Newtown Literary Contributor: Heather Simon

Writer Heather Simon’s work was featured in Issue #9 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. For more of Heather’s work, check out her website.

What is your relationship to Queens?
I live in Astoria and teach writing and literature at Queens College and Queensborough Community College.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
I think it may have been discovering Astoria as a place to live with gardens. There is something about the sprawl of the neighborhood, perhaps the proximity to low flying planes, that reminds me of where I grew up in LA.

How would you describe the writing you do?
Excessive. Then fragmented and fractured. Somewhat evasive. Most of my work combines writing and visual art. The amount of text that gets integrated into an image is heavily reduced from its original form. Even when there is no imagery, the words on the page are usually the parts that remain of a larger works.

How did you come to writing?
Toward the end of college, I was in a writing class where the teacher assigned Richard Brautigan’s “Sea, Sea Rider” and I thought, I want to exist in that.

What inspires you?
The shoreline and oceanography books. Things I want to understand, like how a mollusk clings to rock or how the body forms to fit its shell. I’m also drawn to the everyday stuff. Bar and coffee shop conversations tend to resurface in my work. In terms of form, I’m inspired by interdisciplinary work like Antigonick by Anne Carson and Bianca Stone, and other kinds of genre-resistant hybrid forms.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
Writing in transit. I’m writing this on the q30. Although I live and work in Queens, nothing is easy to get to, so much of my writing is developed during the commute.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Putting together a book of poetry comics. This is one thing I can’t do while in transit.

I would love any pictures you might want to share.
I’m including my poetry comic, “Workspace in Astoria”, watercolor and ink.

 

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
Probably something super personal or inappropriate.

Thanks, Heather!

 

Advertisements

Newtown Literary Contributor: Sherese Francis

Writer Sherese Francis’s work was featured in Issue #9 of Newtown Literary, and was previously featured in Issue #6.  For more of Sherese’s work, check out Futuristically Ancient; you can also keep up with her work with J. Expressions. She interviews herself below:

So we’ve reached 2017. 2016 was quite a year, and I heard you came up with your own motto for the new year!
Yes, I did! And yes, 2016 was a year of hardships, opportunities, and figuring out what I want for myself. My first half of the year was mostly centered on building up towards the first Queens book festival, along with working on No Longer Empty‘s Jameco Exchange Exhibition. But when it was done, I realized how burned out I was. So the months after August leading up to the New Year, I needed to do a reevaluation and some self-reflection. And I ended up with the motto: “Understanding Your Worth”.

Oh, I like that motto: “Understanding Your Worth”! What does it mean for you?
Well, for a long time I let fear rule me. I had a fear of failure and social anxiety that prevented me from going after certain things. Then, a couple of years after college, I decided to take a chance on opportunities presented to me, such as doing the Queens Book Festival. I had to understand that I was worthy enough to do something like that, and it has been a great opportunity that has allowed me to connect with various people. But in doing a project of that magnitude, I lost balance and would push projects that I was personally passionate about to the side. Working with No Longer Empty and starting J. Expressions pop-up bookshop helped me to see that. I learned that I can’t say yes to everything out of fear that another opportunity that great wouldn’t come along, especially at the expense of something important to me; sometimes I have to say no or else I will be drained of my spirit, my energy, my purpose, myself.

Wonderful! So how are you executing that motto in the New Year, and finding that balance again?
Well, I rededicated myself to my blog, Futuristically Ancient. I committed myself to do at least one post a week. I recently debuted my first blog video, too, featuring a couple of local visual artists talking about their work. Additionally, I started a new blog series called StoryCraft, where I showcase and mention my writing projects in progress. Speaking of writing, I rededicated myself to my writing. Again, thanks to No Longer Empty, I had a chance to showcase and read an excerpt from the fantasy novel I am writing now at an another exhibition they did in Jamaica. Doing that pushed me to go full force on writing it again. I tried doing so before I left for Barbados as part of the NaNoWriMo and during my trip, but that didn’t quite work out.

Oh, you went to Barbados! How was that?
Not what I expected. My mother became ill only a couple of days in, and so a week and a half was spent taking care of her. Plus adjusting to the heat, the flies, the mosquitoes, and the small space we were staying in added to the difficulty. But don’t get me wrong, Barbados is a beautiful place, and when my mother felt better, we did get to see my family (and I have a lot I didn’t know about), we were able to see some sights and go to a few events in honor of their independence anniversary, and I was able to see Barbados beyond the “touristy” part of it. New experiences like that can be the fertilizer for new creative inspiration.

Wow, that sounds like a lot. Speaking of creative inspiration, what was one that you had?
I did receive a lot of inspiration. Some for my novel and some for poetry as well. For example, both my mother and I had a beach day, and since neither of us can swim, we only went in up to our waist. The symbolism of that and the water made me think of motherhood, wombs, feminine power, ancestry, and lineage. A poem might result from that.

