to help us make sense of  – or complicate further – what has been a wild and wrenching year: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin; Grace Aneiza Ali; Hafizah Geter; Max S. Gordon; Hajar Husseini; Morgan Jerkins; and Chris Prioleau. We want to hear from you, too. Audience participation will be part of this program.

7:00pm-9:00pm at Shrine World Music Venue, 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd.Near the 2/3 135th stop, and the B/C 135th stop.Happy Hour until 8pm. Cake will be served. Admission is free. Come talk politics, resistance, and the way forward with us in Harlem!

ibrahim-abdul-matinIbrahim Abdul-Matin is the author of 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 founder of the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment. In 2013, Ibrahim was honored by NBC’s TheGrio.com as one of 100 African Americans Making history today. He currently serves as the Director of Community Affairs at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. He has experience in the civic, public, and private sectors, and with government, public administration, and media. 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.

grace-ali-headshot-2014Grace Aneiza Ali is an independent curator, faculty member in the Department of Art & Public Policy, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University and Editorial Director of OF NOTE — an award-winning online magazine on art and activism. She has served as Editor & Digital Curator for several of the magazine’s art and social justice issues, including: The Water Issue, The Burqa Issue, The Imprisoned Issue, and The Immigrant Issue. Her essays on photography have been published in Harvard’s Transition Magazine, Nueva Luz Journal, Small Axe Journal, among others. In 2014, she received the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts Curatorial Fellowship. In 2016, she served as curator for Un|Fixed Homeland at Aljira, a Center of Contemporary Art, an exhibition which brought together global Guyanese artists using photography to explore issues of migration and diaspora. Highlights of her curatorial work include Guest Curator for the 2014 Addis Ababa Foto Fest; Guest Curator of the Fall 2013 Nueva Luz Photographic Journal; and Co-Curator/Host of the Visually Speaking photojournalism public program series at the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center. Ali is a World Economic Forum ‘Global Shaper’ and Fulbright Scholar. She holds an M.A. in Africana Studies from New York University and a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Maryland, College Park, where she graduated magna cum laude. Ali was born in Guyana and lives in New York City.

hafizah-geterHafizah Geter is a 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship finalist. Her poems have appeared in RHINO, Drunken Boat, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, and Narrative Magazine, among others. She is on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, a poetry editor for Phantom Books and co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ryann Stevenson.

 

max-s-gordonMax 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 recent published essays include, “Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”; “The Cult of Whiteness: On Donald Trump, #OscarsSoWhite and the end of America” and “Be Glad That You are Free: On Nina, Miles Ahead, Lemonade, Lauryn Hill and Prince”.

hajar-husseiniHajar Husseini was born in 1991 in Iran to an Afghan immigrant family. After the collapse of the Taliban regime, her family came back to Afghanistan when she was thirteen. After graduation from high school, she worked for several non-profit organizations. She started writing for Afghan Women Writing Project in April 2015. Her involvement with AWWP lead her to collaborate on a song about domestic violence with Eleanor Dubinsky. Currently based in Troy, NY, she attends The Sage Colleges where she received a full undergraduate scholarship from the Initiative to Educate Afghan Women to study “Writing and Contemporary Thought.” She wants to become a writer, a journalist, and a literary translator.

morgan-jerkinsMorgan Jerkins is a writer living in Harlem. Besides being a Contributing Editor at Catapult, her work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, ELLE, The Atlantic, Rolling Stone, and BuzzFeed, among many others. Her debut essay collection, This Will Be My Undoing, is forthcoming from Harper Perennial.  She received her Bachelor’s in Comparative Literature from Princeton University and MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College.

chris-prioleau

Chris Prioleau earned his MFA in Fiction from Columbia University, where he taught creative writing and helped found Apogee Journal, a journal of art and literature featuring work that explores and challenges identity politics.  Chris writes fiction, essays, and sketch comedy. His work has been featured on The Awl and at sketch comedy events throughout the city. Chris is the Development & Communications Manager for NY Writers Coalition and lives in Brooklyn.

 

 

Thank You for a Fantastic Season Premiere!

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September 20th was a night to remember! We just want to thank Camille Rankine, Daniel José Older, Camille Rankine, and Charles Taylor for incredible kickoff of our new season.  Special thanks to Richard Louissant for these sweet snaps. See you on Tuesday, Nov. 15th – details TBA!

FPP Interview: Charles Taylor

FPP spoke with Harlemite, community activist, and writer Charles Taylor about his love for Harlem, growing up in New York City, the killing of his teenage friend James Powell by police and resulting riots, the gentrification of Harlem, and whether locals and gentrifiers can, and should, work together to change gentrification’s course. See Taylor read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.

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The title of your eBook-in-progress, Harlem 2 Harlem: Ghettopian Dreams, speaks of two Harlems. What are these two Harlems, and what do they each represent?

