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Readings & Workshops Blog

Recently, Poets & Writers awarded one poet and one fiction writer with a trip to New York to meet with editors, agents, and other literary professionals as part of the California Writers Exchange contest. The winning poet, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo of Los Angeles, blogs about her experience from NYC. (Stay tuned for another post from winning fiction writer Laura Joyce Davis as well!)

Contest winners and Deborah Treisman.The invaluable gift this trip has given me is confidence to know that I am moving in the right direction, and that as long as I keep working on my writing, I will reach my goals. Being able to walk into the offices of The New Yorker has been a crazy experience, but it has also shown me that everyone is in this “business” because they love books, and everyone works extremely hard to put out their best work because of that love. Often this work will be thankless, but as New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman told me, “Don’t be afraid to be rejected.”

Opportunities like this trip will be far and few between, but hopefully, I can remember the glow of this moment when I am back at my desk agonizing over a poem that refuses to go my way. In that moment I can remember how Alice Quinn, the Poetry Society of America’s executive director, recited poetry to me, sounds dancing on her tongue, with a giant smile, and know that there are people out there hungry and excited for poetry. The next time I cry over my computer, I can think of New Directions editor Jeffrey Yang, who told me when he wrote the last poem of his collection Aquarium, he wept as he wrote the lines, and know that I am not alone. Or when I’m struggling to have my book published, I can remember that there are Johnny Temples in the world who started Akashic Books because he liked cool books, and is always looking for something exciting.

The New Yorker is looking, Akashic is looking, A Public Space is looking, Poetry Society of America is looking. All I have to do is be fearless in putting my work out there because eventually it will link up with someone who is looking for just what I am sending. When I look at it that way, it doesn’t feel so ominous. There is a publisher, there is a magazine that is looking for me, I just have to find them. And that goes for all of us.

You may remember that in my previous blog post, I asked each guest two questions. Here are some more fun answers:

Q: As a reader, what is the first book you remember getting swept up in?

Jeffery Yang (editor, New Directions): A Tree Within by Octavio Paz.

Brigid Hughes (founding editor, A Public Space): Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder; The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath; The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

Brett Fletcher Lauer (poetry editor, A Public Space): Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume.

Alice Quinn (executive director, Poetry Society of America): The Children’s Hour #9 edited by Marjorie Barrows. It was devoted to poetry. I remember reading “The Barefoot Boy” and Robert Browning.

Aurora Anaya-Cerda (independent bookseller, La Casa Azul Bookstore): It has to be Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. That was THE book.

Deborah Treisman (fiction editor, The New Yorker): When I was young, Oxford Book of Poetry for Children. I called it “the purple book.” In high school, it was Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov.

Johnny Temple (independent publisher, Akashic Books): Honestly, it was probably something like a Nancy Drew book. My mom would know.

Q: Besides reading and writing, what is an activity that is important to your writing/creative work?

Jeffery Yang: My mental health [is important]. I run a lot.

Brigid Hughes: Walking.

Brett Fletcher Lauer: Watching the Kardashians.

Alice Quinn: I try to memorize a poem almost everyday while I walk the dog in the morning.

Aurora Anaya-Cerda: Performing arts, going to museums, going to the theatre. It feeds my soul.

Deborah Treisman: Staying up on current events. Knowing what’s going on.

Johnny Temple: Can I say my music? The Caribbean. Traveling to book festivals in the Caribbean. The Calabash in Jamaica (and other festivals) is my favorite thing in the world of books that isn’t writing.

Photo: From left: Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, Deborah Treisman, Laura Joyce Davis. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.
The California Writers Exchange contest is made possible by a generous grant from the James Irvine Foundation. For more information on the contest, visit here.

