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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W–supported writer Beth Lisick is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Everybody Into the Pool (Regan Books/Harper Collins) and, most recently, Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames (City Lights Publishers). This spring, Lisick will be part of the P&W–supported Sister Spit tour with RADAR Productions. She lives in Brooklyn.

Beth LisickWhat are your reading do's?
I always think about the type of event at which I’ll be reading and try to pick something I think will work in that venue. Is it a solo reading, group reading, cabaret-style show? Stuff like that. I mean, your work is your work and you only have so much to choose from, but I always think about it from an audience’s perspective (which I don’t do while I’m writing.) And sometimes I know I’ll give a better reading if it’s something I haven’t read out loud a bunch of times. I hate a canned reading.

And your reading don’ts?
Don’t ever, ever, ever, go on too long. The longest I will ever read is twenty minutes, but usually it’s more like fifteen with a Q&A or else some other dumb, surprise element I come up with.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I never over-prepare. I’ve learned not to get drunk or anything beforehand, but I also like to leave it open and see what it feels like once I get there. Some people are going to feel better if they’re totally prepared, but my favorite readings have always been when I leave a few things up in the air until the last minute.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
If bottles of gin are a “comment,” then that. If not, then “I worked with your dad at Lockheed Missiles and Spaces in 1978” was pretty good.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I don’t know that I have a crowd-pleaser. In between the poems or stories I’m reading, I try to be myself, be the person I am with my friends and my family. That always helps.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
I’ve been doing this for twenty years so a lot of shit has happened. I got booed by a very vociferous crowd when I opened for Neil Young. I’ve stage-dived and had my shirt torn off. I’ve made lifelong friends with people I’ve met at readings. I’ve completely had what felt like an aneurysm and forgotten what I was doing. I’ve been heckled by lesbians who were mad that I was a straight person on tour with lesbians. I’ve looked out in the audience and realized that there was somebody out there that I’d rather not have hear what I’m about to read and chickened out and changed at the last minute. And sometimes I’ve said fuck it and read it anyway.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Reading out loud used to completely inform my writing because open mics were how I started writing in the first place. Over time that has changed, but I still read my stuff out loud to myself after I’ve written something. I want it to sound good. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but my favorite stuff always ends up being the stuff that sounds really killer and dynamic when it’s read out loud.

Photo: Beth Lisick. Credit: Amy Sullivan.

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

Heather Dubrow, director of the Poets Out Loud reading series, holds the John D. Boyd SJ, Chair in the Poetic Imagination at Fordham University. A critic of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English literature, she has published six scholarly books, a coedited collection of essays, and an edition of As You Like It (as well as articles on pedagogy and educational policy). Wearing her other hat as poet, she is the author of a collection titled Forms and Hollows (Cherry Grove Collections), two chapbooks, and a play produced by a community theatre. The journals where her poetry has appeared include Prairie Schooner, the Southern Review, the Southwest Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Yale Review. Two of her poems have been set to music and performed, and one was featured  on the Poetry Daily site.)

After I’d taught for many years at Carleton College and the University of Wisconsin (and more briefly elsewhere), Fordham University offered me the John D. Boyd SJ, Chair in the Poetic Imagination—an appointment that I might well have accepted for that title alone. When I arrived, Elisabeth Frost was heroically directing both the Poets Out Loud readings and the contest whose winner, the POL Prize book, is published by Fordham University Press. But about a year later Beth decided to focus on the latter portfolio, her work as editor of the Poets Out Loud book series (she shortly afterwards expanded the program to include publishing a second book each year)—and I happily inherited the program of poetry readings.

If anyone else is in line for such an inheritance, hold out for a series like POL: I am fortunate to direct a program that benefits from having been alive and well for over two decades (we celebrated its twentieth anniversary with the gala event at Lincoln Center’s Rubinstein Atrium featuring J. D. McClatchy and Julie Sheehan and from all the work of Elisabeth Frost and earlier directors. And we benefit from being in New York, with its splendid supply of both distinguished and promising poets.

Of course, our metropolitan location has its downsides, too. Hotel prices and other expenses are steep enough that we can almost never invite out-of-town writers. Fortunately, the Jesuit commitment to poetry, exemplified by and perhaps itself inherited from Gerard Manley Hopkins, as well as the much appreciated support of Poets & Writers, keeps us afloat, though on a shoestring (if shoestrings, like those airplane cushions, can function as flotation devices). Another challenge of being in New York is that competition for audiences is intense here; in contrast, at, say, Carleton, the visiting writer was usually the only game in town. But we hold all the readings at Fordham’s campus in Manhattan, near Lincoln Center, which is readily accessible to people throughout the city, and we regularly attract audiences of about ninety to a hundred people, with nearly twice that for a few events.

