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10.22.14

From: The Time Is Now

When you sit down to write, do you invoke a muse? Who is this muse, and what do you ask of her? Is this someone in your day-to-day life, or an unearthly entity—like the nine muses in Greek mythology? This week, write a personal essay about a person who brings you inspiration, courage, and clarity in moments of creative effort. 

Is there a celebrity that you think one of your characters is destined to meet? Write a scene in which he or she has a chance encounter with this famous person. Have the two carry on a normal conversation before your character recognizes this person is a celebrity. Perhaps this star has some words of wisdom to impart to your character (or the other way around), or maybe he or she is just looking for a friend. For inspiration, watch this video in which recording artist Jay-Z meets a woman named Ellen in a New York City subway car.

Is there a simple fact that you find amazing? Think of some tidbit of knowledge that somehow altered your perspective or filled you with a new sense of wonder. It could be something very basic that changed your daily routine, or something that sparked your interest to learn about a new topic further. For example, did you know your age actually represents the number of times you have orbited around the sun? Write a poem incorporating your fact and meditate on why it fascinates you.

Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney’s third poetry collection, Patter (Red Hen Press, 2014), examines miscarriage, infertility, and parenthood. His second book, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was a National Poetry Series selection. He has received residencies and fellowships from Cave Canem, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, nocturnes, Pleiades, The Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Washington Square, and Callaloo. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley and teaches at CalArts.

Douglas KearneyWhat are your reading dos?
Gosh—reading dos. I remember that the writing of these poems was driven by some kind of dynamic source—intellectual, emotional, physical. If I remember that, it animates the poems, even the quieter ones. Going to hear a reader read a poem is simply not the same thing as reading it yourself. So as a poet giving a reading, I see no point in being absent from the work while presenting it live (reading in Times New Roman, I call it). That’s what the book is for. That does not mean that you have to shout, switch accents, and sing (though that’s often an honest part of the composition for me and many others)—but I think being present is necessary and audiences can tell, even when your version of present is to read without much affect.

How do you prepare for a reading?
Most of my preparation is around getting my voice ready. I’ll scat a bit so I know where my range will be and to get my tongue limber. It’s funny, it also gets me surer of enunciation. Then, there are two rap tracks I perform: Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Blackstar’s “Definition,” and Latyrx’s “Say That.” Both are two-emcee crews, so it stretches me out a bit in terms of timbre, cadence, and breath control. As the work has gotten more mercurial, more shard-full, I sometimes do Nicki Minaj’s verse from “Monster.” Then, I pray that I don’t get in the way of the work, that I don’t embarrass my ancestors and contemporary friends and family, and give thanks I get to do this at all.

When it comes to picking my “set,” I want to do a different one for every reading. But if I’m a bit nervous, I lean on past sequencing. I want to get out of that habit—explore the “deep cuts” (ha!) a bit more.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I don’t know how pleased crowds are with my poems that work. I’ll say the ones that are probably the most likely at getting the unsettled responses, that I think the work solicits, are the “Miscarriage” poems from Patter, and my “peppy poem about the Middle Passage,” “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” from The Black Automaton. These work because most folks seem to know how they should react to the surface subject matter—yet, the poems don’t go there without some complications. I think the surprise of that is engaging to audiences.

Additionally, I’ve come to pay a lot more attention to the banter between poems as an extension of the writing in a live setting. So I rework setups a lot. A dear friend of mine, playwright, performer, poet, and musician Eisa Davis has referred to the banter as “my stand-up.” I do study comedians to work out timing, cringe humor, and audience interaction.

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?
Two things! Once, way back at a group reading in San Diego, some guy stood up in the middle of one of my poems, shouted “Parasites!,” and stormed out. That was fun!

And once, I was having a public dialogue with Amiri Baraka in the Bay Area. I read a poem called “The Chitlin Circuit.” This involved me leaping from the stage and stalking around the crowd, getting louder and louder as I repeated a passage of the poem. When I got back to the stage, Mr. Baraka looked at me like I had grown horns—but bright, beautiful, thorny horns! Then, he read “Ka’Ba”—and it was like a balm spread over the room. I had never truly known so much love and yearning for peace was in that poem—and I understood viscerally something about the late poet and the power of poetry I had never known before.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on:
Something for my kids. They are working at being high-maintenance.