P&W-funded Regie Cabico is the coeditor, with poet and novelist Brittany Fonte, of the recently published anthology of queer poetry and spoken word, Flicker and Spark (Lowbrow Press). His own work has appeared in over thirty anthologies, including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, Spoken Word Revolution, and Chorus & The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. He received the 2006 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers for his work teaching at-risk youth at Bellevue Hospital in New York. He is a former Artist in Residence at NYU's Asian Pacific American Studies Program and has served as faculty at Banff's Spoken Word Program. He resides in Washington, D.C.

For the last three years, I have been working with the D.C. Commission for the Arts on Poetry Out Loud, A National Poetry Recitation Competition. This year, I have worked primarily with McKinley Technological High School and Latin Public Charter School. My job is to help students find their unique interpretations of poetry selected by Poetry Out Loud. The competition goes from local high school, to the state level, and then to the national competition.

I am amazed by the students’ choices of poems: What lures a teen poet to John Keats or Anne Bradstreet? Students in the state and national competitions must memorize three poems and one of the poems has to be from the nineteenth century. For a long time, I resisted Poetry Out Loud as a contest that was removed from the poetry slam. I thought that the required poems were antiquated and out of touch with the students' racial and/or economic backgrounds.

For decades, I taught at-risk teens at Bellevue hospital with Tina Jacobson. I know that young people can write and perform poetry that is closer to their experience and also ends up giving voice to unrepresented and marginalized youth. I am inspired by the librarian Sarah Elwell, who is a magnet for students. Ms. Elwell tirelessly brings speakers and artists to the library to inspire them. Lisa Pegram is a teacher with whom I have worked as D.C. youth slam coach. Ms. Pegram aka Lady Pcoq is a musician, poet, and playwright who gets to engage her students in artistic explorations through the Poetry Out Loud program.

Ms. Pegram and I have students record themselves on their iPhones, create broadsides of their poems, and categorize each word of their poems by noun and verb so that they are able to understand every word they're memorizing. With Ms. Elwell, I have turned the library into a literary and performance playground. The goal is to get students to live the poem and dive into the world of the images they are reciting. I have to get them to engage in the musicality of the text and also create a story for them to fall into.

On March 5, 2013, I prepped students at McKinley High School. The Daughters of the American Revolution, the D.C. Public Library, and the Washington Teachers Union were represented as judges. Fifteen students competed, and the poems moved quickly because poems were short, unlike a slam where there is a three minute limit.

Then, it moved from fifteen to six poets. I had worked with all of the six poets but one. Students got up and forgot lines, but the student body was supportive. In the end, Tshala Pajibo, an eleventh grader, won. She was not the most polished performer, but Ms. Pajibo exhibited focus and made a physical stomp and her vocal strength, as well as her dynamic performance choices, made the audience jump. She performed Maya Angelou's poem, "I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings." When I worked with Ms. Pajibo, I asked her to "visualize" the bird and tell the story of the bird.

Ultimately, there is a value to taking something that you did not write and interpreting and finding a story in it. There is value in memorizing Emily Dickinson or William Blake in order to move through history and time. It brings a lineage to a slam poet's performance. It encourages them to write outside of the box, and it provides another set of diction for the artists to use. One of the categories in the individual poetry slam competition is the “One Minute Poem.” Poetry Out Loud is full of poems twenty-five lines and under. I hope poets who are working on their one-minute poems will take a look at these poems for inspiration. As a former musical theater major, I had to find songs that I could perform well for auditions. I have as much joy finding poems that suit me. I would love to perform the work of Robert Creeley, Stuart Dybek, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Who knew? I am grateful to Carlyn Madden at the D.C. Commission for the Arts who brings so much care to arts in education in Washington D.C.

Photo: Regie Cabico. Credit: Carlos Rodriguez.

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

Recently, Poets & Writers awarded one poet and one fiction writer with a trip to New York to meet with editors, agents, and other literary professionals as part of the California Writers Exchange contest. The winning fiction writer, Laura Joyce Davis of Oakland, blogs about her experience from NYC. (Stay tuned for another post from poet Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo as well!)

