Feeling Out a Fledgling Festival: Postcard From Far Rockaway

Arlene McKanic

Fort Tilden is near the end of the Rockaway Peninsula in the borough of Queens, New York, a collection of modest, wind-whipped buildings between playing fields and driveways, not far from the beach. On April 22 it hosted the first Rockaway Literary Festival, organized by Stuart Mirsky. “The Rockaway Literary Festival was something I’d always thought about when I was working,” said Mirsky, who ran for State Assembly of Queens County, New York, in last November’s election. His loss—to Democrat Audrey I. Pheffer—was disppointing, but it freed him up to work on more literary projects.

The festival, which was free and open to the public, took place in three buildings. The Post Theater hosted the Screenwriting Symposium, which featured eight short film screenings and panel discussions with screenwriters and filmmakers moderated by George Rodman, chairman of the department of television and radio at Brooklyn College. In the nearby “sTudio 6” building, tables were filled with books for sale by local booksellers as well as Borders. The books competed with artwork exhibited by the Rockaway Artists’ Alliance (RAA), which sponsored the festival in conjunction with the Rockaway Theatre Company. Panels featuring editors, agents, and writers were held in “sTudio 7,” a barn-like building next door.

The publishing panels included “Women in Literature,” featuring authors Debra Borden, Carol Hoenig, Ellen Meister, Ellen Shanman, Bibi Wein, and moderator Debbi Honorof, the associate executive director for marketing and development of Friends of the Arts, a nonprofit organization in Oyster Bay, New York; and “Writing for the Ages,” moderated by Robert Viscusi, featuring authors Ellis Avery, Michael Drinkard, Jeff Janoda, George Leal, Steven Porter, and Stuart W. Mirsky, who discussed the challenges of writing historical fiction.

The panel “New Paradigms in Publishing,” which focused on the Internet and its impact on publishing, was moderated by Jim Correnti, the co-owner of New Voices Bookstore in the East Village in Manhattan. “The computer and the Internet are the new paradigms and publishing has just latched on to it,” said Correnti, who was joined by editors Marian Lizzi (Perigee Books), Stacey Barney (Putnam), and Michaela Hamilton (Kensington Books); agent Michael Bourret (Dystel and Goderich), who was later pressed into service to conduct short interviews with eager writers; John Feldcamp, founder of Xlibris; and Roger Chiocchi and Willa Correnti of New Voices Bookstore. The panelists spoke animatedly about self-publishing, which they said has lost much of its stigma of desperation. Willa Correnti stressed the need for independent bookstores to stock self-published books that the big chains like Barnes & Noble won’t carry.

Outside, on the Moonstage—so named for the lacy ironwork dome overhead—a number of poets read their work. Susan Hartenstein, who is also a visual artist and member of the RAA, read a group of poems, the last of which ended with the tragicomic wail, “I’ve become my mother!” Hartenstein was followed by Carl Roc, who writes poems in English, French, and Creole, and Theresa Reilly, who read poems by Paul Cacioppo.

While it may be too early to predict whether the festival will be an annual event, Mirsky says that everyone he talked to about the festival was enthusiastic. “If you build it,” he said, “they will come.”