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Readings & Workshops Blog

Poet and artist Amanda Deutch blogs about P&W–supported Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival, a literary nonprofit she founded in 2009. Parachute hosts a festival in the fall, free writing workshops, and innovative poetry happenings in Coney Island, New York. She is the author of four chapbooks: Gena Rowlands (Sounds Nice), Box of Sky: Skeleton Poems (Dusie Kollektiv 4), Motel Drift, and The Subway Series. She is also the recipient of a 2007 Footpaths to Creativity Fellowship to write in the Azores Archipelago. Deutch lives by the water in Brooklyn, NY, and plays skee-ball in her free time.

“Coney Island, Let me see, let me hear, let me know what is real, let me believe.”

—Muriel Rukeyser

From street signs to carnival talkers, from the Chief hawking fresh clams with a call of, “Hey! Get it! Get it!” to the influx of monarch butterflies in late August, there is poetry in the everyday language that surrounds us. I want people to stop and notice poetry in daily motions. That’s part of my job as a poet. Parachute: the Coney Island Performance Festival is the manifestation of these desires. Since I was a young poet, I’ve thought of ways to make poetry appealing, accessible and to draw attention to the poetry that is all around us.

I founded Parachute, a community-based literary organization, in 2009 to host a free two-day festival that features an array of local poets and writers. The writers read in front of an ethereal blue floor- to-ceiling tank of jellyfish in the New York Aquarium. Throughout the year, Parachute leads creative writing workshops, curates innovative poetic events, and celebrates Coney Island’s vibrant literary culture through readings, broadsides, workshops, and attention to the luminaries that have been inspired by Coney’s shores—Walt Whitman, Muriel Rukeyser, and Henry Miller, to name a few.

Among the festival’s featured readers have been Coney Island poet Sheila Maldonado, Brooklyn Poet Laureate Tina Chang, Edwin Torres, and Martin Espada. 2012 marks the first time that the current Brooklyn Poet Laureate has ever read in Coney Island. Parachute’s audience is diverse, comprised mostly of people who live and work in the neighborhood: business owners from Mermaid Avenue, pastors, community board members, local teenagers, ticket takers, Cyclone operators, and poets. Ruth Magwood, who worked in Astroland, comes every year and tells me who her favorite poets are each night. Describing the festival, Ruth said, “It’s gorgeous with the jellyfish. Normally you’d have to go all the way to the city for something like this.”

The grants we receive from Poets & Writers are instrumental in helping us pay writers to lead workshops during the festival. These funds, along with other grants enable us to invite amazing New York poets and writers to read and lead workshops in an underserved neighborhood. We believe it is important to pay writers, both established and emerging, for their work and want to continue to do this in a field where this is not always the “norm.” Through grants such as the one from P&W, we are able to keep the Parachute Festival and its writing workshops free so that anyone who would like to can attend. It is very important to us that this continue to be accessible and welcoming to people who live in the community. Coney Island has arts and culture for those who come and visit, but not so many opportunities for those who live there. This festival is designed with the neighborhood as well as greater New York in mind.

Henry Miller wrote about Coney Island, "everything glitters…” Parachute illustrates Coney Island’s vital glittering landscape with poetry and all the poetic voices that have found solace and delight here—from Walt Whitman, America’s bard, to Woody Guthrie, and more recently, Bernadette Mayer. Coney Island has a not-so-hidden literary landscape that’s been traveled by many of our great American writers. I want to showcase that through landscape and create a space where living poets, fiction writers, and artists can come down, eat some clams, and read their words about Coney Island. Hopefully, sometime soon we’ll put their words together in a book, and you can read that book while sitting on the boardwalk. Meanwhile, “Hey! Get It! Get It!”

Photo: (Top) Amanda Deutch. (Bottom) Tina Chang reading in front of the jellyfish at the Coney Island Aquarium. 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.

In April P&W-supported writer Sabrina Chap led a creative nonfiction workshop and gave a reading at the Foundation for Sex Positive Culture in Seattle. Chap is a playwright, spoken word artist, songwriter, and editor. Her collection Cliterature: 18 Interviews With Women* Writers is distributed by Microcosm Press. Her plays, including Perhaps Merely Quiet, have been performed in New York, Chicago, Paris, and England. Project director Sophia Iannicelli writes about Chap’s visit to Seattle.

Sabrina ChapI have spent much of the last week with Sabrina Chap. I organized two events while she was in Seattle, and I enjoyed the conversations in between as much as the workshop and lecture. Sabrina is very open and encouraging when it comes to difficult subjects. She makes it suddenly okay to talk about topics such as grief and self-destruction that our society says are shameful. Her book Live Through This—a collection of essays, stories, and photos by women who’ve used art to process abuse, incest, madness, depression, and self-destruction—makes you want to open up to her.

