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Readings & Workshops Blog

Born in Iloilo City, Philippines, Angela Peñaredondo is a Pilipinx poet and artist (on other days, she identifies as a usual ghost, subdued comet, or part-time animal). Her first full-length book, All Things Lose Thousands of Times (Inlandia Institute, 2016), is the winner of the Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize. This past spring, she taught the senior workshop for Poets & Writers' inaugural Intergenerational Workshop Exchange (IWE), where teens and seniors wrote in response to each other, then shared their work at a celebratory reading. Below, Peñaredondo reflects on the project, sharing a few excerpts from participants. (Be sure to check out last week’s companion blog post by IWE organizer and cofacilitator, Melissa Sipin.)

To be invited to participate as a teaching artist in Poets & Writers' Intergenerational Workshop Exchange in Los Angeles was an honor and a gift. I knew the experience would be a rare one. It was the type of experience that opened a time portal—the kind only poetry could bring about.

It was a rich kind of transport, but not an easy one.

My grandfather, Perpetuo Peñaredondo Sr., and his youngest brother, my grand uncle Jesus Peñaredondo, were guerilla fighters on the island of Panay. One worked in intelligence (you could call him a spy), the other was a foot soldier. My grandfather died almost ten years ago. My grand uncle, who is ninety years old now, has moved back to the island of Panay. My grandfather lived without receiving the full recognition of his service during the war. My uncle continues to live without receiving the full recognition of his service. Like I said, I was deeply ecstatic to work with this community, who reminded me so much of my grandfather and a lineage that cannot afford to live or die here in the United States.

The workshop I led took place at the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI) headquarters in Historic Filipinotown, a location that has existed for almost thirty-five years. FASGI is an inner-city center that functions as many things: community center, community garden, service provider, transitional shelter, backyard party venue, and a place where you can see a real nipa hut built by the hands of Filipino World War II veterans.

The workshop setting was small, intimate, and warm with moments that felt fragile and painful, but not without acts of strength or creative surprise. With some gentle persuasion even my parents joined in and shared their stories connected to the war. During one of the writing exercises, I asked participants to close their eyes, focus on the sound of their breath, picture a particular object from their youth, imagine it in their hands, and to observe the weight and look of it inside their palms. When asked to write a poem about that single object, my mother wrote about her mother’s silver ring (forever lost in the flux of war and migration). Franco Arcebal, a World War II Filipino American veteran participant, wrote about the pen he used to write a letter to his granddaughter, about being a prisoner of war, how his then young body suffered intense torture and his body still remembers even after so many years have past. As I listened to him explain and read his poems, it sounded like both a love letter to his granddaughter and to the pen.

After the meditation and writing exercise, Arcebal spoke of his desire to be a better writer and that he always wanted to write a book, but not about the war. I enjoyed watching him scribble with intention in his small notepad. Observing him helped me write my own poem during a letter writing exercise I gave as a second writing prompt.

Beverly and Cleo Other workshop participants included three wives of deceased World War II veterans: Beverly Siapno in her mauve hat, Cleo Bisnar in her bright citrine dress, and Anacurita Santos, who in her candy cane striped sweater said (always with a smile) that she couldn’t do this. She could not write it down. It was too hard for her, she would tell me without explanation, again with a sweet smile. There were times I saw her jot down a few precious notes, but Anacurita could not bring herself to read her words aloud. I understood her. My grandmother was very similar—silent and curt, communicating indirectly with her hands. Anacurita communicated indirectly with her smile, lovely and charming, but also cryptic and resilient.

Beverly’s letter poem begins with the line:

There are things you need to know about where you come from—where we come from.

And she ends with:

And so that you will not become like how we once were: poor, hungry, searching for freedom.

Beverly read her poem during the culminating reading, still wearing her mauve hat like a small, red sun in the middle of the dark reading room.

Cleo was not able to make it to the reading. Instead, I imagined her reading her lines in her soft, graceful voice:

As an orphan, there was nobody to push me. Nobody who told me to try hard in school. Nobody who put food on the table. Nobody who said I love you and goodnight.

