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Readings & Workshops Blog

Brian Castner is the author of The Long Walk (Doubleday, 2012), an Amazon Best Book of 2012 and Chautauqua Literary & Scientific Circle selection for 2013. His writing has appeared in Wired, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Outsideand on National Public Radio. Castner is the co-founder of Buffalo, Books & Beer, a new literary series in his hometown of Buffalo, New York.

We’re all still learning how to come home from a war. Veterans struggle to readjust, civilians and family wonder how to welcome back their changed loved ones. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves; Odysseus had trouble, too.

This truism of history still applies: Every veteran saw their own war, had their own individual experience, were exposed to their own proportion of terror and transcendence, and deal with their own mix of pride and regret. It follows, then, that no single national program or strategy will best welcome home all these men and women.

For some veterans, though, writing helps. Trauma therapy for some, but for most, just a human need to share an experience with others. The same could be said for the country at large, of course; narrative helps all of us make sense of our lives.

Inclusivity. This is what spurs Words After War, a literary nonprofit based in New York City, to organize workshops and events around the country. Rather than focusing on writing for a small circle of military peers, Words After War instead creates opportunities for veterans and civilians to speak to each other. It’s an effort to bridge the civilian-military divide, one story at a time.

This past semester, with support from Poets & Writers, I led a Words After War workshop on the campus of Canisius College in Buffalo, New York. On Tuesday evenings, war was a lens through which to read and write and think about the same topics that have always preoccupied writers. Many traditional workshops use this lens model, we simply considered violence and its aftermath instead of environmentalism or realism or faith or any other typical construct. 

There is no good writing without good reading, so we started each session with Whitman or Hemingway or Vonnegut or Klay (who visited our class just weeks before he won the National Book Award). We studied classics, but also new work from Siobhan Fallon, Brian Turner, and Hassan Blasim, and two post-Vietnam books, Qais Akbar Omar’s A Fort of Nine Towers and Larry Heinemann’s Paco’s Story. What better way to start than to put great sentences—moving sentences, jarring sentences, and imperfect sentences—in everyone’s ears? An ice-breaker, for the workshopping that followed.

I’d like to think that the strength of our program is to be found in the stories we wrote and the precision and quality of the feedback we provided each other. To judge our success in bridging the civilian-military divide, we could parse the demographics of our group (five veterans/six civilians, four women/seven men, three graduates of creative writing programs, three retirees, a lawyer, a photographer, a poet, an anthropology professor, a magazine editor, an author of four books, one that had not written in decades), but I’d rather examine the work we produced.

Some stories you would expect from a veteran writing group—a nighttime raid in Afghanistan, a day on the gunnery range in basic training—but most may surprise. A dying grandmother who keeps a secret to the end of her life. A son with nightmares while his father fights in Iraq. Travels in Korea. A meditation in a snow-filled graveyard. We workshopped prose poems and flash fiction, chapters from novels, and a Civil War biography told through letters. Some stories had a military connection, but plenty did not; grief and love are grief and love, after all.  

In short, a veteran writing workshop looks a lot like any other serious literary class. Because at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to produce good writing; Hemmingway’s one true sentence.

Photo (top): Don Bond, Brian Castner at a teaching workshop. Photo (center): Brittany Gray. Photo (bottom): Marilyn Rochester. Photo Credit: Words After War

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers. 

Amber Atiya is the author of the chapbook The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop (Argos Books, 2014). Her poems have been published most recently in Nepantla: A Journal Dedicated to Queer Poets of ColorBoston ReviewBlack Renaissance NoireAtlas Review, and Apogee Journal. A proud native Brooklynite, she is a member of a women's writing group that will be celebrating thirteen years next spring.

Question: Where does a word-rich, money-poor poet from Flatbush inevitably end up?

Answer: At the food stamp office.

