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Readings & Workshops Blog

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), a Houston-based alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarIn Pakistan, September 21, 2012, was marked as a day of remembrance for Prophet Mohammad in response to a film that went viral and sparked violence in parts of North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Knowing that the time difference between Houston and Pakistan was ten hours, I began checking online Pakistani newspapers as soon as I awoke. By the end of twenty-four hours, more than twenty people had been killed and six cinema houses had been burned. Meanwhile, progressive and secular communities that formed Pakistan’s majority were posting comments asking why extremists weren’t using their energies to offer help to the southern part of the country, where floods once again disrupted lives.

Two days after the protests, I received an e-blast from an Islamabad-based arts organization, Kuch Khaas, announcing screenings of selected best films from FilmSaar International Children’s Film Festival, and of course, in Karachi, T2F had resumed its regular programming. Life was returning to normal—something that must happen since flare-ups are part of daily living all around Pakistan.

More than ever, I appreciate that even though I’m based in Houston, I’ve woven my work so that I remain connected to alternative art and communities in Pakistan. The reality that I know is not reported in mainstream media. Sensationalist news always makes headlines, but I believe it’s also important to write about an independent arts organization screening children’s movies—despite the burning of cinema halls. Many organizations and independent artists in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, and Iraq continue to do the same, and their realities exist parallel to the deaths and protests that are reported to outside communities.

Through my work with Voices Breaking Boundaries, we create productions that juxtapose art and images from Pakistan and Houston so that our audience can find parallels between the two places. The purpose of these productions and workshops is to open space for innovative art from Karachi and Houston while also breaking down stereotypes about the issues we research. Further down the road, VBB is looking to expand research into other countries, including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Mexico, so that our audiences can experience art from unexpected communities about issues that are largely unknown. Using digital space and live performances to create alternative productions is even more critical in these times, when divisions in the world are more fractured. As Patti Smith said, in her 2010 visit to Houston: “We create art to illuminate.” As artists and writers, it’s important for us to dig deeper beyond the surface news—all around the world.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza.

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.

On September 23, P&W-supported poet and creative nonfiction writer Luis Rodriguez gave a reading and talk at the Fullerton Public Library in Fullerton, California. P&W’s Andrew Wessels reports.

As Sunday afternoon temperatures climbed toward triple digits, a large crowd gathered in the comfortable confines of the Fullerton Public Library’s new Community Room. Families, teachers, and high school and college students waited for the arrival of Luis Rodriguez, author of Always Running: La Vida Loca, Gang Days in L.A. and director of Tía Chucha’s Centro Cultural, in Sylmar, California.

Greeted by applause following Gustavo Arellano’s introduction, Rodriguez began his reading neither with an excerpt from one of his books nor an anecdote about his life in particular. Rather, Rodriguez began by connecting his life and the lives of everyone in the audience to Homer’s Odyssey. The connection made, though, was to Odysseus’s son Telemachus rather than the famous hero. Rodriguez wanted to talk about the process of maturation and growth, the process of finding one’s way in life.

Rodriguez read from two segments of his newest book, It Calls You Back, about the incarceration of his oldest son and his own attempts to confront his failings as a father. The first excerpt told the story of his wife’s youth, in which she chose to break free of a patriarchal family situation and become disowned in order to move away for college. The second excerpt was from a letter his son wrote shortly after being released from prison, when he was looking to redeem himself in the same way Rodriguez did from his youthful failings.

The focus on youth and maturation was the major theme of the reading. Instead of giving a straightforward reading, Rodriguez focused his energy on delivering a message: one of help and healing rather than incarceration and punishment. As a reformed gang member whose subsequent life has been dedicated to fighting gang violence and developing opportunities for inner city at-risk youth, Rodriguez’s stories carried the weight of experience and triumph.

Throughout the event, Rodriguez peppered his anecdotes—of gang life, becoming a father, finding his writing voice, and being redeemed through the guidance of dedicated mentors—with two phrases: “You know what I’m getting at” and “You know what I’m saying.” The intonation of these phrases was simultaneously a question and a statement. This duality seemed to be at the heart of Rodriguez’s message, to be simultaneously open and forceful, accepting and strong. At the end of the question and answer session, Rodriguez challenged the entire audience to provide positive opportunities so that all youths can “pick their trouble” through reading and knowledge rather than streets, gangs, and violence.

As Rodriguez left the podium and made his way to the table to sign books, nearly the entire audience gathered in a line that almost encircled the Community Room. As Rodriguez signed books and spoke to each of his readers, it was clear that his words and his works had, like he asked from all of us, created “a space to fail, to heal, and to redeem.”

