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Surprise a friend or loved one with a spontaneous poem today. Perhaps you've been very busy and haven't spoken to a friend in a while. Write her little poem to catch her up on what's been going on with you and drop it in the mail. Or maybe your grandmother is in need of some cheering up. Read her a few lines over the phone to make her laugh. Don't put too much thought into rhyme scheme or structure, just go with the flow.

The Academy of American Poets announced today that Sjohnna McCray has won the 2015 Walt Whitman Award for his debut poetry collection, Rapture. McCray will receive $5,000, publication by Graywolf Press in 2016, a six-week paid residency in Umbria, Italy, and distribution of his book to all Academy members. He will also be featured on the Academy of American Poets website as well as in its print publication, American Poets.

Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Tracy K. Smith selected McCray as this year’s winner. Of McCray’s manuscript, Smith writes, “These poems are so beautifully crafted, so courageous in their truth-telling, and so full of what I like to think of as lyrical wisdom—the visceral revelations that only music, gesture and image, working together, can impart—that not only did they stop me in my tracks as a judge, but they changed me as a person. Sjohnna McCray’s is an ecstatic and original voice, and he lends it to family, history, race and desire in ways that are healing and enlarging. Rapture announces a prodigious talent and a huge human heart.”

McCray, forty-three, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. He holds an MFA from the University of Virginia as well as a master’s in English education from Columbia University’s Teacher College. McCray received AWP’s Intro Journal Award and Ohio University’s Emerson Poetry Prize, and his poems have appeared in numerous publications including the Southern Review and Shenandoah. McCray currently lives and teaches in Savannah, Georgia.

Now in its fortieth year, the Walt Whitman Award is given annually for a first book of poetry. The prize was expanded last year to include the new partnerships with Graywolf Press and the Civatelli Ranieri Center. Earlier this month, the Academy also expanded eligibility criteria for all of its prizes to include non-citizens living in the United States. Previous winners of the Walt Whitman Award include Nicole Cooley, Suji Knock Kim, Eric Pankey, and J. Michael Martinez. 

The Academy of American Poets was founded in 1934 and is the “largest member-supported nonprofit organization fostering an appreciation for contemporary poetry and supporting American poets.” The Academy distributed over $200,000 in prize money to poets in 2014.

Photo: Sjohnna McCray (credit Aaron Mervin)

Caitlin Rother is the New York Times best-selling author and coauthor of ten booksfiction, nonfiction, and memoirincluding the forthcoming novel from Pinnacle, Then No One Can Have Her. A Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist, Rother teaches narrative nonfiction and digital journalism at the University of California, San Diego Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink, and works as a book doctor and writing coach.

Caitlin RotherHow do you prepare for a reading or workshop?
I look for excerpts that are action-oriented, funny, hold some personal meaning or that I think will resonate with the audience. When I launched my mystery novel, Naked Addiction (WildBlue Press, 2014), at a library reading in La Jolla recently (thank you P&W), I chose one of my favorite passages, which describes a ceremony at Windansea beach that we locals call “Sunset.” The passage incorporates my personal connection with the beach and the ocean, and I hoped that reading it would help build a connection with audience members and entice them to read my book. I also read passages that were inspired by tragic personal events, including my late husband’s suicide. These provided me with a springboard to discuss how I draw from my own emotional knowledge and experiences when I create fictional characters, and when I write about the real people and events featured in my nonfiction books.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member or workshop participant?
Here’s one from a thirteen-year-old that made me laugh:
“Are you rich?”
“No,” I replied. “It is an urban myth that authors make tons of money on their books. That is really the exception. You should come outside and take a look at my car, which I’ve had since 1997.” 