Sabrina uses this openness to her advantage when she is teaching. During the writing workshop, the participants ended up sharing intimate details of their lives and psyches with people who had been strangers only minutes before. They shared so much, and felt so safe doing so, they decided to create a writing support group in order to continue the bonds they had developed in those two short hours. I'm still glowing from an email I received the next day:

“Hey, I just wanted to thank you for bringing in Sabrina. She’s amazing. I feel guilty for having not paid more for it. Her writing exercises were so well thought out and effective. Not only did I get writing skills out of it, but life skills. Wow!!! So much more than I expected. Thank you!!!!!”

While the participant didn’t expound on which "life skills” she left  the workshop with, I hope it was in some way related to cultivating openness. Fostering the ability to be vulnerable brings so many wonderful things in life, most notably the chance to connect with people in a deep way. Sabrina offers a way to view our self-destructive acts as something to be worked with and transformed into a positive force. Merely speaking about these difficult and often shamed activities or proclivities brings an amazing opportunity to evaluate them while reducing their power over us—ultimately making them work for us rather than letting them consume us.

Photo: Sabrina Chap. Credit: Jolene Siana.

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

P&W–supported poet Joseph O. Legaspi blogs about his path as a poet. He cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit organization that serves Asian American poetry. The author of Imago (CavanKerry Press) and the forthcoming chapbook Subways (Thrush Press), he works at Columbia University.

Why poetry? I’m asked frequently, which brings me to ask myself the same question. I imagine the typical inquisitor thinks poetry as gilded, arcane, highfalutin'. As it is, it has taken me years to be comfortable saying that I’m a poet. To this day there’s still a tiny level of discomfort, uttering the—what? title, character, state of being? What does it mean to be a poet? Poetry is not a career nor is it employment that pay the bills. It's not a marker of identity like gender or nationality. What is it that you do? Americans love to ask. I write poems. But not all the time. Not the same amount of hours as my day job, and my other jobs.

True, I can justify my being a poet. I hold an advanced degree from a reputable creative writing program in a literary city. My poems continue to be published in journals. I even managed to publish a small book, which has brought me immense joy. I’ve taught. I cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit to cultivate and foster poetry, my proudest achievement. And I am still utterly surprised when I get paid for a reading, as I have been paid five times by Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops Program in the past five years. This makes me a poet, yes?

Then, am I poet enough?

I know I’m not leading the ideal poet life (I suspect only a handful of us do.): all-consuming devotion to the craft, incessant hunger, obsessive writing. Full disclosure: I shortchange poetry. I heed her call, but she doesn’t come knocking every day. Instead, I’m out on Broadway or at a bar or at a restaurant with friends. On weekend mornings my feline tendency is to curl up with my husband with NPR on the background and brunch on the horizon. I compartmentalize my life as most of us do, juggling daily responsibilities. Hats off to poet friends with children, who are most generous and hardworking and yes, still manage to crank out poems. (How do y’all do it?).

In my younger days, I struggled while grasping at the idealized, singular version of the poet. I was frustrated for not “making it work.” I felt I was “falling behind” or falling by the wayside. In time, however, a realization seeped in—I was not the ingénue anymore—and that made me agonize some more. Then, I was fine. Truly. I learned that there is no singular way. I vowed to be more forgiving and patient with myself. A part-time poet is not a bad thing.

I personally do not need poetry to survive, but I am better for its presence in my life. Yes, I still possess the romantic notions; I hold poets in high regard. I feel poets lead examined lives, able to dig deeper. Ultimately, what I love is poetry’s liminality. I love how it envelops a space like that between earth and the moon. Poetry is both marginalized and transcendent. Borne of sounds, rhythms, spark, and the bang of language in creation, it is root of all literature. I continue to tinker with poems, stringing words like light in search of meaning, to get at a truth.

Photo: Joseph O. Legaspi. Credit: Emmy Cateral.

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.

The (In)Visible Memoirs Project runs no-cost, community-based writing workshops throughout the state of California, with the aim of creating a literary landscape that pushes back on dominant literary discourse’s exclusionary practices. Between January and April, writer P&W-supported writer Ruth Nolan taught an (In)Visible Memoirs workshop at College of the Desert in Palm Desert, California. Project director Rachel Reynolds writes about the workshop.

Ruth Nolan and workshop participantsThe thing about invisibility is that there are real risks to refusing its cloak. Invisibility counts on these risks for its effective deployment. Anyone who has found their space at the periphery—which is more of us than not—knows how terrifying it can be to push back the curtain and demand to be counted. As the person at the helm of programming for the (In)Visible Memoirs Project, I am constantly awed by how many people—instructors, participants, and community sponsors alike—are ready to let their stories ring out.

According to the AFSP (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention), nearly 40,000 people took their own lives in 2010. In the same year, the AFSP identified nearly 460,000 attempted suicides. Tallied together, roughly half a million people navigated suicide directly in 2010. The lives of countless others were impacted too, as friends and family of those directly involved struggled to walk this terrain.

