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Readings & Workshops Blog

October writer-in-residence Sehba Sarwar blogs about Voices of the Displaced, a workshop led by P&W-supported Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB). 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."

In the spring of 2003, I began co-facilitating a Voices Breaking Boundaries (VBB) writing workshop with another Pakistani poet Shaista Parveen. At that time, VBB was still young—we were in our third year and I had recently quit working at a high school, where I had been teaching creative writing and journalism. I didn’t have much salary in those days and my only income was through workshops that VBB writers and I taught at local schools.

Though I had fun with teenagers, I wanted to work more with adults. So Shaista and I began planning a workshop that spoke to the rootless-ness we both felt, whether we were in Karachi, Houston, or somewhere else. Shaista and I dedicated much thought to our workshop title—just as VBB co-founders and I had spent time honing in on the right title for “our” organization three years earlier. We finally agreed on “Voices of the Displaced,” a title that rang true for us. It also attracted a pool of Houston-based writers who were born in other countries or elsewhere in the United States, who had come from communities of color, or identified themselves as GLBT/queer. Project Row Houses offered us a meeting space and co-sponsored the series. We sent out emails inviting people to join—VBB didn’t even have a website at that time. Our first group was intimate with only six participants, but over time, the group expanded. We always brought food and drinks and our gatherings offered formal writing but also a sense of community.

VBB’s Voices of the Displaced series lasted about two years, ending a few months before my daughter was born. But once the formal workshops ended, a group of us filled the void by forming a writing/performance group, Displaced Corps. For another year, we met weekly to write, critique each other’s work, and perform together.

Since that initial spurt of adult workshops and then subsequent break, VBB has gone back to offering writing workshops for educators and students. We also continue working on the issues we explored through Voices of the Displaced by producing theme-specific multidisciplinary shows such as Politiqueer, Artists/Mothers and What’s Color Got to Do With It?

Often I think about the title of our group and recognize that the feeling of “displacement” is true of communities not just in Houston but also in urban spaces around the world. To live in the same city as our grandparents, attend the same schools and colleges as our parents, or stay in the neighborhoods in which we were born is becoming rare. Human migration and movement makes the recording of memories and family stories precious and so much of VBB’s work continues to be focused on revisiting histories through different lenses, capturing neighborhood stories, and teaching workshops that create connections between the past, present, and the future.

Photo: Sehba Sarwar (right) with another workshop participant.

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.

P&W-sponsored poet Gowri Koneswaran is also a singer and lawyer whose parents immigrated to the United States from Sri Lanka. Her advocacy has addressed animal welfare, the environment, and the rights of prisoners and the criminally accused. A Lannan Fellow of the Folger Shakespeare Library and member of the 2010 DC Southern Fried Slam team, she has performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors (NYC), the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Gowri’s poetry has appeared in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Bourgeon, and Lantern Review. She leads poetry and communications workshops and hosts open mics at Busboys and Poets and BloomBars, where she also serves as poetry coordinator. She tweets on-the-spot haiku at twitter.com/gowricurry.

One of the things I most enjoy about sharing poetry—through workshops, publication and performance—is the quiet power it has to open us up to diverse experiences and backgrounds. With the assistance of the Readings/Workshops program administered by Poets & Writers, I’ve twice been given the opportunity to perform my poetry in collaboration with Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company.

In Sanskrit, “dakshina” means “offering.” Beyond performing both bharata natyam and modern dance, Dakshina/Daniel Phoenix Singh Dance Company offers the community events that celebrate important figures in South Asian history through other art forms.

As part of its 7th Annual Fall Festival of Indian Arts that took place in October 2010 in Washington, D.C., the company organized a joint performance to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday. I was invited to perform original poetry prior to a musical performance by accomplished sitarist Alif Laila. While we were both familiar with the dance company and founder Daniel Phoenix Singh, we forged a connection as artists through the event and particularly appreciated the ways the other’s work complemented our own.

We were both invited to reconvene for a joint performance in May 2011 in celebration of Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday. Tagore is not only a revered Bengali poet but was also the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

After each of these performances, I met a number of attendees who were incredibly moved by experiencing poetry in this way for the first time. Some had even jotted down phrases and lines that touched them most deeply.

As an artist who views my poetry as one avenue to educate, inspire thought, advocate change, and celebrate diversity, I am especially grateful to P&W's Readings/Workshops program for facilitating my participation in these events.

As Tagore wrote, "The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence." By reaching out to audiences who may not typically be exposed to the poet's craft, writers can explore the power of poetry to unite readers and listeners across varied backgrounds and experiences.

Photo: Gowri Koneswaran. Photo Credit: Les Talusan.

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

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.

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