But—I had natural knowledge. I thank God for this. So, I can read and write a little. I wrote you this poem. I give you this gift.

Connecting Generations Reading

You can read work produced by teen and senior participants of the inaugural Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational Workshop Exchange in a special issue of TAYO Literary Magazine titled “Connecting Generations.”

Photo 1: Workshop participants (front, from left) David Rockello, Anacurita Santos, Cleotilde Bisnar, and Beverly Siapno; (back) Franco Arcebal, workshop leader Angela Peñaredondo, P&W fellow Melissa Sipin, and Ivonne Peñaredondo. Photo 2: Beverly Siapno and Cleotilde Bisnar. Photo 3: Connecting Generations Reading participants and partners (front row, from left): workshop leader Traci Kato-Kiriyama, Beverly Siapno, Franco Arcebal, Rose Rteimeh, Rosalinda Flores; (middle row) Ivonne Peñaredondo, P&W fellow Melissa Sipin, workshop leader Angela Peñaredondo; (back row) St. Bernard High School teacher, poet, and emcee Mike Sonksen, and P&W staff Jamie Asaye FitzGerald. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

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.

Melissa Sipin, the McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow, reflects on the Intergenerational Workshop Exchange (IWE), a community project where teens and seniors wrote in response to each other, then shared their work at a reading. For the inaugural IWE, teens from St. Bernard High School and World War II Filipino American veterans and their family members from the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. (FASGI), took part in the collaborative workshop series over a three-month period this past spring. Below, Sipin reflects on her experience as organizer and cofacilitator, and shares a few excerpts from the participants. (Stay tuned for next week's companion post by Angela Peñaredondo, teaching artist for the senior workshop at FASGI.)

During the months of February and March, Poets & Writers supported two writing workshops as part of the first Intergenerational Workshop Exchange (IWE)—a rare writing exchange between seniors and youth that reached teens from St. Bernard High School and a group of World War II veterans and their family members from the Filipino American Service Group, Inc. The project culminated with a celebratory reading titled Connecting Generations on April 17 at Beyond Baroque in Venice, California.

The IWE was my passion project as the 2015-2016 McCrindle Foundation Readings & Workshops Fellow. I personally chose to focus on working with a unique and highly underrepresented senior population, World War II Filipino American veterans (learn more about their activism at Justice for Filipino American Veterans), as many are quickly aging and passing away without ever having their voices heard. My own grandfather, Major Diego A. Sipin, was a guerrilla fighter and officer in the U.S. Armed Forces in the Philippines, Northern Luzon, who passed away without receiving the full recognition of his wartime active duty service. Pairing the Filipino American veterans with St. Bernard High School students—many of whom are children of immigrants from all corners of Los Angeles—was a moving way to bring to light their shared and collective experiences.

Traci Kato-Kiriyama and students During the workshops, teaching artist Traci Kato-Kiriyama had the St. Bernard High School students write a letter to their imagined grandchildren. In response, teaching artist Angela Peñaredondo had the seniors write to their actual grandchildren. After reading the seniors’ brief but poignant letters—which detailed their wartime experiences and migrations to America—the students then wrote to the seniors directly, sharing and exchanging their own family stories of migration. They described in visceral detail the smells, sights, and tastes of where they came from—the taste of hummus on a hot, balmy day in Beirut or how the sun shone on a small village near the border in Mexico—which in turn created a deep and touching connection across generations.

One of the most moving moments during the celebratory reading was Franco Arcebal’s letter to his great-granddaughter, Veronica. Before he read his letter, he shared a brief portrait of his life during the war—how he was tortured with electric shocks, baseball bats, and water; how he escaped the “monkey house,” a makeshift prisoner-of-war camp the Japanese soldiers used as an execution house. He told the crowd that he could never really answer his great-granddaughter’s questions about the war, and that every time she asked, he was filled with silence…until he participated in the writing workshop with his fellow lolas (“grandmother” in Tagalog), all of whom were widows of World War II Filipino American veterans. Here is an excerpt of his letter:

We were six in the monkey house.

