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Paula Rodenas is the author of The Random House Book of Horses and Horsemanship and a freelance writer for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Town & Country, Travel & Leisure, and the Horse Directory. She has edited books for Arco and Exposition Press and received awards from the Press Club of Long Island. She teaches creative writing for local adult education programs, and for more than twenty years has led the Merrick Senior Center’s Creative Writing Workshop, a sixteen-week program sponsored by Poets & Writers and the Town of Hempstead Department of Senior Enrichment. A lifelong horse lover, much of her subject matter as a writer has involved horses and she currently contributes to a thoroughbred racing column for a magazine in Long Island, New York. Rodenas has been invited to many foreign press trips for her work as a journalist.

Anyone who believes senior citizens cannot learn and improve should think again!

I have been leading a creative writing workshop for people ages sixty and up at the Merrick Senior Center for more than twenty years. I’ve always enjoyed one-on-one relationships with other writers and this workshop allows me the opportunity to share and appreciate the progress of the participants.

Each week I give an assignment, but I emphasize that it is more of a guideline than a “must.” We have produced poetry, prose, memoirs, fiction and, for the stage, short dialogues or mini-plays that we call “vignettes.” The work is read aloud and critiqued by members of the group with a positive approach, building upon the foundation as opposed to tearing it apart.

The program presently runs for sixteen weeks each year between late February and mid-June, and meets once a week for two hours. At the end of the sessions, we hold a presentation at our local community theater, the Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts, offering free admission to the public, followed by an informal coffee hour. This enables the writers to mingle with the audience. We also publish a booklet in the fall entitled, “Musings of Maturity” which contains our most recent writings. We thus have two venues, one audio and one visual, in which to feature our work.

Our program has been well-received within the community. In 2012, we were featured in a special weekend edition of the Long Island newspaper, Newsday. In 2013, we made the front page of the Herald Weekly. Our theater presentations have been recorded and sent to nursing homes, and “Musings of Maturity” is shared with local libraries.

What makes our group special is a strong camaraderie that makes it feel like family. Deep emotions are often revealed—there are tears and laughter. Older writers draw on a lifetime of experience and wisdom. Our participants have an optimistic outlook, remembering the past, but also thinking ahead. Writers of any age need support and encouragement, and it has been a pleasure to see senior writers develop and gain recognition in the community.

Photo: Paula Rodenas and the Merrick Seniors.  Photo Credit: Nat Watson.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

This past weekend the sky was filled with sparkling bursts of light. A symbol of celebration, these explosive light shows often bring up unexpected emotions in people viewing them. What do fireworks make you think of while watching them? Do they make you feel nostalgic, excited, or uneasy? Think of a memory or a strong feeling, and write about it.

Do you live in a tourist town, or a town that sees a surge in population during a particular season? Maybe there is a town you visit when you're on vacation. Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live there year-round? This week, write a story set in a tourist town, trying to write from the perspective of a local. How does this character, or the locals in general, feel about the tourists? Is this really a friendly town, or does it just seem friendly to vacationers?

In Contre Sainte Beuve,  Marcel Proust writes: "In reality, as soon as each hour of one's life has died, it embodies itself in some material object, as do the souls of the dead in certain folk-stories, and hides there. There it remains captive, captive forever unless we should happen on the object, recognize what lies within, call it by its name, and so set it free." This week, practice being a "namer." Recognize what lies deep within the objects you come in contact with, and try to conjure up a name that fits. Write a poem about a name you came up with that you find particularly inspiring.

P&W supported Frances Shani Parker, author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes (paperback, e-book). Parker is a Michigan-based eldercare consultant, writer, hospice volunteer, blogger, and former school principal.

Have you noticed all the negative stereotypes that bombard us about older adults? Too often, this group is portrayed as unattractive, senile, useless, and sexless. A former school principal, when I surveyed fourth graders about the kinds of people they expected to see at a nursing home, they said residents would be old, sick, grouchy, slow, not too smart, and nosey. If these children’s perceptions continue, they can easily grow up to become the stereotypes they believe. Think about some of the older adults you know who have fallen victim to this illusion. Negative stereotypes have influenced how they view themselves in addition to the natural decline in some of the ways they function. They may have more dependence on others, lower levels of risk taking, and decreased self-esteem, due to poorer health.