Great! You have been mentioning your novel. Can you tell us a little about it?
Of course! It’s called The E, and it is a science-fiction/fantasy story set in Jamaica, Queens, and inspired by the Underground Railroad and subway culture. It follows a young woman named S.W. Isibe as she learns that she is part of a team of underground agents with magical powers, two of whom are inspired by Harriet Tubman and William Still. They travel and mostly live in a quantum time-traveling, shapeshifting subway E train. S.W. is pulled into a world beyond her current imagination, and as she explores this new world, she is also exploring herself and her own inner strength.

That sounds interesting! I look forward to getting a copy. What has the process been like? And do you know when you will be done with it?
It has been a process that has tested my confidence as a writer. I have been mostly a poet as a writer, and so delving into fiction is like stepping into a new territory where I am not completely fluent with the language yet and learning as I go along. But I have learned to use my strengths as a poet and as a researcher to help me flesh out both my short stories and my longer novel. Fiction is filled with poetic language and with the concept of my book, learning historical facts, but the task for me has been developing three-dimensional characters and a compelling plot, which is good mental exercise. Hopefully, within a few months I will finish the manuscript for the novel, but definitely before the end of the year. Then I will start sending it out.

I hear that! People sometimes forget that just because someone is a writer doesn’t mean that they can easily write every genre. Now tell me about J. Expressions.
It was an idea I came up with after finding out Queens did not have many bookstores, outside of the Astoria Bookshop and a few niche ones, like Libreria Barco De Papel and Topos Bookstore. Living in Jamaica, Queens, I am far from Astoria, and the Barnes and Noble closed in Forest Hills, so we don’t really have much access here. Inspired by other initiatives like Queens Bookshop, I wanted to create a project centered around the southeast Queens community. The project showcases authors and other literary artists from the southeast Queens area.

How has the project been going so far since you started? Where can we find out more about it?
It is building slowly. I have tabled since July when I started at Jamaica Market Harvest Festival and at the Afrikan Poetry Theatre’s Kwanzaa celebration. I am applying for grants so I can do a series of literary events in the Jamaica area this year. Those interested in collaborating or helping to build the project can visit my Instagram, @jexpressionsbookshop and my website, jexpressionsbookshop.tumblr.com.

Are you working on any other projects?
Besides the five million other things I am working on, I decided to start a Wattspad and I’m currently writing a short story series, A Stitch in Time, which you can read here. I am still writing poetry, and writing and revising a few manuscript ideas. I am also becoming more interested in ways to combine writing and visual arts. For example, last year I started an Instagram series, #InYourQ where I took pictures of things I saw in Queens and then would use the pictures as writing prompts. The other day, I decided to decorate a binder that I had with words cut out from a magazine. I call it a binder full of magic. Maybe I will do it as a larger project — who knows! Also, I had a couple of artists show interest in collaborating by creating work inspired by my writing, so hopefully something is there!

Sounds exciting! What’s coming up next for you?
Writing. Writing. Writing. I have a reading coming in March at QCA. Opportunities are finding me and I’m just trying to breathe and again find balance through it all.

So what else keeps you centered besides writing?
I love music and dance. I am such an old soul. My favorite genres of music to listen to are classic soul music and funk music. When I hear voices like Chaka Khan, Al Green, Gladys Knight and the Pips, Shuggie Otis, Isley Brothers, and Mother’s Finest, it lifts my spirits. I don’t hear that in a lot of today’s mainstream music. And I dance, usually by myself, as a way to get out of my head. As a writer, I tend to think a lot and that can be draining. Dance grounds me and reenergizes me. I’ve been thinking of joining dance classes. We’ll see.

With the current political and social climate, what advice do you have for writers, artists, and others who are distressed by it all? 
I heard a poet the other day say that we must speak our truth because truth is poetry. And I believe going forward, we need to continually remind ourselves of that — Speak our truth, no matter how inconvenient it may be for others. Be as you as you can be and don’t let anyone tell you who that “you” is. We have someone who is taking (and I do meaning taking) the presidential office and he arrogantly announces himself as our savior, when he is more like a charlatan, a snake oil salesman. He pretends to be something he is not, so one of the best things we can do is be honest about who we are. I’ve been learning to trust more and more my inner voice and how to let it guide me. I recently read my horoscope from Chani Nicholas and the horoscope matched my motto for this year, and I was pleasantly surprised that I knew what I needed. We need to be honest about ourselves and what we need.

Thank you so much for the encouraging words! Anything else you would like to share?
Thank you, Newtown Literary, for including my poetry in your journal and giving Queens writers another opportunity to showcase our work and our borough.

Thanks for the interview!
No, thank you!

Thanks, Sherese!

Newtown Literary Contributor: Nicole Haroutunian

Nicole Haroutunian’s work was featured in Issue #9 of Newtown Literary. Below, she discusses her story “In the Morning” and how she wrote it around her friend Lindsay Sullivan’s song by the same name, which you can hear on Spotify or buy on iTunes. You can read more of Nicole’s work at NicoleHaroutunian.com.

