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Readings & Workshops Blog

Poets & Writers-supported poet Mike Sonksen, a.k.a. Mike the Poet, led a five-day workshop at the youth writing center 826LA in Los Angeles. Sonksen’s journalism has been published in Wax Poetics, Los Angeles Review of Books, LA Weekly, and OC Weekly. He received Beyond Baroque Literary Arts Center’s award for Distinguished Service to the Los Angeles Poetry Community in 2013. His weekly KCET column LA Letters celebrates bright moments from literary L.A. Here, he blogs about his experience at 826LA.

Mike SonksenFor the fifth consecutive summer I taught my Words Spoken poetry workshop at 826LA in the Northeast L.A. neighborhood of Echo Park. We had twenty diverse teens from Downtown, Historic Filipinotown, Silver Lake, Koreatown, Mt. Washington, and South Pasadena. The combination of 826’s ambience and the earnest personalities of the group made for an explosive week of poetry and community building. The writers ranged from twelve to eighteen, plus a few college students who made guest appearances. Close to a third of the writers were returning students, adding to the group camaraderie.

Each day we write four to five poems. Fast writers write more. The prompts alternate between open and closed forms like haikus, quatrains, cinquains, sonnets, odes, elegies, city poems, list poems, epistles, response poems, and collage poems—a mixture of the fundamentals and a dash of the experimental. The five workshop days focus on writing and reciting poetry, but students are also exposed to journalism, cultural history, geography, urban studies, and public speaking throughout each three-hour lesson.

An open mic follows each assignment; inevitably, every student shares his or her work with the group, but some are quicker to open up than others. Learning elocution and the aesthetic beauty of language through reciting poetry is a time-honored tradition. Freedom is encouraged and judgment checked at the door. There’s no shortage of laughter and tears.

A multi-generational extended family forms the bedrock of our writing community. Guest poets Traci Kato-Kiriyama, AK Toney, and Sara Borjas dropped in to share poems and offer writing tips, as did Jamal Carter, Monique Mitchell, and Chris Siders, three former high school students now in college. Marisa Urrutia Gedney, the director of 826LA’s Echo Park location, is an award-winning teacher who makes sure everyone has fun and gets a lot of writing done.

After five summers at 826LA, I have witnessed dozens of students become empowered when writing poems about their lives, families, and neighborhoods. Creative writing, according to the theorist Lester Faigley, allows students to “use narratives to explore the politics of location.” Several of the poets memorized their work, adding even deeper personal meaning to the experience.

There’s nothing more sublime than watching budding writers emerge into poets. We had more writers this year than ever before. I am thankful for 826LA’s perennial hospitality and to Poets & Writers for funding us over the last four years. The workshop gets better every year. The culminating chapbook will be unveiled with a live reading at 826LA on July 24. Come hear the kaleidoscope of voices that form the patchwork of Words Spoken.

Photos: Top: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver. Bottom: Sonksen and Monique Mitchell. Credit: Cheryl Klein.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

The Intergenerational Reading features teen and senior writers from P&W sponsored workshops. On June 8, 2013, participants gave a reading at the Barnes and Noble in New York City. Manuela Cain, Readings/Workshops (East) intern, blogs about the event.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, in what is considered by many to be the literary capital of the world, I found myself on the top floor of the Union Square Barnes & Noble. To say that I have experienced New York City readings, poetry and otherwise, would be an understatement, and yet I came to this event with few expectations about what I was about to see or hear. For the twelfth year in a row, Poets & Writers has sponsored the Intergenerational Reading: Connecting Generations. This annual event brings together seniors and teens from P&W–sponsored organizations such as GED Plus/Medgar Evers, Goddard Riverside Community Center, Grand Street Settlement, Kew Gardens Community Center, Kingsbridge Heights Community Center, Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center, Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center, and Urban Word NYC.

The twenty-seven writers were brought on stage in randomly selected groups. Regie Cabico, the event's host, ignited the room with an unparalleled energy and enthusiasm. If I had any concerns going into the reading, Regie was certainly the man to ease them, as he served as the bridge between the diverse array of writers.