Photo: Douglas Kearney     Credit: Eric Plattner

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

Last Wednesday, a full lunar eclipse occurred in the early hours of the morning. Its red hue has earned the lunar event the title of a “blood moon.” It is part of a rare series of eclipses known as a “tetrad,” when the moon is completely covered by the earth’s shadow for four eclipses in a row. Some people believe it to be a sign of things to come, while others see it as simply a unique, astronomical event. This week, write about what eclipses, blood moons, and other unusual celestial events make you think about.

The National Book Foundation has announced the shortlists for its 2014 National Book Awards. The finalists in poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and young people's literature were announced this morning on NPR’s Morning Edition by Mitchell Kaplan, cofounder of Miami Book Fair International and former president of the American Booksellers Association. 

The finalists in poetry are Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Fanny Howe, Second Childhood (Graywolf Press); Maureen N. McLane, This Blue (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Fred Moten, The Feel Trio (Letter Machine Editions); and Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Graywolf Press).

The finalists in fiction are Rabih Alameddine, An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press); Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner); Phil Klay, Redeployment (Penguin); Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (Knopf); and Marilynne Robinson, Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux).

The finalists in nonfiction are Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? (Bloomsbury); Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes (Metropolitan Books); Evan Osnos, Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); John Lahr, Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh (Norton); and Edward O. Wilson, The Meaning of Human Existence (Liveright).

The finalists in young people’s literature are John Corey Whaley, Noggin (Atheneum Books); Deborah Wiles, Revolution (Scholastic); Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming (Nancy Paulsen Books); Eliot Schrefer, Threatened (Scholastic); and Steve Sheinkin, The Port Chicago 50: Disaster, Mutiny and the Fight for Civil Rights (Roaring Books Press).

The finalists were selected from a longlist in each category. Fiction heavyweights Richard Powers and Jane Smiley failed to make the cut, while relative newcomers Phil Klay and Emily St. John Mandel join Pulitzer Prize–winner Marilynne Robinson, whose novel Home was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2008. On the poetry side, veteran Edward Hirsch was also cut from the longlist, while favorites Glück, Howe, and Rankine (who earlier this year received the $50,000 Jackson Poetry Prize from Poets & Writers, Inc.) top the list.

The winners will be announced at a ceremony in New York City on November 19, headlined by Daniel Handler—also known as Lemony Snicket. 

Photo: Claudia Rankine

Most songs have a story to tell. It could be a simple message, such as “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles, or more complicated and personal. This week, think of a favorite song and write a story from it. You can invent new characters, settings, and plot points, or stick to the information provided in the lyrics of the song.

Australian author Richard Flanagan has won the 2014 Man Booker Prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North. Flanagan, fifty-three, was presented with the award by the Duchess of Cornwall at a ceremony this evening at London's Guildhall. He receives £50,000, or approximately $80,000.

Flanagan is the author of five previous novels and several works of nonfiction. The Narrow Road to the Deep North, published in the U.K. by Chatto & Windus and in the United States by Knopf, tells the story of Australian prisoners of war forced by imperial Japan to construct the Thailand-Burma Death Railway during World War II. Flanagan based the novel on the experiences of his father, who died the day Flanagan finished the book.

For the first time in its forty-six-year history, Britian’s most prestigious literary prize was expanded this year to include writers of any nationality. The decision has been controversial, with the Man Booker Prize Foundation consistently taking heat from the British literary community. The award was previously limited to authors from the U.K. and the British Commonwealth, the Republic of Ireland, and Zimbabwe.

Flanagan was chosen from among six short-listed finalists, including the American authors Joshua Ferris for To Rise Again at a Decent Hour (Viking) and Karen Joy Fowler for We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Putnam); and British authors Howard Jacobson for J (Jonathan Cape), Neel Mukherjee for The Lives of Others (Chatto & Windus), and Ali Smith for How to Be Both (Hamish Hamilton). A panel of six judges chose the winner from more than a hundred novels. 

