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Readings & Workshops Blog

Golda Solomon is a spoken word performer, professor, and the poet-in-residence at Blue Door Gallery. Her poems have been published in the Mom Egg, Heal: Between the Pages of These Folks We Seek a Panacea, the 35th Anniversary of Blind Beggar Press’ Collector’s Edition Anthology, Out of Africa, Fiber Plus, Sacred Visions, and Narratives x4. She is the author of Flatbush Cowgirl (CM Graphic Design, 1999) and Medicine Woman of Jazz (World Audience, 2012). She produced the poetry and jazz compilation albums First Set, Word Riffs, and Takin’ It To the Hollow. Solomon created From Page to Performance workshops and ArtSpeak: Poetic Responses to the Walls, writing workshops (partially funded by Poets & Writers), at Blue Door Gallery.

In 2008, I moved to Yonkers, New York, and came across Blue Door Gallery, a quaint gallery on a main street next to a boarded-up building. Giving back to community and nurturing diversity is essential to who I am. I began as a volunteer, facilitating writing workshops, and with the help of Poets & Writers, I became Blue Door Gallery's poet-in-residence, and ArtSpeak was born.

The ArtSpeak workshops give participants an opportunity to use exhibitions as writing prompts and inspiration. A packet is distributed that contains an agenda with the current exhibition program, ArtSpeak Walk (which includes questions, poems, and readings related to the artwork), an explanation of ekphrastic writing, and an evaluation form.

I facilitate eight workshops each calendar year, as well as two in the community outreach summer program. Each workshop is two and a half hours and allows leisurely viewing of the art with ample time for first draft free-writing and sharing in a welcoming atmosphere. Recent workshops have included an additional From Page to Performance workshop hour. Friends, family, and community members are invited to witness our “raw” work. On occasion, the artists attend, answer questions, and are invited to write—a rewarding experience for all.

It’s been said that I am playfully stubborn in my determination to bring out the best in all who are there. My background in communications has taught me how to help those with public speaking jitters and I personally understand what it’s like to have anxiety. As a child, I stopped playing the piano because of my fears and I try my best not to let that happen to anyone in my care. As one participant remarked, “For me, this was the best workshop/writing experience I’ve ever had. The group of writers was as varied as our ages and it gave the event incredible energy. I also felt free of my fears. In this workshop, I allowed myself to read my poem without quivering.”

It is gratifying and a privilege to work with these writers and receive positive feedback. One member noted, “This need to accept my creative side is the invaluable part of the ArtSpeak experience for me. The other part is working with visual art and having this art as prompts to stir my words."

Blue Door Gallery has included ArtSpeak poems in publications and honored the artists with three ArtSpeak chapbooks. The gallery will soon inaugurate Blue Door Quarterly with writings from each ArtSpeak workshop. These publications have offered an opportunity for established writers and emerging poets to be published together. Support from the Readings & Workshops program of Poets & Writers has helped establish Blue Door Gallery as a cultural center in downtown Yonkers. On these streets of grit and energy, I am proud to be known as the ArtSpeak lady. I am always teacher and learner.

Photos: (top) Golda Solomon, (middle) Golda Solomon and ArtSpeak Class.  Photo Credit: Maureen Hatch.

Photo: (bottom) Golda Solomon. Photo Credit: Zak Sherzad.

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 Literary Roundtable meetings are great opportunities to connect with fellow presenters, presses, teachers, and writers. They bring together people from all aspects of the local literary community to share ideas, news, and resources, and possibly form partnerships. It's also a chance for members of the community to learn more about P&W and how its Readings & Workshops program might support their literary events. Brandi M. Spaethe, program assistant at P&W Readings & Workshops (West), blogs about a meeting in Fresno, California.

Fresno Roundtable

When I went to the Poets & Writers’ Fresno Roundtable meeting on March 27, I was excited to return to the place where I received my MFA in poetry last May. One thing I told Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of the Readings & Workshops Program (West), on the drive up was that not only does Fresno have a rich poetic history, but it also continues to be home to a strong and diverse literary community. It’s a place where inhabitants stick around because they are passionate about their projects and the city. Fresno is a place that wants to be loved.

In attendance was Fresno’s poet laureate, James Tyner, who runs a reading series at the Gillis Branch Public Library in Fresno. Tyner was elected Fresno’s first poet laureate in the fall of 2012. S. Bryan Medina came to discuss his new baby, the Inner Ear Poetry Jam, which features slam poets in the area. Medina told us that the slam community in Fresno has been alive for roughly twelve years, a fact not widely known. Michael Medrano, who was a P&W writer-in-residence for the Readings & Workshops blog in July 2013, has been an important member of the local literary scene with his Random Writers Workshop series that meets monthly in Fresno. Others in attendance included an agent, local literary enthusiasts, and a new member who had recently relocated.

