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Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, once said, “I like to compare the holiday season with the way a child listens to a favorite story. The pleasures in the familiar way the story begins, the anticipation of familiar turns it takes, the familiar moments of suspense, and the familiar climax and ending.” What would you compare the holiday season to? This week, write a personal essay on the momentum of the winter holidays and how they carry you through to the new year. 

This week, pick a character and write a passage describing the childhood bedroom he or she grew up in. Consider the smells, the angle of sunlight through the blinds, the faint murmer of the television in the living room. What secrets are hidden under the floorboards, or etched in the closets? If the house still stands, and his or her family still lives there, have your character return for a visit.

Year after year, we receive gifts from family members that we only see on holidays. These gifts are sometimes inappropriate. Perhaps you’re vegan and someone gives you a leather wallet, or you keep getting sugar-scented soaps and lotions and you don’t have the heart to say that you’d prefer something else. This week, pick a gift and write a poem about how you felt after receiving it. Here is your opportunity to be honest, so let it all out. 

Leilani Squire's poetry and short shorts have been published in magazines including the Sun, Eclipse, and Gentle Strength Quarterly. She has been a featured poet with the Valley Contemporary Poets, Alex Frankel’s Second Sunday Series, and at Beyond Baroque, and is at work on her first novel. Squire facilitates creative writing workshops for veterans at the Greater Los Angeles Veteran’s Hospital, Wellness Works in Glendale, California, and online for bookscover2cover. She is the senior editor of Returning Soldiers Speak: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry by Soldiers and Veterans (Bettie Youngs Books, 2013) and is the founder and director of the annual event Returning Soldiers Speak: An Evening of Prose and Poetry, a venue for veterans and soldiers from different wars and conflicts to read their poetry and prose to the community. 

Returning Soldiers Speak 2014

I began working with veterans four-and-a-half years ago, with the goal of helping them write about their experiences so that they can heal from the wounds of war; and for those who haven’t been on the battlefield, to begin the process of integrating back into society after their military experience. I facilitate creative writing workshops and work with veterans from the Korean War through Operation Enduring Freedom.

On November 8th, the fifth annual Returning Soldiers Speak: An Evening of Prose and Poetry reading was held at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California. People from all sectors of society and from Los Angeles, San Diego, and Riverside counties, came to hear the veterans read. Veterans from Arkansas, Oceanside, the Mojave Desert, and Los Angeles read their prose and poetry.

The reading began with a letter written during the Korean War by a Navy Seaman deployed on an aircraft carrier telling about the birth of his daughter. Then, stories of the Vietnam War were told: how photos were not taken out of respect for the dead, how a corpsman was embedded with the Marines doing humanitarian work in Vietnamese villages, the gritty reality check of a soldier humping through treacherous Ashau Valley, and of another soldier loading bombs into an airplane. As I listened to the Vietnam veterans read, I sensed I was witnessing something extraordinary. I was in the presence of combat soldiers, who lived in and through war. And their stories touched something primordial within. It was an honor.

The audience was grateful for the breadth of humor that followed, with stories about how to survive in the jungle, the benefits of boot camp, and the lighter, satirical side of being a woman in the military. Others spoke about more recent events. Two combat veterans read about their experiences during the Gulf War. A woman veteran read an excerpt from her memoir about how her superior officer repeatedly raped her and how she kept silent for fear of being dishonorably discharged. The Operation Iraqi Freedom generation read about the challenges of posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide, and what it means to come home and integrate back into society.

One of our favorite readers from Returning Soldiers Speak, James Mathers, passed away this summer. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam War read a short piece called “Poet Time” written by Mathers. The last sentence goes: “If we’ve got any poets out there, now’s the time to step up.” These words were an inspiration and validated the evening’s event by giving the veterans and the audience, permission to write and tell their stories. It was a perfect way to end the reading.

