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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

Koon WoonMy Uncle Sum was my second maternal uncle and my mentor, a man of three teachings: Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism. He told his wife that the proper place to wash his clothes was at the river by the ancestral shrine, the part of the chicken to give their nephew was the thigh, and the way to regulate the household was to avoid unnecessary noise.

He told me that the short pines behind his house in the village could be used to make furniture for newlyweds. Their scent, he said, would lure the Shaolin Buddhist monks, but the way to fight is by avoiding fights. The way to use an abacus is to balance equals with equals, the ebb and flow of the Tao. He read me stories in our Canton flat. He signed his name to my school report cards when my father was faraway in America.

Literature comes from great love—love for stories and books, love for the unseen and the invisible, but mostly love for humanity. My Uncle Sum taught me those things, and when I won my first literary prize, he told me that was the time to work even harder.

In taking my cues from Uncle Sum, I stood in opposition to my pragmatic father, who labored to support his wife and eight restless children. After I joined him in the United States, we lived in the housing projects. At one point, he worked as a fry cook for a restaurant owned by the mayor. Another time, he was forced to take a job at a restaurant that fronted a whorehouse, where I helped him in the kitchen until the wee hours of the morning. It was a traumatizing experience (and no doubt a contributor to my struggle with mental illness), which I blocked out as I hit the school books, became the literary chair of my high school, and won a science scholarship.

But that’s only part of my journey to becoming a poet. Here are my instructions for the rest: After a promising career as a student, begin a slow descent into the hell of mental illness. Live in flea bag hotels or on the street. Get confined to psychiatric hospitals and jails. Live in tenement rooms with a sink in the corner and a hotplate to cook pinto beans and bacon rinds, reading the poetry of Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, and Anne Sexton while not caring if your soul survives. Labor under the glare of a bare bulb trying to write as tenderly as Pablo Neruda and as daringly as Cesar Vallejo. You won’t have money, but you will have a strange, unshakable optimism about humanity.

The latter is what I learned from Uncle Sum. When he was across the Pacific dying of liver cancer, I was starting my life as a poet. I felt like I was drowning in shallow water. But armed with poetry, I survived, as strong as a cockroach.

Everyone wants to win the Yale Younger Poets prize or the Pulitzer. But even winning the Nobel does not guarantee nobility of soul. As I said before, I write because I have to. It is the exorcism of all that is still immature in me.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

P&W-supported writer Charles Alexander is a poet, bookmaker, and founder/director of Chax Press. He is the author of five full-length books of poetry and ten chapbooks, and the editor of a critical work on the state of the book arts in America. His most recent book of poetry is Pushing Water, published by Cuneiform Press. Some Sentences Look for Some Periods, a chapbook, has just been released by Little Red Leaves. He has taught literature and writing at Naropa University, the University of Arizona, and elsewhere. He lives in Tucson, Arizona, with his partner, the painter Cynthia Miller.

Charles Alexander





What makes your press unique?

I might say, with Frank O’Hara, that we are “trying to keep it somewhere between mess and message,” i.e. while we have an overall purpose to support a broad range of innovative American poetry, the books happen because something grabs me. I have been asked how I can reconcile Chax Press’s interest in both the poetics of Black Mountain and that of language poetry; I see no contradiction in that reach, but rather an openness to various forms.

We also show our roots, i.e. that we began publishing books with handset type, printed on the Vandercook Press. We still publish such books, along with a lot more trade paperback books of terrific poetry.

Another fact that makes us unique: Chax has never offered a prize, and has almost never submitted our books for prizes, because we don’t believe that competition and recognition (of that variety) are what it’s all about.
 
What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?

The work of Linh Dinh seems to me some of the most creative and challenging poetry of our time. I am so glad we have been able to publish three of his books, including The Deluge, an anthology of new Vietnamese poetry, which he edited.

And of course, it doesn't hurt to look at recent books on our shelves by Alice Notley (Reason and Other Women), Maureen Owen (Edges of Water), Lisa Samuels (Anti M), and Will Alexander (Inside the Earthquake Palace), among others.

Plus, I get to work with young interns with terrific ideas.

