Queens asserts its literary authenticity

Queens asserts its literary authenticity
Audrey Dimola for It’s Queens Magazine, Winter 2013

Photos from Newtown Literary’s launch party at Boundless Tales by Jen Wu

Poets, playwrights, novelists, essayists, and scribes of every genre, age, culture, and walk of life are amongst us every day, but unfortunately, with a glaring lack of independent bookstores and a very small handful of reading series and meet-up groups alive and kicking, Queens-based writers seem to remain largely out of touch with each other as well as the local opportunities available to them. Thankfully, though, the eclectic and humble – albeit sometimes too humble – Queens literary community is pushing forward, unconcerned with establishing itself as a trendy scene or comparing itself to Manhattan and Brooklyn, but instead with fostering as much writerly interconnectedness as possible across our widespread borough.

The wheels have slowly but surely begun to turn in several new ways, and this is following, of course, past literary initiatives like appointing a Queens Poet Laureate (currently Sunnyside’s Paolo Javier), or Queens Council on the Arts’ multicultural Queens in Love with Literature (QUILL) series, which celebrated language and works in translation. In the past year or so, three monthly reading series have been established in Astoria, Jackson Heights, and Sunnyside, and in 2012 Queens also saw the much-celebrated launch of what is most likely its first official literary journal, Newtown Literary. At the head of the pack was Aida Zilelian-Silak, who founded the Boundless Tales reading series back in September of 2011. Proudly born and raised in Queens (hopping from Forest Hills to Jackson Heights to Astoria and then back to the Heights once more), the writer and English teacher stages Boundless at Waltz-Astoria (23-14 Ditmars Blvd) on the third Thursday of every month, selecting writers from a pool of rolling submissions of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, plays, and novel excerpts.

“I feel like the readings that are available in the city and Brooklyn – by the way, which are great – there’s an exclusivity to it,” Zilelian-Silak says. “If you don’t have a book published or you’re not semi-well-known they don’t even want to hear from you.” Of her own reading series, she remarks, “Although there definitely is a submission process and I have rejected quite a few submissions, I wanted to create a forum that was going to help writers present their work, and to support them in their endeavors.” The writers of Boundless Tales, about eighty percent of which are from Queens, and many of whom are reading publicly for the first time ever, are treated to a different kind of experience: “There is something very down to earth about it,” she says. “I think it’s unpretentious, and in the same breath, I feel like the quality of writers up there is really, really special.”

This characteristic of unpretentiousness is one we can certainly apply to our sprawling borough as a whole, as Queens is often described with a palpable sense of authenticity, a “realness” that doesn’t quite exist in the same way in any other part of New York City. The Jackson Heights Poetry Festival’s monthly First Tuesdays reading series at Terraza 7 (40-19 Gleane Street), which opens each evening with an open mic followed by a single featured reader, is also a refreshingly down to earth literary affair. Host Richard Jeffrey Newman, a writer, poet, translator, and college professor who was born in Queens and has lived in Jackson Heights since 1997, took over the series in September 2012 from JHPF’s founder, Marina Yoffe. Newman had previously been involved in the festival by organizing quarterly literary salons at The Garden School in Jackson Heights.

“From what you can judge from three months, it’s been really quite remarkable,” Newman says of this new beginning to the series, which was also recently written up in the New York Times. He echoes the sentiment that attending a reading in Queens is markedly different from elsewhere in the city. “If you look at Brooklyn and you look at Manhattan, there are pros and cons to being a ‘scene.’ I kind of like the fact that this is a neighborhood reading series – people don’t come here to pose, people are not here for ego.” First Tuesdays’ attendees and open mic participants are comprised of a wide range of talents, both those that have been published and those who are just beginning to pursue the craft. Like Boundless Tales, many step up to read their work for the very first time. “A lot of the people that I have met here – they’re just writers,” Newman reflects. “They make their living as writers, they haven’t gone to school to learn how to be writers – I think that’s something very valuable, and it would be a shame if that got lost.”

Newman and Zilelian-Silak are not the only crusaders brandishing pens and microphones in an effort to help Queens writers embrace – and be confident in – their own local literary greatness. Tim Fredrick, a writer and teacher at Queens Paideia School who has been living in the borough (in Astoria, Jackson Heights, Long Island City, and now Elmhurst, to be exact) since 1997, started a meet-up group for local writers in an effort to connect. “I realized that there is a lot of great writing happening in Queens that doesn’t really get acknowledged as coming from Queens,” Fredrick remarks. After reflecting on his experiences with the meet-up group and readings like Boundless Tales, he was encouraged by its founder to pursue his idea for a Queens-focused literary journal. Fredrick went on to receive offerings of support from all he approached about it (and even from those he didn’t know), and following an open call and 133 diverse submissions, the final result was Newtown Literary, whose second open call for work – fiction, creative non-fiction, poetry, essays, and book reviews – runs from now through February 2013.

“I certainly had no idea that we’d get the response that we got, just both in terms of people who want to help out and also the number of submissions,” Fredrick says. “We got a lot of submissions from people of different ages and different relationships to Queens, so people who were transplants, people who were immigrants, and also people who have just lived here their whole lives. And we had several seniors who sent us work, some of which was hand-written.” Fredrick hopes to expand the organization he founded to publish the journal, the Newtown Literary Alliance, into publishing chapbooks or anthologies, offering low-cost workshops, and doing events. He stresses the importance of Queens writers needing to meet each other and meet their audience, as well as networking and getting the help they need to promote themselves, which he himself offers to fellow writers.