I’ve happily continued many longstanding POL policies. We’re deeply and enthusiastically committed to diversity in the poetic styles and ethnicities of the readers and similarly committed to representing both established and emerging writers. In other words, POL refuses to be drafted into the poetry wars. Admission remains free. And our audience is also diverse, encompassing everyone from high school and university students from Fordham and around the city to very distinguished poets to members of the general public.

Taking over a series that was already going strong opened up possibilities for additional initiatives. Looking inwards to the Fordham community, we now encourage entering students to become familiar with POL from the get-go by connecting our September reading to the themes of First-Year Orientation. Looking outwards, we have an outreach to high school students from underserved communities; our current partners are Cristo Rey New York High School, the High School for Business, Enterprise, and Technology, and the organization Girls Write Now. Students from those groups participate in prereading workshops on the poets appearing that night—which those poets visit—before going to the reading itself. Like other members of the audience, they have the opportunity to enter drawings and win a free inscribed book by one of the evening’s writers. In the final event of the year, some of these high school participants read their own work together with a distinguished writer in what we call a poetry sandwich (in past years Edward Hirsch, Marie Howe, and Anne Waldman appeared in these sessions, while this year we look forward to Elizabeth Alexander’s participation); in 2014 we’ll be publishing poems by all the students in the workshops, not just those who read that night, on our site. And last year POL took its show on the road—or rather on the subway—by setting up another outreach, this time to senior citizens, by reading in a few residences.

Poets Out Loud has also been very pleased to build bridges to other poetry organizations. We’ve been cosponsoring events with the Poetry Society of America for two years now—this year’s readers were Frank Bidart and Jonathan Galassi. In 2013 Fordham initiated and co-organized a series of readings and discussions on the subject of Donne and Contemporary Poetry, with participants including the Barnard Women Poets series, the New York Public Library, and the John Donne Society; future events in the series are planned at the interdisciplinary organization Helix and Fordham itself.

Well, actually, we had a splendid program in that Donne and Contemporary Poetry series all set up in February at Fordham (Molly Peacock reading, Nigel Smith performing his settings of Donne poems), only to be snowed out. John Donne, Un-done, as he apparently wrote himself. But I assured his agent that the event is being rescheduled in the fall. (Visit www.fordham.edu/pol for a forthcoming announcement).

The touchstones for poetry that Emily Dickinson famously identified also aptly describe directing a poetry reading series. “If...it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me”—yes, that describes running a poetry series when an elaborately planned event like that one is cancelled or when one discovers the day before a reading that another group is widely announcing that it has booked the room assigned to us. On the other hand, Dickinson also declares of poetry, “I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off”—and the top of my head has been delightfully and delightedly blown off by the readings themselves and by the audience’s responses. Witness comments such as “Fantastic series. Has reignited my love of poetry” and “Much more entertaining than I had ever expected to find poetry” and "Poets Out Loud reminds me how and why I fell in love with poetry and why it will always be a part of me.”

Top Photo: Heather Dubrow. Photo Credit: Katie Lockhart. Middle Photo: J. M. McClatchy.  Photo Credit: Michael Dames. Bottom Photo: Julie Sheehan. Photo Credit: Michael Dames.

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 NewYork City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Dimitri Keriotis’s short story collection The Quiet Time is forthcoming this fall from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Flyway, BorderSenses, Evening Street Review, and other literary journals. He teaches English at Modesto Junior College and co-coordinates the High Sierra Institute. He and his family live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Anyone flipping through Poets & Writers Magazine will notice a number of ads for writing workshops, all of which sound tasty for one reason or another. Like probably millions of other writers, I’ve participated in different workshops and have benefited from working with some talented writers who have led enriching workshops. Without question, these gatherings are worth their weight in gold. But what if you can’t afford their often hefty price tags? Writers workshops are not the only place for writers to go when wanting to give their writing a boost, especially if they want to pay close to nothing.

