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Readings & Workshops Blog

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille Dungy

1) The writer asks questions.

2) The writer answers those questions.

3) The writer elaborates on the answers. In other words, a writer doesn't just stick with ROYGBiV answers, but answers questions the way a bird can see colors, as in more completely, more complexly, more deeply than most humans can imagine.

4) The writer imagines.

5) The writer worries. Does anyone care? Does it matter? Is anyone out there? Can anyone see what I say I have seen? Does anyone care?

6) The writer asks a series of questions that override the worry for awhile. What, for instance, is it about writing, the writer asks, that would cause a group of young people in Mozambique, a nation devastated by decades of war and until recently listed as one of the 10 poorest in the world, to found Revista Líteratas, a blog dedicated to discussing the vibrancy of Afro-Lusophone literature? The writer won't rest until she can begin to understand what is it about the literature that keeps the writer going back to the page, even if the page is written in something as foreign as Portuguese.

7) The writer works toward penning answers to those questions. This is what the writer might call the spreading of truth. This is what the world might call translation.

8) The writer elaborates, wondering how the time she spends writing her own poems or translating others' can honor the time writers in organizations like California Poets in the Schools spend teaching second grade students, and high school students, and hospital-bound children, and children moving through the juvenile correction system, and students moving past the juvenile correction system, and junior high school students, and first graders how to learn to love poetry. The writer could go on and on about the importance of expanding people's access to literature.

9) The writer worries that the questions she is asking have been asked already or that the answers, those particular answers the writer spent so much time elaborately imagining in tones far beyond red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and even violet, have been written already by someone who is better at writing than the writer believes herself to be. The writer also imagines that the answers she has taken such care elaborating upon will reveal Poets & Writers' secrets and will, she half worries, trigger the release of some agent who will set out hot on her tail. Will the agent laugh at the writer's tail?

10) The writer asks what on heaven's earth is the relationship between a tail and a trail and a tale and when the words diverged or converged, if ever they did either; and how to most colorfully get this cacophony of ideas down on the page without confusing the reader, if there is a reader out there to confuse; and if these are questions worth spending time writing about...

That's what writers do all day.

Go ask a writer.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

P&W-supported poet James Arthur recently gave a reading at Seattle’s Hugo House in celebration of Copper Canyon Press. Arthur’s poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, Poetry, and The American Poetry Review. He has received the Amy Lowell Travelling Poetry Scholarship, a Wallace Stegner Fellowship, an Amy Clampitt Residency, and a Discovery/The Nation Prize. His first book, Charms against Lightning was published by Copper Canyon Press in October 2012. Event coordinator Elaina Ellis blogs about the event below, and has a few questions for Arthur.

Copper Canyon poetry party participantsWho do I write for?
For you, and everything alive inside of you.
                --Vicente Aleixandre

On December 14, Copper Canyon Press launched our fortieth anniversary celebration at Seattle’s Richard Hugo House, elbow to joyful elbow with nearly two hundred of our closest friends. This was no typical end-of-year soiree, and it was definitely not your average poetry reading. It was a poetry party, and it was every bit as nerdy and exciting as that sounds.

For the first hour of the event, we simply let conversations unfold. Highlights in the crowd included the teenager who shyly inquired how she might learn to write poetry; the seventy-three-year-old visual artist who told us, “I came for the food, I’m staying for the poems”; and faces from all corners of the literary world, including booksellers, slam poets, and teachers.

At  eight p.m. we ushered the crowd into the theater, where local writers including Ed Skoog and Matthew Dickman performed the works of C.D. Wright, Hayden Carruth, June Jordan, Natalie Diaz, and Pablo Neruda. Our featured poet for the evening, James Arthur, gave an impassioned reading that was supported by Poets & Writers. He was met with audible enthusiasm from listeners, and we couldn’t help but hope that this room might represent the future of poetry. We asked James to share his thoughts below:

James ArthurWe had quite a lively crowd at this particular reading. How does the character of an audience impact you?
 
