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.

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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: Victor LaValle

FPP spoke with writer and Washington Heights local Victor LaValle about our brains as “virtual reality machines,” walking the streets of New York City to find peace, and his forthcoming novella The Ballad of Black Tom. Victor reads with us this Tuesday, November 10th, 7pm, at Shrine in Harlem.

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At the beginning of your most recent work, the novella The Ballad of Black Tom, you write: “People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place.” What does it mean to you to “see” the place you live in?

I mean that a person has to try and understand what they’re expecting, what they’re hoping for, what they fear about any new locale. These personal concerns tend to create the reality we then encounter. All of us are living in a personal virtual reality machine, the brain. Obviously we can’t discard the damn thing (and who would want to?) but it behooves each of us to realize how much we are shaping what we see. This plays into that novella in a vital way. Where one person might see a monster, another will see a human being. And both might be true. Click here to continue reading…

Upcoming First Person Plural, Harlem Reading: November 10!

Come out on November 10th, 7pm at Shrine in Harlem for an astoundingly great lineup!  We will welcome poet and visual artist Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Pulitzer Prize winning author Margo Jefferson, and fiction writers Victor LaValle and Emily Raboteau. This reading is not to be missed! 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 $5; bar is cash only.

IMG_5195Rachel Eliza Griffiths is a poet and visual artist. She is the author of Miracle ArrhythmiaThe Requited Distance, and Mule & Pear, which was selected for the 2012 Inaugural Poetry Award by the Black Caucus of the American Library Association. Griffiths’ most recent book, Lighting the Shadow (Four Way Books), was published in 2015. The recipient of numerous fellowships, Griffiths’ literary and visual work has appeared widely including The New York Times, Writer’s Chronicle, American Poetry Review, American Poet, Transition, Callaloo, Guernica, and many others. She recently completed her first extensive video project, P.O.P (Poets on Poetry), an intimate series of micro-interviews, which gathers over 100 contemporary poets in conversation, and is featured online at the Academy of American Poets. Currently, Griffiths teaches creative writing at Sarah Lawrence College and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Margo Jefferson Headshot_Credit Michael LionstarThe winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, Margo Jefferson was for years a theater and book critic for Newsweek and The New York Times. Her writing has appeared in, among other publications, VogueNew York magazine, and The New Republic. She is the author of On Michael Jackson and, most recently, Negroland (Pantheon 2015).  She is a professor of writing at Columbia University School of the Arts.

Victor LaValle author photo1Victor LaValle is the author of one story collection and three novels. He has been the recipient of numerous awards including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Book Award, and the Key to Southeast Queens. He teaches creative writing in Columbia University’s MFA program.

 

 

ER 2-2Emily Raboteau is the author of a novel, The Professor’s Daughter (Henry Holt) and a work of creative nonfiction, Searching for Zion (Grove/Atlantic), winner of a 2014 American Book Award.  Her fiction and essays have been widely published and anthologized in Best American Short StoriesThe New York Times, Tin House, McSweeney’s, The Guardian, Guernica, VQR, The Believer, and elsewhere.  Honors include a Pushcart Prize, The Chicago Tribune’s Nelson Algren Award, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony.  An avid world traveler, Raboteau resides in Washington Heights with her husband, Victor LaValle, and their two children.
Join us and these incredible readers November 10th, 7pm, at Shrine!

We Had a Fabulous Time at the March 31st FPP Finale!

We were lucky to have had Rivka Galchen, Mya Green, Patrick Rosal, and Khalik Allah join us for the Apogee Journal co-sponsored final reading of our fourth season.  They reminded us why we try to get the writers and artists we love under the same room for some electric language and images.

photo 1-35Rivka Galchen gave us a hilarious new take on the first person plural by reading the first few pages of Moby Dick, substituting “we” and “us” for “I” and “me” (during which time she was joined by her self-possessed young daughter, another plural).  She then read from her essay about a Elmhurst Hospital Center in Elmhurst, Queens, “the most diverse neighborhood in New York City and maybe in the world.”  Galchen completed part of her medical training at the hospital, which offers translation services in 153 languages, and could attest that to treat patients there one had to know the afflictions of the world, not just your corner of it.  The “we” was everywhere in evidence!

