As our fifth season ends we want to thank our 2016-2017 participants for giving us incredible readings to remember: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Grace Aneiza Ali, Hannah Lillith Assadi, Amy Benson, Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung, Desiree Cooper, Deborah Emin, Hajar Husseini, Hafizah Geter, Max S. Gordon, Kaitlyn Greenidge, Morgan Jerkins, Daniel Jose Older, Chris Prioleau, Camille Rankine, and Charles Taylor. As always, thank you to Team Shrine for hosting us, and to Yuri Lopez for designing our posters. Wishing a happy bon voyage to digital editor Melody Nixon as she begins her PhD program. We’ll see you in September!
FPP spoke via email with author Alexander Chee whose recent novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller. We spoke of what fame meant for his maverick female protagonist, what kind of community can be created at literary readings and via social media, and life in his Sugar Hill sublet back in 1996. Read Chee’s interview then plan to hear him read on Tuesday, May 9th, with Terry Blackhawk, Sonya Chung, and Deborah Emin at Shrine World Music Venue (2271 Adam Clayton Powell between 133rd and 134th streets) in Harlem.
Your latest book, The Queen of the Night, is a historically rich novel that tells the story of an American orphan turned courtesan turned opera singer in 19th-century France. You’ve mentioned that feminism informs the book. Can you talk about your choice to write a female protagonist, and to show a kind of “survivor’s feminism” through Lilliet’s story?
The novel is the result of a kind of feeling I followed, first to this character and then to the life I thought Lilliet, my main character, would lead. I was drawn by the apparent freedoms women like her had then–as celebrities–freedoms that approximated those given to men, but which mostly vanished as their fame did. The result being that their fame was this atmosphere that they manufactured to live inside of, through intense work, self-sacrifice, self-defense, even crime, petty or deadly, and inside of which they survived “at any cost”–a phrase which glosses over what that means, I think, all too often. There’s something Katie Roiphe has called A Stylish Woman Adrift novel–Renata Adler, Joan Didion, Jean Rhys–that I meant to unpack. Those women are describing the problem of being a woman and expecting to be treated as human, and instead being treated as a woman. That all comes from somewhere and that was part of what I was after, the root of that.
So George Sand, for example, who influenced a generation of writers during her lifetime, was the first woman to divorce in France and she did so to be a writer. The decision to include things like Sand’s idea of the New Woman, then, was pretty natural to me, and followed out of my opera singer heroine being taught voice by Pauline Viardot-Garcia, Sand’s good friend–the first woman director of the Conservatoire in Paris and one of the first women opera composers. I set out to imagine being someone who didn’t even know they wanted to be like these women, and meeting them for the first time. I rooted Lilliet, and her adventures, here.
You write Lilliet’s story from the first person singular point of view. Even so, was there a sort of collective “we,” a collective feminist identity, that you felt you tapped into for this novel (for example, by reading the work of other female courtesans, such as Celeste Mogador)? If so, how did this “we” manifest in your thinking about the novel?
I wouldn’t say that exactly, because it’s hard to explain how alone these women were then. Lilliet, my narrator, passes through a series of women who act as her teachers in her pursuit of the freedom she feels sure she must be able to find and which is never offered. A freedom she decides to take for herself. I did read extensively into the lives of women of the period in pursuit of this story, though, and populated the novel with some of the real women I found. So there are these tiny biographies inside the novel as a result. My acknowledgements page has details for the interested.
You’re savvy online, and a particularly effective Twitter user. You once tweeted that a lot of writers are on Twitter because “–surprise– text-based communication is fun for writers… Writers have traditionally published their notes, diaries, letters, marginalia, juvenalia–social media is only different in format.” Do Twitter, and social media more generally, provide you with a sense of literary community? How do you manage the balance between the stimulation, outlet, and inspiration that social media can provide, and the over-saturation that can also occur when one spends a lot of time online?
