Literary Events Move Online in Efforts to Thwart Pandemic

Bonnie Chau

The 92nd Street Y, one of the country’s premier venues for live literary programming, has a long history of serving the public. Located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, it was founded as a cultural and community center in 1874, and in 1939, William Carlos Williams opened the first season of programming of what is now the Unterberg Poetry Center. This week, as New York City residents hunker down under orders from the governor to stay home amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Poetry Center unveils its newest initiative: a podcast series called Read By consisting of audio recordings of notable authors reading aloud—from their own homes—the work most important to them right now. “We’ve been a major platform for live literary events for more than eighty years,” says Bernard Schwartz, director of the Unterberg Poetry Center. “What to do when you can’t put on a reading and there’s no telling when you’re coming back? We’re all stuck at home, but so are the authors. The Read By podcast invites authors to make intimate, informal—and low-fi—recordings of themselves reading the works they carry with them.” 

On the first episode of the Read By podcast, which was released on Monday, James Shapiro, who was originally scheduled for a live event that same evening, reads from his book The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, about the tumultuous years when the plague was wiping out populations of London and its effects on Shakespeare and public playhouses. Ann Patchett and Gary Shteyngart are featured in the next two episodes this week, with new recordings to be released every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 8:00 PM EST. Featured guest readers in the upcoming weeks include Elif Batuman, Billy Collins, Rachel Cusk, Jonathan Franzen, Lauren Groff, George Saunders, and Colm Tóibín. In addition to the audio recordings, the website will include short written notes by the writers contextualizing their selection. Schwartz describes the readings as “regular and surprising. We are, by design, withholding the authors’ choices until an episode airs—the podcast is meant as a hopeful distraction and declaration of intent: We’re still here.” 

Other arts and cultural organizations nationwide are also quickly working to develop new ways of connecting artists and audiences and to support their communities in this time of isolation. On Thursday, March 26, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop will be hosting its first virtual event, I Am Deliberate and Afraid of Nothing: Poetry, Prose, and Protest, featuring readings by three writers: Andrea Abi-Karam, Romaissaa Benzizoune, and Sham-e-Ali Nayeem. The event is presented in affiliation with Mizna, an Arab American literary journal and platform focusing on Arab/Southwest Asian and North African artists. The event will be livestreamed on Facebook at 7:00 PM EST. The nonprofit Loft Literary Center announced this week that it will be shifting its annual Wordplay literary festival to be entirely virtual, with over one hundred of the original festival participants still planning on taking part in online conversations, podcasts, interviews, playlists, and other types of content scheduled for April and May. 

Alongside its readings and lectures programs, the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center is also home to dozens of literature classes and writing workshops. “For students in our writing workshops and literary seminars, reading and writing are more than just solitary acts—and we take that very seriously,” says Ricardo Maldonado, the Poetry Center’s managing director. “In the last two weeks, we have managed to move all classes online. It has been a challenge, but the response is gratifying. We need to keep our communities going.”


Bonnie Chau is the associate web editor of Poets & Writers, Inc.