Richard Jeffrey Newman curates the First Tuesdays reading series at Terraza 7 Café in Jackson Heights and is on the Board of Directors of the Newtown Literary Alliance, a Queensbased literary nonprofit. He writes about the impact of feminism on his life as a man and of classical Persian poetry on our lives as Americans. His books include The Silence of Men, a volume of poetry, and The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, a translation of part of the Iranian national epic. He is professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City. His Web site is www.richardjnewman.com.
NB: What are the first three adjectives that come to mind when you think of First Tuesdays?
RJN: Welcoming, fun and unpredictable.
NB: How would you describe the crowd at First Tuesdays?
RJN: I like to think of it as a neighborhood crowd. The people who are regulars (as far as I can tell) are from Queens. There are published writers and people who are just starting out. It’s a very very very wide range of people. Almost every month, someone new gets up to read for the first time. Almost every month Naomi reads her mother’s poetry and she’s been coming here for three years. It’s a marvelous gift. It’s a wonderful crowd. Some people come from Brooklyn and Manhattan too. When Miguel read, a friend of his came from Pennsylvania to hear him read. Though that has more to do with him than with me or the reading series. But nonetheless, it’s cool to get that kind of crowd. We have had a really wide range of featured readers. It is really important to me that it retains a sort of neighborhood feel. It’s nice to get publicity and it’s nice to get written up and have substantial people come, but it’s really important to me that it remains a place where someone can come who’s never read before and wants to read. Last month, one of our regulars read a really powerful piece about being sexually abused. I don’t know if it was autobiographical for sure, but I think it was based on the way he read it. Whether it was or it was not, it was a very vulnerable piece. And it’s important for me for First Tuesdays to be a place where people feel that safe. But it’s really taken on a life of its own.
RJN: Most months there are new people. I don’t know if many more new people came though. People recognized me. My neighbors said, “Oh, you were in The Times!” But I don’t know that it got us a huge number of people. For some people who live in Manhattan, coming to Queens is like crossing the Atlantic.
NB: Do you agree that coming to Queens from Manhattan is like crossing the Atlantic Ocean?
RJN: I think it’s kind of dumb.
NB: What is being the host like? How would you describe your job?
RJN: It’s fun. It’s a lot of fun. I think of it kind of as a combination of master of ceremonies job. When I host, it’s really not about my work, though I’m also a poet. Part of me hesitates to say this, because it sounds like I’m trying to say, “Oh, look how humble I am!” I don’t mean this out of a false sense of humility. When I host, it’s not about my work. It’s really about highlighting the work of the people who are coming. I try to get to know the regulars so I can say something meaningful about what they’ve written. I want to make them feel like someone is really paying attention to their work. I try to make it fun, make it funny. I tell people that I’m an enabler. To say thank you to the venue (Terraza 7 Café), we suggest that people buy a drink and tip the bartender. I also improvise a poem made up of one line from everyone who read during the open mic. That’s become a tradition. I did it once and then it caught on. This year I am going to try to publish them. It’s fun and people get a kick out of it. It’s a way of attending to their work. Someone is really listening. And people do really listen. It has that kind of significance.
NB: Is it hard to come up with the poems?
RJN: It depends on how many readers there are. If there are 16 readers and I have to remember 16 lines… But the audience helps out. It’s not a contest or anything.
NB: Why do you have a summer hiatus?
RJN: Well, it’s only me. It’s partly so that I have time to plan for the next year. I’ve already booked 2013-2014. So with these two months,
I’ll have the chance to apply for grants, put together all the publicity, and start looking for people for 2014-2015. A lot of people I know who host open mics do it month to month. But with the summer break, I don’t really have to worry about that as much. Not to mention that I get to say, “I’ve already booked 2013- 2014.”
That’s not why I do it, but it makes it sound quite…
RJN: Yes, professional.
NB: How do you choose your featured readers?
RJN: A number of ways. I invite people that I know and also I have contacts with some poetry publishers and ask them if they have people with books coming through Queens to let them get in touch with me. Sometimes I get people through recommendations. But I haven’t yet done an open call type of thing. I prefer to do it by word of mouth and invitation. Starting next year, we will feature both prose and poetry though. We’ve always done that for the open mic. But starting next year, some people will read memoir or fiction or what have you. I’m going to change the name from Jackson Heights Poetry Festival to something else because I don’t want to exclude other genres.
NB: Has the crowd changed over the years? If so, how has it changed?