When I needed a few song lyrics to put into a character’s notebook for a short story in my book Speed Dreaming, I knew I wasn’t equipped to write them. Aftlindsayforsiteer a few mortifying attempts, I texted my dear friend, songwriter Lindsay Sullivan, who was at JFK, waiting to board her plane back to L.A. after a too-short visit to New York. Before she even took flight, she sent me back two perfect verses.

So when Lindsay released her most recent EP, Cross-Constellation, I wanted to return the favor. She didn’t need a short story for her song like I need a song for my short story, but we were both excited by the prospect of a reciprocal effort. I listened to the album’s first track, “In the Morning (E.S.T.)”, on repeat, jotting down phrases and images that stayed with me.

I started with the title. Because I first met Lindsay when I was living in Williamsburg in 2003, the story began to take shape on a morning in that time and place, back when The Bagel Store on Bedford Ave. was the spot to grab Saturday morning breakfast. The next line that struck me was this one: There was a time when the rocks bit the tides / and a shark came so close / pulled me aside and said whoa, it’s a warning. Fourteen years ago, the way to get to the East River was to duck through a chain link fence at the end of North Seventh Street. I braced for the worst and said whoa, it’s coming. I thought the protagonist, a young woman in a new city, a new job, a new relationship, would spend the story anticipating disaster, but not necessarily doing her best to avert it—isn’t disaster exciting, sometimes, when one is 22?

My Williamsburg phase lasted three years before I landed in Woodside, Queens, where I have spent the past 10 years and counting. Lindsay held out longer in Brooklyn but went much further when she left—all the way to the West Coast. The characters in the story head to a mattress store on Queens Boulevard, hoping to equip their new life together with some sort of comfort, but wind up sharing nothing more than a paper cup of coffee under the rumblings of the 7 train and later, tossing and turning on a cheap consolation mattress, dreaming of sharks and riverbeds. It is hard to know at the end of my story if the couple is going to make it, but listening to Lindsay’s song, I think that at least one of them will, one day, make it to L.A.

Thanks, Nicole!

 

Newtown Literary Contributor: Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie

Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie’s poems “Rain”, Blaze”, and “Mama Haiku 2” were featured in Issue #8 of Newtown LiteraryShe is the author of Karma’s Footsteps and Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation. Her work was the subject of a short film “I Leave My Colors Everywhere.” Read more from her at her website.

She interviews herself below, including links to her social media accounts:

Hi. I’m glad we’re getting a chance to talk. You were telling me recently that you don’t have much space for reflection these days. Can we talk about that and how it affects your writing?
Hey.  I already love this. You cut right to the chase and I hate small talk! So, I have three daughters. They are 11, 9, and 1. Much of my movement these days revolves around them and their needs.

11, 9, and 1. Whoa. How do you get writing done?sindayiganza-photography-mariahadessa-ekere-tallie-1-of-1-1
Right now I don’t.

What is that like?
It’s fine and it’s weird because so much of my identity is connected to creating. I have to remind myself that the moon is not always full and that there’s a season for everything. I remind myself of this often.

This is true, but I think I’d go a little berserk if I didn’t write. You’re not writing anything?
I do write in my journal sometimes. That’s really important to me.

OK, OK, cool, so you do put pen to paper sometimes.
Yeah, but I’m stealing time then. See, I get strange(r) if I don’t have time to write, but what I’ve found is that if I don’t have any time to myself, things get haywire.  I’ve had to get more serious about claiming time for myself. I might take pictures of trees in that private time, but I have to have that space. I also need to get better at asking for and accepting help so I can have that time.

So what might you tell artists who are parents?
Don’t rush yourself or force yourself to go to events or feel you have to be on social media or think you always have to “produce” something. Don’t think you’ll stop being relevant by being quiet and living your life.

That’s advice we could all use.
True.

So you mentioned taking pictures of trees, and I notice you do a lot of that. Your Instagram feed is full of flowers. What’s up with that?
I love visual art. I’m not reading as much as I used to (my daughter will find strange things to eat in corners I thought I swept while I’m caught up in chapter 2). I surround myself with photography, and photos of fashion, textiles, architecture, interior design, and nature. Oh, and of course, music. Always always always music. Taking the pictures of flowers has to do with my constant quest for beauty, because the world is bizarre and I have to keep my inner world light. Nature helps me stay centered. We are bombarded by so much ugly. It’s a conscious act to see something pretty and share it.

That makes sense. You mentioned music. What are you listening to these days?
Solange’s A Seat at the Table. The J-Dilla Back to the Crib Mixtape. A lot of the songs A Tribe Called Quest sampled. That Spiritual Jazz Mix that’s floating around. Orisha music.

Can we talk a little about your most recent book Dear Continuum: Letters to a Poet Crafting Liberation?
Yes!

I love the book.
Thank you.

I feel like you shared so much in it.  Is there anything you feel like you left out?
My gosh, yes. I wish I’d told Continuum that money is important. Financial literacy, savings, budgeting that sort of thing.

Oh! That’s surprising. I wasn’t expecting that.
Phife said it best: “Riding on the train with no dough sucks.”

So true.
I also realized that I left out all of my international experiences when my friend Malika Booker asked how I felt travel has influenced my work. So If I do a second version, I’ll include those things.