As a book artist trained in letterpress printing, hand papermaking, and bookbinding, what are your thoughts on how e-books and new technologies are changing our concept of the book?

Books happen more quickly, get to people more quickly, and are more ever-present in our increasingly electronic lives. There is a lot of good about this, though I sometimes think people are reading bits and pieces more—songs rather than albums, greatest hits more than a poet’s deep immersion in a project. One terrific thing is that more young people are publishing works in new ways. As Charles Olson wrote in “The Kingfishers,” “what does not change/is the will to change.”
    
How do you prepare for a reading (especially if a reader’s experience of the text is linked with the book as a medium)?

While a book may have an intimate relationship with the form of a work, it can never be the defining form for that work. A live reading brings out something else entirely. When I give readings, I do not assume that the audience has read my work. I’m often surprised that they have, but I think a poet has to be attuned to that moment’s creation.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?

So much! The word rouses the spirits of individuals, who then work and act in the community. Works of art in language challenge people to understand how language and life interact. Chax Press grew out of my practice as a poet and my sense of community with other poets. Its purpose has always been to contribute to a very wide community, one that is spread out in the present and that goes back deeply in time, forming something like what the poet Robert Duncan might have called a “grand collage.”

But let's get specific about community. It takes some very special people. My partner, Cynthia Miller, has been beside me all but the first year of Chax Press, and has become the artist for the press, a board member, my studio mate, and much more. Tenney Nathanson is simply one of the best poets I have ever known or read; he has also been a mainstay on the Chax board and in my life. Tim Trace Peterson exquisitely edits EOAGH, which is a web partner with Chax. Other members of the local community that have made Chax what it is include Barbara Henning, Lisa Cooper Anderson, Steven Salmoni, Karen Brennan, the late Hassan Falak, Anne Bunker, Samuel Ace, Jefferson Carter, and many more.

On the Chax Press website, it says “Chax press publishes writing that does not take things for granted—things like ‘what is a poem,’ ‘what is an author,’ or ‘what does it mean to read.’” Have your experiences as a writer, publisher, and bookmaker helped answer any of these questions for you?

I remember Jerome Rothenberg once writing that poetry must keep asking the questions that cannot be answered. If “what is a poem?” ever has a definitive answer, I don't know that I'd like to write poems anymore. I love it that we are always extending language, extending the possible answers to these questions. The poem, questions about author and authority, and reading remain essential to my life and work.

Photo: Charles Alexander. Credit: Cybele Knowles.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson 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.

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press. 

My most recent reading in Seattle—a production of the Chrysanthemum Literary Society with support from Poets & Writers, featuring several Kaya Press writers—took place at two venues: Elliott Bay Book Company and Bruce Lee’s gravesite.

Before the reading, I met Kaya Press editor Sunyoung Lee in the Chinatown-International District, and we went to the Mon Hei Bakery for “egg tarts,” a type of egg custard and the title of one of my poems about bicultural adaptation. We had tea in Styrofoam cups at an economy cake shop, followed by wonton noodles at Mike’s Noodle House, across from the Grand Pavilion at Hing Hay Park. That site appears in my poem as the place pigeons flock and the orphans of the world meet.

When Sunyoung and I were fortified, we had three more missions for the day.

The first was the aforementioned pilgrimage to Lakeview Cemetery at the peak of Capitol Hill. We found the gravesites of Bruce Lee and his son Brandon, and Sunyoung unexpectedly asked me to read a poem. I read “Fortune Telling” from my book The Truth in Rented Rooms, a poem about my father and the hard-working Chinese immigrants of his time. As I read, planes flew overhead and rain began to fall. The Chinese say that Heaven answers by releasing precipitation. We drank wine and poured some for Bruce and Brandon Lee.



I found my own parents’ tombstones. They were simple restaurant operators, but they are buried alongside members of the Locke clan, the old Seattle family that produced the current Ambassador to China, the Honorable Gary Locke.

We caught a bus to Elliott Bay Book Company for our second mission, a reading at the world-famous bookstore. The reading was animated and diverse. Some of our poets read about biracial and adoptee identities; two publishers were represented. Thad Rutkowski came all the way from New York City. I read about how an emperor and I had discussed the mechanics of winning an election in my inner-city room. In poetry, nothing is impossible. The audience was a wonderful cross section of people, from world-class translators to walk-ins at the bookstore.

