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Readings & Workshops Blog

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Melissa Petro. Photo Credit: Melissa Petro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wait, it all comes together.

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

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

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

The California Writers Exchange contest introduces emerging writers from California to the New York literary community and provides them a network for professional advancement. Every third year, writers in California are invited to submit manuscripts. On May 25, 2013, winners of the 2004, 2007, 2010, and 2013 contests gave a celebratory reading at the Last Bookstore in Los Angeles. Cheryl Klein, director of P&W’s California office, blogs about the event.

Allison Benis WhiteIt was poet Allison Benis White who coined the catchphrase of the day: Her trip to New York in 2004, she said, was “like Disneyland for writers.” She described a week of meals at fabulous restaurants with the literary equivalents of Mickey and Donald. She remembered being nervous and joyous. And she remembered Richard Howard, then poetry editor of the Paris Review, bringing her back down to earth again.

“I was feeling anxious because I’d heard he was very critical. But then he said to [fiction winner] Dylan Landis and me, ‘I loved your work.’ That put my mind at ease. But then he turned to Dylan and said, ‘And I especially loved yours.’” White laughed. “So I couldn’t get too carried away.”

White’s second collection, Small Porcelain Head, recently won the Four Way Books Levis Prize in Poetry. Her first, which included the poems in her California Writers Exchange manuscript, was published as Self-Portrait With Crayon by Cleveland State University Poetry Center in 2009.

Although only one of the eight contest winners (Craig Santos Perez, 2010) had a book out when he won the contest, now the first six have a book published or forthcoming, cementing the contest’s reputation as a career stepping stone—or at least a forecaster of success—for emerging writers.

The Last Bookstore, an old bank remodeled as a cavernous literary wonderland, was an appropriate site for writers to talk about their Disneyland experiences. Sculptures made out of old books swooped from the walls and mezzanine. Browsers weaved in and out of book-bricked archways on the second floor in search of $1 bargains. And on a stage amid the stacks on the ground floor, four additional contest winners echoed White’s testimony and read from their latest work.

Contest winners and P&W staff.Larry Colker, poetry winner from 2007, showed off the Matrix-like cover of his book Amnesia and Wings (Tebot Bach). 2010 winner Sean Bernard read an offbeat zombie story, in which the creatures don’t groan “braaaains” so much as matter-of-factly state it: “brains.” Laura Joyce Davis, the 2013 fiction winner, read from her novel about sex trafficking in the Philippines. Her co-winner, poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, read from a series of poems set on the Arizona-Mexico border, including one—from the point of view of a border agent—that she confessed she’d been afraid to read aloud until now.

But none of the writers who took the stage that day got there by being timid. Bermejo’s poem was gripping, sobering, and threaded with moments of unlikely connection. After the reading, writers and audience members mingled over wine, cheese, and strawberries. Not surprising, several audience members who had novels and poetry collections in the works wanted to know when the contest would be offered again.

Photos: Top: Allison Benis White. Bottom: back row, from left: P&W staff members Cheryl Klein, Andrew Wessels, and Jamie FitzGerald; front row: Larry Colker, Laura Joyce Davis, Allison Benis White, Sean Bernard, Xochtil-Julisa Bermejo. Credit: Alberto Vega.
The California Writers Exchange contest is made possible by a generous grant from the James Irvine Foundation.

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

I am happy to have this opportunity, as the June Readings/Workshops Writer in Residence, to give something back to Poets & Writers. I have been the beneficiary of much largesse from P&W, in the form of remuneration for being the featured poet at readings and as poetry winner of the 2007 California Writers Exchange Award.

By way of introduction, I would like to share a few thoughts in no particular order. In subsequent blog posts I will be more essayistic. But to start off, maybe you are curious about what I think about poetry.

As cohost of a long-running open mic reading with featured poets (Redondo Poets at Coffee Cartel), I am biased in favor of poetry that reads well aloud, to a broad audience. That means that usually there is followable movement and memorable language, with at least some performance presence or awareness on the poet's part. That is not to say that some of my favorite poems do not come across well aloud. And that is also not to say that all styles of spoken word poetry appeal to me.