For the past eight summers I’ve been fortunate enough to teach workshops at the High Sierra Institute (HSI). An extension of the Yosemite Community College District, HSI is housed at Baker Station, a former U.S. Forest Service field station in the middle of the Sierra Nevada. HSI’s remote locale enhances the workshop experience; our busy lives, the ones that involve jobs and bills and laundry, become suspended as we enter a weekend of reflecting, writing, and critiquing. This alternative to a writers workshop is far too mellow to call a boot camp (I factor in a siesta into the schedule), but it’s certainly an immersion of sorts. Also, because HSI is far from a city, cell and Internet services do not exist, so our heads are in our stories, our attention on each other instead of on a smartphone or a website. When we’re not in session discussing writing, we’re eating meals together or sitting beneath pines or around a campfire talking—mainly sharing personal stories. The weekend courses I’ve led involve a lot of writing and discussion of participants’ pieces. By the third day the writers are concentrating on the piece that holds the most personal significance and are revising it to present at a final workshop. Writers leave with many pages of new and revised prose and usually a clear understanding of where they want to take their writing.

All of the courses at the High Sierra Institute are offered through the Yosemite Community College District, so college units are attached to them. My point is that the hours of my weekend course, which runs Friday through Sunday, translate to one unit, costing California residents $63, and non Californians $230. Lodging at HSI in the Bunk House, a cabin, or campsite, is free. Participants bring their own food. I’ve seen free online workshops but have yet to find a face-to-face experience that can compete with this price, though I wish there were many more out there.

The price creates eclectic groups. Retirees, college kids, and people mid-career. Liberals and conservatives. People with and without money. Our pursuit of writing our stories brings us together. The dirt-cheap price enables such a coming together that rarely exists at writing workshops, which essentially cater to those with enough money to enjoy the honey. Writers should not have to mortgage their homes or hawk their cars to afford opportunities that work on their craft. It’s nice to be able to give writers this chance.

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

Cati Porter is a poet, editor, and community arts facilitator. She is the author of Seven Floors Up (Mayapple Press, 2008), as well as several chapbooks, most recently The Way Things Move The Dark (dancing girl press, 2013). Her work is included in the anthologies Women Write Resistance, White Ink, Letters to the World, and Bedside Guide to No Tell Motel–Second Floor. The recipient of poetry awards from So To Speak: A Feminist Journal of Language and Art, Crab Creek Review, and Gravity & Light, she is founder and editor of the online journals Poemeleon: A Journal of Poetry and Inlandia: A Literary Journey. She is executive director of the Inlandia Institute. For many years, P&W has supported Porter's events as both a poet and presenter.

Cati PorterWhat makes your organization and its programs unique?
Based in Riverside, California, and beginning in partnership with the City of Riverside and Heyday Books, the Inlandia Institute as a regionally focused independent literary nonprofit is unique. Of course, we do everything that you might expect: We publish books, host author events and book signings, and offer writing workshops and other related programs. What it is that sets us apart is our dedication to Inland Southern California, defined as much by the people as by the geography, and the broad range of programs that we offer.

In addition to literature and literacy, we also take on cultural and environmental projects that are of significance to our region. One example of this is Women Making Waves. This project recorded the oral histories of women activists who were integral to the preservation of our region’s open spaces, like Sycamore Canyon Park and Santa Rosa Plateau. The project was later integrated into our website as an interactive permanent exhibit and resource. Another is an upcoming publication of memoirs centered around the burning of Lowell School and the subsequent desegregation of the Riverside Unified School District, the first large school district to voluntarily do so, and which will include interviews with former Lowell students, community leaders, and others who had insight into that tumultuous period.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
We’re proud of all of our programs and projects, but we were thrilled this past fall when Inlandia had the opportunity to partner with Poets & Writers to present Sal y Muerte, a day-long workshop and reading project held at the Salton Sea—such a heartbreakingly beautiful and desolate location, but completely ripe for creating art. The project included workshops in poetry and prose with Sandra Alcosser, Brandon Cesmat, and desert natives and inveterate Inlandians Maureen Alsop and Ruth Nolan. The workshops culminated in a reading by campfire accompanied by Cesmat’s guitar. This is the sort of workshop that embodies what Inlandia is all about—bringing people together where language and landscape intersect.