RJN: I think it has changed. The last couple of years before I took it over, it had lost the crowd that had been loyal to it. Marina [the previous host] had gotten very busy with her life. Then, when I took it over, we got some publicity. New people came; they liked the atmosphere and they seem to like me as a host. It feels to me like we are getting people who are more substantially committed to poetry.
NB: People with more credentials?
RJN: That may be, but that's not so much my point. I mean people who are committed to what it means to make poetry part of your life. At least I'm hoping that is what is starting to happen and that we are building a loyal crowd.
NB: What do you think makes First Tuesdays different than other reading series?
RJN: There are three other reading series in Queens. There’s Oh, Bernice! in Woodside that was started by Queens College MFA students. There’s Boundless Tales in Astoria. And then there’s a relatively new one in Kew Gardens at Odradek’s Coffee House run by Deborah Emin of Sullivan Street Press [REZ]. So there are now four reading series in Queens. But they each have a different format, so there’s no competition. Mine is the only open mic with a feature. Oh, Bernice! has four or five readers a night and I have heard that they do some really creative things. Someone I know read there and she told me the host organized the reading in a format kind of like the dating game. That’s not the only thing that they do. Oh, Bernice! is also a writing group, so there’s a sort of self-serving element to it in that respect. For Boundless Tales, Aida takes submissions. She has four to five readers once a month. And Deborah Emin invites a feature and then has the feature invite the other readers who will read with him or her. In that sense, there are four series in Queens. We are talking about cross-promotion. But our format is different. The Open Mic lends itself to a sense of community in a way that is different than the others, though that’s not to say that the others don’t have a sense of community. But it’s different. People are coming to an open mic to read their work and to listen to other people’s work. It creates a different kind of community than say Oh, Bernice! which is wrapped around a pre-existing community. Some of us who host these series have met and started talking about cross-promotion. There’s also Newtown Literary, which is a literary nonprofit that was started in Queens by Tim Frederick. I’m on their board of directors. But he’s started a Queens literary magazine, called Newtown. They just published their second issue and they had a reading for it at the Odradek’s. There’s a lot fomenting... I don’t know, it’s too early to call it a scene. But stuff is happening. One of the things that I like about First Tuesdays (and the other reading series in Queens as well) is that it’s not a scene in the way that Brooklyn and Manhattan readings can be a scene. It’s just more down to earth. People aren’t coming to First Tuesdays to be seen. It’s not an ego thing. And I don’t want to say that all Brooklyn and Manhattan series are like that (because of course they’re not), and I don't want to say that "a scene" doesn't have its place, because of course it does, but I kind of like that First Tuesdays doesn’t resemble that. It’s not that one is better than the other; they're just different.
NB: So, what is the place of poetry in today’s world? Or what should be the role of poetry in today’s world?
RJN: Have you ever noticed that when people are facing trauma (even joy, but trauma is an easier point to make), they turn to poetry?
NB: Like break-up poems and death poems?
RJN: Yes. And even 9/11. There were poems going back and forth across the Web. People were writing poems. There is a way in which honestly rendered language still speaks to people. There is a texting poetry contest. My point is that it doesn’t matter if the poem is in text-speak, but if it [is] honest, it speaks to people. And it does build community and it does tell us something about ourselves and who we are in a way that other language doesn’t. Poems give voice in a way that fiction does not. Fiction by definition is not about me. But even if a poem is not about me, I’m giving voice to something that is very different than what it means to create a whole fictional world. And I think that for a lot of people, that is the impulse to poetry. And I see this in my students at Nassau Community College. For a lot of young people, the interest in poetry is wanting to have a voice. Wanting in some way or another to have tangible proof that their voice is real. And I think that’s what poetry does. And I think that’s why spoken word took off the way that it did. And that’s why the idea of being a performance poet is in some circles as valid as being a published poet. So that if you have a CD of your work 30 years ago (in the 1980s), that wouldn’t be taken seriously. It would be like self-publishing. The idea that a poetry album could have the same weight as a book would not have flown. In the 50s and 60s when people were making avant-garde jazz poetry albums, all of those people had published books. They were already established with books. But now there is this impulse to voice. And that’s kind of why I like the idea of a neighborhood reading series. It gives voice to the neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood feel, although that is odd to say about Queens because each neighborhood has its own individual feel, but it’s all Queens. I think we need poetry. Language is so debased by political rhetoric and advertising rhetoric.