For me, the old Harlem represents a place where money was scarce and times were hard, but people came together to find ways to persevere. The Harlem of my youth provided my relatives and many of their neighbors with a life worth living. Of course theirs was poverty, crime and drugs—they were very much a part of the landscape.

Families of the present experience many of the same challenges faced by their counterparts from the past. There was always a socioeconomic divide in the Harlem community. There were the haves and have-nots. The modest-size middle class of my childhood enjoyed a plethora of advantages that made oppression more bearable. But the one thing that they had in common was their blackness—financial wherewithal notwithstanding, they were all still a part of the community and there was a level of begrudging acceptance that transcended class.

The new Harlem represents the ultimate in parallel universe living. As the middle class struggles to regain its economic footing, the poorest in our community suffer from the ravages of extreme poverty. We shouldn’t be fooled by stylish clothes, expensive sneakers and backpacks, and other external trappings valued by low income and working class residents. Many of them are working harder and longer for less and finding new ways to cutback to make ends meet. The real story is in the number of homeless people begging or living on our streets. There are tales to be told by the growing numbers of mentally ill people roaming aimlessly while engaged in lonely incomprehensible conversations. For this vulnerable population, it’s a live and let die existence.

Across the street, around the corner or sometimes next door, sits a gleaming new condo or a quaintly-appointed and refurbished brownstone occupied by newcomers to the community. These mostly white interlopers have grown in number like a chiapet over the last 20 years. Now, white Harlemites make up more than 10 percent of the population. Of course, there are a myriad of challenges when a group of comparatively affluent, culturally different people move into a minority community. There will always be things to work out such as noise levels—opposition to the noisy street life of Harlem as represented by the constant sounds of music and drumming across the blocks.

The most worrisome thing about the new Harlem is the stark and growing divide between the newly arrived residents and the longtime Harlemites. With gentrification comes a wave of amenities accompanied by cleaner streets, increased police presence, and lowered crime. Some of these benefits can be shared by all, but most of them are reserved exclusively for the privileged. Many people are worried about being pushed out of the community as more urban settlers lay claim to their homeland. I don’t know if that will ever happen. However, my wife and I have recently discussed the possibility of moving as a result of high rent and increased living expenses. We dread the idea, but must consider it as a real possibility. I can only imagine what it must feel like in a household with less income. At least we have options—we can probably find a more affordable place to live elsewhere in the city. If we’re lucky, we can find a way to generate more income and stay where we are. Most Harlemites don’t have these kinds of choices. The average income of a Harlem household is $37,000—barely enough to make ends met for a family with multiple children.

Of course, there is much to be said about the choices presented to various factions of the community—Whole Foods versus Food Town, upscale cafes and restaurants versus Popeye’s and McDonald’s. However, I believe that at the core of the quality of life is green power—what you can afford to buy or do.

In the new Harlem, newcomers hit the trains every weekday morning taking their kids to good schools on the Upper West Side, while most other local kids are stuck in low-performing Harlem schools. Some people have the luxury of living their lives straddling two worlds—home sweet Harlem for the comforts of daily life, and the rest of the city for everything else.

What strikes you most about the way the neighborhood has changed during your time here?

I appreciate many of the changes in Harlem over the years. I never imagined Harlem to be a place where I could enjoy cafes and some of the other upscale amenities. With few exceptions, I can’t buy the clothes I need in my community. I try to support the community by spending my money here—and I can do do that to a large degree. However, I find myself going downtown for many of the important items that I need.

I am concerned about the proliferation of taller buildings. I love the Harlem skyline and the unobstructed view of other parts of Manhattan. I am also bothered by what seems like the filling in of every available space. Now we have super thin buildings wedged between broad, beautiful structures. It’s an unsightly aberration of design.

One of the most unnerving changes is the disappearance of mom and pop shops. As comparative progress moves full steam ahead, the blazing bulldozers displace many of the shops that reliably served the community and offered tourists a taste of our culture. Rent gouging and exorbitant increases are to blame along with deals made with elected officials. On some level, streets and avenues are beginning to look like downtown locations. Along with the many churches and iconic buildings and landmark structures, mom and pop shops are at the core of the community—they are irreplaceable.

How can artists and writers respond to changes like the ones you describe, which can threaten the infrastructure and heart of communities of color?

Writers and artists can come together and engage all members of the community in understanding the vital needs of the community, and encourage them to make a difference. The sharing of artistic expression in all forms is one of the most potent ways to bring people together to share perceptions and opinions in a safe space to find common ground. Artists and writers have to find new opportunities for expressing their art and building a broader audience.

You’re the cofounder of Polarity, a Harlem-based social justice arts collective “focused on redirecting the trajectory of gentrification in communities of color.” What is your response to people who say that “gentrification is an inevitable force?” What work are you doing to redirect the trajectory of gentrification in Harlem?

