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Readings & Workshops Blog

Robert Francis Flor, PhD, is a Seattle native and cochair of Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts. His poetry has been selected for Seattle King County's program “Poetry on Buses,” and has appeared in Soundings Review, Four Cornered Universe, and numerous other journals. He is currently completing a poetry chapbook, Alaskero Memories, and writes plays about the Filipino community in Seattle. Flor blogs about a P&W–supported reading he helped organize which took place at the Seattle Public Library this past April.

Robert Francis Flor

While most are familiar with Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, and Judeo-Christian mythologies, we often fail to recognize that people throughout the world have stories, journeys, villains, and heroes that shape their beliefs and behaviors.

Modern societies may overwhelm and impose their values on more traditional ones while wearing a mask of cultural superiority, even though ancient civilizations often have myths that share universal qualities. The late Joseph Campbell noted in Myths to Live By (Penguin, 1993) that when "old taboos (myths) are discredited, communities immediately go to pieces, disintegrate, and become resorts of vice and disease."

Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts (PWEKA) and La Sala, two Seattle-based arts organizations from the local Filipino and Latino communities, aimed to cast a light on this issue through poetry by presenting readings that exposed the public to different mythologies.

With the help of two Seattle University student organizations—United Filipino Club and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán—and the Seattle Public Library, we hosted three Filipino poets and three Latino poets in two readings exploring their cultural mythologies.

The poets were all from the Pacific Northwest: Roberto Ascalon, Jim Cantú, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Emily Lawson, and Sam Rodrick Roxas-Chua. The City of Seattle's Office of Arts & Culture and Poets & Writers supported the events.

The poets delved into cultural mythological influences of both indigenous and shared colonial origins. Mexico and the Philippines both had lengthy histories with Spanish and American influences. Like many colonized parts of the world, they also had native cultures with unique mythologies. The readings also demonstrated ways that civilizations adjusted to and accommodated the insertion and overlay of myths from more dominant cultures. Jim Cantú’s poem "Sacred Mother" depicted the transformation of Tonitin, the "Mother Earth" Aztec goddess, into "Nuestra Madre Dame," Our Holy Mother, when Mexico fell to the Spanish conquistadors.

Chris Higashi, Seattle Public Library’s Manager for Literary Programs, said she was "so pleased to have taken on the event. It drew a diverse audience of eighty attendees, about eighty percent of whom were of the cultures represented in the poetry and under the age of thirty—not a typical audience for the library."

My sense is that the readings opened windows for many who attended. The question and answer periods that followed were filled with inquiries about identity and cultural poetry, accompanied by a general tone of gratitude for readings that recognized the importance of culture. One young Mexican-Filipina woman remarked she was "surprised and thankful” when she looked at the library events page and found it included something about and for her. The students at Seattle University have already indicated a desire for a similar presentation next academic year. I believe the reading touched something deep within the students and the community.

Watch the video from the event.

Photo: Robert Francis Flor. Credit: Lauren Davis.

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.

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents (University of New Orleans Press, 2009), The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst (Soft Skull Press, 2010), and most recently, the collection Ultrasonic: Essays (Lavender Ink, 2014). A fifth nonfiction book will be released by Dzanc in 2016. He is a founding editor and nonfiction editor for The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State.

Steven ChurchHow do you prepare for a reading?
I’ve given a LOT of readings, but I still get nervous. I like to have read through out loud what I’m planning to read, at least a couple of times, just to get the timing right and catch any parts that are hard to read. And a beer or two helps take the edge off.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
Recently someone asked me if there were stories that I didn’t tell or things I wouldn’t write about—to which I responded, “Yes.” But then she looked at me as if I was then going to tell her these things. I did not. I also had someone ask me once why writers “write about depressing things,” and the only response I had was, “because it’s more interesting than happiness?”

