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Readings & Workshops Blog

In November, P&W-supported writer Douglas Kearney gave a reading at The Art League and led a workshop at Project Row Houses in Houston, which he writes about below. Kearney is a poet/performer/librettist based in Southern California’s Santa Clarita Valley, where he lives with his family and teaches at California Institute of the Arts. His second collection, The Black Automaton (Fence Books 2009), was a National Poetry Series selection. Red Hen Press will publish Patter in 2014.

Douglas KearneyBack in April, I had a Skype exchange with poet/activist John Pluecker and a poetry group he led at Project Row Houses in Houston’s Third Ward. It went well enough that JP decided to get me down there to do a reading and workshop. Cool. I hadn’t been to Houston in a minute and hadn’t done much touring in the South to promote The Black Automaton. He was awarded funds from the Readings/Workshops program, which, with help from Project Row Houses, was enough to fly me down and provide a stipend. The reading was slated for Kaboom Books and the workshop, for Project Row Houses. Straightforward. But. BUT! It just so happened Houston was a great big X on the African-American Arts treasure map on November 16, 2012. Contemporary Arts Museum Houston was opening “Radical Presence: Black Performance in Contemporary Art” and The Art League was opening STACKS, a group exhibition of emerging artists curated by Robert Pruitt for five week-long residencies.

JP has his finger on the pulse of such things and wondered whether we might be able to tap in to the visual arts audiences and more of the African-American folks he hoped would come to my reading at Kaboom. So, with a week to go before the reading, hatched a plan, he did. He asked Kaboom whether they might be willing to give me up that evening. With their gracious permission, he contacted Pruitt about creating some kind of collaboration that would allow me to join the Art League artists for their opening. With his enthusiastic blessing, JP contacted me. It happened I know Pruitt’s work from a commission connected to Studio Museum in Harlem’s 2005–6 Frequency show.

So, yeah, I was interested.

The Art League opening, which featured artists Jamal Cyrus, Nathaniel Donnett, Autumn Knight, Phillip Pyle II, and M'kina Tapscott, involved a woodchipper and the woodchipper’s effect on objects that signify Blackness®. We decided I would perform eulogies for some of these objects. I thought it would be a nice processual kick in the behind to compose new work for the occasion. After all, preachers don’t get much time to write them. Ultimately, I eulogized a pair of sneakers, an afro pick, a box of Nag Champa, some bootleg t-shirts with hip hop memes on them, and a Malcolm X X-hat. You can see the ceremony here.

The next afternoon, I did a more traditional reading (with digital projector and audio) at Project Row Houses and then launched into a workshop with JP’s group, about twenty strong. The workshop—Unsung & Remixed: Using Song Lyrics in Poems—continued the multimedia/interdisciplinary theme of the visit, directing participants to write poems using Afaa Michael Weaver’s Bop form; integrate parodies of a song they were sick of; or compose a “cover” of a song they loved. An eight-year-old brought the house down and a sixty-something-year-old built it back up.

The Readings/Workshops program in conjunction with a coalition of Houston’s arts community made a fantastic trip possible. Excellent! Plus, I got to eat BBQ. Y’all need a Readings/Workshops/BBQ program. Trill.

Photo: Douglas Kearney. Credit: Eric Plattner.

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.

Kristen E. Nelson is a founder and the Executive Director of Casa Libre en la Solana, a non-profit writing center in Tucson, Arizona. P&W has co-sponsored the center's Weekend Residency program for the past four years. Nelson is the author of Write, Dad (Unthinkable Creatures Chapbook Press, 2012), and has recently published work in Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Tarpaulin Sky Journal, Trickhouse, Dinosaur Bees, and Everyday Genius.
 
What makes your organization and its programs unique?
The mission of Casa Libre en la Solana is to support and enhance the creativity of professional and novice writers by providing a community venue for classes, readings, and other professional development opportunities.

The diversity of our programs and high level of community involvement is what makes Casa Libre stand out. In addition to our own creative writing workshops and reading/performance series, we provide an event base for many other Tucson groups, including Kore Press, Queer People of Color, Pan Left Productions, Read Between the Bars, and the Tucson Youth Poetry Slam.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
Participants in our program Made for Flight, a transgender youth and ally empowerment workshop series, walked in the annual All Souls Procession in Tucson, a huge community procession to honor the lives of ancestors and loved ones who have passed away.

