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Readings & Workshops Blog

Readings/Workshops (West) associate director Jamie FitzGerald reports on a visit to the P&W–supported EngAGE senior writing workshop, taught by Hannah R. Menkin. Menkin is an educator, poet, and visual artist, who uses an integrative approach to help adults, older adults, and veterans discover their own voice through oral history, memoir, storytelling, and the creative/expressive arts.

Members of the EngAGE writing workshop“What is a poem?” asked Hannah Menkin, facilitator of the P&W–supported poetry workshop for residents of the Burbank Senior Artists Colony. The participants answered: “expressive,” “cathartic,” “a tiny soliloquy that comes from a deep well,” “a mirror of what you hold onto inside,” revealing in these answers their special relationship with the art form.

Over the past five years, this Poetry Toolbox class of older adults has become close, defining itself as a women’s writing group. Participants regularly refer to each other as sisters, including new member Sharon Yofan, who commented: “I love poetry, but was absolutely blocked. I couldn’t write on demand. There’s magic in this space, and I’ve been writing ever since. I feel so connected to our sisters here. It’s food for body, mind, and spirit.”

Last fall, we reported on one of their Poetry & Tea events, which reaffirmed for us the transformative power of writing; this year’s event was no less inspiring. It was devoted to honoring women poets. Each participant spoke about what the workshop meant to her, read a favorite poem by a female poet, and then some of their own work.

Dolly BrittanDolly Brittan, who lived in South Africa for seventy-two years before moving to Burbank, described how the class has given her “permission to be.” She brought in a tribute poem to Nelson Mandela by a poet named cheryl irene and read her own poem about her pet tortoise, Honkytonk. Felicia Soissons-Segal read a persona poem in which the speaker was an umbrella. Abigail Howard’s poem “Jacaranda Oleander” left us chanting “jacaranda oleander, jacaranda oleander.” Another member of the group, Ayn Phillips, read a poem titled “Finding Poetry” that began with the words “Dam bursts…,” a phenomenon that appears to happen regularly in this class.

Also celebrated were Lucille Clifton, Linda Hogan, Emily Dickinson’s poem number 465, and Anne Sexton’s “The Bells.” At each turn, we discussed our interpretations of the poems.

The conversation turned to perceptions of older adults. After the passing of her husband of fifty-two years, Brittan is in a new relationship—“and at my age!” she exclaimed. Kit Harper was also trying bold new things, in the literary realm.

About submitting her poetry to literary magazines, Harper said: “Doing is a lot more fun than thinking about it. It’s a lot more invigorating.”

There seemed to be consensus with Menkin’s opinion that “The image of older people needs to change. Positive stereotypes are needed, not negative ones. I don’t like the word ‘seniors.’ I like the words ‘elders,’ ‘older adults,’ ‘wisdom people.’”

Maureen Kellen-Taylor, chief operating officer of the workshop’s sponsoring organization EngAGE, told a story about an older artist who said that “when she’s acting or writing or painting, she feels ageless.”

But the perils of age do surface at times. Due to a fall, workshop member Karolyn Merson was hospitalized and unable to attend the day’s event (but is now back and writing with the group). Now in her nineties, Merson is beloved for her wit and admired for publishing a book of her haiku. The class has coined the term “Karolysms” in her honor. Merson had wanted to read “A Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. In her stead, Menkin read the poem, which ends with the lines:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

These wisdom people know.

Photo 1: Members of the Poetry Toolbox workshop (from left to right): Sharon Yofan, Kit Harper, facilitator Hannah Menkin, Dolly Brittan, Felicia Soissons-Segal, and Abigail Howard. Photo 2: Dolly Brittan with a paper horse used in a writing exercise. Photo 3: A haiku-like poem/Karolysm by Karolyn Merson. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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

In August, Bushra Rehman celebrated the launch of her first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press). Corona was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Fiction issue. The Readings /Workshops Program co-funded the book event An Ode to Corona with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Rehman’s writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction.

The first question people always ask me about my novel Corona is if it’s true. Yes, like me the character is a Pakistani who grew up in Corona, Queens, worked as a Puritan in a living history museum, and hitchhiked up and down the East Coast in her twenties, but to say Razia’s life is my life is somehow still not true. Razia is Bushra 2.0: stronger, faster, smarter, quicker. She says all the things I wish I’d said. She doesn’t take as much bull crap. She’s me without the endless hours of agonizing, worrying, and being depressed. Also, most of the events in the book didn’t really happen.