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I find that audiences respond to humor, honesty, and sincerity. One of my favorite jokes, which never fails, is when I tell audiences that I used to cover politics for a living, but I found that writing about murder felt, well, less dirty.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been a part of?
I was leading an exercise on how to tell true stories at a teen writing workshop recently (thanks again to P&W) and was amazed at some of the serious subject matter the participants came up with. One fourteen-year-old girl, whom I’ll call Marcia, volunteered in a quiet voice that a friend had confided to her that she’d been cutting herself. Marcia didn’t know what to do or how to help her. When I asked if anyone else knew about this, she said no, the friend hadn’t told anyone else and neither had she. I suggested that Marcia tell her own parents because that was a heavy burden to carry. It seems that everyone, at any age, has a deeply personal story to tell.

How does giving a reading or workshop inform your writing and vice versa?
It’s always rewarding and helpful to see what passages or topics resonate most with readers. And leading a workshop often reinforces the best practices to fix my own writing tics. 

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
I believe that sharing common or unique experiences through reading and writing is a good way to build a strong, supportive, and educated community.

Photo: Caitlin Rother    Photo Credit: Joel Ortiz

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

Submissions are currently open for Finishing Line Press’s 2015 New Women’s Voices Series Chapbook Competition. A prize of $1,000 and publication by Finishing Line Press will be given for a poetry chapbook written by woman who has not yet published a full-length collection. Leah Maines, poet and director of Finishing Line Press, will judge. Ten finalists will be offered publication in the New Women’s Voices chapbook series.

Submit a manuscript of up to 26 pages with a biography, acknowledgements page, cover letter, and $15 entry fee by March 31. Writers may submit entries through the online submission manager or via postal mail to Finishing Line Press, P.O. Box 1626, Georgetown, KY 40324. Multiple submissions are accepted. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Finishing Line Press is an small poetry press based in Georgetown, Kentucky. Established in 1998 by C. J. Morrison, the press specializes in poetry chapbooks and publishes over one hundred collections per year. Finishing Line administers two annual competitions: the New Women’s Voices Series Chapbook Competition and the Open Chapbook Competition, which both offer $1,000 and publication. Sarah Green won the 2014 New Women's Voices prize for her chapbook Skeleton Evenings.

While building our vocabularies, we often learn new words based on the rest of a sentence or passage we’re reading. This can lead to some made-up definitions that can go uncorrected for years, even decades. This week, write an essay about a word or phrase that you thought you completely understood, yet recently found out meant something different. Has the habit of using this word become ingrained in your everyday speech? Do you prefer your own definition to the official one?

American poet and fiction writer Fanny Howe has been named a finalist for the 2015 Man Booker International Prize. The biennial prize is given to a fiction writer who writes in English or whose work is generally available in translation in English. The winner will receive £60,000 (approximately $89,290).

The finalists were announced yesterday at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. They are César Aira of Argentina, Hoda Barakat of Lebanon, Maryse Condé of Guadeloupe, Mia Couto of Mozambique, Amitav Ghosh of India, Fanny Howe of the United States, Ibrahim al-Koni of Libya, László Krasznahorkai of Hungary, Alain Mabanckou of the Republic of Congo, and Marlene van Niekerk of South Africa. The finalists were selected by judges Nadeem Aslam, Elleke Boehmer, Edwin Frank, Wen-chin Ouyang, and Marina Warner.

“The judges have had an exhilarating experience reading for this prize; we have ranged across the world and entered the vision of writers who offer an extraordinary variety of experiences,” said chair of judges Marina Warner. “Fiction can enlarge the world for us all and stretch our understanding and our sympathy. The novel today is in fine form: as a field of inquiry, a tribunal of history, a map of the heart, a probe of the psyche, a stimulus to thought, a well of pleasure and a laboratory of language. Truly we feel closer to the tree of knowledge.”

The number of finalists who do not write in English but are translated into English is the highest ever for the 2015 prize, with eight out of the ten finalists writing in non-English languages. In addition, the list includes writers of six nationalities never before included on the list: Guadeloupe (an island region of France located in the West Indies), Hungary, Libya, Mozambique, Republic of Congo, and South Africa. “This is the most interesting and enlightening list of finalists,” said Jonathan Taylor, the chair of the Booker Prize Foundation. “It brings attention to writers from far and wide, so many of whom are in translation.”

