"First Person Plural" Reading Series
Launches in Harlem

by Meghan Berry

March 21, 2012Bookmark and Share

Amy Benson, a writer and faculty member at the School of the Arts, was tired of always going to downtown Manhattan for literary events.

So when she discovered that a friend and fellow writer was also experimenting with writing from the “we” perspective, an idea for a literary event took shape, one that could be conveniently located near her Harlem home.

Professor Amy Benson, a co-founder of First Person Plural, speaks at the Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem.
Professor Amy Benson, a co-founder of First Person Plural, speaks at the Shrine World Music Venue in Harlem.

Earlier this month, the new reading series debuted at the Shrine World Music Venue on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard and 134th Street. It is called First Person Plural because it is devoted to works written in the “we” voice. Columbia writing professors Margo Jefferson and Sam Lipsyte and Mendi Obadike, a mixed-media artist with no University affiliation, gave readings.

“With the hope of bringing more attention to creative communities in Harlem, we began this series by inviting writers to showcase work written from a ‘we’ perspective,” said Benson, a lecturer in discipline who teaches writing courses. “It’s an underused voice in literature and seemed ripe for an array of iterations from different writers.”

Benson admitted that scoring Jefferson, who won the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for criticism while at The New York Times, was exactly what she and the series’ other cofounders—writers Wendy S. Walters and Stacy Parker Le Melle—had hoped for. “The way Margo’s navigated culture criticism and identity, she had to be on the list,” said Benson. Novelist Lipsyte has written three well-reviewed books and received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008. “And Sam—we’re all such big fans of his writing and knew he’d bring a very different style and approach to this.”

Jefferson shared an essay fittingly titled We, which she wrote for a current book project. “I’m exploring the variety of ‘we’s’ in our lives and how people alter our ‘I’s,’ especially in the act of reading and identifying with books and writers,” she said.

Writing in the voice of her high school self, Jefferson tried to reconcile her membership in two distinct groups. When reading James Baldwin, she saw herself as being like him: “We are both Negroes, and we are both intellectuals,” she read. Yet Jefferson also identified as a “she-reader” who lamented the male-dominated literary canon. The two identities collided when Jefferson discovered that Baldwin had likened her beloved Little Women to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Baldwin and others have attacked on the grounds that it presents a demeaning view of blacks.

“My future beckoned. I could remain a she-reader in thrall to white She-sentimentalists, seeking Negro ones who’d be counted no better. I could work to be a Negro intellectual like Baldwin, strive to be as good as or better than any white He. I closed the book, went to the couch and lay down,” Jefferson concluded.

Lipsyte came on stage to the Queen anthem We Are the Champions, an homage to the first-person-plural theme of the evening. He explained that he associates plural narration with a sense of place, describing family as “the smallest unit of we.” He then read two of his short stories that alternated between first person and first-person-plural narration. The first, The Wrong Arm, came from his collection Venus Drive (Grove Press, 2000), and the second, The Dungeon Master, was published by The New Yorker in 2010. In The Dungeon Master, the narrator was a teenage boy, and when speaking as “we,” part of a group of boys engaged in the fantasy role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons.

“Soon we’re near the reservoir, and we squish ourselves under the fence,” Lipsyte read. “We stumble down a rock embankment and start throwing things into the water, whatever we can find—rocks, bottles, old toys, parts of cars. We’ve all grown up doing this. I guess it’s our child psychiatry.”

Obadike, a musician and writer, was the evening’s last performer. She distributed a pop quiz to the audience with questions including the following multiple choice: “A four-syllable surname makes you a) patient b) always on the run c) hungry d) a man without regret.” Although she collected the papers and joked that they would be graded, she assured the audience that there were no correct answers for the poetic exercise.

First Person Plural will continue to be held at Shrine, a bar, restaurant and informal performing arts venue whose walls and ceiling are covered with album covers and vinyl records. The next installment is scheduled for April 23.

“I thought one of the most exciting things about the whole evening was the diverse crowd that came out. Uptown, downtown, everyone had fun,” Benson said. “A city is a place where people come to find out what ‘we’s’ they belong to, and in Harlem, because it’s in flux and gentrifying, questions are being asked about who belongs. What defines a community? It’s a perfect place for this series.”