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This week, choose a pair of shoes that you own or have owned that has significance to you. Perhaps it's the first pair of dress shoes that you purchased, the well-worn sneakers that you wear over and over again, or a pair of shoes that you've never worn but can't bear to toss out. Write an essay about your connection to these shoes, describing them in detail and thinking about the specific qualities that drew you to them in the first place. What do they say about your personality? Where have they accompanied you already, and where might they take you in the future?

In the ​game of telephone, a sentence is whispered down a line from person to person until the last person says the sentence out loud, which oftentimes turns out to be humorously different, and distorted by misunderstandings, from the original. Write a short story that opens with a dialogue between two characters talking on the phone. After the conversation is finished, imagine that one character has completely misheard or misinterpreted something the other character has said. What are the consequences? Is the chain of events that the error sets off tragic or funny, relatively insignificant or life-changing?

In the September/October issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Dean Young talks about his earliest recollection of writing a poem as a child and the realization that, "you could make up reality with language.... You could write the words blue cow, for example, and there'd be a blue cow." Make a list of five vivid but nonsensical phrases describing things that don't exist in reality. Then, choosing one of the phrases to use as a first line, write a poem that is unrestrained by fact or conventional logic. Rather than focusing on consistency or reason, allow your imagination to quickly zigzag from one surprising image, sound, or emotion to the next.

Michael Kearns spent ten years as the artist-in-residence at the Downtown Women’s Center in Skid Row and currently helms Writing Works at Housing Works in Los Angeles on a weekly basis. He is the creator and Artistic Director of QueerWise, a collective of GLBTQ writers who have gained a reputation as one of Los Angeles’s stalwarts in the world of spoken word performance.

Michael KearnsWhat makes your workshops unique?
I really spend a lot of time on the prompt and aim for specificity—the same thing I ask of my students. In the case of QueerWise, which meets fifty-two weeks out of the year, it is my responsibility to mix the palette—from the political to the personal, from the past to the present, from the angst of day-to-day to the joy of living more than five decades. I am also very clear about feedback from the group, insisting that no one “rewrite” but rather offer positive comments that embolden rather than weaken each other. Criticism is contextualized in the form of questions that may be pertinent to understanding the material; no rewriting suggestions, please.
 
What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
A writer must feel safe. I can’t say, “Abracadabra! You’re safe.” But I can create a tone. I stress that no one in the room is there to judge and if I get a whiff of it: “See you later, alligator.” While I look at grammar and punctuation (and provide assistance when needed), I also assure students that I’m looking for stories. And I want heart as well as blood and guts. Humor never hurts.
 
What’s the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
It likely had to do with sex, but I’m too old to remember.
 
What has been your most rewarding experience as a workshop leader?
There are so many. I had a man in his fifties come into my workshop, having never written a word. He had been on the verge of death for more than a decade, defying throat cancer on a daily basis. From the first few sentences he read aloud, I knew he was a natural born writer. He had only recently found housing, after living in his van. I looked at his work and simply gave it the attention it deserved. I forcibly made him acknowledge that he is indeed a writer. This led to him going to college to take a writing class and seeking other writing teachers (which I encourage as long as he stays with me). There are times when a person must utter the four scary words: “I am a writer.” That's when the real work begins.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
My life and art are virtually melded and QueerWise enunciates that marriage. I take this work as seriously as I do any other aspect of my varied career. What began as a group of seven or eight writers (GLBT and over fifty) sitting around a table has—in four years—evolved into a successful troupe of Spoken Word Artists. That couldn’t have happened without the support of Poets & Writers. I learn from each student’s particular perspective, and I also learn when I evaluate how the material is landing on various audience members. That synergy gives me and my art a true uplift of the spirit.
 
What is the craziest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
In our QueerWise sessions, everyone is encouraged to get up and read (with no apologies, by the way). One night, our senior member (a mere eighty-five years old at the time), walked up to the music stand, confidently carrying a notebook containing his work for the evening. I don’t think he’d uttered a complete sentence when his pants fell to the floor, like a Barnum & Bailey clown act. Since we all share a palpable closeness, it was permissible to laugh. And no one laughed louder than Joe who, for the record, was wearing his Calvins.

Photo: Michael Kearns     Credit: Lisa Palombi

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

When something major happens in our lives, we often put some time between us and the event before we write about it. But sometimes, when we let too much time pass, the intense emotion of the event fades and is replaced by a more analytic, objective memory of the incident. In order to channel that sense of immediacy, put yourself back at the scene of a significant incident, right in the middle of the action. Something life-changing is happening to you at this very moment. Report on it. Make your statements short, energized, and to the point. Be sure you cover the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of the story. Sensationalize at your discretion. Skim over nitpicky details if necessary in order to get to the heart of the story.