Tyler Rivenbark is another local proponent of taking the solitary experience of writing back out into the world, fostering community and establishing connections within the borough and beyond it. Originally from North Carolina, playwright and Queens College professor Rivenbark is a founder of the Oh, Bernice! reading series in his Sunnyside neighborhood, hosted at Cafe Marlene (41-11 49th St) on every third Saturday between September and June. The series came out of a Queens College writers collective of the same name formed about three years ago, and since opening the series to the public this year in addition to their core group of “Bernicians,” they’ve found support from Queens and NYC writers alike through word of mouth and an experimental, collaborative spirit. “We don’t just want people to have a drink, hear a couple readers, and then go home and never come back,” Rivenbark says. “We really do want to engage in that kind of dialogue and community where people feel like they’re a part of this family we’re creating. That’s been the biggest thing to benefit us – allowing that type of conversation to happen with people who come in. And we’re always so excited when we have people we don’t recognize [attending the readings].”

Whether taking in a reading in Sunnyside, Jackson Heights, or Astoria, or perusing a newly published local lit mag, it’s plain to see that Queens has, as Tim Fredrick says, “a broader range of experience that gets relayed in writing.” There is something extremely special in the words of its multicultural, multitalented residents, but it seems they need to give themselves – and each other – a chance. “Honestly,” Aida Zilelian-Silak says, “I’d like to see a lot of Queens writers be a little more forthright about wanting to present their work, and have more guts.” A change in perspective also seems due for those still looking outside the borough for inspiration or acknowledgement. “I think that’s the biggest thing we have to recognize,” Tyler Rivenbark reflects. “We have all these artists around us – we don’t necessarily need to go out to these other places to find people. I think a great way of getting attention [for the arts in Queens] is by connecting those artists the best we can, and by bringing that attention about by ourselves instead of waiting for someone to notice.”

Queens writers: there are others out there like you, right here in your own borough, who are searching for a place to talk, share, workshop, and just plain enjoy the fruits of literary labor – and the people to do it with. It’s about connection – transforming these existing pockets of community into a greater local literary whole that fosters, nurtures, and challenges our dear Queens writers to reach out, stand up, and realize their fullest potential. However – it needs support, it needs submissions, it needs conversations and collaborations and brave writers and readers willing to do it.

It starts with you. Tell us – what’s on the next page?

Boundless Tales – boundlesstales.blogspot.com
Jackson Heights Poetry Festival’s First Tuesdays – jacksonheightspoetryfestival.wordpress.com
Newtown Literary – newtownliterary.org
Oh, Bernice! – ohbernice.com


SHORT STORY EXCERPT from “A Passing Season” by Aida Zilelian-Silak
(published in Niche Magazine – September 2012)

“Have you seen Ashod?” I asked.

“He’s swimming,” she said. “He should be back soon.”

“He’s been gone a long time,” I said. “My mother’s worried.”

“How long has it been?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You’ve been sitting here longer than I have.” I hadn’t meant to, but I sounded like I was accusing her of something.

“I’m not wearing a watch,” she said, almost defensively. I could tell that suddenly she was concerned. She put her hand on her forehead like a visor and peered at the ocean. “I don’t see him. But that doesn’t mean anything. He could have swum to shore not too far from us. You know how the ocean can drift you.”

I knew she was right. There were many times when I would go swimming, and when I would come out I wouldn’t spot my family right away. Sometimes I would have to walk for a while before finding them. It had scared me the first few times.

“I hope you’re right,” I said. We stood up and were quiet for some time. We stood by the water, waiting for Ashod to emerge, his hair plastered across his face, wearing a satisfied grin.

“It’s not like him to disappear for this long,” I said finally. Emma stayed quiet.

My father came over to us. “Your mother said Ashod has been gone for a while?”

“Yes,” I said. “We’re standing here looking for him.”

“Did he say how long he’d be?” my father asked, turning to Emma.

“Not really,” she said, pools of tears in her eyes.

Time did not stop for me, but grew very still. While my mother alerted the lifeguards, and motorboats sped out looking for Ashod, I stood in the very same spot until night came. I watched the sky turn colors, unmoved by the magenta streaks across the sky, the deep indigo that shone from the bright stars I ignored.

Even after hours of waiting on the sand, well after night came, I stood with my mother and father, Emma, my cousins and aunts and uncles staring at the ocean, waiting for the loud, angry waves to deliver my brother from the depths of the waters where he had disappeared.

They never found his body. I imagine his limp figure washed up on the shore. I imagine it is daylight, and the dim sun rising shines on him indifferently. They searched for his body for a week, and declared him missing.

POETRY from Richard Jeffrey Newman

Shahob’s Theology
(published in Poetry in Performance 2008)

My son asks me if I believe in God.
I tell him no. He doesn’t ask me why.
Instead, he tells me he thinks God is dust

floating on the wind, watching us
and waving, though we can’t see him. This god,

Shahob continues, created nothing—except,
maybe, himself—and he is not lonely,
or sad, and so we laugh, picturing him

(I let the question of god’s gender pass)
lounging at a Hollywood poolside, drink in hand

(my five year old imagines orange juice),
wearing precisely the gun metal blue
sunglasses Shahob can’t not wear to the beach.

And when someone does notice god is there,
he or she saunters over, says hello,
high-fives god if he raises his hand,
and walks off happy into the rest of the day.

The Moth Moves On
(published in Thanal Online – Vol. 2, #3)

The candle’s flame
gathers shadows,

leads them in a dance,
a movement that ends

with love, that keeps on moving
as love becomes the rhythm,

and you the fire,
and the dance, the life

you’ve chosen to make
your loving possible.

These words were to be
for the fact that we’ve continued

as we are, for the gravity
holding where we are joined,

but the dance has not allowed it;
and should your days

move me when I’m gone
into the margins

of what you see clearly,
read these lines

for what they do not say.
Read them and love.

[PDF version in the magazine]

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