Photo: Luis Rodriguez (right) signs books for fans. Credit: Andrew Wessels.

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

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB), an alternative arts organization. A writer and multidisciplinary artist, Sarwar uses her poetry, prose, and video/art installations to explore displacement and women’s issues on a domestic and global level. Her first novel, Black Wings, was published in 2004, and she is currently working on a second manuscript tentatively entitled "Island."

Sehba SarwarThis month, as Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) launches our thirteenth season, I’m reminiscing about Fall 1999, when my friend Marcela Descalzi asked if I wanted to do anything before the start of the next millennium. At that time, Houston offered few options for new writers, performance artists, and grassroots activists.

“I want to create a space for artists to share work about issues that matter to us,” I said. “I also want to perform a poem about political events unfolding in Pakistan, my home.”

We formed a collective, inviting three other women writers and artists—Christine Choi, Donna Perkins, and Jacsun Shah—to join us. Dedicating hours in coffee shops, we finally agreed on Voices Breaking Boundaries as our group’s name. Our logo was the globe viewed from the southern Hemisphere. We wanted to offer a new lens through which to experience the world and to create space for artists and audience members from different backgrounds to gather, share art, and learn from one another.

Without thinking of the outcome, I submitted a grant application to the Houston Arts Alliance and was awarded $4,500. We decided to use the funds to print postcards and pay honoraria to artists. Each of us was teaching at that time, so we didn’t pay ourselves even though we performed at the shows. During our first year, we created monthly lineups in a local bookstore, featuring performance poets, academics, high school students, capoeira dancers, and drummers. In February 2001, after our collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Himal South Asia (Nepal) to offer a South Asian film festival, we knew we had to respond to our audience and incorporate VBB into a nonprofit arts organization.

VBB Living Room ArtFast forward to Fall 2012. I’m still writing and now draw a salary as VBB’s salaried artistic director. Over the years, VBB has received free performance and exhibition space and has collaborated with many other organizations, including Arté Publico Press, Project Row Houses, DiverseWorks, and Inprint, Inc., and has featured artists such as Arundhati Roy, Bapsi Sidhwa, and Patti Smith—all while continuing to tackle some of the most controversial issues of our times. We have carved a niche for our unique productions, living room art, through which we convert residential homes into art spaces and use the experience to create connections between Karachi, my home city, and Houston, where I’ve lived for some time. The productions, elaborate one night flares, meld spoken word, music, performance and videos with installations.

And around us, more communities of color and artist initiatives have sprung up. Any given weekend, one can cull from an array of choices to experience art. The city is “minority-majority,” serving as a prediction of demographic shifts across the United States. There’s still much work to be done and sometimes I feel challenged by how often we circle back to the same issues: immigrant rights, women’s reproductive rights, education awareness, racial stereotyping, and the United States' role in global conflicts. But at the same time, I’m grateful for the support VBB continues to receive from arts organizations like Poets & Writers. Looking back at 1999, I couldn’t have predicted where our collective would land. I do know, however, that in the wide expanse of Houston, the United States, and the world, there’s room for many more artist initiatives—and that our story speaks to the urgent need for more alternative voices to converge.

Photos: (Top) Sehba Sarwar. Credit: Emaan Reza. (Bottom) Fall 2011 living room art production Third Worlds: Third Ward/Karachi. Credit: Eric Hester.

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.

In early September, P&W-supported writers Alma García, Felicia González, and Emily Pérez read at Columbia City Gallery in Seattle as part of a collaboration between visual and literary artists. Project codirector Lauren Davis describes the event.

Rooted writersOn a hot summer evening in Seattle, four writers presented new works responding to Rooted: Latino/a Artists’ Connection to Native and Adopted Lands, an art exhibit at Seattle’s Columbia City Gallery. The exhibit, a partnership between Columbia City Gallery and La Sala, a nonprofit Latino/a artists’ network, brought together regional visual artists and writers exploring themes of roots, family, identity, and home.

“For those of us who migrate to a new home, we not only carry our culture and customs but also the sense that we are being, or have been by generations past, uprooted; replanted,” said Juan Alonso-Rodriguez, curator of Rooted. Inspired by the theme of the exhibit, writer Wendy Call invited José Carrillo, Alma García, Felicia González, and Emily Pérez to create new works responding to select artworks from the gallery exhibit.