Established in 2005, the Man Booker International Prize is administered by the London-based Booker Prize Foundation. The foundation also administers the annual Man Booker Prize for Fiction, a £50,000 prize given for a novel published in the United Kingdom in the previous year.

The winner of the 2015 Man Booker International Prize will be announced in London on May 19. Recent winners include American writers Lydia Davis and Philip Roth, and Canadian writer Alice Munro.

Have you been writing about a character who seems stuck? Shake things up a bit and have him move to a new town. It could be the next town or the next state over. Make the new setting just different enough to make your character an outsider to the residents, but familiar enough that he feels he should fit right in.

Last night at an award ceremony in London, Indian American writer Akhil Sharma was announced the winner of the 2015 Folio Prize for his second novel Family Life. He will receive £40,000 (approximately $59,500). The annual award is given for an English-language book of fiction published in the United Kingdom in the previous year.

“From a shortlist of which we are enormously proud, Akhil Sharma’s lucid, compassionate, quietly funny account of one family’s life across continents and cultures, emerged as our winner,” said chair of judges William Fiennes. “Family Life is a masterful novel of distilled complexity: about catastrophe and survival; attachment and independence; the tension between selfishness and responsibility. We loved its deceptive simplicity and rare warmth. More than a decade in the writing, this is a work of art that expands with each re-reading and a novel that will endure.” The prize was judged by Fiennes, Rachel Cooke, Mohsin Hamid, A. M. Homes, and Deborah Levy.

Sharma is the author of one previous novel, An Obedient Father. Born in Delhi and raised in New Jersey, Sharma spent nearly thirteen years writing the semi-autobiographical Family Life. The novel chronicles the story of Ajay, whose family immigrates from Dehli to New York in the 1970s and struggles to cope with an accident that leaves Ajay’s brother brain-damaged.

The finalists for the prize were Rachel Cusk for Outline (FSG); Ben Lerner for 10:04 (Faber & Faber); Jenny Offill for Dept. of Speculation (Knopf); Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor for Dust (Knopf); Ali Smith for How to Be Both (Pantheon); Miriam Toews for All My Puny Sorrows (McSweeney’s); and Colm Tóibín for Nora Webster (Scribner). The finalists were selected from a list of eighty books—twenty of which were nominated by publishers, and sixty of which were nominated by the Folio Prize Academy, an international group of 235 writers and critics.

Now in its second year, the Folio Prize is the first major English-language book prize open to writers from around the world. (The Man Booker Prize only expanded to include writers of any nationality in 2014.) American writer George Saunders won the inaugural Folio Prize for his short story collection Tenth of December (Random House).

It is rare for a solar eclipse to occur on the same day as the spring equinox, which is exactly what happened last Friday. Astrologers predicted this day would bring forth a major turning point in our lives, the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new phase. This week, write a poem about what you think this rare event might symbolize. For inspiration, read about how eclipses have been viewed throughout history, and what our ancestors might have thought about this occurrence.

Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Director of Poets & Writers’ California Office and Readings & Workshops (West) program, blogs about the California program’s twenty-fifth anniversary celebration, which took place on March 6, 2015, in Los Angeles.

Ryan Tranquilla

The excitement in the room was palpable. The open mic sign-up sheets were filling up with names (fifty-two, to be precise!). Free copies of Poets & Writers Magazine were flying off the table. The audience of nearly one hundred sat in chairs, congregated in the aisles between bookshelves, and leaned on the balcony railings of downtown Los Angeles’s the Last Bookstore for a special celebration.

For twenty-five years, Poets & Writers has served California through the Readings & Workshops program, providing grants to thousands of writers and reaching an audience of tens of thousands annually. We offer regular roundtable meetings for the literary community, sponsor an annual cross-cultural reading, and much more.

