Richard Jeffrey Newman is the author of The Silence of Men and has translated from the Persian, The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. His poetry and essays have been published in Diode, the Good Men Project, Voice Male, 66: The Journal of Sonnet Studies, Ozone Park, and Newtown Literary. He blogs about the impact of feminism on his life as a man and the relevance of classical Iranian poetry to our contemporary lives. In June 2012, Newman took over as curator of First Tuesdays: A Neighborhood Reading Series.
My favorite part of hosting First Tuesdays, the neighborhood reading series I run in Elmhurst, Queens, is building the “cento,” which has become a tradition for me to close with at each month’s open mic. A cento is a poem made from the lines of other author’s poems, and represents a collaboration between the poet composing the cento and the poets from whose work he or she borrows from. At First Tuesdays, this collaboration happens in real time. While the first open mic reader shares his or her work, prose or poetry, I listen for language that moves me. When the reader is finished, I recite that line back to the audience, and then I take (or sometimes the audience suggests) a line or phrase from each subsequent reader. In this way, line by line, we build a poem that represents the literature shared that evening.
Part of the fun is that I don’t write anything down until the entire cento is finished, making the poem a true collaboration. Indeed, the audience often helps me remember the lines, especially when the list of open mic readers is long. This communal participation, the fact that the people who come to First Tuesdays see themselves as a community, is what I cherish most. We are a diverse group, including writers at all levels of accomplishment and from many walks of life, and I am inspired by how warm and welcoming everyone is. Almost every month, we become the first audience for someone who has never read their work publicly before; and there are always people who come just to listen. Some of them have become regulars, as well.
I took over hosting First Tuesdays for the 2012–2013 season, though circumstances made it impossible for me to apply for Poets & Writers funding. Starting from the fall of 2013, I have applied for every reading, and the money I’ve received has made it possible not only to pay our featured readers a respectable honorarium, but also to demonstrate that our small, neighborhood venue—and the work that it does as a small, neighborhood venue—matters. The smiles and head nods I see when I announce that Poets & Writers has sponsored a reading tells me people are happy, and even proud, about that.
Here is September’s cento, the first of the 2014–2015 season, composed of lines by Allison, Keron Dinkins, Herb Rubinstein, Valerie Keane, David Mills, Amanda, Lydia Chang, Norman Stock, Marty Levine, Norka Del Rios, Sean Egan, and Peter Marra:
Everyone Downstairs Can See Directly Up My Skirt
A blind man suggests an offering:
A family of skeletons released,
Seeking a way out of the suction of Eros,
Blazing the way you are
when you finally return
To be grossed out by little peckers.
Perhaps they will wonder why I have so little hair
Waiting for the lion
Be nice to your mother
In the presence of the holy one blessed be
That melody of love was interrupted.
I whisper secrets to her pillow to see what it says.
carried a contempt for daylight.
I cried for a while and then the
humor of it struck me.
–Composed at Terraza Cafe, September 2, 2014
Photo: Richad Jeffrey Newman. Photo Credit: Beech Tree Images.
Photo: Terraza Cafe. Photo Credit: Richard Jeffrey Newman.
Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by funds from the New York State Council on the Arts,and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.