New Zealand’s Eleanor Catton won the 2013 prize for her novel The Luminaries. At twenty-eight, Catton became the youngest writer to win the award. Flanagan is the third author from Australia—and the first from the island of Tasmania—to win the prize.

It’s not quite Halloween yet, but that doesn’t stop some people from dressing up as superheroes. Have you ever worn a superhero costume or daydreamed about what kind of superhero you’d want to be? This week, write a poem about your superhero persona. Would you have a specific power? How would your actions help others? Would you work on a team with other superheroes, or would you fly solo? Have fun with this one.

Richard Jeffrey Newman is the author of The Silence of Men and has translated from the Persian, The Teller of Tales: Stories from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh. His poetry and essays have been published in Diode, the Good Men Project, Voice Male, 66: The Journal of Sonnet Studies, Ozone Park, and Newtown Literary. He blogs about the impact of feminism on his life as a man and the relevance of classical Iranian poetry to our contemporary lives. In June 2012, Newman took over as curator of First Tuesdays: A Neighborhood Reading Series

My favorite part of hosting First Tuesdays, the neighborhood reading series I run in Elmhurst, Queens, is building the “cento,” which has become a tradition for me to close with at each month’s open mic. A cento is a poem made from the lines of other author’s poems, and represents a collaboration between the poet composing the cento and the poets from whose work he or she borrows from. At First Tuesdays, this collaboration happens in real time. While the first open mic reader shares his or her work, prose or poetry, I listen for language that moves me. When the reader is finished, I recite that line back to the audience, and then I take (or sometimes the audience suggests) a line or phrase from each subsequent reader. In this way, line by line, we build a poem that represents the literature shared that evening.

Part of the fun is that I don’t write anything down until the entire cento is finished, making the poem a true collaboration. Indeed, the audience often helps me remember the lines, especially when the list of open mic readers is long. This communal participation, the fact that the people who come to First Tuesdays see themselves as a community, is what I cherish most. We are a diverse group, including writers at all levels of accomplishment and from many walks of life, and I am inspired by how warm and welcoming everyone is. Almost every month, we become the first audience for someone who has never read their work publicly before; and there are always people who come just to listen. Some of them have become regulars, as well.

I took over hosting First Tuesdays for the 2012–2013 season, though circumstances made it impossible for me to apply for Poets & Writers funding. Starting from the fall of 2013, I have applied for every reading, and the money I’ve received has made it possible not only to pay our featured readers a respectable honorarium, but also to demonstrate that our small, neighborhood venue—and the work that it does as a small, neighborhood venue—matters. The smiles and head nods I see when I announce that Poets & Writers has sponsored a reading tells me people are happy, and even proud, about that.

Here is September’s cento, the first of the 2014–2015 season, composed of lines by Allison, Keron Dinkins, Herb Rubinstein, Valerie Keane, David Mills, Amanda, Lydia Chang, Norman Stock, Marty Levine, Norka Del Rios, Sean Egan, and Peter Marra:

Everyone Downstairs Can See Directly Up My Skirt

A blind man suggests an offering:   
A family of skeletons released,
Seeking a way out of the suction of Eros,
   Blazing the way you are
when you finally return
   To be grossed out by little peckers.


Perhaps they will wonder why I have so little hair  
 Waiting for the lion
to return.

Be nice to your mother  
 In the presence of the holy one blessed be
he.

That melody of love was interrupted.

I whisper secrets to her pillow to see what it says.   
She always
carried a contempt for daylight.
   
I cried for a while and then the
humor of it struck me.


–Composed at Terraza Cafe, September 2, 2014

Photo: Richad Jeffrey Newman. Photo Credit: Beech Tree Images.

Photo: Terraza Cafe. Photo Credit: Richard Jeffrey Newman.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by 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.

French novelist Patrick Modiano of Paris has won the 2014 Nobel Prize in Literature. The announcement was made today in Stockholm by Peter Englund, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. Englund praised the 69-year-old author, whose work explores “the art of memory, with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.”