Laura Joyce Davis, Deborah Garrison, Xochitl-Julisa BermejoI am living a writer’s dream.

We’ve only been in New York for a few days, but we’ve packed in weeks of writerly wisdom, months of ideas to contemplate. The agents, editors, and writers Xochitl and I have met have been generous, thoughtful, and helpful. Writers, there is hope as long as these good people are here!

On Monday we met with Deborah Garrison, an editor at both Pantheon and Knopf. She told us about her fifteen years at the New Yorker, where she personally read through the “slush pile” of submissions and always hoped to find a voice unlike any other. It’s the same perspective she brings to her work now, whether reading poetry, fiction, or non-fiction. She said that the most important thing for a writer is to be true to oneself, to write what you must—not the story you think will be marketable. She said that the best writers appreciate editing that makes them better, and that they know how to recognize good advice without getting defensive. This is the reason I’m not interested in self-publishing: I want to learn from someone like Garrison, to become a better writer because of the perspective she can show me. Julia Glass calls Garrison an “incredible editor,” and now I understand why.

When I met Tea Obreht (author of The Tiger’s Wife) last week at the AWP writer’s conference, she told me that her agent Seth Fishman was amazing—not just a great agent who works hard, but also a really nice guy. She was right. I met Fishman on Monday, and he immediately put me at ease, but also gave great advice. Keep publishing in literary journals, he said, because the people reading those journals are the same people who are going to buy your book. He also emphasized that authors should do everything they can to get the entire publishing staff excited about their books; editors sometimes move to other jobs, but your book will be okay if you have a team of people rooting for it. Fishman is a relatively young agent, but he’s made an impressive start to his career in a short time.

On Tuesday I met with Gail Hochman (agent for Michael Cunningham and Julia Glass). “I’ve been doing this for a hundred years,” she said. Looking at the towers of papers in her office and hearing about clients who have called her while she was in the airport or the maternity ward, I don’t doubt that she’s packed a hundred years of work into the thirty-plus years she’s been doing this. She talked about the challenges of selling books, about how a story and its characters have to grab the reader in the first few pages or it won’t sell. When I asked her what she wished every young writer knew, she said to remember that everyone reading your book (even your agent) is a real person; they have a full life beyond their work with you, so cut them some slack.

It’s been a true gift to meet with people like Garrison, Fishman, and Hochman. I hope I get to the opportunity to work with some of them. But even if I don’t, they’ve given me a little more faith in the world of writing, and on any day, that’s worth a lot.

Photo: (left to right) Laura Joyce Davis, Deborah Garrison, and Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo.

The California Writers Exchange contest is made possible by a generous grant from the James Irvine Foundation.

Recently, Poets & Writers awarded one poet and one fiction writer with a trip to New York to meet with editors, agents, and other literary professionals as part of the California Writers Exchange contest. The winning poet, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo of Los Angeles, blogs about her experience from NYC. (Stay tuned for a post from winning fiction writer Laura Joyce Davis as well!)

Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo with fellow writers.It is now 4:41 p.m., I’m sitting in my room on the seventh floor of the Gershwin Hotel in Midtown, and I have to be in the lobby ready to go to my first New York reading by 6 p.m. I got back to my room at 10:30 last night after a delicious Indian dinner with Yale Younger Poet Eduardo C. Corral, my fellow contest winner Laura Joyce Davis, and staff from Poets & Writers. Eduardo laughed at the lamb chops I ordered over dinner: “You know how to do it.”

But now I have only a little over an hour before I must make my way through the cold and ugly rain that has burst onto Manhattan Island today in order to get to the Center for Fiction for the reading. This is how the trip has been since we landed Sunday night: a whirlwind, a storm.

So what do I say? I can say that spending the last two days talking poetry and literature with fabulous people over fabulous food has been, well, fabulous. A definite highlight was sharing a glass of wine with Yusef Komunyakaa at a little corner café and as we talked about theatre, Son Jarocho, and poetry. But so much of this trip has been a highlight. Getting to sit in on a meeting with a real New York lit agent with a no-bull attitude, papers on her desk piled to her chin, was other-worldly. It has all felt unreal, and every once in awhile I have a little giggle to myself and think, I can’t believe this is happening. 

