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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W supported poet Aliki Barnstone blogs about her reading for Saint Julian Press in Houston, Texas. Barnstone is also a translator, critic, and editor. Her books of poems are Bright Body (White Pine, 2011), Dear God, Dear Dr. Heartbreak: New and Selected Poems (the Sheep Meadow Press, 2010), Blue Earth (Iris, 2004), Wild With It (Sheep Meadow, 2002), a National Books Critics Circle Notable Book, Madly in Love (Carnegie-Mellon, 1997), Windows in Providence (Curbstone, 1981), and The Real Tin Flower which includes an introduction by Anne Sexton and was published by Macmillan in 1968, when Barnstone was twelve years old. She is Professor of English in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Aliki BarnstoneOn April 4, 2014, I participated in a reading at Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Houston, which was organized by Ron Starbuck, editor and publisher of Saint Julian Press, and cosponsored by Poets & Writers. Ron beautifully orchestrated the event in a truly unique way that I found exhilarating and profound.

There were three poets—Melissa Studdard, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and myself—and there was a pianist, John Hardesty. Before the reading, we poets e-mailed Ron the poems that we planned to read, which was a first for me. There was a bit of back and forth between the four of us, so we could get the timing and the length right. Then Ron arranged the poems into sets. I was a little disconcerted when he changed the order of the poems I’d sent, but I was also open to the adjustment because the whole event was so unusual (and his re-ordering proved to be a much better unfolding).

The usual circumstance, as the readers of this blog know, is that each author is given a certain amount of time, and then whatever happens, happens—which can work well or can lead to some consternation when someone reads too long or if one person is miffed to read first and perceives that he or she is a “warm-up” for the “headliner” who reads last.

All those prospects for unseemly drama were eliminated by Ron’s process. He printed out scripts for us, which were ordered in three-ring binders and placed on music stands. John Hardesty played a prologue, each of us read a set, and between readers, John responded with improvisation. We each read two sets. John’s music was meditative and created an atmosphere that was receptive to poetry and to the ineffable.

When I give readings, I usually have a set list with alternatives, depending on how the audience responds. The musical interludes combined with the script made this unnecessary, so the part of my mind that usually considers whether I’m reading the right poems was free to listen to the music and my wonderful fellow poets, and to commune with all the souls present.

The format freed me in other ways too. I must admit, I find that when I’m reading with others I can’t be as attentive as I’d like. If I read after someone, I can’t give my undivided attention to his or her reading because I’m too revved up (and I’m also thinking about alternative poems to read that might better dovetail with the reader before me). However, if I read before someone, then I may still be too distracted to concentrate fully on the person’s work, because I’m recuperating from my own reading. Despite my regard for the other person’s work and my best intentions, there’s still a bit of noise in my mind.

Ron’s arranging genius allows the readers to interact wholly with each other, John’s music, the audience, and the place itself. For me, it was a particular joy to immerse myself in Leslie’s and Melissa’s work, and to hear their poems performed aloud while simultaneously seeing them laid out on the page.

Four at TrinitiyThe venue and the audience contributed to a feeling of connection, high spirits, and aesthetic abundance. The series is held in the beautiful chapel of the historic Trinity Episcopal Church in downtown Houston, with its gorgeous stained glass windows and paintings. The chapel was filled to capacity with people who are regular attendees, as well as newcomers.

This event came at a pivotal moment in my career since my book, Madly in Love, was just reissued as a Carnegie-Mellon Classic Contemporary. The fact that I could celebrate this significant publication in Houston, where I have familial ties, was especially gratifying. My uncle, Howard Barnstone, designed the Rothko Chapel; my aunt, Gertrude Barnstone, is a well-known artist and activist; and my cousins, George Barnstone and Lily Barnstone Wells, and their families still live in Houston and are active members of the community.

In the course of meeting people in Houston, making connections and reconnecting, I was deeply touched to discover that people see me as part of a legacy. The reading generated a lot of interest in my work, and the fact that there was a lot of talk about bringing me back makes me very happy.

Hear recordings of Barnstone and her fellow readers from this event.

Photo: (top) Aliki Barnstone. Photo Credit: John Farmer de la Torre.

(bottom) John Hardesty, Ann-Marie Madden Irwin, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and Ron Starbuck. Photo Credit: John Farmer de la Torre.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Houston 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.