One question we all wanted to explore: What drives Fresno's passion for the arts? What is it about Fresno that attracts writers? Well, it’s not a glamorous place. Fresno is very much a working-class city, they agreed, a place about work. Former United States Poet Laureate Philip Levine has spent a number of years teaching, writing, and living in Fresno and is well-known for writing about Detroit's working-class. This city is a realist city. Its faults are right on the surface and many of its citizens come from blue-collar backgrounds. A strong work ethic, a powerful drive, and sweat breaking over your back can remind you that you're human. That your body is capable of affecting and destroying and building again—if you spend enough time in Fresno you can see it. You can see it in the poetry.

The other thing that drives Fresnans is that they must fight for the arts. Cindy Wathen, treasurer at the Fresno Arts Council, shared with us that there’s just no budget for the arts, thus all efforts are grassroots. A few attendees spoke out about how fighting for your art creates a strong sense of identity, a sense of ownership and pride that comes with building your own establishment. As the largest Central Valley city, Fresno boasts a variety of agricultural communities, folks who have watched the land change and bear new fruit each year, some natives working directly to cultivate the crop. The arts, too, are nourished in this way.

One thing I noticed about my own time in Fresno is how separate the university and the locals were in their literary endeavors. Often the local writers would host events and some students would come, and vice versa with the MFA student events through Fresno State, but crossover was rare. There exists two camps: the nonacademic writer and the academic writer. "In what ways can the two come together?" we wondered. What are some events we'd like to see in Fresno that might bridge the gap? Some suggested a writers conference inclusive of non-academic writers, others mused that a retreat or publication would be a good addition to the scene. Annual show? Fringe festival? Excitement began to build in the room.

Fresno has been a poet’s place. It still is a poet’s place. Folks often forget about it, and the city itself has developed a reputation in the nation for being something that it’s not to the native. There’s a real sense of community there.

I am sitting at the dinner table, rolling a hot dog
into a corn tortilla, boiled beans and white rice,
the air growing smokey from the tri-tip barbequing
outside, my cousin bringing in a plate of pan fried
noodles from the place down the street.

I am home.

I am Fresno.

—James Tyner, "Fresno, California. 2013."

Photo: Fresno Roundtable Attendees  Credit: Jamie Asaye FitzGerald

Major support for Readings & Workshops in California is provided by the James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

JP HOWARD, aka Juliet P. Howard, is a poet, a Cave Canem fellow, a member of the Hot Poets Collective, and a native New Yorker. She curates and nurtures Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) and blog. WWBPS hosts monthly literary Salons in New York, and the blog accepts submissions of poetry from women. JP has been selected as a 2014 VONA/Voices Poetry Fellow, a 2012 and 2011 Lambda Literary Foundation Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow, and a 2011 Cave Canem Fellow in Residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was a finalist for Astraea’s Lesbian Writers Fund for Poetry and the recipient of a Soul Mountain Retreat writing residency. Her poems have been published in Adrienne: A Poetry Journal of Queer Women, the Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias iPad Companion, African Voices Magazine, Kweli Journal, the Mom Egg, “Of Fire, Of Iron,” Talking Writing, Muzzle Magazine, Connotation Press, TORCH, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008-2009, Cave Canem XI 2007 Anthology, and Promethean Literary Journal. She was awarded an MFA in creative writing from the City College of New York in 2009, holds a BA from Barnard College, and a JD from Brooklyn Law School.

Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS) is a dream come true! After receiving my MFA from the City College of New York in 2009, I wanted to continue to be a part of a community of poets and decided sometimes we have to create the community we desire. WWBPS is a Literary Salon Series, modeled after traveling salons that were popular during the Harlem Renaissance. Our first Salon was held during National Poetry Month in April 2011 and was created with the goal of establishing a venue where women writers could come together in a supportive, creative, and nurturing space. The Salon is also open to men. As curator and nurturer of WWBPS, I host monthly literary salons and writing workshops throughout New York. Poets & Writers has generously funded WWBPS since 2012.