I was the youngest. 20. What they considered fresh and young and robust, something that needed to be broken.

I was the most severely tortured. My body still remembers. Sometimes I want to forget. But this body, it remembers.

Franco ArcebalIn loving response, one of the high school students, Yonathan Dereje, dedicated his piece to Arcebal:

Your great-granddaughter will love you, and you will love her. She is your privilege.... Your love for her wasn’t scarred, but only made it even more resilient. Your experience made you tougher and teaches me how to be resilient, and will forever teach me how to love and never give up.

The three-month project could not have been successful without our community partnerships, and I would like to personally thank the following for their precious time: teacher and poet Mike Sonksen, St. Bernard High School, the Filipino American Service Group, Inc., Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center for hosting the celebratory reading, and teaching artists Traci Kato-Kiriyama and Angela Peñaredondo.

These intimate letters are a testament to the power of sharing stories across cultures and generations—we share them because it is proof that what we hold dear and what we call home tend to always be the deep, unbreakable bonds we form with each other.

You can read work produced by teen and senior participants of the inaugural Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational Workshop Exchange in a special issue of TAYO Literary Magazine titled “Connecting Generations.”

Photo 1: (from left) Workshop participants Beverly Siapno, Cleotilde Bisnar, Anacurita Santos, David Rockello, Franco Arcebal, workshop leader Angela Peñaredondo, and P&W staff members Melissa Sipin and Brandi Spaethe. Photo 2: Workshop leader Traci Kato-Kiriyama with St. Bernard High School students Rose Rteimeh and Rosalinda Flores. Photo 3: Senior workshop participant and World War II veteran Franco Arcebal. Photo credit: Tess. Lotta.

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.

Mike Geffner is the founder and producer of the Inspired Word literary/performance series and the Queens Lit Fest. For thirty years, he was a professional journalist who published stories in USA Today, Details magazine, Village Voice, Texas Monthly, the Writer, and Sporting News. He’s won awards for both column and feature writing, and was acknowledged seven times for excellence by the annual anthology Best American Sports Writing. Geffner retired from journalism in 2011 and is currently working on a book of poetry, tentatively titled Slogging Toward Death.

This was late March 2015. I was chatting with the event booker of a charming pub in Long Island City called LIC Bar. The place was already hosting several literary events and I felt it had the potential for something wonderful of my own. I just wasn’t sure what.

LIC Bar has the uniqueness of being broken into three distinct areas: a bar in front with antique-wood floors, brick walls, and a tin ceiling; an outdoor garden patio in the middle under the peacefulness of willow trees; and a private room in the back with a fireplace.

I mulled over a ton of ideas in my head before the words that would change my life spilled out: “How about a Queens Literary Festival?” It seemed perfect—the readings in the private room, the vendors in the patio, the schmoozing in the bar.

The booker agreed and we set a date for the first weekend in August. However, the second I left the bar, the reality hit: What did I just sign up for? How do you put together a two-day festival for an entire NYC borough in just four months?

It was daunting to say the least, though as a former journalist, I was used to dealing with deadline pressure and getting things done quickly. And as someone who has lived all his life in Queens, who loves his borough, I believed in the mission: to bring together Queens’s diverse literary community, to honor our literary artists, to create a dynamic event that would be unpretentious, all-inclusive, and filled with heart.

With the help of Inspired Word assistant producer, Poetry Teachers NYC founder, and fellow Queens resident Megan DiBello, aka Make It Happen Megan, we made it happen. We produced a cool logo, postcards, and T-shirts. We put together excellent programming, which included several notable Queens-based reading series; the current and previous Queens poets laureate, Maria Lisella and Paolo Javier, respectively; and an open mic that would level the playing field and make everyone feel involved.

We were written about in all the Queens newspapers prior to the event, and Megan, Maria, and I even appeared in studio on NY1.

