Saturday, August 22, 2009

Saturday Afternoon in Fort Greene: The Fifth Annual Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival

Today we went to the fifth annual Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival, our fourth year at this event. Despite ominous weather, the festival was saved by MC Laurie Cumbo's encouraging the audience to join in a periodic "sunshine dance," and so the rain held off during the great readings by the kids in the New York Writers Coalition summer creative writing workshops in the park, music by the talented Yacouba Sissoko, and sparkling performances by three of our favorite writers: Touré, Staceyann Chin, and Colson Whitehead.

The event has gotten a lot of press coverage since the first time we went there in our first month back in Brooklyn in August 2006. In 2007 on MySpace and in 2008 on this blog we wrote longish posts about the event. With extensive pre-event coverage by the New York Times Fort Greene blog, The Local, and elsewhere, we know that more professional writers and certainly better photographers than us with our shitty cellphone will cover this event.

We were also hampered by a ballpoint pen that gave out after the second young reader, so we can't write detailed stuff about the individual kids and their work. (Lesson to you kids who are fledgling writers: take it from a longtime amateur, don't forget a backup pen or pencil!) And we had no way to keep track of the kids' names as they were called up, but hopefully someone else can do it.

Two years ago our MySpace blog post began:
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. . .

Last year, in August 2008, we began our blog post like this:
We arrived right on time at 3 p.m. today at beautiful Fort Greene Park for the Fourth Annual Fort Greene Literary Festival. Having been to last year's event (you can read our 2007 coverage on Louise Crawford's Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn) as well as the one in 2006, we knew we were in for a treat. And we weren't disappointed.

Much credit for the Festival goes to the New York Writers Coalition (NYWC), a neighborhood Fort Greene fixture at 80 Hansen Place, and under the direction of the dynamic Aaron Zimmerman, its founder and executive director, and many others, last year provided more than 1000 creative writing workshop sessions at more than 45 locations throughout New York City. (Thanks to NYWC for photos above and kids' photos below; you can see more at their website.)

Kudos for their work on the Festival also go to these presenters: chair of the Brooklyn Literary Council and Fort Greene resident Johnny Temple's indie publishing firm Akashic Books, "dedicated to the reverse gentrification of the literary world"; the Fort Greene Park Conservatory, who've done so much good work (those of Brooklyn natives know in what bad shape the place was before they came along); the well-known agency Global Talent Associates [GTHQ]; and The Walt Whitman Project - a great Brooklyn organization known for events like tomorrow's reading, "Walt Whitman in the Neighborhood," at the Clinton Hill Art Gallery.

This year's featured writers were four current or former poets laureate. . .

Well, that saved us the trouble of rewriting all that stuff, most of which still applies. But after three years, Laurie Cumbo has become more expert in her MC duties (in the first year, she kept calling all the women, even the little girls "Mrs.") and today she was a masterly master of ceremonies, moving things along so fast that the time flew by.

Things have gotten much tighter and more polished, though not less heartfelt and true to the spirit of the event. This year we were on the concrete by the Prison Ship Martyr's Monument, with an imposing backgdrop for the readers and musician, as well as more comfortable (and drier) seating for the audience than the grass provided.

And Laurie really is fantastic. As we said, she showed us in the beginning how to do the sunshine dance, basically sitting in our chairs and moving our arms in a big circle to mimic the roundness of the sun, and she kept saying it was a beautiful day.

Frankly, we were a little grumpily skeptical, since we were sweaty in the humidity after walking from the DeKalb Avenue subway station and annoyed that the restrooms nearby weren't working so we had to go all the way back to the playground on Myrtle Avenue and Portland Place. There were lots of empty seats because people, not unreasonably, probably stayed home due to the probability of more rain.

So what was so beautiful about the day?

First of all, the sweet, enticing music of Yacouba Sissoko, a master kora player from the Djely griot tradition in Mali, who preceded the day's readers.

And of course the kids' poems and stories were beautiful. Laurie brought out the best in everyone, including the three famous guest writers, all of whom have Brooklyn neighborhood ties.

Laurie especially shone when she encouraged and eventually teamed up with an adorable, somewhat shy six-year-old - the youngest of the four writers of the talented Regist family (Talaia, Tema, Tristan and Tayon) - to recite his third and final poem. It was touching and adorable.

The NYWC Youth Writers Workshop readers listed in the program included Shyanne Bennett, Samori Covington, Marissa Eskine, Anwen Burns, Evan Campbell, Michael Farell, Danielle Farell, Mark Anthony Farell, Paul Francois, Joseph Francois, Karen Marks, Savyanna Moody, Jarrett Moore Tyrell Moore, Anjelika Amog and Aidan Amog.

Also, David Nduka, Kayla Quarless, Ashley Quarless, Tema Regist, Talaia Regist, Tayon Regist, Tristan Regist, Aliah Richardson-Gilkes, Najaya Royal, Zoe-Lynn Sheares, Gabriel Treitmeier-McCarthy and Anneliese Treitmeier-McCarthy.

(Links above are to their poems on The Local blog.)

We've seen many of these kids in previous years, so it's kind of fun to see them g
et not only bigger but see the changes in their work. Some of the vocabulary used in the poems and stories seemed more sophisticated than we'd noticed before: more SAT-type words, precise and adult.

