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Readings & Workshops Blog

Ashaki M. Jackson is a social psychologist and poet living in Los Angeles who has worked with youth through research, evaluation, and creative arts mentoring for over a decade. Her poetry has appeared in Eleven Eleven, Inch Magazine, and Rkvry Quarterly, among other publications. This year, Jackson was one of the instructors for 826LA's Words, Spoken summer writing workshops for teens, which Poets & Writers has been cosponsoring for the past five years. She blogs about her experience below.

Ashaki Jackson“El Padre de Sunset Boulevard,” I announced, “will you please take the ring?”

El Padre is a high school freshman. I met him and his sister one year prior, during an 826LA summer camp when I was a guest instructor. This year, I was invited to be the core instructor, responsible for introducing students—familiar and new—to another world in creative writing for five consecutive mornings. Our goal: the manifesto.

To begin, I wanted each student to assume a plucky persona to use while writing. This would ease the fear of facing a blank page and sharing drafts with peers. I provided students a die and a numbered list of incredibly ridiculous titles with which they created their luchador (Mexican wrestler) names.

¡El Hurican Incognito!

¡Karate Chop #1!

¡Chicharron de Ramen!

“What is a chicharron de ramen, miss?” one student asked. “Frighteningly delicious,” I replied.

This year, we would all be wrestlers grappling with words and craft. When it was time for students to share their work, I would call their monikers and invite them to the ring (any classroom area where luchadors read their work aloud to peers).

Manifestos require good knowledge of personal values or a passion to advocate for something greater. I selected the manifesto because it offered an activity in pieces and called for action. Each day we worked through key elements—who I am, where I’m from, and what I believe.

On day one, we each jotted down broad statements about ourselves on Post-it notes then stuck them to one classroom wall. I invited small groups to visit the wall, grab a few notes written by their peers that were relevant to their self definitions, then rewrite those statements in their own words and spirits. “I love pizza” became: “My world revolves around that saucy bread.” “I’m from LA” became: “I was born in the middle of palm trees.”

Words, Spoken anthology

On day two, we subverted our origin stories with guidance from Eduardo Galeano’s Genesis (Nation Books, 2010). Students documented where they were from, then fortified their magnificence by including a magical element. Stars were fish scales from an ancient underwater era, and one student lived in a house teetering on a hill of coffee grounds. We pushed through the writing together, carefully, to create personally meaningful statements on who we are and what we want out of life. Similar to the qualities of any decent luchador, the resulting manifestos were colorful, tender, and risky.

Moving through the activity together fostered closeness among the luchadors as they explored themselves in writing. Equally vital for the week’s success was the space in which we worked. 826LA has, for years, provided students an environment wherein they are able to be duly youthful, curious, and safe. It also allowed me the latitude to implement a nontraditional lesson plan that revealed the luchadors’ true, soft faces. As one lithe luchador searching for his rhythm in the class shared: “An amethyst is just as pretty... next to a diamond, but that doesn’t mean people will see it.” We are all better for the grapple.

Photo 1: Ashaki M. Jackson; credit: Ana Ponzo. Photo 2: The Words, Spoken workshop anthology published by 826LA; credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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

S. Bryan Medina is a former student of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and his poetry has graced stages in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. He founded the Inner Ear as a way to free poetry from the confines of academic institutions, making it accessible to all. Medina has been awarded two City of Fresno Commendations, including the 2014 Fresno Arts Council Horizon Award, for contributions to the rich artistic and cultural heritage in Fresno, California. He has been featured as one of the four “Fresno Poets” from writer Nick Belardes’s Distinguished Valley Writers series, and he was an honorable mention for the 2006 Larry Levis Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in journals such as Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, In the Grove, the San Joaquin Review, Jubilee, and Invisible Memoirs. Medina is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and plans to teach special education.

S. Bryan Medina“Poets here (in Fresno) write killer poems in our unapologetic heat, the exhaust of the traffic, or the dream-inducing tule fog.” —Fresno poet laureate Lee Herrick, author of Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012)

Central Valley writers seem to revel in Fresno’s bad air and harsh laundry line of obstacles. Its writing history comes from just underneath its rich soil, from the bent backs of field laborers to the city’s war on drugs against the black market methamphetamine trade. The place often found at the top of many “Worst Cities in America” lists now can add to its reputation little to no water, thanks to the drought.