Corona is a work of autobiographical fiction. It lives in that slippery place between memoir and fantasy. Autobiographical fiction skims the fat off the truth and then uses it to create rich buttery deserts for the reader’s pleasure. It recognizes that our lives are too fascinating not to write about and our imaginations too strong to ignore. Autobiographical fiction is an endless source of confusion for readers who want to know what really happened.

I’ll never forget the moment on Fresh Air, when Adrienne Rich schooled Terry Gross for asking the “biography question.” I sympathized with Gross because Rich had scolded me once, also with good reason, and it was scary. Rich, as always, was eloquent on the matter. She explained why the question upset her. Much of current literary criticism, she said, has devolved into a strange case of connect-the-dots between the writer’s life and work. The understanding of craft, of the writer’s use of language, is lost in these conversations.

I understood what Rich was saying. There’s an implication that autobiographical work is simply an advanced form of journaling. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When sharing a hilarious, creepy, or life-altering story, which might have really happened, the writer can’t stop halfway and say, “You just had to be there.” She must use all her skills to make readers feel they were there. Even more difficult, the writer must live the life first, a life of imagination, a life worthy of fiction.

As a Pakistani-American, the question of autobiography becomes more loaded. There are so few narratives available that readers grasp for straws. All too often, I’ve had people tell me that they just read a novel about a Pakistani woman who was forced into an arranged marriage or kidnapped by bandits and they think this is how all of our lives pan out. So I always add in my interviews that Corona is a work of fiction and not meant to represent the lives of all Pakistani women. All of us don’t dress up in Puritan costumes and work in recreated seventeenth century villages in Salem, Massachusetts.

This burden of representation, plus the fear of hurting our friends and family and adding to the racism in this country by airing our community’s dirty laundry, scares many writers of color away from writing their stories. For this reason, I developed the workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction." Last winter, the Readings/Workshop Program co-sponsored this class with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Tune in next week to read some of the tips I shared with my students to help them overcome their fears and write inspired by both the truth and lies of their lives.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

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.

In August 2013, P&W-funded writer Bushra Rehman released--eleven weeks after the birth of her daughter--Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press), a dark comedy about being South Asian in the United States. Rehman has been supported by the Readings/Workshops Program for her writing workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction." Her novel, Corona, was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Summer Fiction.

I just gave birth to a book and a baby. It turns out that in the time it took from the acceptance of my manuscript to the moment of its publication, I could create a small human being in my body. I’d never thought I’d give birth, but I’d dreamed of my book launch like other women (at least according to bad television) dream of their wedding days. I used to think motherhood would make it impossible to write. I didn’t know my daughter would change my entire approach to the writing life.

To Become a Better Writer, Become a Marathon Runner or Get Knocked Up

In What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami makes a case for staying in optimum health. He says the body needs to be cared for like any essential in a writer’s toolbox. I finally understood what he meant. Although I’d spent almost a decade working on my novel, in the light of my vitamin-pumped, fruit-and-vegetable-filled, caffeine-alcohol-and-smoke-free body, I suddenly saw structural flaws I was able to fix in the knick of time. It was as if my daughter was the messenger carrying the results of the soil test in Pisa, reaching the architects before the first piece of marble was laid.

Like Babies Through the Hourglass, So Are the Days of Our Lives

A newborn will show the passage of time like nobody’s business. Did she just have a growth spurt and burst out of that onesie while I was changing her diaper? Yes, she did! I know if I want to finish my next book, I better get to it before I’m attending her graduation wearing Depends. (This last detail might only apply to older parents like me.) I no longer make excuses or wait for long stretches of time to work. Whether it is at 4 a.m. or 10 p.m., if I have five minutes, I write.

Take the Red Pill and Leave the Matrix

The first time I heard Hanif Kureishi speak, an audience member asked him how he found the discipline to sit in a room every day and work. His answer was: “How do you leave the room?” I know what he meant. I too had become chained to my laptop. With my daughter, I had to unplug. At first I was resistant… Must check Facebook... But then I began to wonder: What is she looking at? Oh, wow, it’s a... cloud… it’s a geometrically surreal pattern on my pillowcase that’s pretty trippy. Following her line of vision, I was amazed by each tiny miracle strewn throughout my world and was reminded it was this poetic eye that had brought me to writing in the first place.