For the first time, because of the generosity of Poets & Writers, Returning Soldiers Speak was able to give the veteran-writers a stipend for reading. We gathered on the staircase in Beyond Baroque’s foyer. I announced their names like roll call and distributed their checks. They were so grateful and proud. And so was I.

Photo: Leilani Squire (at left) with P&W–supported readers from Returning Soldiers Speak. Credit: Chuck Smallwood.

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

Jorge Luis Borges once said, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of library.” Libraries are fascinating places, full of knowledge and mystery. Think of a library you’ve been to in the past. It could be the local library you went to as a kid to look at picture books, or a library you visited once to kill time. Take this library and use it as the setting for the beginning of a new story. Consider the librarian on duty, the regulars, the dark corners, and old books with strange, scribbled notes. What brings people to this library? What are they trying to find?

As the weather turns colder and the days grow shorter, it may be a nice time to gather some friends and write together. This week, try writing a renga, or “linked poem.” The first poet begins by writing a stanza that is three lines long and contains seventeen syllables. The next poet adds the second stanza, a couplet with seven syllables per line. The third stanza repeats the structure of the first, and the fourth mimics the second, and so on, until the poem comes to an end. To make sure the poem has a narrative arc, each poet writes his or her new stanza by referring to the stanza immediately preceding it. 

Rose Mary Salum (Mexico) is the founder and director of the award-winning bilingual magazine Literal, Latin American Voices. She is the author of Delta de las arenas, cuentos arabes, cuentos judíos (Literal Publishing, 2013), Spaces in Between (Literal Publishing, 2006), a book of short stories, and co-author of Vitrales (Edamex/Mexico, 1994). Her poems and short stories have been included in anthologies in the United States, Argentina, Mexico, India, Australia, and Spain. She has published fiction and essays in many periodicals. Salum has received international awards for her literary and editorial work including the 2014 International Latino Book Award, the Council of Editors of Learned Journals (CELJ) Best New Journal for 2006, and four Lone Star Awards, among others.

Rose Mary Salum

What makes your press and its programs unique?
Well, for some reason the word unique feels a bit ambitious. However, what we have tried to accomplish all these years at Literal is to try and bring the most established authors from Latin America into the consciousness of American readers.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
I’m happy about a few of them. We recently invited David Miklos, a very well-established writer in Mexico, for an event. People fell in love with him because he unveiled very intimate family situations that engaged the audience. These powerful themes run through much of his work. Another excellent author and thinker who has joined us is Jesús Silva-Herzog Márquez. People wrote us afterwards asking for more writers like him. The thing is that when we bring these authors to Houston, Texas, we create not only awareness, but also a liaison that connects people to their roots.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
When David Miklos was speaking about both his adoptive mother and his biological mother, the latter was there in the audience, not understanding what he was talking about. She didn’t know him well (this was the second time she saw him after more than forty years) and yet, her eyes were sparkling with joy. It was touching, but at the same time mind-blowing. Did she feel regret? Was she happy that he became such a successful person? All these questions were on everyone’s minds, and yet, the audience received her presence with such welcoming warmth.

How do you cultivate an audience?
With the magazine, the books we produce, the cultural events, social media… with everything that we can think of!!!  In a world that is bombarded with so much information, invitations, activities, reminders, and so on, it’s hard to cultivate a faithful audience, but we try.

How has running a press impacted your own writing and/or life?
I’ve learned so many things on so many levels that it would take me weeks to explain. In fact, I’m tempted to write a memoir only related to what I’ve learned, who I have met, and the funny stories that accompany the kind of work I do.

What do you consider to be the value of small presses in your community?
In my opinion, they are the ones that bring the jewels of the world of literature to readers. The larger publishing houses are more concentrated on what they will sell to pay every month’s commitments. Sometimes the quality they offer is not as great as what the small presses bring to the public. Small presses are the ones that take more risks to open spaces for new and talented authors.