In my opinion, gentrification is inevitable in that it’s here to stay. That doesn’t mean that the fight is over. We should identify flagrant abuses across the community and mobilize to shut them down or influence the outcome. For example, new housing without a reasonable number of truly affordable units should be vehemently opposed. The work that I’m doing is focused on the people who are living here now—all Harlemites. We seek to establish 1WorldTransition, a social change arts project that is designed to channel the trajectory of gentrification by challenging longtime residents and newcomers alike to collaboratively redirect the flow of sweeping community changes while building a more inclusive and equitable living environment. Through a mobile multimedia living-arts project, 1World will galvanize disparate community factions, examine the pros and cons of gentrification, and collectively determine strategies to reduce its harm and maximize its benefit. 1World will create a vibrant, interactive exhibit that will engage the community in confronting issues, finding common ground, and forging new alliances today for a better tomorrow.

What can gentrifiers do to be more aware of their impact on their new community? What changes would you like to see made to the way gentrifiers behave, shop, consume, and approach education—to name just a few factors—in their new community?

I understand that most of the newcomers can’t go to a hair salon or barbershop in Harlem. They may be hard-pressed to find clothing, furniture or other important items in local stores. However, they can commit to shopping locally whenever possible and attending local events, venues and activities to support cultural and business ventures. Most importantly, newcomers can ignite change in the miseducation of Harlem’s children. They can do this by enrolling their own children in our under-performing schools and then volunteering to make them better. Outspoken, educated parents can be influential in challenging the Department of Education while fundraising for increased school resources. This is a common occurrence at many schools citywide. It is a proven fact that all students benefit from a more diverse educational environment. A key component of creating a “good neighborhood” is the commitment residents have to educating their children. To sum it up, Harlem gentrifiers should start seeing Harlem as more than a convenient commute or an affordable living space—this can never be their home until they do.

Can and should locals and gentrifiers work together? If so, how?

Locals and gentrifiers can work together when gentrifiers decide to get their hands dirty and help address some of the ills that plague our community. Locals can acknowledge that they are short on answers to some of our most intractable challenges. The powers that be, local and city officials and major nonprofits, have not sufficiently met many of the community’s needs. It is time for the diverse residents of Harlem to come together to demand more from our elected officials while also taking matters into their own hands. We can’t be successful when significant swaths of our community are not engaged on either end of the socioeconomic continuum.

Can you tell me about your experiences growing up in, loving, and living in Harlem?

I’ve always loved Harlem. I drew my first breath at Sydenham Hospital on West 125th Street. Many of my mom’s relatives lived in various parts of Harlem. My paternal grandmother was my father’s only relative living up north. The hub of family activity was on 116th Street between 7th and 8th Avenues. My great-grandmother owned a small laundry on the block. I spent lots of time there while my parents were at work. We lived close by on 119th Street between 8th and Morningside Avenues in a tenement. My mom’s family was from Long Branch New Jersey by way of Mississppi, and my father was from a mere dot on a South Carolina map—Blackville.

My little sister and I spent so much time on 116th with my aunt, uncle, grandma and cousins and visiting relatives – it kind of felt like we lived there. At one point, we had five generations alive. However, it was not always a bed of roses. We had great family meals and loads of fun, but we also had a subliminal color code that dictated how much attention and privilege each of the children received.

We left Harlem for Staten Island when I was five. I briefly returned to Harlem as a 19-year-old hiding out with my 16-year-old runaway girlfriend. We shacked up in a quasi-abandoned building. This clandestine stint was short-lived.

During my young adult life and beyond, I lived all across the city and for a while, in the southern states reluctantly serving as a soldier. I still had relatives in Harlem, but the numbers slowly dwindled as the years passed. I set off on my big adventure and saw less and less of my Harlem relatives. As my aunts and uncles died, and their children married and moved away, we entered into a benign estrangement. There was no malice intended—on the contrary, we just went our separate ways.

I returned to Harlem years later in 1996. I came back to interview for a job at the Harlem YMCA—blocks from the Savoy Ballroom where my mother and father had danced their hearts out alongside legends like Red Foxx. This was the place where I had created wonderful childhood memories – memories that outshone actual events.

Initially, I was hired as the youth and family director. I was charged with revitalizing the Jackie Robinson Youth Center—once the gem of the illustrious Harlem YMCA. The center was closed for almost 4 years due to financial constraints. The Harlem Y board, and Congressman Charles Rangel, got together and raised over three-and-a-half-million dollars to revive the long-suffering youth refuge. We were off to the races.

