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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

Dimitri Keriotis’s short story collection The Quiet Time is forthcoming 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 the news about the economy creeping back to life. This notion recently became real when a colleague and I wanted to bring writer Suzanne Roberts to Modesto Junior College to read from her memoir Almost Somewhere. I hit up my dean for some money for a P&W matching grant, and without pausing, he said, “I can find something for you.” As I walked out of his office, I wondered if I’d heard him correctly. The last time I asked for money I’d been laughed out the door.

Ours is a familiar story: Over the past few years of the Great Recession, the funding for nearly all things literary went bone dry. Our college’s literary journal—Quercus Review—though ten years strong with submissions from such heavy hitters as XJ Kennedy, Naomi Shihab Nye, Amiri Baraka, and Wanda Coleman was killed from the college budget in Robespierre guillotine fashion. And support for author events didn’t fare much better. Whereas we’d previously brought a poet to campus in the fall and a prose writer in the spring, and were able to pay them four figures, we found ourselves clawing at a few lost quarters found in the faculty lounge furniture. Hard times had hit. When I talked with friends at other campuses, they told me more of the same. I thought our college’s lit-event life was long dead.

But all hope was far from lost. Writer Daniel Chacón, who’d once taught at MJC, contacted me about coming to read and visit classrooms. When I told him that I wasn’t sure if I could scrape together a three-digit compensation, he said, “I understand. Whatever you can do will be fine.” Chacón’s response led the way, encouraging us over the next few years to invite other authors. We knew better than to try to offer two readings a year, so we scaled it down to one. Over the next three years we were able to average a reading a year because the writers essentially repeated Chacón’s message. It seemed as if an overall understanding spread across the literary community: We’ll do what it takes to breathe life into the events that keep our community alive. But still, we had to pay the artists something. Even when they said that they would come for free, and a couple did, it would have been criminal to take them up on it. One year we tapped a forgotten fund designated for literary events established back in the day, which allowed us to pull together enough funding to apply for a P&W matching grant. Another year we knocked on any door whose office had the faintest smell of money. The only one that came through was that of the Associated Students, the student government. After that we walked into a desert. Those who’d supported us in the past not only didn’t throw us a bone, they all but slammed their doors in our faces. We felt strongly about continuing our practice of visiting authors, and we became scared of what would happen if we stopped. While we could handle not offering our community a reading one year, we worried that the Pooh-Bahs in charge of the money would get used to writers not coming to campus, which would make it tough to bring them back when better times returned. Keeping our momentum up, though our number of readings had dropped by a half, was vital. We’d been lucky enough to receive P&W matching grants in the past, but what if you had nothing for P&W to match? Feeling gutsy, I called P&W’s LA office and asked this question. I nearly fell out of my chair when they encouraged us to apply anyway. We did, and P&W allowed our wheels to keep turning.

No doubt we have yet to fully return to fat times, but it seems like we’ve made it through the financial bottleneck. This past fall poet and memoirist Suzanne Roberts did come to campus, and this spring we’re bringing poet Patricia Smith. We’re able to offer greater compensations than we have in years. It’s a nice feeling, returning to flusher times that result in writers being rewarded more than has been possible of late. No doubt such rough times will return someday, but the lean times have taught us that we never have to completely do without literary inspiration.

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.

Krista Wissing is a licensed therapist who has facilitated expressive arts therapy experiences for people impacted by brain injury, Alzheimer’s disease, medical illness, addiction, co-occurring disorders, and trauma. She founded The Rediscovery Project in 2012 and is currently the Day Program Coordinator for Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area. Expressive writing has been critical to Krista’s own healing process, and her work has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Bitchbuzz.com, and Know Journal (upcoming). She recently taught a workshop for people with brain injuries at the Institute for Poetic Medicine in Larkspur, California. We asked her to blog about the experience.

Krista WissingIn my years of working with people who’ve experienced an acquired brain injury (ABI), I often hear how destabilizing and isolating the cognitive, emotional, social, and physical aftermath of ABI can be.

The thing about ABI is that nine times out of ten there is no warning. Be it a head trauma, stroke or a virus attacking the brain, ABI barrels in like an unexpected wind and divides one’s life narrative into two—life before and life after brain injury.