Photo: Rose Mary Salum

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

This week, look at a day in your life through the eyes of an ancestor. How would your grandmother react to the e-mails you get at work? How would your great-great-grandfather navigate modern public transportation? Write a diary entry in the voice of someone from an earlier generation. Consider the cultural norms of the time period your ancestor grew up in as well as his or her personality. Focus on the surprising similarities in your daily lives for a challenge.

At their annual benefit and awards dinner held last night in New York City, the Center for Fiction announced Tiphanie Yanique as the winner of the 2014 Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize. Yanique, who won for her debut novel, Land of Love and Drowning (Riverhead Books, 2014), will receive $10,000. The annual prize is given for a debut novel published in the previous year.

Yanique was chosen from a shortlist of seven debut novelists. The shortlisted finalists, who each received $1,000, were Rene Denfeld for The Enchanted (Harper), Smith Henderson for Fourth of July Creek (Ecco), Josh Weil for The Great Glass Sea (Grove Press), Vanessa Manko for The Invention of Exile (The Penguin Press), Ted Thompson for The Land of Steady Habits (Little, Brown), and Matthew Thomas for We Are Not Ourselves (Simon & Schuster). In July the Center for Fiction announced the longlist for the prize, which included twenty-six novelists. David Gilbert, Tayari Jones, and Margaret Wrinkle judged.

Yanique is the author of a short story collection, How to Escape From a Leper Colony (Graywolf Press, 2010), and a picture book, I Am the Virgin Islands (Little Bell Caribbean, 2012). Land of Love and Drowning tells the story of two sisters and their half-brother orphaned after their parents die in a shipwreck. The novel takes place during the early 1900s in the Virgin Islands. In a video from our Poets & Writers Live event in New York City last June, Yanique—along with four other authors— discusses her work, her process, and what inspires her to write.

Established in 2006, the Flaherty-Dunnan First Novel Prize honors reporter and writer Ray Flaherty, the father of late writer Nancy Dunnan. Dunnan, who sponsored the award, passed away in August. Previous winners of the prize include Junot Díaz, Ben Fountain, Hannah Tinti, and Margaret Wrinkle.

Photo Credit: Debbie Grossman

It has never been easier to learn how to cook with culinary shows on television, tutorials on the internet, and an abundance of cookbooks and food blogs specializing in all sorts of cuisines. This week, write a scene in which one of your characters has sparked an interest in cooking. Does cooking come naturally to her, or is it difficult for her to master? Does she set lofty goals, like winning a competition?

This week, write a whimsical, nonsensical poem about a creature you’ve dreamt up. Try to let go of the meanings associated with the words you use every day when describing this creature. Instead, use words as springboards for weird associations, as colors in a vast mural. Let your mind run wild and hang on for the ride. For inspiration, read Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky.” 

Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk (Doubleday, 2012), an Amazon Best Book of 2012 and Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle selection for 2013. His writing has appeared in Wired, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Outsideand on National Public Radio. Castner is the co-founder of Buffalo, Books & Beer, a new literary series in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

We’re all still learning how to come home from a war. Veterans struggle to readjust, civilians and family wonder how to welcome back their changed loved ones. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves; Odysseus had trouble, too.

This truism of history still applies: Every veteran saw their own war, had their own individual experience, were exposed to their own proportion of terror and transcendence, and deal with their own mix of pride and regret. It follows, then, that no single national program or strategy will best welcome home all these men and women.

For some veterans, though, writing helps. Trauma therapy for some, but for most, just a human need to share an experience with others. The same could be said for the country at large, of course; narrative helps all of us make sense of our lives.

Inclusivity. This is what spurs Words After War, a literary nonprofit based in New York City, to organize workshops and events around the country. Rather than focusing on writing for a small circle of military peers, Words After War instead creates opportunities for veterans and civilians to speak to each other. It’s an effort to bridge the civilian-military divide, one story at a time.