The evening’s featured readers were introduced by emcee Mike “the Poet” Sonksen, himself a P&W-supported writer, and included Gloria Alvarez, Olga Garcia Echeverria, Kate Gale, Dorothy Randall GrayPeter J. Harris, Richard Modiano, Ruth NolanCati Porter, and Terry Wolverton, as well as past Readings & Workshops program directors Ryan Tranquilla and Cheryl Klein. Together, these writers represented organizations that included Avenue 50 Studio, Red Hen Press, Urban Possibilities, the World Stage, Grand Performances, Beyond Baroque, Inlandia Institute, and Writers at Work. Between open-mic readers, program assistant Brandi M. Spaethe raffled off fantastic P&W door prizes!

Group

Writer Ruth Nolan, who drove to Los Angeles from the blooming desert of California’s Inland Empire to participate in the event, thanked P&W for building writing communities in unlikely places with unlikely people.

Poet and teacher Dorothy Randall Gray, who has received P&W support for her Urban Possibilities workshops serving Los Angeles’s Skid Row, summed it up: "I sometimes think of writers as swimming in a sea of creativity—and, you know, in this sea we have tidal waves and monsoons and tsunamis. We also have blue skies and smooth waters and smooth sailing. I think of Poets & Writers as people, as vessels, who help us get to the shore of success by giving us their support—but even more than support, by saying, We believe in you and we believe in what you're doing, and we're going to put our money where our mouths are. They have always been there to support, to guide, to say, Hey, we're gonna back whatever you do. So I just want to give a huge thank you. Thank you, thank you, for all the support that you've given to me and all the writers that are sitting in this audience, and those writers to come."

Poets & Writers is proud to serve and partner with the writers and literary presenters of California, and we hope to do so for years to come.

Photo 1: Former program director Ryan Tranquilla. Photo 2: (Left to right): Featured poet Cati Porter, featured poet Richard Modiano, P&W intern Tammy Tarng, P&W program assistant Brandi M. Spaethe, P&W program director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, former P&W intern Leticia Valente, featured poet Ruth Nolan, emcee Mike “the Poet” Sonksen. Credit: Katy Winn.

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

Acclaimed novelist Louise Erdrich has been named the recipient of the 2015 Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction, given annually to an American fiction writer whose “body of work is distinguished not only for its mastery of the art but for its originality of thought and imagination.” A panel of distinguished literary critics and authors recommended Erdrich to Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, who then selected Erdrich as this year’s winner.

Erdrich, 60, is the author of fourteen novels, including Love Medicine (HarperCollins, 1984), The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (HarperCollins, 2001), The Plague of Doves (HarperCollins, 2009), and, most recently, The Round House (HarperCollins 2013), which won the National Book Award for fiction. Over her thirty-year career, Erdrich has received numerous awards and accolades, including the National Book Critics Circle Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship in the Creative Arts, and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas. Born to a German-American father and a half French-American, half Ojibwe mother, much of Erdrich’s writing centers on Native American history.

In his announcement on Tuesday, Billington said of Erdrich: “Throughout a remarkable string of virtuosic novels, Louise Erdrich has portrayed her fellow Native Americans as no contemporary American novelist ever has, exploring—in intimate and fearless ways—the myriad cultural challenges that indigenous and mixed-race Americans face. In this, her prose manages to be at once lyrical and gritty, magical yet unsentimental, connecting a dreamworld of Ojibwe legend to stark realities of the modern-day. And yet, for all the bracing originality of her work, her fiction is deeply rooted in the American literary tradition.”

Erdrich will receive the award during the 2015 Library of Congress National Book Festival on September 5.

Now in its third year, the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction “seeks to commend strong, unique, enduring voices that—throughout long, consistently accomplished careers—have told us something new about the American experience.” E. L. Doctorow was awarded the prize in 2014 and Don DeLillo won the inaugural prize in 2013. The award was inspired by the former Library of Congress Creative Achievement Award, which was previously given to Herman Wouk in 2008, John Grisham in 2009, Isabel Allende in 2010, Toni Morrison in 2011, and Philip Roth in 2012.

Photo: Louise Erdrich (credit Allen Brisson-Smith/ New York Times)

Is it necessary to be vulnerable if you want to become closer with someone? This week, write an essay that gives advice to those looking to be more open with the people they know. Use your personal experience to discuss whether vulnerability has helped create stronger connections, or if an alternative experience offered positive results for tighter bonds. 

