November 21, 2017

An interview with Amanda Deutch, the poet working to create a Coney Island-themed literary arts non-profit

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Amanda Deutch speaking at the New York Aquarium. Photo by Raymond Adams.

Amanda Deutch is no newcomer to Brooklyn. And while some of us are out cracking wise about kale (for the record, an excellent vegetable) and banjos (for the record, an excellent instrument), she’s taking care of business.

A native New Yorker, Deutch is the founder of Parachute Literary Arts, an eight-year-old arts organization whose straightforward (and wonderful) mission is “to celebrate the literature of Coney Island.” For the unfamiliar, Coney Island—not actually an island, though it was before local residents filled in the inlets separating it from the rest of Brooklyn—is a strip of beach on the southern shores of Brooklyn, legendary for its seaside boardwalks, old-school frankfurtiers, and amusements that include the iconic Cyclone roller coaster and the Parachute Jump, which closed in 1964 but remains the most visible physical monument to the neighborhood’s history as New York City’s summertime playground.

Parachute Literary Arts has celebrated Coney Island in several ways over the years — hosting two remarkable poetry festivals, creating two poetry libraries for underserved teens in the neighborhood, and organizing Poem-A-Rama, an intimate reading that took place in the individual gondolas of the area’s legendary eccentric wheelDeno’s Wonder Wheel. Now, after years under the fiscal sponsorship of the Brooklyn Arts Council and Fractured Atlas, the organization is working to incorporate as a 501(c)(3). They’ve secured the assistance of a lawyer from the New York Women’s Bar Association, but the incorporation fees are, for a cash-strapped not-profit, pretty steep—more than $1,600, all told—and Deutch has set up an Indiegogo campaign to raise the money, under the epigraph “in dreams begin responsibility.” They’re presently more than $1,000 of the way towards their goal, with a substantial amount left to cover.

We reached out to Deutch to learn about Parachute, Coney Island, and the fundraiser.

 

Still Life with Coney Island and Poets.

How did Parachute come about? Where did the idea come from, and how did you set it in motion?

The idea had been in the back of my mind since the late nineties. I envisioned an arts center in Coney Island where writers could come to give readings and facilitate free creative writing workshops for locals of all ages.

I was researching Coney Island writers and thinking about having readings in interesting spaces, and those two ideas coalesced into an idea to plan innovative, site-specific readings. I kept coming across more and more writers, living and dead, who’d written about Coney Island. I thought it was odd that for all the writing about Coney Island, many writers hardly ever come to read there and give back to the people and the place that inspired them. So I thought, Why not create that space and invite them? One of the first places that came to mind was the ethereal blue room surrounded by jellyfish in the New York Aqaurium. I was ecstatic when they said I could use that room.

Sometimes, just when I have almost forgotten about an idea, I’ll look around and suddenly realize that seeds I planted long ago are sprouting now. Do you know what I mean? Like I planted an acorn twenty years ago and now I look behind me and see a young oak tree. Parachute is like that. The idea had been in my consciousness for well over a decade, long before we had a name or had hosted our first event.

When the Parachute Festival debuted at the New York Aquarium, it happened slowly slowly and quickly. In a matter of months, I had contacted the Aquarium, met with advisors, invited poets, found a volunteer staff, received a grant, done community outreach, and written press releases. I had never done most of those things before — and I loved it. I created a free festival with two nights of readings in front of the jellyfish, afternoon workshops led by poets Patricia Spears Jones and Cara Benson, and a teen workshop from Urban Word. It was incredible to see and hear these writers read in front of the jellyfish!! I have been impressed by how open and responsive the businesses in Coney Island have been to hosting our literary events (major shout-out to the New York Aquarium, Deno’s Wonder Wheel and the El Dorado Bumper Cars!). They’ve been really terrific, and have become partnering institutions for Parachute Literary Arts.

I mean — even in Coney Island, it’s a little far out to have poets reading aloud in front of jellyfish. In the best way.

Poem-A-Rama participant poets Maya Sanders and Edwin Torres.

Eight years is a long time! What are some of the projects you’re proudest of?

I am proud of all the projects that Parachute Literary Arts has done! I can’t take credit for all of it — we’ve had so many wonderful people work with us over the years. I am especially proud of the work we’ve done with creative writing workshops for teenage girls in Coney Island and the library we created for those girls after Hurricane Sandy. Several of the girls from that first workshop still keep in touch and they’re in college now. One in particular, Maya Sanders, is studying to be an engineer.

When I set out to create our first festival, my vision was to create an event that would draw people from Coney Island, those who live and work here, to come and listen to writers inspired by Coney Island. We had a great line-up including Eileen Myles, Edwin Torres, and Patricia Spears Jones. The first night more than a hundred people showed up and stayed the whole two hours! My mind was blown.  The next night, most of them came back, which really told me we were onto something. At that first festival in 2009, we had mechanics, Mermaid Avenue shop owners, game operators from the Bowery, pastors, teenagers, and, of course, poets. We had beer and popcorn and people could get up and walk around if they liked. Creating events that are not specifically for the usual poetry audience is something I’m very proud of and will continue to pursue through all of our projects.