It ended up being a glorious event. We had two sunny days, drew over three hundred people, and I’m proud to say that despite the event being free we paid all the featured artists with sponsorship money, including generous dollars from Poets & Writers.

This year’s event (July 16 to 17, 11:00 AM to 8:00 PM, open to all ages this time) will be on a grander scale. For one, the site is the wondrous wide-open space along the waterfront called LIC Landing, a symbol of the new Queens and which offers a stunning, unfettered view of the Manhattan skyline. We’re also collaborating with Hunters Point Parks Conservancy (leading the building of an ambitious new Queens Library of Hunters Point) and COFFEED, a coffee chain that donates 10 percent of its profits to nonprofit foundations and which owns and donated the event space. We’ve added, as well, a tireless arts visionary, Mark Christie, president of Friends of Queens Library of Hunters Point, as an organizer/consultant. And, once again support from the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers.

I know now what I’ve gotten myself into. We’re smack on the forefront of Queens’s culture renaissance, part of a movement to make Queens a literary destination, not just a pit stop to Brooklyn or Harlem. We’re forever on the timeline of Queens history. What an amazing thing from a few blurted out words.

You can follow the Queens Lit Fest on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter @QueensLitFest. For more info, to RSVP, donate, or to sign up for the open mic, go here.

Photos: (top) Mike Geffner. (bottom) Megan DiBello.  Photo credit: (top) Jay Franco. (bottom) Mike Geffner. Artwork credit: Edward Cox.

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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Cecily Schuler received their MFA in Writing from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Having attended both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center, Schuler has had their work featured in the Offing, Fairy Tale Review, Wicked Banshee, Ellipsis, and Duende, and anthologized in great weather for MEDIA and Fire Stories: Further Thoughts on Radically Rethinking Mental Illness. Schuler's chapbook, 296, chronicling the author's experience living with multiple mental health diagnoses, is available from Next Left Press. Schuler cofounded and manages Union Square Slam, a weekly poetry open mic/slam in the heart of New York City.

What makes your program(s) unique?
I would say that, while we share components of each, we are not your average open mic, poetry reading, or poetry slam. Union Square Slam (USS) was created to not only serve the local and national slam poetry circuit, but more so to provide a creative space for our local poets and authors to branch out, foster, and showcase their particular talents and interests. We are looking to showcase the broad range of overlapping scenes here in New York City, as well as poetic style and talents from other regions of the country.

We encourage audience engagement in a number of ways: “If You Feel Something, Say Something.” If someone says something on the mic that moves you, it’s the culture of the show to respond to that movement through snapping/clapping, moans/groans, shouting and talking back. On paper that sounds like a ruckus, but at the show it can be encouraging and empowering. We also offer writing workshops with highly skilled facilitators before the show each week. Sometimes we ask for donations that go towards the facilitator, but more often than not, the workshops are free! All of the organizers are also working artists, and we know how challenging it can be to keep creating while volunteer organizing on top of working a 9-5. These weekly workshops are just another way we hope to generate community-based quality work for our show attendees.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
We inherited a venue and show day/time from another open mic/poetry slam in January 2015. Over time, it became clear that the venue and our show were growing in different directions artistically and aesthetically. In November of the same year, we switched venues to our current home in the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division. It was such a relief in so many ways: not only were we in a venue dedicated solely to literary and visual arts, we could now serve all ages and accommodate folks who use wheelchairs. We have managed to build a steady and returning audience, book and fund our features (thanks P&W!!) and have a successful slam season, culminating in USS sending our very first team to the National Poetry Slam in Decatur (Atlanta), Georgia this August. It was a lot of rigmarole, and yet people have come out of the woodwork to offer us support in countless ways. (Speaking of which, please consider helping USS reach its fundraising goals for the team by donating here.)

How do you find and invite readers?
Part of Union Square Slam’s mission is to amplify voices of the oppressed. We aim to book features who self-identify in one or more of the following: people of color and/or queer/LGBTQIA and/or disabled/alter-abled/neurodiverse and/or poor/working class. We don’t go looking for artists who fit these criteria; rather, we check ourselves against this standard as we are booking. Our organizers have been involved in different aspects of not just the national slam scene, but other literary scenes throughout New York City, so between us, we’ve had a wide range of featured poets this year.

Photo: (top) Cecily Schuler. (bottom) Grand Slam Champ Nkosi Nkululeko. Photo credit: (bottom) Guangpyo David Hong.

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 Fund Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License (Alice James Books, 2016) and winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, On This Muddy Water: Voices From the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother's Mother. Joseph serves as vice president of the Writers@Work executive board and is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She blogs about her P&W–supported reading for the Poesía Peligrosa series at the University of California in Riverside.

Janine Joseph

A 2009 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, I was invited late last year to “take over” their Instagram account for a whole week so that followers could meet me and get a sense of my "New American" story. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I shared pictures and brief stories about my family’s immigrant beagles, my Lolo Lazarus, and what it was like to live, for the first time, in a landlocked state. As the publication of my debut collection of poetry, Driving Without a License, was (then) just a few months away, I talked also about my experiences as a formerly undocumented American. Through luck or happenstance, a student and the vice president of PODER (Providing Opportunities, Dreams, and Education in Riverside) at my alma mater, University of California in Riverside (UCR), saw my posts and asked if I might be interested in doing a reading for a specially themed Poesía Peligrosa event during their upcoming Immigrant Awareness Week.

I graduated from UCR in the spring of 2005—three years before PODER, which “seeks to provide assistance to undocumented students through mentorship, financial assistance, and community building,” was established, so this invitation and event was an emotional homecoming for me. In short, the partnerships between PODER, Teatro Quinto Sol, and the office of Chicano Student Programs at UCR, coupled with the generous monetary support from Poets & Writers, made it possible for an undocumented student group to bring me in to read about my experiences as an undocumented person. To add to the significance of this event even further: It brought me back to the very school where I had studied creative writing as an undocumented student.

And what a gift the occasion was. Poesía Peligrosa, which was hosted by two current UCR undergraduates, brought together a mix of music, theater, and poetry to the stage. The night began with an interactive performance by UCR's Theater of the Oppressed, followed by my reading from Driving Without a License, and ended with students sharing their own immigration-themed work. The audience, which consisted of current UCR students, alumni, UCR staff, and family members, was lively, attentive, and welcoming. There were also students and their chaperones from a local high school in attendance. Later, I looked around the room from where I sat in the back and imagined that this would have been my community nearly a decade ago, had the organization existed. I was overjoyed and relieved to know that current students had the support and space I had once longed for.

It is my hope that this event sets a personal precedence, particularly in how I plan readings in support of the book, and that I will be able to give back to other undocumented student groups around the country. It is my hope, too, that the students who I had the great privilege of meeting continue to share their stories and continue to complicate our ever-expanding American identities. I am thankful to Poets & Writers for supporting this effort, these events, and writers with immigrant backgrounds like ours.

Photo: Janine Joseph. Photo credit: Jaclyn Heward.

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.

Write! Look! Listen! is the creative writing reading series of the Merritt Writing Program (MWP) at the University of California in Merced. Since 2006, Write! Look! Listen! has featured readings and guest workshops with locally and nationally recognized poets, fiction writers, journalists, and nonfiction writers. The series features ethnically and aesthetically diverse readers in order to give students a sense of the full range and vibrancy of contemporary American writing. MWP faculty members organize, publicize, and host readings and workshops that are free and open to students, faculty, staff, and the public. Current principal organizers include: Andrea Mele, Susan Varnot, Dawn Trook, and Callie Kitchen. Contributors to this blog post include: Andrea Mele, Dawn Trook, and Paul Gibbons.

What makes your organization and its program unique?
Andrea Mele: The Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced includes composition courses, Writing in the Disciplines courses, and Writing Minor courses in Professional and Creative Writing. MWP faculty created the Write! Look! Listen! Series, as well as our undergraduate Creative Writing Conference and Collaboratorium, both of which are supported by the Writing Program, UC Merced’s Center for Humanities, and Poets & Writers’ grants.

Merritt Writing ProgramWrite! Look! Listen! invites regionally-based writers of national acclaim to campus for readings and workshops. These readings and workshops are free and open to the public, and are well attended by students, faculty, and staff. WLL strives to bring writers of diverse genres and backgrounds who reflect the diversity of our own campus, and who will connect with students on both subject and craft levels. Attendees and participants often comment on the ways in which they can relate to the authors’ experiences, and how this motivates their own writing, confidence, and commitment to their craft. Recent guests include David Mas Masumoto, Steven Church, David Campos, Paula Treick DeBoard, Lawson Inada, and the Hmong American Writers Circle.

UC Merced’s Creative Writing Conference and Collaboratorium is a day-long event, which includes morning workshops, and afternoon participant and keynote readings. Students and faculty from UC Merced and nearby Merced and Modesto colleges come together for a day of collaboration—in teaching creative writing, composing it, revising, and sharing. The event generates excitement and inspiration pedagogically and creatively, and additionally reflects the Merritt Writing Program’s commitment to community engagement and diversity of educational and artistic experience. Keynote readers highlight the region’s diversity of authors and genres. Past readers include Lee Herrick (Fresno’s Poet Laureate), Soul Vang, Rachel Starnes, and Carole Firstman.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
Dawn Trook: Whenever we bring the Hmong American Writers Circle to UC Merced, I feel very moved. These readings always bring out a diverse and large crowd, and it's exciting to celebrate a community whose native language didn't have a written form, so they are claiming their voices in new (and beautiful) ways. 

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Trook: When Peter Orner connected to our students in his Q&A as if he was talking to a group of writers, talking to them like equals. It really empowered them and made them feel like they were a part of a writing community.

How do you cultivate an audience?
Trook: Facebook and word of mouth seem to be the best ways. Writing program faculty promote events in their classes, and publicize events on news and social media platforms.

Merritt ParticipantsHow has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Paul Gibbons: Coteaching for the Collaboratorium has taught me all over again how to take advantage of teachable moments and how to include students. Because you’re not teaching alone, the sessions can resemble the best panel discussions—where people are all trying to understand and engage in a dialectic that benefits everyone in the room. And then the panel dissolves to one focused discussion among us, writer to writer instead of teacher to students. We use that energy to write and revise and share. At the end of the day, these sessions make me want to write more and teach better—that’s the lift from the teaching in the Collaboratorium, the momentum you get for both writing and teaching.

Trook: In a town isolated from big cities, it's kept me connected to the larger writing community. It's always great to be able to support a writer's work by bringing them to speak and read.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Trook: Opening students to a variety of styles, experiences, and cultural perspectives beyond the scope of our creative writing faculty is invaluable.

Mele: The Creative Writing Conference and Collaboratorium brings together students from Central Valley colleges and universities. We value our institutional relationships, and work to create a larger sense of community by hosting students and faculty from around the valley. We hope to invite more universities to participate in future conferences.

Photo (top): David "Mas" Masumoto. Photo credit: Andrea Mele.  
Photo (bottom): Fall Faculty Reading (left to right) Andrea Mele, Erik Habecker, Tom Hothem, Orisa Santiago Morrice, Yu-Han Chao, unknown, and Brigitte Bowers. Photo credit: Paul Gibbon.

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.

Jyothi Natarajan is an editor and writer based in New York City who has worked in publishing and journalism for the past ten years. She is now managing editor at the Asian American Writers' Workshop, where she edits the Margins and runs a fellowship for emerging writers. As someone invested in the intersection of writing, social justice, and education, she helps run IndyKids, a social justice-oriented newspaper written by youth ages nine to thirteen. 