FSParker

Although youthfulness is admired and flaunted, there are many older adults who are not living the negative stereotypes. They refuse to focus on assumptions about how their lives should unfold. I wanted them to tell their stories, pay tribute to themselves, and motivate others in the process. Facilitating a Poets & Writers workshop seemed like the perfect catalyst for using the power of written words to promote productive aging. An eldercare consultant active with several senior organizations, I was sponsored by the Presbyterian Village of Brush Park Manor, an independent living community in Detroit. That’s how the Stories of Successful Aging After 60 writing workshop came into being and how a shared vision became a reality.

Most potential workshop participants were somewhat intimidated by the prospect of writing personal stories. Reading them aloud before a group presented another layer of concern. To help guide the process, I attended an exercise class with residents before the workshop started, so we could build trust and bond together. A few weeks later, I read original poems for them during their African American history program. My hope was to inspire them to gain the confidence to write and share their own thoughts and feelings. By the time our five workshop sessions began, we had sixteen excited older adults ranging in age from 60 to 93. Storytellers at heart, they were eager to celebrate and share with others what it meant to age successfully.

I was impressed with the diversity and intimacy of their revelations. Many had conquered and continued to prevail over major obstacles while maintaining an optimistic outlook on life. Surviving cancer, heart and kidney transplants, drug addiction, and raising grandchildren were only a few of their victories. They also mentioned spending quality time helping others, enjoying family activities, and working new jobs. Developing talents and hobbies, traveling, and, of course, dating further enhanced their busy schedules. An enlightening collection of stories representing their personal truths evolved through their focused introspection.

References to religious explanations for passing life tests were frequent. Testimonies included receiving numerous blessings, having prayer partners, reading the Bible, and just being alone talking to Jesus. Their praise of a higher power was so strong that it became common during rehearsal readings for someone to shout a religious affirmation such as, “Give God the glory!” or “Thank you, Father!” when other writers read their stories. One man included the partial singing of, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” as part of his presentation. A woman disclosed that music talks to her with, “I’m Gonna Make It After All” being her favorite gospel song.

A lovely luncheon recognized workshop honorees who received and read aloud from their uplifting collection of stories. Each writer also accepted a special certificate of achievement. Several stated they would be sharing their collections and certificates with family, church members, and friends. Now others will benefit from their passionate efforts. Proud older adults savored well-earned praise for their involvement in a writing workshop where we all learned more about ourselves, one another, and aging.

Photo: Frances Shani Parker  Credit: Maurice Sanders

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

German writer and statesman Johan Wolfgang von Goethe insisted that "The greatest genius will never be worth much if he pretends to draw exclusively from his own resources," and that "every one of my writings has been furnished to me by a thousand different persons, a thousand different things." This week, think about the people, ideas, and things that have influenced you throughout your life. What would you say your biggest influence has been? Write an essay reflecting on how your influences have shaped you into the person you are today.

The Library of Congress’s Poetry and Literature Center is accepting nominations for the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry. The biennial prize is given for a poetry collection written by a U.S. citizen and published in the previous two years, or for lifetime achievement in poetry. The winner will receive $10,000 and will give a public reading in the fall.

Publishers may submit four copies of a book published in 2012 or 2013, along with the required entry form and a suggested $50 contribution to the Library of Congress by postal mail to Bobbitt Prize, Poetry and Literature Center, Library of Congress, 101 Independence Avenue, S.E., Washington, D.C. 20540. The postmark deadline is July 31. Books published in a standard edition of at least 1,000 copies are eligible. A collected or selected work is eligible only if it contains at least 30 poems previously unpublished in a book. A three-person jury and the Librarian of Congress, James Billington, will judge.

Established in 1990, the Bobbitt prize is given by the family of Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt (1910-1978). Bobbitt, who worked at the Library of Congress in the 1930s, was the late President Lyndon B. Johnson’s sister.