Are you satisfied with how the book is doing? I don’t feel like it got the attention I expected it to.
Well, you can’t really expect that sort of thing can you? You can wish for it.

Come on, you know how the machine works. You could be strategic. Take out ads, send out proofs, have promotion and marketing folks, get reviews, talk to the “right” people. You could have done that.
Maybe I should hire you to do that. Getting the book right was so much work, and I was in the last trimester of a very trying pregnancy. I was hoping the work would speak for itself. It still can. It does. You know the book was published independently and we didn’t do heavy marketing or promoting. If it wasn’t for Frank X. Walker writing a check, the book wouldn’t have even gotten published. On another note, much of the work that the poets I “grew up with” gets ignored but that’s because we don’t control anything. And I don’t do the networking thing so…yeah. I know how much work and love I put into the book so I trust it’ll go where it’s needed.

Yeah. Split This Rock put it on their Spectacular Books of 2015 list.
That meant and means so much to me. The feedback I’ve gotten from readers has been affirming. I think the book is slowly doing its thing. Quietly.

Like you right now?
Exactly.

Anything else you’d care to say before we close? I hear your baby crying.
Go see Queen of Katwe, and follow me on Instagram or twitter.  I’ve got some things I’m really excited about coming up in 2017.

OK, cool!
I’m going to feed the baby now.

Goodbye and thank you.
Thank you. Be well.

Thanks, Ekere!

Readers, we are very low in stock for Issue 6 and Issue 8. Please email editor@newtownliterary.org if you would like to purchase one of our remaining copies—but act fast! 

Newtown Literary Contributor: Allison Escoto

Writer Allison Escoto’s piece was featured in Issue #8 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. You can check out more of her writing at After So Long Girl.

 

What is your relationship to Queens?
In September of 2001, I moved from Manhattan to Astoria and spent the ensuing six years living in both Astoria and Jackson Heights. I worked for Queens Library as a librarian in Jamaica for three years before moving out east to Suffolk County. In the fall of 2014, I found myself backmeandgreta in Astoria and back working for Queens Library in Corona. Whenever I hear anything bad about Queens or anyone dissing the borough as a drive through, it sticks in my craw. I think Queens is the best borough in NYC, hands down. There is no other place like it.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
I have so many! But one of my favorite memories is pretty recent. I was walking to work one morning and made the seemingly unpopular decision to not have earbuds in. Doing this in any given neighborhood in Queens is a veritable gold mine for a writer; there is so much to hear. What was really remarkable and very “Queens” was that I started counting the different languages I heard and I counted six! Six unique languages in a four mile radius… you just can’t get that anywhere else.

How would you describe the writing you do?
When I first started really writing, I was at that stage in life when you are falling in love with everyone and everything that crosses your path, you know? Everything that happened felt like it merited some kind of memorial. Poetry was the only way I could even begin to tackle all that. So I write about love a lot. I’ve never found it difficult to unearth the machinations in the everyday, mundane events of life so I write about those a lot, too. My first love is poetry and it is usually what I default to. There have been so many times when I sit down to write something completely different and it turns into a poem. It’s such a challenge to say a lot with a few words and I try to pose that challenge to myself each time I sit down to write. I’m also really comfortable writing personal essays and blogs. I’m a shy person in a big city and for many years, blogging was a way for me to connect with people.

How did you come to writing?
I’ve been a voracious reader since I was little and that’s how I really learned to communicate with the world. I grew up in the deep south and as the one of two brown kids in my school I was always pretty quiet and kept to myself. But I found kinship in books and poetry. I started writing poetry in grade school and kept up with it throughout high school. By the time I got to undergrad and had to choose a major, I knew there was nothing else I could see myself happy doing. For as long as I can remember, I’ve kept a diary and when online blogging became a thing, I took to it immediately.

What inspires you?
My job. I work with the general public. Do I need to elaborate on what about that would inspire a writer? Just ask anyone who has ever had to work with the public. I’m also inspired by other writers. So many times, after I finish a good book or watch a really well written show or attend a poetry reading, I go home and I write.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
Being a writer in Queens, as I’m learning all the time, means you have a built in community. I was so excited to learn about Newtown Literary Journal, the classes that happen at the Astoria Bookshop, the local writers who bring other writers together. I always kind of feel that Queens is the scrappy kid sister of the boroughs and when I meet other creative people from here, I feel an instant kinship. Plus, there is always a possibility for inspiration just by walking through any given neighborhood. There are so many stories here.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
Ever since I became a librarian 13 long years ago, all I hear from coworkers, library patrons, and pretty much everyone else has said, “You could write a book about your job.” So that’s what I’m doing. I’m writing a satirical novel about a library.

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
“Who is your favorite poet?”

I’m constantly reading new poetry (or new to me, anyway) and so the answer changes often. It seems unfair to narrow something like this down but the poetry that resonates through my brain and my heart, no matter how many times I read it is the work of Frank O’Hara. I first read him when I was in my early 20s and now that I’m 40, it still means something to me. He’s the one constant.