Our monthly Salons have grown and can now accommodate between twenty-five to thirty participants. We have served over six hundred participants in the past three years and continue to expand opportunities for Salon members. This year I started a Spring Reading Series “Celebrating a Sacred Space for Women’s Voices: Women Writers in Bloom” at the Bowery Poetry Club, featuring dynamic and diverse Salon poets. This new Series, also funded by Poets & Writers, has its next installment on May 18, 2014, at 1 PM. We had our first out-of-state Seattle-based Salon during AWP at an off-site venue this year. I was recently awarded my very first Brooklyn Arts Council (BAC) Community Arts Fund Grant on behalf of the Salon. This grant allowed me to rent the gorgeous DUMBO Sky venue for our April celebration. Last month WWBPS was one of four literary organizations whose members were invited to participate in Poets & Writers' fifth annual Connecting Cultures Reading, which was a true honor for the Salon and our members.

It has been an amazing feeling to watch the Salon blossom in both membership and outpouring of support. Our three-year anniversary celebration on Saturday, April 26, at DUMBO Sky was one of our largest, most successful events to date! We had nearly seventy guests in attendance. It was wonderful to have the support of Poets & Writers for this anniversary celebration. Our featured poet, phenomenal performer Mahogany L. Browne, performed an excerpt of her manuscript turned multi-media poetry production, #redbone, along with musical accompaniment by Mel Hsu. The performance was inspirational and mesmerizing. Since a large goal of the Salon is to support and nurture women writers, I also honored two long-time Salon members: dynamic poets Cheryl Boyce-Taylor, curator of the Calypso Muse Reading Series and the Glitter Pomegranate Performance Series, as well as Lorraine Currelley, founder and director of Poets Network and Exchange, were presented with certificates of appreciation in recognition of their outstanding dedication to our writing community. This event was spectacular! Salon members and volunteers donated tons of food, wine, beverages and gave freely and generously of their time. This was an event created for our community and was truly a success because of our community!

Photo: (Top) JP Howard, (Middle) JP Howard, Cheryl Boyce Taylor, Mahogany Browne. (Bottom) JP Howard, Lorraine Currelley. Photo Credit: Akinfe Fatou.

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 A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Mary McMillan lives and works in Lake County, California. She has been facilitating the Writers Circle, a monthly free public writing workshop sponsored by the Lake County Arts Council and supported by Poets & Writers, for more than five years. She worked as a journalist for several years, and has written novels and creative nonfiction. In 2010, she was selected as Lake County’s Poet Laureate and published This Wanting, a poetry chapbook, as well as the textbook Get Inside Your Relationships, related to her work as a marriage and family therapist. Along with a private psychotherapy practice, McMillan works as a mediator for family court and teaches parents in the court system how to communicate better with their co-parents.

Mary McMillan and RosieSince fall 2008, I have been funded by Poets & Writers to facilitate the Writers Circle, a free public writing workshop that meets once a month in the Lake County Arts Council gallery. Located in rural Northern California, in a valley isolated by mountain ranges, Lake County is both cursed with the problems that come with extreme poverty, and blessed by clean air and breathtaking scenery. Many artists, writers, and professionals retire in Lake County, where they can enjoy mountain trails and the largest natural freshwater lake in the state. Centuries ago, a now-dormant volcano created rich soil in the valleys—soil that now attracts small family farms growing organic produce, walnuts, pears, and wine grapes.

Since I took over the position of workshop facilitator, I've been fascinated and moved every month, as participants have brought in material often hoarded and hidden for years—and I have watched these writers bloom into confident authors of exquisitely funny, terrifying, or touching stories and poems.

Ten years ago, Fran Ransley began writing her memoir, This House Protected by Poverty, about being a welfare mother. This month she is preparing to submit the final version of her manuscript to Amazon’s CreateSpace to print her first edition. Each month, when Fran read her stories of frustration laced with irony and wit, participants practically fell off their chairs laughing—appreciating the absurdity Fran saw in every situation— yet offered constructive criticism. For instance, when Fran rambled into interesting or thoughtful digressions, we helped her construct ways to weave those observations into her central narrative.

Writers CircleIn 2010, participant Lourdes Thuesen started writing a short story about a developmentally delayed girl whose mother was addicted to methamphetamine. As we continued asking her questions about this mother and her history, Lourdes ended up writing a compelling novel with the addicted mother at the center of a complex web of relationships. And, recently, a middle-aged man in a wheelchair has joined us, keeping us enthralled with excerpts from his memoir, So You Want to be a Quadriplegic.

Over the years, I have offered an encouraging ear, and ensured a safe place for people to bring sensitive material and tell their stories. I have always felt impressed with the fine quality of both writing and listening that participants bring to the workshop, but even more, I have felt privileged to witness the rich and complex lives they have come to share.