Eduardo C. Corral talks about running in the cotton fields around his home in Casa Grande, Arizona, as a child and imagining it was snow. He remembers shivering in the middle of August and even asking his mother for a coat. Matthea Harvey remembers chasing fairies in the hedges around her house, and fantasizing about glow-in-the-dark teddy bears that she wished were hers. Yusef Komunyakaa shares a story about watching an eighty-year-old woman dance Son Jarocho and believes it is the first time he has seen duende in the flesh. These are the memories I will take back to Los Angeles with me.

But then there is the quiet moment I enter my hotel room and throw off my coat. The moment I am alone, and my heart and eyes almost instantaneously swell. I breathe and really take in everything that has been going on around me. I’m truly lucky to have this moment and all the moments that brought me to this one. And I can’t stop feeling thankful. Thankful to Poets & Writers, thankful to my friends who keep texting me good luck for tonight, to the L.A. poets that always have my back, to my parents who have always encouraged me pursue my dreams. I feel like a silly little girl, but all I can really say right now is thank you.

And, just for something a little fun, here are two questions I’ve been asking everyone, along with their answers.

Q: As a reader, what is the first book you remember getting swept up in?

Deborah Garrison (literary editor at Knopf and Pantheon): It’s a little embarrassing, but The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilders. I’m rereading it right now with my youngest. I’ve read it at least eight times.

Eduardo C. Corral (poet): To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Gail Hochman (literary agent): Little Women by Luisa May Alcott. No question about it.

Matthea Harvey (poet and children’s book author): Fantastic Toys by Monika Bisner. I remember lying in bed and wondering if I could have one toy, which one would I choose?

Q: Besides reading and writing, what is an activity that is important to your writing?

Deborah Garrison: Commuting, walking. There are not a lot of places that I can be contemplative. Walking the dog; times when I am unplugged.

Yusef Komunyakaa (poet): Maybe shooting pool.

Eduardo C. Corral: For me, in New York City, walking around, listening, dragging your finger against a wall. Being in the city.

Matthea Harvey: Going to art museums and galleries. Walking around the city. Taking photographs of nothing particular.

Photo: From left: P&W staff member Jamie FitzGerald, Laura Joyce Davis, Yusef Komunyakaa, Xochitl-Julisa Bermejo, and P&W Staff member Cathy Linh Che.

The California Writers Exchange contest is made possible by a generous grant from the James Irvine Foundation. For more information on the contest, visit here.

P&W-funded Regie Cabico is the coeditor, with poet and novelist Brittany Fonte, of the recently published anthology of queer poetry and spoken word, Flicker and Spark (Lowbrow Press). His own work has appeared in over thirty anthologies, including Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Café, Spoken Word Revolution, and Chorus & The Outlaw Bible of American Poetry. He received the 2006 Writers for Writers Award from Poets & Writers for his work teaching at-risk youth at Bellevue Hospital in New York. He is a former Artist in Residence at NYU's Asian Pacific American Studies Program and has served as faculty at Banff's Spoken Word Program. He resides in Washington, D.C.

I recently flew to Oakland to jump-start the debut of Cupid Ain’t @#$%!: An Anti-Valentine’s Day Poetry Movement. The series, started by J. Mase the III, has a strong, queer spoken-word bent, with poets of color and queer allies coming together to rail not just about love, but also about political identity through a humor and candor that you don’t get in a lot of poetry readings. In its fifth year, the series has gone to Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and Oakland. Having performed as a gay Filipino poet for the last twenty years, it occurred to me that the Cupid Movement is giving voice to a queer culture that embraces queer allies and also fosters an intergenerational queer positive environment.