I depend on the crowd’s enthusiasm. When an audience is excited, I get excited. If an audience seems bored, I take that to heart. I know some poets feel uncomfortable reading their poems publicly, and are writing primarily for the solitary, silent reader; I have no argument with those writers. But I want my poems to be heard. Half the meaning is in the rhythm.
 
Readers today seek poetry in a variety of venues: e-books, YouTube, poetry slams, and of course that old-fashioned bookshelf. Where do you hope poetry goes from here?
 
E-books and the internet have already affected how poetry is published, and I’m sure they’re affecting how poetry is written, too. My method is pretty old-fashioned; I go for long walks, I look at the things around me, and I compose my poems by sound association.
I try not to cultivate any prescriptive ideas about how poetry in general should develop. It’s easy to get drawn into arguments about how poetry should be, and about how other people should write—but for me, at least, those debates are unhealthy. They eat away at my doubt and curiosity, and those are the two qualities that a poet needs most.

Who do you write for?

I want my poems to explore serious questions and still be widely accessible. I write for anyone who’s listening! 

Photos: Top: "poetry party" participants (James Arthur is on the right). Credit: Hugo House. Bottom: James Arthur. Credit: Shannon Robinson.
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.

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyThus far in this blog series, I've talked about how a two-page questionnaire distributed to writers whose events are co-sponsored by Poets & Writers directly engages some of the things writers do all day: We answer questions: We worry about whether we'll find an audience willing to read our answers.

This week, I want to talk about another thing a person who calls himself a writer must regularly accomplish: The writer must find time, somehow, to write.

How does a person who wants to be a writer find the time to write? There are so many responsibilities and distractions and interruptions in this world. How on heaven's earth (Where did that phrase come from? When did heaven get to also possess earth?) does a writer stay focused on the task at hand?

The final question on the two-page, salmon-colored questionnaire distributed to all writers who are paid to participate in a P&W co-sponsored event reads as follows: What was the impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers on your experience of this event, your career as a writer, your relationship with your audience, etc?

One way I interpret this question is that it asks what it means to be paid to talk about what I write.

Short answer: It means a lot.

More elaborate answer: It means my time is valued; my craft is valued; my words are valued; my relationship with the community to whom I am speaking has a value; that a community has taken the time to write a successful grant proposal to prove their dedication to a life of letters, and this has a value. When I receive a check for speaking to a community of people about writing, it supports me as I continue to seek answers, and it encourages me to work to write those answers down for other people to read.

I am not writing out of a desire to make loads of money. If I intended to dedicate my life to financial return, I would have gone into global finance. Those folks are storytellers too. I made a choice to get my poetic license because writing is sacred. It is necessary for my survival. In the same way I have to regularly make time to exercise my lower back and core muscles so the lumbar region of my spine doesn't give out and cause indescribable pain, I have to write regularly so the questions that fill my head don't bring me grief. It is an immense comfort to know I am not talking to myself, but I would write whether there was anyone to read what I wrote or not.

Writing is the means by which I come to understand myself. Writing is the means by which I come to understand my community, my world. Perhaps you know a runner, the sort who is not herself until she has logged her miles for the day. Though she may be on a business trip in a city far from home, before she heads to her morning meetings she has already logged eight-miles and can tell all the other traveling salesmen the layout of the town where they've stopped for the night. That is who I am in relationship to the page. I am lost without it. I find time to write because it is through writing that I find myself.

The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is the ability to hire a babysitter, or buy better writing equipment, or purchase meals that save me time and labor in the kitchen. The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is the affirmation that people are reading what I write. That affirmation keeps me going, sometimes, through the long lonely hours. The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is that I occasionally have to the opportunity to articulate to others why on heaven's earth I care so much about writing that I want to share my love of writing with the world. The impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers is the affirmation that the time I take to write has a value.

