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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

Thomas Lux blogs about his P&W-funded reading with Jon Sands for Page Meets Stage, a reading series in New York City. 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).

I’d heard Jon Sands read and perform a few years earlier at Sarah Lawrence College. The budget for readings was always meager and P&W has helped out several times. I believe P&W kicked in for a tribute to Muriel Rukeyser, not long before she died.

Page Meets Stage was started by Taylor Mali and others, several years ago, and was originally called Page Versus Stage. It’s now called Page Meets Stage. “Versus” sounded like an unfair fight to me—page poets are mostly older and would get our asses kicked by the stage poets, who are generally younger, and kick ass anyway, just for fun. So they changed the name. I contend, however, that the people there weren’t concerned with what it was called—they were there for poetry.

I’d read in the program several years before with Marty McConnell, a stunning spoken word/poet, at the storied Bowery Poetry Club, started by Bob Holman, an éminence grise of the spoken word/poet poetry world.

On September 19th, Page Meets Stage held its reading, for the first time ever, at that miracle place, Poets House. It’s in the Battery (as I write this, Storm Sandy is expected to hit the Battery hard) and not too far from Ground Zero. It’s brand new and has two floors filled with poetry books, over 50,000 of them! They also offer many outreach programs and are completely inclusive. They even have sleepovers. Borges said something like: “I can only sleep in a room filled with books.” At Poets House he’d sleep like a big fat baby! It exists, in a nutshell, to serve the art form of poetry. Recently, a student considering taking a class of mine wrote asking for a copy of my syllabus. I wrote back: “Go to NYC, go to Poets House, find the exact center of it, stand there, and turn around 360 degrees. That’s my syllabus.” He responded not.

I often ask Taylor (a premier spoken word/poet): What the bleep’s the difference? Only one, and it’s not even a rule: spoken word/poets tend to memorize their poems. All poets have to write first, on a page, or on a screen, and—this shouldn’t come as a surprise—it’s hard to write well. Page poets give readings; spoken word/poets give readings but tend to call them “performances.” Some stage poets are breathtakingly self-indulgent, some page poets lay on the pseudo-profundity so much I can only hope someday someone translates them into readable English! Taylor usually gives an erudite and nuanced answer to my question.

I still don’t see much difference. It was a larger, younger, more boisterous crowd than the night before at the gallery. Sands is an excellent young spoken word/poet, and his delivery is intense. He leans slightly forward, almost as if he’s walking into a strong wind, and speaks his poems. No histrionics, little body movement—he held the audience with every syllable. We read alternately, trying to bounce poems off each other. It was a blast. Let me put it this way: do not badmouth, or say anything supercilious, around me re: performance poetry. It’s likely I’d fall asleep right in your face.

Photo: Thomas Lux. 

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Thomas Lux blogs about his P&W-funded reading at Marc Straus, an art gallery in New York City. 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).

I’ve never written a blog before and I’ve only read a handful of them. I can use e-mail (an excellent invention), and the computer is a very a sophisticated typewriter. I remember when Poets & Writers Magazine started. I believe the early issues were stapled, short newsletters. Maybe mimeographed? Now it’s grown in range and depth and is an important read for most contemporary writers.

It was once possible to keep up with virtually all of contemporary poetry—the number of presses and literary magazines were finite, and limited to print. Books from big houses and books from independent presses (then called “small presses”) looked pretty ugly, frankly, compared to books today, because of our enormous improvements in printing technology. They're many more venues for poetry today. Poetry is showing up everywhere.

P&W recently put a few bucks in my pocket. In mid-September, I gave a reading in New York City with Marc Straus at the Marc Straus Gallery on Grand Street. I’ve known Marc for over twenty years since he took a class of mine at the 92nd Street Y. We became friends. Marc’s a medical oncologist and, with his wife, Livia, a major collector of contemporary art. Marc is also a poet. He’s published three books: One Word, Not God, and Symmetry. Many of his poems deal with his experience as an oncologist. He writes sometimes in the voice of the doctor and sometimes in the voice of a patient. Only a real poet and oncologist can write the poems he writes. He recently opened his own art gallery, directly across Grand Street from a drapery store his father owned and ran many decades ago, and where Marc worked as a child. Here’s one of his poems, "Scarlet Crown": 

I met a man my age running a greenhouse.

He pointed to the pots with pride, saying

they contained a thousand separate cacti.

