FPP Interview: Carina del Valle Schorske

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FPP Interview: Max S. Gordon

FPP spoke with essayist Max S. Gordon via email about the struggle to keep Trump out of our thoughts and conversations, how Pence needs to know he is not going back in the closet for him, and so much more. Come out to Shrine on Tuesday, November 7th when he joins Ibrahim Abdul-MatinYarimar BonillaKeesha Gaskins-NathanPJ MarshallMatthew Olzmann, Suzanne Russell and Carla Shedd for One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis.

662F67E4-ED6C-4C62-B352-5297B7376F08What has this year been like for you? Bizarre.  Even now, a year later, when I watch the news it still has a surreal quality. I see Trump at the podium, and I feel like, “This couldn’t have really happened, could it?”  In some ways, I hope I never lose that feeling.  I am very determined that this never be okay.

One of the most difficult things is keeping him out of my head. I have friends who are anti-Trump, but they won’t stop talking about him, day and night. I understand following the news, but they don’t seem to understand that Trump is a narcissist, and on some level, narcissists don’t care whether you hate them or not, they just want you to keep them on the brain. It doesn’t matter, as long as they are the only conversation. I consider it a victory if I have a few hours a day where I haven’t thought or talked about him.

How have Trump’s politics and policies affected you and your communities? How have you been unaffected? I notice I’ve been keeping my eye on people, trying to locate who is a bit sassier during this administration, who feels more empowered to harm. I feel we are in the testing stage, it’s still pretty early, and we’re all watching each other, thinking, how far will this shit go?  What can I get away with? I think Trump feels the same way.  One wants to be vigilant without being paranoid, but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference.

The other day I was walking along a path in the woods in upstate, NY, and there was a white family in front of me. A couple in the group was distracted and stood completely in my way and they didn’t move. I had to very obviously walk around them. They didn’t acknowledge me or apologize for taking up the entire space on the road.  It was like I wasn’t even there. I was so pissed. And the first thought I had was, “Is this going to be life in the Trump era?  Black Invisibilty?”

Now, to be fair, the same thing could have happened if I had been white.  They might have just been rude people. But I’m not white. And the fact that I was thinking that, that I was worried, means that Trump is affecting me on a deeper psychological level.  The way you know he’s won is when you wake up one morning and decide not to go for a walk in the woods because you don’t want to have to risk dealing with that humiliation, that shame.  The park then becomes all white.  And that’s how it begins – that’s how the world gets smaller and smaller.

Has the current political moment affected your art or work life? If yes, how so?  I’d like to think it has encouraged me to be bolder, to take more risks. That’s why I chose this picture. I think there is a process of coarsening that is taking place right now, a cultural homogenization. We can talk about walls, and bans, but it’s really all the same – it’s a war on difference.

Now Trump, on some level, no matter how much he panders to his base, is a New Yorker, and his time on The Apprentice means that he will always be a part of the celebrity freak show.  It’s Mike Pence I’m really talking about here.

I wrote about Pence when he was governor, and my message to him was, in short, I’m not going back into the closet for you.  People act like “the closet” is some cosy little space where you hang your shirts and jackets, where you keep a rack for your shoes, and a shelf where you tuck your sexual orientation until you’re ready to tell the world.  But I think the closet for many LGBTQ people looks more like those tunnels in the movie, It.  Sometimes you don’t know if you’re going to make it out of that shit alive.  That’s why we have to keep telling the truth, and boldly.

What didn’t you see coming?  Megyn Kelly hosting the Today Show.  For some reason I feel really violated by that. I read her book, Settle for More when I was in London and what I found out about Kelly is that she comes from a pretty liberal family and community–we could have gone to the same high school. In other words, I think she had to contort herself into this racist thing she became on Fox News.  She’s deeply contrived. And I’m offended that now on The Today Show she’s what she should have been all along–and she seems to be getting away with it.