Modiano was born in a west Paris suburb in July 1945, two months after the end of the second world war. His parents—a Jewish Italian father and Belgian mother—met during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Jewish identity, the Holocaust, and loss of memory, identity, and time are recurring themes in Modiano's work. He published his debut novel, La Place de l'Etoile, in 1968; though few of his books have been translated into English, he has since gained both critical and popular acclaim throughout France. One of his most well known novels is Missing Person (Jonathan Cape, 1980), which was awarded France's Prix Goncourt in 1978. His most recent book is Pour que tu ne te perdes pas dans le quartier.

American authors Phillip Roth and Thomas Pynchon were favorites for this year’s award, along with Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, Kenyan writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, and the Syrian poet Adonis.

Founded in 1901, the Nobel Prize in literature is given to a writer who, according to the will of Alfred Nobel, has “produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.” The winner receives eight million Swedish kronor, or approximately $1.1 million. Modiano will receive the award at a ceremony on December 10.

Canadian short story writer Alice Munro received last year’s prize. Chinese novelist Mo Yan won in 2012, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer won in 2011, and Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa won in 2010.

There are only three hundred and sixty-five days in a year, but billions of people on the planet, so chances are, you share your birthday with at least one celebrity or public figure. This week, find out who your birthday buddies are, and learn a little bit about them. Notice any similarities? Write a short personal essay about how sharing your birthday with these people makes you feel. If you were born on this day, you’d be sharing the spotlight with John Lennon (and his son Sean), Camille Saint-Saëns, and King Charles X of France.

Many people believe that bigger is better, and when it comes to food, a giant-sized version of your favorite treat can be more exciting than the normal-sized version you encounter on a daily basis. But as humans, we can only eat so much in one sitting. Though delicious, a sofa-sized jelly doughnut is just not practical. This week, write a scene in which one of your characters wishes for a giant version of his favorite food. What happens when the wish comes true, and the delivery person shows up with, for example, a pizza the size of a small swimming pool?

In ancient Greece, the term "ekphrasis" referred to a work of art in one medium that was produced as a reaction to a piece of art created in another medium. For example, a sculpture may depict a character in a novel, or a poem may describe a well-known painting. This week, choose a work of art that you find inspiring and try to capture its essence in a poem. Make sure to consider all mediums when choosing your subject—not just paintings, but also film, music, architecture, or fashion.

Submissions are currently open for the second-annual Christopher Doheny Award, sponsored by the New York City–based Center for Fiction and Audible, Inc. The award is given for a book-length manuscript of fiction or creative nonfiction on the topic of serious physical illness. The award includes a $10,000 prize, along with publication and promotion of the book in print and audio editions.

Works by "a writer who has personally dealt or is dealing with life-threatening illness, either his or her own or that of a close relative or friend" are eligible. Writers must have previously published in literary journals or magazines, or have had a book published by an independent or traditional publisher. Previously unpublished manuscripts of any length written in English are eligible. Both adult and young adult works will be considered.

Writers should submit a manuscript along with a bibliography of published books, articles, or stories; a paragraph-long bio and contact information; if submitting an unfinished manuscript, a book proposal for the work being submitted and two sample chapters; if submitting a finished manuscript, a synopsis of up to two pages with the full manuscript. Submissions should be sent by e-mail to doheny@centerforfiction.org or by mail to the Christopher Doheny Award, Center for Fiction, 17 E. 47th Street, New York, NY 10017. The deadline is October 30. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

A panel of three distinguished writers and two representatives of Audible, Inc. will judge.

The winner of the 2013 award was Michelle Bailat-Jones for her novel Fog Island Mountains, forthcoming in November, about a South African expatriate living in a small town in Japan who faces a terminal cancer diagnosis. For those in New York City, Bailat-Jones will appear at the Center for Fiction on November 6 to discuss her novel.

The annual is named in honor of Christopher Doheny, who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when he was an infant and worked for Audible, Inc. for eight years. He passed away in February 2013.

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