I flew in from Washington, D.C., and into The Living Room Project, an Oakland-based organization devoted to healing, wellness, and serving the queer community. I rode the BART with poet Baruch Porras Hernandez, who curates the Queer Open Mic, the longest running series in the Bay. We were later joined by J. Mase, who flew in from Chicago, as well as trans comedian Natasha Muse. The Cupid show brought in an intimate crowd of a dozen or so: mainly queer folks who heard about the show from queer artists they had been following from New York. Deb Malkin, a college friend and her girlfriend, Cholla Soledad, showed up and made the reading a Valentine’s Day compromise—since Cholla is an anti-V-day cupid-downer. Deb is a Libra romantic. As a poet who performs constantly, you never know who will come or how many folks will show up.

Mase’s poem “Neighbor” was a big hit. The poem is about a homophobic neighbor who gives Mase nasty stares: “Queer people fuck better...and you know it because you live next door...to me.” Baruch’s poem on being “thin” is the best queer poem on body image: “If I were thin I would move a pile of needles naked from one room to another...and sleep with so many skinny boys in my bed because I’d be thin and we can lie in a line on the bed...” Natasha Muse broke her stand-up set into progressions during which she spoke of coming out as trans, starting out as Ewan McGregor and then ending up looking like Nicole Kidman, so watching Moulin Rouge hits her in a very personal way. Natasha concluded her set by talking about becoming a mom and living with her female spouse. The evening had some of the best comedic queer material that I have come across. The owner of The Living Room Project, Micah Hobbes, was impressed by the talent and acknowledged humor as a healing tool.

Photos: (Top) Regie Cabico. Credit: Carlos Rodriguez (Bottom) From left to right: J Mase III, Natasha Muse, Baruch Porras-Hernandez, Regie Cabico.

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

Jennifer Karminmultidisciplinary projects have been presented at festivals, artist-run spaces, and on city streets across the United States, Japan, Kenya, and Europe. A founding curator of the Red Rover Series, she is the author of the text-sound epic Aaaaaaaaaaalice (Flim Forum Press, 2010) and her poetry was recently published in I'll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing by Women (Les Figues Press, 2012). Jennifer teaches in the Creative Writing program at Columbia College Chicago and at Truman College, where she works with immigrants as a community educator. She will be a guest faculty member at Naropa University in the summer of 2013.

With fellow poet Laura Goldstein, I curate the Red Rover Series (readings that play with reading). Founded in 2005, each Chicago event is designed as a reading experiment with participation by local, national, and international writers, artists, and performers. To date, we have hosted over sixty events featuring a diversity of renowned creative minds. The Readings/Workshops program at Poets & Writers has helped support many of our programs in the past few years.

Here are Laura and I in dialogue about our curation:

Karmin: From the beginning with co-founder Amina Cain and our subsequent curator Lisa Janssen, Red Rover has tried to create an environment where anything can happen and often does. Our audience never exactly knows what they're walking into. We're interested in an interdisciplinary approach to events. This often includes nonliterary genres, audience participation, exploring a theme, and playing with seating in the space.

Goldstein: I really think that our series looks at all the elements of a typical series and tries to experiment with them in order to engage an audience with being as aware as possible about what they are experiencing. How are the words presented? How do I relate to the other readers tonight? How can I incorporate the space? How can I incorporate the audience? I think that these elements are taken for granted at a lot of readings.

Karmin: We see the curator as a facilitator of group experience for the writers, artists, and audience members. This is one way we're trying to challenge the usual hierarchies that often play out in the literary and art world. Our main mode of operation is collaboration.

Goldstein: Sometimes people send us proposals as a group, and those are usually a pre-packaged deal. Those writers have been in contact so they come up with a title based on their proposed experiment. If we get individual proposals, we connect the performers and ask them to communicate a bit about what connects their ideas.

Karmin: To experiment is to try something new. To move out of your comfort zone. It's a kind of creative freedom where there's no success or failure.