The gathering crowd fanned themselves with gallery postcards while listening to flute music played by José Carrillo. Laughter filled the room as the crowd of artists, writers, observers, and people from the neighborhood welcomed each other. The Columbia City Gallery, a community-based arts cooperative, provides a vibrant arts center in the heart of South Seattle and supports a wide range of cultural programming for the diverse neighborhood.

As the final strains of music faded from the air, the writers gathered in front of the crowd with the Rooted art exhibit as their backdrop. First to read was Emily Pérez. Her poems “When Needed” and “Dear Dove” responded to paintings by artist Blanca Santander, images of dreamy earth goddesses rendered in bright colors. She finished her delicate set with the poem “Ambition,” inspired by images of clouds by photographer Eduardo Nuñez.

Boris Gaviria and Alma Garcia“Hello, my name is Alma García, and I’ll be your fiction writer tonight,” the next writer announced upon taking the floor. García, exploring a series of screen prints by Boris Gaviria, read the short story “Harvest,” which depicted a day in the life of Octavio and Licho, two apple-farm workers in eastern Washington. Gaviria’s crisp images of stacked apple crates and farm trucks gave illustration to the sights, sounds, and smells of the world García’s characters inhabited.

The next writer, Felicia González, stirred the muggy room by requesting the audience stand up and come closer to view a series of small drawings by Arturo Artorez. The group formed a semicircle around the artwork, while Gonzalez stood in the middle of the room and read her poem “Stranger in a Familiar Land.”

The evening concluded with the magnetic José Carrillo reading a suite of four short poems “Rooted: in Four Movements,” inspired by the works of painter Consuelo Murphy and printmaker Gloria Garcia.

At the Rooted reading, four writers brought visual artwork to life in new ways. Reciprocally, the artwork provided a focal point for listeners’ eyes while the spoken words transported their minds. The blend of words, art, music, and community was a perfect union on one of the last warm days of the Seattle summer.

Photos: (Top, from left to right) Writers Felicia González, Alma García, José Carrillo, and Emily Pérez. Bottom: Alma García (right) with artist Boris Gaviria, whose work is behind them. Credit: Donna Miscolta

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.

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan Constantine at HillsidesHow do you do? Brendan Constantine here with my last blog as “writer in residence” for P&W. Thanks for visiting with me today.

A while ago, I came across this comment in response to an L.A. Daily News article about efforts to appoint L.A.’s first poet laureate: “The economy is in shambles, people are looking for work and the city wants to hire a poet? This is the most absurd thing I have ever heard of! I am so glad that I moved away from Los Angeles!”

Wow. How do we begin to respond to that? How does a poet help a city? Isn’t it a waste of time and resources when people are desperate? Why do we need poets at all?

Those are worthy topics. But in the days since the story appeared I’ve noticed something else. Many of the poets I know have, or have had, reservations about identifying as such. Some of them seem to have internalized the prejudice displayed in the opening quote. More about that in a moment.

First, let’s face it, the term “poet” is pretty laden (indeed, even “leaden”) with associations. Even after I’d begun to write poetry in earnest, I shrunk from using the title. It sounded like bragging, or worse, likening myself to the most extreme stereotypes of self-absorption. To call myself a poet was like telling people I made a career of being tragically misunderstood.

Yesterday I had lunch with poet Mindy Nettifee. Like all the poets mentioned in this post, she’s received grants from the Readings/Workshops program to present her work—meaning that, on some level, she’s publicly owned the title of “poet.” But when I asked her if she’d ever had reservations about it, she said, “Are you kidding? I still sometimes feel like I’ve just told people I’m a really famous mime in Texas.” I laughed out loud for five minutes.

Today I started calling poets I knew and asked the same question. I caught poet Kim Addonizio in an airport—come to think of it, I never asked where she was going, oh well—and she said that for her, the title of poet was something that had to be deserved. Writing one poem wasn’t enough. Writing two or three was still tourism. “I had to earn my stripes,” she said.

But there’s no day that stands out as the one when she knew she’d crossed a line into the territory of legitimacy. She just noticed that she had been calling herself a poet.

“It’s a ridiculous thing to call yourself,” says poet Doug Kearney. “I mean, what does it actually say about what you do? A painter’s title contains a verb. So does ‘singer’ or ‘sculptor,’ ‘dancer,’ etc…. But a poet is a...what...a poem-er?”

Kearney does identify as a poet and began to do so around the time of his fellowship with Cave Canem, a renowned writer’s conservancy with a focus on African-American authors. At some point in his residency, being daily in the company of other poets who regarded him as one of them, he passed through an initiation. But again, he noticed only in retrospect.