Heather Buchanan is the owner of the Aquarius Press, now celebrating its fifteenth year. She, along with longtime partner Randall Horton, created the press's literary division, Willow Books, which develops, publishes, and promotes writers typically underrepresented in the field. A graduate of Wayne State University (WSU) and the University of Michigan-Dearborn respectively, Buchanan was a WSU National Institute of Health Research Fellow in cognitive science. Actively involved with work in the field of narrative psychology, she has taught Composition, English, African-American Literature, and World Literature at several colleges and universities, most recently for UM-Dearborn and the College for Creative Studies. In addition to teaching, she presents on arts and literature at conferences across the country, most recently for the Ragdale Foundation. A past Poet-In-Residence for the Detroit Public Library system, she also served on the Board of Governors for UM-Dearborn's College of Arts & Sciences Affiliate and was the Chief Operating Officer of the Wayne County Council on the Arts, History & Humanities. A musician, Buchanan is currently working on a musical project honoring the Harlem Hellfighters and a World War I centennial book.

Out of the bustling mass of high schoolers being dismissed after our poetry workshop, one young man stopped in the doorway to utter these words, "that thing changed my life," with a look of wonder upon his face. His classmates had already reinserted their earbuds and pulled out their phones for the bus ride back to school. After this student had said his piece, the look faded and he went to catch up with the group. Fleeting moments like that keep me inspired.

Authors from our press had just completed day one of a two-day workshop and public reading program in Detroit, my hometown, at the Carr Center. “Life, Imagined: Michiganders in Literature” was a writers residency for authors who had published literary works about notable Michiganders. The authors gave public readings with a Q&A for the general public and held poetry readings and workshops with Detroit-area high school students. The event was co-sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council and funded in part by Poets & Writers, Inc..

The program’s goal was to demonstrate how literature intersects with history to provide meaningful cultural experiences for contemporary audiences. Moderated by Randall Horton and Angela May, the fall 2013 Writers-in-Residence were Lita Hooper author of Thunder in Her Voice: The Narrative of Sojourner Truth and Derrick Harriell author of Ropes. The public reading was also a debut for Harriell’s collection, which contained a suite of poems on famed Detroit boxer Joe Louis. The spring 2014 program featured Karen S. Williams author of Peninsula: Poems of Michigan and Curtis L. Crisler, a Michigan native whose newly-released Wonderkind is a poetry collection on the musical genius Stevie Wonder.

The students were from areas typically underserved when it comes to arts programming, so this program was inspiring for more than one reason. The students were not only able to engage with poetry itself, but were able to engage with poetic scholars of color. In addition to making history come alive for these students, the authors shared their experiences as published writers who also teach on the college level. At the outset, only a handful out of the approximately 125 students said they read poetry. After the program ended, however, post surveys showed that 65 percent of the students were now more likely to read poetry and could even envision themselves as poets in the future.

As the students shared the poems they had created in the workshop, the air was electric. There was a sense of pride, accomplishment, and camaraderie for fellow readers. Sadly, during both workshops, more than one female student shared her own story of abuse. Any teacher in Detroit will tell you that many of our youth carry a great deal of internalized trauma and need creative outlets to process and express it. Our workshop was a safe space where everything could be said aloud, if only for a little while.

The Poets & Writers Detroit program has enabled our press to put on several great literary events over the years, but I count this project as one of the very best.

Photos: (top) Heather Buchanan, (bottom) Curtis L. Crisler, Angela May, Karen S. Williams with students.  Photo Credit: Mike McMurray.

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

In 2012 and 2013, educator Sheila Wilensky led a series of P&W supported workshops at Our Place Clubhouse, a psych-social rehabilitation center in Tucson, Arizona, for adults recovering from serious mental illness. A high school social studies teacher for fifteen years in Vermont and Maine, Wilensky also taught children's literature at College of the Atlantic. From 1982 to 1997, she owned the Oz Children’s Bookstore in Southwest Harbor, Maine. In 2002, she got tired of the ice and snow, drove cross country, and has been living in Tucson ever since. She is currently associate editor of the Arizona Jewish Post. Wilensky blogs about her experience teaching the workshops and produced a chapbook of essays from participants titled, A Certain Slant of Light, which was released earlier this year.