This past semester, with support from Poets & Writers, I led a Words After War workshop on the campus of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. On Tuesday evenings, war was a lens through which to read and write and think about the same topics that have always preoccupied writers. Many traditional workshops use this lens model, we simply considered violence and its aftermath instead of environmentalism or realism or faith or any other typical construct. 

There is no good writing without good reading, so we started each session with Whitman or Hemingway or Vonnegut or Klay (who visited our class just weeks before he won the National Book Award). We studied classics, but also new work from Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, and Hassan Blasim, and two post-Vietnam books, Qais Akbar Omar’s A Fort of Nine Towers and Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. What better way to start than to put great sentences—moving sentences, jarring sentences, and imperfect sentences—in everyone’s ears? An ice-breaker, for the workshopping that followed.

I’d like to think that the strength of our program is to be found in the stories we wrote and the precision and quality of the feedback we provided each other. To judge our success in bridging the civilian-military divide, we could parse the demographics of our group (five veterans/six civilians, four women/seven men, three graduates of creative writing programs, three retirees, a lawyer, a photographer, a poet, an anthropology professor, a magazine editor, an author of four books, one that had not written in decades), but I’d rather examine the work we produced.

Some stories you would expect from a veteran writing group—a nighttime raid in Afghanistan, a day on the gunnery range in basic training—but most may surprise. A dying grandmother who keeps a secret to the end of her life. A son with nightmares while his father fights in Iraq. Travels in Korea. A meditation in a snow-filled graveyard. We workshopped prose poems and flash fiction, chapters from novels, and a Civil War biography told through letters. Some stories had a military connection, but plenty did not; grief and love are grief and love, after all.  

In short, a veteran writing workshop looks a lot like any other serious literary class. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to produce good writing; Hemmingway’s one true sentence.

Photo (top): Don Bond, Brian Castner at a teaching workshop. Photo (center): Brittany Gray. Photo (bottom): Marilyn Rochester. Photo Credit: Words After War

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers. 

After hosting its first writing contest last spring, the literary travel magazine Nowhere is currently accepting submissions to its inaugural Fall Travel Writing Contest. Both fiction and nonfiction entries are eligible. The winner will receive $1,000 and publication.

The Nowhere editors are “looking for young, old, novice and veteran voices to send us stories that possess a powerful sense of place.” Using the online submission system, writers may submit stories and essays between 800 and 5,000 words with a $15 entry fee by January 1. Works that have been previously published are eligible, but must not have been chosen as a contest winner. Lorin Stein, the editor of the Paris Review, will judge.

Founded by travel journalist Porter Fox, Nowhere magazine began as a web zine in 2009 and relaunched as a digital quarterly in 2013. “We are a magazine about the world,” the editors write. “The Nowhere staff values the ties that travel and cultural exchange foster….Our writers—and readers—are the kind of people who still look out a plane window in awe. We don’t just see places, we see people, culture, diversity and commonality. Travel to us—like any good pastime—is a game of reinvention, of who you are and how you interact with your world.”

Visit the Nowhere website to learn more about the magazine, and to read the current issue. Or check out the video below.

First we had “Black Friday.” Then came “Cyber Monday,” and now, “Gray Thursday.” Holiday shopping is unavoidable, and these deal days have almost achieved a holiday status all their own. This week, write a short personal essay about your attitude towards holiday shopping. Do you look forward to it, or do you dread it? Do you plan to finish your shopping all at once, or do you space it out and plan ahead? 

Do you remember how you used to play with toys as a child? If you sat down today with your blocks, your old train set, or your favorite doll, the way you’d interact with these toys would probably be very different than when you were five or six years old. This week, try and enter the mind of a child crouched on the living room floor, building a world fueled by imagination, and translate it into a short story. Think of the weird names kids give to their toys, and the strange logic that comes from the innocence of trying to grasp mature concepts. Good examples can be found in The Lego Movie, which came out earlier this year.

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