Just as we often have a favorite t-shirt, sandwich, or brand of coffee, we also have favorite words; the ones we use in everything we write without even realizing it. Think about why you use these words so often. Is it because they reflect your personal writing style, or because it’s become a habit? This week, read carefully through one of your stories, circling the words that keep popping up. Then explore different options for expressing the same sentiment. 

PEN American Center has announced the longlist for its 2015 Literary Awards. The annual prizes are given for works of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, translation, and children’s literature written by emerging and established writers. This year PEN will award over $150,000 to writers through its awards.

The full longlist for the 2015 awards, given in seventeen categories (eight of which do not have a longlist), can be read on PEN’s website. Below are the semi-finalists for a few awards:

PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction ($25,000): Awarded annually for a debut short story collection or novel published in the previous year that represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.

The UnAmericans (Norton) by Molly Antopol
Ruby
(Hogarth) by Cynthia Bond
Black Moon
(Hogarth) by Kenneth Calhoun
Redeployment
(Penguin Press) by Phil Klay
Ride Around Shining
(Harper) by Chris Leslie-Hynan
The Dog
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Jack Livings
The Wives of Los Alamos
(Bloomsbury) by TaraShea Nesbit
The Heaven of Animals
(Simon & Schuster) by David James Poissant
Love Me Back
(Doubleday) by Merritt Tierce
Time of the Locust
(Atria Books) by Morowa Yejidé

Judges: Caroline Fraser, Katie Kitamura, Paul La Farge, Victor LaValle

PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000): Awarded annually for an essay collection published in the previous year that exemplifies the dignity and esteem the essay form imparts to literature.

Moral Imagination (Princeton University Press) by David Bromwich
Theater of Cruelty
(New York Review Books) by Ian Buruma
Loitering
(Tin House Books) by Charles D’Ambrosio
Surrendering Oz
(Etruscan Press) by Bonnie Friedman
The Hard Way on Purpose
(Scribner) by David Giffels
Where Have You Been?
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux) by Michael Hofmann
The Empathy Exams
(Graywolf Press) by Leslie Jamison
Sidewalks
(Coffee House Press) by Valeria Luiselli
Limber
(Sarabande Books) by Angela Pelster
You Feel So Mortal
(University of Chicago Press) by Peggy Shinner

Judges: Diane Johnson, Dahlia Lithwick, Vijay Seshadri, Mark Slouka

PEN Open Book Award ($5,000); Awarded annually for an exceptional book-length work of literature by an author of color.

An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press) by Rabih Alameddine
Fire Shut Up in My Bones
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) by Charles M. Blow
Team Seven
(Doubleday) by Marcus Burke
Streaming
(Coffee House Press) by Allison Adelle Hedge Coke
Every Day Is for the Thief
(Random House) by Teju Cole
An Untamed State
(Black Cat) by Roxane Gay
A Brief History of Seven Killings
(Riverhead Press) by Marlon James
Citizen: An American Lyric
(Graywolf Press) by Claudia Rankine
The Fateful Apple
(Urban Poets and Lyricists) by Venus Thrash
The City Son
(Soho Press) by Samrat Upadhyay
Kinder Than Solitude
(Random House) by Yiyun Li

Judges: R. Erica Doyle, W. Ralph Eubanks, Chinelo Okparanta

Finalists will be announced on April 15, and the winners will be announced on May 13 and honored at an award ceremony at the New School in New York City on June 8.

Established in 1922, PEN American Center has administered its Literary Awards for nearly fifty years. Based in New York City, PEN works to “ensure that people everywhere have the freedom to create literature, to convey information and ideas, to express their views, and to make it possible for everyone to access the views, ideas, and literatures of others.”

These days, friendships are often formed over the Internet. Have you corresponded with someone via a social networking site or dating site who you’ve never met in person? This week, write a poem about what you imagine meeting this person would be like. If you’ve never seen a picture of him or her, write about what you think this person looks like based on how he or she writes. 

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