The day was an example of literary teamwork: Kaya’s resources plus my suggestions and organization and P&W’s support. Previously, P&W enabled me to bring Jack and Adelle Foley and John Holbrook to the Richard Hugo House literary center. Featuring out-of-town writers allows for literary cross-fertilization and makes Seattle a truly cosmopolitan city. These readings and workshops help make the world smaller and foster understanding among cultures.

For our final mission that day, we retired to a sumptuous feast at Hing Loon Restaurant in Chinatown.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

Suzanne Rancourt blogs about her P&W funded workshops with many underserved populations. Suzanne Rancourt is pursuing her Doctorate at the US accredited European Graduate School in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Coaching, Consulting & Education as well as a Chemical Dependency Counselor certification. She holds an MFA in writing, MS in Educational Psychology, AWA and CAGS. Suzanne draws from her Native American culture and military service (USMC, USA) in her arts practice and workshops. She has nonfiction work, The Bear That Stands forthcoming in the Journal of Military Experience, with recent work translated by Beatrice Machet. Her writing has been published in numerous journals, is used widely in schools, and transposed into the successful project, On Her Shoulders - a play about nine female veterans. Suzanne is a Managing Editor for Blue Streak - A Journal of Military Poetry. Suzanne has an upcoming P&W funded workshop open to female vets from all eras November 2, 2013 at the Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY. Her award winning book, Billboard in the Clouds, is now carried by nupress.northwestern.

For several years I have had the good fortune of receiving funding from Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops Program. These opportunities have taken me into prisons, veterans hospitals, homeless shelters for women and children of domestic violence, survivors of Traumatic Brain Injuries, drug and alcohol substance abuse recovery groups, young, inner city girls, YWCA’s, Military Experience and the Arts symposium, and more. I often get people emailing me asking about my use of writing in the field of Expressive/Creative Arts Therapy.

Of course, I recall my first attempts twenty or so years ago trying to explain to various academics my ideas. Neuroscience and brain chemistry fields really didn’t exist then, so usually my ideas were received with a raised eyebrow, leery glances, and silence. My first writing professor, Leonard Gilley, always said that perseverance was a writer’s mainstay. I continued to seek and cultivate my voice as a writer and in so doing I was met with profound adversity, and opportunities.

I focused on being my “authentic” self and in so doing embarked on a journey that led to Pat Schneider and her Amherst Writers and Artists method of facilitating writing workshops. By then I had already acquired two Masters Degrees with education in writing and psychology. I knew a good thing when I felt it. The AWA method, to use some of Pat’s phrasing, 1. is non hierarchical, 2. is experiential, 3. is a strengths based model, 4. can be used with all people regardless of age, religion, lifestyle, culture, cognitive levels, etc, 5. meets the writer/learner where they are at, 6. the facilitator takes the same risks as the participants, 7. it is NOT psychotherapy.

I continued to educate myself and learn from each participant in every one of my groups. I began to realize the changes occurring within participants and myself, not just the cathartic stuff, but the physiological things. For example, prior to a writing spree I may become highly agitated and then sit and write for hours or days. What’s that about? I wanted to know more. Expressive Arts counseling requires that we delve into our own Kafka-esque realities and for me that meant using my primary modality - writing. The change occurs in the process of the art making. Find the surprise.

Since this is to be a relatively short blog post, I won’t give you the full Monty but let’s say the bus most recently stopped off at my military service years. In 2012,  a young Iraq veteran, Travis Martin, followed his Authentic self and created The Journal of Military Experience. Their dedication in using the arts for helping each other, bettering our worlds and documenting our experiences is beyond profound. Each writer writes for their own reason with some discovering a knack that they cultivate into a well honed craft. Ironically, words can’t fully describe how much being reconnected with veterans has helped me. Resonance and resiliency; Perhaps those two words can give you an idea.