How does a writer find time to write? She comes to believe that the time she takes to write is precious and should be treated as such. Her community can support her in this. She also has to believe in herself.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

Peter J. Harris, founder and Artistic Director of Inspiration House, is an African American cultural worker who has since the 1970s published his poetry, essays, and fiction in a wide range of national publications; worked as a publisher, journalist, editor, and broadcaster; and been an educator, and workshop leader for adults and adolescents. Harris is also founding director of The Black Man of Happiness Project, a creative, intellectual, and artistic exploration of Black men and joy. He is a mainstay of the Los Angeles arts community and has been supported by P&W as both a writer and event curator.

Peter J. HarrisWhat are your reading dos?
I choose poetry that feels right for the moment and best captures my artistic voice, as well as the ideas and emotions welling within me as I absorb the atmosphere of the venue.

I try to contribute to the overall harmonics of the event, but prioritize sharing work that resonates with my journey as a human being and focuses the audience’s attention on that journey.

When producing or curating, my essential “do” is to present programs that include virtuosos—poets with vitality and distinctive voices, who are enchanted by the power of well-chosen language.
 
How do you prepare for a reading?
Give thanks for the invitation. I choose work that addresses the theme of the reading and review works-in-progress I'm inspired to revisit, in hopes that my preparations might include sharpened insights and heightened skills to complete the new poem in time.

Over the years, I’ve found that publicly reading freshly minted work is difficult, but exhilarating. I can’t rely on memory or familiarity to take it to the bridge. Reading a new poem makes me nervous, slows me down, quiets the room, and demands that I concentrate on feeling/capturing the nuances of the poem in real time. Under the right circumstances, folks in the audience experience and witness in a positive way the humility of my struggle, and they lean in to listen and join me on the exploration.
 
What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
Honesty. Fearlessness. Conversational, passionate delivery of the poem. Resist the urge to lean on what some folks might call a signature poem.

Place the poems first. The audience is there to hear the work, not to see me, even if I’m the “featured” poet.
 
What’s the inspiration behind the Inspiration House PoetryChoir?
Inspiration House PoetryChoir, a collaboration between a shifting roster of virtuoso poets and improvisational musicians, is my old KPFK radio show stood up on its feet. The radio show, “Inspiration House: VoiceMusic for Whole Living,” aired from 1999 to 2004 on KPFK-FM, Pacifica Radio for Southern California. The show featured poets reading their work to recorded music. Poets selected poetry in response to the music, and I selected music in response to the poetry.

Inspiration House PoetryChoir events unfold in the same unscripted way, with the audience encouraged to respond spontaneously—with shouts of encouragement, amens, and affirmation—to the skill of the poets and musicians, stitching their voices into the dialogue, and helping to produce a testament to whole living.

The Inspiration House PoetryChoir is also a reflection of my thinking that poetry readings can become ceremonies that are mini rites of passages, in which participants begin the experience in one state of mind/being; plunge into the deep exchange between poets sharing their work, while musicians improvise musical responses to the poetry, all of us losing ourselves within the blending of words, intonations, audience responses, and dynamic silence; then leave the gig renewed and recommitted to cultural work that contributes to the creation of a humane society.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs and the role of the writer in the community?
Ideally, literary programs are concentrated opportunities to swap ideas, testimony, and stories that celebrate our uncensored voices. Sometimes they present virtuosos whose mastery sets or expands standards of excellence. Sometimes they are briar patches to intensify the creative and artistic intimacies of writers of a common cultural or stylistic flow. Sometimes they call us to cross borders and be ethical witnesses to the evolution of themes and issues that hip us and humble us, so we’re reminded to stay curious and hungry to learn.

The role of the writer in the community? Scribe. Critic. Griot. Historian. Entertainer. Provocateur. Visionary. Tour-guide to big ideas, insecurities, and private insights that unlock public understandings. Mas o menos!