And I would be remiss to not mention that we are also extremely proud of our new Inlandia Literary Journeys project, in partnership with the Riverside Press–Enterprise. ILJ includes a weekly literary column, video interview series, and affiliated blog.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
The first literary event I ever hosted—eight years ago, back in 2006—I was petrified. Above all, I am a writer, and I have an affinity for hiding behind a monitor or a book. But now, through the Inlandia Institute, I host events on average of once per week, so while I do still get butterflies, it has become much easier. I admit that I began presenting literary events out of the largely selfish motivation of wanting to attend more readings closer to home. It has enriched my own sense of what is possible, both in literature and life.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
I have watched as the Inlandia Institute has built a solid community of creative thinkers, writers, and readers, rising up out of common interests—in this case, language, self-expression, and an appreciation for this place that we call home. In the last few years, other groups have risen up here too—I'm thinking specifically of PoetrIE and the Wild Lemon Project, whose missions are similar to our own. Organizations like these and the cadre of literary-minded folks that run them are what help to forge this region’s literary identity and put it on the map, so to speak. Literary programs encourage engagement with our humanity and with other human beings, something as necessary as air, but not necessarily as easy to come by. The Inlandia Institute is helping to change that.

Photo: Cati Porter at an event at Cellar Door Books. Credit: Matt Nadelson.

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

Dimitri Keriotis’s short story collection The Quiet Time is forthcoming this fall from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Flyway, BorderSenses, Evening Street Review, and other literary journals. He teaches English at Modesto Junior College and co-coordinates the High Sierra Institute. He and his family live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

We’ve all heard Thoreau’s declaration, “I went to the woods to live deliberately….” Considering that Walden resulted, maybe he should have written, “I went to the woods to write deliberately….” Thoreau probably wasn’t the first whose writing was fueled by a natural setting, and he certainly wasn’t the last.

Years ago I was on the faculty for the Tahoe Wilderness Institute, a ten-day interdisciplinary program that took place largely in the backcountry. I taught the literature and creative writing portions. High above the Tahoe basin, I would witness the great influence the natural world can have on writing. During one session we discussed The Dharma Bums atop a peak not far from Matterhorn Peak, the mountain Kerouac wrote about, and then we wrote about the mountains in our lives. Those serious about mountaineering wrote about their favorite climbs; others delved into other mountains—divorce, alcoholism, rough childhoods. Following that session, some students bounded down the mountain a la Japhy Ryder from The Dharma Bums, while others quietly descended, lost in their own thoughts, most likely processing the words they’d written.

My time in Tahoe led me to teach workshop-based courses at the High Sierra Institute (HSI), a satellite campus of the Yosemite Community College District, at Baker Station, a 1930s field station owned by the U.S. Forest Service. While HSI isn’t in the backcountry, it’s in the middle of the Sierra Nevada far from serious civilization. The remote locale creates a setting devoid of distractions, including cell and internet services. Participants come to HSI and drop anchor, staying there (for free) during the duration of the course. Our lives become suspended as we enter three-day weekends of writing. HSI’s unplugged nature and the absence of personal responsibilities opens up mountains of time. We devote roughly ten hours a day to examining, discussing, producing, and sharing writing, all sprinkled throughout the day. The other time is spent taking siestas, sharing meals together, sitting next to the Stanislaus River or around the campfire, walking, reflecting. This kind of isolation and immersion, something few of us find in our regular lives, fuels our pursuits on the page.

Every summer I see impressive writing emerge like magic. As much as I’d like to take credit for the prose produced, the setting has as much to do with the experience’s successes as anything else. We breathe the alpine air, hear the river’s running water, look up at mountains studded with granite boulders among towering pines, sit in a nearby meadow, and something shifts inside. A calming happens. It’s as if all that beauty takes hold of us and inspires us to be true to our stories, to be true to ourselves. It’s not uncommon for writers to explore narratives about deeply personal events that they’ve wanted to write about for years but have been unable to. And once one writer shares such a piece, which always happens, the others come forward, as if an impediment is dislodged, and important stories flow forth. This process produces a lovely level of trust among the group members, one that tacitly illustrates that this space and time are about creating and respecting our stories. While most share their work, I do not require that everyone do so except at the end for a final reading. My point is that while not required, everyone usually shares willingly because of the trust that results from the relaxed and accepting atmosphere created by the environment.

The rustic nature of the High Sierra Institute also contributes to the overall experience. The buildings are simple and hardly stand between us and the natural world. There’s a no-fluff factor up there, and that ultimately benefits us. While HSI has electricity, hot water, a fully functioning kitchen, and loaner laptops, these amenities provide enough comfort without pulling us away from our focus: writing. We don’t get yanked out of story mode via reality shows on cable or an unwelcome text or a happy hour with free peanuts. Small wonder that our free time usually involves casual talk about the experiences that have shaped our lives, which obviously lends itself to putting pen to paper.