I am also personally really delighted by the audio installation we had at the second festival in 2012. We installed speakers that played Vito Acconci’s piece “Antarctica” in a small rock outcropping beside the black-footed penguins at the Aquarium. His voice was really spectacular. Hearing the poem at night in the rock nook was really hallucinatory and dream-like.

One night I went to an event at the NY Aquarium and a security guard there stopped me to tell me that our poetry festival was one of her favorite events. I will never forget that.

The Wonder Wheel, as seen from the ground during Poem-a-Rama. Photo by Jim McDonnell.

Coney Island! Can we talk about Coney Island for a minute? I’m not sure everyone knows the beloved place that beautiful hunk of sand and neon holds in the New York City imaginary — the role reflected, for instance, in the title of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s soon to be sixty-year-old poetry collection A Coney Island of the Mind. So, like, why Coney Island? What’s Coney Island?

Why not Coney Island. It is a beautiful place, beloved by those who visit and by many who live there. And it’s been a source of inspiration to generations of artists, photographers, and writers. Coney Island has a very rich literary history. Just a few examples of people who have written about Coney Island are Langston Hughes, Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, Paul Blackburn, Woody Guthrie, Bernadette Mayer, Patti Smith, and Jonathan Lethem, not to mention Coney Island’s own Sheila Maldonado and Michael Broder. And yeah, Ferlinghetti is probably the most well known poet to write a collection with Coney Island in the title. And if anybody knows him, we would love to have him come and read! (Ferlinghetti’s title came from a line in Henry Miller’s Black Spring.) So to me, it makes sense to create a literary non-profit in a place that has served as a source of inspiration for so many writers over the past 150 years and beyond.

Coney Island also has a personal significance for me. My mother grew up in Coney Island, on West 29th Street between Surf and Mermaid, along with her brother, father, and mother. Coney Island has always had a familiar allure to me, a bit of a magnetic pull. It’s funny, our family came to Coney Island from Austria, Hungary, and Poland, but Coney Island feels more like the motherland to me than those countries.

(Segue to book plug here: I have a chapbook of poems about my family’s history in Coney Island forthcoming this winter from Propolis Press.)

An eager crowd of poetry-lovers lines up for Poem-A-Rama. Photo by Jim McDonnell.

You guys are raising money right now to incorporate as a 501(c)(3). What does non-profit status offer that fiscal sponsorship can’t? What are Parachute’s future plans, and how does 501(c)(3)-dom fit in?

Fiscal sponsorship is great. It offers individual artists and organizations the opportunity to apply for grants that they would not be able to otherwise. However, it has limitations. There are a lot of funding sources that Parachute is ineligible for as a fiscally sponsored organization. People have even suggested that we apply for funding from their foundations, and when they hear we are fiscally sponsored realize that we can’t.

We want to increase the variety of grants and funding we can apply for, so that we can continue to offer vibrant programming on an even greater scale. The time is right. We have a great board ready to go and all we need to do is raise the money for the incorporation fees and get to work with a lawyer from the Women’s Bar Association. Up until now, I’ve been an unpaid volunteer, and many people over the years have graciously volunteered time and services in-kind.  Incorporating as a 501(c)(3) will allow me to become a salaried staff member and receive compensation. I also hope to grow and have a paid staff. Not incorporating now would mean holding Parachute back. In order for us to grow and expand as an organization, we need to incorporate. Hopefully, this will also help us apply for grants to cover general operating expenses, website maintenance, utilities, office space, and staff salary.

Parachute Literary Arts has many projects and initiatives in the wings: more festivals, site-specific events, community writing workshops, and, hopefully, an anthology of Coney Island writers. I am excited for what the future holds.  Once we incorporate, it will be much easier for us to carry out programming in a stable way. I want to see Parachute grow, thrive, and sustain itself while offering innovative programming and events in Coney Island.

Poet and frequent Parachute collaborator Patricia Spears Jones. Photo by Susan Brennan.

“In dreams begin responsibilities” — that’s a pretty nuanced thought to tag a fundraising effort with! What does it mean to you?

The first blush of a dream is euphoric, but once that high fades, you’re left with the responsibility it takes to and make your dream manifest. It takes a lot of work — grunt work as well as more inspired pursuit. My dream is to be the salaried artistic director of a thriving literary arts non-profit in Coney Island. Part of what that entails is the responsibility to raise money. Is that my favorite thing? Not particularly, but it comes with the territory.

That quote is from Yeats and was used as the title of a short story by Delmore Schwartz. I also want to give a shout-out to the artist Elizabeth Murray, who has since passed away. She created “Blooming,” an MTA Arts for Transit installation at the 59th Street N/R/W underpass. It’s an exquisite mosaic and that quote is stretched out in large letters across part of it. It makes me smile every time I see it.

Parachute Literary Arts needs your help! To contribute to their campaign, click here. You can also follow them on Twitter and Facebook.

 

Correction: An earlier version of this post mistakenly declared Parachute Literary Arts to be named after Coney Island’s iconic Parachute Jump. It seemed true!, but we should have checked, and we regret the error. Earlier versions were also mistakenly inaccurate about the process by which Coney Island was turned from an island into a peninsula. Historical geography is complicated!, but we should have checked, and we regret the error.

 

 

Ian Dreiblatt is the director of digital media at Melville House.

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