Office of clients in faux furs and bubble coats, of institutional green walls like the abortion clinic I accompanied a friend to. Land of city workers, collecting mugshots and electronic fingerprints, "to cut down on fraud," as one supervisor claimed, through a mouth full of jelly beans. The chaos of the food stamp office—aka the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—has been great fodder for writing practice. Security guards escorting irate clients from the waiting area; the man who kept yelling at case workers to “check the schematics,” told me all he wanted was to cook a nice meal for his fifty-third birthday; the stranger who chatted me up during my train ride to the SNAP center, teaching me a spell to make a man fall hard (hint: it involves Haitian rum and drilling a hole into an apple), and pulling out his Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card to show me a picture of himself, femmed up, in a bobbed wig.

These are moments I live for as a writer, scribbling notes in the margins of a SNAP booklet ("What You Should Know About Your Rights & Responsibilities") or on the back of a voter registration form I’ll never use. Occasionally, these moments become poems, a couple of which appear in my chapbook, The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop, recently published by Argos Books. (Shout out to my nephew J----, who checked my ego by constantly asking, “Ams, what’s the name of your book again?” Only to walk off, chuckling, before I could answer.)

My mentor, musician and writer Norman Riley (the “Great Sage of Hell’s Kitchen”), once advised me to say, “yes” to any creative opportunity that felt right, that allowed me to sleep at night. I’ve performed at over ten events so far this year, which for a poet making chump change, has been financially challenging.

Two of these amazing shows were funded, fully or in part, by Poets & Writers. “Celebrating a Sacred Space for Women’s Voices” was curated by JP Howard, poet and creator of Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (love to my co-features: Keisha-Gaye Anderson, Charleen McClure, and Cheryl Boyce-Taylor). And a reading at Bluestockings Bookstore in New York City was organized by poet Cathy Linh Che (dap to my co-readers: Wo Chan, Cathy Linh Che, Paul Tran, and Javier Zamora).

Real talk: It feels good to be compensated for my writerly endeavors, to not be entirely stressed about how much money’s left—or ain’t left—for my subway fare after a gig. (And I can testify that travel reimbursement goes a long way, all you reading series curators out there. Ten events times $5.00 is…) It feels good to have pocket change for everyday living expenses, to support other poets’ events, a little something-something in my purse for the $8 cover or two-drink minimum plus tip. Thank you for allowing me that, Poets & Writers.

It’s still a struggle from one day to the next, don’t get it twisted. Call me a stubborn Capricorn with Virgo rising. Call me a woman about her business: A chapbook welcomed into the world with the best launch ever (I see you, Krystal Languell, Cynthia Manick, and Betsy Fagin!); an upcoming Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon workshop that I’m facilitating, co-sponsored by Poets & Writers; and a couple of events scheduled for 2015, dates pending. 

Call me a New York poet knee-deep in blessings.

Photo (top): Amber Atiya reading at Poets House. Photo Credit: Arnold Adler

Photo (bottom): Akinfe Fatou, Amber Atiya, and JP Howard at the chapbook launch for The Fierce Bums of Doo-wop. Photo Credit: Ed Toney

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers. 

Rebecca Hoogs is the author of the chapbook, Grenade (GreenTower Press, 2005) and the poetry collection, Self-Storage (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2013), which was a finalist for the 2013 Washington State Book Award in Poetry. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, AGNI, FIELD, Crazyhorse, Zyzzyva, the Journal, Poetry Northwest, the Florida Review, Cincinnati Review, among others. She won the 2010 Southeast Review poetry contest and is the recipient of fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Artist Trust of Washington State. Hoogs is the Program Director for Seattle Arts & Lectures and occasionally co-directs and teaches in the Summer Creative Writing in Rome program for the University of Washington. 