After a long separation, I fell in love with Harlem all over again. I worked indefatigably for 12 hard years to build and grow quality programs for youth and families across the community. At the pinnacle of our work, we had programs at 12 off-sites and the main Harlem Y building. I managed more than 125 staff and influenced the lives of countless young people, parents and grandparents. We served more than 10,000 kids and families every year – a monumental, challenging and rewarding undertaking. I eventually oversaw youth and family programs, fund development, public affairs and communications, drug prevention education and a new Americans center. I left it all on the field at the Y.

As the years went by, I began finding new ways to influence the Harlem community and beyond. After being retrenched at the Y due to a downturn in the economy in 2008, I began utilizing the broad network of people that I had developed over the years. I tried my hand at politics for a while—supporting a campaign for city comptroller and another for congress. I worked with numerous local nonprofits and artists to secure funds and resources. I struck out on my own as a development consultant with mixed results. I soon learned that working for oneself is much harder than it seems.

In 2000, I met and married my third, and final wife. My wife, KD, is Japanese. She is a journalist who writes about American culture with an emphasis on black culture. She writes for Japanese print media and also coordinates film shoots. KD also conducts tours of East Harlem, West Harlem, Central Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx. KD came to America as a young woman, learned the language and mastered her craft. She inspired me to be a better man. We adopted a fantastic son, Fernando, now 12 years old, and decided to stay in Harlem. Harlem is now an integral part of our lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly.

What past experiences have influenced and informed your work?

Several key childhood experiences helped me develop the kind of empathy and understanding I would draw on in later life. As a child, I was acutely aware how my dark skin impacted all those around me. My lighter skinned adult relatives always talked about my “keen features” and thin lips—another way of saying I was dark with redeeming qualities.

As a small boy living in a strange land, Staten Island, I quickly learned what some white kids saw when they looked at me—something distasteful—something their parents didn’t like. In my first Staten Island home, the Stapleton Houses, one of two little Italian boys about my age hit me in the chin with a well-aimed tomato soup can top. I took my tear-soaked, bloody face upstairs seeking solace. My mom was horrified. My father snatched me by the collar and dragged me down three flights of stairs. He threw me at the boys and told me to fight. I closed my eyes and swung wildly at the boys. He then went and spent money he couldn’t spare to buy a set of boxing gloves. He made arrangements to teach me and the only other black boy in school how to box. My father was a shipping clerk in a coat factory. He was also a very tough former amateur boxer—an unhappy man who only took crap at work. In his real life, he was like a quiet storm. Everyone knew not to mess with Charlie—a nice guy, but a fierce adversary.

When my father thought I was ready, he exhorted me to walk up to a group of white kids on our block and randomly punch one in the face. I received a royal beatdown for my trouble. I accosted the group again and again, until one day, they saw me coming and ran. For the first time, I was filled with confidence. I didn’t have to fight—the bullies went looking for someone who wouldn’t fight back. Most of my former tormentors stayed away from me, but others befriended me.

My beautiful Staten Island housing project, Markham Gardens—stoop, front yard and back yard, like a real home. It was a heavenly place to live. Unfortunately, no one would play with me. The kids in the complex were instructed by their parents to stay away from me—I was the only black kid around. It took almost a year to find my first friend, Richie Riposo, a bushy-haired Italian classmate. We would wave at one another, but could only talk in school. One day, after many tries, Richie succeeded in defying his mom’s order to stay away from me. That was all I needed—the boycott was over. Richie and I played in my yard every day after homework. Soon, other kids joined us and I had a new treasure – a social life. I was just becoming popular when we moved to the Bronx.

I was 10 when we moved to the Soundview Houses in Bronx. It was a racially and ethnically mixed project with equal numbers of black, white and Latino residents. For the most part, the kids in our complex got along pretty well. The community outside the project property consisted of white homeowners who resented our presence. We all shared a fragile peace in a polarized community. Despite the tension, and occasional incident, the road to adolescence was filed with wonderful adventures and extraordinary friendships. Jimmy Powell was one of those special friends.

Jimmy lived in the building behind mine. I used to visit his house often. His mom, Mrs. Powell was a doting parent who treated every child with great care. He was a wise-cracking little guy—skinny with a lot of bravado. I taught Jimmy to box, and he tried to teach me to skate. He was part of my crew. We all had one thing in common—a commitment to squeeze every drop of fun out of each day.

While going to summer school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Jimmy got into an altercation with the super of a building. The mostly black and Latino summer school students were from outside of the ritzy neighborhood in the ’70s. The residents resented having the noisy teens sitting on their stoops and horsing around on their blocks during lunch breaks.

Jimmy and the super exchanged words—the N-word was uttered and the unexpected happened. The super sprayed Jimmy with a water hose and all hell broke loose. Jimmy and some of his friends chased the super into his building, but they couldn’t catch him. An off-duty detective was leaving a TV repair shop on the corner. He saw the tail end of the incident, and began chasing Jimmy and his friends. Two of the cop’s three shots hit and killed Jimmy in front of his classmates and local residents.