Newtown Literary Contributor: Cary Gitter

Writer Cary Gitter’s piece was featured in Issue #8 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing, and his answers are below. You can check out more of his writing at The New Play Exchange.

cary-gitter

What is your relationship to Queens?
I’ve lived in a quasi-legal basement apartment in Astoria, near the last N stop, since May 2013.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
My favorite memory of Queens is going to the Museum of the Moving Image with my dad when I was a kid. I grew up in northern New Jersey, and my dad would take me on weekend “adventures” into New York City to expose me to movies, plays, and art. I loved it all, but my favorite destination was the Museum of the Moving Image. I would stare wide-eyed at the magical movie memorabilia, wander through the glorious Tut’s Fever Movie Palace art installation, play Pong in the video-game-history exhibition, make my own stop-motion animations, and watch incredible old films in the theater there. Then my dad would take me to the now-defunct Uncle George’s Greek Tavern for dinner. These were perfect days I’ll never forget.

How would you describe the writing you do?

My short stories–of which I’ve written only a few, by the way–tend to be realistic, but my plays–of which I’ve written many–are often more heightened and comic. In both forms, though, I write about what I know: New Jersey, Judaism, the suburbs, young people. I’m interested in the hilarious, tragic, epic battles that are waged among “ordinary” people in little places. If you think of any of the world’s major conflicts–religious, political, moral–you can find funny-sad versions of them playing out in your average tiny American town. And that’s what I like to write about: the big in the small.

How did you come to writing?
I read voraciously as a kid–the sports novels of Matt Christopher, the dark YA fiction of Robert Cormier, the horror/sci-fi work of William Sleator, the classics of Roald Dahl–and started saying I wanted to be a writer at age 8 or so. At the same time, my wonderful parents were taking me into the city constantly to see plays. But I didn’t put two and two together–that I could be a playwright–until age 16, when my favorite high school English teacher, Dr. Pinker, told our class about a tri-state-area student playwriting competition. I wrote a play and submitted it, it was selected and performed, and I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I went to NYU for dramatic writing and have been doing it ever since. I started writing short stories just a couple of years ago, as a fun little side thing to give me a break from plays. I still love reading fiction, but I’m by no means a pro at writing it. I hope to do more stories in the future, though.

What inspires you?

Here’s a random list of some things and people that inspire me: Great plays, movies, music, books, and art. My friends and family. My fellow members of Youngblood, a playwrights’ collective based at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York City. Growing up in New Jersey. Living in New York City. Being (culturally) Jewish. Volunteering. The incarcerated playwright I correspond with through the PEN Prison Writing Program. Anyone anywhere who tries to be creative and make something.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
I’ve lived in Queens for only three years, but in that time I’ve met an amazing number of fellow writers and artists who live and do their work here. I definitely feel part of a loose community of creative people in the borough. Newtown Literary is one great example of an entity that helps identify this community and bring it together in one place. Even the coffee shop on Ditmars where I go to write, 60 Beans, feels like a bustling writing hub. If I’m there and I’m stuck, I glance up and see a sea of laptop screens with plays, screenplays, novels, stories all in progress. And I know I’m not alone.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I’ve just written a draft of a new play, Menorah, a dark comedy based on a controversy that erupted in my small New Jersey town when the Jewish residents tried to put a big menorah next to the town Christmas tree. And a short film I wrote, Violet’s Birthday Bash!!, was just shot and is currently in postproduction. The next short play I have going up will be on September 29, as part of Brett Epstein’s beloved Rule of 7×7 series at the Tank in Midtown. I hope to get back to fiction one of these days.

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
You should be asking me if I’m a student of the Yiddish language, and my answer would be yes, I’ve been studying Yiddish at the 92nd Street Y for nearly three years now. It’s pretty practical.

Thanks, Cary!

Newtown Literary Contributor: V. Joseph Racanelli

Writer V. Joseph Racanelli’s story “Thanksgiving in Black and White, 1979” was featured in Issue #8 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing, and his answers are below. You can follow him on Twitter @respectthetroll.

 

photo-literarian
Photo by Lou Peralta

What is your relationship to Queens?
I am Queens bred, having spent my formative years growing up in Woodside and Whitestone, both basically immigrant neighborhoods. As an adult, I moved to Brooklyn (at a time when the taxi drivers refused to go there). Now I’m living in Manhattan, where I was born, but planning to return to Queens. I look fondly back on my years there. I’m hoping to get more stories out of my Queens life, past and future.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
I’m not sure I can give you one favorite memory. There are many. Let’s say I had a happy childhood, for the most part. Lots of friends, stickball, touch football on 64 St., and hardball games on abandoned highway utility field near the BQE. Lefthanded batters couldn’t hit the ball too far as it would end up on the highway and then we’d have to dodge cars to get the ball back. We only had one ball. Queens made me a Mets fan, and I’m still not sure that was a good thing. I went to my first dance at 12, sponsored by the nuns of St. Sebastian. I’m a proud graduate of Queens College.