Still, Fresnans continue to find bars and converted backyard stages, open mics and coffee houses, filled with hungry ears eagerly listening for their favorite local poet to say one more thing just before the familiar, “Are y’all ready for the next poet?!” I’m proud to be a part of this scene, now thirteen years strong, keeping spoken word/poetry in the forefront of people’s minds here in the valley by forging and solidifying relationships, such as the one I have with Poets & Writers.

The Inner Ear’s mission is to collaborate with local and national artists utilizing spoken word, art, performance, and music to promote further interest in the arts in Fresno and the Central Valley. The Inner Ear/Beat Down Slam events serve the community by providing a forum for constructive and creative expression in a positive and supportive environment, offering an alternative to violence among Fresno County teens and young adults. The Inner Ear mixes formal poetry aesthetics with rap flair and vitality by taking poetry away from the ivory tower of the universities and moving it to a place where everyone has access. Over the past decade, we have had many participants say that our stage was their first.

This October finds the Inner Ear beginning a yearlong collaboration with the Fresno Grand Opera. Breaking new ground with its first Opera Remix: Music & Verse event, an exciting mix of local spoken word artists and opera musicians will perform together live on the stage of the historic Tower Theater in Fresno’s Tower District. In the months between this and next year’s event, we are excited to get the chance to work with composer Jakes Heggie and Librettist John de los Santos, and share new music by composer Ricky Ian Gordon (Grapes of Wrath) from the Metropolitan Opera in New York!  

On November 12, the Inner Ear celebrates its thirteenth anniversary with a tribute to fellow Fresno poet and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, which will feature poets Corrinne Hales and Lee Herrick with other local writing notables, and music by Benjamin Boone. If you have never experienced in person one of our blowout anniversary events, you're missing what the Fresno scene is all about: fun, exciting, deep, edgy, and funny performances with live music and special guests all happening at the Fresno Art Museum.

To some, poetry is a mystical, invisible power—energizing raw, untamed thoughts put to paper or read aloud in public places. But here in the valley, that slow rhythmic sound you hear is the tactile heart of Fresno’s present, future, and past: the shadow of Philip Levine saying “What Work Is,” the familiar mustache and glasses of Juan Felipe Herrera, the mournful prose of an Andres Montoya poem. Poets here have to write killer poems and produce worthwhile poetry events that are as tangible as the fruit grown here, in the middle of nowhere, where we’re right at home, struggling.

 Photo: S. Bryan Medina     Credit: S. Bryan Medina

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

R. A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he currently lives in London, England.

Here in London the rain has paused and the sun, for once, feels keen to crash through the cloud banks which so often crown the city. I think now of two markers, one of geography and the other of time: Washington, D.C. is nearly 3,700 miles and an ocean west of me; and, since September has begun, “Asian American Literature Today” at the Library of Congress took place just over four months ago.

Such resonances are due in large part to the occasion for our gathering and who traveled (from across the U.S. and abroad) to be there. Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, Ocean Vuong, and I were awarded The Asian American Literary Review’s inaugural A Lettre Fellowship and devoted the better part of last year each writing with/to established poets, allowing the dynamics of our curiosities, uncertainties, and fascinations drive our correspondences “by letters." Taken as a whole, the experience proved to be as emotional as it was formally innovative. These mentorships and convergences, after all, were happening in the shadow of our debut books and as each of us dealt with tectonic shifts in our lives apart from our writing.

This, by the way, was our methodology: after the AALR paired Cathy with Rick Barot, Eugenia with Julie Enzer, Ocean with Arthur Sze, and me with Ray Hsu, we were free to talk through the spring and fall of 2014. To build "community across literary generations," honesty and idiosyncrasy were encouraged. The exchange between Ocean and Arthur Sze, for instance, feels truly epistolary, with suites of poems and personal stories being traded. My back-and-forth with Ray Hsu seems more associative and roving in comparison, taking the shape of a series of handwritten reflections, Vimeo links and iPhone photos, Post-it Note collages and notebook scans.