Rebecca HoogsWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
I think what makes Seattle Arts & Lectures (SAL) unique is not only the breadth of our programming, but the way we interweave our public programs with our education program, Writers in the Schools (WITS), whenever we can. At each of our lectures and readings, we open the evening by featuring a young student writer reading their original poem, story, or memoir. After, we encourage the young writer to sit beside the featured author at the booksigning table—two peers, side by side—to sign copies of their work for the audience. These moments in the spotlight can be utterly transformative for our young writers—often we hear that it’s the first time their parents are seeing them in such a positive light. These are magical moments and it’s an honor to use the SAL stage not only to present the best authors of our time to Seattle’s readers and writers, but to give them a glimpse of the best writers of the future, as well.

Many of these writers also visit a WITS classroom while they are in Seattle. For instance, James McBride, the opening speaker in this year’s Literary Arts Series, spoke with a group of several hundred students at Garfield High School (where some classes were reading his 1996 memoir, The Color of Water). Bringing real-life authors to students during the school day is just as important to us as bringing them to the evening presentation.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
Last spring, after many years of trying, I finally succeeded in persuading Anne Carson to return to Seattle to appear in our Poetry Series. As Anne and her partner Currie and I planned for their visit, what would happen onstage evolved: We added musicians, invited collaborators, and I was asked to track down “as many sheets” as I could get. The resulting performance was a one-of-a-kind night featuring Anne’s words in many voices (including her own), a chorus of Gertrude Steins, music by the lovely local musicians Jessika Kenney and Eyvind Kang, and, of course, those sheets rising up and down in a meditative dance-poem. It was a magical night that took risks, pushed boundaries, and asked the audience to join the performers in riding on the possibility of failure or flight. It was a dream come true.

What was your most successful literary program, and why?
What a hard question! There are so many ways to look at success and so many different kinds of successful programs. However, I feel that our Literary Arts Series event with George Saunders last spring epitomizes our most successful programs. He was one of the most moving, funny, and inspiring people I’ve ever heard speak and many of our long-time audience members left saying that it was one of the best—perhaps even the best—lecture that they’d ever heard in the twenty-six years of our series. That, to me, is pretty high praise. Different events will appeal to different folks, but my ultimate goal is that—at the end of every lecture or reading—someone leaves saying, wow, that was the best event I’ve been to in years.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Watching the World Series with Robert Hass at a sketchy bar down the street from our venue, fifteen minutes before his reading.

Helping an author undo the forgotten tailor tacks on his new suit, ten minutes before he took the stage.

Hearing 2,500 voices sing “Because the Night” with Patti Smith after her reading from her memoir Just Kids.

And, just last week, being blown away by the visual kismet and crazy layering of Matthea Harvey reading her poems (sponsored by Poets & Writers—thank you!) about glass girls in a glass factory in the Glasshouse at Chihuly Garden and Glass, under the Space Needle and below a full moon occasionally pierced by planes. It was an amazing night in which the setting magnified and reflected her work in all the best ways.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
I strive to put together series that are not only comprised of my personal favorite writers, but who are the favorite writers of our community (or who will be!). As a result, I read much more broadly than I would otherwise and am more open-minded. To then get to hear authors in person speak about their work, to offer insight into their process, to reflect on their career, is a gift that just deepens the experience of reading.

As a poet, the Poetry Series provides the most direct inspiration for my own work. As host for the series, I am preparing for weeks in advance—reading casually at first, perhaps, and with increasing intensity and adrenaline (and yes, anxiety) as the event looms and my introduction and interview of the poet near. Preparing in this way reminds me of what I always loved (in the end) about school—reading work deeply and then synthesizing through writing and questions, lodging the work into my own conscious and subconscious. I am sure that this kind of deep reading has inevitably given me new tools, ideas, and forms to experiment with, but most of all, it has given me pleasure.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
There’s critical synergy in the work we do. Through Writers in the Schools, we’re cultivating the next generation of readers and writers while simultaneously supporting our region’s writers (we pay more than $200,000 a year to the fabulous local writers to serve as WITS writers-in-residence). These young writers are featured on the stages of our public programs and the writers-in-residence also receive free tickets to our Literary Arts Series and Poetry Series (free inspiration for their own writing life!). Each year, thousands of readers and writers of all ages are uplifted, challenged, and ultimately changed through tales of persistence, insights into the writing process, new cultural context, critical lenses into literary history, and intimate vignettes of partnership. Together, we remember what it means to be human and share a story. Together, we write that story.