There were "wish" poems (lots of kids wish for super-powers, apparently, though some have greater ambitions, and wish to possess their own planets), poems with the themes of peace and justice (social activism is high among this group), funny list poems, poems using anagrams of their name with each letter a quality or trait of the poet, and even some fairly sophisticated rhymed verse.

Obviously the New York Writers Coalition workshop leaders in the summer program, always adept, are doing more kinds of work with the children than we'd seen or heard three years ago. Hopefully they are very proud after the great performances.

The thing that struck us the most, as someone who's published too many books of stories, was the predominance of fiction this year. There were stories from the little ones as well as the older writers, many very funny, some scary, others "slice of life."

The narratives employed dialogue and description skillfully, with the young authors trying out both first person and third person points of view. There were surreal stories, charming autobiograpical stories, and stories that made us in the audience laugh out loud.

Um, that was also true of the three bigger and older writers. We'd give the kind of biographical info in the program or in Laurie's introductions to them, but does anyone who likes good writing not know who they are? We've already read a total of four of the three authors' books and hope to read more. Oh, and each of them is really good-looking and a good dresser. It's kind of unfair. Now that we think about it, the kids were all cute and well-dressed too. . .

At least year they had some good writers who dressed like schlumps. (In other words, like us.)

After the kids read, we again heard from Yacouba Sissoko, whose mastery of the kora, a 21-string harp-lute, creates magical music that can move from being fiery to soothing.

By then a lot more people had gathered for the literary festival now that the threat of rain looked distant.

Thanks to the Fort Greene branch of the wonderful Rice restaurant, we were treated to free milk or soy milk and cookies or little granola chunks, delicious and lovingly wrapped in little plastic bundles.

And in these hard fiscal times for cultural organizations like the New York Writers Coalition, we were invited to donate funds into the "Write Your A** Off" tote bags as people came around the audience.

We last saw Touré four years ago at a book party at McNally Jackson (then McNally Robinson) for our mutual friend Danyel Smith's novel Bliss. It was great to be able to tell him how much we enjoyed his journalism and the stories in his collection The Portable Promised Land.

Today he read a hysterically funny story about a hapless African-American superhero headquartered right here in Brooklyn. Touré's protagonist tries to fight racism but he's powerless against institutional racism (his kryptonite) and abjures beating down evil-doers in favor of crossing his arms and saying "Now you know that ain't right." Flying over Brooklyn, the best he can do when he corners cab drivers who don't stop for black women and their children is to report them to the powerless Taxi and Limousine Commission.

As a result, he gets no respect from neighborhood homeboys, his frustrated wife ("You ain't done nothing you promised at the Million Man March"), or the fellow guests on the Ego Negro cable TV show. The story was clever and bright without shading into cuteness overdose, and we enjoyed it a lot.

We also enjoyed Staceyann Chin's reading of two sections of her recently-published book, The Other Side of Paradise, which Publishers Weekly, in a starred review, called a "fresh, forthright, affecting memoir."

Always a great performer, Staceyann read an account of a childhood Christmas in Jamaica when she and her older brother Delano, pretty much abandoned by their mother, hilariously debate some religious principles - Delano tells her that the people in Sodom committed a crime worse than blasphemy but won't explain what "being a funny man" actually means - and try to avoid being a "Christmas-monger," hoping for presents from American missionaries. The final scene of this excerpt, at the Christmas church service, is both poignant and outrageously funny.

The same can be said of the second, shorter excerpt from when Staceyann is older and the discovery of some "dirty" magazines with photos of naked blonde women celebrating their private parts and orgasms leads her to a disastrous attempt to explore her own body. Again, it's both comical and tragic, but mostly the spirited, indpendent nature of the narrator shines through.

Colson Whitehead's work is elegant, sharp and erudite, and the first thing he read - a tribute to a poem we learned almost by heart decades ago, T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" - was all of those things plus very, very funny. Purporting to be advice to Prufrock from an earthy, crude, street-smart pal, the piece had echoes of the poem throughout.

To us, it was a delight: the references to rolled trousers, peach-eating, "let us go then, you and I," etc. We'd love to have this narrative the next time we teach "Prufrock" to our community college lit classes. It's actually good literary explication doubling as a comic tour de force.

We've read, and enjoyed, Sag Harbor, so we were already familiar with his next reading, an excerpt from chapter five of the novel in which the young narrator, the geeky Benji, gets a haircut and reflects on past haircuts from his father which looks perfect, but just for a few hours, before they become utterly misshapen, wild, and disordered.

There's a wonderful riff and reminiscence here, on the fucked-up-ness of what has passed for normal; Benji is horrified to find his fifth-grade class picture under a pile of comic books and realize how he really must have appeared to others a few years before. The whole book is filled with similar wonderful passages, knowing and subtle and supremely intelligent.

Laurie asked the three authors to come up for a picture with each other, her, and the NYWC Youth Writers Workshop participants who were still there at the end of this year's Fort Greene Park Summer Literary Festival. To us, it was the best one ever. And the sunshine dance worked! We're grateful to everyone who appeared onstage and to those who did the hard work behind the scenes to make this such a great event.

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