When professor Ruth Nolan responded to my call for new (In)Visible Memoirs Project workshops this past fall, she wrote, “All too often, suicide survivors become victims, too, of social prejudices and judgments, and having experienced this myself, I have come to realize there is a huge need to give suicide survivors a safe and productive space to write, identify, and heal.” We leapt at the chance to support her in her goal of providing the first-ever workshop for people who live in the Palm Desert region and have lived with the impact of suicide.

Ruth Nolan is a force. A professor at College of the Desert in Palm Springs, she teaches writing and literature in addition to advising the college literary magazine. She is a widely published poet and prose writer, and an editor to boot. Armed with both personal experience and the chops required to deftly usher writers into a carefully crafted safe space, we knew she would provide a transformative experience for her workshop participants. What we could never have predicted, though, was just how far she’d take them or how essential the space she held was.

Meeting with seven participants—who spanned a forty-year age range and various social and ethnic identities—Ruth discovered that many of them had either wanted or been invited to speak at public suicide awareness events in the region but then felt their story was too dark, or worse, been asked not to share it. Immediately, Ruth made space for sharing these stories a workshop priority. What began as a shedding of silence within the confines of workshop meetings gained momentum and bloomed into multiple readings at public events. As I write this today, Ruth and members of her workshop have just finished recording some of their work for radio broadcast. From silence to center stage in the course of a twenty-hour workshop—Ruth and her workshop participants are writers of the fiercest sort. 

Photo: From left: Darlene Arciga, Tim Johnson, Kimberly Martinez, and Ruth Nolan. Credit: Ruth Nolan.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W–supported poet Joseph O. Legaspi blogs about literary gatherings in his home borough Queens, New York. He cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit organization that serves Asian American poetry. The author of Imago (CavanKerry Press) and the forthcoming chapbook Subways (Thrush Press), he works at Columbia University.

Three years ago I moved to Queens because I fell in love. With a man, who is now my adorable, kind-hearted husband. The only person who could’ve taken me out of Manhattan, where I've resided since moving to New York in the mid-nineties to pursue a creative writing degree at New York University. Just as I had emigrated from Manila where I was born, then left Los Angeles to come to New York, I uprooted myself. You can say I moved because of family, a search for my own. An important part of the move was finding vital communities, creative and otherwise.

Gradually, I’ve found my footing as a poet in Queens, the literary underdog borough, the one noted for being the most ethnically diverse. Take a quick stroll and you’ll hear dozens of languages and you'll discover blocks of Turkish, Korean, Colombian, Irish, Indian, Nepalese, and Filipino establishments, restaurants, and groceries. Local libraries are stocked with books and movies in Hindi, Spanish, Urdu, Arabic, and Mandarin.

Queens is rife with inspiration. My upcoming publication, a chapbook of prose poems, was primarily inspired by the 7 train, which takes me away and returns me home. With its large immigrant population, Queens is a place of transition, fueled by hard work, aspirations and hard knock realness. People are so alive here with their plethora of cultural expressions.

And yet Queens is the forgotten borough. But literature happens here. Here is where Jack Kerouac, Mary Gordon, and even Walt Whitman once lived. Writing communities are thriving. Literary gatherings—public and private—occur. Three popular reading series quickly come to mind: First Tuesday at Terraza 7 in Elmhurst, hosted by P&W–supported Richard Jeffrey Newman; Oh! Bernice Writers Collective at Café Marlene in Sunnyside; and Boundless Tale Reading Series at the Waltz-Astoria.

Newtown Literary, a semi-annual journal, prides itself in publishing Queens writers. They also sponsor events such as QueensWrites! Weekend, a fundraiser, which main goal is to get borough residents writing.

Two weeks ago I found myself reading at a poetry salon in someone else’s living room. The talented P&W–supported poet Ocean Vuong has been hosting intimate, low-key salons in his Astoria apartment. Guests have consisted of local writers, though a couple have braved the sojourn from Brooklyn. (We’re very welcoming in Queens.) It was such an enjoyable and stimulating evening, punctuated with easy camaraderie and dialogue about my poems, poetics, and art. The salon engendered sharing, storytelling, and openness.

I envision such a congregation happening all over the borough, at all times. Alas, Queens has ways to go before being a literary mecca with its working class citizens trying to make ends meet and English being a second language to many. What we do have, we appreciate. This borough possesses such a hearty, pluralistic, down-to-earth character, and a hunger closer to purity. To me, Queens is home, where I love.

Photo: Joseph O. Legaspi (front) at a poetry salon in Queens. Credit: Peter Bienkowski.

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.