Obviously HSI isn’t for every writer. Years ago I encouraged my friend Marquita to join us for a weekend of writing in the mountains. I showed her the colorful flier, convinced that she’d sign up in a heartbeat. She studied the flier, carefully examining the photographs of people sitting in a circle under a Jeffery Pine and of boulders alongside the river, her eyes moving all over them. Then she nearly flung it at me and said, “No way. Look at all the places where snakes are waiting to come out and bite you!” When I explained that no harmful snakes lived up there, she said, “Who cares? They’re still out there somewhere. The woods scare the hell out of me!” Fear doesn’t seem to make for a recipe for good writing, so HSI and Marquita aren’t a good match. But for others, getting away to a peaceful place in nature, wherever it might be, could be the medicine needed to write in ways we never imagined.

Top: Dimitri Keriotis. Credit: Ingrid Keriotis. Middle: A writing workshop in the mountains. Credit: Doug Higgins. Bottom: Writers sharing stories around the evening campfire. Credit: Doug Higgins.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Nancy Hathaway has written books on astronomy (The Friendly Guide to the Universe), photography (Native American Portraits), mythology, astrology, and more. Her shorter pieces have been published in periodicals that range from Alimentum and PaperTape to American Recorder and Self. She lives in New York City. 

In 2009 I was invited to lead a writing workshop at St. Margaret’s House, an independent-living facility for the elderly and disabled that operates in lower Manhattan under the auspices of Trinity Church. The prospect excited me, except for one thing: The members of the workshop, which is funded in part by Poets & Writers under its Readings & Workshops program, had been meeting for years with another writer. Their community, I imagined, was fully established, and I wasn’t certain I would fit in.

I also didn’t know how to begin, though I’d taught composition many times. My friend Sally, a veteran workshop leader, suggested that I bring something in for the first day. Everyone likes a handout, she said. So I printed out a page of quotations about writing. There were inspiring passages from Kafka and Annie Dillard, along with rueful pronouncements from William Styron (“Let's face it, writing is hell”), Joy Williams (“Nothing the writer can do is ever enough”), and Flaubert (“Writing is a dog’s life, but the only one worth living”). These downbeat quotations from distinguished writers reassured and consoled me. Writing is hard—and I’m not the only one who feels that way. I was sure the writers of St. Margaret’s House would relate.

But they did not relate. As I ran through my quotations, they seemed mystified and faintly hostile. Why, they wondered, would Willa Cather believe, “Most of the basic material a writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen”? That couldn’t be true. (Flannery O’Connor upped the age to eighteen.)

And, sexism aside, why would Donald Barthelme say, “A writer is a man who, embarking upon a task, does not know what to do”?

And what did Red Smith mean about opening a vein?

I tried to explain. Eventually a septuagenarian in a floral blouse asked if we could change the subject and talk about Hemingway.

Absolutely.

She said that a series of electro-shock treatments had wiped out his memory. He couldn’t write, and that’s why he committed suicide, and what did I think about that?

I said I thought it was a tragedy.

She couldn’t stop thinking about it, she said, whereupon a luminous, white-haired woman at the other end of the table leaned forward, eyes blazing. “When did that happen?” she demanded. “1961? 1962? Get over it!”

By the end of the session, I was worried. Timed writing exercises on specific topics had not gone well, and free-writing was a disaster. Leading this workshop was going to be rougher than I thought.

That was almost five years ago. Since then, despite diminished hearing, vision problems, mobility limitations, and other age related torments, most of the people I met that night (and a few new ones) show up weekly, pages in hand. Their writing has improved, as have their critical skills. Honest and encouraging in approximately equal measure, they really are a community, and I am honored to be part of it.

I date the turnaround to the third session, when I brought in two poems: “The Game” by Marie Howe and “Scrabble in Heaven” by Jane Shore. After we talked about them, I asked everyone to write about a game, and I set my iPod ticking. The results astonished me. A retiree who had been paralyzed by random prompts wrote nonstop about Monopoly. A former professor conjured up a long-ago badminton game. A second-wave feminist (and well-published journalist) tied a cogent political analysis to the plunder and betrayal involved in the board game Risk. There were pieces about checkers, dominoes, and Twister, and even a rumination on Freecell, the online solitaire game. Playing Freecell, wrote the Hemingway fan, “My breath becomes even, my blood oxygenated.”

Since then, we have read a lot of poems, and the workshop has been transformed. Poems are better than prompts, even when they are used as prompts. Standard prompts may stir up memories but they offer nothing by way of literary models. Poems do that and more.