I watch her studio audience sitting behind her and it feels like something from The Handmaid’s Tale.  I’ve heard her talk about sexual harassment and I very much admire her sexual harassment fight against Fox.  But I’d love for someone to ask her, “Has your consciousness about victimization and women translated to having more compassion for people of color and racial injustice?”  I can hear her now, “And we’ll be right back.”

What should people focus on right now?  A good friend of mine, the filmmaker Iyatunde Folayan, often talks about finding sanctuary.  I think we need to locate those places where we are accepted 100% for who we are.  In some cases, that may only be the bathroom mirror.  We need to know where we are welcome, where we can express ourselves and not be reduced.  I’m experimented right now with resistance through sensuality.  I’m not saying we don’t still march, and act up, but when the black body is in peril, bath oils and candles can be a form of resistance.  Right now, I’m dealing with my addictions to Coca-Cola and McDonald’s again because I’m really frightened when I read about Trump and North Korea and those are my childhood “fear foods” – they always pop up when I’m terrified.

Resistance for me must involve examining my self care as a man who is gay and black.  It’s what my recovery from alcohol and drug addiction is about.  I saw a black woman the other day in New York, beautiful in a yellow dress, so vibrant, absolutely radiant.   Seeing her, in some way, helped me to deal with this whole Trump thing in a way I can’t exactly describe.  But I do know that self care is an important part of one’s personal protest – especially when you come from a targeted group.

What gives you hope? The truth telling that’s been happening around bullies, and in particular, bullies and sexual assault.  I’ve written at length about Bill Cosby, but it is amazing to see the conversation taking place now around R. Kelly, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, and especially Harvey Weinstein. With Harvey, there seems to be an unprecedented level of accountability. Anyone who was near him has to come forward and answer, “What did you know? And why didn’t you do anything?” It’s like Judgement at Nuremberg. And because of Weinstein’s power globally, this news has influenced the world. I’d like to think we’re moving closer to ending the reign of the entitled male, (and we’re finding out he can be a Democrat or Republican, straight or gay). If we are, the whole world is going to change, maybe overnight.

Is there a person, or a community, or artwork, or anything at all that has inspired you these past days?  I’ve always been interested in Harriet Tubman. For me, she’s the original Wonder Woman. I marvel at her courage and her accomplishments. And she inspires me because it’s so tempting to think, “I can’t shine right now or be in my full glory because things are so bad in 2017.” But, I imagine things were pretty shitty in 1849, and that didn’t stop her from escaping in her late twenties and returning 17 more times to help others go free. Harriet teaches me: you shine where you are from who you are. The rest is weather.

When you visualize a bright future, what do you see?  What do you hear? I am a child of the Seventies, inspired by “Free to Be…You and Me”, “Big Blue Marble”, “Vegetable Soup“.  I feel those works encouraged compassion and understanding, an appreciation for difference. So I am not ashamed to say, I visualize love and kindness.  I think Republicans and Democrats both have a lot to answer for. We play so many bullshit games when there is serious need out here in these streets. The bright future I see is an end to so many people’s suffering and pain.  Life is challenging, I think we all know this, but it shouldn’t be this hard for so many.  I keep seeing all these news reports about the opiod crisis, the opiod crisis.  We don’t have an opiod crisis, we have a crisis of heartbreak.

The beautiful singer, Nancy Lamott had a song called, “We Can Be Kind“.  And it’s true.  I think we have to look for sanctuary in small acts of lovingkindness. Sometimes I don’t know if we have ten years or ten minutes left with this man in office, but I do know that I can go downstairs to the deli in the next moment and be kind to someone. And maybe the next moment is the only one that matters.

Suzanne Russell and the Deep Black Hole

Suzanne Russell is an attorney, artist, and activist who splits her time between New York City and Copenhagen. She shared a bit of what the past year has been like for her. Come out to Shrine on Tuesday, November 7th at when she joins Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Yarimar Bonilla, Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Max S. Gordon, PJ Marshall, Matthew Olzmann, and Carla Shedd for One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis.