Goldstein: We call them experiments because whoever is producing the poetry is asked to experiment with the ideas surrounding the work and turn that into a mode of presentation. We also like to call them experiments because there is less pressure on the participants to have something "perfect" or "complete"...it's just something that we are encouraging writers to try out in the community.

As part of the 2013 IN>TIME Festival, Red Rover Series brought the writers of Black Took Collective to Chicago for three February events. Co-Founded in 1999 by Duriel E. Harris, Dawn Lundy Martin, and Ronaldo V. Wilson at Cave Canem, a retreat for African American poets, Black Took Collective is a group of Black posttheorists who perform and write in hybrid experimental forms, embracing radical poetics and cutting-edge critical theory about race, gender, and sexuality. We happily received support from Poets & Writers, Creative Writing at the University of Chicago, Arts + Public Life at the University of Chicago, the Creative Writing Programs at Columbia College Chicago, and the Writing Program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Thoughts on Black Took Collective’s recent Chicago visit:

J’Sun Howard, writer and dance artist: Two Macbooks with blank documents open for the audience to read periodic automatic writing from the collective, as the piece went along, spread across opposite walls from each other. The third wall facing the audience housed another projection that was a small phantasmagoric video of smiling faces behind a clear makeup-ed mask, Wilson dancing while Lundy read, and more text in bold white letters contrasted eerily with the sleekness, absoluteness, and unfussiness of the other automatic writing projections. In the center of the floor, a table held all the equipment and was flooded with microphones, water bottles, more text, poetry books, props of a gun, and a black mask.

Kenyatta Rogers, poet and teacher: At the Black Took events, I found myself engaged in an experience that combined multiple voices and mediums to give me a different vision of myself as a Black man and in some senses a ‘thing’ to be feared or misunderstood.

Jen Besemer, poet and artist: Dear Plurality of One/s, To say yes and. I can't put any of my questions into words, can only nod my kangol head as the talk happens. I am obsessed with that gun, like ‘is that thing loaded, little caps, what?’ I want to move, too. The words I can't say in the audience I could say onstage. Now why is that? I thank you.

Laura Goldstein:

our bond as an audience in the blue light, paper is hung, within
letters skip, turn into that knot ronaldo was taking about. what fits
in frame. duriel's fairy tale: feel skin, found doubt, in you. each for
each. and dawn the tone and tongue. gently peel back the sack, give heart attack.

At the end of Black Took Collective’s evening of performance, I lead a short tribute to poet, performer, and activist Jayne Cortez, who died on December 28, 2012. Calling for five volunteers from the audience, we presented a choral reading of the Cortez poem "Find Your Own Voice". One by one, I tapped the readers on their shoulders and asked each to start reading. Listening to the voices spontaneously weave together, I was reminded that curating is often a form of making a live collage and witnessing the ways creative community gets formed.

Photo: (from top) Jennifer Karmin. Credit: Amina Cain. Ronald V. Wilson, Dawn Lundy Martin. Credit: Laura Goldstein. Duriel E. Harris. Credit: Laura Goldstein.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago 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.

Cybele Knowles works as a program coordinator at the University of Arizona Poetry Center, where she coordinates the PW-funded Center’s Reading and Lecture Series, Classes & Workshops program, and Closer Look Book Club. She holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona and an MA in English from U.C. Berkeley. Her poetry and prose have appeared in the DestroyerSpiral OrbDiagramPindeldyboz, the Asian Pacific American JournalFaucheuse, and the Prose Poem.

In my final post, I’ll share some homage tattoos spied in and around the University of Arizona Poetry Center. These tattoos reference poets, writers, artists, and artworks that have a special significance to the wearer.

My interest in such tattoos originated when poet Philip Jenks came to Tucson in 2010 to appear in our Reading and Lecture Series, a program supported by the Poets & Writers Readings/Workshops program. I knew about Philip’s fabulous tattoo of Emily Dickinson, and asked him if I could take a picture of it. He was gracious enough to allow me to capture his Emily in all her glory.