It’s the kind of phenomena that rocks one’s foundation to the core.

It’s the kind of phenomena that leaves the bearer asking tough questions. Why did this happen to me? What kind of life lies ahead? Where and with whom do I belong? And what of my dreams? My purpose? My identity? My faith?

My Right Arm
Blake Herod

My right arm was my buddy. Grade school
rock and ball throwing. Nose
and scab picking. Young breast holding
nipple rolling. Holder of all the
body making, body destroying
drugs, liquor, food, for a good time
call, wait a minute, hold this.
Can you climb all the way to the
top, gesture drawing, paintbrush holding
steering wheel with three on the
tree, 5-speed, with granny gear,
floor shifting, board paddling wave
riding. Pool lap swimming. Nail pounding,
board lifting, torch holding, bike riding,
throttle whacking, old buddy.
My future by building the foundation.

Now it’s not.

It’s the kind of life-altering experience that holds the transformative potential of the Hero’s Journey and merits the healing elixirs of poetry, art, and community.

This is the heart and soul of the Rediscovery Project, a ten-week group that supports ABI survivors in uncovering their own Hero’s Journey through poetry and expressive art. The project culminates by bridging project participants with the community at large through a public poetry reading and print anthology.

Out of the Darkness anthology The project was conceived of in 2011 during a discussion I had with poetry therapist John Fox, CPT. Years earlier, during grad school, I attended John’s poetry therapy class and felt an affinity for his work with poetry as healer. By 2012, John’s organization, Institute of Poetic Medicine, was on board to graciously fund the program. Rediscovery Project was launched later that year at Brain Injury Network of the Bay Area and continued in 2013, thanks to funding from Institute of Poetic Medicine, P&W’s Readings/Workshops program, and Bread for the Journey-Marin Chapter.

When people who suffer come together to heal, magic happens. To bear witness to this is sacred. If we listen closely and with care, what might we hear? If we lean in, what might we feel? Might we hear the Hero’s call to adventure—its cadence, pulse, and urgency? Might we feel its gravitational pull, even at its most tentative, to life experiences that shake, shift, and shape us?

And when we finally wake up to our own Hero’s Journey, how do we explore the truth of what brings us here today?

Mosaic
Philippa Courtney

The white wolf wails inside my soul,
cries in the darkness—Make me whole.

Summon the shaman.
Fan the flame.
Scatter the ashes—chant my name.

Gather the pieces, shard and sliver
silent brain cells in a quiver

Fly like an arrow through the night.
Sparks ignited;
second sight.

Broken open,
given form.
Lose it all; be reborn.

Photos: Top: Krista Wissing. Credit: Kari Ovik. Lower: the anthology of work by participants in Wissing's classes.

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

Writer, vocalist, and sound artist LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs is the author of TwERK (Belladonna, 2013), as well as the album Television. She has received scholarships, residencies, and fellowships from Cave Canem, Harvestworks Digital Media Arts Center, VCCA, the Laundromat Project, the Jerome Foundation, New York Foundation for the Arts, the Eben Demarest Trust, and Millay Colony. As an independent curator and artistic director, she has directed literary/music events at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, Symphony Space, Bam Café, the Schomburg Research Center for Black Culture, Dixon Place, El Museo del Barrio, The David Rubenstein Atrium. A native of Harlem, New York, LaTasha, along with writer Greg Tate, is the founder and editor of yoYO/SO4 Magazine, which has been funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops Program.

Somewhere in the Bronx there is a community garden called Hispanos Unidos. There, a cherry tree produces thirty pounds of cherries annually. Cucumber, cabbage, beans, figs, jalapeño peppers, peaches, and eggplants are grown and harvested. Tinkerbelle the cat guards the flock of chickens that live underneath the makeshift house. Inside the house on a wall is the worksheet for those who maintain the garden. The membership is ten dollars per month for men, five for women. The house serves as site of inquiry and celebration and as a location where Latinos maintain their cultural ties and language. It is a place where one can disregard the actual city residing outside the gates of the garden, where one can find respite in an array of fruits and vegetables. Where a rooster crows above the overhead subway train. It is gardens like this one that became the inspiration for Lincoln Center’s La Casita poetry and music festival.