Ultimately, the “Asian American Literature Today” event was meant to be the culmination of that project, an enactment of the AALR’s aspiration to represent “a space for all those who consider the designation 'Asian American' a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community.”

Editor and Smithsonian APA Center Initiative coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis brought that vision to life in remarkable ways. He invited partnerships with the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center, the University of Maryland Asian American Studies Program, and opened the room to the greater public. This event was also funded by the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers.

The result was a powerful crossing of voices and a widening of perspectives. Before our reading, we circled up chairs to host an informal conversation about the editorial process, distinctions between writing and publishing, academia and art. We discussed how Cathy, Eugenia, Ocean, and I arrived at this moment together as friends and as peers; we discussed how organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, VONA, and Poets & Writers support the development of work aware of—and activated by—a very real world beyond our poems.

Ai Weiwei asserts that “[t]he intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” When it finally came time to move to the lectern and later, to respond to questions about connections with other communities, other struggles, we hoped to trouble such separations. In sharing selections by African American writers along with our own poems and in affirming the work of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, “Asian American Literature Today” embodied a heart-fraught awareness of these markers—one of geography and again, one of time: Baltimore is only forty miles north of Washington, D.C., and when we read on May 4 in the wake of protests for Freddie Gray, Jr. while a state of emergency remained in effect and the National Guard was still in the process of drawing down.

Which is to say, perhaps what makes contemporary Asian American literature so vital is its refusal to ignore history, to stay quiet, or to pledge allegiance to outworn expectations.

Photo: (top) R. A. Villaneuva. (bottom) Lawrence- Minh Bui Davis, Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Che, R. A. Villaneuva, Ocean Vuong. 

Photo Credit: A'Lelia Bundles.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Washington, D.C. 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.

Louisiana poet Dennis Formento lives in Slidell, Bayou Bonfouca watershed, with his wife Patricia Hart, an artist and yogini. He has been published in the Lummox Poetry Anthology (Lummox Press, 2014), the Maple Leaf Rag V (Portals Press, 2014), and on the blog Water, Water Everywhere. Formento’s latest book is Cineplex (Paper Press, 2014). He teaches English at Delgado Community College and is New Orleans’s coordinator for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a worldwide movement for peace and sustainability.

Poet and translator El Habib Louai, a resident of Agadir, Morocco, performed with a killer band of free jazz all-stars in a show produced by Surregional Press of Slidell, Louisiana. Poets & Writers partially funded the performance, which took place on July 31 at the Zeitgeist Theater in New Orleans.

While emigration proceedings in Canada prevented one member of Louai’s Neo-Beat Amazigh Band from arriving in New Orleans, and another member remained in New York City, Louai played on. He was backed by Ray Moore (saxes and flute), Jeb Stuart (acoustic bass), Will Thompson (keyboards), and Dave Cappello (drums). Louai also read from his book Mrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel (Paper Press, 2015).

About fifty-five people attended at Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Art Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood. Central City is downtown, and O. C. Haley was the main stem of African American business in town decades ago, before much business was diverted to the Canal Street district. Zeitgeist, its neighboring art center, the Ashé Center, and the now shuttered Neighborhood Gallery, came to O. C. Haley in the early aughts, spearheading a revitalization of the area.

Louai captured a diverse audience: Arab students from the University of New Orleans, African American and white scholars, and poets from various scenes around town. A “welcoming committee” of local writers began the session with poems of their own: Valentine Pierce, Scott Nicholson (backed by Will Thompson), Andrea Young and husband, Khaled Hegazzi—whose contribution was a handful of translations of contemporary Egyptian poets—and Jessica Mashael Bordelon. I joined in, reading a portion of Allen Ginsberg’s “America” before Louai’s translation into Arabic of that famed satire.

Andrea Young said she was gratified that poetry in Arabic and English had finally found a crossroads in the Crescent City. She and her husband publish a magazine called Meena, from their homes in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt.

The performance not only brought to the city Louai’s translations from the New American poetry and Beat traditions, but also helped open cultural dialogue and exchange. It’s been hard to find Arab poets and literati in New Orleans, despite the fact that it is home to thousands of Arabs, some of whom have had family here for decades.