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
If I have the time, I like to try and get a couple of laughs from the audience as a sort of “buy in” for what I’m reading and because it tends to relax me; so I’ll often start with a lighter, more humorous essay before hitting them with the more emotional material. Lately I’ve started reading other people’s work as a kind of ice breaker.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
During a reading at Fresno State once, the power went out in the building and the only light in the room was from the emergency exit signs. Fortunately my colleague had a headlamp flashlight, so I gave the entire reading in the dark, using the headlamp. That was fun.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Reading my work aloud is very important, as it is the only way to really hear the essay or the book the way I want it to sound in a reader’s head. I always catch mistakes or make revisions after reading a piece out loud; it’s become part of my writing and revision process.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on:
Groceries and beer.

Photo: Steven Church   Credit: Jocelyn Mettler

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

Melba Joyce Boyd is Distinguished Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and the author of thirteen books, including nine collections of poetry. She is the recipient of two Library of Michigan Notable Books awards, an Independent Publishers Award for Poetry, a Michigan Individual Artist Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 NAACP Image Award in Literature.

Before the powers that be decided there should be yet another Detroit Renaissance, the arts community was active, vital, and invigorating the city’s center. On Saturday, September 20, 2014, from noon till sundown, Detroit was the site of the third annual Midtown Literary Walk. The weather was congenial and the settings sunlit, like the mood of the audience, sauntering from an historic location to a new-age café, wandering through an art gallery, and sipping wine with poetry in the garden of a nineteenth-century mansion.

The Midtown Literary Walk is the brainchild of Carole Harris, Detroit artist and designer known nationally for her quilt art, who partnered with M. L. Liebler, Wayne State University professor, award-winning poet, and cultural organizer extraordinaire, to plan and execute the project.

It was a mellow and memorable day, imbibing literature with aromatic, herbal teas at SocraTea, listening to writers framed by sculptures and paintings at N’amdi’s Gallery, and engaging the melding of secular voices into sacred space at the Hannan House. At five events in four locations, hundreds gathered to listen to a stellar lineup of writers, featuring award-winning writers, spoken word artists, and musicians.

Charles Baxter, acclaimed novelist, poet, editor and essayist; Laure-Anne Bosselaar, winner of an American Library Association Notable Books award for Poetry; and Melba Joyce Boyd, recipient of an Independent Publishers Award and two Library of Michigan Notable Books awards, read their works.

The program showcased Ann Holdreith, a Pushcart Prize nominee; Walter “The Soul” Lacy, a poet and hip-hop artist; and Lisa Lenzo, who received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award and won first prize from the Georgetown Review in 2013 for her story "Strays." They graced the stage with M. L. Liebler & the Good Shepherd Poetry Blues Band.

Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett, winner of the 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist Award, was the veteran writer and guest of honor, while Adrian Matejka, whose book The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013) was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, came from Indiana University to read.

Others featured included fiction writer and poet Peter Markus, a Kresge Arts Fellow in Literary Arts in 2012; Christine Rhein, who is the recipient of the 2008 Walt McDonald Poetry Prize; and Judith Roche, who has received two American Book Awards and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize.

In addition to sites that hosted the event, cosponsors for the Lit Walk included: the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers, Wayne State University Press, the Wayne Writers Forum, Wayne State University’s Department of English, and the Knight Foundation. The Lit Walk, which is free and open to the public, has become an annual tradition in Detroit, nurturing literary culture in the heart of the cultural center of the city.

Photo: Lit Walk Writers (top) Naomi Long Madgett (bottom) Photo Credit: L. Bush

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Detroit 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.

Beth Gorrie volunteers her time as Executive Director of Staten Island OutLOUD. She spearheads the organization’s program planning and has adapted over twenty-five global classics for OutLOUD’s spoken-word performances. As an actor during the first few years of her working life, she performed with the Chicago Theatre of the Deaf and served as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Chicago. In New York City, she appeared in a variety of Off-Off Broadway productions and in a series of film installations by award-winning filmmaker William Lundberg, a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Gorrie attended Columbia University Law School where she was an editor of the Journal of Law & Social Problems, and spent a summer in rural India on a human rights fellowship. She is a former partner in a leading New York law firm and has participated in community service in Harlem.