I live in a rhythm with it that I think is like the one most people do, but with accommodations to being a writer. Twitter to me feels like text messaging the world. Instagram is like my visual diary. Facebook is a wedding toast contest–I don’t like it much–or a bulletin board. But I’m always manufacturing a story that is the story of doing my work, a kind of live action literary autobiography/biography, even as I participate in what I see as a community, or communities, really, of supporting writers–friends and colleagues from all over the world. And these communities are really what I love about this most. Nerds who photograph a favorite quote, complain about their process, or just talk books. And I’m on it for the book recs, basically.
We don’t live so much in the world where writers struggle with whether to be on social media anymore. I think we live in the world now where people are on social media, and then they become writers. And if you don’t know how social media works, increasingly, I think you don’t know how people live, and I think you’d have a hard time writing about their lives.
On the other hand, you mentioned, in the 10 Minute Writer’s Workshop Podcast, that you can’t stand emails, because of their never-ending treadmill-like nature. How do you deal with this as a writer? For example, do you limit the amount of time each day you spend answering/writing emails?
John Freeman has written about email as the task list you don’t choose and that’s just so true for me. Melissa Febos wrote a great column at Catapult about the importance of being a little unreliable on email and I think that’s healthy. The problem becomes when you’re like me and you have potentially hundreds of people relying on you professionally, former students and editors, and so you can’t flake out much. So I just try to schedule everything. Emails at this time and never this time, writing at this time, reading at this time, walks and exercise at this time, class at this time, conferences at this time, cocktails at this time, food at this time and sleep at this time, etc. And while a friend has used Google invites for setting dates for sex, I haven’t done that yet. But we’ll see.
You curated your own reading series: Dear Reader, at the Ace Hotel in New York. What can a reading series offer to the community—both the literary and the expanded/public community—that other forms of literary engagement, and online communication, cannot?
When I curate a series I am not picking writers, to my mind, as much as I am putting communities into conversation. With the Ace Dear Reader series, each year I tried to paint a picture of New York. The first year was a way to honor the different literary communities of the city. The second was about Who Belongs, and featured a mix of writers of color, queer, immigrant, refugee and native New York writers. I also always want to show that you can have a kind of programming that went past token gestures toward diversity–too often diversity means white majority with one of each “other kind”. I want to have more than one of each, as it were. Ace was very supportive of this, and we had fun. Great work happened in those hotel rooms. Still does.
You’ve taught at Columbia University in Harlem, and lived many years in Manhattan. What are your experiences with, and what is your relationship to, Harlem? Can you describe your experiences, impressions, sights, of this neighborhood?
I lived in Harlem, Sugar Hill, near 145th and Amsterdam, back in 1996, in a sublet that lasted three months. I was a steakhouse waiter working on my first novel and the rent was 200 a month for my room. It was a hot summer and we kept the windows open for the breeze as we didn’t have AC, and clothes at home were sometimes a burden. I remember the neighbors who never drew their shades, a kind of night theater of nonchalance in the heat. I also remember finding out not everyone was like this–and accidentally flashing a neighbor who kept her shade closed toward me after. I felt guilty about this until I left. Some windows are closer than others.
Back then I kept moving every month or three months, my things mostly in storage, as I worked to earn a deposit on a place of my own, and I lived up and down the island and in Brooklyn as I did so. That period of moves was my education in how the city works. A lot of my friends live in Harlem now, and I love going up to see them, and to see what’s new and what’s the same. Harlem is one of the neighborhoods where New York still feels like New York to me. So I’m grateful whenever I go–and I very much looking forward to the reading.
FPP spoke via email with Dr. Terry Blackhawk, who besides being an acclaimed poet is the founding director of Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project. We spoke of birds, early influences, rejecting and embracing the “we”, and more. Read Dr. Blackhawk’s interview then plan to hear her read on Tuesday, May 9th with Alexander Chee, Sonya Chung, and Deborah Emin.
You are the author of four full-length poetry collections and three chapbooks. Would you tell us about your latest chapbook The Whisk and Whir of Wings (The Ridgeway Press)?