When I lived there, Halloween was a day when kids could go out on their own to trick or treat. It was a neighborhood of both middle class folks in two family homes and working class families in small apartment buildings. The loveliest times were probably when I was in grammar school, in St. Sebastian’s, Woodside, a time before all those teen hormones kicked in and life became far more complicated. I also remember the influx of drugs in the late ’60s and early ’70s and watching my older friends shoot up.

How would you describe the writing you do?
My fiction–I am a journalist by day–is sometimes autobiographical, sometimes not. I explore both family issues that I’ve experienced, but also ones that are completely made up. The story that appeared in Newtown Literary is partially based on a real incident, but is mostly fiction. I also am moved to write about (fictional) people whose choices are limited to bad and worse. That’s a big theme, perhaps because I’ve been lucky enough (so far) where that hasn’t been the case for me, though I know plenty of people where it is a fact of life.

I spend part of my year in Sullivan County, which is pretty hardscrabble. I run into people and situations that have affected me deeply and they have found their way into my short stories.

I am working on a novel now that is partly set in Italy, where I lived for four years in the 1990s. My parents are from there, and there’s plenty to mine from that, too.

How did you come to writing?
At the risk of sounding pretentious, writing came to me. I might be one of the few writers who can tell you exactly how and when. I remember that I was in the 7th grade of St. Sebastian’s when our teacher asked us to write a fictional one page story. I was a fiction virgin. I wrote something silly about the dust mites in our classroom organizing into an army. After that, I couldn’t stop. I have never veered from the path.

 
Thanks, Vito!

Newtown Literary Contributor: Suzanne Bennett

Writer Suzanne Bennett’s story “The Adoption” was featured in Issue #8 of Newtown Literary. She discusses her piece below. Find out more about Suzanne and her writing at her website.

The dystopian story “The Adoption” grew from my wondering about the growing importance pets have in the lives of humans. The particular seed of the story sprang from witnessing a friend struggle to pay for her cat’s care after it developed cancer.

img_0438
Petunia

On a less lofty scale, I’m sure Petunia, the half Persian cat who ruled our house for 23 years, was the model for the adopted cat, Zohra, a Persian—and the name of an actual Persian Princess.

img_1094
Scott Joplin‘s grave

I’m not sure how the piece became futuristic, or landed in Queens exactly. A writing workshop in Diversity Square led by Nancy Agabian during one of Queens Writes Weekends got me to focus on the Square, which became the opening setting; a trip to St. Michael’s Cemetery for the annual Scott Joplin tribute  prompted a walk through their amazing crypts and statues and it became the home for some of the characters.

Dealing with cataclysmic factors that created the story’s futuristic world led to research on dangers for the New York metropolitan area which revealed, among other things: the presence of an earthquake fault that runs along 125th Street in Manhattan; that Indian Point nuclear plant can only withstand a quake of 6.1, which is less than what is predicted for the area’s next quake; and that New York City could be flooded by 2050, sooner if we don’t get more proactive about our energy uses.

I read about the consequences of earthquakes, hurricanes, and tidal waves. For months my night table had a stack of sleep-deterring books, with names like Disasters: Natural and Manmade!

Pictures of disaster zones were key in constructing the setting of the story, as were Jackson Heights and Elmhurst neighborhood spots where I took notes and photos.

When the central character, Lovell, popped into my head, I was surprised but ended up becoming quite fond of him. He’s one of the reasons “Adoption” is becoming a series of stories. Also, I enjoyed creating the walk-on characters, which gave me an opportunity to highlight the amazing diversity of Queens.

Speculative fiction is not a genre I’ve read deeply in, or thought I would write. We live in such traumatic times, I suspect it’s no wonder many writers are drawn to it. It occurs to me, too, that writing speculative fiction gives a way to address ideas that might seem heavy-handed, or over-whelming if set in the present. We like to kid ourselves that disastrous times are way far away in the future.

Thanks, Suzanne!

 

Newtown Literary Contributor: Sokunthary Svay

Writer Sokunthary Svay’s poems “The Khmer Speaks through Palms” and “Common Ground” were featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed her about her writing, and her answers are below. You can follow her on Twitter @SokSrai. 

 

What is your name?IMG_1778
Sokunthary Svay. I let people call me “Sok” although people sometimes hear “sock”, “sook”, or “silk” for some reason.

What is your relationship to Queens?
I lived in Astoria from 2003-2006, and moved to Forest Hills (where I currently live) in late 2006 after I became pregnant.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
Not a fair question since there are too many. Not specifically a memory, but my impression of living in Astoria just out of college and the freedom I enjoyed before the responsibility of being a parent to my terrific kid, Soriya, who’s turning 9.

How would you describe the writing you do?
The majority of my writing identity is a mix of my Cambodian heritage with my urban, New York City upbringing. I tend to discuss issues of hyphenated identity, mixed with class and gender. I was born in a refugee camp in Thailand and have always felt displaced from most settings in my life — academic, literary, social, etc. In the past I felt disgruntled by it, this feeling of not belonging anywhere since I was born seeking refuge, but now I’ve come to see that “outsider” mentality as a source of strength. It allows me to be more open to taking in the new and keeping what works for me. I don’t feel quite as entrenched as those who are more definitive in their nationality. I also enjoy breaking stereotypes and stomping on the assumptions people have of someone who looks like me – brown and Asian.