Made for Flight incorporates transgender history, ally development, creative writing, and kite building to commemorate the lives of the transgender individuals who have been murdered in the last year. TC Tolbert, Casa Libre’s assistant director, began this program three years ago, and this year we had approximately one hundred people show up to help us carry the kites that Tucson youth created in the procession.

It is inspiring to see the large number of allies who show up to lend their support to bringing awareness to the disproportionate number of transgender people (specifically women of color) who are murdered each year.

How do you find and invite writers?
Our organizational structure is a bit like an octopus. Each arm functions independently and in collaboration with the main body of the organization. Each of our programs is curated by a different local writer drawing from a diverse group.

I curate our Weekend Residency programs and through personal or professional connections have invited Camille Dungy, Samuel Ace, Maureen Seaton, and most recently Rebecca Brown to lead a weekend full of workshops and reading series. All of these Weekend Residencies could not have happened without the generous funding provided by Poets & Writers.

How has literary presenting informed your life and writing?
Casa Libre is my life. I live on the grounds in a community of seven households of writers and artists. Since I founded this place nine years ago, the programs and people who are a part of it have shaped who I am. This community is full of thinkers and creators. Every day there are conversations in our courtyards about writing projects, creative inspiration, and new programs. The Casa Libre community extends far beyond our grounds into Tucson and across the country. Passionate people who care about writing and creating come here. This is a nourishing place that I am proud to be a part of and call home.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
The staff and board members of Casa Libre are deeply invested in fostering creativity. We are devoted to honoring and making space for thinking, writing, conversation, art-making, and performance in a world dearly in need of artistic vision, creative solutions, and celebration of the human mind. Because we believe expression is a vital part of nourishing the human spirit, Casa Libre inspires writers and artists to take risks and manifest their artistic dreams.
 
Photo: Kristen E. Nelson. Credit: Sarah Dalby. Photo: Casa Libre's Weekend Residency with Rebecca Brown (at left). Credit: Samuel Ace.
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.

Lee Meitzen Grue lives in downtown New Orleans. Her most recent book of poetry, Downtown, is published by Trembling Pillow Press and is made up of new and selected poems chosen for their reference to the old neighborhoods of New Orleans, including Treme, The French Quarter, Marigny, Bywater, and the Lower Nine. The book is dedicated to her friends and neighbors in the Ninth Ward, who suffered from Katrina. Grue is also former director of the New Orleans Poetry Forum and editor of the New Laurel Review. She teaches writing at the Alvar Library.

I live in the Bywater, which is part of the Ninth Ward. When we moved to the neighborhood after Hurricane Betsy, many residents were moving out. We were able to buy an Edwardian house over one hundred years old. With some renovation, we built a small West Indies–styled building and began The First Backyard Poetry Theatre.  For nineteen years, I directed the New Orleans Poetry Forum Workshop, and we held readings in the theatre until 1991. Since Katrina, we’ve hosted two art shows and continued to host readings with local and internationally known poets and musicians.

I have an MFA in writing but don’t consider myself an academic. I enjoy the world of small presses and teaching in the community. A few years ago, I discovered Poets & Writers was offering grants for readings and workshops in New Orleans. Since the Alvar Library was my neighborhood library in the Ninth Ward, I approached librarian Mary Ann Marx about applying for a grant to host some workshops. Happily she did.

Although the library was flooded after Katrina, and many of its books were ruined, the people of Bywater rallied, remodeled, and revived the library. It now features artwork by neighborhood artists, new books and programs, and a beautiful garden.

The students who attend my workshops range in age from eighteen to eighty-eight, all hues. I teach fiction and poetry classes. For fiction, I get the class writing in the first workshop and ask each writer to talk about their writing.

In poetry classes, I suggest the students read a list of books, which have included The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics, Garrison Keillor’s Good Poems, and Louis Untermeyer’s The Golden Treasury of Poetry, a book that my aunt drove fifty-five miles to Beaumont, Texas, to buy when I started writing poetry at the age of nine. It was the 1940s, but that book included women poets!