IMG_0348Mya Green then took the stage with the strong, round sounds of her poetry (“carry the one, conquer, divide by none”).  Often about the fault lines between the natural world and the social, the racial and the elemental, her poems slide along, pulling place into people and turning people back out again into places.  “Sweet with wilted cherry skins/dirt under my nails, rattle.” Her last poems were part of a “Tornado Series,” inspired by the tornado that devastated her hometown, Tuscaloosa, AL.  In “Damage Path,” she writes, “Tornado, I am your witness and your face.”

 

photo 3-27And then Patrick Rosal danced onto the stage with his liquid lines that nonetheless punch, punch, punched, mixing in his Filipino roots, his b-boy and dj past, and his ability to adapt as an outsider to culture after new culture.  One poem was about a dj who was “half black and half Filipino and passing as Latino…some might say that’s what being Filipino is.”  He writes of of carving out a presence in the city, on the streets– “Sometimes the only way to lay out a punk who ducks you is to trick him into singing.” A line from one poem might capture an aspect to Rosal’s poetic ventures: “Two tunes left to play at the same time will sync up…pick ax and wax wing…” He, too, responded to natural disaster with a poem about a teacher’s brutal will for her students to survive the tsunami of 2009.  As they watched friends and relations wash away, she lashed them to telephone and electricity poles lining the street, “building an orchard of them.”

photo 4-30We ended the night with Khalik Allah‘s stirring, exploratory documentary Antonyms of Beauty.  Allah spoke briefly about the work before he screened it, explaining that when he began filming and photographing in the streets of Harlem he thought he was seeking out the ugliest, rawest images he could find.  But he ended up finding beauty, finding his “superheroes.”  The film follows and interviews “Frenchie,” a Haitian immigrant who lives on the streets, watching him in his social context, absorbing the constant motion and sound of the streets, and listening carefully while he answers questions about the philosophies that guide his life, about god, and about the people who might look at him and see only loss.

Thank you to our readers/artists and thanks to our audience for a rich night! We’ll be back in September with more great line ups!

Announcing the Tuesday, March 31st Lineup at the Shrine in Harlem!

We– FPP Harlem Collective and Apogee Journal— are thrilled to present the line up for the First Person Plural Harlem Reading Series on Tuesday, March 31st: writer Rivka Galchen, poets Mya Green, and Patrick Rosal, and a screening of Field Niggas and Antonyms of Beauty by filmmaker Khalik Allah. 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.  As always, admission is free.   Bar is cash only.

rivka galchenRivka Galchen is the author of the novel, Atmospheric Disturbances, a finalist for numerous prizes including The Canadian Writer’s Trust’s Fiction Prize and the Governor’s General Award.  She is also the author of the short story collection, American Innovations, and has published essays and stories in The New Yorker, New York Times Magazine, The Believer, and Harper’s Magazine, for which she is a contributing editor. She teaches in the Writing Program at Columbia University and has received a Ronna Jaffe Writer’s Foundation award and a fellowship from The American Academy in Berlin.  In 2010 Galchen was chosen by The New Yorker as one of its “20 Under 40”.

mya greenMya Green is the author of the poetry collection, Selvidge and the winner of the Poet Lore Contest.  She graduated with an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College and has poetry published in journals such as Apogee Journal. She served as poetry contest director and editor for LUMINA Journal Volume XI and acted as a liaison for Sarah Lawrence’s 9th Annual Poetry Festival, where she also opened for 2012 National Book Award winner, Nikky Finney.

patrick rosalPatrick Rosal is the author of four full-length poetry collections. His most recent, Boneshepherds (2011), was named a small press highlight by the National Book Critics Circle and a notable book by the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of My American Kundiman (2006), and Uprock Headspin Scramble and Dive (2003).  He has published work in journals such as Apogee Journal, and his newest book, Brooklyn Antediluvian, is forthcoming in 2016.  His collections have been honored with the Association of Asian American Studies Book Award, Global Filipino Literary Award and the Asian American Writers Workshop Members’ Choice Award. In 2009, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to the Philippines. He is co-founding editor of Some Call It Ballin’, a literary sports quarterly.

khalik allahKhalik Allah is a documentary filmmaker and photographer recently named “Harlem’s ‘Official’ Street Photographer” in a Time Magazine feature.  His work has been screened at UnionDocs Center for Documentary Art in Brooklyn and he has presented work at venues such as Bard College, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, the TRUE/FALSE Film Festival, and Strictly NY2: a Photographic Exhibit.