It would be easy to make assumptions about an event such as this. Already a dynamic is set in motion by the mixing of ages and cultures. One might assume that the seniors would have nothing but memories, and the teens something resembling angst and passion. However, what happened on that stage transcended any simple labels or assumptions. At the very essence of the human experience is love, and loss. The five senses simply serve to allow us to take it all in, and with the sharp language, flowing prose, and sometimes shocking revelations, there was a lot to take in.

One young woman, a poet with a strong sense of rhythm and voice, read a piece that fully embodied the experience of a bitter and painful breakup. Later, a senior woman narrated the experience of a later-in-life love affair with a sharp attention to detail. A teen read from his iPhone while a senior joked about not being able to make out her own handwriting. A young woman’s pride and strength was an older woman’s never-fading confidence in the face of growing older. Every question that was raised by a teen’s work was answered by an elder, or vice versa. Each seed of an idea that one writer planted had been grown through the work of another. What became clear through the course of the reading was that a community had taken shape that genuinely surpassed any differences in age or culture. And what better way to light a passion for writing in the young than to reignite the fire within those who are at risk of losing it, or worse, never having had it at all.

To the writers who bared their hearts and souls that Friday afternoon at the biggest Barnes & Noble in New York City, thank you. Thank you for showing us all that writing isn’t simply a tool, or a skill to be used and forgotten, but rather the window to our deepest desires, passions, and drives. To the seniors who proved that youth is more than a number, and the teens who were wise beyond their years, never stop writing.

Photo: Intergenerational Reading presenters. Credit: Margarita Corporan.

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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-supported poets Jon Sands, Adam Falkner, and Samantha Thornhill recently performed at North Country Community College in Saranac Lake, New York, as part of their "Poets in Unexpected Places" project. Sands, a poet, essayist, and author of The New Clean (Write Bloody Publishing, 2011), blogs about the experience.

Jon SandsIn 2010 Adam Falkner, Samantha Thornhill, and I cofounded “Poets in Unexpected Places” as a public art experiment. (We have since been joined, as curators, by Elana Bell and Syreeta McFadden.) And for one day in National Poetry Month, Adam, Samantha, and I had "free poetic reign" over the campus of North Country Community College (NCCC).

For over three years, we’ve staged seemingly impromptu poetry installations in public spaces throughout New York City, from the Q train to Times Square to Brooklyn Laundromats to Whole Foods—some sanctioned, some not. The goals are: 1) to blur the line between the artist and the audience 2) to bring poems back into a public sphere that provides the muse for so many of them 3) to challenge a creative public landscape largely curated by corporations, and 4) to acknowledge how many stories are inside every person you see, anywhere.

We have a fluid membership of writers who share their own work, or that of authors they love. You’re liable to hear Lucille Clifton, Audre Lorde, or Jack Gilbert reverberating off the subway walls.

Poets & Writers, the Adirondack Center for Writing, and NCCC brought us not just to English seminars on the NCCC campus, but to calculus classes, cafeterias, and chemistry labs (where Samantha performed her “Ode to an Apron” wearing an apron and safety goggles). I taught a midday writing workshop, and one student, Glen, a veteran and self-proclaimed “macho guy,” wrote a heartbreaking poem about one of his fellow soldiers, then joined us for the afternoon to read it aloud.

Pop-Up PoetsWe stormed into something like forty classrooms that day with no introduction or apology. This gave the night’s culminating reading at the Pendragon Theater a Pied Piper-type feel. We had been gathering students, faculty, and staff throughout the day, from the math major to the cafeteria worker. After poetry showed up for them, they showed up for poetry. The workshop participants kicked off the night for an intergenerational audience of about seventy-five.