Writing transports the artist to someplace. That’s why many of us write. Writing as an Expressive Arts / Creative Arts therapeutic modality is serious business. You are accessing memories, emotions, activating neural pathways that can lead to change with the appropriate guidance and support. There are specific practices that we follow in our daily living, and our continued passion to seek, learn, experience and become more competent in our profession; to be a better human. Be Authentic.

Photo:  Suzanne S. Rancourt.  Photo Credit: Donna Davidson

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

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

It might sound like a stretch, but poetry saved my life—along with the care of psychotherapists, the kindness of my dear friend Betty Irene Priebe, and a continuous parade of literary friends.

Even though I was appointed literary chairman in high school, I could not attend the meetings after school because I had to help out in my family’s Chinese-American restaurant. I tried to study mathematics and philosophy in college, but mental illness was sneaking up on me. I had a full-blown psychotic episode in the streets of San Francisco at age twenty-seven, and was involuntarily hospitalized. I was shouting alarming verses on Stockton and Vallejo Streets at the edge of Chinatown, just a few blocks from the City Lights Bookstore.

I had no idea then that City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti would one day blurb my first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, and sell it in his bookstore. (P&W has supported both Ferlinghetti and the store over the years.)

I wrote because I could assuage my mental illness by clarifying to myself my feelings and perceptions of reality. My first publication was “Goldfish,” which appeared in a literary tabloid called Bellowing Ark, started by a fellow student of poet Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. The poem is about an animal perceived as a regal creature admired by emperors in daylight; but at night, the goldfish turns into a carp, a sharp, silver dagger conspiring to take their lives.

Many academic poets have at least a full-length book out with a prize (and also a price) attached, and a teaching position. But my relationship to poetry always felt more personal than professional—more intense, more weighty. For me, poetry was an attempt to regain my sanity. (This struggle was later collected in a chapbook, The Burden of Sanity, first published by Joe Musso’s Hellp Press.)

Now, at age sixty-four, my second book, Water Chasing Water, is out, thanks to editor Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press, the world’s foremost English-language publisher of literature of the Asian diaspora. My books have found their way into universities.

I never set out to become a published poet. I entered the literary world through the back door, writing to channel my emotions instead of acting out in the streets. One can almost say I had a utilitarian reason to write poetry. But I am not an armchair poet. I became active in the literary community--active enough to form a literary press and to edit and publish a poetry magazine for twenty years. I also judge contests and sponsor poetry readings and workshops, several of which have been supported by Poets & Writers, Inc.

This month, I will blog about the poetry scene in Seattle and some of the poets and facilitators of readings and workshops. Increasingly, Seattle is becoming a thriving literary community that deserves the nation’s attention.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

I.
Years ago, Poets & Writers funded my visit to a small community college that drew much of its student body from surrounding rural towns. The organizer’s interest in bringing in writers stemmed from a desire to inspire her students to seek new possibilities and unfamiliar experiences. I’ve noticed that from at-risk youth centers to affluent private colleges, all professors and organizers share this common goal. So common, I’ve started to think of it as a key component to my broader mission.

I keep this in mind when facing not so awesome interactions. During a public access television interview at the aforementioned college, a friendly student led with a question that began, “So, being from ‘the hood’...” Those are her quotation marks, not mine, articulated in the air with her fingers. And yes, it went right where you think it did. Then, she sat back and waited for me to explain how I managed survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland, avoided getting hooked on crack, and somehow learned to read and write powerless behind the control room glass. For this student, my being a black guy from Detroit was like having a hobbit from the Shire in studio. I used it as an opportunity to talk about how poetry facilitates a dialogue where I can push back against such limited views and encourage people to open their eyes wider to the world.

This broadening of view is a two-way street. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my ability to keep it cool in that situation and make it a teachable moment is tied to an experience I had just a couple of hours earlier. During the reading I arrived at a poem called “The Movement of a Trapped Animal” which looks at the psychological effects of war on both soldiers and the supposedly unaffected populace that implicitly funds it. Before I started, I sized up the burly guy in the back sporting a shaved head and a sleeveless POW/MIA t-shirt. I took a deep breath and jumped into the piece, not sure how he would feel about it and by extension if he’d ask me to step outside for a “discussion.” In the post-reading Q&A the vet raised his hand and, when called upon, offered what is still one of the most moving and encouraging compliments I’ve ever received after a reading. As a veteran with friends suffering from PTSD, as a man who felt many Americans ignore the weight of war, he thoroughly appreciated the poem and was visibly moved by it. My prejudices—the ones that almost kept me from reading the poem—were exploded in a way I aspire to do for others.