FPP is pleased to be partnering with Apogee Journal for this event.  Apogee is a literary journal specializing in art and literature that engage with issues of identity politics: race, gender, sexuality, class, and hyphenated identities. They currently produce a biannual issue featuring fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and visual art. Their goal is to publish exciting work that interrogates the status quo, and provides a platform for unheard voices, including emerging writers of color. We love the work they do and are happy to collaborate in any way possible!

The FPP Season Kickoff Blew Us Away!

What a privilege to have had Lacy M. Johnson, Kiese Laymon, and Tiphanie Yanique share the stage this past Monday for First Person Plural Harlem’s season opener.  It was a profound reading– not a word to be used lightly, and we don’t.

Lacy M. Johnson‘s latest book, The Other Side, recounts the harrowing experience of ljohnsonher kidnap and near murder at the hands of a former boyfriend.  Johnson read of the dreams that haunt her still– the expected nightmares of threats and violence, and the perhaps more disturbing dream of sitting down to a calm, comforting conversation with the man.  Through her children, Johnson showed us the lasting impact of the violence done to her.  “I want her to be a little afraid of me,” she writes of her daughter, a three-year-old as irrepressible as Johnson herself was as a child.  The traumatic event taught Johnson to retreat into herself, and in moving moment after moment, Johnson worries about how she closes the door on her children, forgetting how to open it again.

klaymonKiese Laymon decided to read an essay “from the heart,’ one he feels uncomfortable reading outside of his Mississippi birthplace, and we will be forever grateful that he did. “How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America,” the titular essay of his recent collection, is a revelation about what it means to be a young black male in a country that is anything but post-racial.  Whereas wealthy/white youth have their foibles and serious crimes alike laughed off as growing pains, Laymon writes, “I was born on parole,” and “nineteen-year-old black boys cannot be perfect in America.” And while he writes of the ways his life might have and did go terribly sideways as a young man, he also finds deep empathy for, among others, his mother, wondering how he has failed to add love and comfort to her life. The essay was a wrenching tour de force.

Tiphanie Yanique read a section of her new novel, Land of Love and Drowning, which began with the musicality of poetry recounting the charmed life of an impossibly tyaniquecharismatic man from St. Thomas who joins the US Army in the time of Jim Crow.  We were spellbound as Yanique narrated a trip he and a few other “Islander” soldiers take to a restaurant near their New Orleans base.  The excursion nearly ends in tragedy as the realities of violent racism slowly– almost too slowly– sink in for the young men, unused to segregation and anticipating the respect the uniform should afford.  The beautiful, talented protagonist cannot believe the local men won’t listen to reason.  The whole of Shrine was leaning forward throughout, to see him safely through.

photo 2(1)Huge thanks to DJ Lady DM spinning us on home!  And thanks again to Lacy, Tiphanie, and Kiese for the work that your words do in the world.  We will not soon forget this reading!

My Address is Still Walton, a play by Karinne Keithley Syers at FPP on January 21

waltonOn Tuesday, January 21, at Shrine in Harlem, 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. Doors open at 6:30 pm. The First Person Plural Reading Series will present our very first staged reading of a play, Karinne Keithley Syers “My Address is Still Walton.”   We are thrilled to be bringing this kind of new work to our incredible Uptown audience.

Announcing Our November 19 Lineup!

We can’t wait for our next reading at Shrine on November 19th, which will feature novelist and political commentator Ru Freeman, poet Randall Horton, fiction writer Karen Russell, and documentary filmmaker Pam Sporn.  The readings will begin at 7pm, while Zubetei will begin at 6:30 with a DJ set and close the night with a second set.  Shrine is located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd in Harlem, New York.  We hope to see you there!

rubioRu Freeman was born into a family of writers and many boys in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Her political writing appears in English, Sinhala, and Farsi. She is the author of A Disobedient Girl (Atria/Simon & Schuster, 2009) and On Sal Mal Lane (Graywolf Press, 2013), both of which have been translated into multiple languages including Hebrew, Italian, French, and Chinese, and both of which were long-listed for the DCS Prize for South Asian Literature. She is a contributing editorial board member of The Asian American Literary Review, and a fellow of the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, Yaddo, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She has worked in the field of American and international humanitarian assistance and workers’ rights, and writes for the Huffington Post on literature and politics. She is a national speaker who teaches at Columbia University and lives in Philadelphia.