Cheikh Hamala Diabete

In 2013, along with representatives from the Caribbean Cultural Center, the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Asian Arts Alliance, and Lincoln Center Out of Doors, I had the pleasure of being part of the curatorial team for La Casita. This was different from my previous curatorial endeavors. This was not about my personal artistic tastes or what I was attempting to accomplish on my own. This was about the collective voice and the spirit in which La Casita was founded in 2001 by LCOOD’s former program director, Jenneth Webster, and Ana Araiz, an independent producer. Connected to the traditional casitas located in the Bronx, Harlem, and the Lower East Side, its purpose has to do with the richness of poetry and music. Like the casitas, the festival is meant to serve as an oasis situated in the urban and at times cold architecture of the city. As it serves as a platform to “create and recreate traditions,” it also equips artists with a platform for political demonstration. In 2004, La Casita was one of only a handful of venues where participants protesting against the war and the Republican National Convention in NYC could do so without restriction.

Teato Proegones

The curatorial process was similar to a family conversing at a kitchen table. We talked. We debated. We laughed. We shared ideas. We shared food. It was foreign, and at the same, a familiar I had not yet experienced. We came together to build a bridge that connected us all to the Caribbean, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the United States. Collectively, we put together a two-day lineup of musicians and poets to perform at Lincoln Center and Teatro Pregones in the Bronx. We carried out La Casita’s goal to create a place where “poets, troubadours, bands, comedians, singers, percussionists, and storytellers could gather together to pass on las palabras; the oral traditions of the spoken word and song.” And while it has proven home for those largely rooted in the oral tradition, it has equally shared space with Pulitzer and PEN winners. Elizabeth Alexander, January Rogers, Amiri Baraka, Aracelis Girmay, Carl Hancock Rux, Joy Harjo, Ishle Yi Park, Colin Channer, Mayda del Valle, Mark Turcotte, Tara Betts, John Trudell, and Angelo Moore of Fishbone are among those who have been featured, and since 2001 over two hundred musicians and poets have performed at this casita.

La Cisita's curatorial team (in part)

By the time La Casita came to Teatro Pregones in the Bronx, I understood myself not only as a curator but also as a supporter of each and every artist featured. I felt myself representing the spirit of community gardens: places where everyone is welcomed regardless of artistic, aesthetic, and cultural background. The casita itself, which visual artist Manuel Vega was commissioned to create for this festival, is maintained every year, much like the casitas that inspired Webster and Araiz in 2001. Sunflowers, birds, Afro percussion, floating snails, lizards, Yoruba and indigenous symbolism, and cityscapes cover the tarpaulin walls while curtains of gold and silver tinsel accentuate the door and windows. Some years ago a red rooster—who in Yoruba faith is said to have assisted Oduduwa in the creation of the earth—stands at the top of the casita facing north on a weathervane, alive and stout. This year it is Shangó.

Click here for video of poet Irma Pineda reading at La Casita.

La Casita poetry and music festival does not garner much attention from the larger poetry community but deserves it. It is one of those rare places in New York where traditional and contemporary cultures are expressed and celebrated on this little stage. You are introduced to multiple languages and dialects. You are encouraged to dance. Celebration is an exchange. You learn how to celebrate. It feels much in line with Hispanos Unidos in the Bronx—where the harvest of ripe cherries and everything that grows there is shared with the community outside its gates. Where, over good food, everyone is an equal and no one is overlooked.

Click here for video of the Bodoma Garifuna Culture Band performing at La Casita.

Top Photo: LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs. Photo: Cheikh Hamala Diabate at La Casita at Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Photo: Poets, Jesus 'Papoleto' Melendez, January Rogers, Irma Pineda and Hip Hop artist Bocafloja at Day 2 of La Casita at Treato Pregones. Last Photo: Some of La Casita's curatorial team (Melody Capote, Charles Daniel Dawson, Claudia Norman, Rich Villar, Bill Bragin and Lillian Cho) with poets John Blake and Nolan Black Eagle Eskeets.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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