Jimmy’s death set off six nights of rioting across Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant. More than 4,000 people were involved in the riots which devastated the black community. Hundreds of people were injured and many more were arrested—one person died. It is believed that the Harlem riot ignited other riots in July and August in cities including Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Rochester, New York; Chicago, Illinois; Jersey City, New Jersey; and Elizabeth, New Jersey. I experienced the harlem riot with a group of friends. It was the scariest thing I’d ever seen.

It was hard to reconcile so much devastation being connected to the life of James Powell —my skinny little teen friend who should have readily survived the incident that wantonly took his life. Controversy swirled around the incident. The cop claimed that Jimmy had lunged at him with a knife. Par for the course, the officer was cleared of any wrongdoing by a grand jury, and charges were dropped.

The aftermath of the riot yielded some good things for the Harlem community. An experimental anti-poverty program, Project Uplift, provided thousands of jobs to young Harlemites. This reactionary triage was tantamount to putting a bandaid on a bullet wound, however, it calmed things down for a while. Unfortunately, Jimmy wasn’t around to get one of those jobs.

In my Bronx elementary school, a fifth grade teacher asked my mom why I insisted upon coloring every character that I drew brown. My mom, an accomplished artist, said that she had encouraged me to draw whatever I felt. The teacher said that she understood, but she seemed very uncomfortable with the idea. She had the temerity to suggest to my mom that people came in all colors. I never got an A in that teacher’s class again, even though I could draw better than most of the other students. I didn’t care – I kept making my characters brown. The teacher stopped asking me to share my work with the class.

These childhood experiences taught me volumes about how and why people accept or reject one another—the essence of all relationships. It exposed me to unbridled hatred, unrelenting loneliness, unconditional love, unbreakable friendship, and the power of one person to overcome obstacles and make good things happen.

What is your vision for the future of Harlem? 

My vision of the future of Harlem is a community that maintains its cultural identity while embracing newcomers without hesitating to challenge them to become full and active members of the community. I see a community where the focus is on the quality of life for all its members—from the most affluent residing in opulent mini-enclaves to the middle class fighting back against burgeoning rents and reduced services to those scrambling in pockets of poverty, looking for any way out.

The challenges faced by black and brown Harlemites and other people of color in similar communities lead to the same conclusion: We’re stuck between a liberal and a GOP place. We need new ears and hands that will listen to our issues and work with us to make real change.

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FPP Interview: Camille Rankine

FPP spoke with poet and Incorrect Merciful Impulses author Camille Rankine about her relationship to New York City, the life, warmth, and character of Harlem, the exhaustion of existing as a Black person in the US, and how poetry can help “open up the world a little bit for each other.” See Rankine read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.

Camille Rankine Photo 3s

You’re from Portland, Oregon, but you live in Harlem now. How much of your time in NYC has been spent uptown? Can you talk about your relationship to this place? How has the neighborhood changed since you arrived?

I’ve lived uptown for all of my time in NYC, actually. First in Morningside Heights, when I was at Columbia University. Then Washington Heights. And I’ve been in Harlem for about seven years now. Living in Harlem when most of my writer peers are in Brooklyn feels a little like an act of defiance, but I love it here. It’s a beautiful neighborhood, and it feels like a community, which is different from a lot of Manhattan. It’s full of life and warmth and character. It is changing, just like any neighborhood in New York. There are new condos, new restaurants, and, I’ll just say it, a lot more white people. There’s a Whole Foods opening down the street from me next year, which feels very strange, and makes me worry that rents are about to shoot up. But I hope it’ll still feel like Harlem, even after it opens—just with more organic produce.

How has the place you live in entered and influenced your poetry?

I think it’s impossible for the place that I live not to influence my poetry. I don’t know if Harlem, specifically, has affected my work, but I know New York has. It’s been my landscape and my reality for a good part of my life, but one that I never feel entirely at home with, even if it is my home. That’s a little true for me wherever I go, I think, because my parents are immigrants, and I was raised in a Jamaican household. So that tension is on my mind a lot, and I think it appears in my work as well.

In your poem “Survival Guide for Animals Born in Captivity,” in response to the shooting of Mike Brown and the events of the summer of 2014, you write, “The trick is your body itself/ is a violence.” Can you talk about the ways that the body enters your work, particularly the politicized body, the Black body, and the female and intersectional body?

I wrote that poem in the summer of 2014, after deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown, but I didn’t really write it in response to those events, exactly. I wrote it in response to the fact that deaths like theirs, and the fear that black men and women have of dying at the hands of those who are supposed to protect us—that’s the reality that black Americans have been living in for generations. And that summer, it seemed like the rest of America was just beginning to see that. Black people in America are raised to understand that their bodies will be interpreted as dangerous objects to be feared and mistrusted. And that we have to act accordingly, in order to keep ourselves safe. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately, and about what it means when your body communicates something you never intended. That’s something that’s been coming into my newer work.