Wilensky and Thursday Writing Group

I’ve lived through the civil rights, feminist, and LGBT movements for equality. Now it’s time to reduce the stigma of mental illness in our society. Our Place Clubhouse is a recovery community that encourages self-esteem, and offers job training programs and a safe haven for individuals living with serious mental illness. Around five years ago, I began editing the prolific writing of Rachel and Ira, both of whom struggled with schizophrenia. A week after the January 8, 2011 shooting in Tucson, which killed six people and wounded thirteen, including former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, I was meeting with Rachel.

“Why do people think that if you have a mental illness, you may pull out a gun and start shooting at any time?” asked Rachel, throwing her hands up in frustration.

A year later, I had this epiphany: We must change this damaging misconception. Studies indicate that individuals with severe mental illness are more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators.

The Our Place Clubhouse Thursday Writing Group started on September 17, 2012. We sat around a seminar table in the clubhouse boardroom. We talked about our lives. I knew it was important to establish trust.

“We’re going to create a chapbook to help educate the community about living with mental illness,” I told my fourteen prospective coauthors. I’m not sure they believed me.

Writing prompts emerged from our conversations. The first was “any morning:” how to explain to others what a normal day was like for “crazy” people or that group members started their days like anyone else. They fed their pets, brushed their teeth, and some went to work—as pharmacist, baker, artist, peer counselor.

Every week we read our writing aloud with no feedback, judgment, or criticism—listening to individual voices striving for recovery, applauding after each person read. At the end of each session, Doreen, a former middle school language arts teacher, collected the pieces and put them in a folder for me to take home. Our process developed organically, as did my hugging each writer at the conclusion of a session.

I wanted everyone to feel ownership along the road to publication. We brainstormed titles. We peer edited our writing. The section, “What This Chapbook Means to Me,” is a record of the project’s success:

“Participating in this project has been a source of joy and freedom; the freedom to self-express the many faces of mental illness.” —Lani

“Writing this book is an exploration for me. Hearing others’ stories and writing about my own mental illness is invigorating.” —Doreen

“Any one of us can have behavioral disturbances or diseases of the brain. We stigmatize what we don’t understand. Life can be traumatic. I hope that this chapbook has given the reader pause. Let’s stop being afraid of ourselves.” —Pam

“This chapbook is a conversation which expresses our perspectives on lives affected by mental illness.... Most people who live with mental illness and brain disorders are productive in society and contribute a lot to the advancement of the American dream." —Tyrone

Our book launch took place in January 2014. More than two hundred people attended, including the mayor of Tucson.

Thank you to Poets & Writers for giving this project the legitimacy and support my coauthors deserve.

Photo: Sheila Wilensky (wearing green) and Our Place Clubhouse Thursday Writing Group members and staff; credit: Erica von Koerber.

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

Paula Rodenas is the author of The Random House Book of Horses and Horsemanship and a freelance writer for numerous magazines and newspapers, including Town & Country, Travel & Leisure, and the Horse Directory. She has edited books for Arco and Exposition Press and received awards from the Press Club of Long Island. She teaches creative writing for local adult education programs, and for more than twenty years has led the Merrick Senior Center’s Creative Writing Workshop, a sixteen-week program sponsored by Poets & Writers and the Town of Hempstead Department of Senior Enrichment. A lifelong horse lover, much of her subject matter as a writer has involved horses and she currently contributes to a thoroughbred racing column for a magazine in Long Island, New York. Rodenas has been invited to many foreign press trips for her work as a journalist.

Anyone who believes senior citizens cannot learn and improve should think again!

I have been leading a creative writing workshop for people ages sixty and up at the Merrick Senior Center for more than twenty years. I’ve always enjoyed one-on-one relationships with other writers and this workshop allows me the opportunity to share and appreciate the progress of the participants.

Each week I give an assignment, but I emphasize that it is more of a guideline than a “must.” We have produced poetry, prose, memoirs, fiction and, for the stage, short dialogues or mini-plays that we call “vignettes.” The work is read aloud and critiqued by members of the group with a positive approach, building upon the foundation as opposed to tearing it apart.

The program presently runs for sixteen weeks each year between late February and mid-June, and meets once a week for two hours. At the end of the sessions, we hold a presentation at our local community theater, the Merrick Theater and Center for the Arts, offering free admission to the public, followed by an informal coffee hour. This enables the writers to mingle with the audience. We also publish a booklet in the fall entitled, “Musings of Maturity” which contains our most recent writings. We thus have two venues, one audio and one visual, in which to feature our work.