Philip Jenks

This is a powerful Emily Dickinson, with large hands and a tribal halo. Philip also chose to depict Emily as she might have looked in her later years (the only known photos of Emily are from when she was very young). As you can imagine, encountering Philip and his Emily sparked in me an interest in other tattoos that reference loved writers, artists, and artworks. It turns out that such tattoos are everywhere at the Poetry Center, on the bodies of our visitors, volunteers, colleagues, friends, and patrons. Here are just a few homage tattoos I’ve discovered at the Poetry Center. With each image is a statement from the wearer about the origin, history, or personal significance of the tattoo.

Zachary Schomburg: Poet, Editor, and Poetry Center Visiting Poet (October 2012).

Zachary Schomburg

“Much of the history of this Aram Saroyan poem was spent at the center of political controversy over the value of public funding for the arts, but now it represents more of a marker of that successful resistance. This tattoo then embodies not only my commitment to poetry, this unbound experiment of language that the poem itself embodies, but also its defense. Plus, it is an entire poem I can fit on my wrist. I’m sure I’m one of many with this poem on my body, but I wear it also in unison with two of my good friends, Mathias Svalina and Joshua Marie Wilkinson. We share a Frank Stanford line too. I’m developing this compulsion of wanting to be completely covered with language and images. Tattoos and pens. I like writing on myself. When I write on myself with a pen, it quickly disappears. Without this particular photo, I wouldn’t have ever remembered writing that scribble on my hand. I think it says, ‘Maybe everybody is trying to kill me and failing.’ I don’t know if I ever called TS. Who is TS? Some owls? My fingernails are dirty.”

Kate Bernheimer: Writer, Editor, and Poetry Center Colleague/Teacher/Friend.

Kate Bernheimer

“I used to live in Portland, Oregon, and every winter I would come spend around a month in the Tucson Mountains, out near the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, at my friend Lydia Millet’s place. I had to get out of the rain and I revere the high desert. Lydia had renovated what was basically a trailer into a compound of sorts and had space for a guest among the many creatures and incredible botany there. We would work from sunrise to sunset—we would write for more than eight hours, it was serious bliss—and then we would have drinks in her kitchen with the lights out and watch javelinas feast on a quail block. As we wrote, I could hear Lydia chortling at her computer at the other end of the house. Her laughter carried me through the end of my first two novels. In 2000, the year she wrote My Happy Life (and chortled through it, which is hilarious because it’s a terribly heartbreaking book), I completed The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold. The day I finished the novel, we drove over Gate’s Pass into downtown Tucson and I got my tattoo on Fourth Avenue after having a vodka and soda at Plush, though I’m not sure if it was called Plush at the time. I think so. I had just the one drink, I wasn’t drunk. I had planned on getting a tattoo of the word ‘Mom’ written inside a winged heart, to match Lydia’s, but at the last minute I decided on the angel with chicken feet. The tattoo is a version of an illustration by Alexander Alexeieff that appears on the title page of Russian Fairy Tales, collected by Aleksandr Afanasev and translated by Norbert Guterman. She also appears in The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold—a description of her, not a picture. Portions of the novel are based on the tales in that book, and I had the book with me when we left Lydia’s spread in the desert and went into town. I pretty much took it everywhere I went, at the time, along with a collection of Brothers Grimm tales. Both have now completely fallen apart.”

TC Tolbert: Poet, Assistant Director of Casa Libre en la Solana, and Poetry Center Friend.