IMG_2391This year has been psychologically challenging. I have never experienced depression before, but Trump’s election really made me fall into a deep black hole. I joined the YMCA and started exercising for the first time in my life. I am feeling better now, but I was in shock. I have lived in Denmark for 28 years and never wanted to become a Danish citizen. In December 2016, I took and passed my citizenship exam. In January 2017, I applied to become a Danish citizen. I have learned to stop obsessively checking the news. I wear a giant anti-Trump button wherever I go. I never approach other people, but those who need to talk about politics feel free to chat with me and I think that this is mutually beneficial. The other day, I spoke to a construction worker and toothless man in a deli on Canal Street. The toothless man said, “If you had told me in the 80s that Bruce Jenner was going to become a woman, Bill Cosby was going to be accused of rape, and Donald Trump was going to become the president of the U.S.A., I would have called you crazy.” I have hope in all the intelligent Americans who are doing whatever they can to stop Trump from destroying our environment and our humanity. I am saddened that Trump was elected, but I am hopeful for the future of the country I love.

One Year Later: Writers, Artists, & Advocates Respond to Our American Crisis

One year ago, Donald J. Trump was declared winner of the 2016 US Presidential Election. We’ve been coping with crises – new, and continued – ever since. Join us on Tuesday, November 7th (7-9pm) at Shrine Harlem as acclaimed writers, artist, and advocates respond. Bring your responses, too – they’ll be room for audience participation. Featured participants: Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, Yarimar Bonilla, Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Max S. Gordon, PJ Marshall, Matthew Olzmann, Suzanne Russell, and Carla Shedd. Shrine is located at 2271 Adam Clayton Powell Blvd between 133rd and 134th, near the 2/3 135th stop and the B/C 135th stop. Admission is free.

ibrahim headshot (1) (1)Ibrahim Abdul-Matin is an author, radio contributor, and environmental policy consultant. He has appeared on FOX News, Al-Jazeera, ABC News, and contributed to “The Takeaway.” As a writer, he’s appeared in The Washington Post, CNN.com, The Daily Beast, GOOD Magazine, ColorLines, Wiretap and Elan Magazine. His is the author of the book Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet and contributor to All-American: 45 American Men On Being Muslim. He is a former sustainability policy advisor to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and member of the founding team of the Brooklyn Academy for Science and the Environment. He currently serves as the Director of Community Affairs at the New York City Department of Environmental Protection and on the board of the International Living Future Institute. Ibrahim earned a BA in History and Political Science from University of Rhode Island and a master’s in public administration from Baruch College, City University of New York.  

Yari B&WYarimar Bonilla is Associate Professor of Anthropology and Latino & Caribbean Studies at Rutgers University and currently a visiting scholar at the Russel Sage Foundation where she is completing a manuscript about Puerto Rico’s political, economic, and environmental crisis. She is the author of Non-Sovereign Futures: French Caribbean Politics in the Wake of Disenchantment and one of the founders of the website: Puerto Rico Syllabus: Essential Tools for Critical Thinking about the Puerto Rican Debt Crisis.

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 1.40.12 PMKeesha Gaskins-Nathan is the director for the Democratic Practice–United States program at the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan is a long-time organizer, lobbyist, and trial attorney. Prior to joining the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, she was senior counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice, serving as the director of the Redistricting and Representation program. Her portfolio included redistricting reform, voting rights, and elections, with a focus on voter suppression issues. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan is a frequent lecturer and writer on issues related to women and politics, movement building, and democratic reform. She is the author of a number of articles and publications related to voter suppression, voting rights, and redistricting. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan served as executive director for the League of Women Voters Minnesota, where she worked on a wide range of voting rights and civil rights issues. Prior to that, she was the executive director for the Minnesota Women’s Political Caucus. She worked for a number of years as a trial attorney, most notably with the firm Bowman and Brooke, LLC. Ms. Gaskins-Nathan also served as a special assistant appellate public defender for the State of Minnesota. She is a frequent commentator on voting rights and redistricting reform and regularly appears on numerous news and public affairs programming, including past appearances on PBS’s NewsHour, MSNBC, and Bill Moyers.