We’ve also asked the library to get us books, including Kalamu ya Salaam’s In The Bend of the River and books by Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and Yusef Komunyakaa, who is from Bogalusa, Louisiana. And, I recommend they read Poets & Writers Magazine, to which the library subscribes. 

We’ve collected stories for an anthology we hope to publish. Most remarkable have been the number of older students who have written books: Maggie Colllins has published a number of short stories and her novel Celestial Skies was a finalist for the William Faulkner Writing ContestEdmunc Mazeika published Peace Is Possible online. Sean David Hobbs wrote a memoir about living in Turkey, called Sex and Homeland.

Thanks to Poets & Writers, we’re now the Alvar Writers. And, thanks to Henri, the librarian at the Alvar Library, we're always stocked with a few healthy snacks and some delicious chocolate!

Photo: Lee Meitzen Grue.  Photo credit: Henri Fourroux.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. 

PW-funded poet Thomas Lux blogs about Bill Knott's new collection Selected Poems. Lux is Bourne Professor of Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He has two new books out this fall—the poetry collection Child Made of Sand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and his nonfiction debut From the Southland (Marick Press).

If you want to read the best poems by a poet who’s been struck by lightning at least twenty-two to twenty-three times, and you have $3.94 (three dollars and ninety four cents for a handsomely produced 192 pages!), order this book. The poet is Bill Knott, and the book is Selected Poems. I’ve loved Knott’s poems since I first read The Naomi Poems: Corpse and Beans, as an undergraduate in 1968. Many poems in this book I still think of as the most penetrating short lyrics of the last fifty years or so. I believe I’ve read everything he’s published since then. He’s always shifting, changing, yet always maintaining a sharp poignancy along with having an ear like a fucking angel! He plays, he dodges, and darts. Many of his poems move through me like electric eels. He’s published several books over the years—from BOA, Random House, University of Iowa Press, University of Pittsburgh Press, etc., and, most recently, in 2004, The Unsubscriber, from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Selected Poems opens with a few pages of what I’ll call anti-blurbs. They make a kind of lacerating found poem. “Bill Knott should be beaten with a flail” is one of my favorites. Nullius in verba: Don’t believe anything anyone tells you. It seems Knott’s poems piss some people off. Someone (I think S.J. Perlman) said: “What’s the point of writing if you don’t piss some people off?” Let the reader know: There are just as many positive quotes he could have used, and the prominent words that occur in those are “original” and “genius.”

Full disclosure: I know Bill Knott and saw him quite frequently—in Boston/Cambridge, Chicago, and other locales—during the ’70s and into the early ’80s. Sporadically since then. He’s also been painting for over twenty years and I have some of his artwork from the early ’90s in my house and office. We’ve been in touch recently, and he’s sent me several more paintings. They’re mostly abstract, with an occasional figurative moment, and often the ghost of a figure. I love their colors. I sense some correlation between the music/voice of his poems and the way he uses color, though I am unable to articulate that.

A small press I edited from 19701975, Barn Dream Press, published two of Knott’s early books, Nights of Naomi and Love Poems to Myself. Young poets often did that in those days (and young poets still seem to be doing it today, in print magazines, and now too with the great advantage of the Internet): you started a magazine, a small press, a reading series. The one unwritten rule then (at least to my understanding) was that you didn’t publish yourself. I reiterate: $3.94. Bill Knott, Selected Poems. One thing I remember him saying, several times: “Poetry’s an art form, it’s a craft.” Indeed it is, and he is a master of that craft. Get this book. Read the anti-blurbs first. Then decide for yourself. If you don’t find it worth $3.94, I’ll refund the money myself (if you send me the book), and I’ll refund, as well, my memories of you.

Photo: Thomas Lux

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

Readings/ Workshops (West) assistant director Jamie FitzGerald describes a visit to the P&W–supported  EngAGE senior writing workshop taught by Hannah R. Menkin. Menkin is an educator, poet, and visual artist, who uses an integrative approach to help adults, older adults, and veterans discover their own voice through oral history, memoir, storytelling, and the creative/expressive arts.