How has your work been going in the wake of the 2016 shootings and ongoing police violence against Black and brown bodies? Are you finding that justice themes are again entering your work, or are you, like (past FPP reader) the poet Morgan Parker wrote in her Instagram feed this summer, “over staying woke,” given how ongoing and relentless the violence seems?

My entire writing life I’ve been writing in the wake of shootings and ongoing police violence against black and brown bodies. This is not new. So I suppose I find writing poetry the same as ever. I don’t know the context of Morgan’s comment on Instagram (though I do know her incredible poem “If You Are Over Staying Woke”), but I imagine what she meant is that she’s tired. And yeah, I’m tired, too. It can be exhausting to exist in a country whose systems of power want you servile, invisible, or dead.

What powers do poets possess to respond to insurgent moments of change in society? How can, and do, poets help the movement towards justice? And do you see this as part of your role as poet?

What I hope for poetry is that by writing it and by reading it we can open up the world a little bit for each other. Audre Lorde said, “We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit,” and maybe poetry can be a part of forming that habit. Maybe by reading each other’s words, we can become more real with one another. We can become more tender. That’s one step toward justice, I think.

FPP Interview: Desiree Cooper

20160611_154118FPP spoke with Detroit legend Desiree Cooper, author of Know the Mother, about the plural experience of motherhood, gobbled-up twins, cultural genocide in Detroit and Harlem, and more. See Cooper read on Tuesday, September 20th at the FPP Season Premiere at Shrine in Harlem, 7pm.

In Know the Mother you write flash stories from multiple maternal POVs.  Do you consider motherhood a mighty “we”?  Would you speak to the tension of “I” vs “We” when it comes to motherhood?

The acts of gestating, birthing, adopting, guiding, mentoring, and nurturing are plural experiences. If you are mothering, you are always “we.” In assuming the role of mother, you must split our consciousness and share your most intimate spaces—body and mind—between often warring drives. What is best for the we is not always best for the I.

I am fascinated by stories of twins in the womb, one absorbing the other. Years later, the surviving twin finds tumors with teeth and hair, remnants of the twin who vanished. This is what happens to so many mothers. If you’re lucky, you remember there’s a “we,” an enumeration of the individuals who make a whole. But motherhood can also produce a royal “I,” where mother and child are enmeshed identities, one living fully, the other absorbed into someone else’s life.

Know the Mother speaks to that tension. But no matter the POV, every story taps into the universal we-ness of a role that is laden with responsibility, fraught with conflict, wrapped in piousness, devalued as instinct, yet necessary for human survival.

Have you ever written anything in first person plural or the “we” voice?  Do you embrace or resist such an idea?

The first story in my book, “Witching Hour,” is written in first person plural. It’s about that moment at 3:15 a.m. when so many women’s eyes pop open and their spirits will not let them go back to sleep. I chose that voice because I was so confident that it was a widely-held experience, especially among women.

I think the “we” voice is almost always in my head when I begin to write a story, because I am intent upon illuminating common, secretly-held experiences. As a columnist, I had the benefit of immediate reader feedback that you don’t get in writing fiction. I learned quickly that people are holding their breaths to read something that makes them exhale and say, “I thought it was only me.” No matter what voice I chose to paint a narrative, I’m writing to the we-ness of our experiences.

Detroit v. Harlem

Can’t we make that “Detroit and Harlem?” A few years ago, I was showing an out-of-town guest around Detroit. We hit all the new sights – an award-winning waterfront park, the baseball stadium, the theater district. Suddenly, I was feeling profoundly sad. The pride I always feel for Detroit had fizzled out of the tour. Silence filled the car. Finally, I turned to my friend and said, “I know what you’re thinking: Where did I put all the black people?”

Detroit, like Harlem, is seminal to the history of the African experience in America: the music, the food, the churches, the art, the cars and the rise of the black middle class. Gentrification is not just class war. It’s cultural genocide. Both Detroit and Harlem are losing the battle to keep what’s ours in the face of change.

Urgent advice for emerging writers?

Don’t write alone. That’s like hitting a tennis ball against the wall and thinking that you’re a pro. Share your work, get feedback, listen and consider, then write some more.

What are you reading, watching, or listening to now that others should, too?

I am watching the coming race war and trembling in my sleep. I am watching cities slide into rising seas and wondering why we did nothing to stop it. I’m am watching seismic change in our social structure that I never thought possible. I am watching POC, women and the LGBT communities awaken to a new we.

We should all be hyper-aware, reading, watching, listening…and deciding what part we will play in the new global consciousness.

Oh, and I’m also watching Greenleaf and Queen Sugar, and rejoicing that Oprah got her groove back.

Season Premiere: First Person Plural Harlem Reading Tuesday, September 20th at Shrine!