How did you come to writing?
Quite naturally, I guess. I have a second grade report card with a comment that says “Sokunthary enjoys writing about Cambodia.” That set the stage for it. I remember making a homemade book as part of a 3rd or 4th grade project and I wrote about the “war” in Cambodia (my parents survived the Khmer Rouge regime). I drew a picture of a dead person in a lake with blood seeping from the body. Nothing I write now is quite as violent, but I do enjoy a bit of shock value, though maybe more nuanced.

What inspires you?
People and music. My husband tells me I’m an optimist when it comes to people, though it’s sometimes put to the test. I love connecting with strangers. I make it a point to remember the names of people I encounter on a regular basis. There’s nothing like calling someone by their name and seeing their otherwise bland-New Yorker expression light up. That moment of recognition is what I look for. New York City is sometimes a hard place to be in, but we can share moments with people and feel a little less alone in our struggle. In addition, my parents and other Cambodians, whether in Cambodia or the American diaspora, continually inspire me to remember the unseen. I care about the stories of unsung heroes and forgotten people. My mother cleans hotel rooms in Times Square. My father worked as a porter (manual labor) at a university. People easily overlook them because of their jobs. Because of this, I have a soft spot for doormen and I always leave a good tip for room attendants (and bartenders).

I grew up in the Bronx and I have a special kinship with the borough and its people although I’m a Queens resident now. Hip hop, R&B, and Soul are in my blood along with Cambodian ’50s surf rock, and classical music from my years in music school. All these aspects of who I am that don’t seem to go together remind me of the cultural exchange we make on a daily basis. It’s what sets us apart as a city — we negotiate the boundaries of what it means to be an individual in a setting where our definition of ourselves shifts everyday.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
It means being on the brink of NYC and the world, and open to the languages and cultures that have come to define and differentiate it from other cities in our country. On my block alone, I can count 11 different languages spoken on a daily basis, sometimes three in one household. Imagine the different thinking processes involved, the clash of cultures and misunderstandings that ensue? I love the humanity of it all, even if I sometimes find myself a bit disoriented by it.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
My Cambodian heritage is a source of strength and pride for me. Like many people, I have a lot of ideas and plans, but not enough time. I’d like to do some interpretations of Cambodian folktales, either in prose or poetic form. I like that idea because it can be an educational experience for me and the reader, whether they’re of Khmer descent or not. I’m also fascinated by speculative writing, and having had some of my “speculative” poetry published in LONTAR, a Southeast Asian-based journal that specializes in that field of the fantastical writing from that region, I want to explore the spirits and ghosts that make up so much of the storytelling I’m accustomed to from my childhood. And as an active musician, I’m starting to understand that my music and writing world don’t have to be separate but can come together. I’m a big fan of Schubert art songs, having sung some of them myself. The text of his lieder (art songs) tend to be taken from famous German poetry, which he then sets to music. On that note (ha!), I’d like to take some of my work and thematically create a song cycle about Cambodia as a collaborative effort with a composer. This way my work could be breathing, existing not just on paper but in a temporal art. I’d also like to write a collection of essays about various incidences of music and its effect in my life. I’ve got a draft going right now about my obsession with Jeff Buckley, which led me to revisit music school as an adult. Lastly, I’ve got a draft of a chapbook that I’d like to submit sometime this year.

What should I be asking you that I didn’t?
“What do you wish had been different about your life?”

I wish I had met my other three grandparents. Two on my father’s side died a long time ago (my father is the youngest of several siblings) and my grandfather on my mother’s side died of cancer. I also wish my spoken Khmer was better and that I was literate in the language as well. I wish I had followed my instincts to continue singing in my undergraduate years rather than waiting until after motherhood to allow myself that indulgence. I wish I had taken more risks with my education, but I think I was a late bloomer. An important poet in the field told me a long time ago to write in another genre (this is after he read some of my work).  I stopped writing for a few years because of his comments. I wish I had a network of writers then who would’ve told me that he was an old fart and to keep writing anyway. But alas, I found my way back and my life worked out the way it did and it’s better for it.

 

Thanks, Sok!

Readers, mark your calendars:

Newtown Literary Contributor: Bill Cushing

Writer Bill Cushing’s story “The Commies Come to Watertown” was featured in Issue #7 of Newtown Literary. We interviewed him about his writing, and his answers are below. You can read more from Bill at PoemHunter.com or at PoetryNook.com

What is your relationship to Queens?Newtown pic 2
I have always considered myself a New Yorker first and foremost even though I’ve spent decades in other locales. My Dad was from Brooklyn and grew up in Albany. I was born in Norfolk, Virginia, because he was serving on subs in the Navy, but before I was two, the family moved, first to Flushing and then to Douglaston. I still have many of my “emotional roots” there even though I have been gone for so long. Once while visiting a friend out on the Island, I took a side trip through the town to show my wife the places I grew up, so my relationship with the borough seems unending.