When the weather turns warm and the pace of life relaxes, it's a natural time to think about traveling. Whether you set off on a rambling road trip across the country, or catch a plane to a distant land, being away from home always feels like an adventure. But what happens if the person you planned to take a trip with can't go at the last minute? Write a story about this scenario, and have your main character decide to take the trip alone. How does this person handle traveling solo? What obstacles does she encounter? Maybe she decides to document the trip for the person who couldn't make it by writing diary entries, or perhaps she sends a postcard home every day. Write about the effect of this experience on the traveler's self-confidence and sense of independence.

Epic poems, like Homer's Odyssey and Virgil's Aeneid, chronicle the tales of heroes set against the backdrop of historical events. They are often lengthy, and typically include narratives featuring superhuman feats, wild adventures, and stylized language. While we usually equate epic poetry with ancient times, the form has also been used by modern poets. From Lord Byron's comic use of the epic form in Don Juan, to Ezra Pound's The Cantos and Alice Notley's The Descent of Alette, this form has been used throughout the ages. Try your hand at writing the beginning of an epic poem. Choose a hero and a quest, and then set sail on a lyric journey. Write in dactylic hexameter, as Homer did, or use your own meter. After all, it's your adventure!

Think of a situation from your past when you were unsure of what to do and wished for someone's advice or opinion. Describe the scenario and ask specific questions about your next course of action, as if you were posing the issue to an advice columnist. Then, write an essay in the form of an advice column response to yourself. Analyze the situation objectively—cite relevant anecdotes, examples, or hypothetical outcomes—and share words of guidance, insight, and encouragement with your past self.

In modern storytelling, a deus ex machina is a plot device in which a dramatic and oftentimes contrived occurrence suddenly saves the day or solves a seemingly impossible problem.​ This week, write a short story using this device in the form of a character, object, or newfound ability. How will you manipulate the pacing to create the most effective sense of surprise? Consider the tone of the story, perhaps incorporating tragedy and comedy, as you lead up to the unexpected turn of events.

This week, encourage someone close to you to collaborate on writing a poem. Together, choose a subject—it can be a shared experience, a mutual friend or loved one, or a place familiar to you both—and then separately, write a short poem on the chosen subject from the first-person perspective. Finally, work together on the editing process, combining the two poems by interweaving lines and stanzas, and formulating a collective rhythm. For inspiration, read "Two Fathers" by Lois Baer Barr and Ellen Birkett Morris.

Sally DeJesus is a poet, mixed media artist, and optimist. Since 2005 she has been facilitating poetry and art programs at the Concourse House, a homeless shelter in the Bronx, for women and their children. She also teaches art at Jacob's Place in the Bronx, creating and facilitating youth art programs, and founded the Social Action for Kids Camp. DeJesus's poetry has been published in Manhattan Linear, and her mixed media sculptures were selected for the installation “South Bronx Contemporary: Longwood Arts Project’s Twenty-fifth Anniversary.” She was the winner of the 1998 Yonkers Public Library Slam and her first chapbook of poetry is currently being considered in numerous competitions. DeJesus is often found at Union Square Slam in New York City.

I have been facilitating art programs with the children at Concourse House, Home for Women and Their Children since 2005. Concourse House works to eliminate homelessness by providing homeless families with safe, stable transitional housing. They also work with families to break the cycle of poverty through a variety of social services and programs that promote personal growth and independence.

The programs that allowed children to write and perform their own poems were always the most successful of my programs, and I often wished I could share my love of poetry with the children’s mothers, as well. I am so grateful that Poets & Writers, through their Readings & Workshops program, gave me that opportunity this year.

Once a week we met in the community room at the shelter. These women have faced, and continue to face, enormous challenges. Although I was there to facilitate their learning to write poems, and explore and share work by established poets, my interest was honestly more about sharing with them something that has been extremely healing for me. In my own life, in poetry writing and within performance venues, I have found support and encouragement to put my feelings and observations about my experiences—the good and the not so good—into poetry. I wanted to offer the mothers at Concourse House that kind of support.