My two top criteria for a successful poem are: (1) you want to re-read/re-hear it right away, and (2) you want to tell someone about it.

When I am asked, “How do you know when a poem is done?” I answer that in the best cases it is when the hair on my neck stands up when I read it. In most cases, it is when the poem says what I wanted to say and it is as concise as I can make it (no unnecessary words). In most cases, what I end up saying in a poem has only a thin connection to what I started out to say, to what I thought I wanted to say. I write to put into words what haunts me emotionally, like trying to render in words the frustratingly ineffable emotions you may wake up with when a dream ends. But I also have a taste for wit.

Having heard eighteen thousand or so poems read over the last fifteen years, I realize that one's poetry is a reflection of one's identity, and by identity, I mean our personal mythology about what makes us who we are. And one doesn't always get at it at the outset. Of course we imitate others at the outset. But one of the greatest pleasures I have as host of a regular reading series is witnessing a poet coming into his or her own unique voice over time.

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

Poet and artist Amanda Deutch blogs about her P&W–supported poetry and arts festival, Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival. She is the author of four chapbooks: Gena Rowlands, Box of Sky: Skeleton Poems, Motel Drift, and The Subway Series. She is also the recipient of a 2007 Footpaths to Creativity Fellowship to write in the Azores Archipelago.

“Long ago when I was a young man, Coney Island was a favorite spot. At that time, Coney Island had not the reputation it has now.”—Walt Whitman

I had an idea to have a free community-based poetry and arts festival in Coney Island, a neighborhood on the edge of a city. The festival would incorporate site-specific poetry, free workshops, and readings in a spectacular location. I wanted to create a space where people who had written about Coney Island could come and read and share their words about the place. Coney Island is a neighborhood with a vivid art and literary history, and for me it holds significant family history. My mother’s family lived in Coney Island, on 29th between Mermaid and Surf, for almost twenty years, from the 1920s to the 1950s. Ever since hearing my grandmother Betty first say the words, “Half Moon Hotel,” "Abe Reles," and "meshugana," Coney Island held a poetic resonance for me. I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the place where this Half Moon Hotel once towered with views of the Atlantic and a 150-foot ferris wheel could be landmarked.

Years ago, when I told a good friend my idea to have a festival, he said, “Go for it.” That’s how a lot of things get started in my life, simply with an inspiration and a good friend saying, “Go for it.” I suppose I am lucky to have such good friends and perhaps a little bit of raw nerve. My idea has grown into a nonprofit, Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival. I have been able to invite some of the most innovative, incredible, and groundbreaking New York City poets and writers to come and read in Coney Island’s New York Aquarium in front of sea nettle jellyfish—not your typical space for a poetry reading—for an audience that is not your typical poetry audience. Our festival’s audience consists of “regular folks.” We invite mostly native New Yorker writers who are pushing boundaries in the field of poetry. I have had the opportunity, through Poets & Writers’ Readings/Workshops Program, to offer writers a small fee to read and to give a writing workshop during the festival. Brooklyn-based poet Patricia Spears Jones read at the debut festival and lead a free writing workshop for adults at the Mermaid Avenue Library. She enjoyed the experience so much that she came back again and would like to continue leading workshops for us. This symbiotic relationship between artists and the community is just what I was after. Award-winning poet Cara Benson recently said, “How could I ever forget reading there?” I have often thought, "Why can’t poetry readings be in incredible aesthetic environments? Why not have site- specific poetry?" So here you have site-specific poetry!

Many writers reading for the festival have already written prose or poetry about Coney Island. If they haven’t, I encourage writers to create a new Coney Island work especially for Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival. Edwin Torres (mentioned in a previous post) came and surprised everyone by reading a rare autobiographical poem, “Coney Island 1969,” that was more narrative than most of his experimental poetry. The poem spoke of his father coming from the Bronx to work as a manager at Nathan’s in Coney Island when he was a little boy growing up in New York City!

This past year we incorporated an audio installation of a poem by the world renowned Bronx born, architect, artist and poet Vito Acconci into the festival. With the help of the Aquarium staff, I placed it outdoors for two evenings in the New York Aquarium’s plaza, beside the penguins. One of the truly spectacular spatial relationships is that Vito’s firm Acconci Studios designed the sculptural art, “Wave-A-Wall,” on the West 8th subway station right across the street! So you could hear his poem “Antarctica” in a small nook beside the penguins while watching the sky change colors right across the street from one of his art commissions.