II.
For years now I’ve done my best to live and create under a simple doctrine: Generate the best work I can, make that work available, and be good to people. Recently, author Neil Gaiman gave similar advice in a commencement speech, telling graduates that freelancers keep getting work because their work is good, they turn it in on time, and people like them. He goes on to say you usually only need two of the three. This may be true for my ideology as well, but when all three gears are turning in the machine, you get someone like David Blair. Blair was a singer/songwriter and poet from Detroit who passed away two years ago. The world is far worse for it. In life, and now in memory, he served as an example of a creative individual who did extraordinary work, made that work available by participating in countless events, and radiated a generosity, openness, and love for people that touched everyone who came in contact with him even briefly.

In a conversation about the importance of reading poems aloud in community spaces and facilitating free workshops, Blair once told me his job and mine was to be an “inspiration machine.” He believed the very best thing we could do as we traverse the country was to inspire new ideas, challenge old ones, and by virtue of showing up and laying our work on the line, encourage others to explore the raw, transformative power of the arts. Let’s do our best to remember the changes we’ve seen literature make in our own lives as we bring words and workshops into the lives of others.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

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

During the summer, Poets & Writers supported Samuel R. Delany, Malinda Lo, and Sarah Schulman at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in Los Angeles. P&W intern Brandi Spaethe was also a fellow at the conference. We asked her to blog about her experience.

Lambda Literary fellowsI’ve been thinking about how I could possibly talk about the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in the space of a blog post. Honestly, this is my fifth draft; ok, let’s be serious—twentieth. Do you want to know about the forty-eight fellows from locales all over the U.S. and other countries? Would you like me to discuss how essential the workshops and panels such as the People of Color Caucus and Kyle Sawyer's workshop on writing trans* characters were to the conversations flooding the American Jewish University campus in Los Angeles? How about the late-night writing sessions in dorm lounges or the karaoke outbreak in the room reserved for faculty and fellow readings?

Lambda's retreat can't be captured in this small space, but I can say for certain that it changed me in ways I am supremely grateful for. The four workshops were led by Samuel R. Delany (fiction), Malinda Lo (genre and Y.A. fiction), Sarah Schulman (nonfiction), and David Groff (poetry) and met each day for three hours. Each day, Groff gifted me and my fellow poets with a prompt for a new poem to write following the workshop. We would bring our new poems the next morning to be read aloud and workshopped by the class. One prompt pressed us to write about our parents, a parent, or any parental figure. This seemed easy enough. I’d written about my parents here and there, plenty.

Poetry fellows.Yet nothing could have prepared me for what happened in that room when all twelve poets read what they had written. Voices rose and fell, some soft, some so affected they had to stop a moment, and voices that spoke truths so hard I felt myself not breathing. We sat silent afterward, not speaking. Just stewing. The poems I heard by others and the poems I had written that week broke whatever had been barricading me before. What caused the shift could be attributed to a number of things—the discussions we were having prompted by our various backgrounds in queer communities, the work we were reading and listening to, panels and workshops offered beyond our genre-specific spaces.

Above all, the friendships we developed with one another and the honesty among us was most pivotal. I’m often among queer folks who have a variety of backgrounds, but rarely do I find those who share my obsession for writing. Conversely, queer folk are usually few and far between in my writing community. At the retreat, I had a sense that many of us shared that plight and were grateful to have this opportunity and space to share not only our writing but our experiences as queer writers. We took those friendships with us when we left. Lambda gave us access to each other.

On the last night, there was an open mic reading followed by a variety of cocktails and dancing. Nine of the poetry fellows gathered for a photo outside. A colossal thanks to the staff, faculty, and fellows.

Photos: Top: Lambda Literary Fellows. Bottom: Nine poetry fellows after an open mic reading; Brandi is second from the right. Credit: Joshua Barton.

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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