Not much interest in these when I started,

he said. He pointed to the barbed bristles

(glochids), the bearing cushions (areoles),

and the names of many of the 200 genera:

Brain, Button, Cow-tongue, Hot Dog, Lace,

Coral, and Silver ball. In my work,

I said, I’m burdened with such straight-

forward terms: lung cancer, lymphoma,

breast cancer, leukemia. I’d love

to switch to: Pond-lily, Star,

or Scarlet Crown. Really, he said,

pointing to other plants, named

Hatchet, Devil, Dagger, Hook, and

Snake—or perhaps a diagnosis of this:

Rat-tail, White-chin, Wooly-torch,

or Dancing Bones.

The show up at the time was by a painter, seventy-nine-year-old Charles Hinman, who’d only recently received a Guggenheim Fellowship, and who’d been painting in relative obscurity for decades in a rent controlled studio just a few blocks from the gallery. I like reading surrounded by art. (Note: the show was a big hit.) Afterwards, someone handed me a rather generous check from P&W. And ditto another check the next night at a Page Meets Stage reading at Poets House. I read with a spoken-word artist/poet named Jon Sands. (To be continued in the next blog post...)

Photo: Thomas Lux. 

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Mark Yakich's first collection, Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross (Penguin, 2004), was a winner of the National Poetry Series. His most recent collection is The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine (Penguin, 2008). Yakich teaches at Loyola University and is editor of New Orleans Review. Poets & Writers has supported readings he’s given in both New Orleans and New York State.

What are your reading dos?
I try to prepare for a reading by having one drink beforehand. One drink loosens me up, but two makes me undress people visually in the crowd, especially small crowds where there may be only four or five pairs of eyes.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
One audience member asked after I read my poem “The Invisible Man’s Daughter”: “Who’s the invisible man’s daughter?” I didn’t really understand the question until I realized there are a lot of audience members who would like to know of such and such a poem: What’s the actual “story” behind it? This was so much the case with my first book, in which there are numerous fairy-tale-type characters, that I wrote a second book, The Making of Collateral Beauty, in order to explain the “reality” behind the poems in my first book, which I made up entirely.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
From my first book, the poem “On Raisins” is the crowd-pleaser. I think almost everyone has a love-hate relationship with them. I’ll eat raisins, especially the golden ones, in a handful, but I don’t like it when raisins try to become grapes again—as when I add milk to, say, Raisin Bran and the raisins rehydrate. I just don’t believe in transubstantiation, reincarnation, or whatever it is raisins are trying to do there.

In my latest collection, the crowd-pleaser is a poem called “A Brief History of Patriotism,” which traces the history of the potato throughout a wide range of cultures, countries, and ethnicities. The problem with the poem is that people find it funny. It’s a deadly serious poem, but I don’t have the energy any more to write a book explaining that.

Ultimately, the key to pleasing an audience is to entertain, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that they have to “get” the poem. Does anybody get the meaning when they hear Gertrude Stein’s work aloud? I would argue that foremost you get entertained sonically and comically when you hear Stein; conventional meaning is not her game.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
The first time my nine-part poem “Green Zone New Orleans” was read aloud I was floored. I enlisted eight volunteers from the audience. Each reader, plus myself, read the sections of the poem consecutively. As soon as the last person read the last section, we all began reading our individual sections at the same time. The cacophony of voices lasted for about a minute until one by one the voices dropped out… down to three voices, then a duet, and a single voice. Audience members shocked me with their wet eyes. I was a bit choked up myself. The voices all together and then falling away reminded me of the sound of the tin cans falling away from the bumper of the car my bride-wife and I drove home from the courthouse in which we were married. We listened to those tin cans—which I’d saved over a few weeks and then tied with twine to the car in the parking lot after the ceremony—relishing their tinkle and bang against one another and the road, the violent sounds turning sweeter as each can fell to its doom.

Since that first reading, I’ve enlisted audience volunteers to read “GZNO” many times. In New Orleans, P&W sponsored my first reading from “GZNO” at Antenna, a gallery that’s part of a literary co-op and small publisher called Press Street, which also published a special chapbook of the poem.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Literary readings are not revolutionary get-togethers, or get-togethers of revolutionaries. Literary readings seem, to me, more like mini-conventions of loners who feel they should get out at least once a month. Indeed, these functions always feel paradoxical to me. A text or a book is usually made by an individual alone in a room, and are mostly read alone in a room. Literary readings are public performances: lovely spots of time in which writers and poets get to connect with their, mostly, invisible readers. And in New Orleans, readings are not just readings—they are always social and increasingly they hook into neighborhood events: charter school bazaars, co-op openings, gallery walks, playground constructions, and political protests.

