Spring 2001

In the Main Ring with the Literati:
Joe Cuomo, Master of Ceremonies



ireworks worthy of the Grucci family were certainly called for on February 27, when the Evening Readings at Queens College program celebrated its 25th anniversary. And Joe Cuomo, founder of the Readings and a master at luring literary luminaries to campus, did not disappoint: his dazzling cast on this evening-Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and John Updike-performed for an audience that packed the Music Building's concert hall. And this was only part of the year-long silver anniversary festivities.

Eighty-fifth birthday celebrant Arthur Miller, right, at a Queens College Evening Readings tribute last October with, from left, Frank McCourt, Grace Paley, Peter Matthiessen, and Joe Cuomo.
Eighty-fifth birthday celebrant Arthur Miller, right, at a Queens College Evening Readings tribute last October with, from left, Frank McCourt, Grace Paley, Peter Matthiessen, and Joe Cuomo.

The season began with a reading in honor of playwright Arthur Miller's 85th birthday in October. On hand to help blow out the candles were Peter Matthiessen, Frank McCourt and Grace Paley. In November poet Derek Walcott was the star of a reading, and later a conversation with playwright Edward Albee was hosted by Cuomo, the unassuming impresario who has drawn young writers and Nobel Prize winners alike to Flushing for 25 years. Novelist W.G. Sebald appeared on March 13, and novelist A.S. Byatt concluded the season on April 3. Several programs have been televised and are seen on Metro Channel (consult the Readings Web site: www.qc.edu/qcer).

A writer and lecturer at Queens College, Cuomo started the Readings with a more modest goal in the spring of 1976. "The poet Marie Ponsot, an influential Queens teacher, was one of the main forces in our small literary community. She was our first Reader, and she did so in a classroom in Temporary Building 3. It was a small audience--50 or 60 people--but large for a poetry reading," he recalls.

Joe Cuomo with Jamaica Kincaid, considerably more relaxed at an Evening Reading in 1999 reading than she was at her debut.
Joe Cuomo with Jamaica Kincaid, considerably more relaxed at an Evening Reading in1999 reading than she was at her debut.

When the Readings continued the next fall and moved to the Student Union, the audience doubled. After each event the audience was amiably invited to Cuomo's one-bedroom duplex apartment (sometimes to Ponsot's larger home) to talk literary shop. Often the star of the evening would tag along. "At some point I realized that writing and reading are essentially lonely, solitary occupations," Cuomo explains. "These readings were a way to create a community of people who love books, people who are interested in the arts." Those late-night literary jam sessions ended when 500 showed up to hear Allen Ginsberg!

The readings outgrew the Student Union and moved on to the Rosenthal Library auditorium for more than a decade. When Irish poet Seamus Heaney read, just after winning the Nobel Prize, 300 people spilled into the lobby and stayed to listened over hastily set up loudspeakers.

Considering the media rush and celebrity status of the Nobeled and the Pulitzered, just how does Joe Cuomo attract his performers to Flushing? Sometimes by coincidence, as with Heaney.

"We have had a long relationship with Seamus. I had asked him in the early 80s to be my lookout for new Irish poets for a College literary magazine I was editing-and he agreed to! Two friends of his, Kevin Sullivan and Geoffrey Summerfield, taught at Queens. I remember meeting him at a gathering after poet Joseph Brodsky's memorial service. We had a long conversation about the poetry of Philip Larkin, and we hit it off. When I asked him to read the following fall, just after he won the Nobel Prize, he said he was too put-upon and couldn't possibly do it. But then I got a note Heaney wrote on an airplane. His old friends at the College-and his memory of our talk about Larkin- made him change his mind, and he suggested a date. It was so sweet of him . . . breathtaking in a way."

Other writers have been Queens Readers long before fame arrived and subsequently remained loyal. "Lots of unfamiliar writers were invited simply because we loved their work," Cuomo says. Derek Walcott, Joseph Brodsky, Nadine Gordimer, and Toni Morrison all read before their Nobel Prizes and returned gratefully to Flushing.