This book came together rather quickly, in response to an invitation from my friend Scott Boberg to give a birding-themed reading at the Toledo Museum of Art during their biennial Festival of Birding. Scott is Manager of Programs at the museum. Birding is a big deal in northwestern Ohio, and the annual spring migration draws thousands of visitors to the marshes around Toledo and the Lake Erie shore, so every other May TMA features a ‘bird artist’ to engage this audience. They featured Fred Tomaselli in 2016. Birds have often launched me into poetry, so I gathered bird poems from my four full-length collections, to have something ready for the reading and thought – well, what a nice chapbook these would make. I worked with Ian Tadashi Moore to design the book. M.L. Liebler brought it out with Ridgeway Press, and I was overjoyed when Karen Klein let me use her fabulous print “Yellow Woods” (which is collected in the Detroit Institute of Arts) for the cover. I enjoyed pulling the poems together and finding how they range, within the birding theme, from meditative to humorous, erotic to political, free verse to form. Birding has long been one of the ways I lose myself in nature and refresh my spirit. Travel as a birder as well as my volunteer work banding birds or pitching in on the annual Christmas bird count found their way into a lot of poems, so it was nice to remember and collect those adventures and see how they connect.
Would you share your earliest memory of poetry – and how you began creating poetry yourself?
I was fortunate to grow up in a literate family, with many books and a father, a professor, who shared poetry with me. I “wrote some verses” (his words) when I was a little girl, and recall him sharing his enthusiasms with me. e.e. cummings’ “[Buffalo Bill’s]” and Frost’s “The Runaway” are vivid memories. A high school creative writing teacher who, for the times (1962) was pretty iconoclastic and challenging, made a lasting impression, and I was his editor for Manuscript, our school’s first literary magazine. I wrote some during my years as an English major at Antioch College, including a senior thesis heavily influenced by Gertrude Stein, but after college I put aside writing or thoughts of writing. Poetry didn’t find me again until I was teaching high school in Detroit, in a kind of sudden “muse attack” – a watershed life moment in the late 1980s that led me to seek out poetry for myself as well as my students.
As a reading series, we are curious about the first person plural voice, and what the collective means for our work and for our lives. Do you find notions of “we” influence – or infiltrate – your writing?
I’m not sure that I think of myself in terms of a ‘we’. Pronouns are so critical, for example, to poems and I often tell my students to pay attention to the pronouns and their relationships when reading or writing a poem. I have not tried (yet) to write in the first person plural voice. It may be an aspect of white privilege not to need or see the collective as an alternative or as a source of one’s identity. There’s an atavistic quality to the “we” of Amurricanness that I resist, of course. I have never played on a team, for better or worse, and have in many ways been an outsider throughout my life, but as the political situation under Trump degenerates by the hour, I think we need a united voice of shared humanity more than ever. It occurs to me that the great African American poets, even when working in an individual, lyric mode, bring an awareness of a shared identity and, with that, a sense of belonging. Think of Lucille Clifton’s “jasper, texas” or Robert Hayden’s “The Whipping”. Our beloved Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett’s “City Nights” ends with these lovely first person plural lines: But the front porch is cool and quiet./ The neighbors are dark and warm./The grandchildren are upstairs dreaming/and we are grateful for their presence. Her sense of family in this poem spills out into the community and neighborhood with a calm and a depth of connectedness that blows me away every time.
When you think of “community” what comes to mind?
I think of the Detroit cultural community, of which I am happy to be a part. So many poets and writers are writing and growing and sharing their work in Detroit. We benefit from a rich overlap and synergy among writers, musicians, artists of all kinds, and the major cultural institutions have grassroots connections that make the city feel very much like home. I’m fortunate, too, to be a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellow, and to have gotten to know so many fabulous creative people through the gatherings and trainings that the Kresge team has curated for almost ten years. In addition to the monetary award, the fellowship creates community and brings people together in ways that have enriched our lives as individuals and have added immeasurably to life in the city. Dozens of galleries, bookstores, art studios, outdoor spaces, museums, and festivals provide venues and I like to think that a map of the connections among all of these people and places would be eye-dazzling and universal – something rendered along the lines of Australian Aboriginal art. I’m especially honored to be featured, as part of this community, on Trumbull Ave as part of artist Nicole Macdonald’s “Detroit Portraits” project — for her “Poets and Publishers” installation along with fellow Kresge fellow Lolita Hernandez and Kresge Eminent Artists Naomi Long Madgett and Bill Harris, who was on the founding board of InsideOut.
