Chapter 18: An Interview with Penina Roth
Read chapters 1-17 here.
This series of interviews with writer/curators aims to explore why and how to have a literary reading—a good literary reading—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience—a good literary reading that gathers a welcome, diverse, excited, and inspired audience while also creating a supportive environment for readers. (Please comment with stories, commentary, and advice about readings at which you’ve performed, attended, or hosted.)
You should know about the Franklin Park Reading Series. Maybe you already do. Maybe you’ve been. It’s a literary mainstay located in the most literary part of the country, Brooklyn NYC. What’s surprising, and attractive (I’m sure) to their large, committed, and diverse audience, is that it brings big name writers but retains DIY hominess. This is all thanks to Penina Roth.
Name: Penina Roth
Location: Crown Heights, Brooklyn
What reading do you host/organize, and for how long have you hosted it?
PR: I’m a longtime resident of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where the reading series I curate, the Franklin Park Reading Series, is based. I launched the series six years ago at the bar/beer garden Franklin Park.
Is it just you running the show? You curate, organize, promote, host?
PR: Yes, basically. I do the programming, hosting, organizing, and social media, and I’ve been lucky to have some production and promotional assistance, off and on over the years, from talented interns. One of them is helping me update our Tumblr now, so she’ll be in charge of that once we relaunch it. And Sasha Fletcher is our amazing raffle caller.
What made you want to start a reading series, and what has compelled you to continue for six years?
PR: I was a community news reporter and, as a longtime Crown Heights resident, became fascinated by the evolution of the neighborhood, beginning in 2007. I did some pieces on the changes for a couple of newspapers, and in the course of my reporting became friendly with several local merchants, including our host venue’s owners, and community residents. I also spent a lot of time hanging out in the beer garden, talking to new transplants and longtime residents, and it seemed like there was strong literary interest— many of the transplants were Teach for America fellows or journalists and there were also many avid readers around, based on the number of people relaxing with books and a beer in the courtyard or reading literary fiction on subway platforms.
I also thought it would be great to have a community event that would unite all the different groups in the neighborhood—recent college grads from across the country, Caribbean-Americans, and Hasidim. It would have to be something fun and enlightening that would draw lit enthusiasts as well as barflies or those more interested in music and comedy.
I published a short piece about the bar in the NY Times, so when I proposed a literary event to the bar owners, they agreed to give it a shot. Fortunately, we sold a lot of beer at our launch and drew a pretty decent crowd (maybe 40 people), so the owners asked me to make it a monthly event. It’s been an intense run, but I’m obsessive and I love the enthusiasm of our audience and authors—plus the sense of community the readings promote—so that keeps me going.
That’s beautiful. How long are the readings?
PR: The event runs from 8-10pm , which includes 5-6 readers and mingling (we have some time for that in the beginning and a long break in the middle).
Do you have a core audience that comes to most of the readings? Or is it new people every time?
PR: Definitely—many of our attendees live within four blocks of the venue and many of those are bar regulars. I joke that if there were a blizzard we’d still draw an audience (the bar has been a big hangout for locals during hurricanes and snowstorms).
Also, we’ve been very lucky to attract a regular crowd of publishing professionals—editors, agents, publicists, and other authors. The NYC publishing community has been extremely supportive!
What is the audience typically like in terms of age, race, class?
PR: Our crowd is pretty young—from college to early thirties, mostly. Part of that, I think, is because it’s a bar. Also, our programming focuses on more innovative lit by newer authors, along with some established and iconic groundbreaking writers.
I aim to draw a diverse crowd—that’s been my goal from the beginning. I try to attract a broad audience through programming; it’s important to me to feature Caribbean-American authors, since Crown Heights has long been a hub for the Caribbean community. I’m thrilled that we draw a mix of people from different backgrounds. I think we have the most unique and enthusiastic lit audience anywhere! We draw Hasidic rabbis and their wives (Crown Heights is also home to many Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidim), as well as Edwidge Danticat’s brother, who’s a local and has been a regular attendee.
I guess it’s a pretty middle class audience. Some of our regulars come from immigrant families and occasionally wealthier, older couples from Park Slope step in, it seems.
How do you promote or spread the word about the series?
PR: As far as promotion, our series started (and continues to be) a community-focused, grassroots event. We reach out to local merchants and blogs, and they’ve been very supportive of us all along, spreading the word to their customers and readers. We post flyers around the neighborhood. Many attendees live within five blocks of our venue and learn about us through the flyers, their friends, or local business owners. We have an email list, but we’re not that consistent with our mailings (though we’re improving, thanks to Mail Chimp). Also, we’re very grateful to the NYC publishing community – many editors, authors, publicists, agents, and journalists are regulars and alert their colleagues to our events. Last but not least, we work hard at getting the word out on social media – Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
Why are readings important?
PR: I think readings are important because they create a sense of community. As PEN’s Paul Morris told me, the break for mingling in the middle of our readings (about 20 minutes) is an important component of the events. People from across the literary world connect, and I hear a shared passion for literature has launched a few romances. We draw a large, enthusiastic audience, and readers respond to the crowd’s energy. There’s a great symbiosis between readers and listeners, an expansion of the relationship created on the page between author and reader. Through live performance, authors can present new material and, based on the audience’s reaction, determine edits. Sometimes a passage the author sees as funny falls flat, while seemingly serious pieces come across as darkly humorous. A strong reading can increase sales. For audiences, hearing great lit read aloud (especially the language-driven work we showcase) can create a new appreciation for familiar writing and pique interest in books by an unknown author. Most of all, good readings are enlightening and entertaining.
Penina Roth is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New York Post, The L Magazine and other publications. She is the Founder and Curator of the Franklin Park Reading Series, recently voted by Time Out NY as one of the Best Reading Series of 2012. The series has been recommended and covered by numerous publications including The New York Times, The New Yorker, New York Magazine and many others. The series alums include Teju Cole, Lev Grossman, Jennifer Egan, Colson Whitehead, Darin Strauss, Emma Straub, Amy Sohn and many, many others.