Our time together at Concourse House was filled with moments that inspired me. Their faces lit up when I first returned their handwritten poems after having typed them on the page, and then again when all the poems were formatted into a chapbook. One mother told me she had stopped writing poetry when she was a teenager, but after our first workshop, she wanted to start again. She asked for extra pencils and paper so she could go to the park and keep writing. During the workshops, a teenager volunteered to provide child care. For one mother, having someone look after her baby during the workshops gave her the opportunity to write, an opportunity she might have missed.

At the final reading, the mothers’ children were there to hear them. One woman asked if her young son could read her poem aloud at the mic. She whispered to me that he had never heard the names of the medicinal teas that had been a part of her life growing up in Jamaica; he struggled to pronounce the words. By way of the poem, a mother and son later found their way into a conversation about her childhood.

On the last day, as I was turning in my pass at the security desk, a mother came running up to me with her baby in the stroller. She asked if she could show me something. As I sat with her in the hallway, she pulled out the blank journal I’d given her a few weeks earlier to take to the park. Opening it up, she revealed pages and pages of poems and asked me, “Can I read one to you now?”

Photos: (top) Sally DeJesus, (bottom) Mother & Son.  Photo Credit: Sally DeJesus, Homesh Permashwar.

 

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Postcards sent to friends and family from far-off places often have a "Wish you were here!" sentiment. This week, think of someone who's located far away from you, and write a postcard to him or her with the opposite outlook of "Wish I was there!" Explore what exactly it is about "there" that seems so appealing. What are the most striking differences between where you are and where you wish to be? Depict a vivid scenario in just a few, succinct sentences by focusing on sensory descriptions of that distant locale.

This week, think back to the most memorable books you read as a child, and pick one of your favorite children's book characters, such as Harriet the Spy or Curious George. Write a story that places the character into adulthood. What are the character’s distinctive traits that remain consistent? Would this well-known character be able to solve his or her grown-up problems in the same way?

If you found yourself stranded on a desert island, what would you most want to have with you? Make a list of ten things—anything from books, music, and photos, to people, pets, or food—and then write a poem with the items in your order of importance. Include the reasons why you can’t live without each item. Are there specific memories attached to certain items that persuaded you to choose them?

Allison Geller is a poet and writer, and the associate editor of A Women's Thing magazine. Her chapbook, Write Home, was published in January 2015 by Finishing Line Press. Geller is also a competitive ballroom dancer.

As poets and artists, we have all contributed our time, work, and creative energies for things that we believe in, whether for a nascent (or not-so-nascent) publication, an event, or a cause. But it’s really great to get paid.

That’s why my Roots Poetry Series cocurator Melissa Ahart and I are tremendously appreciative of the grant funding that Poets & Writers has given us. It lets us honor our poets’ time and work while allowing us to keep our monthly reading series free to the public. As one our recent readers commented, “Great atmosphere, great crowd, great readers and a check at the end—does it get any better?”

The New York Times called Roots Cafe, a South Slope, Brooklyn neighborhood hub for coffee, community, art, and music, “a cozy living room with a barista.” As of last November, it’s a living room with poetry readings. Melissa and I started the series because Roots, beloved by both of us, seemed like a perfectly convivial place for poets to gather and read for the public. And to our delight, each reading has drawn a crowd of Roots regulars, friends of the poets reading, locals, students, artists, and the odd Australian tourist.

In choosing our lineups, we focus on pairing emerging with established poets to create a diverse roster of readers while giving newer poets a platform. One of the best parts about the readings is the end, when the readers get to meet each other and express admiration and encouragement for each other’s work. Readers have included Bianca Stone, Adam Fitzgerald, Hafizah Geter, Morgan Parker, Danniel Schoonebeek, Emily Skillings, Matthew Rohrer, and many more.

Roots Poetry Series is always free, with beer and wine served in exchange for cash donations. (After all, where there are poets, there has to be wine.) Our next event will take place on Friday, August 18 at 8:00 PM, when we will welcome Kyle Dargan, Sara Jane Stoner, Mary Austin Speaker and Justin Petropoulos. And stay tuned for news about our November one year anniversary reading, for which we’re inviting back all of our Roots Poetry alumni for a roundup reading.

Finally, we are immensely grateful to Amanda and Christian Neill of Roots Cafe for providing a warm, vibrant home for poetry in South Slope, and to Poets & Writers for giving our readers something to put in their pockets on the way out. This is how art can keep getting made.

Read more about Roots and follow us on Facebook to find out about upcoming readings.

Photos: (top) Allison Geller, cocurator of the Roots Poetry Series. (bottom) Charif Shanahan reading his poems. Photo Credit: Mary Catherine Kinniburgh, Allison Geller.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and Friends of Poets & Writers.

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