IMG_0985Max S. Gordon is a writer and performer. He has been published in the anthologies Inside Separate Worlds: Life Stories of Young Blacks, Jews and Latinos (University of Michigan Press, 1991), and Go the Way Your Blood Beats: An Anthology of African-American Lesbian and Gay Fiction (Henry Holt, 1996).  His work has also appeared at The New Civil Rights Movement, openDemocracy, Democratic Underground and Truthout, in Z Magazine, Gay Times, Sapience, and other progressive on-line and print magazines in the U.S. and internationally.  His published essays include, “Bill Cosby, Himself: Fame, Narcissism and Sexual Violence”; “Be Glad That You Are Free: On Nina, Miles Ahead, Lemonade, Lauryn Hill and Prince”, “The Cult of Whiteness” and “Faggot as Footnote: On ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, ‘Can I Get A Witness’, and ‘Moonlight'”.

Olzmann AJB 1Matthew Olzmann is the author of two collections of poems, Mezzanines, which was
selected for the Kundiman Prize, and Contradictions in the Design, both from Alice James Books.  His writing has appeared in Best American Poetry, Kenyon Review, New England Review, Brevity, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day and elsewhere.  He’s received fellowships from Kundiman, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Kresge Arts Foundation. Currently, he is a lecturer at Dartmouth College and also teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College.

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PJ Marshall is an American actor known for his versatility, forceful onscreen presence, and athleticism. He began his career with guest roles on television, appearing on Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Oz, and Law & Order: L.A. Marshall soon added movies to his resume, appearing in a variety of films, from Mississippi Grind, staring Ryan Reynolds, to Catch .44, starring Forest Whitaker, to Maggie, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. Recent television credits include the plantation overseer Bill Meekes on WGN’s Underground, Detective Jack Colquitt on American Horror Story. His stage work includes Off-Broadway productions of Reservoir Dogs, Getting Out, Trailerville, Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind and Fool for Love, for which he received a Garland Award nomination. Prior to becoming an actor, Marshall was a professional dancer, martial artist, and competitive surfer. He studied acting at the Wynn Handman Studio.

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Suzanne Russell is an activist artist, writer, and lawyer living in Copenhagen and New  York. A big part of her social art practice for the past ten years has been providing free legal and social support to refugees, mostly unaccompanied teenagers in Europe. Since the election in 2016, Suzanne has been focusing on changing the political system in USA through a combination of artistic and practical actions. She is currently a graduate student at San Francisco Institute of Art and a volunteer lawyer for immigrants in the USA and Europe.

 

Screen Shot 2017-10-20 at 1.37.17 PMCarla Shedd is Associate Professor of Urban Education and Sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. Shedd received her Ph.D. in sociology from Northwestern University. Her research and teaching interests focus on: race/ethnicity; crime/criminal justice; law/inequality; urban education, and urban policy. Shedd’s book, Unequal City: Race, Schools, and Perceptions of Injustice (October 2015Russell Sage), has won multiple academic awards including the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award given to the top book on social inequality each year. Unequal City deeply probes the intersections of race, place, education, and the expansion of the American carceral state using Chicago’s stratified education and residential landscape as its site of investigation. Shedd’s current research focuses on New York City’s juvenile justice system assessing how young people’s linked institutional experiences influence their placement on and movement along the carceral continuum. 

FPP Interview: Olivia Kate Cerrone

oliviaFPP spoke via email with author Olivia Kate Cerrone about the silence surrounding child slavery in Sicily, the powerful stories that haunt her as a writer, and so much more. Read Cerrone’s interview then plan to her read on Tuesday, September 12th at Silvana (116th & Frederick Douglass) in Harlem.

In your novella The Hunger Saint, you write about soccorso morto, a child slavery system once practiced in Sicily. Was there a particular fact, image, or story that pushed you to go deeper with your research and write this story?