Our program has been well-received within the community. In 2012, we were featured in a special weekend edition of the Long Island newspaper, Newsday. In 2013, we made the front page of the Herald Weekly. Our theater presentations have been recorded and sent to nursing homes, and “Musings of Maturity” is shared with local libraries.

What makes our group special is a strong camaraderie that makes it feel like family. Deep emotions are often revealed—there are tears and laughter. Older writers draw on a lifetime of experience and wisdom. Our participants have an optimistic outlook, remembering the past, but also thinking ahead. Writers of any age need support and encouragement, and it has been a pleasure to see senior writers develop and gain recognition in the community.

Photo: Paula Rodenas and the Merrick Seniors.  Photo Credit: Nat Watson.

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.

P&W supported Frances Shani Parker is the author of Becoming Dead Right: A Hospice Volunteer in Urban Nursing Homes (paperback, e-book). Parker is a Michigan-based eldercare consultant, writer, hospice volunteer, blogger, and former school principal.

Have you noticed all the negative stereotypes that bombard us about older adults? Too often, this group is portrayed as unattractive, senile, useless, and sexless. A former school principal, when I surveyed fourth graders about the kinds of people they expected to see at a nursing home, they said residents would be old, sick, grouchy, slow, not too smart, and nosey. If these children’s perceptions continue, they can easily grow up to become the stereotypes they believe. Think about some of the older adults you know who have fallen victim to this illusion. Negative stereotypes have influenced how they view themselves in addition to the natural decline in some of the ways they function. They may have more dependence on others, lower levels of risk taking, and decreased self-esteem, due to poorer health.

FSParker

Although youthfulness is admired and flaunted, there are many older adults who are not living the negative stereotypes. They refuse to focus on assumptions about how their lives should unfold. I wanted them to tell their stories, pay tribute to themselves, and motivate others in the process. Facilitating a Poets & Writers workshop seemed like the perfect catalyst for using the power of written words to promote productive aging. An eldercare consultant active with several senior organizations, I was sponsored by the Presbyterian Village of Brush Park Manor, an independent living community in Detroit. That’s how the Stories of Successful Aging After 60 writing workshop came into being and how a shared vision became a reality.

Most potential workshop participants were somewhat intimidated by the prospect of writing personal stories. Reading them aloud before a group presented another layer of concern. To help guide the process, I attended an exercise class with residents before the workshop started, so we could build trust and bond together. A few weeks later, I read original poems for them during their African American history program. My hope was to inspire them to gain the confidence to write and share their own thoughts and feelings. By the time our five workshop sessions began, we had sixteen excited older adults ranging in age from 60 to 93. Storytellers at heart, they were eager to celebrate and share with others what it meant to age successfully.

I was impressed with the diversity and intimacy of their revelations. Many had conquered and continued to prevail over major obstacles while maintaining an optimistic outlook on life. Surviving cancer, heart and kidney transplants, drug addiction, and raising grandchildren were only a few of their victories. They also mentioned spending quality time helping others, enjoying family activities, and working new jobs. Developing talents and hobbies, traveling, and, of course, dating further enhanced their busy schedules. An enlightening collection of stories representing their personal truths evolved through their focused introspection.

References to religious explanations for passing life tests were frequent. Testimonies included receiving numerous blessings, having prayer partners, reading the Bible, and just being alone talking to Jesus. Their praise of a higher power was so strong that it became common during rehearsal readings for someone to shout a religious affirmation such as, “Give God the glory!” or “Thank you, Father!” when other writers read their stories. One man included the partial singing of, “His Eye is on the Sparrow” as part of his presentation. A woman disclosed that music talks to her with, “I’m Gonna Make It After All” being her favorite gospel song.

A lovely luncheon recognized workshop honorees who received and read aloud from their uplifting collection of stories. Each writer also accepted a special certificate of achievement. Several stated they would be sharing their collections and certificates with family, church members, and friends. Now others will benefit from their passionate efforts. Proud older adults savored well-earned praise for their involvement in a writing workshop where we all learned more about ourselves, one another, and aging.

Photo: Frances Shani Parker  Credit: Maurice Sanders

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.

Poets & Writers' fourth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading took place on May 22, 2014, before a packed house at Beyond Baroque Literary/Arts Center. Sixteen writers representing P&W–supported organizations 826LA, Heartland Institute for Transformation, Lambda Literary Foundation, Levantine Cultural Center, Mixed Remixed Festival, and Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore came together to celebrate the diversity of the SoCal literary community and Poets & Writers' Readings & Workshops program. R&W (West) director Jamie Asaye FitzGerald blogs about this lively annual event.