We are over the moon to announce the lineup for our Tuesday, September 20th FPP season premiere: authors Desiree Cooper and Daniel José Older, poet Camille Rankine, and social justice artist Charles Taylor. Join us at 7pm as we kick off what promises to be an incredible season at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free.   Bar is cash only.

descooperA 2015 Kresge Artist Fellow, Desiree Cooper is a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and Detroit community activist whose fiction dives unflinchingly into the intersection of racism and sexism. Using the compressed medium of flash fiction, she explores intimate spaces to reveal what it means to be human. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Callaloo, Detroit Noir, Best African American Fiction 2010, and Tidal Basin Review, among other online and print publications. Her first collection of flash fiction, Know the Mother, was published by Wayne State University Press in March 2016. Cooper was a founding board member of Cave Canem, a national residency for emerging black poets. She is currently a Kimbilio fellow, a national residency for African American fiction writers.

IMG_20160522_155033Daniel José Older is the New York Times bestselling author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series from Penguin’s Roc Books and the Young Adult novel Shadowshaper (Scholastic’s Arthur A. Levine Books, 2015), which was nominated for the Kirkus Prize in Young Readers’ Literature, the Norton Award and the Locus Award. He co-edited the Locus and World Fantasy nominated anthology Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History. His short stories and essays have appeared in the Guardian, NPR, Tor.comSalonBuzzFeed, Fireside Fiction, the New Haven Review, PANK, Apex and Strange Horizons and the anthologies The Fire This Time and Mothership: Tales Of Afrofuturism And Beyond. Daniel has been a teaching artist for more than ten years. You can find his thoughts on writing, read dispatches from his decade-long career as an NYC paramedic and hear his music at danieljoseolder.net, on youtube and @djolder on Twitter.

Camille Rankine Photo 3sCamille Rankine’s first book of poetry, Incorrect Merciful Impulses, was published in January by Copper Canyon Press. She is the author of the chapbook Slow Dance with Trip Wire, selected by Cornelius Eady for the Poetry Society of America’s 2010 New York Chapbook Fellowship, and a recipient of a 2010 “Discovery”/Boston Review Poetry Prize. Her poetry has appeared in Atlas Review, American Poet, The Baffler, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, Gulf Coast, Octopus Magazine, Paper Darts, Phantom Books, A Public Space, Tin House, and elsewhere. She teaches at Columbia University, serves on the Executive Committee of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and lives in New York City.

CT 2015-1Charles Taylor is a community activist with broad experience across the socio-economic terrain of some of New York City’s most challenged neighborhoods. He persists in reinventing himself to make a difference across time. In the early 1970s, Charles began his great adventure working in the mailroom and front desk, and as an assistant to a literary agent at the William Morris Agency. He toiled as a fashion show and dance promoter in the late 70s. Throughout the 80s, Charles worked to improve Black-Jewish relations in Canarsie, Brooklyn. He also wrote community newspaper columns and produced local cable TV shows that promoted the mainstreaming of disabled people. In the late 90s, Charles co-founded Tru-Skool, a YMCA-sponsored, social-justice focused video project for at-risk youth in Harlem. Over time, Charles collaborated with many community artists to support their projects through marketing, branding and grantwriting. He co-wrote an animated cartoon and comic book “Project New Breed – Robotic Canine Crime-fighters.” Charles co-developed two short films on gentrification, “Slice of Harlem I & II,” under the tutelage of Bill Miles. Charles is a co-founder of Polarity, a Harlem-based social justice arts collective focused on redirecting the trajectory of gentrification in communities of color. He is currently writing an eBook, “Harlem 2 Harlem: Ghettopian Dreams.”

 

 

 

Season Finale: First Person Plural Harlem Reading Tuesday, April 12!

We are thrilled to present the line up for the First Person Plural Harlem Reading Series on Tuesday, April 12th: writers Rosebud Ben-Oni, Amy Fusselman, and Chinelo Okparanta! Join us for this fabulous season finale at 7pm at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  As always, admission is free.   Bar is cash only.

rosebudben-oniBorn to a Mexican mother and a Jewish father, Rosebud Ben-Oni is a recipient of the 2014 NYFA Fellowship in Poetry and a CantoMundo Fellow. She was a Rackham Merit Fellow at the University of Michigan, a Horace Goldsmith Scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a graduate of the Women’s Work Lab at New Perspectives Theater in NYC. She is the author of SOLECISM (Virtual Artists Collective, 2013) and an Editorial Advisor for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. Her work appears in POETRY, The American Poetry Review, Arts & Letters, Bayou, Puerto del Sol, among others. She writes weekly for The Kenyon Review.