Photo: Peter J. Harris. Credit: Adenike Harris.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyLast week I wrote that one of the things writers do all day is answer questions. Is that really all we do? Of course not. Another thing writers do all day is worry about whether we've figured out the best way to answer the questions presented to us.

The simple one-word answer, though efficient at times, won't get us a whole book, or even a whole page. And who ever heard of someone finishing a whole book when they couldn't even fill a page?

Thus, we elaborate. The prominent color in that sunset is no longer just red. It becomes a red that reminds her of the coral ring her sister used to wear on her ring finger after she left North Carolina and her first husband for the job she took in Vermont.

We can go on and on, you see, asking the right questions and elaborating on them. What was the story with the first husband? Why first? How many more? Why Vermont? Can I say more about the ring? What's with the punctuation? Is this the start of a paragraph or a poem? When presented with the right set of questions, a writer can go on all day.

Then, though, comes the next big question: Who really cares about our elaborate responses anyway?

Last week, I wrote that Poets & Writers graciously presents its funded artists with a list of questions they are encouraged to elaborate upon. This is part of the role of the community that supports its writers. The community that supports its writers ought to give them lots of good questions to answer: Describe the event. Why did he open the door? Who is he sitting with? What was the impact of receiving support? If I could figure out really good answers to these questions, I could write a whole book.

But who would read it?

Poets & Writers knows that writers often worry that what they are writing won't reach a receptive ear. They've anticipated this and close their questionnaire with these words: The information provided on this report is integral to the continued success of the Readings/Workshops program and is necessary to ensure continued funding of the program. Poets & Writers thanks you for your help in this regard.

Do you see what I mean? Poets & Writers has figured out how to make the writer understand that her carefully chosen words matter. Someone, somewhere, is waiting on an answer.

I am not making light of this. I understand that it is amazing that Poets & Writers has chosen to use its resources to encourage writers and the artistic programs and community organizations that support writers and their readers. Knowing such an organization exists and understanding all the tangible ways they support the life of letters in this country should quell any worrying writer's fears about writing into a void. There are people out there, and they care about writers' ability to carry on.

Now, all the writer has to do is find the time to write.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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

Ken Waldman has six full-length poetry collections, a children's book of Alaska-set acrostic poems, and a memoir about his work as a touring artist. His nine CDs combine old-time Appalachian-style string-band music with original poetry. A former college professor with an MFA in creative writing, he's made his living as a freelance writer, musician, performer, and educator since 1995.

This past November, Burlingham Books in rural Perry, New York, sponsored a Poets & Writers workshop and reading. At 5:30 on a chilly Tuesday evening, eleven of us gathered around a makeshift table in a corner of the bookstore. For ninety-minutes, we discussed our writing lives amidst four writing exercises. At 7:00 PM, I walked to another corner of the store, this time to stand before approximately thirty-five people, one of whom I'd learned was a local fiddler and violinmaker. To begin, I took out my fiddle, played a tune, then went into one of my collections and found a sonnet, The Violinmakers. After nodding to my new acquaintance, I shared the poem I'd written about his craft.

The fifty-minute reading was followed by a short question-and-answer session. All this was fine, but what made this event more special is that it enabled me to spend the following day at Letchworth Central High School, where I led a short assembly for 350 students, faculty, and staffers, then visited seven English classes. The daylong school visit, which was funded separately, would not have happened without the support of Burlingham Books and Poets & Writers.

What's instructive is explaining how the Perry bookstore event came to be.

Six months earlier I'd been invited by The Stage, a theatre in neighboring Warsaw, New York, for a Poets & Writers workshop and reading. Ahead of schedule that Sunday afternoon, I'd detoured through Perry specifically to stop in Burlingham Books, where I happened to meet a part-time employee, Melissa Stroud, an English teacher at a nearby high school. Before leaving the store, I gave Melissa a few of my books and CDs, as well as several sheets explaining my work in schools.