Jade Foster is the founder of the salon styled poetry tour THE REVIVAL, which has connected over two thousand women across the United States and abroad. The third annual tour in 2012, funded via a successful Kickstarter campaign and supported in part by P&W, featured a troupe of queer women artists in D.C., Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Atlanta, and Durham. Foster continues to use poetry as a tool in redefining American arts. To stay informed visit Cereus Arts. Her own literary work has been published in magazines, including online at Clutch Magazine and Elixher.

Jade FosterWhat are your reading dos?
I teach poetry to high school students, and we were just discussing what to do when you have a feature. First things first: Be prepared. Look like something. And definitely have options when it comes to your poems because you never know how large, small, or diverse your audience is going to be.

...and don’ts?
Never leave a reading early, or after you read. With the queer-women-led poetry tour THE REVIVAL, I share my work, but I also do a lot of the planning and set up, so I'm the last to leave. It's important to stay because you never know who you may meet or what kind of feedback you'll get on your process.

How do you prepare for a reading?
On the 2012 tour, we took the time to check in with each other and dedicated our performances to our ancestors at each and every show. It was the first time we did this, but I believe it really made a difference in our delivery, and helped us focus on our purpose as poets and conduits for the word.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I don't want to please a crowd. Never! I want someone to get upset, to get outraged, to feel challenged to do more. There's so much we can do just by taking a small step toward our own selves.

What’s the inspiration behind THE REVIVAL poetry tour?
THE REVIVAL started because I didn't fit in. I'm not a slam poet, I'm not an academic poet, and the open mics were boring me. Luckily, there were a few other women poets who felt the same way. A poem isn't finished until it's heard, so we all pooled our resources, reached out to friends and family to open their homes, and made it happen.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs in the community?
We're in a peculiar place, on our own cliff...

I say it's time to jump. If folks are reading on Kindles, let's follow suit. If publishing houses are printing less, then let's print or come together to distribute our own work. Poetry is low-key in a vacuum right now—in a MFA middle-of-nowhere vacuum—and that's dangerous. It belongs to the people. THE REVIVAL is taking that jump and, like The Road Runner in those old cartoons, we hit the ground running.

Photo: Jade Foster. Credit: Anna Barsan.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in 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.

Barbara Crooker’s books of poetry are Radiance, winner of the Word Press First Book Award and finalist for the Paterson Poetry Prize; Line Dance, winner of the Paterson Award for Literary Excellence; and More. She is the recipient of the Thomas Merton Poetry of the Sacred Award, three Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships in Literature, has had her poems read many times on The Writer’s Almanac, and is represented in The Bedford Introduction to Literature. Her newest book, Gold, is forthcoming this year from Cascade Books. Barbara blogs about her P&W-supported reading at the Long Island Violin Shop.

This past October, String Poets hosted a Poets & Writers reading in the Long Island Violin Shop in Huntington, Long Island. This was a unique venue for a poetry reading, part of a series that blends both poetry and music. I was paired with Shem Guibbory a member of the First Violin section of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra who has appeared as soloist with the New York Philharmonic, among other places. He has embarked on what he calls the “Journey of 100,” one hundred performances in a row of J. S. Bach’s Chaconne, a piece that he says “suggests endless depth and profundity.” That night was Number 7 in this string of performances, during which he hopes to discover how his understanding of the work changes through the course of these performances (the first was at Lincoln Center). On his website, he states that “a performer and a listener in live performance have the potential to form a powerful bond: a link between themselves and the music.” And this is the hope of the poet, too, that a bond will form, that an electrical current will arise. In his blog, Mr. Guibbory felt that he was merely operating at 80 percent that night, but I felt the hairs on my head rise ala Emily Dickinson, in the presence of true poetry (in music).

This was an interesting and intimate performance spot, a small room in the middle of a violin shop. Every seat was taken, and I felt a real connection with the audience. Because the space was small, I was able to speak to just about every person present, and I sold a number of books, every poet’s dream. One of the poems that I read was called “Ode to Chocolate.” I’ve made a practice of bringing small squares of dark chocolate to hand out after my readings. This night, it felt very much like communion...

But this was the reading that very nearly didn’t happen. It had originally been scheduled the year before, when a nor’easter suddenly morphed into “Snowtober” or “White Halloween.” This was the only time in my writing life when I had to cancel a performance. I got halfway across New Jersey (I live in eastern Pennsylvania) when I had to pull over and call to say that the number of cars off the road and the lack of visibility made me too frightened to continue. We had over a foot of the heaviest, wettest snow I’ve ever seen, and 250,000 people were without power in my area for over a week. The organizer of the event, Annabelle Moseley, couldn’t have been more gracious, and she rescheduled me a year later. Some bit of insight or foreshadowing made her pick the week before, a gorgeous blue and gold fall weekend. The next week, a year to the day later, a storm called Sandy arrived...

Photos: (Top) Barbara Crooker. (Bottom"Snowtober." Credit: Kathy Morris.

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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