Writing workshop membersOn November 7, 2012, the morning after Barack Obama was elected for his second term as President, my co-worker Andrew Wessels and I made the hour-long drive across the sprawl of Los Angeles, from the Westside to the Burbank Senior Artists Colony, where we met with a group of “confident,” “relieved,” “peaceful,” “hopeful” seniors (words they chose to describe how they were feeling that morning).

We were welcomed by poetry workshop facilitator Hannah Menkin, whose work with seniors and veterans P&W  has supported since 2009. The poetry workshop at the Burbank Senior Artists Colony is facilitated by EngAGE, a nonprofit organization that fosters the arts, wellness, and lifelong learning for seniors in Southern California. The group in session that morning was holding a special Poetry & Tea celebration. They were delighted to have representatives from P&W visiting them, and the all-female group referred to Andrew humorously as “the rose amongst the thorns.”

Participants spoke about why the writing workshop was valuable to them and shared a few poems. Kit Harper, who writes every day, had this to say: “I love this group. They’re like my sisters. We’re all here to dig deep.” And dig deep they do. Menkin acknowledged that as we age, we experience more losses. In her workshop, it’s understood members can freely address loss, and anything else, together in a safe, uncritical environment.

The group has enjoyed each other’s company for more than a year, and the bonds they have formed show in their easiness with one another. Dolly Brittan, originally from South Africa, attested to this: “We’ve all developed trust amongst each other. It’s a safe place. Poetry has really helped me to cope with my life.”

The most senior member, 90-year-old Karolyn Merson, said of the workshop: “I came here and just blossomed out. It ignited my life.” Later, Merson passed around her chapbook full of astute and often humorous haiku, as well as a booklet of collaged found poems culled from the pages of the Los Angeles Times.

Menkin’s teaching style encourages self-expression without criticism. She has told her group to banish the inner critic and trust in the “true voice,” which needs no revision. Still, the seniors in her workshop spoke of craft and working on poems at home in their spare time. Subtly, Menkin manages to pass on the message of daily work, craft, and revision that is foundational for any serious writer.

Menkin also recites contemporary poetry to her group. The day’s selection included an ars poetica by William Stafford and a poem by the ever-popular Billy Collins. She has her students writing from prompts—found poems, acrostic poetry, sensory-based poems, and so on.  But the mechanics of poetry are secondary to the sisterhood that has formed in the group. The love these women have for poetry is humbling and the tranformations it has clearly wrought in them renews one’s faith in the act of writing things down.

Photos: Hannah Menkin (holding flowers) with her Saturday workshop group, including the “sisters”: Kit Harper (next to Hannah), Karolyn Merson (wearing scarf), Dolly Brittan (next to Karolyn), and Felicia Soissons-Segal (far right). Found poem collage by Karolyn Merson. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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 Thomas Lux blogs about his readings at the Dodge Poetry Festival and with The Poetry Initiative in Santa Barbara, California. Lux is Bourne Professor of Poetry at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. He has two new books out this fall—the poetry collection Child Made of Sand (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) and his nonfiction debut From the Southland (Marick Press).

From October 11 to 14, about fifty other poets and I participated in the Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, New Jersey. I’d been once before, in 2000. It’s held at the gleaming New Jersey Performing Arts Center and other venues close by. On Friday, October 12, High School Student Day, Prudential Hall was filled to capacity with 2,800 students and teachers, mostly from New Jersey and other nearby states. I did meet one couple, both teachers, who drove sixteen hours straight from Gainesville, Georgia, in a van with a bunch of their students. I feel special respect for teachers, especially public school teachers. They’re overworked, undervalued, and immensely important. The Georgia teachers were operating above and beyond the call of duty. A high school teacher once said to me after a reading at her school: “You performed a miracle.” I said: “How? Because the kids didn’t throw hockey pucks at me?” She said: “No, at one point you held the entire assembly totally silent for twenty-seven consecutive seconds.”

Well, during readings at Prudential Hall, with many poets reading, the entire audience (remember, mostly teenagers) was silent—when they weren’t cheering, applauding, laughing. Not a dead silence, not an eerie silence, but the silence of complete and rapt attention. I think it was Edward Hirsch who said: “The state of poetry would be better if every state had The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.” May it live long. It’s held every other year (and has been since 1986), so you have time to start planning for 2014.