You built a visionary literary arts nonprofit in Detroit, bringing poets and writers into local public schools. Could you tell us about the legacy of InsideOut – in Detroit and in the world?
This question brings me back to the matter of pronouns! Looking back on my years as leader of InsideOut–an organization that required a sense of common purpose and often felt very much like family–I realize that we functioned at our best when we were all pulling together (definitely as a “we”) and that my best memories come from those times. I retired from iO in 2015, after twenty years as its founding director, and am pleased to say that ‘my baby’ is even stronger than ever. Just this week we hosted our sixth or seventh annual high school writers’ conference, which brought 150 high school students from across Detroit together for adult-style workshops and a luncheon with Pulitzer Prize winner and Detroit native Tyehimba Jess as guest speaker. We have served over 60,000 young people over the years (conservatively estimated I am sure) and have thrived despite working in one of the most beleaguered urban school districts in the country. We have an amazingly stable and dedicated staff, team of writers, and a board who keep iO afloat – all of whom take great joy in the work. IO writers in public school classrooms from grades 2-12 inspire – and then help to publish — thousands of Detroit youth every year. Every spring iO publishes a literary anthology for each school we serve, over 400 separate, beautiful titles so far. This beauty energizes! Our mission – to encourage youth to “think broadly, create bravely, and share their voices with the wider world” — informs iO’s in-school work as well as Citywide Poets, one of iO’s signature projects, which is a literary community for young people who address the issues of their city and their lives through poetry and performances.
The scope of ALL of iO is too wide for this interview, but I am happy to refer you to the iO website and Facebook page, as well as my last Detroit Huffington Post blog before my retirement. I was fortunate to be invited to blog for the Detroit HuffPo in late 2011, and my columns give insights into the way the work intersects with arts in the city and with students’ lives. InsideOut and Detroit itself, as this blog points out, are “Curiously Strong.” I like to think our legacy is the self-confidence of youth who learn that their voices matter, that their lives matter, and that they have important things to contribute to the world.
FPP spoke via email with author, activist, and publisher Deborah Emin. She founded Sullivan Street Press and is the creator of the Scags series whose compelling female protagonist copes with family challenges, love, sexual identity, and resistance politics in America. Hear Deborah Emin read with Terry Blackhawk, Alexander Chee, and Sonya Chung at the FPP Season Finale at Shrine in Harlem on May 9th!
Tell us more about the Scags series – how did Scags at 7 come about? Did you know from the beginning that this would be a series?
The character Scags came to me on a ride on the LIRR. I watched her and Pops talking, enjoying being together. He sat with Scags in the middle of the day wearing a white shirt, sleeves rolled up, more casual than most “dads” that time of day. Scags was her irrepressible self, enjoying being with him. By the time I got home, I knew I had found the novel I needed to write. I slept on it. Got up and wrote the first draft in 2 weeks at night from 10 pm to 4 am with a list of vignette titles to guide my writing each night.
By the time I began revising the novel, I knew it was part of a series. I knew she would tell her story in a variety of first-person formats (diary, letters, memoir).
Tell us about Sullivan Street Press. What’s it like to go from writer to publisher – and to do both at the same time?
Everyone who writes should study publishing. I fortunately got to live in the publishing world from my first job in NYC. Sullivan Street Press was not my first priority when I became more serious as a writer. It evolved, as things tend to do in my life, out of a need and in this case a need to protect Scags. I had two ideas going in. The first to protect Scags. The second was to change the publishing paradigm. Things were going wrong, had been going wrong and will continue that way until writers, in particular, wake up to the situation.