I have a body. My baby has a body, and guess what, everyone in the world has a body, including my characters.

Giving birth forced me to realize I wasn’t just a floating head in space. Not only did I experience a form of pain that burned away a layer of my soul, I suddenly saw the world of my characters as a world filled with fleshy beings. I could see their bodies like I could see my baby’s goofy-sweet smile and light-filled eyes.

Yes, my baby is the best audience in the world. She laughs at everything I read, but before you run out and get pregnant, you should know taking care of a newborn is hard, harder than you would ever believe! You don’t have to be pregnant or give birth to benefit from these thoughts. Try it for nine months: Live as if you were growing a human being inside you, unplug, re-enter your physical body and world. See what it does for your writing. If you do it without a newborn, you might even get some sleep.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

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.

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Rhino, [PANK], The Bakery, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, Delirious Hem, the Los Angeles Review, and South Loop Review. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State University. This past spring, she participated in a P&W–supported reading with poet Heather Tosteson at the Dekalb Public Library in Atlanta.

Jenny Sadre-OrafaiWhat opportunities are there for younger writers such as yourself to build a literary life/livelihood?
The internet and social networking sites are wonderful resources for those who, like me, might be shier than others. They serve as great tools to be in conversation with other writers.

There is also much to be said for writers’ conferences and being in that kind of environment. There’s a sense of camaraderie and mentorship that is difficult to find once you leave college (if you attend college).

It’s really important that younger writers are proactive and seek out living the literary life if that’s what they truly want. Being passive isn’t really an option when it comes to being a writer, not for me at least.

Does your bicultural background (Mexican and Iranian) play a significant role in your writing?
So much of what I write about is who I am and who I came from. What Her Hair Says About Her, my second chapbook, is largely about having dark hair and wanting blonde hair, and then wanting my dark hair back. I associate my hair color with where I come from.

My fourth chapbook, Avoid Disaster, is based on my research of different superstitions from around the world. Those poems were written because I am an extremely superstitious human and because of the superstitions that were a part of my life growing up.

Can you describe a memorable moment from an event you’ve been part of?
After a recent reading, some people came up to tell me that they really enjoyed my poems about my grandmother and how she read coffee cups. That compliment led to a discussion about superstitions—which animals come for the dead in different cultures (a fox in Iran and a hummingbird in Mexico). By the end of the exchange, the group had almost tripled in size.

I always assumed that people would be leery of superstitions, but I’ve learned that most people are not only intrigued by them, they also don’t find them terribly difficult to believe. The conversations that happen after readings—and the listening I get to practice—are what makes them even more rewarding.

What are your reading dos?
I try to always be prepared with poems I think work well together and have a nice momentum, but I’m also ready to change things up depending on how the reading is going. I'm more aware of breathing and grateful for the opportunity to be heard. Perhaps what’s most important is that I take my time when I read, so I’m there in that moment with everyone else.

…and your reading don’ts?
I avoid long-winded explanations. A little background information here and there allows the reading to be more of a conversation, but I try to limit how much I talk between or about poems since I think the audience is there to hear the poems.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
It’s such an extraordinary thing to be able to meet other people who write or love to read and listen to literature. These programs serve as important reminders that even though writing and reading are mostly solitary acts, we are not so alone.

Photo: Jenny Sadre-Orafai. Credit: Stephanie Sadre-Orafai.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

Linda Nemec Foster blogs about the P&W supported event at UDetroit Cafe. Author of nine collections of poetry, including Talking Diamonds (finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year) and Amber Necklace from Gdansk (finalist for the Ohio Book Award). Linda Nemec Foster's work has been published in the Georgia Review, Nimrod, North American Review, and New American Writing. Cry of Freedom, her collaboration with musician Laszlo Slomovits, inspired by the poems in her chapbook, Ten Songs from Bulgaria, was released as a CD in 2013. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the founder of the Contemporary Writers Series at Aquinas College.