First, they show how other writers excavate sensitive material and thus they are liberating. Have mixed feelings about your niece? Read Louise Glück. Your father? Start with Roethke and go from there. Anxious about, say, cancer? Read Elise Partridge, Rosanna Warren, and, while you’re at it, Whitman. Poetry peeks into every heart and under every stone. It reveals all—and it’s short.

I like to bring in paired poems – W. H. Auden and William Carlos Williams on Breughel, for instance – but mostly I use individual poems. Stephen Dunn’s “Death of a Colleague” caused a commotion, raised voices and all. Katrina Vandenburg’s “Handwriting Analysis” inspired an essay that I am positive will become one woman’s first outside publication. Christopher Smart’s “Jubilate Agno,” written circa 1760, occasioned an ode to the pharmacy chain Duane Reade.

A writing workshop is not meant to be a literature class. But how can it not be? Even for writers of prose, reading poetry illuminates subject matter, disentangles emotions, highlights the importance of craft, and demonstrates precision in language.

But there is one thing it cannot do: persuade writers to rewrite—not merely to make isolated corrections but to rethink, rephrase, even reorganize. Rewriting is a complex business, and many members of the workshop resist it.

I don’t blame them. Rewriting can be tedious (and worse). Still, every spring, as the deadline for our annual literary review—a booklet—draws near, the workshop participants sit down with their stories, personal essays, and occasional poems and, I am happy to say, revise.

I attribute that miracle to the power of publication. Because poetry is stimulating, and self-expression is valuable and satisfying, but publication, however humble, reaches beyond the self, beyond the workshop, and into the world. Publication galvanizes.

Top: Nancy Hathaway. Photo Credit: George Sussman.

Bottom:  Journal 49. Photo Credit: Nancy Hathaway.

Support for Readings & Workshops in New York City was provided, in part, by 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 A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Dimitri Keriotis’s short story collection The Quiet Time is forthcoming this fall from Stephen F. Austin State University Press. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the Beloit Fiction Journal, Flyway, BorderSenses, Evening Street Review, and other literary journals. He teaches English at Modesto Junior College and co-coordinates the High Sierra Institute. He and his family live in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.



At the end of last semester, memoirist and poet Suzanne Roberts came to Modesto Junior College (MJC) to read and to talk with students. A couple of nights after the event, I walked into an English 101 class and instantly heard, “That was really something Thursday night.” Tito, a re-entry student in his fifties, was talking to me. He repeated, “That was really something.”

“Yeah? What specifically?” I asked.

“Just going and hearing an author, a real author. That’s something I’ve never done before. I didn’t know what to expect, but, man, was that really something. I can’t wait to read her book.”

I teach in a community where literary events are as rare as double rainbows. Not surprisingly, most of my students have not heard of a book reading, which makes attending one out of the question. Even those who have heard of readings rarely want to go to one. P&W funding has allowed our school to consistently bring writers to MJC for the past eight years. Comments like Tito’s are not unusual. But to be honest, most students who attend our readings do so because the event is part of a class, or because it is offered as extra credit. It is unfortunate that just like many of my colleagues, I resort to such a tactic to ensure a decent turnout—attach an extra credit assignment to the reading. This move feels like a foul, as if I’m paying my students to become part of a large enough audience. It saddens me to think that without this approach only five students would probably show up. But is dangling a carrot wrong if it helps students grow? Tito’s comments suggest not. Those of us who savor literary events feel personal growth happening as we listen to a writer deliver a gripping passage, answer a juicy question, or discuss issues of craft, so we return time and time again, but how can those unaware know to go? They can’t unless guided there by way of an incentive.

More often than not, my students later report that a reading was worth their time. After the Suzanne Roberts reading, a student e-mailed me about it: “As I headed to the Little Theatre, I really wanted to be at home on my couch playing the latest version of Grand Theft Auto [this is verbatim!], but I needed the extra credit, so I went. I thought the whole thing was going to be stupid, but I’m glad I went. She was cool, and I learned something new. I might even go to another one someday.”

Enough of my students have been turned on to literature by hearing authors read their work, answer their questions, and talk with them one-on-one while their books get signed that I won’t dare ditch my approach. We don’t always know what’s good for us until someone basically forces us to do something that can have a lasting effect.

Anyone for some extra credit?

Photo: Dimitri Keriotis. Credit: Ingrid Keriotis.
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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