Jamaica Kincaid gave her first reading ever at Queens. She was intensely nervous and, while reading from Annie John, was overcome by the work itself and collapsed on stage. Cuomo helped her offstage and sat with her awhile. She then went off to the restroom and threw up. Feeling better she returned to the stage twenty minutes later, explained to the audience what had happened and went on with the reading. It was an experience she never forgot. Ten years later, at an encore appearance, Kincaid was all aplomb. Asked by a member of the audience if any of her work was autobiographical, she replied, "Even the punctuation."

E.L. Doctorow is another writer very close to Queens College because of his history of readings there. The first time, in 1977, he shared the stage with John Cheever. "Neither Ed Doctorow nor Jamaica Kincaid was a particularly great reader back then," Cuomo candidly observes. "Now they are among the best. I have seen them develop as public performers over the years. Jamaica knows that she was a completely different person then and how new she was to the literary world. They are both also masters at taking questions."

He is able to pay writers only a fraction of what they get elsewhere. The series itself commands respect. Kincaid, who lives in Vermont and won't fly, drives to Queens and says she does it for the prestige of being in the series. Several broken ribs from a very recent fall could not keep Arthur Miller away, and Grace Paley appeared three weeks after a serious operation and while suffering from bronchitis. They didn't want to disappoint the audience or Cuomo.

In all the years, Cuomo says it is "hard to think of a bad audience or bad questions. The audience asks sincere questions because they love the author, the author's work."It was Cuomo's turn to ask questions during his well-prepared conversation with Edward Albee, who has appeared several times over the past 16 years. Introducing him, Cuomo quoted Max Lerner's observation, in the New York Post, that Albee's work "comes closest to dissecting the agony and fear of emptiness than any other writer alive."

Cuomo then quoted Albee himself--"I found out who I was through my plays to the extent you can find out through what you think and believe"-and got the ball rolling by asking if Albee felt his work changed his perception. The dramatist replied, "There is no point in spending any time with any art experience that doesn't do something for you." He added, "I am always surprised when I am writing, otherwise it isn't exciting. I write my plays to find out why I am writing them. Thank God for the unconscious!"

Many writers and would-be writers in the audience listened intently as the possessor of three Pulitzer Prizes described his scribal routine. Albee advised writers not to make a huge analysis or descriptions of characters before they write: "We are always in control, but we have to trick ourselves into thinking the characters are in control." Asked if he wrote to work out his feelings, Albee said, "I have to write in memory of my feelings. I can't write in the midst of the emotion." The source of his ideas? "Ideas for my plays are like airplanes stacked over an airport! I've never been without a play in mind."

Clearly, the Evening Readings series has been a central part of Joe Cuomo's life, though for nine years he was also a drama and literary interviewer for WBAI, presiding over a weekly two-hour program. (Many Queens Readers were also interviewed on the program.) Casting a retrospective eye, Cuomo thinks of himself as a "one-man circus"--doing everything from booking the writers, to fund-raising, to promotion, to hosting post-poetical dinners.

Preparation for a season takes months of work, reading, taking notes. "It makes me think about writing in a way that is useful to my own writing and also translates into how I teach my classes. It helps me see the inside of writing," Cuomo sums up.

In recognition of his work, Queens College President Russell Hotzler surprised Cuomo on November 28 with a proclamation thanking him for putting "his heart and soul into this series" and quoting Susan Sontag, who has called Cuomo's long labor of love "the best reading series in New York."

Cuomo happily concedes he started the series brimful with innocence and naivete. He would pick up writers like Albee, Ralph Ellison, or Gwendolyn Brooks in a broken-down old car. Looking back, he thinks now that they felt comfortable with him because of a lack of pretension.

Then there was the time, back in 1976, he made bold to tell a poet to change a line-and the poet did, even though the poem was already in print. Galway Kinnell had read a poem about a father's night-time visit to his baby's crib, its last stanza being:

Little sleep's-head sprouting hair in the moonlight,
when I come back
we will go out together,
and will walk out together among
the ten thousand things,
each scratched too late with such knowledge, the wages
of dying is love.

Shortly after the reading, Kinnell got a lavish missive from Cuomo urging that "too late" be replaced by "in time." A while later, Cuomo got a postcard from Kinnell that said, "I tried reading it so once & it sounded good-I thank you." Thus it has been in all subsequent printings of Kinnell's Selected Poems.

Though pleased and impressed at having his two-cents-worth accepted, Cuomo concedes with a laugh, "I never tried that again!"