What is your favorite memory of Queens?
That is tough to answer, but certainly my time both in New York through the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s has to count for something. What’s interesting are the many fascinating people I grew up with and knew in my youth: James Conlon has become a world-renowned operatic conductor, Debbie Berke is now the first female dean of architecture at Yale, and I hardly have to qualify John McEnroe.

How would you describe the writing you do?
Because I tend to work across genres, my writing shifts gears with the theme and format of the piece, but I also find that I tend to be influenced by whomever I may be reading at the moment, which makes things confusing at times but also, hopefully, interesting. For instance, I am currently reading the novel A Void by Georges Perec, a surrealistic mystery, while also reading Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. I’m certain the combination of those influences must rub off into my ongoing work.

How did you come to writing?
My first interest in the arts was visual, and I used to sketch and paint. However, when I entered the sixth grade, I was lucky enough to have several teachers who chose our reading assignments very well so that I soon began to read with a passion. My admiration for these writers pushed me to try it myself, and by the time I reached high school, I was active on the student newspaper, writing across departments with a monthly column being my favorite assignment since it allowed me to choose whatever topic I wished. Even before I made writing an academic choice, I kept journals, sketchbooks, and pads of paper with short pieces and some short stories. I still have many of these in file folders, boxes, and various piles—much to the chagrin of my wife.

Growing up, my “dream” was to get a journalism degree and write for the New York Times sports section. Then I got sidetracked when I managed to flunk out of the University of Missouri and enlisted in the Navy. Then I spent about 15 years after working primarily as a shipyard worker, but I continued maintaining journals, notes, and skeletons of stories.

Finally returning college at the age of 35, I was lucky enough—yet again—to enroll with an instructor who rekindled my desire to start writing seriously. While I started school with the intention of majoring in either history or humanities, I ended up getting a dual major in literature and creative writing. From there it was an easy decision to continue, and I was fortunate enough to be admitted to the only post-grad program I wanted: the MFA program at Goddard College in Vermont.

What inspires you?
That’s simple: life. But when I say that, I don’t mean only my life but my observations of the lives of people around me whether they are known by me or strangers I happen to see. I think it is difficult if not impossible for writers not produce material based on people and events in life. Even most of my poems are images and impressions of those I’ve met or that which I have experienced. But the other part of “inspiration” is, as Philip Levine alluded to in his memoir, the willingness to spend the energy in an effort to produce pieces worth reading. If anything motivates a writer, I argue it is the desire to be read and heard as an individual. Writing becomes that person’s voice. I would say the act of writing is more a calling because, whether I get paid or not, published or not, I cannot stop writing. Perhaps that makes it more of an obsession.

What does it mean to be a writer in Queens?
That’s an interesting perspective because, other than my internal “voice”, I likely would have written regardless of where I was from. Certainly my place of origin influences how I see things and then write about them—I am a big believer in Locke’s theory of the tabula rasa, but that is only one part of the whole recipe. Staying put or moving around only alters the possibilities, not the desire. I’ve spent a good portion of my life traveling the country because of work, and I’ve found that material is almost anywhere there is a window. Yes, I travel, but I do not travel to write; my writing comes out of the journey.

What writing project(s) are you currently working on?
I am now trying to pare down my MFA thesis into a publishable piece. The title is Counting Down the Breaths, a “memoir” about my late wife, and it chronicles the dual lives of me and her, our subsequent relationship, her battle with cancer, and as indicated by the title, the event of her death, which I witnessed over the final hours of her life. Perhaps the greatest inspiration for the work was my desire to share with others the ordeal of the caregiver for those with terminal disease. I want it to be a way to inform anyone else thrown into that position of what to expect, to convey that the pain that people watching their loved ones go through, while personal and unique to each of us, is not isolated.

And, finally, my favorite question: What should I be asking you that I didn’t? 
“What is your favorite book?”

I live convinced that Anthony Burgess is one of the greatest modern writers of the English language because of his sharp mind and versatility. I mean here is the man who wrote A Clockwork Orange, one of the more disturbing stories on society versus the individual, as well as Man of Nazareth, an ode to the life of Christ that became the backdrop for Zefferilli’s six-hour movie. He has written novels, biographies, and critical studies that knock me out. I know that when I read him, I better have a dictionary nearby because of the linguistic jokes he loves to plant in his work. In fact, there is a word that I still cannot nail down from his novel Napoleon Symphony—a fictionalized look at Bonaparte’s life divided into four parts where Burgess tries to pace his diction according to Beethoven’s Third Symphony. That is magnificent, clever, and indicative of real discipline. Yet, with all that work to choose from, he also produced what I rank as the greatest novel of the late 20th Century, Earthly Powers. The book covers 80 years of history and events through the eyes of a gay writer who befriends and becomes a confidant to the Pope. It has one of the greatest opening lines ever, and no one but no one comes out with clean hands. Newtown pic 1

Thanks, Bill!

Readers, mark your calendars: