Before there was Disneyland and Six Flags, there was Coney Island. Located on the southern end of the Borough of Brooklyn in New York City, Coney Island was the largest amusement park in the United States between 1880 and World War II. Today, the iconic park has two amusement complexes—Luna Park and Deno’s Wonder Wheel Amusement Park—and numerous entertainment sites not included in the two parks.
Its impact on American popular culture has been large. Consider root beer and the Coney Island hot dog. The roller coaster. The carousel. The area was one of the first to use new technologies like electric light. And the first baby incubator debuted there.
Coney Island is still a popular destination for New Yorkers and visitors, but it has changed considerably over the decades. It is also gaining a reputation for poetry.
In 2009, native New Yorker and poet Amanda Deutch organized a poetry festival for Coney Island. Seven years later, Deutch heads Parachute Literary Arts, a community arts organization that “celebrates poetry in Coney Island and makes poetry available to those who live and work in the Coney Island neighborhood.”
Parachute focuses on three kinds of activities: the festivals, held periodically (2009, 2012, and one scheduled for 2017); poetry workshops for students and adults outside the regular classroom; and poetry “events, ” like creating poetry libraries for organizations and a “Poem-a-Rama” in 2015.
All of this happens within the context of place—and the place is Coney Island. Even the organization’s name comes from one of the local iconic landmarks. The Parachute Jump was a ride at the 1939 New York’s World Fair, and when the fair ended was moved to Steeplechase Park, one of the area’s amusement parks. Steeplechase Park is long gone, but the Parachute Jump tower still stands as a Coney Island landmark (it no longer operates as a ride).
Last year’s “Poem-a-Rama” centered on Coney Island’s big Ferris wheel, known as the Wonder Wheel. Students from Parachute’s workshops joined with established poets at the landmark attraction to read and discuss poetry, both on the ground and on the Wonder Wheel itself. The cars were temporarily transformed into small-group “salons” to read and discuss poetry. The event experienced some unexpected “atmosphere” when fog rolled in.
The workshops have been organized with two local organizations—the Rachel Carson High School for Coastal Studies and the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA). Different area poets lead the workshops. And the high school and the NYCHA’s Surfside Gardens housing complex have two of the poetry libraries. Using social media, Parachute has solicited newly published poetry books from poets and publishers to stock the libraries.
Deutch, a native of New York City and the author of four poetry chapbooks, knows her Coney Island. Her mother, uncle, and grandmother all lived in Coney Island. She’s known the area as a child and as an adult. She currently lives “by the water” in Brooklyn, and described how she came to create Parachute in an article for Poets & Writers Magazine. Its original purpose was to host the 2009 poetry festival, and it grew from there. She’s also involved with a project called Coney Island History, and has done several interviews for it.
Parachute has one additional staff member, Susan Brennan, who serves as Festival Associate. She is a screenwriter and poet, and the author of a chapbook entitled numinous and a full-length collection entitled Drunken Oasis.
Parachute Literary Arts is about poetry and place, and how a community can become connected through poetry. This place just happens to be the nation’s oldest amusement park. One can almost smell the poetry in the cotton candy, the hot dogs, the sand and salt air, the suntan lotion, the screams from the amusement park rides, the music blaring over loudspeakers, and the warmth of the nights.
How to Read a Poem uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Anthology included.
“I require all our incoming poetry students—in the MFA I direct—to buy and read this book.”
—Jeanetta Calhoun Mish