Photo: Rebecca Hoogs      Credit: Libby Lewis Photography
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.

Marcia Arrieta blogs about her experience teaching a P&W–supported writing workshop series at Elizabeth House, a place of refuge for homeless pregnant women and their children in Pasadena, California. Arrieta is a poet, artist, and teacher, whose work appears in Of/with, Alba, Rivet, So to Speak, 13th Moon, Eratio, Catch & Release, Alice Blue, Melusine, Osiris, Web Conjunctions, Sugar Mule, Cold Mountain Review, Dusie, and the Last VISPO Anthology, among others. The author of one poetry book, triskelion, tiger moth, tangram, thyme (Otoliths, 2011), and two chapbooks, experimental: (Potes & Poets, 2000) and the curve against the linear/An Uncommon Accord (Toadlily Press, 2008), she received an MFA in poetry from Vermont College. Over the years, she has led numerous writing workshops at Franklin High School and John Adams Middle School in Los Angeles, and The Women’s Room and Centennial Place in Pasadena. Arrieta edits and publishes Indefinite Space, a poetry/art journal.

Marcia ArrietaIn the first poetry/writing workshop in a series sponsored by Poets & Writers at Elizabeth House in Pasadena, California, a young mother writes about a hummingbird:

She looked at me and then flew away.
That’s when I knew on the floor—I shouldn’t stay.

Five weeks later at the culminating reading and book publication of Writing from Elizabeth House, a hummingbird hovers in the center of the cover collage. The hummingbird, a symbol of goodness, sweetness, and light, became a symbol for us of perseverance, writing, and communication, as did Maya Angelou’s powerful poem “And Still I Rise.”

The mission of Elizabeth House is “to provide shelter, hope, and support to homeless pregnant women and their children, addressing the physical, emotional, spiritual, and economic needs in a nurturing atmosphere.”

When I first arrived there to lead my workshop, I learned that not only would I have eager, creative young women around the table, but also their babies—ranging in age from weeks old to six months. Needless to say, we had a lively time between the reading, discussing, writing, and sharing of our work, and the babies—sometimes crying, nursing, content, yelling, sleeping (ah, for the baby sleeping!).

Elizabeth House writing workshopThroughout the workshops, several women told me they were so happy to be writing again and in touch with their creativity. One woman expressed her gratitude for the workshops since they were exactly what she needed at this time in her life, with a six-month-old and her uncertainty as to a job and place to live after Elizabeth House. Another woman revealed she never wrote or read poetry, but by the final workshop, she was able to express herself in a beautiful poem entitled “Life.”

At the reading, the audience was very impressed with the quality of the women’s work—especially the honesty and depth of thoughts and emotions expressed. The book I created for them will always be a reminder of their time at Elizabeth House.

I was amazed and inspired by these young women—their lives, their babies, their writing. It was a privilege to work with them and learn of their dreams, struggles, and strength. I think I brought them optimism and hope through the literature we analyzed and the biographies of the poets and writers we studied—Maya Angelou, Joy Harjo, Nikki Giovanni, Langston Hughes, Edgar Lee Masters, Emily Dickinson, Jimmy Santiago Baca, and Audre Lordemany of whom also experienced difficult times, but ultimately triumphed.

Photo (top): Marcia Arrieta. Credit: Kevin Joy. Photo (bottom): Elizabeth House workshop participants and Marcia Arrieta (at right). Credit: Kali Ratzlaff.