Being a publisher has always been a form of activism as well as a way to continue to study a topic I love–books and the production of books and their effect on our environment.
I’ve never been good with balancing things. Publishing can take over my life just as writing can. I don’t recommend this joint occupation to anyone unless you have a partner like my wife who understands and forgives.
You have a strong history of advocacy and community-building. How did this become important to you? Can you share a bit about what works, and what you’ve learned?
As with so much of my life, it began in high school. (See below regarding my connection to Harlem.) I had an extraordinary English teacher in my junior year. She ran a tutoring program in Cabrini Green Housing on the South Side of Chicago. Every week, we went there by bus to work with kids who needed help with their schoolwork. Chicago is and was a very racially-divided city. Going from our rather easy life in Skokie to that project gave me a relationship with a young boy, James, whose love of music helped me to help him with his math homework.
This teacher took me with her to lots of things, including a march with Dr. King where I had to be protected, they thought, from the crowds. It was for me an adventure. I did not know what was happening. But when Dr. King was assassinated and Chicago’s South Side blew up, I was more radicalized than with the riots during the Democratic Convention.
I read a lot after that. Everything changes the more you know.
When do you feel most “we”? When do you feel most “I”?
I unfortunately feel too much an “I” in my life. But the “we” always appears in church, when marching with other activists and when I attend a concert, opera or any event whose intention is to join us together. Books do this as well. When they make me feel a part of a whole.
What has Harlem meant to you?
I have a funny story about Harlem. Growing up in Skokie I had one link at first to Harlem, James Baldwin. As I said, I read a great deal so it is no surprise that I’d discover his writings early on. I remember pulling his essay, “The Fire Next Time” and George Bernard Shaw’s story, “The Adventures of the Black Girl in her Search for God” from the library shelves and walking home to read them both. (Sometimes I think Amazon’s algorithms should be modeled on adolescent minds.) I could not say precisely when I gobbled up more of his writings but they implanted a sense of Harlem in me that was not disappointed when I moved to NYC in the late 1970s. The same police racism in the midst of real neighborhoods, just as Baldwin described. Baldwin led me to Langston Hughes. Eventually, in the midst of such cultural barrenness even the voice of Lorca’s, the King of Harlem, gave me an entree that took several years to find its own physical presence in the city. But then one lives here, meaning in this large metropolis, and wanders everywhere, learning everything and filtering a Harlem borne out of Baldwin’s precision and Lorca’s fears. That is not the best way to know a place. But that was my way.
Which writers should we be reading now?
I don’t read much current fiction because I have stupidly downloaded all of Virginia Woolf’s work onto my devices. Given how much she wrote and how much her writing teaches me about writing (and that is why writers must read) I feel compelled to stick mostly with her. Though because I am branching out under Scags’s name to write political thrillers, I am reading those too, again, to study. But in general, I am bad at recommending because my reading habits focus on self-education.
What urgent advice would you give emerging writers?
This final question is important. I believe we need a new nation of storytellers who want to embrace what e-book technology can do. We need writers to both create these new forms and to teach them.
I’m a member of the old tribe. I have ideas and suggestions but have not figured out how to do it. But there is such a deadness, in fiction, as I see it, and I include my work as well, when it comes to exciting forms, engaging adventures. We have seen some examples of people trying to find this new way. Cloud Atlas comes to mind as does David Chowes’s book. But there is something that needs to happen, to explode us out of our stuck-in-a-rut way of telling stories to match both the possibilities of change on a dying planet and to mobilize more people to feel that sense of “we” when they read.
If we could find those writers and support their work, that would be the real test of our faith in books. And if a writer starting out can see that way forward, then please step up. We need you.
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 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), 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 Quarterly, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon 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). She’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 Believer, American Short Fiction, At Length Magazine, Acrobat Journal, Green Mountains Review and The Feminist Wire, and been reprinted in The Believer‘s collection Always Apprentices. She is originally from Boston.