The Poets & Writers' seventh annual Connecting Cultures Reading took place on April 27, 2016, before a generous audience at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Ten writers representing P&W–supported organizations Jack Arts, Inc., Kundiman/Adhikaar, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Union Square Slam, and Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon gathered to celebrate the diverse literary communities of New York City and Poets & Writers' Readings & Workshops program.

When K Sloan, a singer-songwriter hailing from Detroit, opened the reading with a song, the audience fell into a stunned silence—her voice was just that powerful. "Down, down, down, bring it down," began the lyrics to "Ancestor Song," which Sloan wrote as part of Jack Arts, Inc.’s writing workshop Creating Dangerously. “I wrote these lyrics in response to a prompt asking us, ‘What would it look like to walk with your ancestors? What would you say to her?'” said Sloan. 

Joining K Sloan on stage was Sara Abdullah, an indigenous Arab/Iranian/Pin@y mestiza queer Muslima living the diasporic hustle, whose stunning poems were also generated from the Creating Dangerously workshop.

An experimental, performance-based writing workshop for women of color led by a rotating cadre of instructors including Virginia Grise and Kyla Searle, Creating Dangerously received support from Poets & Writers’ Readings and Workshops program, which has provided fees to writers who lead workshops that serve underrepresented audiences since Poets & Writers was founded in 1970. The Connecting Cultures Reading brought together writers who had participated in five such workshops. This year’s reading marked the first time Poets & Writers has featured work from multilingual workshops, bringing writers together with translators to help share immigrants’ stories, like Babita Chhetri.

Chhetri grew up in Darjeeling, India and had been doing childcare and housework for a family in Singapore for nearly a year when she decided she needed to escape from her employer’s exploitation and abuse. Underpaid and overworked, Chhetri did something most workers wouldn't have the strength or courage to do: She ran away from her employer. She had accompanied the family on a summer holiday in New York City and at the crack of dawn, Chhetri crept out of the building they were staying in, forced to leave her flip-flops behind.

"I felt everyone's eyes on me: here was a scared woman in wet pajamas, barefoot, carrying a small bag in her hand. Where could she be going?” Chhetri, who has been in the United States for the past nine years, read on stage from a letter she wrote in Nepali addressed to her daughter and son in Darjeeling. The audience was in tears. Her story was one of ten that were told through letters as part of a workshop called A Letter Home, organized by Kundiman and Adhikaar and led by writers Meera Nair and Muna Gurung.

Through the workshop, Nepali and Tibetan women expressed their experiences as domestic workers, immigrants, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Dolly Sharma joined Chhetri on stage to read her own letter, while the audience followed along with English translation printouts, all the while dabbing their eyes with tissues.

The night shifted from Nepali to Spanish when Adriana Mora, from Aguascalientes, México, and María Guaillazaca, who moved to New York from Ecuador nine years ago, read before the packed audience. Both women participated in a writing program organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance in which they wrote in Spanish, responding to the idea of home—whether it was where they feel at home, other people’s homes, or the experience of working in someone’s home.

Other highlights from the evening included poet Sam Rush, who began writing poems after developing progressive hearing loss. Rush, who has been a part of Union Square Slam’s writing workshops, read poems that played with their realization of how many words each word could be, leaving the crowd dizzy with the emotional heft of their wordplay. Also a part of Union Square Slam, poet, screenwriter, and essayist Taylor Steele stepped on stage and immediately moved the mic aside. Her slam poems filled the room and left goose bumps in their wake.

Closing the evening were two writers from the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS): Amber Atiya and Jacqueline Johnson. WWBPS, which is now celebrating its fifth anniversary, offers women writers of all levels space to create and share poetic work.

By the end of the evening the room felt much smaller. The stories and words shared so courageously gave even the audience members the strength to say hello to strangers, and share words with the writers who had moved them to tears.

Photo: (top) Readers from the Seventh Annual Poets & Writers' Connecting Cultures Reading. (middle) Dolly Sharma and Babita Chhetri. (bottom) Sam Rush. Photo credit: Alycia Kravitz.

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 Fund Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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