Then, with three chairs and a keyboard, we had a poetry show that could just as easily have taken place in Adam’s living room in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We shared the stories that make us who we are, from my poems that celebrate and mourn my high school days to Adam’s poem “War in Baltimore,” a precise, hilarious, and sorrowed tale of teacher-student interaction. Samantha read her epic “Ode to Odetta” while Adam pulled bluesy notes out of the keyboard.

We stayed after for nearly an hour swapping stories with audience members. One young woman approached with tears in her eyes in response to Samantha’s elegy for a German Shepherd. She too was bitten by a dog who was subsequently euthanized. And this is the point: the hidden connections unlocked through poetry, regardless of whether it’s the Q train platform or a stage upstate. It’s the whisper in the parking lot, if only to yourself: "Damn. Me too. Now...."

Photos: Top: Jon Sands. Bottom, from left: Samantha Thornhill, Adam Falkner, Jon Sands. Credit: Nathalie Thille.
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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa is a novelist, memoirist, and short story writer whose work is grounded in the Puerto Rican communities on the island and in New York City. Her novel Daughters of the Stone (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009) was shortlisted for the 2010 PEN America Award and has been included in Breaking Ground/Habriendo Caminos, an Anthology of Puerto Rican Women Writers in New York 1980-2012 (Editorial Campana, 2012). She was a 2006–7 Bronx Council on the Arts Literary Fellow and is a three-time BRIO/ACE award winner. She is currently at work on a second novel titled People of Endurance. P&W has supported Llanos-Figueroa as both a reader at La Casa Azul bookstore and workshop leader with DeAlmas Women’s Collective, both in New York City.
 
Dahlma Llanos-FigueroaHow does giving a public reading inform your writing?
When I sit down and write my novels, I am creating a monologue. Only when I go out and share my words with readers am I participating in a dialogue. I get as much as I give. The audience welcomes my reaching out to them. They know I value their questions, suggestions, and ideas. Even small turnouts can be valuable in unexpected ways. They provide an intimacy that allows for each attendee to interact with me on a personal level, often expressing opinions that would never surface before a larger audience.

What are your reading dos?
I try to tailor my presentation to the needs and experiences of the audience. My novel spans the entire voyage of Afro-Puerto Ricans from Africa to Puerto Rico to New York City, as told through the lives of the women in one family. In East Harlem, I often choose an excerpt set there or a chapter on migration to a new city. In Puerto Rico, I choose chapters set there during colonial times. In high schools, I select excerpts that focus on parent/child relationships.

…and your reading don’ts?
I never cut off a question or response. No matter how much I agree or disagree, I give the speaker the space to express him/herself. I hope that the reader enjoyed my work, but if they didn’t, they are entitled to their point of view. And I might even learn something new.

What’s your writing critique philosophy?
When teaching, I tend to ask questions rather than make pronouncements. I believe by asking a question, you invite the writer to reconsider rather than defend. “How can this emotion be communicated in the character’s body language?” is better than “Show don’t tell!”

How do you get shy writers to open up?
Breaking up into small groups allows for a more personal, less threatening experience. I recently took a workshop with Cristina Garcia and loved the way she broke us up into groups of four. After each critiquing session, the groups rotated, allowing for each writer to get critiques from everyone. Getting feedback from three people at a time is better than sitting through twelve critiques that often get repetitive and feel like badgering. It’s a time consuming process, but well worth it. Also, you can always do an in-class small group critique, and then have the rest of the feedback in writing.
 
A safe, welcoming environment makes my job as a workshop leader much easier. In my P&W–supported workshop for the DeAlmas Women’s Collective, a group focused on women’s spiritual and emotional well-being, the intimate workshop space was set up with lighting, music, candles, and incense. The focus was on finding the story within, and the participants were asked to bring images significant to them. We created a Sacred Journal, and used meditation techniques and visual prompts to tap into memories, which yielded some outstanding memoir pieces. Because the group members were comfortable with the environment and each other, the sharing came easily.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs in the community?
I have heard people in the industry justify the lack of Latino books being promoted by saying that Latinos don’t read. I wish they could see the crowds of readers who come from all over the city to attend literary events at La Casa Azul, the only Latino bookstore in East Harlem. My P&W–supported reading was standing-room-only. People in the community are thirsty for literature that reflects their reality and grateful to authors, who respect them enough to read there.