Top: Mary McMillan and her dog, Rosie; credit: Patty Dalton. Bottom: The Writers Circle; credit: JoAnn Sacato.
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 presenter Lynn Ciesielski runs the Circleformance Series in Buffalo, NY. Her background is in special education.  She has an MS from SUNY College at Buffalo and taught in city schools for over eighteen years.  When Lynn retired, she turned most of her energy to poetry.  She is currently working on her first full length collection to follow her chapbook, I Speak in Tongues, released by Foothills Publishing in 2012.  Lynn's work has also appeared in Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine, Nerve Cowboy, Slipstream, Wild Goose Poetry Review, Iodine Poetry Journal and many other periodicals.

Lynn CiesielskiWhat makes your reading series and its events unique?
I regularly introduce poets new to the Buffalo literary scene, whether it be due to their youth, out of town status or lengthy dormant periods. By pairing these artists with those who are well-established here, I am able to garner a welcoming audience for them. Additionally, with the help of Poets & Writers’ financial support, I am able to give many of them their first opportunity to earn money doing what they love best.
These measured risks I take have proven very successful.  Many of the local poets I know fairly well, who come to the readings, have pulled me aside to mention how much they enjoyed the new writer. They ask where I have found these talents.
Another factor that makes us unique relates to the venue. Our readings take place in my co-host’s art gallery. This provides a visual backdrop which fits nicely with the poetry.
 
 
What recent project and/or event have you been especially proud of and why?
On August 13, 2013 I hosted Sara Ries and Elaine Chamberlain. These poets have several things in common. They have strong family ties, they are both phenomenal poets with good standing in our community and most memorably, they travelled to India together the prior winter.  Because I know both of them, I was aware that they had written a fair amount of travel poetry related to their trip. I requested that each poet choose their selections from that repertoire. A lot of the attendees and I were especially interested in the section during which each poet read their own poetic version of specific incidents from the trip. These pieces really highlighted their individuality.
As a special treat, I prepared a vegetarian curry and nan khatai (Indian shortbread with coconut and cardamom). The poets and audience members enjoyed a multi-cultural and multi-sensory feast of flavors and words.
 
What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
We generally have a musician who plays before the poets begin. One month he did not turn up and though we were disappointed, we did not make too much of it. Right as the first poet began, the musician called the gallery to speak to the proprietor (my co-host). He did not realize he was on speaker phone and proceeded to explain why he had been unable to make it to perform that evening. The audience burst with laughter and, though the proprietor and I were embarrassed, there was little we could without being impolite.
 
How do you find and invite readers?
I have a pretty big network of poet friends/ acquaintances in Buffalo and Western New York and surrounding areas. When I run out of ideas, I consult with my co-host who is not only a visual artist and gallery proprietor but a poet and writer as well.
When I am interested in featuring a poet I generally contact him/her via email or telephone.

How do you cultivate an audience?
At each reading I announce the next several dates along with the features. We advertise in local papers and on the Meridian West Art Gallery’s facebook page. I also send out a mass mailing to everyone in my poetry network.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Buffalo is a very depressed area which has experienced a mass exodus. However, our arts community continues to thrive. I think literary programs elevate morale and give people varied opportunities to communicate and share at a deep and cathartic level. The literary arts encourage those who feel dismay and enhance joy with profound beauty.

Photo: Lynn Ciesielski  Credit: Nicholas Todaro

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.

Rachel Guido de Vries is a poet and fiction writer. She has written three books of poems: How to Sing to a Dago, (Guernica, 1996); Gambler’s Daughter, (Guernica, 2001), and The Brother Inside Me (Guernica, 2008). Her first children’s book, Teeny Tiny Tino’s Fishing Story, (Bordighera, 2008) was a winner of the Paterson Prize for Books for Young People Award. Bordighera Books will publish a new collection of her poems, A Woman Unknown in Her Bones, and a new children’s picture book, Stati Zita, Josie, in 2014. She is a poet-in-the-schools, and gives workshops independently. She lives in Cazenovia, New York.

One of the things I love about Poets & Writers is the support of readings and workshops outside of the academy. Don’t get me wrong: I went to grad school at Syracuse University in the mid to late '70s and I have received funding from P&W to do readings at colleges and universities for thirty-some years. But it has been the readings and workshops outside of the academy that have most enriched me. This support has allowed me to offer poetry to male and female inmates at a psychiatric center for convicted felons in Marcy, New York, where I was a poet in residence for over ten years; at migrant farm worker camps in western New York, where workers left the fields after sunset, and after a day of digging potatoes. They would shower before coming to workshop, and that often meant we would be writing poems after nine at night, in a small trailer, or in the juke, the common kitchen area at a migrant camp.