The same day that the public announcement of Detroit’s bankruptcy was blasted around the world, I was invited to write this blog. Pretty ironic, eh? Not if you know anything about the D’s thriving and dynamic poetry scene. I currently live in west Michigan (Grand Rapids, to be exact), but I lived in Detroit for ten pivotal years in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Those were the years when I started writing poetry and began working on my degree in the country’s first low-residency MFA Program at Goddard College (this program that Ellen Bryant Voigt founded has subsequently moved to Warren Wilson College). There is another reason why the city has played a special role in my life--my first child, Brian, was born there in 1979.

Because of my personal connection to the D, I have maintained close relationships with a number of Detroit’s poets and writers. Through those connections, I have been invited to give readings, workshops, and conference presentations several times a year. Many of those events have been sponsored by Poets & Writers including my appearance on August 15, 2012, at the UDetroit Cafe. That was one very special night.

The venue was packed, the crowd was enthusiastic, and the host--Detroit poetry impresario M. L. Liebler--was a great M.C. His introductions were lively and so were the readers and performers. Besides your humble blogger, the program included the music of the RJ Spangler Trio with Larry Smith, performance poet Wardell Montgomery Jr., Detroit musician Keith Gamble, and poet Mary Jo Firth Gillett. Reading with Mary Jo was particularly wonderful: She’s a fine poet and a former student (she participated in a master level poetry workshop I taught at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1999). Everyone who took the stage was in terrific form. I read five poems including a long piece on my favorite movie star of all time, Barbara Stanwyck. It brought down the house. Who knew that I had a bit of the performance poet in me?

It certainly was a grand evening. Besides, there was someone in the audience that made it even more of a memorable event. Brian (yes, my son who was born in the D) was able to come to the reading and be part of that enthusiastic crowd. Unbeknown to both of us, there was an artist sitting nearby who drew a pen and ink sketch of us while we were talking before the readings: mother and son with the Detroit skyline in the background. He gave us the drawing gratis--”a gift from the D.”

Poets & Writers, with its Readings/Workshops Program, is the epitome of The Gift. The impact of its support that has benefited communities throughout the country is immeasurable. And for a community like Detroit--with everything it’s been through--the Program is a significant affirmation of the vibrant voices of poets and writers that care deeply about their city.

Photo: Linda Nemec Foster. Credit: Robert Turney.

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.

P&W-supported writer Emily Rubin, author of Stalina and winner of the Sarah Verdone Writers Award, was recently profiled in Women You Should Know. She leads workshops for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City (see video here). We asked her to blog about the experience.

The flyers stated it simply:
Creative Writing Workshop
FOR CANCER PATIENTS, SURVIVORS, & CAREGIVERS
Mondays March 25, April 1, 8, 15, 22
This workshop will be led by Emily Rubin, a cancer survivor and author.

I started the workshops at Beth Israel Medical Center with the idea of giving something back to the hospital where I received treatment for breast cancer in 2008/9. As magnanimous as this might sound, I also had a subversive, experimental angle in mind. I wanted to offer an escape from cancer—a radical and fun alternative to the chemotherapy suite, radiation tables, and waiting rooms—even if it was only for a couple of hours a week.

While I was in treatment, my writing took a back seat to the rigors of the disease. My sparse diary entries ran the gamut of:  
January 28th. Cancer sucks. 
February 15th. Cancer really sucks. 
March 10th. I look like a freak.  
April 15th. Being bald (COMPLETELY!) is cool, but cancer still sucks. 
May 20th. Today a guy with a shaved head fist bumped me on a subway platform.

I consider myself lucky. My treatment was fairly standard for breast cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. There was a very good chance all would be fine, and fortunately, so far, it is. But during that time I met many who were not so lucky. A good friend, Anne Childers, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. We were cancer “sisters” and found ourselves often pushed to edges of anger, fear, and frivolity. Her cancer took a terrible turn, and after a year of treatment Anne died with her family and boyfriend at her side. She was thirty-two years old. She may not be a survivor of the disease, but she survives within everyone who knew her.

After that I’d had enough of the disease, needed to distance myself from it, and get back to my life. I finished my first novel and found a publisher. At readings and in interviews, I never mentioned my illness as part of the journey to being published. But a nerve-wracking recurrence scare (fortunately negative) made me realize that cancer had left its mark, and I would be unwise to ignore the impact it had on my life. 

I explained to the six brave souls who turned out for the first workshop that the anxiety, fear, physical and psychological pain, passion, vulnerability, and fighting spirit they experienced in and around the illness would serve them well as writers. Being human is also a good qualification, but I encouraged them by saying they might have a slight edge over the rest of the species. 