Louai visited a number of poetry venues in the two weeks that he spent at my house in Slidell: the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; the famed Maple Leaf Bar Everette Maddox Memorial Reading; and a meeting of the St. Tammany Parish group, 100 Thousand Poets for Change: Northshore. He went on radio: Rudy Mills’s Gumbo Tapado Show on WBOK-AM and WWOZ-FM’s “World Journey” program with Suzanne Corley. On August 1, Louai performed at Fair Grinds Coffee House, accompanied on djembe, tambourine, and castanets by poet/percussionist Gamma Flowers and myself. Finally, he played a house concert at my place with backing by Jeb Stuart on bass—a first in Slidell.  

Photo (top): Louai, Moore, and Cappello. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Photo (bottom): Louai and band. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in New Orleans, Lousiana 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.

Joe Young is the librarian for the Frandsen Library at the Contra Costa County Juvenile Hall and the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility, both in California's East Bay region. The Frandsen and Lesher libraries opened their doors in November of 2006, with the mission to promote a love of literature and reading, support educational curriculum, and encourage the development of a lifelong habit of self-directed learning. Young furthers this mission by working to bring a wide variety of authors, artists, and speakers to visit the young men and women his libraries serve. This post is a report on one such P&W-supported event—a visit to the Lesher Library at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility from Coe Booth. Booth is the author of Tyrell (Push, 2007), which won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Best Young Adult Novel and was named an ALA Best Book for Young Adults and a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age.

Joe YouungIt was an unseasonably hot May morning in the San Francisco Bay when I pulled up to the Berkeley address where author Coe Booth was staying. Sweat dripped down my forehead and into my eyes as I anxiously knocked on the door. I was nervous!

In my world, Coe Booth is a big deal. Her books Tyrell (Push, 2007), Bronxwood (Push, 2013), Kendra (Push, 2010), and Kinda Like Brothers (Scholastic Press, 2014) fall into the sweet spot of urban fiction for young adults that is exciting, authentic, and has a positive message. Her books also happen to be some of the most consistently popular titles in my libraries.

Coe greeted me with a warm smile. After a quick introduction we loaded into my car and embarked on the hour-long commute to the Byron Boys Ranch.

Established in 1960 on the site of a converted cattle ranch in Byron, California, the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility (colloquially known as the Byron Boys Ranch) is a minimum security treatment center for adolescent delinquent youngsters, and the home of the Lesher Library. After a brief introduction and orientation from the probation staff, the sixty-three young men residing at the Boys Ranch were gathered and assembled in the dusty gym. Then, Coe took the stage and addressed the young men. 

She read and spoke eloquently, honestly, earnestly, with passion and poise. She spoke about being an author and a woman and an African-American. She spoke about where her stories come from, how her characters are born, what parts of herself she puts into her stories, and what she hopes to communicate to the reader. The young men sat and listened, some seemingly indifferent, some in eager, rapt attention.

After talking for the better part of an hour, Coe asked if anybody in the audience had questions. At first the young men were hesitant, but after a bit of coaxing the questions gleefully poured forth: "Are you famous?" "Where do you live?" "How do you come up with characters’ names?" "Are you rich?" "Why did you want to be a writer?" "Do you feel proud of the books you wrote?" "How can I get a book published?" "Could we write a book together?" Coe made sure to answer every question, connecting with each young man who reached out to her.

Coe BoothCoe spent just over two hours with the young men. As we drove back to Berkeley through the shimmering, midday heat, my car’s air conditioning sadly failing us once again, I was struck by how she was both down-to-earth and larger-than-life.

This woman—who I had talked with so comfortably during our car ride, sharing our small, personal thoughts and concerns—was transformed in front of my eyes during those two hours. She stood in front of that group of young men, who were a unique combination of worldly sophistication and childish naivety, and gave freely of herself. She gave them honesty and compassion. She held herself up as a role model—imperfections and all—and told them: "What I have done, you can do." She believed in them and believed in their ability to change and improve, and become the people they want to become. And, even if just for those two hours, the boys believed, too.

Photos: (top) Joe Young. (bottom) Author Coe Booth addressing boys at the Orin Allen Youth Rehabilitation Facility. Credit: Amy Bowen, Joe Young.

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

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

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

Photo: Michael Kearns     Credit: Lisa Palombi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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