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