On 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-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 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 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. 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 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 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 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.
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.
A 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.
Daniel 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.com, Salon, BuzzFeed, 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’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.
Charles 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.”
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.
Sarah 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.
Hafizah 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.
Ashley 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.
Amy 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 Things, I’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!
FPP spoke with photographer, poet and painter Rachel Eliza Griffiths about the “‘We’ as a great village of living and dead family”, how Harlem is a “powerful orchestra” and how she took Toni Morrison’s advice to heart in her own art practice. See Griffiths read from her new book of poems Lighting the Shadow at Shrine on Tuesday, Nov. 10th at 7pm!
Frida Kahlo once said, “I paint myself because I am so often alone and because I am the subject I know best.” When I burrow inside of Kahlo’s words and think of my own work, I both agree and differ. I feel alone and yet I do not feel alone when I photograph myself and other women of color. It feels political and powerful to me to challenge my own agency in my images, most especially when I’m photographing myself. I’m compelled to photograph women of color. I’m constantly pushing both known and unknown languages and imagery.
There’s a tension, defiant and complicated, in my own personal perception of beauty. It’s an uneasy one, especially when it comes to bodies of color. I don’t really know why I’ve chosen certain types of imagery – except that it’s instinct and something much older than me – that drives me to photograph black women and myself always in white clothing or why I photographed black and brown women in trees. Years ago I saw it and kept seeing it, had always seen it psychically, and so then I set out to make it ‘real’. But it must have been real somewhere in a place or dimension that is often overlooked when it comes to black bodies. You know Toni Morrison speaks about writing the books she wanted to read and I often feel I apply a similar notion to my imagery.
When did you first pick up a camera? What did you want to shoot? How has this changed?
I first picked up a camera when I moved to New York although I recently found a photograph of myself as a very young child holding a camera quite intensely. So maybe it was already deeply happening back then and only now am I finding the evidence.
I’m also a painter but when I arrived in New York I lived in a woman’s residence on the Upper West Side. My room had a single window that was thin as the width of a matchbox. It faced an elevator shaft. No natural light & certainly no room for easels or even a desk. So I began to walk around the city, endlessly and blissfully walking, and I started to take a camera with me. It helped me train my eye and my art, how to see and to remember textures, people, rhythms, dreams. The anonymity was a refuge. The camera became a witness and a mirror. I photographed anything I found evocative, anything that drew me both out of myself and simultaneously, drew me more deeply into the fluid private space of who I was becoming.
As far as change goes, these days I’m more likely to work inwardly or more conceptually. I’m more likely to spend hours in my studio alone or with models I work with. I work frequently out in natural landscapes. I don’t do as much street photography unless I’m traveling. I still make portraits of writers but less frequently because this current body of work requires so much energy. I’ve also been exploring video as a medium so I’ll set up shoots or record footage as needed. Then I head back to my studio where I edit for hours, cursing at Final Cut Pro.
Truly, I’m excited about some forthcoming collaborative projects with several writers and musicians. These days I experiment in ways I wouldn’t have imagined when I first started shooting. I’ve got some solo stuff that I’m putting together. And actually I’m painting a lot now and beginning to organize my photography archive, which contains thousands of images.
When do you feel most “we”? When do you feel most “I”?
Since my mother’s death last year I use “we” frequently in my thoughts. From time to time, I’ll even say it aloud. I’ll say ‘we’ and get funny looks. I don’t care. I know it seems crazy to other people but not to me. When I speak and act from ‘we’ there’s a heightened sense of strength and accountability though, in truth, physically there’s just me. The ‘We’ helps me resist giving up when the “I” is too fearful, overwhelmed, weighted, or narrow. For me, I like how ‘We’ acknowledges a great village of living and dead family. When I use ‘We’ I am peopled. The ‘we’ absorbs my ‘I’ and that feels organic to me right now. It could change.
