We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: Penina Roth is the heart of literary Brooklyn. The mastermind behind the monthly Franklin Park Reading Series, Brooklyn’s best, is as discerning a reader as she is welcoming a community member. Her tastes have shaped what we’ve all read since she booked her first readers in Crown Heights in 2009.
How did you become the literary advocate you are?
It was quite serendipitous. I’d been a literary groupie for eight years, attending multiple bookstore events for favorite authors like Jennifer Egan, but I’d never heard about bar readings until I met novelist and memoirist David Goodwillie in 2006. I attended a few of his KGB readings, and I loved the vibe, the conviviality and enthusiasm for the written word. I realized that a bar’s laid-back setting, along with the inhibition-loosening effects of alcohol, engendered fearless performances and made for a fun night of mingling.
At the same time, I was a community journalist, reporting on my rapidly changing Crown Heights neighborhood. I’d been interviewing new merchants, including the owners of the Franklin Park Bar and Beer Garden, our host venue. Franklin Park owner Matt Roff, a veteran club and bar owner, was especially helpful, giving me insight into business development for pieces I was writing for the New York Sun (RIP) and New York Times.
After interviewing dozens of new transplants and longtime residents over the summer of 2008, I realized there were many avid readers in the area. I thought it would be nice to host a community-wide cultural event that would bring together a cross-section of the area’s residents–Caribbean-Americans, Hasidim, and recent college grads who were flocking to the then affordable neighborhood. I approached Matt about hosting the event at the bar and he agreed to try it out. We sold a lot of beer at the first event in March 2009, and he also liked the idea of giving back to the community, so he asked me to turn it into a monthly happening. I didn’t have many contacts in the literary world at that point, but through David, I began to meet other writers I admired and started booking their friends and friends of their friends.
I really got into advocacy after I helped launch a Blake Butler book for Harper Perennial, and through Blake I was introduced to the small press world. I also started partnering on readings with ringShout, an organization which promotes black authors, and connected with administrators of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers, our local CUNY college. Promoting underrecognized small press authors and writers of color became priorities for me, so I featured as many as possible in our lineups (other booking considerations were mixing established and emerging authors and showcasing locals). To promote our events and authors, I became active on social media, which connected me with lit enthusiasts and publishers across the country. By attending events in NYC, I also met many journalists, editors, and event organizers, and we all help each other out.
Also, once an author appears at Franklin Park, they’re considered family, and we’ll continue to promote their work. We love to welcome back our alumni when they release new books, and we’ve hosted several writers three or four times, including Colson Whitehead, Blake Butler, Teddy Wayne, Matt Bell, Zetta Elliott, Lynne Tillman, Jami Attenberg, Helen Phillips, James Hannaham, Marie-Helene Bertino, Emma Straub, Heidi Julavits, and Justin Taylor.
What are you working on now? What is at stake?
I’m programming the second half of Franklin Park’s 2017 season, and I just launched a column for Lit Hub, Reading Across America, which aims to connect curators around the country and share their insights with readers who will, hopefully, be inspired to build and participate in literary communities in their own areas.
In our present political climate, promoting free expression and uniting people from different backgrounds has become more urgent than ever. It’s so true what they say about how literature develops empathy, and encouraging people to read is essential. In her outreach and advocacy, National Book Foundation executive director Lisa Lucas has been a great inspiration to me. I think all it citizens should follow her lead.
What is your proudest achievement? Your greatest challenge?
My proudest achievement is contributing to the growth of an enthusiastic, dedicated literary community in Crown Heights, and I’m super excited when talented emerging writers we’ve showcased at FP become published authors. My greatest challenge is ensuring that sizable audiences attend events–for the sake of authors and venues.
What do you hope changes or improves in your field?
I’d like to see two or more writers of color in every reading series lineup and more small press authors booked for prominent literary events and festivals.
What does Brooklyn mean to you?
It’s a cultural hotbed, with a proliferation of vibrant institutions like the Brooklyn Public Library, BAM, the Brooklyn Museum, the Brooklyn Historical Society, the Brooklyn Arts Council, the Brooklyn Book Festival, and MoCADA. There are also great offerings at local colleges, like Brooklyn and Medgar Evers, along with great indie bookstores and a wide range of galleries and reading series.
Who would you nominate for this list?
A recent Brooklyn transplant–outstanding literary citizen Michael Seidlinger, whose ability to multitask astounds me. Not only is he a notable indie author, he’s also Civil Coping Mechanisms’s publisher and editor-in-chief, Electric Literature’s book reviews editor, and director of publicity at Dzanc Books.
Learn more about this year’s 100 Influencers in Brooklyn Culture.