So what’s the big deal already? Do you call yourself a poet? There’s no shame in it, is there? No licenses to practice, no tribe with the power to vote you off an island. Do you have associations with the term (or expect others will) that give it a bad light?

Poet Julianna McCarthy, who happens to be my mom, has been writing poetry for quite some time. She has a degree and body of published work. And yet, this evening, she said over the phone, “I still can’t do it. I have to change the syntax so that instead of saying I’m a poet, I say ‘I write poetry.’”

This isn’t going to end cleanly, by the way. I don’t have any answers and I’m not blaming poets for opinions like the one appearing at the top of this post.  I will say that whatever it is about poetry that inspired such passionate criticism may be related to whatever it is that stops some of us from going public.

In my first post I said: “People invent poetry as a means of expressing something they can’t easily say. The desire to talk about special things in a special way, the desire to change, elaborate, or deliberately misuse language for the purpose of greater communion is all but universal.”

I wish to add that when I say “people” I don’t necessarily mean poets. Poetry predates the job of poet. In ancient Greece and Rome, the words for poetry refer to something “made,” a thing, even a formula. In Arabic cultures it can mean to “ask” or inquire. It may also mean to “perceive.” In China and later Japan, poems are “sacred words,” “temple words.”

Who needs temple words? Everyone outside the temple. Who needs to ask or perceive? Anyone who would answer, who would face another questioner. Who needs to make a thing out of words? Anyone unmade by speechlessness.

Photo: Brendan Constantine talks with young poets at Hillsides in Pasadena, California. Credit: Nicola Wilkens-Miller

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

David Mills has taught several P&W–supported workshops at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center in Chicago. He is author of the poetry collection The Dream Detective (Straw Gate Books) and has poems in the anthology Jubilation! (Peepal Tree Press) and magazines, including Ploughshares and jubilat. Mills is also the recipient of a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
Most of the workshops I conduct are with kids, so I always write on the board “2+2=57,” which means for the hour that I am with them, I don’t want them to worry about spelling or grammar because obsessing over “crossed Ts” could mean losing a moment of genius.

How do you get shy writers to open up?
I try to present a model poem that will spark both conversation and creativity. I remind the students that poetry is not on Mount Parnassus. It’s right t/here, wherever we happen to be geographically and psychically. I make self-deprecating jokes to put them at ease and let them know everything is poetic fair game.

I sweat, so I’ll say: “I sweat while I swim. Use that. ‘How can this guy sweat while he swims?’”

I have abstract expressionist penmanship, so I’ll say: “I write like a blind man with five broken fingers. How’s that possible for a poet?”

I don’t want them to write about my idiosyncrasies, but I hope that by framing them as kooky koans the kids will access their own creative centers.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
Workshops like the ones P&W sponsored at the Cook County Juvenile Detention come to mind. In one visit, I used Randall Horton’s poignant and ironic poem “Poetry Reading at Mount McGregor (Saratoga, NY).” During his own incarceration, he could never have imagined voluntarily returning to a prison, yet in the poem that’s exactly where he finds himself.

I discuss redemption.

What happens for Randall in his poem is what I hope will happen for these kids. Writing gave him a raison d’etre. Horton writes: “tonight poetry is a sinner’s prayer,” and reflects on how when he was incarcerated he “searched for the… alphabets to help me escape.” He concludes the poem: “How do I say welcome me, I am your brother?”

I got misty-eyed as I read those lines. I think the boys felt what the poem was meant to evoke: union, communion.

There were gangbangers in the class from opposing gangs—African-American and Chicano-American. The teachers had warned that certain guys had to sit on opposite sides of the room. As we discussed the poem, guys started talking across “colors,” opening up. Teachers who weren’t part of the workshop stepped in and stayed.

I asked the guys to write about returning to a place—physically or psychically--that might be filled with pain, fear, anger, or an unresolved question. I asked them to describe it physically, but to then address the wound or fear to a person who had something to do with whatever unresolved feeling was back there.

One Chicano student described a town center in Mexico where an incident had occurred that caused his family to flee to the U.S. What happened to his family is less important than what happened to his peers as a result of his avowal. His poem gave his classmates both insight into and greater empathy for him.

What do you consider to be the benefits of writing workshops for special groups (i.e. teens, elders, the disabled, veterans, prisoners)?
I have only worked with male populations where posturing and bravura run deep. But given an opportunity to see that their vulnerability will not be used against them, these boys will open up. I think some of these young men feel—and sometimes rightfully so—like the words in Patricia Smith’s poem, “CRIPtic Comment”:

If we are not shooting
at someone
then no one
can see us.

