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New York Times on the Poetry Scene of Jackson Heights, Queens
“This is a nascent scene, in the birthing process,” Mr. Goodrich said. “So it’s a good place to be, but a trifle lonely.”
Among the neighborhoods that might vie to be the city’s next literary hotbed, Jackson Heights does not seem outwardly promising. There is no liberal arts campus in the neighborhood, no local literary journal and just one small coffee shop for writers and their laptops.
But five years ago, after a flippant comment from a local English teacher, two writers from the area set out to build a community there.
“He said that Jackson Heights needed a poetry festival,” said Marina Yoffe, 27, who has lived in the neighborhood since her family emigrated from Ukraine when she was 5. Ms. Yoffe and her friend Sarah Heinemann took the remark as a challenge. Jackson Heights was an immigrant mecca, a reservoir of big apartments, a food paradise, but not a place where writers banded together. She said she knew that there were writers in the area, but they were disconnected. If they wrote, they wrote alone and uncelebrated.
“Brooklyn has the stereotype as the land of the starving artist,” she said, “but there are starving artists everywhere.”
So in 2008, Ms. Yoffe and Ms. Heinemann started the Jackson Heights Poetry Festival as a way for local writers to build strength in numbers. It began as an annual event and gradually became monthly readings at a local night spot called Terraza 7, keeping its ambitions modest.
“It’s really just about looking for people who aren’t going to roll their eyes at you for wanting to write a poem,” Ms. Yoffe said, “and finding other people to talk about books with.”
In recent years, real estate prices in Brooklyn and Manhattan have made those people easier to find in Jackson Heights, said Richard Jeffrey Newman, 50, who took over as organizer for the readings in September. Mr. Newman, an associate professor of English at Nassau Community College, said that during a recent week of dog-walking, he met seven people who had just moved to the neighborhood. “Three of them were writers,” he said.
On this Tuesday night, writers outnumbered civilians, and poems ranged from an ode to a transplanted kidney by Norman Stock, 72, an award-winning poet, to a recitation of subway stations visited by a 22-year-old named Lyric Hunter (her real name, she swore), who has been writing poetry for only a year. The evening began with an open-mike session — both prose and poetry — and ended with a lusty and profane reading by Lloyd Robson, 43, a Welsh poet who moved to Jackson Heights in April.
It was a homey, supportive event, less a scene than a small group of neighbors trying to find regular company. Every writer drew applause before and after reading. Naomi Matten, 67, who complained of stage fright, read poems written by her mother, who died in 2008. “I took my mom’s death very hard,” she said later. “I thought this would be a way to come to terms with it.”
Ms. Matten said the readings had helped her stay connected with her mother and form unexpected bonds with her neighbors. “I never thought I could listen to other people’s poetry,” she said, “but some of the stuff there I like. And some guys will rap their poetry, and I like that. It has gotten me interested in poetry.”
Jack Feldstein, 47, an Australian filmmaker who moved to Jackson Heights from Brooklyn in 2010, said he was excited by the lack of pretense among the neighborhood writers. In his old neighborhood of Prospect Heights, he said, people could choose from among dozens of literary events in a month. In Jackson Heights, this reading was the only game in town.
“You have to be a little braver to put yourself in a position where everyone’s not like you,” he said. “But artists have always gone to places where they weren’t. This is not new. Where other people see there is no artistry, I see opportunity, I see the opposite. Sometimes the execution doesn’t work, but the impulse is pure, which I find fascinating: what makes them want to say this?”
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