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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

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.

Celebrities flash everywhere: billboards, newspapers, computer screens, televisions. We live in a KarGaGaianBieber glowing orb of a virtual society. They suggest what we buy, how we dress, how we live, and what we consider beautiful. Unfortunately, Warhol’s prediction of fifteen minutes of celebrity fame has drawn out to become several hours of fame and in some cases, even years of it. Like it or not, we know celebrity's faces, their favorite coffee drinks, and the names of their pet monkeys.

Thursday afternoons, I lead a poetry workshop for the YWCA’s teenage girls’ empowerment program in Coney Island. Poets & Writers has generously funded eight out of a year’s worth of these workshops. (We still seek funding for the rest of them, as the workshop is such a success that we plan to keep coming back!) One Thursday, two of the teenagers were clamoring and giggling over Justin Bieber. Fourteen-year-old Medina screamed, “I have total Bieber fever!” Medina is a beautiful teenager with an infectious smile who lives in Coney Island, a low-income, urban neighborhood at the end of the subway line. This is not who first comes to mind when I think of Bieber’s fan base. But I am glad that life continues to surprise me. I decided to follow the guidelines we set forth at the beginning of the writing workshop: to suspend judgment and listen.

"What do you like about him and his music?" I asked. Then I asked, “Would you like to write celebrity poems?” “Yesssss!” We read Frank O’Hara, Diane DiPrima, and newpaper articles about celebrities. We wrote poems about a chosen celebrity, incorporating lyrics from their songs or language from news clippings. The topics of media, celebrity, and pop culture brought up great conversations in the room about fashion, body image, women in media, and intelligent role models. Below are some of our celebrity poems. Can you guess who the celebrities are? (Answers can be found at the bottom of this page.) If you’d like to read more of the teenager’s poetry, see our magazine online, Teenager Fever Magazine.

Hello Superstar
by Maya

I don’t know who you are
all I know is what I see
all over the silver screen

Plastic here plastic there
Short outfits
Outrageously colored hair

But what about your life?
What shows do you watch
on tv or do you watch tv at all?

Do you eat fried chicken stereotypically
or some gourmet stuff that
I can’t afford?

Do you shop at the mall?
Or does someone do it
for you?

Do you run your own
household or do
maids do all the work?

I’m not an overly
obsessed fan
but I just wanna see

beyond my tv.

Nobody’s Perfect
by Imani

Dear________,

I adored you since day one.
From your hit tv show to your
goofy catch phrases. Your hair
fascinated and intrigued me.
I envied the life you lived and
wanted to be you more than anything.
Then one day it was said that you
released nudes. I didn’t care.
You were still my idol and fashion
icon. Just like me, you
absolutely loved your dog. Then
one day you just vanished off the
face of the Earth and came back
with an EPIC haircut. Oh how
I admired it. Everyone made jokes
and criticized it, but I knew it was
for a great cause. When you
finally marry Liam
I’ll be there to throw rice as you
walk out.


Young Money
by Gavrielle

Your songs go from hell and
                back
Range from As to Zs
You can bring the final knockout
You have hate in your
heart, love in your mind
        You see nights
        full of pain and
        days that are the same
        Young Money

"Hello Superstar" is about Nicki Minaj; "Nobody’s Perfect" is about Miley Cyrus; "Young Money" is about Lil Wayne. (In case you are wondering, Justin Bieber’s illegal pet monkey’s name is Mally. But c’mon like you didn’t already know that!)

Photo: Workshop participant Maya reading Tupac Shakur's The Rose that Grew from Concrete. (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.

Peter Cunningham, a participant in a P&W-funded writing workshop for cancer survivors at St. Luke's–Roosevelt Hospital in New York City, writes about his experience in the workshop. Cunningham, originally from Scotland,  just became a citizen of the US after living in this country for twenty-two years. A passionate founder and part owner of Absolutely Wild, a New York City-based event design company, he was sidetracked last year by the discovery of stage-three rectal cancer. The resulting year of treatment forced him to step down from his position and focus on his own healing, spiritually and emotionally. He calls the cancer a life-giving experience. He is now not sure what he wants to do or be. Through what he calls "The Gift" of the Roosevelt Hospital Writers Workshop, he has found his voice in ink. He is in the process of writing a book about his experience with the goal of getting more people to "take their butt to get a colonoscopy."

Another hospital? I moaned to myself, as I slowly exited the elevator onto the first floor. Why did it have to be in a hospital? All my chemo senses were kicking into high gear. I took a deep breath and hoped this was going to be fun. I wandered down two wrong corridors and opened three wrong doors. Finally I made it to the Cancer Writing Workshop led by Sue Ribner. I was at the end of my treatment for rectal cancer and was hoping to meet some other men with the same diagnosis. But no, God had a better plan, as all God's plans are. She's funny that way. A conference table filled with women. Not for the first time in my life, I was the only male at the room. What could I possibly have in common with all these ladies? After a round of introductions, I quickly made it clear that I was not going to even try to balance out the energy levels. The damn chemo had made sure I did not have the strength to do that. Plus, I had grown enough in the past six months to know it did not really matter.

We began with some simple, fun writing exercises and then progressed to longer passages. Nothing about cancer, yippee! Lots of fun topics from the teacher and a great array of stories from each of the attendees. Some were more reticent to verbalize their jottings than others. Some more fatigued, some at the end of their treatment, and others in a chronic stage. All just happy to be alive and writing, no matter how bad it was. As the weeks progressed the topics raised more memories that we had all forgotten. Postcards, shoes, the softest thing, grandmother; something which is too small, memories of a bathing suit, swimming, hair, school prom, skin, voice, sex, trains, sleeping outdoors, a lover, romance, homage to your favorite body part, first memory, a scoundrel, a corsage, tea leaves, a bar of soap, how you would like to be remembered, learning to drive, kitchen table—and so the prompts went on. Each week a new thought would unravel and lead us to places we had put aside to deal with our most pressing needs in the now. The past was coming back to make us cry and to make us laugh. Always to make our writing richer. "Homework" was not a favored title and "work from home" eased some of the school-time angst. "Work from a bus" was always an option.

As the weeks hurried by, we, the seven scribblers, opened up, and instead of people dealing with cancer we became human beings with stories to tell, to voice. Cancer was on the back burner for two hours each week and we reveled in the escapism. Slowly but surely the single paragraphs became passages, the details enhanced, and our weakened bodies emboldened. Wondrous phrases flowed onto the pages: "bubbling naughtiness," "mad cap cackles," and "my heart was racing and the super was pacing" were among the many. We were becoming writers, if only in our own minds. On occasions, someone had to miss a session. Silently and deep down we all knew why and we were relieved to see them return the next week. We have found our voices in a place where we did not leave them. We are stronger in ink and more assured that nothing is certain. An unspoken bond bubbles between the pages and the conference room seats. We are united in moving through the different stages presented to us each day. We are able to help each other grow and bring out our unspoken best in just 120 minutes. No battles, no fighting. Just being. No therapy needed today.

Photo: Peter Cunningham. Photo Credit: Peter Cunningham.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by 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.

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.

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