Gerald Stern won the 2012 Bobbitt Prize for Early Collected Poems: 1965-1992 (Norton, 2010). Other winners of the prize include James Merrill, Louise Glück, A. R. Ammons, Kenneth Koch, Frank Bidart, W. S. Merwin, and Lucia Perillo.

Even if you're not a big fan of the Transformers movies, consider the basic idea of everyday machines transforming into some sort of robot or creature. This week, write a story in which one of your characters discovers a household appliance that has transformed itself into something else. For example, when making her morning toast, your character notices the toaster has morphed into a small flying machine, and is stuck in a tree in the backyard. Write about how your character feels upon discovering this machine has a mind of its own, and how her relationship with the machine in question, as well as the world around her, is altered after this experience.

"The city's old, / but new to me, and therefore / strange, and therefore fresh," Margaret Atwood muses in her poem "Europe on $5 a Day." Today write about being a visitor in a strange new city, walking the streets, and observing the locals going about their daily tasks. Describe in detail the smells in the air, the sounds clouding around you, and the unique images that meet your eyes. The goal is to make your reader feel like they are also seeing this place for the first time, even if they have been there before.

Poets & Writers' fourth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading took place on May 22, 2014, before a packed house at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center. Sixteen writers representing P&W–supported organizations 826LA, Heartland Institute for Transformation, Lambda Literary Foundation, Levantine Cultural Center, Mixed Remixed Festival, and Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore came together to celebrate the diversity of the SoCal literary community and Poets & Writers' Readings & Workshops program. R&W (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald blogs about this lively annual event.

2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Group

"We are the blood, the blood of a city of mixed hearts," recited 19-year-old poet Laura Davila, wowing the audience with her expansive poems about urban life in Los Angeles and capturing the spirit of Poets & Writers' fourth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading, which celebrates the diversity of our Readings & Workshops program and the SoCal literary community.

Connecting Cultures readings take place yearly in Los Angeles and New York City. Each event is exceptional because it brings together a diverse group of organizations—from the grassroots up—to showcase voices before an audience that is as varied and expressive as the readers themselves.

Davila, who is blind and read not from the page, but from a reading machine, was selected by curator Mike "ThePoet" Sonksen, whose 826LA summer teen writing workshops have received R&W support for a number of years. Like 826LA, all the organizations invited to co-curate the Connecting Cultures Reading have received support through the R&W program.

Other highlights from the Los Angeles event included poet and playwright Jesse Bliss, who performed her reading while holding her baby. "Creation is messy," she read, as little hands reached out to touch the microphone and grab hold of her mother's printed poem.

Melinda Palacio, who was making her second appearance at Connecting Cultures, proudly held up her poetry collection, How Fire Is a Story, Waiting (Tia Chucha Press, 2012), explaining that the last time she read, she didn't have a book, but now she does!

So large is the sprawl of Los Angeles, it wasn't surprising to hear poet Vickie Vértiz say it was her first time reading on the Westside. She read her poem "Tocaya" (meaning "namesake" in Spanish), about being named after a deceased older sister.

Novelist Juliana Maio of the Levantine Cultural Center took us on a journey through the back streets of Egypt while Tony Valenzuela, reader and curator for the Lambda Literary Foundation, read an excerpt from his memoir about coming of age in a San Diego gay bathhouse. Fiction writer Esmé-Michelle Watkins of the Mixed Remixed Festival, gave us a child's-eye-view of a family in turmoil.

When talking of "the medicine," poet Queen Hollins, representing the Heartland Institute for Transformation, declared: "It doesn't do any good if you keep it to yourself."

If what ails Los Angeles is a geography of separation, then writing was the medicine that brought everyone together on this night. Sharing that medicine is exactly what the sixteen Connecting Cultures readers did, reaching across divides and distances to bring us back to what matters most—our human stories and experiences.

You can see more pictures from the 2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading on our Facebook page, and a video of Jeffery Martin, representing Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, reading his poem "Serious Poet," on our YouTube channel.