The ages of the children (some as young as five and six years old) when they were first forced into a life of hard labor in the sulfur mines disturbed me the most. I was desperate to understand what could drive a family, let alone a society, to engage in and normalize such a brutal practice. Of course, the tragic presence of child slavery, the exploitation rooted in severe poverty and lack of labor laws or legal protection, is not exactly new, and continues throughout the world today. Perhaps it was also the fact that the carusi were never spoken about, and had become largely forgotten among most people, that drove me to delve into research and write the book.

Cerrone_CoverI discovered the carusi largely by accident, while taking a Sicilian language class to gain a more intimate connection to my own sense of identity. Booker T. Washington’s description about the carusi also haunted me. He also visited the mines in Sicily to witness the child laborers for himself, as part of the research for his sociological book The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation and Study in Europe. Washington compared the suffering of the carusi to that of African-American slaves: “the cruelties to which the child slaves have been subjected…are as bad as anything that was ever reported of the cruelties of Negro slavery. These boy slaves were frequently beaten…in order to wring from their overburdened bodies the last drop of strength they had in them.”

I was driven to create a compelling story, one rooted in hope and survival, that shed some greater light and awareness to this history, while examining how systemic oppression within a corrupt society can distort and limit the greater humanity of its citizens, fostering suffering and cruelties against its most vulnerable members.

The Historical Novel Society calls your writing “lucid, precise, often lyrical when describing Ntoni’s world.” Do you feel there’s anything that particularly prepared you to create this world? Any writing before, or personal connection?

The most powerful stories are those that haunt us. It’s those felt-life details that get under our skin and leave a lasting impression. In my fiction, I strive to craft compelling narratives that also work to engage readers on a sensory level too, absorbing them in a character’s very specific experience of being that allows for greater nuance and complexity to be expressed. Anthony Doerr, Toni Morrison and Alice Munro are authors I am constantly rereading and learning from in this capacity. Richard Wright’s Native Son, Lisa Ko’s The Leavers, and José Saramago’s Blindness are books that continue to haunt me for these reasons.

In your recent The Rumpus interview, you said that as a writer, you are “very interested in trauma…that’s where the story lives.” Could you tell us more about what this approach has meant for your work?

I write to understanding suffering that is essentially rooted in social oppression and discrimination. Fiction can be a very powerful means of creating a deeper, more compassionate awareness and insight into complex and difficult realities that work to polarize and alienate people both politically and emotionally. Individual trauma so often reflects the injustice and oppression within a society on a larger scale. It is said that “the path to the universal runs through the individual.” I am driven to produce fiction that speak to larger issues of human rights, identity and belonging. Right now, I’m working on DISPLACED, a contemporary novel set in Boston that questions what it means to be an American in a time fraught with political and social tensions over current immigration policies, living undocumented, rampant fear, and discrimination. The novel also wrestles with themes of exploitation, homelessness, and deportation.

What urgent advice would you offer emerging writers?

Never give up. Read widely to understand what great writing looks like on the page, from sentence-level to scene, and how compelling novels are crafted together. Keep revising your work and striving to achieve greater clarity and deeper nuance through the stories and characters you bring to light. Root yourself in this work and keep going, no matter the rejection or the disappointment. Every “no” is closer to a “yes.”

Author photo credit: Ashley Inguanta 

 

FPP Interview: Alexander Chee

160201_BOOKS_Alexander-Chee.jpg.CROP.promo-xlarge2FPP spoke via email with author Alexander Chee whose recent novel The Queen of the Night is a national bestseller. We spoke of what fame meant for his maverick female protagonist, what kind of community can be created at literary readings and via social media, and life in his Sugar Hill sublet back in 1996. Read Chee’s interview then plan to hear him read on Tuesday, May 9th, with Terry BlackhawkSonya Chung, and Deborah Emin at Shrine World Music Venue (2271 Adam Clayton Powell between 133rd and 134th streets) in Harlem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Announcing the Tuesday, February 3rd Lineup at Shrine Harlem!

With great happiness and anticipation we present the Tuesday, Feb. 3 lineup for the First Person Plural Reading Series: poets Jason Koo, Marc McKee, and Montana Ray; prose artist Melody Nixon, and short film Semiotics of Islam by filmmaker Fouzia Najar.  We’ll wrap up the night with a special set by DJ Lady DM.  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.

