A Conversation with Penina Roth, Franklin Park Reading Series Curator

By on Thursday, January 8th, 2015 at 9:05 am

Penina Roth runs the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. The events are scheduled on the second Monday of each month.

I guess it’s standard to begin with your background. I’m curious what you do now for a living, what you did in the past, and how much your background, and current life, inform curating the series.

I’ve moved through different careers over the years, and I think each one has taught me a different skill set that’s been useful in producing a reading series. I’ve been a wardrobe stylist, conference coordinator, copywriter, and, most recently, a freelance journalist, with a focus on community news. I picked up logistical skills by organizing fashion shoots, working on music videos, and assisting producers of large-scale financial conferences. As a journalist researching articles about my transitioning Crown Heights neighborhood, I interviewed a range of locals, including longtime Caribbean-American and Hasidic residents, new transplants from across the country, and business owners. Because of my contacts, when I planned the first reading – which I thought would be a one-off event – I was able to develop grassroots support for it in the community. Merchants put our flyers in their windows and passed the word on to customers. And the copywriting experience was helpful when it came to event publicity.

Now, like many people in creative fields, I do a hodgepodge of things to pay the bills: some social media for local businesses, freelance writing and editing, and a bit of literary publicity.

This is a follow-up to the previous question. How did you conceive the series? And how do you continue to conceive the series? That is, how do you plan? Most nights are built around some sort of theme. Do you think of that first, and then the authors? Or is it the other way around? Or both?

The series began kind of as a lark – at the end of 2008, I published an article about the bar in the Times, so when I approached the owners with this idea for a fun community event featuring readings by three of my friends (the only published authors I’d known at the time), they were amenable to it. I thought it would be a one-time only reading to showcase my talented friends – David Goodwillie, Liza Monroy, and Matthue Roth. When almost 40 people showed up and bought a lot of beer, the owners were thrilled and asked me to make it a monthly happening.

As far as themes, we’ve had a few set nights each year (though we’ll be shifting things a bit in 2015), including a short fiction night in January and a vacation-themed reading in July. Usually I book the readings first, then try to come up with a loose theme that encompasses all the authors’ work.

What are the advantages of holding a reading at a popular bar? Are there any, perhaps, disadvantages?

Advantages: I’m a pretty serious person, and Franklin Park has a fun, laid-back vibe. So there’s this symbiosis happening at the readings, I think, between the straightforward programming – a bunch of great writers get up at the mic and read their amazing work – and the venue. We’ve got an incredible, dedicated, enthusiastic audience that loves lit and liquor – they’re coming because they enjoy the authors and the bar (especially our $4 draft special). Also, people wander in, unaware of our programming, and end up staying for the readings. I’m very grateful to Franklin Park’s generous owners who give us the space for a few hours each month and for the bar’s super accommodating staff.

Disadvantages: All the typical bar noise distractions – clinking glasses, the dishwasher, the HVAC system whooshing on and off, and chatter filtering in from outside. The incredibly patient servers are very supportive, but they have to do their job, so they’re weaving through the crowd and opening and closing this heavy glass door leading into the adjoining courtyard throughout the readings. Sometimes I’ll be at a reading at Bookcourt, for example, envious of the silence and lack of interruptions. Bookstore employees are focused on selling books and showcasing authors, while bar workers have to prioritize getting customers their food and drinks in a timely manner.

Do you see the series as a community event, and if so, what community? There are, of course, articles and arguments about gentrification, etc., and do you feel the community of Crown Heights is represented at the readings?

I do feel that we reflect the Crown Heights community, with one of the most diverse lit audiences I’ve ever encountered. I always wanted the readings to be entertaining and enlightening community events which would appeal to a wide audience – including barflies and people who usually prefer bands and comedians to authors – and I think we’ve achieved that. When programming, I try to book a range of voices, reflecting the neighborhood’s diversity. We’ve hosted Hasidic authors and many Caribbean and African American writers. I connected early on with the directors of the excellent Center for Black Literature at Crown Heights’s Medgar Evers College to spread the word about our readings and expand our audience. Publicity and outreach are essential for community-based series if they want to attract more than the insular lit crowd.

From the beginning, Franklin Park and, I believe, the reading series have demonstrated the melting pot nature of the neighborhood – our audience includes Hasidic rabbis and their wives, Haitian business owners, and so-called hipsters (who are actually unpretentious recent college grads and young creative professionals who’ve settled in the neighborhood and are mislabeled by the media).

Always curious: Who are some of your favorite writers? What books do you find yourself always returning?

Good question – but a very challenging one for a reading series curator! I love all the FP writers, but there are some (noted below) whose work I keep rereading. And I fully agree with what Ron Charles, the Washington Post book critic, said when reflecting on year-end book lists: “The books we’ve read are always better than the books we haven’t read, and we haven’t read most of the books.”