There is the sense that these boys feel both seen and heard during our time together. In one of the P&W–supported Cook County Juvenile Detention workshops, I used Langston Hughes’s “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”:

I've known rivers:
I've known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
     flow of human blood in human veins.

Hughes’s piece has an epic reach—bodies of water of mythic, cultural, and historic proportion. I talked about Hughes’s “knowing.” I got the boys to write about things they knew intimately, using Hughes’ structure to organize their “knowing.” One participant wrote about the various sneakers he has “rocked”:

I’ve known Nikes, shell-top Adidas...

You get the idea.

Another student had lived in Illinois and Indiana, so he wrote about “knowing” distinct parts of these two states, both in terms of geography but also the “temperature” of different communities.

What's the strangest question you’ve received from a student?
I am pretty zany so no question strikes me as strange. I do get a lot of “Why do you sweat so much?”

Photo: David Mills. Credit: Luig Cazzaniga.

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.

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan ConstantineHow do you do? Brendan Constantine here with the third “blog” of my residency with Poets & Writers. Thanks for joining me.

My relationship with Poets & Writers began in 1995 when I first sought their help in paying authors to read for a local series, the Valley Contemporary Poets. In the years since, their support—both financial and creative—has enabled me to build a whole career. I’m sure you can appreciate how daunting it is, then, to try to write something “worthy.” At every keystroke I imagine someone at the P&W main office looking up from a computer and saying, “Wait, we’ve PAID this guy to give readings?”

Of course, it’s just the same old vanity that plagues every writer: the Phantom of Originality, also known as the Tenth Muse. Not only is originality a false god, history has made it plain there are no profundities so great they cannot be trivialized; death is a business, so are babies, and now Webster’s definition of  “reality” includes the subheading  “a genre of television.” If nothing is sacred, neither is writing.

Exactly ninety years before the date this blog will appear, a writer named Richard le Gallienne wrote a New York Times review of four new books of poetry. Before addressing any of the titles, he observes, “Unless poetry is as compelling as Ragtime, we labor in vain to read it.”

Ragtime. Join me for a deep sigh, would you?

For those of you who’ve ever felt as though your art has too much with which to compete in popular media, that it’s no match for TV, movies, or popular music, the above quote should offer some comfort. Ragtime may have topped the charts of 1922, but a good deal of transcendent writing came after, indeed most of what we call Modern poetry. Give yourself a break.

Speaking of taking a break, in Samuel Johnson’s essay “The Rambler,” he contends, “It is certain that any wild wish or vain imagination never takes such firm possession of the mind, as when it is found empty and unoccupied….” He is praising activity for its own sake, warning against the hazards of idleness. What are the hazards? Depression, melancholy, and, even worse, posthumous notoriety.

But for writers, the value of “down time,” with nothing on our minds but the cookie in our hands, is priceless. There’s no telling what combination of whim and weariness will send us into despair or creative action. But perhaps they’re the same. To be an artist is to create “stillnesses”—the stillness of the page, the plinth, and the canvas, the thousand stillnesses in one minute of film. Or dance.

To be an artist is to invite “any wild wish or vain imagination” to take firm possession of our minds, to dare boredom to do its worst, to take second place to Ragtime.

Furthermore, it will always be true that our poorest work lies ahead of us. We’re going to write something truly awful in the future. We have to. Why do we have to? It’s often the only way to uncover the good writing. Like going through a kitchen drawer, sometimes we have to take out things we don’t need in order to get at the things we do.

Ask yourself about the conditions under which you’ve done your best work so far. Did you start with a defined vision and follow it to the end without deviation? I’m guessing, No.

Where I see many of us get stuck, again and again, is in forgetting the role of “chance.” No sooner are we enjoying a sense of success (even if it’s just saying “Well, that didn’t TOTALLY suck.”) than we are forgetting the experience of discovering our art as we went.

Chances are (sorry), we’ll attempt to create something else, but this time out of sheer will. Under these conditions, we’re totally screwed. Excuse me, Ragtimed. The best we can hope for is something almost as good as we used to be.

I think the answer is to just create, create a lot, make lots of mistakes, finish a bunch of lousy work, emphasis on “finish,” but get it all the way out. Make something. Make anything. Buy a children’s paint set. Get an airplane model. Make a list of the times and conditions under which someone says “awesome” and then set it to music. Something with piano and trumpets, a trombone and snare drum. Write about a room where someone is dancing to it, someone who knows it’s stupid and dances anyway.

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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