Paul Romero, who created the Word for Word Reading Series at Bryant Park in midtown Manhattan behind the Public Library, graciously agreed to answer a few questions by e-mail about his series. Letras Latinas will be presenting its slate of writers next month on August 16 (the rest of the schedule is below). But first, the interview:
Could you give our readers how the idea for the Word for Word Poetry Reading Series came about, and how long the series has been in existence?
The original Reading Room began in 1935 as a public response to the Depression Era job losses in New York. With nowhere to go during the day, and no prospects for jobs, the New York Public Library opened an “Open Air Library” to give these out-of-work businessmen and our citizens a place to go where they did not need money, a valid address, a library card, or identification to enjoy the reading materials.
In 2003 the Bryant Park Corporation repeated history by creating the Bryant Park Reading Room. It is modeled after the NYPL original. With the reappearance of the open air library, custom-designed carts to hold an eclectic selection of books, periodicals and newspapers were included. The following year readings and programs were added at lunchtime and after work for the enjoyment of our Reading Room patrons. It was important to include all age groups at the Reading Room so kid-sized carts, books and furniture for children were added. With the addition of Bryant Park’s iconic movable furniture the result was an intimate environment for visitors to Bryant Park to enjoy an open air library. The Bryant Park Reading Room and its contents is available to everyone for free, without any need of cards or identification. As the Reading Room matured, the programming metamorphosed from a few author and poetry readings into a full calendar of book inspired activities. In 2011, we are hosting 83 literary programs. The Reading Room programs include presentations by authors, poets, a book club, writer’s workshops, lectures, film talks, and two literary programs for children. The attraction of the Reading Room and our programming results in 96,000 annual visitors to the Bryant Park Reading Room.
One of the things I find refreshing about the series is how you, as a curator, cast what I'll call a "collaborative net" and manage to involve a diverse entity of literary organizations that help you shape your season. Could you share how this modus operandi came about, and what informs it?
Since we began programming in 2004, our mission has been to bring as many voices as possible from the literary community to the Bryant Park Reading Room. From the creative, to journalism, to writers of non-fiction, our goal is to make the Bryant Park Reading Room a destination for bibliophiles. In New York City we are fortunate to live in an environment that is rich in cultural diversity. Our thinking has been that it’s important that our programming reflect that diversity. In order to achieve that goal, we reach out to publishers, poets, poetry organizations, creative writing programs, online journals and cultural institutions as resources for our programs. We are always searching for new and interesting ways to present what is going on in the world of writing. By being inclusive we learn from the creative writing community and stay informed with respect to the richness of social, cultural, and ethnic perspectives and what they bring to the language of writing in general and poetry specifically. Despite our relatively recent arrival on the literary scene, we have always included what is described as statistical subgroupings of the general population. For the Bryant Park Reading Room it translates as communities of writers who offer different experiences and new perspectives. Writers from the Latino, Asian, African American, and Gay and Lesbian communities are a standard part of the roster of participants in our poetry series. The reward for Bryant Park habitues has been outstanding poetry readings. These writers in turn recommend the Bryant Park Reading Room to their fellow writers and so it goes full circle.
In looking over the roster of poets who have read in Word for Word over the years, it's a nice mixture of both more well-known poets and less established voices. It's a nice mix. What's your thinking behind this?
We believe the voices of emerging poets need a place to be heard; they are a resource for new poetics, new vision and they complement the work of established authors. We like to think our poetry programs bridge these different facets of the creative writing community. Although it’s not always possible to achieve, an ideal poetry reading for us is the combination of well known authors on the same program with readings by first-book poets or writers whose manuscripts have been recently accepted for publication. A very good example of that framework was the Caribbean poets program we did on July 12, 2011, with Poets & Writers, featuring readings by Lynne Procope, Cheryl Boyce Taylor and Mervyn Taylor. It was a perfect evening of remarkable poetry at the Bryant Park Reading Room because it combined new poets with established writers.
What do you envision for the series in the next few years? Any changes or modifications on the horizon.
The future of the Bryant Park poetry series is that it will continue to be a place for writers to be heard and read. We will explore different ways for poets to be presented – perhaps in combination with music or musicians, or visual or performance artists. One of poetry’s strengths is its malleability and how it fits perfectly with all the other creative arts. For his recent June program at St. John the Divine, Robert Bly included ethnic music from Iran with his reading. Bly commented on how poetry and music somehow were separated from their traditional link in the 20th century. By including music in his program he confirmed how the two creative forms complement each other. I have to agree with him. The enjoyment of Bly’s poetry was magnified several times by the addition of this beautiful, ethereal music. Patricia Smith’s powerful 34 from her beautiful book, Blood Dazzler, has successfully been turned into a modern dance piece. It’s always a revelation when multiple art forms combine to create a new reality. A few of our 2012 programs will include a musical component. The core of our poetry series will continue to be about the expression of ideas through the language of creative writing; that will remain unchanged but we will also explore opportunities to make the experience of poetry more enjoyable, to bring the listener/reader closer to what the writer is saying.
Anything else you'd like to add?
No other comments to add at this time except to say thank you for this opportunity to tell you about the Bryant Park Reading Room and how much we value the work you do. We hope to continue to make the Bryant Park Reading Room a literary destination for writers in particular as well as the general population, to bring poetry and good writing into the lives of New Yorkers and at some point in the future, that the Bryant Park Reading Room will be the site of a poetry festival. If you’d like to work with me on that project, I welcome your collaboration.
Tuesdays, 7:00 – 8:30 PM
Co-hosted by Fine Arts Work Center Provincetown
Co-hosted by CavanKerry Press
Co-hosted by Kundiman
Co-hosted by W.W. Norton
J. Michael Martinez
Toni Margarita Plummer
Co-hosted by Letras Latinas
Patricia Spears Jones
Patricia Spears Jones
Sharon Dennis Wyeth
Special time: 12:30 – 1:45 PM
Co-hosted by Cave Canem