Writers I’ve admired for years: Amy Hempel, Colson Whitehead, Ben Marcus, Joan Didion, Sam Lipsyte, Karen Russell, Edwidge Danticat, Margaret Atwood, Jennifer Egan, Lydia Davis, Brian Evenson, Victor LaValle, Junot Diaz, Dani Shapiro, Toni Morrison, Mary Gaitskill, A.M. Homes, George Saunders, Rivka Galchen, Lynne Tillman, Joshua Ferris, and Zadie Smith.

Some writers I’ve discovered more recently whose work I keep returning to: Blake Butler, Matt Bell, Michael Kimball, Scott McClanahan, Luke Goebel, Laura van den Berg, Jenny Offill, Mitchell Jackson, Shane Jones, Kyle Minor, Teju Cole, Justin Taylor, Juliet Escoria, Liza Monroy, Jami Attenberg, David Goodwillie, Dolan Morgan, Saeed Jones, Lindsay Hunter, Tiphanie Yanique, Emma Straub, Lincoln Michel, Joseph Riippi, Phil Klay (especially resonant since I’m an Army brat), Kiese Laymon, Catherine Lacey, Gary Lutz, Courtney Maum, Marie-Helene Bertino, Shelly Oria, Chiara Barzini, Royal Young (an old workshop colleague), Amelia Gray, Amber Sparks, Claire Vaye Watkins, Susan Steinberg, Said Sayrafiezadeh, Vanessa Veselka, Karolina Waclawiak, Kelly Link, Sarah Rose Etter, Roxane Gay, Jeff Jackson, Jac Jemc, Adam Wilson, Porochista Khakpour, Stefan Merrill Block, and Corey Zeller.

As far as favorite books, it’s hard to choose, so here are some books, stories, poems, and essays I’ve read multiple times in recent years: The Great Gatsby, The Last Tycoon, Tales of the Jazz Age, Beloved, Reasons to Live, Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Slow Motion, Venus Drive, Nine Stories, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Open City, The Intuitionist, John Henry Days, Leaving the Sea, The Handmaid’s Tale, Wuthering Heights, Can’t and Won’t, Krik? Krak, Big Machine, The Keep, Drown, Bad Behavior, In Persuasion Nation, Mrs. Dalloway, What Would Lynne Tillman Do?, The Safety of Objects, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, Scorch Atlas, Nothing, Us, Big Ray, The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan, How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America, Prelude to Bruise, Tongue Party, Don’t Kiss Me, The Isle of Youth, How to Escape from a Leper Colony, Spectacle, American Innovations, Battleborn, Praying Drunk, and Other People We Married

Are there other readings, or events, or book stores you particularly love?

Two of my favorite emerging writers series are in the Crown Heights vicinity: The Renegade Reading Series at Cool Pony on Franklin Avenue and The Buzzard’s Banquet at Soda bar on Vanderbilt Avenue in Prospect Heights. I love several long-running series, including Mixer, How I Learned, KGB’s Sunday Night Fiction, Sunday Salon, and Amanda Stern’s Happy Ending Music and Reading Series, which has been a great inspiration to me. I’m drawn to community-based series, so I really appreciate Henry Stewart’s Bay Ridge Poets Society (an open mic) and Amy Shearn’s Lit at Lark in Ditmas Park, which always concludes with a fascinating q&a with the readers. The Atlas Review events are awesome. A restaurant/bar in the East Village, Contrada, is hosting a brilliant series with rotating curators, First Bites, in which authors read the first page of newly released work. There are several amazing nonfiction series around town now, including Big Umbrella and Miss Manhattan and the intermittent series Shelf Life (in Crown Heights) and Freerange.

Some series I’m looking forward to checking out: Hi-Fi, Having a Whiskey and Coke With You, Divulger, The Difficult to Name Reading Series, Dead Rabbits, Blackmail, Flint Fiction (the successor to the popular Fiction Addiction), Guerilla Lit, Enclave, Lamphrophonic, and the Poetry Brothel.

As far as bookstores, I regularly attend events at Bookcourt, Community Bookstore, Powerhouse, Greenlight, Housing Works, and McNally Jackson. WORD has great programming, too, but I don’t get there that often.

Though I’d prefer not to spend $25 on a ticket, I also enjoy glam events with lit superstars at the 92nd Street Y, Symphony Space, BAM, and NYPL.

More on the Franklin Park Reading Series

Keep tabs on the Franklin Park Reading series on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. On Monday January 12th, National Book Award winner Phil Klay, along with Sara Lippmann, Kevin Fortuna, Morgan Parker, and Malerie Willins join the Franklin Park Reading Series at 8 p.m., at Franklin Park, Crown Heights, Brooklyn.

Interviews at English Kills Review

This interview series is an attempt to engage with the people who work — and shape — the literary community in New York City. It will focus on the players behind the scenes, or behind the shelves, or whatever metaphor you choose: bookstore owners, event coordinators, reading curators, hosts, New York-based writers and editors, small press publishers, series and festival organizers, and bar owners with literary leanings. If you’d like to be interviewed, please do contact us. Check out the previous conversation with Jenn Northington, Events Director at WORD Bookstore

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