We also had the ticket-takers who work in the Eldorado Bumper Cars ticket booth on Surf Avenue Trudy and Louis read Coney Island poetry on the mic. Just yesterday Louis stopped me on the street and said, "Hey, when are we doing that again? I got some poetry I want to read and found some poets who would like to get on the mic, too."

Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival brings site-specific poetry, installations, symbiosis, and local New York City writers waxing poetic about Nathan’s—all for less than the price of a hot dog. It's free!

Photo: Cara Benson, Amanda Deutch, and Edwin Torres.

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.

Poet and artist Amanda Deutch blogs about her P&W–supported poetry workshop for young women at the YWCA in Coney Island. She is the author of four chapbooks: Gena Rowlands, Box of Sky: Skeleton Poems, Motel Drift, and The Subway Series. She is also the recipient of a 2007 Footpaths to Creativity Fellowship to write in the Azores Archipelago.

In late February 2013 I put out a call for poetry books to create a lending library for the YWCA after-school teen empowerment program where Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival leads a weekly creative writing workshop. The invitation to donate books was put on Facebook and sent out to previous Parachute Festival readers. The message soon went viral in the poetry world and was picked up by the Poetry Foundation and Best American Poetry. We have received books from authors as nearby as Coney Island and Park Slope and as far away as Madrid; Ontario; and Amman, Jordan. My intentions were truly modest. I just wanted to get some poetry books for the teenagers in the workshop that I teach and perhaps some extras to donate to the high school’s library. What we have now—a collection of diverse small press contemporary poetry from all over the country—has blown my mind (and renewed my faith in the power of poets).

In the weekly workshop I try to bring in poetry that reflects students’ surroundings. When I was a child growing up in New York City, we never read any poetry in school that reflected the world and sounds I saw and heard around me—the buzzing sidewalk, taxicabs, the multiphonic spree of languages that is home to me. It wasn’t until I found poets like Edwin Torres, Tracie Morris, Diane DiPrima, and Alice Notley (among many others) that I saw my words and worlds reflected in the pages of their books. I want teenagers to have that opportunity too. Up until now, for over a year, it has been a girls’ group. We recently opened it up to both genders. A boy, Montague, poked his head in the doorway a few weeks ago and said, “Miguel Pinero, he’s the realest.” I said, “Yeah, his poetry changed the course of my life. Before that all I ever saw was poetry about daisies, not that I don’t like daisies. We don’t have any books of his, yet, but why don’t you read Sheila Maldonado? She’s a local poet, born around here.” He checked her book out of our new burgeoning library (and made my day). There are so many interactions like this. Maya is a thirteen-year-old student at the writing workshop. She soaks up information and is very talented. One day she came in asking me about a poem she’d seen that looked like an eye. We had a conversation about the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and for the next week’s class I brought in one of his books. She poured over the pages and held it up saying, “This one is my favorite.” I instantly got chills and realized, here I was in a classroom in Brooklyn, in Coney Island, discussing surrealist French poetry with a thirteen-year-old girl.

The poetry library grew very organically out of an instinct to get the teenagers books they love and to show them that poetry can take all different shapes, sizes, voices, styles, languages. It doesn’t have to rhyme, punctuate, or tell a story. Poetry can speak the way we speak or speak a new language all its own. Poetry can break open language entirely and begin anew.

We now have over a hundred books in our growing library and one of the most unusual, extensive poetry collections in any high school in Brooklyn, maybe the whole country. In Montague’s words—“the realest!”

Photos: (Top) Workshop participant Maya peeking out from behind a poetry book by Jessy Randall. Credit: Amanda Deutch. (Bottom) A donated poetry book sent from Madrid, Spain. Credit: Amanda Deutch.