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

Eugenia Leigh is the author of Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows (Four Way Books, 2014). The recipient of fellowships and awards from Poets & Writers, Inc., Kundiman, Rattle, and the Asian American Literary Review, Leigh serves as the Poetry Editor of Kartika Review. She received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and is currently a PhD student in the Program for Writers at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

The book tour was a risk. On good days, we called it an investment. Averaging early thirties, we were young enough to “stop everything and do this!” but old enough to be concerned about our finances. We decided against crowdfunding, dug into our savings, and reminded each other, “you only live once.” We would never publish first books again.

The four tour-bound poets—Michelle Chan BrownCathy Linh CheSally Wen Mao, and I—found each other through Kundiman, a nonprofit organization that serves emerging Asian American writers and instills in its fellows, an irrepressible belief that their words matter.

Book tours, we discovered, were a lost art. With few contemporary examples to emulate, we fashioned our tour from imagination. We created haphazard lists of venues, cities, and people we know or sort-of-used-to-know. The lists gave birth to the Honey Badgers Don’t Give a B**k Tour, our homebrewed, multi-week, poetry performance on wheels.

We woke early on futons and air mattresses (and once a yoga mat) strewn across the homes of strangers and friends. While we rewarded ourselves with the occasional Red Lobster feast or a quick dip in a lake, the tour was hardly a glamorous affair. We spent our long drives catching up on sleep or on freelance work, plus tweeting and tumbling so our moms could keep track of us, up and down the east coast.

When Joseph O. Legaspi, one of Kundiman’s founders, invited us to read with acclaimed poet Patrick Rosal as part of New York City’s Bryant Park Word for Word series, we jumped at the chance—especially when we learned that the Poets & Writers Readings and Workshops program would fund the event.

With over two hundred people in attendance, the Word for Word reading was our largest gathering on tour. It was a life-giving privilege not only to perform, but also to be financially compensated for a performance at the Bryant Park Reading Room, a space created during the Great Depression to welcome the out-of-work masses.

Several nights later, at one of our final readings in a Washington, D.C. bar called Petworth Citizen, only one person showed up. A community activist whom none of us knew personally.

Michelle, Cathy, Sally, and I exchanged surprised glances as we had nearly resigned to packing up without doing a reading at all. Then we resolutely pulled our chairs into a circle to include our new friend, plus Michelle’s husband, our second and only other audience member. We took turns performing our poems in that circle with as much energy as the first time. Then, we thanked the woman who sat with us by gifting her signed copies of each of our books.

I understood then that the fuel we had received in New York City took us through D.C. and to numerous other communities. It would not be a stretch to say our small gesture was an extension of the gifts first given to us by organizations such as Kundiman and Poets & Writers.

The extension continued when, a few weeks after the tour, I moved to Chicago and became one of the friends with an air mattress, as I hosted Cathy Che and poets Jess X. Chen and Paul Tran on a stop for their visual poetry tour, Lights Trauma Revelation. I read my poems, as one of four local poets, for their performance at the Marble Room, a Chicago reading series that hosted us in a Wicker Park dance studio, tucked under a train station. And there, Poets & Writers showed up once again to fund part of the reading.

I joked recently that I get paid as a poet when a stranger writes to say he resonates with my book, or when an old college friend finds a copy at an independent bookstore.  But with the Readings & Workshops program's generosity, I'm blessed and grateful to receive occasional financial compensation, as well. Whether friend or funder, I want to thank you, dear supporters, for your continued confidence in the importance of our words.

"Blood, Sparrows and Sparrows" - Book Trailer from Jess X Chen on Vimeo.

Photo (top): Eugenia Leigh. Photo Credit: An Rong Ku

Photo (bottom): Patrick Rosal, Cathy Che, Eugenia Leigh, Sally Wen Mao. Photo Credit: Honey Badgers Don't Give a Book Tour Tumbler page

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers. 