TC Tolbert

“I got this tattoo of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain just as I was beginning my gender transition from female to something less visibly female (also often called male but, unlike many trans folks, I don’t identify as male, I identify as trans—anyway). At the time I was in grad school for poetry, reading Poems for the Millennium, and it was Mallarmé, then Dada, that gave me a poetic lens for my body. And, in turn, my (trans and genderqueer) body gave me a physical/spatial lens for my poetic work. It is not an exaggeration to say that I transitioned partly because the avant-gardes (plural, as Richard Kostelanetz points out) gave me permission to interrupt the narrative, the confidence to experiment with form. Trans and queer coming-out stories are important to me, but even more encouraging, and less prescriptive, has been the work of Gertrude Stein, Stéphane Mallarmé, Marcel Duchamp, Trisha Brown, Shen Wei, and C.D. Wright. Fountain embodies Cage’s dictum: It’s lighter than you think. I needed that. I still do. To remember that my body (my bodies) is (are) a readymade—that I actually have very little idea of the different things it is, it can become, it can do. It’s also fascinating to see how different people read the piece. Among the many guesses: an athletic cup (jock strap), a regular old urinal, a hunk of roast beef, a steak. Judith Butler says that one ‘exists’ not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable. So too for the trans body, the experimental poem.”

Cameron Louie: Poet and Poetry Center Advisory Board Member.

Cameron Louie

Ad astra per alas porci: ‘to the stars on the wings of a pig.’ The Pigasus is, in a sense, John Steinbeck’s truest signature. It symbolized him, and I think it symbolizes all of us who try at writing, as ‘lumbering souls but trying to fly.’ It is an impossible thing, and imaginary. Most importantly, while riding the Pigasus, one gains the gift of poesy...”

Adam Kullberg: Nonfiction Writer and Poetry Center Volunteer.

Adam Kullberg

“I didn’t read Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, on which this tattoo was based, until I was in my early 20s. But when I did I found myself fascinated with his use of the Martian landscape—a place I viewed as foreign, lifeless—to convey the beauty, as well as the ugliness, of the world in which I lived. I meant for this tattoo, through its watercolor style and surreal landscape, to convey one of the strengths I find in all of Bradbury’s short stories and novels: that he speaks to both the artist and the child, the ordinary and the fantastic, the real and the magical, that are tethered to each of us.”

Mike Powell: Fiction Writer and Poetry Center Volunteer.

Mike Powell

“This tattoo is of a muted post horn, the symbol of an underground mail-delivery service in Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49. I got it when I was 19 or 20 in a strip mall next to a sushi restaurant near the edge of Charlottesville, Virginia. I imagine that some people get tattoos of images they think are singular or uniquely expressive. Part of the reason for getting this tattoo is precisely that I knew other people who already had it: friends of friends of friends, cousins of friends of friends, strangers I’d met at parties. It wasn’t a mark of separation, but of connection. Plus, while I’m not particularly attached to physical mail or mail delivery, I liked the idea that the symbol belonged to an underground mail-delivery service, which seemed like an elegant metaphor for both the romantic appeal of subculture but also the superfluity of it. (The USPS has always served me just fine.) Twice or so a year, I meet people with the same tattoo. I’d be lying if I said it brought me closer to them, necessarily. Not all groups are predicated on spiritual kinship. For these people I reserve a quiet smile, and take heart in the idea that we know something, however irrelevant, that other people don’t. (My other tattoo is of the now-extinct Tasmanian tiger.)”

Laura Miller: Fiction Writer and Poetry Center Volunteer.

Laura Miller

“When I was feeling as if I’d never be a legitimate writer, a Steinbeck or a Chekhov, science fiction showed me the writer’s imagination cracked open on the page and gave me a way forward. This tattoo is from the first science fiction film, Le Voyage dans la Lune, and I love the harshness of the film: the un-romanticized depiction of space, the moon-image characterizing man’s capacity for destruction. I worked closely with the tattoo artist to retain that gruesome quality. The moon paradox, a symbol of darkness, of mother, of spiritual guidance, is something I think about a great deal in my fiction. Moons have—since childhood—haunted me.”

Thanks to Philip, Zach, Kate, TC, Cameron, Adam, Mike, and Laura for sharing their homage tattoos, some of their favorite authors and artists, and their stories with me!

Photo Credit: Cybele Knowles.
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.

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