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 writer and presenter Kathleen Flenniken is the 2012–2014 Washington State Poet Laureate. Her books are Plume (University of Washington Press, 2012), a meditation on the Hanford Nuclear Site and a finalist for the William Carlos Williams Award from the Poetry Society of America, and Famous (University of Nebraska Press, 2006), named an American Library Association Notable Book. Flenniken is bringing poetry events to all thirty-nine counties in Washington State, including readings, workshops, and school programs, and publishes Washington State poets on her blog, The Far Field. She teaches through Writers in the Schools, Jack Straw, and other arts agencies, and is an editor for Floating Bridge Press, dedicated to publishing Washington State poets.

Kathleen FlennikenFor a relatively small city, Seattle has a thriving literary community. What do you attribute this to?
Seattle is a magnet city. Writers find themselves surrounded by other working writers and a strong literary infrastructure—the University of Washington with its MacArthur geniuses (Linda Bierds, Richard Kenney, Heather McHugh, and Charles Johnson) and graduates, who tend to stay; the Richard Hugo House, a wonderful and democratic incubator for new talent; an impressive public library system; a reputation as a reading city; the marvelous poetry-only bookstore Open Books; University Bookstore and Elliott Bay Book Company; a number of excellent small presses and magazines; and a varied lineup of readings on any given night. Not to mention lakes and mountains, a temperate and moody climate, and beer and coffee houses with Wi-fi.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
I was very proud to bring Spencer Reece to Seattle for the first time with the help of Poets & Writers, Richard Hugo House, and Humanities Washington. Spencer was going to be in Portland for personal reasons. I was brazen enough to invite him, and he was brave enough to accept. The evening combined some of the poems from his first and forthcoming second book, The Road to Emmaus, and a film by James Franco based on Spencer’s poem “The Clerk’s Tale.” The evening began with a teaser for "Our Little Roses Film," a documentary about Reece's Fulbright year at a girls' orphanage in Honduras, where he is teaching his students poetry and creating a book of their poems about home. It was a beautiful evening and touched many people who came.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Poetry needs to work out loud as a kind of music. Giving readings keeps me (and my music) honest.

If I know I don’t want to share a poem at a reading, and keep shying away from the opportunity, there may be a problem with the poem. It might be too raw, too personal, or lack nuance. Maybe there’s not enough good stuff going on—it’s boring and I don’t want to admit it. I have to face facts when I face an audience.

I think my perennial pursuit of the “funny poem,” successful or mostly not, is motivated in part by giving readings. It’s a powerful invitation to a new audience.

Reading and hearing the poems out loud sometimes calls attention to certain strategies I’ve used, maybe to excess. I might organize a reading around a subject and notice as I read before an audience: Oh, these three poems all rely on a surprising turn of phrase in the last line…hmm. Is that becoming a crutch?

What are your reading dos?
Remember it’s about poetry and the audience. Be respectful of both. Choose poems you can communicate effectively. Practice. Time yourself. Set up the poems that need it as simply as you can. Try to include a variety of tones. Give every poem its full due—reading slowly, with natural inflections. Learn to use the microphone.

Since I became poet laureate I’ve included poems by other Washington State poets. I’m their representative. When my appointment is over, I’ll continue that practice. It feels like good luck invoking another poet’s voice, and reminds me I’m part of a tradition and a community.

And your reading don’ts?
Don’t go on too long! Never, ever exceed your allotted time. Readings shouldn’t go longer than an hour, generally shorter if it’s one reader. Twenty readers? Three minutes each, and no meandering introductions!

Readings can be humbling. Don’t fall into despair after a reading that falls flat or feels, for whatever reason, embarrassing. Don’t forget, it’s about poetry. One for the cause.

As Washington State’s poet laureate, what do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Stories and poems remind us what it might be to stand in someone else’s shoes, and what our lives can mean. Literary programs make that experience communal. They bring people together to share matters of deep importance. I was part of a recent program sponsored by P&W at the Sammamish King County Library (on the outskirts of Seattle). Our readers were ages fifteen and up, and included me and poet Michael Dylan Welch, a master of the Haiku form, local students, a software guy, a veteran, a professional in a suit and tie. Our readers brought poems they’d written and wanted to share, and a number of other community members—families, seniors, singles—came simply to listen. If you looked out at the crowd, it was a real mix, but we were sharing an important conversation.

Photo: Kathleen Flenniken. Credit: Rosanne Olson.
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.

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