‘We’ also helps me acknowledge the different spaces in which I create. I love how LaToya Ruby Frazier speaks about this and I think, looking back now, there’s a similar notion of my own relationship with my mother and many women of color where I feel there is one, non-monolithic entity and within that single ‘body’ there is boundless nuance, imagination, and action for my collaborative process.
Do you feel called to use the first person plural voice? Does it trouble you?
Like anything interesting or worthwhile, the use of the ‘We’ and ‘Us’ has some tension in it. The plural voice can be troubling in certain contexts. For me, it’s about intention. You know, when I hear ‘We’ used in this country by some people I am deeply troubled because usually ‘We’ is employed as a tool of oppression, division, or power. Some people will say ‘We’ and ‘We’ and ‘We’ and you know (and they let you know by what they aren’t saying) that they certainly do not include and have never included ‘You’. The first person plural voice is a fundamental and complicated device in American rhetoric.
Would you share a cherished memory of light?
The last time my mother called me by my nickname.
What is the first darkness you remember?
It isn’t linear for me.
Where do you feel your feet sink most sweetly into the earth?
Any body of water. Being near or submerged in water is important for my creative process. Some specific spiritual places on this earth: Mexico, Brooklyn, Paris, Provincetown, Northern California, Santa Fe, and the Mississippi Delta.
Do you feel there are places, landscapes that hold you, while others repel?
Certainly, there are landscapes that seem better suited to my moods and imagination than others. There are landscapes that have become, over years, spiritual foundations for me. Travel is critical to my identity and imagination. There are many places I’d like to visit and to explore.
I feel repelled by overly commercialized places when you can feel that a place has been hyper-harvested. I feel overwhelmed in those places. Parts of Brooklyn, where I live, are going through this too. Thankfully, there are sub-radar kingdoms of New York where remarkable streets and half-hidden blocks remain untouched or continue to be perceived, thankfully, by developers, as to be of no value.
What is Harlem to you?
Harlem is chosen family, chosen music, chosen freedom.
What was your first knowledge of Harlem?
I used to take the metro north train at 125th up to Sarah Lawrence College when I was in graduate school. I’d walk around trying not to miss anything. It was impossible. Harlem is a profound orchestra. I’d have a notebook and would try to scribble the rhythm down but it’s beyond paper. The narrative gets made and unmade in every moment. Improvisations, collages, and so much style you can’t even take it except you do because it’s abundant and it leaves you smiling and full, like a meal. I used to go to Harlem often to get my hair braided. And I’d go to the Schomburg or Hue-man Bookstore to take myself out on creative ‘dates’. I’d walk around, buzzing, with all my channels open. I’d think about all of the lineage and pride. What’s so incredible is that you hear the now, the past, & the future all at once. Harlem is sublime. Citizenship in Harlem means imagination, justice, & community, indivisibly. It’s ever a full-bodied song in Harlem. And it’s always so effortlessly cool.
One of my most memorable afternoons, as a young photographer, was working with the late, luminous Walter Dean Myers at Morningside Park. It was one of my very first magazine covers, I think, for Mosaic Magazine. I remember leaving the park, holding my camera and feeling so grateful and so alive. Having been in his presence, even briefly, continues to resonate in me. For several years I used go up to the Harlem Arts Book Fair with my camera and spend the entire day walking around, celebrating the community, the creativity, and all of the wonderful books, art, and food. It would be so hot! But the streets would just be like a village. It was incredible. Another bright moment for me was the very first time I went to the Harlem Arts Salon at Quincy and Margaret Troupe’s home.
Last spring, Laura Pegram, founder of Kweli Journal, sponsored a Kweli event at the Schomburg that featured my photography and also gathered a number of women in conversation about imagery and language in terms of identity and black womanhood. Nikky Finney, Parneshia Jones, and myself, moderated by Saretta Morgan, waded into one of the most provocative and dynamic discussions I’ve ever experienced. But I knew that we went into ourselves so deeply because we were in Harlem. Our audience asked such necessary and powerful questions. There was a sense of grace, of safety, and trust that we could all share our thoughts, hopes, and truths about our shared experiences in the space of community. We could have been there all night!