2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Group

"We are the blood, the blood of a city of mixed hearts," recited 19-year-old poet Laura Davila, wowing the audience with her expansive poems about urban life in Los Angeles and capturing the spirit of Poets & Writers' fourth annual Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading, which celebrates the diversity of our Readings & Workshops program and the SoCal literary community.

Connecting Cultures readings take place yearly in Los Angeles and New York City. Each event is exceptional because it brings together a diverse group of organizations—from the grassroots up—to showcase voices before an audience that is as varied and expressive as the readers themselves.

Davila, who is blind and read not from the page, but from a reading machine, was selected by curator Mike "ThePoet" Sonksen, whose 826LA summer teen writing workshops have received R&W support for a number of years. Like 826LA, all the organizations invited to co-curate the Connecting Cultures Reading have received support through the R&W program.

Other highlights from the Los Angeles event included poet and playwright Jesse Bliss, who performed her reading while holding her baby. "Creation is messy," she read, as little hands reached out to touch the microphone and grab hold of her mother's printed poem.

Melinda Palacio, who was making her second appearance at Connecting Cultures, proudly held up her poetry collection, How Fire Is a Story, Waiting (Tia Chucha Press, 2012), explaining that the last time she read, she didn't have a book, but now she does!

So large is the sprawl of Los Angeles, it wasn't surprising to hear poet Vickie Vértiz say it was her first time reading on the Westside. She read her poem "Tocaya" (meaning "namesake" in Spanish), about being named after a deceased older sister.

Novelist Juliana Maio of the Levantine Cultural Center took us on a journey through the back streets of Egypt while Tony Valenzuela, reader and curator for the Lambda Literary Foundation, read an excerpt from his memoir about coming of age in a San Diego gay bathhouse. Fiction writer Esmé-Michelle Watkins of the Mixed Remixed Festival, gave us a child's-eye-view of a family in turmoil.

When talking of "the medicine," poet Queen Hollins, representing the Heartland Institute for Transformation, declared: "It doesn't do any good if you keep it to yourself."

If what ails Los Angeles is a geography of separation, then writing was the medicine that brought everyone together on this night. Sharing that medicine is exactly what the sixteen Connecting Cultures readers did, reaching across divides and distances to bring us back to what matters most—our human stories and experiences.

You can see more pictures from the 2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures Reading on our Facebook page, and a video of Jeffery Martin, representing Tia Chucha's Centro Cultural & Bookstore, reading his poem "Serious Poet," on our YouTube channel.

Photo: 2014 Los Angeles Connecting Cultures group. Front: (L-R) Esme-Michelle Watkins, P&W's Brandi Spaethe, Trebor Healey, librecht baker, Heidi Durrow, Jamie Moore. Back: (L-R) P&W intern Leticia Valente, Beyond Baroque's Richard Modiano, Laura Davila, Tony Valenzuela, P&W's Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, Gayle Fuhr, Queen Hollins, Melissa Sanvicente, Jeffery Martin, and Chris L. Terry. Credit: Brandi M. Spaethe.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Ana Laurel is a writer who has been working as Voices Breaking Boundaries’ managing director since January 2013. She graduated summa cum laude with a BA in English from the University of Houston-Downtown in 2012. During her time at UH-D, she served as general editor of the Bayou Review, the school's literary and visual arts magazine, president of Sigma Tau Delta (International English Honor Society), and was a regular presenter at UH-D's annual Gender Conference. Upon graduation, she was awarded the 2012 Senior Portfolio Prize, the school's highest honor for English majors.

