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!

 

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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!

Spotlight on Queens Writing: Machu Picchu Me by Carlos Hiraldo

Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Carlos Hiraldo. We interviewed him about his new poetry collection, Machu Picchu Me, and his responses are below.

 

Tell us about Machu Picchu Me. What is it about?
Machu Picchu Me is a collection of poems I wrote between 1993 and 2007. They rcarlos-hiraldo-and-a-pinteflect the thoughts, feelings, and desires of an urban young man struggling to achieve what he would consider success in the personal, professional and social spheres. I wouldn’t say the poems are autobiographical. At least, I hope they are more than that. But the starting point is always an experience or a feeling or an idea evoked by an experience. Or rather, the memory of an experience.
 
 
Tell us about the process of writing Machu Picchu Me.
I guess the process lasted from 1993 to 2015. The first step was writing the individual poems throughout the years. As I wrote these poems, I didn’t think of them as forming part of a single book. I would send them off for publication in journals along with other poems I was writing at the time. Some of the poems that appear in Machu Picchu Me have appeared before in print and electronic journals. The second step in writing the book came when I put together the first version of the manuscript in 2008. It had the same title, and the title poem with its poetic manifesto of sorts opened the book as it does today. That early version, however, contained many more poems. Throughout the years, I have added and deleted poems from that period according to the advice and suggestion of fellow poets and writers who are closed and trusted friends. The third and final step came when the book was accepted by its current publisher. Then I engaged in an extensive revision process in which many of the poems were, I hope, strengthened.
 
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
 First and foremost, I hope the readers can identify some of their own experiences, ideas, and feelings in the poems. I think that’s part of what every poet hopes for his or her book. Specifically, for Machu Picchu Me, I hope readers discover a voice that is seldom heard in American letters – that of a U.S.-born Latino trying to find a satisfying place within his native country, a country that doesn’t always acknowledge him and when it does, it is often hostile to him. Latino literature in the U.S. has been predominantly that of the immigrant experience. Though there’s been a large Latino community in New York City since the late nineteenth century, large enough for there to have been Spanish language newspapers in the city since then, and though we know that the United States arrived in what used to be Northern Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century, Latinos are still seen as “coming to America.” It’s is like we are never already here, like we never finally arrive. What’s considered the best of Latino literature reflects this perception. Many if not most Latino writers have been immigrants themselves. The voice of Machu Picchu Me identifies with the immigrant experience. It is that of his parents and of the community in which he is born and raised, but immigration does not inform his own relation with the United States.
 
What else have you written?
I am a poet and an English professor within the City University of New York. I have written many other poems, some of which have been published in poetry journals. I have also written academic works that have appeared in various publications. In 2003, I published Segregated Miscegenation: On the Treatment of Racial Hybridity in the U.S. and Latin American Literary Traditions. It explores the ways in which the definition of a “black” character evolved differently in U.S. and Latin American novels. Those definitions of course have influenced and reflected how the two societies have traditionally established who is black within their respective populations.
 
How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t say that being a Queens writer influenced most of the poems in Machu Picchu Me. I wrote these during periods when I was living in Boston, Manhattan, Long Island, and then back again in Manhattan. Only “Off Sylvia Plath” is a proper Queens poem. It reflects my thoughts upon first moving to Sunnyside from Washington Heights where I was born and mostly raised. Queens does have a very strong influence on my writing today. I live with my family in Astoria. I can say the pace of life in Queens is slower and more open than it is in Manhattan at least for now. One gets more of a sense of community in Queens while still enjoying the thrills of living in New York City. I think my poetry today reflects more of that openness and sense of belonging.
 
What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Many writers have inspired and influenced me. So many I couldn’t possibly do justice to all of them. I love the power of the images in the works of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, and Stevie Smith. Baraka was so inventive and re-inventive. His poetry and his overall writing style would change with shifts in how he perceived our social-political reality. And Stevie Smith’s sense of irony. I hope my poetry has that. A certain ironic distancing can be such a powerfully useful tool for the individual to grapple with the world. But again, I feel like speaking of influences is only an exercise in momentary recall. I just remembered that I am leaving out Charles Bukowski. I have devoured everything he has written. He seems to have been the only U.S. poet able to write successfully about class. Influences and inspirations… influences and inspirations… there are so many. Some poets can influence you with just one poem. Erik Pihel’s “Manhattan.” Paul Beatty’s “At Ease.” May Swanson’s “How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Waves).” So many poets, so little time to acknowledge what they have all meant to me at different periods in my life.
 