I bring prompts, quotes, and photographs to inspire our writing sessions, which have been supported by funds from Poets & Writers, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and New York Community Trust. I encourage everyone to go as deep into the illness, or as far away from it, as they desire. The main thing is they have complete control over what they write. Everyone writes for thirty minutes around a common table.    

After receiving some bad news about her diagnosis, Caroline wrote about this photograph of lightning over New York:

lightningLightning knows no mercy. She strikes with precision and ruthlessness. Her skill is almost surgical, and yet catastrophic in her damage….Where is my agency in all this? Where are my thunderbolts? Oh that I had a quiver full of them like the Greek god Zeus that I could grab and hurl at the demons that now beset me. I need Hephaestus to smith them out for me with his band of mighty Cyclops—electric blue and pink bolts to counteract and heal the damage that these new blasts have done to me. Oh Prometheus, bring them gently to me with a bow of gold that I might take sure and steady aim.

Belinda was taken with a photograph of a giant chessboard, below:

I was just about to give up when Hamilton suggested we take a walk outside. We had been at the table for hours, it was a blur of posturing rhetoric and uncertainty so frustrating…. As I looked at the knight shamefully, I felt something trickle down the side of my face, something warm and slow, blood splattered onto the black and white square, it reminded me of snowflakes as my brain tried to take me home in my last moments. Peace process over in one move. 

giant chess boardOther prompts include:

--An experience with an insect.
--The coldest day.
--A time you did something dangerous.
--The worst advice you ever gave, or got.
--Someone or something you find annoying.

There is no bullshit with these folks. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They get right to it. As a result, the writing is fiercely honest and lyrical.

Photos: Top, Emily Rubin (credit: Billy Tompkins). Middle: Lightning (credit: Weegee). Bottom: Chess Game (Erika Stone).
Emily Rubin can be reached at emrubin@earthlink.net. 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 poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at www.kfcf.org, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

IMichael Medranot seems there has always been poetry on the radio in Fresno. Preston Chase and Lee Underwood broadcasted their literary show in the late nineties, in a studio above the garage of a residential home, former headquarters of KFCF 88.1 FM. One time they welcomed poets Estela Molina, Tim Z. Hernandez, and yours truly to an hour of interviews and round-robin poetry. We were in our early twenties, squeaky, and reading from home-made chapbooks we sold at open mics for a couple of bucks.

Before Underwood/Chase there was Chuck Moulton—the poet who wrote Lion in the Fire—who was known for arriving to his live radio show later than his guests. According to current station manager Rych Withers, Moulton also fancied a false set of teeth he’d pop out of his mouth whenever he got the chance. Ah, the spontaneity of poets on the radio!

It was only a matter of time before I, too, was drawn to radio. After graduate school in Minneapolis, I got on the radio and featured my new poetry friends. That is how Pakatelas was born. During my initial year at KFCF, I recruited poet/screenwriter David Campos to co-host, and we developed into quite a team. We interviewed local and national writers including Lee Herrick, Sasha Pimentel, Daniel Granbois, and many others.

In the beginning we stuttered and frequently stopped takes. We were poets, after all, not radio DJ’s. Thank God for the pre-recorded show—otherwise we’d be radio losers scribbling poetry at some random coffee shop!

When David left to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Riverside, I wanted to try something different. A fan of talk radio, I decided to try the live format. I couldn’t tell you who my first live guest was—such is the energy of live radio—but writers who were reluctant to try the new setup were often surprised by how comfortable they were in the spontaneous format. I remember fiction writer Daniel Chacon’s startled face when I told him we were going live, minutes before the start of the show. Poor Corrine Hales was battling allergies, but she still kicked literary butt in the studio! On a recent show, I juggled two call-ins from the L.A. area along with the two guests in the studio, who were promoting a local poetry reading. It was hands down my most complex show to date.

“Pakatelas” comes from the title of an epic poem written by the late poet Andres Montoya. It is a Spanish term that comes from the ice factories Montoya famously wrote about. From what I’ve been told, "Pakatelas" is slang for “pack those things.” It also describes the manic energy poets experience when presenting a new poem at a reading—or the marriage between verse and the countdown from the board operator in the studio booth.

Photo: Michael Medrano.
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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