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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

Poet Joseph O. Legaspi cofounded P&W–supported Kundiman, a nonprofit organization that serves Asian American poetry. He blogs about Kundiman's beginnings and this year's ten-year anniversary celebrations. The author of Imago (CavanKerry Press) and the forthcoming chapbook Subways (Thrush Press), he lives in Queens, New York, and works at Columbia University.

In summer 2002, Sarah Gambito and I were swaying on a hammock at a backyard BBQ in Westchester. Watching the mostly Filipino crowd—families and community—playing games, eating, totally at ease with one another, we were mesmerized and even envious. As recent MFA graduates and young Filipino American poets trying to patch together literary lives in New York City, we felt alone and lost. We wanted to recreate the joyful and safe space that we witnessed in Westchester, but for Asian American artists. I then told Sarah about P&W–supported Cave Canem, a premiere literary organization that hosts a retreat for black poets. Two close friends, January Gill O’Neil and the late Phebus Etienne, attended the Cave Canem Retreat and raved about it. Why not? we asked ourselves, as there was already an impressive model, and in our hearts, we knew there was a void to fill. The rest, as they say, is history.

Kundiman now celebrates its ten-year anniversary! The sole organization of its kind, Kundiman remains dedicated to the creation and cultivation of Asian American writing. In summer 2013, we are hosting our tenth Kundiman Poetry Retreat with faculty members Li-Young Lee, Srikanth Reddy, and Lee Ann Roripaugh teaching workshops to our fellows. Over 120 fellows have attended the annual retreats under the tutelage of such renowned Asian and Asian American poets as Lawson Inada, Bei Dao, Myung Mi Kim, Marilyn Chin, Arthur Sze, Truong Tran, Paisley Rekdal, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rick Barot, and Tan Lin—many of whom have been supported by P&W over the years. Award-winning Kundiman fellows have published twenty books thus far with more titles forthcoming in 2014, in addition to over twenty chapbooks, and numerous print and online publications. Cofounder Sarah Gambito received the 2009 Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award. In partnership with Alice James Books, the Kundiman Poetry Prize is set to select its fourth winner this June. P&W–supported Matthew Olzmann’s Mezzanines, the second selection, was released in April 2013.

So, what’s in store for Kundiman’s tenth year? There will be a fundraising campaign with a target goal of $10,000. There will be exciting “10 for 10” events across the country, an NYC gala in the planning stages. Our website has already undergone a redesign. Kundiman’s oral history program, Kavad, will roll out fellow-driven projects that will provide new platforms to present and amplify Asian American voices. Kundiman remains strongly committed to fostering Asian American writing, which, in turn, empowers our marginalized, diasporic communities. Kundiman strives to transform the American literary landscape. Please come celebrate with us.

Photo: (Top) Joseph O. Legaspi. Credit: Emmy Cateral. (Bottom) Kundiman staff, faculty, and fellows. Credit: Dustin Parsons.

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 Joseph O. Legaspi cofounded Kundiman, a nonprofit organization that serves Asian American poets. He blogs about curating P&W–supported Kundiman & Verlaine, a New York City–based reading series that has been running for ten years. The author of Imago (CavanKerry Press) and the forthcoming chapbook Subways (Thrush Press), he lives in Queens, New York, and works at Columbia University.

It started with an experiment. Before the poet Sarah Gambito and I fully conceived of Kundiman, the nonprofit we founded to serve Asian American poetry, there were the poems. At the time, in 2003, we were interested in the idea of poems as physical objects, as solid and tangible art pieces. We were also regulars imbibing lychee martinis at Verlaine, a bar on the lower east side of Manhattan where we befriended Gary Weingarten, a photographer and one of the owners of Verlaine. Presented with our idea, he provided us with the blank canvases: the walls inside Verlaine onto which we hung blown-up prints of poems. Words against a sheer white backdrop loomed large: our poems, as well as others by Prageeta Sharma and Li-Young Lee. Like a gallery, we hosted an opening with an amazing turnout.

When such a partnership presents itself, you run with it. The March 17, 2013, P&W–supported reading marked the tenth year of Kundiman & Verlaine, the only reading series that highlights Asian American poets. Over 130 readers have graced our stage, among them luminaries like Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, John Yau, Kimiko Hahn, Vijay Seshadri, Patrick Rosal, and Cathy Park Hong, along with emerging Asian American talents. In the spirit of community building, we have also invited poets from other literary circles like Cave Canem, LouderArts, and Acentos. Through the years, the series has exemplified the multiplicity and vitality of voices within the Asian American (and greater) literary community. At the March reading alone, for instance, were the following participants: Mandy Gor, a poet, painter, seamstress, and banker raised in Texas; Seni Seneviratne, a Sri Lankan living in England; and Kit Yan, a transgender spoken word phenomenon. The audience, from seemingly divergent backgrounds, were brought together by poetry. The Kundiman & Verlaine reading series embodies this spirit: big-hearted and celebratory. The lounge atmosphere helps, as well as the hour-long open bar before each reading.

The bottom line is that for a literary series to thrive, much generosity is needed: a place for gathering, a co-host/co-sponsor who shares your vision, an open-minded audience, and kind readers. Recently, another act of generosity: Poets & Writers, through its Readings/Workshops Program, has been able to provide honoraria to qualified readers. How lovely it’s been to compensate poets for their time and craft. Kundiman believes in paying poets, but because of our limited funds, we’ve been unable to do so—beyond the gift bags we give to readers as a token of our appreciation. Because of such patronage and generosity, the Kundiman & Verlaine reading series continues to be a welcoming, warm environment, full of heart.

Photo: (Top) Joseph O. Legaspi. Credit: Emmy Cateral. (Bottom, from left to right) Vikas Menon, Kit Yan, Seni Seneviratne, Mandy Gor, and Joseph O. Legaspi. Credit: JP Sevillano

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.

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