When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Hang out with my two boys. Seriously. I am not just trying to seem like the cool contemporary dad. They are great. They live in the moment and say whatever it is that comes to mind. And I can steal some of the stuff they come up with for my own work.
 
Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
My family has nothing to do with my book. They came along after the poems in the book were written. I tend to think the best poetry comes from the darkest of places. My family has made me very happy. So even though I still tend to write poetry when things aren’t going that well, my current poetry can only get so dark. Some of it might actually be downright happy.
 
What should I have asked that I didn’t?
 Que pasa, cabrón?
 
Where can readers buy your book?
Readers can find my book on Amazon and on the website for my publisher, Palamedes Publishing.
 
 Thanks, Carlos!

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: 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:

Spotlight on Queens Writing: Jazz Moon by Joe Okonkwo

Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Joe Okonkwo. We interviewed him about his new novel, Jazz Moon, and his responses are below.
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Tell us about Jazz Moon. What is it about?
The novel is set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance and Jazz Age Paris. It’s about Ben and his personal and creative odyssey which takes him from rural Georgia to Harlem to the Paris of Josephine Baker. The story is about coming out, coming of age, race, jazz, the blues, poetry, and the difficulties that the search for love presents. And it’s an ode to a vibrant and difficult cultural period that saw an explosion of black artistic and political movement. Artistically and politically, The Harlem Renaissance was the first time people realized that black is beautiful.

Tell us about the process of writing Jazz Moon.
Jazz Moon started off as a short story in 2004. I heard about a short story contest with a word limit of 1500. I thought, “Oh, yeah, I can write this story in 1500 words.” 95,000 words and twelve years later, here it is! The process drew on my knowledge of and affinity for the era: its music, its literature. I also did a ton of historical research to get the details right and make them tangible and really transport the reader to this world.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?
Ideally I’d like to spark a revival of interest in the Harlem Renaissance. Rather, I’d like to continue sparking that interest. Queen Latifah starred recently in a TV biopic about Bessie Smith who was known as the Empress of the Blues. Audra McDonald is currently starring in Shuffle Along on Broadway. That show was originally produced in 1921 and was a landmark in terms of successfully bringing black entertainment to the Great White Way. So Jazz Moon is participating in bringing the Harlem Renaissance into the 21st Century.

What else have you written?
Some short stories, one of which (“Cleo”) has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. And some poetry, most of which I’m not too proud of.

How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t tell you how often I’ve told people that I live in Queens and the swift (and rather rude) reaction is: “That’s SO far.” Queens is often dismissed, if not outright denigrated. The implication is that if you live in Queens, you’re not really part of New York City. You’re an outsider. I think that “outsider” status influences all of my writing, certainly Jazz Moon where my protagonist is black and gay and a poet and, therefore, not part of the mainstream.

What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Toni Morrison is my favorite writer. Her novel Beloved makes you understand how slavery destroyed people on an intensely personal and spiritual level. James Baldwin’s Another Country was the first gay book I ever read. I got depressed when I finished it because the characters had become friends and it hurt to leave them. Shakespeare has influenced me, too. His grand language hits the mark and is so beautifully crafted. And, believe it or not, I find political writing inspiring. Political writers have to quickly get the facts across and be creative enough to keep the reader’s attention. Fiction is often like that, too. Reading politics absolutely helps my fiction writing.

When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Read. Drink wine. Think about what to write next.

Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
I’ve lived in a multitude of places: Syracuse, NY; Flint, MI; Lagos, Nigeria; Vicksburg, MS; California; Houston, TX; and Astoria, NY. I’ve lived so many places that I don’t feel I’m really from anywhere.

What should I have asked that I didn’t?
About my next book! I’m staying with the Harlem Renaissance. There’s still more to learn there. The next novel will be about Gladys Bentley (who makes a cameo appearance in Jazz Moon). She was a real person. Blues singer, pianist. She was a drag king, known for wearing a white tux and top hat. She would change the lyrics of popular songs and make them naughty and flirt with the women in the audience. She claimed to have married a white woman in an Atlantic City ceremony, but there’s no evidence to support that claim. In the McCarthy-tainted 1950s, Bentley gave an interview to Ebony magazine saying she had “cured” herself of lesbianism by taking female hormones. It seemed to be a pretty rich life. And not that much has been written about her, so that makes for fertile and imaginative subject matter.
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Where can readers buy your book? Here’s a link: http://www.joeokonkwo.com/purchase-jazz-moon

 

Thanks, Joe!