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Chicago and Washington, D.C. is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

For over forty-five years, the Katonah Poetry Series (KPS) has hosted nationally and internationally acclaimed poets in the welcoming and intimate setting of the Katonah Village Library in Northern Westchester County. Each reading is followed by an interactive Q&A session, as well as a reception and book signing. The distinguished poets who have appeared over the years include six poets laureate of the United States, six poets laureate of New York State and sixteen winners of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry. Billy Collins, U.S. poet laureate from 2001-2003, directed the series for seventeen years and continues to serve on the poetry advisory board. The series draws an audience, not only from Northern Westchester, but also the greater Tri-State region. The series provides a valuable service to the community—hearing live poetry is an important experience that differs from reading a poem on the page. KPS believes it is important to broaden the audience for poetry, and reaches out to regional high schools and colleges. The series is pleased to take part in creating a vibrant and intellectual literary community of readers, writers, and educators.

How many years and poets does it take to make an incredible reading series? In the case of the Katonah Poetry Series (KPS), forty-seven years, six U.S. poets laureate, sixteen Pulitzer Prize winners, and a host of renowned poets. This lively poetic scene would not be possible without vital support from grantors like Poets & Writers, a dedicated group of poetry lovers of all ages, and the wonderful venue of the Katonah Village Library.

The series began in 1967 with Robert Phillips showing up at the library with a gallon of wine, some cheese, and a poet in tow. When Bob left to join the faculty at the University of Texas, he handed the baton to Billy Collins. A few years later, prompted by the small turnout at a Samuel Menashe reading, I offered, as good friends tend to do, to help Billy with the series. I didn’t realize that I would inherit most of the organizational duties due to his 2001 inauguration as U.S. poet laureate! After my stead as Co-director, Director, and now as Poetry Advisor, I continue to be nourished by my involvement in the series and fondly refer to it as my personal MFA program. As Billy Collins aptly said, “If you sat on the steps of the Katonah Village Library for the past twenty-three years [and now forty-seven!] without moving, nearly every notable American poet would walk by you."

The intimate, informal atmosphere of our readings, and the book signing reception that follows, encourages everyone to interact with each other and the featured poet. Visiting poets often comment on the vibrancy and enthusiasm of our audience. Not only have we built an audience, but along with them, a thriving community of readers and writers.

Some highlights:

• Stephen Dunn’s reading two weeks after September 11, 2001, which audience members said helped them cope with the tragedy

• The Ilya Kaminsky reading in 2003 moved people to tears

• Many moments of laughter provoked by Billy Collins, Kay Ryan, Ellen Bass, and other poets

• A young mother with leukemia who credited the series with upgrading her quality of life as she underwent treatment

• Dylan Thomas’s "A Child’s Christmas in Wales" recited by James Navé every December, a community ritual drawing families and folks of all ages

Given the current strength of KPS, it is hard to believe that in the 2009-2010 season, the series came close to losing solvency. Help came in the unlikely guise of a September 2010 article in the New York Times, “Even Poetry is Undergoing Setbacks.” Surprisingly, unsolicited checks arrived from as far away as California! With those funds and the creation of a new Executive Committee, the series was revived. KPS now offers four annual readings, as well as some additional community events and workshops. The Katonah Poetry Series also has a new media presence to take it into the twenty-first century, including a website (featuring unique poet interviews), a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and coming soon—Instagram! Our recent Billy Collins reading attracted nearly three hundred people, and we are confident that we will be celebrating our fiftieth anniversary in 2017. Does that make us one of the oldest— and newest— reading series in the United States? Please “friend us” and we’ll look forward to welcoming you to the KPS family.

Photo: (top) Committee members from left: Van Kozelka, Director of Katonah Village Library; Leisha Douglas, Ph.D., KPS Poet Advisor; Julie Nord, KPS Publicity; Andy Kuhn, KPS VP; Moira Thielking, KPS President; Marlene Gallagher, KPS; Stephen Peeples, KPS Treasurer; Jessica Bennett, KPS; Barb Chintz, KPS.
Photo: (2nd from top) Ellen Bass reading from her new collection, Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014).
Photo: (3rd from top) Billy Collins Reading.
Photo: (bottom) Billy Collins connecting with fans. Photo Credit: Leslye Smith, Studio Smith Photography.