I’ve done workshops with senior citizens and with inner city kids and adults in the city of Syracuse. What a gift this has been. I have seen poems blossom in every setting, and I have come to cherish working with marginalized communities—I feel enriched by what I have learned from these students, and I hope that I have at least on occasion brought to celebration voices not frequently heard, by writers too often silenced by poverty, education, or class, race, or gender.

For me, the support of Poets & Writers has been a kind of writer’s lifeline, connecting me to students I would never otherwise encounter. Their desire to write, and their love of words, their ability and interest in the image as a way into meaning, and into sharing the meaning of their lives is profound, and often startling. Asking young poets to write about peace, a seven-year-old wrote: “War is as savage / as a hunter in deer season / Peace is a descendant of Aphrodite / War is a descendant of Ares.”

A convicted felon in the prison workshop wrote a poem beginning: “My heart is like a little bird…” His big, muscled frame the cage of safety, perhaps, for that little bird beating away inside of him. A Christmas poem written by a young inmate was heart breaking—he wrote all about what he did not want for Christmas, including no more living on the street, no more shame to his mother. The repetition of the phrase “I don’t want” followed by such poignant hopes is a poem that has stayed with me for decades. In fact, I often use that idea—what one does NOT want for Christmas—as a poetry exercise for students.

In a way, I think the sheer honesty and truth of these poets have kept me humble and in awe of the power poems have to move us to voice and insight. Their work has sharpened my own work, the clarity of image, the meaning I hope to evoke. The pure imagery created in these workshops, without artifice or self consciousness, is moving. I believe and have always believed that poetry is a gate to true literacy; that the image is often a key to unlock what I call the “Blue Door,” the door within each of us, behind which all we need to say and all we know is waiting to be set free on the wings of poems, borne up on faith and the belief in what one knows.

Photo:  Rachel Guido de Vries.  Photo Credit:  Anonymous

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 Sueyeun Juliette Lee reports on her P&W–supported reading and workshop with the experimental Houston collaborative Antena. Lee is the author of Underground National (Factory School Press, 2010), That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut Books, 2008), and Solar Maximum, forthcoming from Futurepoem Press. In addition to her writing, Lee publishes innovative work by multiethnic authors through Corollary Press. She also edits for The Margins, the web magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts.

Antena, made up of Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, is a language justice and experimentation collaborative, currently in residence at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. In addition to curating an immense exhibition of book arts and small presses from the Americas (North, Central, and South) alongside text-based visual work by eleven artists from Latin America and the U.S., they also pulled together artists, small press publishers, and writers to convene this past February for a weekend of workshops and dialogues about community and art in a multi-national exchange. I was one of the invited artists.

Encuentro participants

In order to facilitate this cross-cultural exchange, Antena utilized real-time interpretation, which required all participants who weren't comfortable in both English and Spanish to wear headsets and radio receivers. Bilingual interpreters were present at each event and interpreted live for the participants by broadcasting on different radio channels. Though it was often challenging to listen through the headset, the experience underscored and manifested the obstacles we must wade through if we want to have a true encuentro, or encounter, with difference.

Block print

The workshops ranged from creating language-oriented artwork together, such as making a massive collective block print with Nuria Montiel of all of our favorite phrases, or participating in performance experiments led by Autumn Knight, who invited us to engage each other in playful new ways. The evenings were devoted to performances of all the featured artists’ work.

I was incredibly impressed by the audience’s diversity. There were of course many undergraduate students there, since we were located on the University of Houston’s campus, but Antena’s commitment to community and access was evident in the range of other workshop participants and attendees from all walks of life. One older woman approached me and told me she was not a “poetry type,” but was profoundly moved by all the things she had heard that night. She was clearly deeply affected. Isn’t that the greatest feat we can hope art will accomplish?

I was astonished by the cross-arts resonances that emerged between us. For example, I met Guatemalan visual artist and indigenous activist Benvenuto Chavajay, who asked me about the kite I had made for the exhibition. His country has an annual kite celebration, and we discussed the ways that kites impact national and cultural identities. Though I am a Korean American, raised outside Washington D.C. by immigrants, and Chavajay is of Mayan descent, we had very similar understandings about the kind of transformative work we wanted to accomplish through our art, and the way that we understand our relationship to our heritages and histories.

There are many moments from the Encuentro that I will never forget—especially watching Stalina Villarreal toss her “bouquet” of poems into the air and hearing Ayanna Jolivet McCloud’s skin as she rubbed the microphone across her body.

Top: Encuentro participants; credit: Pablo Gimenez Zapiola. Bottom: A collaborative block print; credit: Sueyeun Juliette Lee.

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.

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