Before the storm there weren’t as many literary events as at present. Or maybe that’s untrue. But what I know is that the literary events now feel more communal.

Photo: Mark Yakich. Credit: Harold Baquet.
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. For Readings/Workshops in New York support is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, The Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poet and cultural geographer Eric Magrane writes about his recent P&W-supported reading in Tucson for the POG: Poetry in Action reading series. POG also announced the Tumamoc Hill Writing project at this event, which will gather Tucson writers to explore Tumamoc Hill, a long term ecological research site and a natural and cultural treasure in the heart of Tucson. You can see Magrane’s interview with Paul Mirocha, artist in residence at Tumamoc and his co-presenter at this event, on Magrane’s Proximities blog on art, science, and environment, which he writes for the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment. Find Magrane’s Various Instructions for the Practice of Poetic Field Research here.

Eric MagraneWhat happens when we engage the spaces between poetry and science, between art and geography, between place and philosophy? What happens when all those categories get mixed up? I’d call the new arrangements that emerge a hybrid poetic geography, in which different fields of thought and knowledge collapse into each other.

A recent reading that I gave for the experimental poetics series POG: Poetry in Action revolved around these questions. As part of my reading, I surveyed the audience. While I read sections of my poem Symbiosis-Nothing Separate-Lyric Earth, I asked the audience to respond to a survey that I designed for the event. I’d like to share a few of the questions and responses: What is the difference between poetry and science?

live wine // I have no idea. // poetry doesn’t prove? // one looks from the inside and the other looks from the outside // nothing // the beat // the observer // use of words to describe the process // prediction // science <--- language ---> poetry // weather // Lichen = algae + fungus; Lichen = poetry + science // everything but “E” // tools

I culled these responses above completely on my own whim. In other words, the results are not generalizable and are completely subjective. (Subjectivity is another question, and exploring where subject-object duality breaks down is crucial to explorations of poetry and science. Poetry, I believe, can be a method to rigorously collapse subject and object in a way that’s different from the rigor of science.)

The following quantitatively details the responses to a single question from all thirty-seven completed surveys. (Responses that occurred twice are coded with a 2 x.)

What is the first nonhuman species that comes to mind?

Bird (redbird) // 2 x Snake // 2 x Amoeba // Roses // 2 x Aardvark // Rocks // Bear // 2 x Birds // Stool // Cat // Sea anemone // 2 x Cats // Cypress tree // Robots // Worm // Lemur // Porcupine // Stone people // Crow // Pig // Man and Woman // Palo verde // Rabbit // Nematodes // Liquidamber // Feline // Lizard // Half the people I see on the street // Scissor-tailed flycatcher // Lizards – but I had a gecko // Mesquite // Birds, Dogs a close second

I was very surprised that two people responded both for amoebas and aardvarks! I was struck also by the number of responses that stepped outside of a traditional definition of species to include other matter (Rocks, Stool, Robots, Stone people, Liquidamber). I attribute this to the creative audience and to the embedded vibrant materiality of poetry.

Photo: Eric Magrane reads with Lyric Earth. 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.

In September P&W-supported poet Tim Toaster Henderson was the featured performer at Coast Slam in Fort Bragg, California. First-time slam judge Gene Lock blogs about the event (with a little help by series director Christina Perez).

Tim Toaster HendersonA poetry slam, we now know, has rules. Poems are orally presented, in front of a microphone. The poems must fit in a time slot of three minutes. Structure, rhyme, and meter are optional. Poets come to the front of the audience, one at a time, and deliver their work. Then the judges (there were five of us at the September slam) hold up cards ranging from one to ten, and fractions thereof. So, the poet might receive an 8.7 or a 9.3, a la Olympics. A time-/scorekeeper records the scores, discards the high and low, and averages the remainder.

In preparation for judging, my wife, Susan, and I learned that points are awarded for two components: 1) content—does the poem successfully use metaphor, alliteration, image, and tone? and 2) presentation—does the poet read the poem off paper (not so good), or deliver it from memory using voice, eye contact, and body language?