Photo: Dahlma Llanos-Figueroa. Credit: Orlando Gonzalez.
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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W–supported Larry Colker blogs about the triumphs and struggles of poetry workshops. He has cohosted the weekly Redondo Poets reading series for about fifteen years. In 2006 he won the California Writers Exchange Award, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc. His first book-length collection, Amnesia and Wings, was published by Tebot Bach in May 2013. By day Larry develops and delivers systems training for Kaiser Permanente. He lives in Burbank, California.

Billy Collins’s poem “Workshop” is a send-up of certain kinds of feedback and poems typically encountered in poetry workshops. As a veteran of dozens of workshops with many different leaders, and as the leader of a few, I both laugh at the parody and cringe for the targeted workshop attendees (myself among them). But I believe Collins is also implicitly implicating workshop leaders, who, after all, set the example.

Why—and when—take a poem to a workshop? How to participate most effectively? How to lead a productive workshop? I have a few opinions to offer in this small space. Take them with as much salt as you wish.

Everyone assumes your poem is a draft. If you think a poem is finished and you just want acknowledgment of how good and finished it is and will be indignant at suggestions for changes (this is not unheard of), don't take it to a workshop. Likewise, don't bring it in if you honestly (secretly) think no else can appreciate your work! There's nothing wrong with having your own standards. But don't expect that others will relish being viewed as nincompoops.

The best participants (and leaders) ask themselves first: What can you tell about what the writer is trying to do from the piece itself? What strategies have been used and what choices have been made? Then: What is successful and what detracts? It is not unusual in regular workshops for poets to bring several reworkings of a poem back to the group. Familiarity with earlier versions is not necessarily useful. In the end the poem must work for readers who know nothing of its evolution. (However, those who have seen the difficult birth process of a marvelous poem do have a special kind of “midwife's” regard for the final product.)

Over time, one learns how to “do” a workshop as a participant. One picks up the etiquette. In most workshops that use the Iowa Writers' Workshop model, the author may not speak until discussion by the other participants and the leader is done—and the discussion is not directed toward the author. The author may ask questions after the discussion—about alternatives, for example—but explaining (defending) the poem is considered bad form. Take the feedback to your own counsel, where you can call certain comments misguided or idiotic, if you wish.

Leading a workshop is not a native skill either. And different experienced leaders settle on different approaches. But one of the most useful (and hard-earned) skills is referring to (or reading, or quoting) other poems that either illustrate a point of craft, or provide an example of a particular “maneuver,” or expand the writer's view of how a subject could be treated. I think that this both strengthens one's consciousness of belonging to a truly remarkable community and, frankly, raises humble awareness that one is not uniquely endowed in solving artistic problems in writing. But the satisfaction of solving those problems on my own terms—as the song says, “they can't take that away from me.”

Photo: Larry Colker. Credit: Fred Turko.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Melissa Petro blogs about the Readings & Workshops Writers' Meeting in New York City. Petro is a freelance writer and writing instructor with at Gotham Writers Workshop and is the founder and instructor of Becoming Writers Program, a memoir-writing workshop that teaches underrepresented populations to turn true life stories into outstanding literary nonfiction.

Like Robert Frost, I do not consider myself a teacher so much as an awakener. As an instructor of the Becoming Writers Program, an eight-week memoir writing workshop for individuals with experiences in the sex industries, teaching craft took a backseat. My primary responsibility, as I saw it, was to awaken my students’ potential by modeling a seriousness of purpose, and to create a safe and supportive environment wherein my students could think critically and take creative risks. All writers—but particularly writers representing stigmatized populations, such as sex workers—need to know they’re not alone, and that their work has value and meaning.

We teachers need awakening too. To remain vital, teachers need to spend time outside the classroom with other dedicated individuals. The Readings & Workshops annual Writers' Meeting was an opportunity to do just this. On Wednesday, May 8, writing instructors who had been funded through the Readings & Workshops Program gathered at the offices of Poets & Writers in New York City to compare notes about teaching in marginalized communities and to network with other writers who teach. Attendees included instructors who had worked with at-risk youth, seniors, prisoners, vets, addicts, individuals with disabilities, cancer survivors, and other populations.

This year’s meeting focused on sharing best practices, as well as on the challenges of working with our particular populations. In spite of the differences in the populations we teach, those in attendance shared our deep seated commitment to creating opportunities for underheard writers, as well as an echoing belief in the power and transformative potential of writing. Writing can be healing; it’s therapeutic. That said, none among us were therapists. One of the most interesting discussions of the night was what we perceived as the difference between therapeutic groups and the writing workshops we led. Whereas our programs had a powerful and positive effect on their participants, our intended outcome as writing instructors was not to heal or “fix” our students psychologically but to help them to create the best stories they could write.

Writing instructors who work in the community and without the support of an academic institution have fewer opportunities to meet and learn from others doing similar work. Just as I give my students permission to dedicate time and attention to their craft, I have sometimes found myself desiring similar encouragement as an instructor. Creative writing, I know from experience, can bridge a writer back to herself. Beyond self understanding, it can improve understanding and foster community among individuals with similar experiences. Beyond this, by publishing anthologies and organizing student readings, writing instructors who work in underrepresented communities have the potential to bridge the populations we work in back to society-at-large. At every step, we act as awakeners igniting the writer, the classroom, and the audience with curiosity, open mindedness, confidence, and mutual regard—qualities that, in order to awaken in others, must first be awake in ourselves.

Photo: Melissa Petro. Photo Credit: Melissa Petro

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, 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, and the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W–supported Larry Colker blogs about a lifetime of "cherished lines." He has cohosted the weekly Redondo Poets reading series for about fifteen years. In 2006 he won the California Writers Exchange Award, sponsored by Poets & Writers, Inc. His first book-length collection, Amnesia and Wings, was published by Tebot Bach in May 2013. By day Larry develops and delivers systems training for Kaiser Permanente. He lives in Burbank, California.

Several events commingled in my head last weekend. On June 2, 2013, I attended the poetry reading at Charles F. Lummis Home, El Alisal, which opens Lummis Day each year in Highland Park, California. (The reading is supported by Poets & Writers, Inc., and by PEN Center USA). Host Suzanne Lummis spoke of her campaign to get a book of poetry, or two, in every home in Northeast Los Angeles so that every child there would grow up with poetry in the house.

Then I walked over to Heritage Square to listen to a set by Jim Kweskin—a blast from my past who reminded me how deeply we respond to what was in the air during certain times of our lives...especially our first three years and adolescence, and also when we find ourselves in new surroundings—such as going to college or to a foreign country for the first time. There is a concept I learned about when studying early childhood education called “sensitive periods,” during which we are especially apt at learning certain skills (such as language or a musical instrument) or when lifetime predilections begin to form.

This train of thought led me to recall my experience several months ago reading poetry and answering very smart questions about my writing in my grandson's second-grade class. His teachers had laid a very sound foundation for appreciating poetry.

In my junior year of high school, we were assigned one poem a week and wrote each one from memory (including exact punctuation) every Monday in class. My grandmother quoted from William Cullen Bryant's “Thanatopsis,” a poem taught to her in high school, to her dying days at age 101.

Wait, it all comes together.

Who communicated a love of poetry to you? How old were you? Can you recite the first poem that swept you up into a life you would thereafter perceive in a new way?

Be that person for someone. Catch them young. I thank my parents for having poetry in our house. I thank my teachers. I thank everyone who has carried even a few cherished lines of poetry to the end of their life. Aim to write one of those poems.

Photo: Larry Colker. Credit: Fred Turko.
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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