When you walk into Cafe Marlene, a small hidden cafe around Sunnyside, you might hear applause or laughter coming up from the basement floor.
Once every month the Oh, Bernice! reading series has a unique take on live performance and is attracting some major literary names to participate. This series is one example of artistic venues developing in Queens like Boundless Tales in Astoria and First Tuesdays in Jackson Heights.
“I’d always wanted a reading series to take place in Sunnyside,” said Paolo Javier, the Queens Poet Laureate. “So of course I happily accepted when they asked me to take part!”
Each time a different host from the Oh, Bernice! writer’s collective reimagines the traditional poetry reading setup. Last month the reading was done as a mock version of the Dating Game. Each performer answered or asked questions as the bachelor or bachelorette, by reading off their poems, monologues and narrative pieces to the audience.
“Since the reading was two days after Valentine’s Day, I knew I wanted to do something related to it. The Dating Game somehow popped into my head, and I liked the challenge of trying to morph the format of a literary reading with a gameshow,” said Brian Kim, last month’s host.
Last time Kim hosted, he used an anagram generator, typed in the reader’s name and then wrote a fake bios about that person based on the name.
This playful series has attracted such readers as Rigoberto Gonzalez (Guggenheim winner), Nicole Cooley (Walt Whitman Award winner), Richard Schotter (Obie Award nominee), and even poets who live outside of Queens like Joel Allegretti (author of Father Silicon).
“I noticed Rigoberto Gonzalez, who’s a known quantity, read in December, so that alone spurred me to send my bio and samples of my work for consideration,” said Joel Allegretti who participated in the mock Dating Game. “Saturday’s program was the most imaginative reading I’ve ever been to, let alone participated in.”
The Oh, Bernice! reading series began a little more than a year ago. A number of writers coming out of Queens College MFA program formed a writer’s collective and wanted to make an event to encourage themselves to write regularly and hone their craft.
Over time it has attracted writers outside the collective to perform and has developed a small loyal audience in the community.
“We’ve been getting a lot of repeat customers as far as the audience goes,” said Tyler Rivenbark, a member of Oh! Bernice. “They come and they’re just excited to have some place to go and engage with fellow writers and to hear art instead of having to go out to Brooklyn or Manhattan.”