Later that month, when a library in Geneseo, in adjacent Livingston County, also secured Poets & Writers funding to host me, Melissa attended both the workshop and the reading. Subsequently, it was through her efforts that I was invited to Burlingham Books, and to her school, where I understood it had been five years since a visiting artist of any kind had come, and a longer time since a practicing, published writer had appeared. In this case, I not only stood answering questions in front of classes that had been reading my poems as preparation for my visit, but when I shared poems before the whole school, the assemblage included the high school principal and the school district superintendent.

One more thing about the Perry appearance. It was heartening that among the attendees of both the workshop and readings were folks who'd previously seen me in Warsaw. So, while I expect to return to the region in 2013, it's also my understanding that it won't be such a long time before another writer comes to Letchworth Central High School, perhaps again in conjunction with a Poets & Writers event.

Photo: Ken Waldman.  Photo Credit: Kate Wool.

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.

PW-funded poet Camille Dungy blogs about the daily life of writers and the role Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops program plays in that life. Dungy is a professor in the Creative Writing Department at San Francisco State University. She has published three collections of poetry—Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press), winner of the 2010 Crab Orchard Open Book Prize; Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press); and What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (Red Hen Press).

Camille DungyIf you are reading this post you may be interested in understanding more about the life of the writer. What is it we do all day?

I'll tell you: We answer questions.

That's about all we do. We see something and we ask a question about it, and then we write towards our best answer to that question. Or, someone asks us a question, and we don't know the answer right away, and we write toward our best answer. Or we get angry, or sad, or irrationally happy, and we want to work our way away from or back into that emotion. Did JFK really love Jackie? What color would you say is prominent in that sunset? Why don't they understand climate change isn't a joke? We wouldn't be writers if we didn't live with a stockpile of questions awaiting our response. What was she thinking when she drove away from that job? What was she thinking when she drove into the valley. What was she thinking? What?

The Poets & Writers Readings/Workshops program is all about helping writers. When P&W co-sponsors a program, community arts organizations kick in a portion of a reader's fee and then P&W matches that sum. Have you ever wondered what was in those white envelopes people hand to workshop facilitators at the end of a seminar? I'm telling you the secret now: At the end of every Poets & Writers co-sponsored program, writers receive a check stapled to a questionnaire printed on salmon-colored paper and an envelope in which to return the questionnaire. P&W asks writers a slew of questions, and they encourage them to write their answers down.

Questions, questions, questions. These are what we writers dream of all day.

The front side of the questionnaire is easy. Did you get paid? How many people attended the event? Your audience was made up of people representing what ages, ethnicities, etc.? Were your books sold? Was the publicity acceptable? Would you work with these people again? One-word answers can suffice: yes, 5049, mixed, yes, yes, yes. There is no room for elaboration on that first page.

But that's one of the most important things writers do all day, we have to develop elaborate answers. Writers read more into the world than is immediately evident. Vanilla ice cream only has to be plain if you do not push yourself to taste the nuances of the vanilla bean, the variations in the consistency of the cream, to feel the coldness on your inner cheek, and conceptualize the heat transference that made the bite you just took melt over your tongue. Do I like vanilla ice cream? Yes, I could write. Or I could write much, much more.

So, it's generous that Poets & Writers, as part of their mission to support writers, provides a second page on their questionnaire with a series of complicated questions requiring elaboration: Describe the event, including the event program and the audience response. How effective was the sponsoring organization in presenting this event? Are there ways the organization could better assist readers or workshop teachers? What was the impact of receiving support from Poets & Writers on your experience of this event, your career as a writer, your relationship with your audience, etc?

If I could figure out really good answers to these questions, I could write a whole book.

That's what we do all day as writers. We ask ourselves, how am I going to write a whole book? Then we go looking for answers.

Photo: Camille Dungy.  Photo credit: Marcia Wilson/Wide Vision Photography.

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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