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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

Dorothy Randall Gray is a certified life coach and best-selling author of Soul Between The Lines: Freeing Your Creative Spirit Through Writing (Avon/HarperCollins). In addition to six books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, her work has appeared in numerous anthologies, periodicals, and theater productions. Gray’s creative writing and personal growth seminars have inspired thousands throughout the world, including the participants in her P&W–supported workshops with Urban Possibilities. She has also served on the faculty at New York University, as a commentator for National Public Radio, and as special guest delegate to UNESCO. She can be reached at DRGheartland@gmail.com.

What makes your workshops unique?
When I teach workshops I feel like I am in my glory. I am energized and in love. I’ve been told that my joy is infectious. As a spiritual activist I believe I was put on this planet to make a difference. The motto on my business cards reads: “Transforming the world one word at a time.”

I’ve served local and global communities from Mumbai to Manhattan, Compton to Connecticut. My spirituality studies in Eastern, Western, African, Native American, and Asian systems also add a distinctive flavor to the classes. So, when people attend my workshops I believe they can taste the love, the world view, the spirituality, and my years of experience. 

What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
I’ve got a wicked sense of humor and we laugh a lot in my workshops. Laughter eases tension, relaxes the soul, and frees the imagination. Shy writers may lack confidence in their work, fear making a mistake, or feel intimidated in front of others. That’s why I create a safe, non-judgmental space in which writing is validated, not judged. I never ask people how long they’ve been writing or how much they’ve published. I often pair students so they can read to each other. A technique I developed over 18 years ago called “seeds” is also very helpful. Now many other writing teachers have found it useful to employ this nonjudgmental way of giving feedback that encourages and inspires.

Everything around us is inspiration for the creative spirit within everyone. I love finding different ways of stimulating that spirit—music, guided meditation, movement, visualizations, provocative exercises, inanimate objects, colors, artifacts found in an abandoned house, even a Scrabble board.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I believe living on purpose is its own reward. I can hardly think of any teaching experience that hasn’t been rewarding. Over the years I’ve worked with postgraduate students, HIV positive men, battered wives, gay and lesbian populations, cancer survivors, mental health professionals, and writers from Iceland, India, Brazil, Mexico, Canada, and Trinidad. One recent experience almost moved me to tears. After weeks of teaching my writing class of 15-year-old boys at a juvenile detention center I walked in one day and they broke into a round of applause.

What affect has this work had on your life and art?
This work inspires me to seek as many opportunities to teach as I can find, and to write as much as I encourage my students to write. The joy that this purpose-filled life gives helps me navigate the challenging passages of my own writing life. It encourages me to push past rejection letters, ungranted grants, and bills that seem to multiply like gremlins fed after midnight.

Poets & Writers has been a consistent and invaluable supporter of my writing life. Its Readings/Workshops program enabled Urban Possibilities to offer my workshops to a homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ skid row. P&W has also lent its support to Women Writers and Artists Matrix in upstate New York. In addition, its Southern California Workshop Leaders Retreats provide excellent opportunities for writing teachers to exchange ideas.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
I am moved to create new exercises and teaching methods. It keeps the teaching fresh and vibrant, and moves it toward the excitement of the creative unknown. This is particularly true of my work with incarcerated youth for Theatre of Hearts/YouthFirst.

What is the most memorable thing that’s happened as a result of one of your workshops?
One woman felt so empowered after one of my workshops that she stood up in the middle of a conference audience and announced, “I’m getting a divorce. Anyone know a good lawyer?” Another who hadn’t spoken to her mother in five years used my class exercises to write about the rift. At the end of the workshop series she called her mother and handed her those writings. They’ve been talking ever since.

Photo: Dorothy Randall Gray (center/foreground) with participants in a writing workshop sponsored by Urban Possibilities, which serves homeless men and women in downtown Los Angeles. Credit: Craig Johnson Photography.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. 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.

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.

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