Sunday, August 19, 2007

Saturday at the Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival

This is from Richard Grayson's MySpace blog for Sunday, August 19, 2007:
Brooklyn's Fort Greene has been home to giants of American literature like Marianne Moore (on Cumberland Street) and Richard Wright (on Carlton Avenue). An earlier resident of the neighborhood, Walt Whitman wrote a Brooklyn Eagle editorial calling for the construction of a local park, "[as] the inhabitants there are not so wealthy nor so well situated as those on the heights…we have a desire that these, and the generations after them, should have such a place of recreation…"

Late Saturday afternoon, several hundred New Yorkers flocked to that place, Fort Greene Park, for the third annual Fort Greene Summer Literary Festival, presented by Akashic Books, the Fort Greene Park Conservancy, the New York Writers Coalition (NYWC) and others.

Gathered on a hill overlooking the lush foliage of the park, audience members sat on folding chairs or on picnic blankets or just stood listening to five established writers of poetry and fiction and about a dozen young Brooklyn residents, aged 8 to 16, who read work composed in Saturday creative writing workshops taught by NYWC members.

Laurie Cumbo, executive director and founder of the nearby Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts (MoCADA), served as a genial and charming MC, gracefully overcoming any jet lag she may have felt from a plane trip from South Africa the night before. Cumbo kept an event-filled program moving briskly, and her introductions and appreciations of everyone who came up to the rather rickety-looking raised platform to read or perform were both informative and enthusiastic – though she did have a tendency to give all the women and even little girls the honorific "Mrs."

First up was a non-literary treat that proved the platform wasn't as fragile as it appeared, as it stood up to the dynamic exertions of stepping provided by The P.L.A.Y.E.R.S. Club Steppers in their I (HEART) BX" T-shirts. I've seen some fine stepping at the North Florida universities where I worked, but this group proved graceful and energetic as well as engagingly sweet. When they brought some of the young kids onstage to show them the moves, it was both funny and compelling.

In a serious moment, one member of the group talked about his time as a Bloods member and in lockup and how stepping with P.L.A.Y.E.R.S. turned his life around. If you haven't experienced a stepping performance or know it only from films like "Stomp the Yard," you should try to catch one of this Bronx-based group's live performances around the city.

Next up was the highlight of the festival, as it was last year: the kids from the park's NYWC writing workshops reciting their poems, stories and essays. First the 8-12 group – Samuel and David Adames, Nathan and Mahera Josephat, Christopher and Aleisha Small, Paul and Joseph Francois, Najaya Royal, Anjelika Amog, Rachel George, Jediael Fraser and Annelise Treitmeier-McCarthy – recited their work, often with amazing poise.

The little kids presented delightful poems about magic and the third eye, superhero stories, riddling rhymes and Najaya's tale – read on WBAI last Thursday – of how a tidy neighborhood cat used bleach to clean out the heart of Mrs. Poopyhead, a woman so mean she'd eaten her own husband one Halloween night. I was impressed with many of the poems, especially Christopher's "Hands," Jediael's "Magic Address" ("It's not on Pitkin Avenue") and Aleisha's invoking the "NYC Sights" one can see on "the A-to-Z train from New Lots to Nevins Street."

Up next were the teen writers from the NYWC Saturday workshops in the park: Shaquana Cole's odes to her African heritage and the music of Etta James and the O'Jays; Caitlin Garcia, back for the third year ("Writing is so amazing!") with her Ashberyesque "Caramel" and "Nefertiti"; Dmitriy Vovchok's exhortation to his literary "comrades" – specifically including bloggers, I have to note sheepishly – not to "go on and on" but to "destroy their work without pity" (OK, Dmitriy, next year I won't mention you); and Jessica Irizari's "Emotion Sickness" with its sophisticated use of enjambment and half-rhymes.

At the end of this segment, MC Laurie Combo, who'd worked beautifully with the kids, brought them all onstage for a huge round of applause. Then, after a reprise of the P.L.A.Y.E.R.S. stepping magic, five acclaimed literary writers, all with Brooklyn connections, probably knew they had some hard acts to follow but read and performed some amazing material:

Staceyann Chin, famous for her one-woman shows and appearance in "Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam," read some of her fiery, angry and very funny poetical rants with her usual passion and artistry. As always, attention must be paid – and it was on Saturday – to Chin's takes on economic injustice, gender and racial issues and the unexpected grace that plops unbidden into our lives. Her exploration of being a dog owner ("How strange it is to love something that needs you to be clean") was thoughtful and moving.

Roger Bonair-Agard, a native of Trinidad and Tobago and another "Def Poetry Jam" alumnus, came on saying, "What's up, Brooklyn?" and performed from memory, affecting a more pronounced Caribbean accent, a long and vibrant performance piece about the ever-present conflict between the pull of his native land and the "hot kitchen in Brooklyn" that the artist in exile finds himself. Then he read from his new book of poems about and not really about the game of cricket a remarkable longpoem about his guaybera-wearing elegantly-named grandfather that recursively maneuvered back to the poet's dilemma of how to achieve dignity out of "the nothing of which we sometimes thought we were made."

Jennifer Egan, a Fort Greene resident, read a tour de force of an early chapter of her acclaimed bestseller, The Keep, in which two cousins reunite many years after a troubled past to renovate an Eastern European castle into a hotel. Egan is one of the few writers I know who can deftly blend the technique and practice of metafiction into narratives so realistic that readers suspend their belief of disbelief. I've read the whole book and know that the story of Danny and Howie is profoundly moving because of, not despite, the magical manipulations of the author and her literary surrogate.

Chris Abani began not with a literary performance but a shockingly adept turn on the saxophone. Who knew this award-winning Nigerian poet and novelist was also a terrific musician? Well, maybe Johnny Temple of Brooklyn's Akashic Books, Abani's publisher, rocking an infant on the sidelines, as the author read from Song for Night, to be published next month. The novella is the story of a West African boy soldier in a brutal war. The nameless protagonist is part of a platoon that clears land mines; all the boys' vocal chords have been cut to keep from them from distracting others with their screams when they are blown up. Haunting and lyrical, Abani's spare first-person narrative kept the crowd hushed as afternoon turned into evening.

It had been a long day by then, but Gloria Naylor – whose phenomenal The Women of Brewster Place, written as a Brooklyn College undergraduate and famously made into an Oprah Winfrey miniseries – proved up to the task of keeping everyone's attention riveted with a chapter from a work in progress, a novel combining the stories of two newcomers to Charleston in the early 1800s – a man who emigrates from Norway and a woman from Senegal coming to America on a slave ship.

Naylor read a first person account of the woman's infancy, when she is abandoned and found by Ancient Man, leader of the Diallo clan, who overcomes his family's fear that the baby is a djinn who bring them disaster and gives the child to his youngest son's junior wife, who's recently lost her own baby, to nurse. Naylor's story, obviously carefully researched and narrated with a stately dignity, kept nearly all of the crowd in their seats despite the late hour as darkness fell.

Finally, after she received a tremendous round of applause – as had all the authors – MC Laurie Cumbo thanked the festival sponsors, performers and audience. I 'm already looking forward to next year's event in Fort Greene Park.

(For great pics of the event and interesting commentary, check out Hello, Babar, the Vibe blog of Brooklyn cultural critic Jalylah Burrell.)

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