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.

Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney’s third poetry collection, Patter (Red Hen Press, 2014), examines miscarriage, infertility, and parenthood. His second book, The Black Automaton (Fence Books, 2009), was a National Poetry Series selection. He has received residencies and fellowships from Cave Canem, The Rauschenberg Foundation, and others. His work has appeared in a number of journals, including Poetry, nocturnes, Pleiades, The Boston Review, The Iowa Review, Ninth Letter, Washington Square, and Callaloo. Raised in Altadena, CA, he lives with his family in California’s Santa Clarita Valley and teaches at CalArts.

Douglas KearneyWhat are your reading dos?
Gosh—reading dos. I remember that the writing of these poems was driven by some kind of dynamic source—intellectual, emotional, physical. If I remember that, it animates the poems, even the quieter ones. Going to hear a reader read a poem is simply not the same thing as reading it yourself. So as a poet giving a reading, I see no point in being absent from the work while presenting it live (reading in Times New Roman, I call it). That’s what the book is for. That does not mean that you have to shout, switch accents, and sing (though that’s often an honest part of the composition for me and many others)—but I think being present is necessary and audiences can tell, even when your version of present is to read without much affect.

How do you prepare for a reading?
Most of my preparation is around getting my voice ready. I’ll scat a bit so I know where my range will be and to get my tongue limber. It’s funny, it also gets me surer of enunciation. Then, there are two rap tracks I perform: Mos Def and Talib Kweli are Blackstar’s “Definition,” and Latyrx’s “Say That.” Both are two-emcee crews, so it stretches me out a bit in terms of timbre, cadence, and breath control. As the work has gotten more mercurial, more shard-full, I sometimes do Nicki Minaj’s verse from “Monster.” Then, I pray that I don’t get in the way of the work, that I don’t embarrass my ancestors and contemporary friends and family, and give thanks I get to do this at all.

When it comes to picking my “set,” I want to do a different one for every reading. But if I’m a bit nervous, I lean on past sequencing. I want to get out of that habit—explore the “deep cuts” (ha!) a bit more.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I don’t know how pleased crowds are with my poems that work. I’ll say the ones that are probably the most likely at getting the unsettled responses, that I think the work solicits, are the “Miscarriage” poems from Patter, and my “peppy poem about the Middle Passage,” “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk” from The Black Automaton. These work because most folks seem to know how they should react to the surface subject matter—yet, the poems don’t go there without some complications. I think the surprise of that is engaging to audiences.

Additionally, I’ve come to pay a lot more attention to the banter between poems as an extension of the writing in a live setting. So I rework setups a lot. A dear friend of mine, playwright, performer, poet, and musician Eisa Davis has referred to the banter as “my stand-up.” I do study comedians to work out timing, cringe humor, and audience interaction.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been a part of?
Two things! Once, way back at a group reading in San Diego, some guy stood up in the middle of one of my poems, shouted “Parasites!,” and stormed out. That was fun!

And once, I was having a public dialogue with Amiri Baraka in the Bay Area. I read a poem called “The Chitlin Circuit.” This involved me leaping from the stage and stalking around the crowd, getting louder and louder as I repeated a passage of the poem. When I got back to the stage, Mr. Baraka looked at me like I had grown horns—but bright, beautiful, thorny horns! Then, he read “Ka’Ba”—and it was like a balm spread over the room. I had never truly known so much love and yearning for peace was in that poem—and I understood viscerally something about the late poet and the power of poetry I had never known before.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on:
Something for my kids. They are working at being high-maintenance.

Photo: Douglas Kearney     Credit: Eric Plattner

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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