Photo: 2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures group. Front: (L-R) Esme-Michelle Watkins, P&W's Brandi Spaethe, Trebor Healey, librecht baker, Heidi Durrow, Jamie Moore. Back: (L-R) P&W intern Leticia Valente, Beyond Baroque's Richard Modiano, Laura Davila, Tony Valenzuela, P&W's Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Gayle Fuhr, Queen Hollins, Melissa Sanvicente, Jeffery Martin, and Chris L. Terry. Credit: Brandi M. Spaethe.
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 the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, sponsored by Claremont Graduate University. The $100,000 Kingsley Tufts Award is given annually to honor a poetry collection by a midcareer U.S. poet; the winner will also spend a week at Claremont Graduate University in California giving readings, lectures, and workshops. The $10,000 Kate Tufts Discovery Award is given annually to honor a first book of poetry by “a poet of genuine promise.”

Poets, publishers, agents, or friends may submit eight copies of a poetry collection published between September 1, 2013, and June 30, 2014, with a list of previously published work and the required entry form by July 1. There is no entry fee. The preliminary judges are Charles Altieri, Jennifer Chang, and Brian Kim Stefans. David Barber, Stephen Burt, Kate Gale, Wendy Martin, and Chase Twichell will serve as final judges.

The Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award offers one of the world’s largest monetary prizes for a single poetry collection. Established in 1993 by Kate Tufts, the widow of poet Kingsley Tufts, the prize is meant to “enable a poet to work on his or her craft for awhile without paying bills.” The Kate Tufts Discovery Award was started one year later in 1994.

Previous winners of the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award include Afaa Michael Weaver, Marianne Boruch, Timothy Donnelly, Chase Twichell, D. A. Powell, Matthea Harvey, and Tom Sleigh. Recent winners of the Kate Tufts Discovery Award include Yona Harvey, Heidy Steidlmayer, Katherine Larson, Asturo Riley, Beth Bachmann, Matthew Dickman, and Janice N. Harrington. Read more about the 2014 winners on the G&A blog.

Photo: Kate Tufts

Whether or not you're a die-hard soccer fan, you're probably noticing the intensity with which people are focusing on this year's World Cup. These types of international sporting events tend to bolster one's sense of national pride. Have you ever felt united with others through such a large-scale sporting event? Do you feel like cheering on a team with a large group of people gives you a sense of community and belonging? Write a short personal essay reflecting on the subject.

This past Friday a South African couple finished a sixty-five-hundred-mile journey by rowboat from Morocco to New York City. It took them six months to paddle their twenty-three foot vessel, named Spirit of Madiba in honor of Nelson Mandela, across the Atlantic Ocean. This week, write a story about what you imagine such a journey would be like. Consider the dangers of crossing such a massive body of water, and what it would feel like to spend that much time sharing such a small space with another person.

In Hans Christian Andersen's classic fairy tale, the Little Mermaid must make sacrifices in order to become a human, including drinking a potion that gives her legs in exchange for her tongue. This week think about what you would be willing to sacrifice to have the chance to live the life you always dreamed of. Write a poem about the process of making the sacrifice, whether magical or ordinary, and the emotions that surface after it is complete.

Ana Laurel is a writer who has been working as Voices Breaking Boundaries’ managing director since January 2013. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English from the University of Houston-Downtown in 2012. During her time at UH-D, she served as general editor of the Bayou Review, the school's literary and visual arts magazine, president of Sigma Tau Delta (International English Honor Society), and was a regular presenter at UH-D's annual Gender Conference. Upon graduation, she was awarded the 2012 Senior Portfolio Prize, the school's highest honor for English majors.