What makes your programs unique?
Staten Island OutLOUD gathers neighbors to explore global literature together, and to share ideas. Our first event took place shortly after September 11, 2001 when we had a deep need to gather together.

Since then, Staten Island OutLOUD has grown and has continued that spirit with a varied series of grassroots gatherings. Throughout the year, we host free events to explore global literature, our diverse backgrounds, our history, and our mutual concerns. OutLOUD is entirely volunteer-driven.

We operate on a small budget, but we’re very productive. Since our establishment in September 2001, we’ve served over 23,000 participants with over six hundred free events, in twenty-one languages.

What recent project have you been especially proud of, and why?
From September 2014 through March 2015, Staten Island OutLOUD hosted a series of forty community events about Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When we started planning our series a year earlier, we never guessed how timely it would be, following the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, an African-American neighbor of ours who died in police custody.

Our “Mockingbird” series explored national and local civil rights history, together with music and poems from the Civil Rights Movement, and from the Depression years in which the novel is set.

Tensions ran high during the months after Garner’s death, but our series fostered thoughtful discussions. Staten Islanders talked, listened, and considered the many facets of the crisis.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Adults with special needs sometimes attend Staten Island OutLOUD programs. At one event when we discussed a variety of twentieth-century poems, a woman with mental disabilities gathered her courage to comment on a poem by Dylan Thomas. She had never spoken in public before, and she knew that the audience included teachers, attorneys, and other professionals. Everyone encouraged her, and as she spoke, she began to hold herself more confidently, and her voice grew stronger. Everyone was moved when she read, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
Staten Island OutLOUD’s work proves that when people have a forum and a stimulating entrée for conversation, they respond thoughtfully. Stereotypes can fade and real communication can begin. Our work with teens and with elders underscores the value of writing workshops for those members of our community. Our writing workshops have enabled people to find their unique voices. For teens who may have manifested behavior problems before they began our workshops, some of those problems began to ebb as they focused their energy on writing and as they gained confidence in their work. Elders who had never done any creative writing before participating in our memoir and poetry workshops have drawn real satisfaction in exploring their writing talent, in reflecting on their life experiences, and in recognizing how powerful their pens can be.

Photo: (top) Beth Gorrie at Huckleberry Finn at High Rock workshop. Photo: (bottom) Cast of Moby Dick marathon reading. Photo Credit: Staten Island OutLOUD.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Alanna Lin Ramage is a writer, songwriter, and artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Little Tokyo Branch Library, where she hosts innovative, community-building events and workshops at the Los Angeles Department of Writing and Power (LADWP!*). She has studied poetry with Thomas Sayers Ellis and poetics and performance theory with Jon Wagner and Mady Schutzman at California Institute of the Arts. Ramage composes original lyrics and music for film and television. This year sees the release of a cover album inspired by the Beatles in tandem with publishing her first collection of poems about monastery wildlife in Northern California.

Alanna Lin Ramage

A few years ago, in a fit by candlelight, I came up with a syllabus for a workshop called Alters/Altars. It was designed to help a person write and explore their way into an alter ego—the poetic self that feels its own voice and power while feeling all, but not revealing all.

In February of this year, thanks to support from Poets & Writers and the Little Tokyo Branch Public Library, I was able to teach a five-week version of the workshop in downtown Los Angeles.

One premise I was working with included the physical effect of writing as a physical act. For each class, participants would read their pieces aloud and receive positive feedback from the group. In some cases the reading would be formal, at the front of the room. On other days, I had readers stand in the middle of a group circle that echoed words or phrases as the story unfolded. One writer noticed that she read to a mostly quiet circle. She later commented that she realized she had to read "painfully slowly" to give listeners a chance to register her words more fully. She reread her piece to us and we happily listened to every word.