The roughly ten poets that night ranged from high school students to middle-aged folk. Some poems were funny, political, or whimsical. Some seemed highly personal—chronicling inner turmoil, thoughts of suicide, etc. These poems were especially moving. If nothing else, this contest gave the poets an appreciative, or at least open-minded, audience, and it let them communicate effectively, and get feedback in the form of applause.

The featured poet of the night was Tim Toaster Henderson. He is big, with a mess of huge hair constantly spilling from a grey knit hat. He spoke of being biracial and performed a poem about a man going back to 1968 and having a conversation with Martin Luther King Jr. Another poem was a satire about the unconscious racism of a classmate’s mother. Hilarity turned biting, leaving us all to question how we too, might display our unwitting racism. When Tim switched topics, we learned about the short lives of insects and roared with laughter at their sex lives.

If I’d never gone, I wouldn’t much think about how such an event benefited poets, especially those wrestling with demons past and present. Now I see that it takes quite a bit of nerve and public speaking ability to deliver these poems to strangers.

The moderator, a poet herself, kept the program upbeat, and moving along well. My wife Susan was so inspired that she wrote a poem about the slam:

Slam

A metal chair
unfolded, absorbing
cold from the night air.

A clipboard clutching woman,
a white blaze
adorning her black hair.

A confident couple
she white, he half,
his tallness topped
with twisted tendril hair
ease concealing the depths
they will soon share.

A freshman poet,
his proud family filling out a row.
A pink-haired poet,
bubbling with anger and woe.

A tortured young woman
pushing back.
A bitten camper,
repellent left out of her pack.

A writer
with language and humor
at her command.
A first-timer
with notebook trembling in hand.

Gutsy people
seeking community,
rebuffing society,
altering history,
exploring mystery,
resolving polarity,
evoking hilarity

Opening themselves
to us more timid.

Photo: Tim Toaster Henderson (with pizza box) at Coast Slam. Credit: Tony Greene.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Sehba Sarwar blogs about her role as founding and artistic director of 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."

On October 1, 2012, Inprint, Inc., and the Poetry Society of America in association with Nuestra Palabra presented a panel discussion, Red, White & Blue: Poets on Politics, featuring Sandra Cisneros and Tony Hoagland and moderated by the Poetry Society’s executive director Alice Quinn. The gathering, held at the University of Houston, drew a mix of students and community members and there was a rich conversation about the urgency of poets to speak in response to social issues. Both Cisneros and Hoagland read work by poets they admire, followed by a discussion about the importance of giving voice to community. Sandra closed with a poem by Amber Past, who lives in Mexico but archives stories of indigenous women.

The next morning, I had a spontaneous breakfast with Sandra, who I know because I’ve been part of the Macondo Writers’ Workshop for the past four years. The group, which began fifteen years ago with twenty writers gathering at Sandra’s kitchen table, long before a nonprofit was formed, gave San Antonio and Austin-based writers a space to gather and share their work. Once Macondo evolved into a nonprofit arts organization, annual summer retreats were organized in San Antonio. At its peak, Macondo had as many as 80 members. We gathered in San Antonio from around the United States and Mexico to workshop our writing or to gain time to write. Today, the Macondo Writers’ Workshop is going through a transition as Sandra steps back to focus on her own writing.

Many artists, like Sandra, initiate arts organizations because they have a passion for their work and want to share art and resources with a larger community. However, there is a natural tension between the creation of art itself and the formalization of an arts organization. Art is not a prescribed process. One begins the journey without knowing the ending and most artists who start arts organizations either give up their own art or step away from the formal structures they create. Next year, Sandra will be taking a year’s retreat in Mexico so she can write. “I’m going to Mexico for the same reasons you go to Pakistan each year,” she tells me. “I need to be reinvigorated.”

The act of writing is solitary. We need community for feedback and support, but to create work, we need time to be alone. As I reflect on my visit with Sandra, I remember a January 2012 New York Times opinion piece by Susan Cain, who talks about how “group-work” is over-emphasized in today’s world. “Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption,” Cain states. Her words make sense to me. In the flutter of our time, when to remain visible one must tweet or post on Facebook and always keep a product in sight, the need to slow down and reflect is underestimated. I applaud writers and artists who resist producing, and instead, dedicate time to the process.

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.

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