Koo-Tang Jason Koo is the author of two collections of poetry, America’s Favorite Poem (C&R Press, 2014) and Man on Extremely Small Island (C&R Press, 2009), winner of the De Novo Poetry Prize and the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Members’ Choice Award for the best Asian American book of 2009. He has published his poetry and prose in numerous journals, including the Yale Review, North American Review and Missouri Review, and won fellowships for his work from the National Endowment for the Arts, Vermont Studio Center and New York State Writers Institute. He is an assistant professor of English at Quinnipiac University and the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets.

unnamed-1Marc McKee received an MFA from the University of Houston and a PhD from the University of Missouri at Columbia, where he lives with his wife, Camellia Cosgray. His work has appeared in several journals, among them Barn Owl Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Conduit, Crazyhorse, DIAGRAM, Forklift, Ohio, LIT, and Pleiades. He is the author of the chapbook What Apocalypse?, which won the New Michigan Press/DIAGRAM 2008 Chapbook Contest, and two full-length collections, Fuse (Black Lawrence Press, 2011) and Bewilderness (Black Lawrence Press, 2014).

NAJAR-Semiotics2Fouzia Najar is a Kashmiri-American filmmaker and multimedia storyteller from Buffalo, NY. She recently earned an M.F.A. in Integrated Media Arts from Hunter College and before that studied history and media at Carleton College. She has worked for award-winning production companies Kartemquin Films and Jigsaw Productions, and has works broadcasted on major networks, including The Weather Channel, ABC News and CNN. Fouzia most recently examined the death penalty in America for a nonfiction television series and is currently developing a documentary on post traumatic stress disorder in South Asia.

On Semiotics of Islam: Inspired by Martha Rosler’s second-wave feminist film “Semiotics of the Kitchen,” this experimental nonfiction short reveals the politics of (mis)representation in today’s media.

MelodyNixon_MAIN_400x386-1Melody Nixon is a New Zealand-born writer living in Harlem. Her essays, fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in ConjunctionsCura Magazine, VIDA Web, Midnight Breakfast, No, Dear Magazine, Hoax Publication and The Appendix, among others. She is the Interviews Editor of The Common and Co-Founder and Editor-at-Large of Apogee Journal. Melody is an activist for LGBTQ, women’s, and migrant rights. She has provided front line abortion clinic defense in the Bronx, taught an introductory “Artivism” class at Columbia University, and is currently a creative writing workshop leader for the New York Writers’ Coalition.

Maria pic2Montana Ray is a feminist writer, translator, scholar, and mom. She is the author of 4 artist books and chapbooks; her first full-length book of concrete poetry, (guns & butter), will be available from Argos Books this spring.

 

 

DJ Lady DMWith roots stemming from the legendary musical island of Jamaica in the Caribbean, Mackenzie Largie a.k.a. Lady DM describes herself as a ‘musical expat’, an apt description for her fearless take on crossing genres of dance-able music.  Lady DM’s story begins in 1995, in NYC as a host on FIT’s radio station, by day; and avid regular at parties like Theo Parrish’s SugarBabies by night. Two years later, she begins her ascent of the city’s DJ circuit proper, a regular at venues like the Limelight, Orchard Bar, and The Cooler. While based in Europe from 99’-10’, Lady DM regularly hosted radio shows in Zurich, and Berlin, while jetting around entertaining crowds at legendary parties like Amsterdam’s Mazzo Club, Zurich’s Lethargy festival, Milan’s Cox 18, Munich’s Muffathalle, and Berlin’s WMF. In Berlin, Lady DM also curated events, with Berlin’s then up-and-coming artists, including Peaches, Dixon, Jamie Lidell, & Gonzales.  She now calls Harlem home.

The Grand Finale of the FPP Season – Sunday, March 9 at Silvana in Harlem!