In another exercise, we gave alternate names to one another. The unspoken invitation was: “What name suits me in your opinion? What is my sonic incarnation? Do you really think it’s ‘Bubby?’”

The first workshop started with participants reading personal biographies or ads, and then writing fictional personal ads for someone other than themselves. The exercise allowed us to get to know each other while ascertaining each person’s unique writing style. Week two’s life stories were especially intense, offering glimpses into epic quests for love and destiny. Week three featured hypothetical after-life sequences from each person—revealing visions of beautiful, earthy, sublime, and often hilarious realities to come.

Alters/Alters Photo CollageWe had a dynamic, talented, and punctual group. It was a pleasure to discuss personal creative journeys, hear the mix of angst, frustration, wisdom, confidence, and steady determination that characterized each person. The group had great discussions about what makes a “healthy writer” versus what makes a “happy writer.”

My favorite session of the workshop included an assignment that asked participants to write about a sublime or transcendent moment. The results were diverse and fantastic. There was a great relationship-ending-epiphany story, an excellent dim-sum-as-travel-as-exploration-of-life story, a profound unity-with-wild-crustaceans story, and a stirring overcoming-self-while-overcoming-mountain story.

The session made me think about how creative anxiety can sometimes blind us to the larger themes we've experienced in life. It may keep us from sharing the stories we’ve already lived or from inventing stories that might express what we know.

So how do we move past this anxiety? Decide what themes are important to you based on your life experience. Once you have: Write on! (OK, that was a bad pun. I’m a workshop leader—it’s allowed.)

Writing alters you. Be brave and do the work; you just might tell a riveting story as you sacrifice your fears.

Photo 1: Alanna Lin Ramage; photo 2: Alters/Altars workshop. Credit: Alanna Lin Ramage and Anne Rieman.

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

Samuel Ace is the author of three collections of poetry: Normal Sex (Firebrand Books, 1994), Home in Three Days. Don’t Wash. (Hard Press, 1996), and most recently, Stealth (Chax Press, 2011) co-authored with Maureen Seaton. His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared most recently in Aufgabe, Black Clock, the Atlas Review, Mandorla, Volt, Rhino, Versal, Trickhouse, Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly, the Volta, and Troubling the Line: Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.

Samuel Ace

A transplanted New Yorker, I moved to Tucson in 1997. It is often said that people move to the desert to burn out karma. Perhaps that is true. I certainly have passed through several lifetime transformations here under the scorching sun, the blooms of ocotillo, and the fresh smell of creosote after summer rains. I had long harbored a fantasy about living in the desert but thought that the move was temporary.

Before coming here, I visited the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, then a tiny cottage on the border of the university. I somehow understood that Tucson had a long tradition of drawing in writers from around the country, and thought yes, it would be a good place to land for a while. Once I arrived, I found that I was not wrong.

Not only did Tucson have a vital literary community, it had many diverse writing communities. The city, in the midst of a state full of deeply problematic politics, seemed to offer an antidote. The crossroads and richness of the border, of indigenous communities, languages, queerness, experimentation, scholarship, activism, and more saturate this small city in the desert. Those traditions have only gotten richer and more visible over the years. Poets & Writers funds many of the organizations that have added to that diversity. During the season (August through May), one can easily attend three to five readings a week in Tucson.
Fred Moten

In 1996, Tenney Nathanson and Charles Alexander, director of Chax Press, founded POG, a collective of poets, literary critics, and practitioners of other art forms in Tucson. They hoped to offer public programming and other related events designed to promote appreciation of and engagement with avant-garde work in a variety of media, especially poetry and multi-disciplinary art. I joined the Board of Directors of POG for a short time in the early 2000s, then rejoined the Board a few years ago. Besides original board members Nathanson, Alexander, and Cynthia Miller, the following diverse group of writers and artists make up our current board: Farid Matuk, Steve Salmoni, Susan Briante, Johanna Skibsbrud, John Melillo, Teré Fowler-Chapman, and Brian Blanchfield.