Ana LaurelWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) is a special organization for many reasons, but what makes us most unique is the subject matter we tackle and the structure through which we tackle it. Since 2009, VBB has been producing the thematic-based living room art series which aims to find common threads between two seemingly disparate regions (focusing around Houston, Texas and South Asian cities such as Karachi, Pakistan), in order to foster a greater sense of compassion, understanding, and awareness. With additional support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts, and with support from Poets & Writers, we have been able to expand this structure into a multi-year series called Borderlines that explores North American (Mexico-US-Canada) and South Asian (Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh) border regions through art. Within each year of our three-year Borderlines series, VBB produces two large living room art productions in residential Houston homes showcasing art created by local and international artists including: two film screenings tackling social issues faced by those in the two border regions we’re exploring, community arts workshops introducing Houston community members to self-expression and healing through the arts, and an interactive website, art catalogue, and documentary granting global access to the content and art covered during the year.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
I am particularly proud of our very first community arts workshop with the Mamas del Northside from Houston’s historic Near Northside district. As VBB began to work deeper and more closely with different Houston communities, we knew that in addition to bringing high-quality, international art into underserved communities, we would also need to work with them to develop their own artistic talents for self-expression. Then, they would be able to enjoy and appreciate art from a critical perspective. For our inaugural community arts workshop, we teamed up with our community partner, Avenue CDC, and created a workshop based around Mamas del Northside, an amazing group of women who had just begun to meet and discuss what they could do to improve their homes, families, and community. Most of the women were stay-at-home mothers who spoke very little English and had never written creatively before. As we quickly found out, since becoming wives and mothers, they had not even had an opportunity to speak about their own experiences. Though the workshops only lasted a few weeks, and some women only came sporadically due to obligations at home, those who did attend changed dramatically in their time with our experienced facilitator, Stalina Villarreal. The workshops were full of laughter, tears, anger, and poetry. Every woman that came left with her own journal to keep, and it is my genuine hope that they use them to continue writing and discovering themselves as women, mothers, and human beings—and that they continue letting me hang around to witness it.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The most memorable thing that happens (though working in this line of work, there are many!) for me during our season is always the evaluation dinner that takes place at the end of our Writing for Self-Discovery (WSD) teacher workshops. The WSD teacher workshops are free and open to teachers in the Houston area who are interested in sharpening their teaching skills, strengthening their writing skills, and exploring themselves through writing. At our most recent evaluation dinner in May, the two facilitators and I all sat down to eat with the workshop participants. We discussed their progress since beginning the workshops in February. One of the teachers began to cry, explaining that this year was the hardest for her in thirteen years of teaching because the stress (from testing, the school district, etc.) had culminated to a very fine edge that semester, and she found herself truly struggling in the classroom. Then she explained how our workshops came into her life at the exact right moment to fill her with the hope she needed to continue to help children attain the education they deserve. Her words are better than mine, but she told me that the workshops allow her the time and space to think about and forgive who she was and who she is, and help her siphon off and tackle the stresses from everyday life so that she has space in her heart and mind for the needs of her students. That moved me because that’s what we want in our teachers—that kind of dedication, compassion, and commitment to their students and their education, and someone to whom the needs of children will always take precedence. I was just so grateful she let me share in that moment.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
I’m very fortunate because I came into VBB as a writer with a deep passion and respect for language, and now, as the managing director (and only full-time employee), I get to attend all of our arts writing workshops that take place in the community and in schools. While I don’t attend every single session, I usually join them for the first, the last, and one or two in the middle. I get to be around beginning writers (like Mamas del Northside), seasoned writers (from teacher workshops), and young, unfiltered writers (in youth workshops).  In addition, I get to take in the expertise our facilitators bring to the table. Not only do the workshops expand my own capacity to imagine and feel in both my life and writing, but they also inspire me to actively pick up my pen and journal at the end of the day when I’ve worked over nine hours and am completely drained. Because no matter what, I don’t deal with a peer group full of hormones and cliques, a classroom full of students who need constant attention and compassion, or a home full of children and a husband whose needs always come before my own.  If all the participants in our workshops can pick up their pens and journals after all of that, so can I.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Language and literacy are important because they help us express ourselves to each other and through that shared expression, we are able to build communities. Without it, we lose touch with each other, and the ties that bind our communities fall apart. In 2000, Sehba Sarwar decided that she didn’t like what was happening in her home country and wrote a poem to express her distaste. Writing became her form of protest and through that poem, she drew together four other women writers and artists who banded to form Voices Breaking Boundaries, an organization I am now a part of today, almost fifteen years later. These five women created a legacy and lineage of women who continue working and fighting to ensure that language and literacy are not lost, and that all of our stories will continue to be told. After all the trends and gadgets come and go, our stories, told to each other or on paper, will continue on and carry our histories and lessons to the generations that follow. Every community deserves the chance to take part in such a timeless legacy.

Photo: Ana Laurel   Credit: Ana Laurel

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

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