Ana LaurelWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) is a special organization for many reasons, but what makes us most unique is the subject matter we tackle and the structure through which we tackle it. Since 2009, VBB has been producing the thematic-based living room art series which aims to find common threads between two seemingly disparate regions (focusing around Houston, Texas and South Asian cities such as Karachi, Pakistan), in order to foster a greater sense of compassion, understanding, and awareness. With additional support from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and The National Endowment for the Arts, and with support from Poets & Writers, we have been able to expand this structure into a multi-year series called Borderlines that explores North American (Mexico-US-Canada) and South Asian (Afghanistan-Pakistan-India-Bangladesh) border regions through art. Within each year of our three-year Borderlines series, VBB produces two large living room art productions in residential Houston homes showcasing art created by local and international artists including: two film screenings tackling social issues faced by those in the two border regions we’re exploring, community arts workshops introducing Houston community members to self-expression and healing through the arts, and an interactive website, art catalogue, and documentary granting global access to the content and art covered during the year.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
I am particularly proud of our very first community arts workshop with the Mamas del Northside from Houston’s historic Near Northside district. As VBB began to work deeper and more closely with different Houston communities, we knew that in addition to bringing high-quality, international art into underserved communities, we would also need to work with them to develop their own artistic talents for self-expression. Then, they would be able to enjoy and appreciate art from a critical perspective. For our inaugural community arts workshop, we teamed up with our community partner, Avenue CDC, and created a workshop based around Mamas del Northside, an amazing group of women who had just begun to meet and discuss what they could do to improve their homes, families, and community. Most of the women were stay-at-home mothers who spoke very little English and had never written creatively before. As we quickly found out, since becoming wives and mothers, they had not even had an opportunity to speak about their own experiences. Though the workshops only lasted a few weeks, and some women only came sporadically due to obligations at home, those who did attend changed dramatically in their time with our experienced facilitator, Stalina Villarreal. The workshops were full of laughter, tears, anger, and poetry. Every woman that came left with her own journal to keep, and it is my genuine hope that they use them to continue writing and discovering themselves as women, mothers, and human beings—and that they continue letting me hang around to witness it.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The most memorable thing that happens (though working in this line of work, there are many!) for me during our season is always the evaluation dinner that takes place at the end of our Writing for Self-Discovery (WSD) teacher workshops. The WSD teacher workshops are free and open to teachers in the Houston area who are interested in sharpening their teaching skills, strengthening their writing skills, and exploring themselves through writing. At our most recent evaluation dinner in May, the two facilitators and I all sat down to eat with the workshop participants. We discussed their progress since beginning the workshops in February. One of the teachers began to cry, explaining that this year was the hardest for her in thirteen years of teaching because the stress (from testing, the school district, etc.) had culminated to a very fine edge that semester, and she found herself truly struggling in the classroom. Then she explained how our workshops came into her life at the exact right moment to fill her with the hope she needed to continue to help children attain the education they deserve. Her words are better than mine, but she told me that the workshops allow her the time and space to think about and forgive who she was and who she is, and help her siphon off and tackle the stresses from everyday life so that she has space in her heart and mind for the needs of her students. That moved me because that’s what we want in our teachers—that kind of dedication, compassion, and commitment to their students and their education, and someone to whom the needs of children will always take precedence. I was just so grateful she let me share in that moment.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
I’m very fortunate because I came into VBB as a writer with a deep passion and respect for language, and now, as the managing director (and only full-time employee), I get to attend all of our arts writing workshops that take place in the community and in schools. While I don’t attend every single session, I usually join them for the first, the last, and one or two in the middle. I get to be around beginning writers (like Mamas del Northside), seasoned writers (from teacher workshops), and young, unfiltered writers (in youth workshops).  In addition, I get to take in the expertise our facilitators bring to the table. Not only do the workshops expand my own capacity to imagine and feel in both my life and writing, but they also inspire me to actively pick up my pen and journal at the end of the day when I’ve worked over nine hours and am completely drained. Because no matter what, I don’t deal with a peer group full of hormones and cliques, a classroom full of students who need constant attention and compassion, or a home full of children and a husband whose needs always come before my own.  If all the participants in our workshops can pick up their pens and journals after all of that, so can I.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Language and literacy are important because they help us express ourselves to each other and through that shared expression, we are able to build communities. Without it, we lose touch with each other, and the ties that bind our communities fall apart. In 2000, Sehba Sarwar decided that she didn’t like what was happening in her home country and wrote a poem to express her distaste. Writing became her form of protest and through that poem, she drew together four other women writers and artists who banded to form Voices Breaking Boundaries, an organization I am now a part of today, almost fifteen years later. These five women created a legacy and lineage of women who continue working and fighting to ensure that language and literacy are not lost, and that all of our stories will continue to be told. After all the trends and gadgets come and go, our stories, told to each other or on paper, will continue on and carry our histories and lessons to the generations that follow. Every community deserves the chance to take part in such a timeless legacy.

Photo: Ana Laurel   Credit: Ana Laurel

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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