POG has always showcased innovative poets and artists from around the United States and beyond, including Bernadette Mayer, Fred Moten, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nathanial Mackey, Ariana Reines, Giovanni Singleton, Heriberto Yepez, Roberto Tejada, and over a hundred more. Our readings traditionally pair a local poet with someone from outside of the Tucson area. POG has also hosted workshops and artist talks; the recent inPrint Symposium in February featured Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and Kyle Schlesinger. The POG & Friends reading, now an annual tradition, is designed to build community and has fostered a greater sense of kinship among Tucson’s diverse literary venues.

POG also collaborates regularly with other Poets & Writers-funded organizations, including the Intermezzo Reading Series, Casa Libre en Solana, the Tucson Festival of the Book, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the University of Arizona English and Writing MFA programs. Just this month, our most current collaboration with the Tucson Poetry Festival enabled us to bring Claudia Rankine to Tucson. 

The desert brings transformation and gifts. For this poet, those gifts have come in multitudes through the writers who make Tucson their home and the writers who touch down for a short visit. Many have come and stayed. None leave untouched by what is found here.

Photo (top): Samuel Ace     Photo Credit: Samuel Ace
Photo (bottom): Fred Moten    Photo Credit: Samuel Ace

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.

Irene Sherlock's poems, essays, and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and her poetry chapbook Equinox was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Since 2008, she has been writer-in-residence at the Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat. Sherlock is an addictions counselor in Danbury, Connecticut.

In the summer of 2008, I was asked to be the writer-in-residence at the Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat, organized by Perky Granger who directs an organization called Fiction Among Friends. Perky has been a recipient of grants from the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for many years, and I was delighted to be paid to teach at this retreat. Never having done this kind of thing, I wondered if I’d be up to the task. I’d published work and had been an adjunct college writing instructor for years. Writing and being in the classroom were both a joy for me, but this would be something quite new: I’d be the sole developer of several workshops, leading a mix of both beginning and seasoned writers that I would weekend with, as well. Sounded fun. Sounded a little daunting.

The weekend Writers' Retreat experience, which sometimes lasts four days, is one of complete immersion. We discuss craft, writers, meals we’ve prepared, our love lives—even our kids’ lives. But mostly it’s about the thing that brought us together: what we’re writing now. The experience is both invigorating and somewhat exhausting and my guess is participants feel the same relief by retreat’s end. It’s like being at a wonderful but intense party that lasts for days, something I haven’t done since my early twenties.

I’m a therapist by trade and my day job demands that I listen well. These weekends require the yin and yang of when to listen and when to respond. Response is the trickier of the skills. When I lead a therapy group, I ask myself: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me?

Amazingly the process of leading a writing group and the process of doing therapy are quite similar. I wait and hope someone from the group will talk about where the piece comes to life, what needs to be cut. Who, I wonder, will address the writer’s aversion to letting us know how his or her character is feeling?

Both therapy and writing require courage, honesty, and a willingness to receive honest feedback. Both are connected to the process of self-expression, the work of creating art out of experience real or imagined, which oftentimes involves pain, confession, and sometimes transcendence.

Writing, like therapy, is a way to connect with the larger world. In an age of social networking and digitalized “sharing,” this weekend creates one of the most impactful ways to connect with others. It’s been my pleasure to act as writer-in-residence for eight years now, with support from the Readings & Workshops Program.  Much to my surprise, many of the same gifted participants come back each year. I really cannot take credit for that. Call it alchemy or just a stroke of luck on my part; whichever it is, I’ll keep returning, too, for as long as I’m asked.

Photo (Top): Irene Sherlock.  Photo (below):  Irene and Writer's Group. 

Photo Credit: Perky Granger

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.

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