Amy FusselmanAmy Fusselman is a writer and editor based in New York City. She is the author of the nonfiction books The Pharmacist’s Mate, 8, and, most recently, Savage Park.  Her work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Rumpus, The Hairpin, and Word Riot.  She writes a semi-regular column for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency entitled, “Family Practice: An Occasional Column by ‘Dr.’ Amy Fusselman.”  She was the writer/editor/illustrator of the international ‘zine, Bunnyrabbit, and the editor/contributor of the literary website, Surgery of Modern Warfare.

 

chinelookparantaChinelo Okparanta is the author of the novel, Under the Udala Trees, which has been widely praised in publications such as Essence, The Guardian, Lambda Literary, The New York TImes, and Vogue. Her short story collection, Happiness Like Water, was cited as an editors’ choice in the New York Times Book Review and listed among The Guardian’s Best African Fiction of 2013.  She is the winner of a Lambda Literary Award and an O. Henry Prize.  Okparanta was also a finalist for the 2013 Caine Prize for African Writing, the 2013 Society of Midland Authors Award, and the 2014 Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative in Literature.  She has been awarded residencies by the Jentel Foundation, the Hermitage Foundation, the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, as well as Hedgebrook. Beginning in the fall of 2016, she will serve as Tenure-Track Assistant Professor of English & Creative Writing (Fiction) at Bucknell University where she has also been named Grange and Rogers Faculty Research Fellow.

 Join us 7pm Tuesday night, April 12th, at Shrine for our last reading of the season!

Next First Person Plural Reading: 7pm Monday, February 22nd at Shrine!

Come out on February 22, 7pm at Shrine in Harlem for an astoundingly great lineup!  We welcome poets Sarah Gambito and Amy King, multi-genre writer Hafizah Geter, and inventive sound and video artist Ashley Grier.  This reading is a special collaboration with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and features VIDA board members Amy King and Hafizah Geter.  We’re excited to link up with this crucial organization!  Join us at 7pm at Shrine, located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell (7th Ave) between 133rd and 134th in Harlem.  By subway: 2/3 to 135th, or B/C to 135th.  Admission is free; bar is cash only.

sarahblackwhiteSarah Gambito is the author of the poetry collections Delivered (Persea Books) and Matadora (Alice James Books). She is Associate Professor of English / Director of Creative Writing at Fordham University and co-founder of Kundiman, a non-profit organization serving Asian American writers.

 

 

 

 

HafizahGeterHafizah Geter is 2013 Blacksmith House Emerging Writer, recipient of a 2012 Amy Award from Poets & Writers, and a finalist in the Fifth Annual Narrative Magazine Poetry Prize.  Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in BOXCAR Poetry Review, RHINO, Drunken Boat, Columbia Poetry Review, New Delta Review, Memorious, Vinyl, Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art, Hot Street, Pinwheel Journal, Linebreak, Narrative Magazine, Gulf Coast,  Blunderbuss, H.O.W.  Journal, and Boston Review. She was a 2014 Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship Finalist and a semi-finalist for the 2010 “Discovery” / Boston Review Contest. Hafizah also serves  on the board of VIDA: Women in the Literary Arts, co-curates the reading series EMPIRE with Ryann Stevenson, is a Cave Canem fellow and a poetry editor at Phantom Books. She is on the Poetry Comittee for the Brooklyn Book Festival.

ashleygrierAshley Grier is a singer, sound artist, and composer from South Carolina. She employs a multidisciplinary approach to exploring identity, culture, and biography. Ashley has recorded and performed with many artists including Adam Rudolph, Hiatus Kaiyote, and Pharoahe Monch. She has performed in many theater pieces, including an original collaborative theater piece, “Unexpected Journeys,” directed by Caroline Jackson-Smith and choreographed by Dianne McIntyre. The piece premiered at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square with Ntozake Shange’s choreopoem, “why i had to dance.”  She is a Laundromat Project Create Change Fellow Alum, and holds a B.M. from Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Vocal Performance. She is currently an MFA candidate in Columbia University’s Sound Arts program.

AmyKing2Amy King’s forthcoming book, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. Her book, Safe, was one of the Boston Globe’s Best Poetry Books of 2011, and it was reviewed, among others, by the Poetry Foundation and the Colorado Review.  I Want to Make You Safe was published by Litmus Press, 2011. Amy King is also the author of  Slaves to do These ThingsI’m the Man Who Loves You, and Antidotes for an Alibi, all from Blazevox Books, as well as The People Instruments (Pavement Saw Press) and Kiss Me With the Mouth of Your Country (Dusie Press).  King joins the ranks of Ann Patchett, Eleanor Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, Barbara Bush, and Pearl Buck as the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the WNBA Award (Women’s National Book Association).  She was also honored by The Feminist Press as one of the “40 Under 40: The Future of Feminism” awardees, and she received the 2012 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.  King serves on the executive board of VIDA: Woman in Literary Arts.

Join us and these incredible readers Monday February 22, 7pm, at Shrine!