Please join us for an afternoon of arts both literary and theatrical in the downstairs performance space of Silvana in Harlem at 4:00pm on March 9, 2014.  We will begin with a staged reading of Karinne Keithley Syers’ My Address Is Still Walton: A Play For The Set of Charlie Rose, directed and performed by Johanna McKeon, Caleb Bark, and Lacy Post, then we will hear poetry and prose writers Nicole Cooley and Randall Horton.  For this season finale, we will be in a new space, at the relatively new Silvana cafe and bar at 116th and FDB, across from Harlem Tavern.  Plan to eat delicious Israeli food and drink whatever suits!  As always, admission is free.

n_cooleyNicole Cooley grew up in New Orleans and now lives outside of NYC. She has published four books of poems, most recently Breach(LSU Press) and Milk Dress (Alice James Books), both in 2010, and a novel. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Feminist Wire, The Nation, and Poetry among other venues. She is currently working on a non-fiction book, My Dollhouse, Myself: Miniature Histories, as well as a new collection of poems, Of Marriage. She is the director of the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Literary Translation at Queens College-City University of New York.

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.

karinne-300x163Karinne Keithley Syers is an interdisciplinary artist and publisher of plays and performance texts. Her work spans dance, writing, sound, animation, essay, video, and projection, and has been seen in and out of New York since 1995. Recently her solo show Another Tree Dance premiered at The Chocolate Factory Theater in Long Island City after a workshop performance at Mount Tremper Arts. Her chamber operetta/museum installation Montgomery Park, or Opulence, won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Production in 2011, after its 2010 run at Incubator Arts Project. Her work has also been seen at Danspace Project, Dixon Place, La MaMa E.T.C., Tonic, innumerable installations of Catch, several Little Theaters, The Ohio Theater’s Ice Factory festival, Surf Reality, and Ur, and has been supported by residencies and workshops at the MacDowell Colony, Soho Rep Writer/Director Lab, St. Ann’s Warehouse’s Puppet Lab, Silo, and Mount Tremper Arts. She has collaborated as a performer with David Neumann, Young Jean Lee, Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson, Chris Yon, Sara Smith, Melanie Rios Glaser, Paul Matteson, and Yoshiko Chuma, as a sound and video designer with Big Dance Theater, Sibyl Kempson, Kate Weare, Ivy Baldwin, Chris Yon, Melanie Rios Glaser, Monica Bill Barnes, as a choreographer with The Civilians, Talking Band, Johanna McKeon, and Theater of a Two-Headed Calf, with whom she has also been a librettist. She founded 53rd State Press in 2007, and now co-edits it with Antje Oegel. They recently published their 19th book of performance scripts. She studied the dark (playwriting) arts at Brooklyn College with Mac Wellman, and is spitting distance from completing her Ph.D. in English at the CUNY Graduate Center. Her long-running audio serial The Basement Tapes of the Mole Cabal can be found on fancystitchmachine.org, along with her treasury of ukulele covers and stop motion animations.

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The FPP Interview: Jericho Brown

We spoke with poet Jericho Brown, author of Please, about his relationship with the “we”, about sitting on beds in street clothes, and the poems he’d read to all of Shreveport, Louisiana if he could. Brown will read with Khadijah Queen, Rachel Sherman, eteam, and DJ Lady DM at the 2012-2013 First Person Plural Reading Series season finale on April 1 at Shrine.

When do you feel most “we”? When Al Green gets played in a public place.

How comfortable is “we” to you?  I’m either a team player or a man with too big an ego because I actually think “we” whenever I make a decision that is actually “I.”  To read the rest of the interview, go here.

The FPP Interview: Keya Mitra

FPP spoke with Mitra about the risks and rewards of the first person plural voice, tensions with the “we” while in India on her Fulbright, and the freedom of fiction.  Mitra will read with Margo Jefferson and Justin Torres at the First Person Plural Reading at AWP on Friday, March 8 in Boston.

What are the rewards of writing in the first person plural voice?  The risks? The rewards of the first person plural voice are that the author and readers, however momentarily, feel a sense of community and can experience both the beauty and immense pain of being part of that whole.  To read the rest of this interview, go here.