After a few days at home in Atlanta, my wife and I went to Santa Barbara, California, where I’d been invited to read and teach a workshop for a new community-based group called The Poetry Initiative. The reading was in El Presidio Chapel, part of a Spanish Mission that was restored to honor Santa Barbara’s heritage and history.

A terrific bonus was seeing my sweet friends, the poets Kurt Brown and Laure-Anne Bosselaar. Stanley Kunitz said somewhere: “I have a tribe, but we are scattered.” Kurt and Laure-Anne recently moved from New York City to Santa Barbara. I have known Brown since the ’70s (during our reprobate years), when he was director of the Aspen Writers Conference. I met Laure-Anne a decade or so later, when she was my student in the Warren Wilson MFA Program.

More and more, I love my friends, especially those with whom I can “trace the laughing days.” I saw many pals, old and newer, at the Dodge Festival, too. I hope it’s clear by this third blog (I hate that word by the way) that I feel there is a great deal of good poetry—many kinds, room for many kinds—being written and disseminated, spoken, throughout this country today and ditto in many others countries. For those who think: too much, too many, not good enough, etc.—relax. Time will do its work. And it’s a good time to be alive for those of the tribe. It’s an even better time to be a young poet of the tribe (which I’m not) and alive.

Photo: Thomas Lux. 

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers

In October, P&W-supported poet April Naoko Heck participated in a group reading at the University of Maryland’s Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House in College Park, Maryland, to celebrate the unique residential program’s tenth anniversary. She blogs about her experience.

“All men want to sleep with supermodels,” reads one poet at the open mic. A fiction writer draws more laughs while describing characters named after A. A. Milne’s “Winnie the Pooh” tales. Another poet talks about a miraculous survivor of bombings at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet another reader shares a poem about her father, an avid lover of music whose first purchase as a newlywed is a piano—not the proverbial marital bed.

This reading by students, alumni, and staff of the Jimenez-Porter Writers’ House is the culmination of an evening of good eats, speeches, games, and door prizes to celebrate the House’s ten-year anniversary. 

Named after Katherine Anne Porter and Juan Ramon Jimenez, two writers whose literary legacies left lasting impressions upon the University of Maryland, the Writers’ House is a unique residential creative writing program. Founded in part by UMD’s Michael Collier and Laura Lauth, the program’s roughly fifty students study, write, and live under a single roof on campus in Dorchester Hall (a.k.a “Dork-chester,” the inevitable moniker). The current faculty and program director Johnna Schmidt also spend their working and teaching hours in Dorchester Hall. The result: an extraordinarily tight-knit community of students and teachers sharing a singleness of purpose and a passion for creative writing.

Jenna Brager and Vivianne SalgadoImagine a faculty office located beside the dormitory kitchen, which is next to the student TV lounge, which doubles as the reception hall following public readings by visiting authors. Classroom lessons spill over into passing conversations; the queue for the microwave turns into a discussion about Ginsberg. The House can’t help but become a vibrant community of young writers.

That they are often poring over poems and stories while clad in bunny slippers, or business suits, or soccer gear only adds to the feeling that literature is integrated effortlessly into daily life at the Writers’ House. Creative writing is as essential here as so-so cafeteria meals, raucous Terp football games, and Starbucks runs.

As a former assistant director and instructor (2004-‘07), I arrived too late for the crab rangoon and sushi, but I enjoyed a slab of red velvet cake, catching up with old students, meeting new ones, sharing my poetry, and most of all, cheering on the program’s remarkable ten-year run. The House has flourished through the toughest of economic times—a testament to the University’s commitment to educating young writers.

The day after the celebration and reading, I caught one of the last trains before Hurricane Sandy would close down New York City. As the storm approached, thoughts of the Writers House and its ongoing mission kept me warm and brightened the way.   

Photos: Top: April Naoko Heck reads (credit: Kyle Bodt). Bottom: alumna Jenna Brager (left) and Assistant Director Vivianne Salgado (credit: Kerry Gantt).

Support for Readings/Workshops events in the Washington, DC, area 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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