Readers, mark your calendars:

QWW: A word from Site Captain Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons

Kelly Jean is Site Captain for the Sip-N-Scribe: QED event taking place on Saturday, May 14 at 2:00 p.m

queens writes and sipnscribeRecently, I joined creative forces with Jenn Wehrung, who teaches the Young Writers Workshop at The Astoria Bookshop, to co-host a monthly Sip-N-Scribe at QED: A Place To Show & Tell. We are thrilled to be holding a bonus Sip-N-Scribe this Saturday, May 14, at 2:00 p.m. as part of Queens Writes Weekend.

Sip-N-Scribe is a chance to push away from your keyboard, put pen to paper, and mingle with other writers in person. While writing is primarily a solitary act, there are also times when you need to shake things up a bit and draw inspiration from fellow scribes.
Here’s how it works!

  • Round 1: Sippers-N-Scribers are given the first half of a creative writing prompt and start writing.
  • Round 2: Everyone trades papers with a partner and, inspired by the second half of the writing prompt, continues working on the piece the first person started.
  • Intermission: Drinking is not required, but beer, wine, and non-alcoholic beverages will be available for purchase along with light snacks and pastries.
  • Round 3: One last trade, plus a TWIST to finish the piece with style.

At the end of the session, people are encouraged to share the writing they co-created. The first two brave souls to share win a cookie! The goal is to experiment with something new on the page in an informal, relaxed way, all while hanging out with your friends and hopefully making new ones.

No one is here to write the next Great American novel. But hey, if that happens, please include us in the special thanks!

Thanks, Kelly Jean.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

Be sure to check out the other Queens Writes Weekend events.

QWW: A word from Site Captain Jennifer Harmon

Jennifer is Site Captain for the Writing about Family event taking place on Sunday, May 15 at 1:00 p.m. 

I’m looking forward to seeing familiar faces and meeting new people at my Writing About Family meetup on Sunday, May 15. I’ll be holding it in my apartment in Astoria from 1:00-3:00 p.m. It feels powerful to bring writers into my home and connect with one another in person.

I plan on reading a piece by my mom called “Mothering” since she is my creative writing inspiration and favorite poet. I remember reading this particular poem she wrote about my grandmother, which showed me it was okay to express honest, uncomfortable questions and emotions about family members and specific feelings/situations. I would also like to share one or two poems I’ve written about my mother and father to kick off the event. It’s going to be a delightful afternoon of experimenting with some writing prompts, sharing our work with one another, and expressing ourselves in a creative, supportive environment.

English: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge
English: Verrazano-Narrows Bridge (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The topic of writing about family has always been an important part of my artistic expression. I began filling pages of journals back in elementary school and poetry soon became an invaluable tool to cope with life changes dealing with family issues like blindness, diabetes, divorce, and the physical loss of a loved one. It’s also been a fun, fabulous way to capture magical moments and celebrate the beauty of family traditions (traveling, shopping, sharing clothes and jewelry, cooking, fishing), unique bonds, and gratitude for where I come from and who I am today. The other night on the subway, I found myself jotting down lines on the back of a receipt for a new poem about my mother-in-law Carmela and our bike riding adventure over the Verrazano Bridge.

Since August of last year, my husband and I have been holding a monthly private open mic for comedy, poetry, music, and storytelling in our living room. It’s pretty magical to see what happens in our home on a regular basis. We have three cats who normally hide, but lately Jupiter, the black and white cat, has been coming out to join the party.

Can’t wait to celebrate Queens Writes with everyone during the weekend of May 13-15th! It’s amazing to be a part of such a wonderful artist community in Queens!

Thanks, Jennifer.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

Be sure to check out the other Queens Writes Weekend events.

QWW: A word from Site Captain Joan Becht Willette

1873 Beers Map of Astoria, Queens, New York City - Geographicus - Astoria-beers-1873
By http://www.geographicus.com/mm5/cartographers/beers.txt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Joan is Site Captain for the Prompted Writing: Astor Bakeshop event taking place on Saturday, May 14 at 4:00 p.m

It is exciting to be a Site Captain for Newtown Literary for the third year! My event is held at The Astor Bakeshop, along with my monthly “The Enchanted Goddess Writing Workshop!”

This is a “writing prompt” meet, eat, and write group. It is wonderful to gather in community and write together, break bread together, and share with our neighbors in Astoria! A lively exchange of stories and laughter always ensues!

The Astor Bakeshop is a cool neighborhood venue with great food! Newtown Literary provides such a valuable literary resource for writers to be seen and published! I was honored to be a contributor in the Fall/Winter 2014 issue! Come out and join the fun!!!

Thanks, Joan.  Readers, we hope to see you there!

Be sure to check out the other Queens Writes Weekend events.