Bio Pic GtownRandall Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award and most recently a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. Randall is a Cave Canem Fellow, a member of the Affrilachian Poets and a member of The Symphony: The House that Etheridge Built. Randall is Assistant Professor of English at the University of New Haven. An excerpt from his memoir titled Roxbury is published by Kattywompus Press. Triquarterly/Northwestern University Press in the publisher of his latest poetry collection Pitch Dark Anarchy. He currently lives in NYC.

Karen_Russell_6590Karen Russell, a native of Miami, is the author of St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves (2006), for which she was named a National Book Foundation “5 Under 35”; Swamplandia (2011), for which she was short-listed for the Pulitzer Prize, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove: Stories (2013).  She is the recipient of a 2013 MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship and has been featured in both The New Yorker’s debut fiction issue and New York Magazine’s list of twenty-five people to watch under the age of twenty-six. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program and is the 2005 recipient of the Transatlantic Review/Henfield Foundation Award; her fiction has appeared in magazines such as Conjunctions, Granta, Zoetrope, Oxford American, and The New Yorker.

pam sporn

Pam Sporn is a Bronx-based documentary filmmaker whose work interweaves historical narratives and personal storytelling. Pam is currently editing Detroit 48202: Conversations Along a Postal Route, a look at the changes in Detroit over the last 30 years through the eyes of a mailman. Her earlier films have screened at many venues and festivals including the Anthology Film Archives, The Havana Film Festival, The Chicago International Latino Film Festival, The London International Documentary Film Festival, and at colleges and community media centers nation-wide. Her work includes Con El Toque De La Chaveta/With a Stroke of the Chaveta, which traces the tradition of “el lector” reading to cigar makers while they work; Cuban Roots/Bronx Stories, a look at immigration, racial identity, and US-Cuban relations through the lens of one Afro- Cuban-American family; Recordando EL Mamoncillo/Remembering the Mamoncillo Tree, a joyous documentary short about the annual dance held by El Club Cubano Inter-Americano in New York City for the last three decades; and Disobeying Orders: GI Resistance to the Vietnam War. She is also in development on her documentary A Humble Giant: 70 Years Defending Immigrants and Radicals, about legendary immigration lawyer Ira Gollobin.

 

Announcing Our October 15 Lineup in Partnership with Belladonna Collaborative

We at First Person Plural are thrilled to announce that our second reading this season is in partnership with Belladonna Collaborative and features three stellar poets: r. erica doyle, Tonya Foster, and LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs.  The Belladonna* mission is to “promote the work of women writers who are adventurous, experimental, politically involved, multi-form, multicultural, multi-gendered, impossible to define, delicious to talk about, unpredictable and dangerous with language.” This is a mission we wholeheartedly support!  Join us at 7:00pm on Tuesday, October 15 at Shrine in Harlem.  As always, admission is free.

ericar. erica doyle was born in Brooklyn to Trinidadian immigrant parents, and her first book, proxy, was published by Belladonna Books in 2013. Her work has appeared in Best American Poetry, Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Gay and Lesbian Writing from the Antilles, Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam, Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, Ploughshares, Bloom, Blithe House Quarterly and Sinister Wisdom.

She has received grants and awards from the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Astraea Lesbian Writers Fund, and the New York Foundation for the Arts. Erica is a Cave Canem Fellow and received her MFA in Poetry from The New School. She lives in New York City, where she is an administrator in the NYC public schools and facilitates Tongues Afire: A Free Creative Writing Workshop for queer women and trans and gender non-conforming people of color.

Tonya-portraitTonya Foster is the author of poetry, fiction, and essays that have been published in a variety of journals. Tonya has worked as a teacher at City College’s Bridge to Medicine Program, the Saturday/Outreach Program at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, and the Middle School Program at Wadleigh Middle School.

The author of A Swarm of Bees in High Court (forthcoming from Belladonna Press/Futurepoem Books) and co-editor of Third Mind: Creative Writing Through Visual Art (Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 2002), her research interests include 19th and 20th century poetries of the Americas; 20th century poetics; the poetics and politics of space; African diaspora fiction; and Afro-futurism; and dystopias.

Tea Time by TateLaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is a writer, vocalist and the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013). Her poetry has been published in Ploughshares, Jubilat, Fence, Rattapallax, Nocturnes, and LA Review. She has received awards from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, New York Foundation for the Arts, Harlem Community Arts Fund, Jerome Foundation, Barbara Deming Memorial Grant, and Lower Manhattan Cultural Council. She is a native of Harlem.