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Readings & Workshops Blog

Cecily Schuler received their MFA in Writing from the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. Having attended both the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Vermont Studio Center, Schuler has had their work featured in the Offing, Fairy Tale Review, Wicked Banshee, Ellipsis, and Duende, and anthologized in great weather for MEDIA and Fire Stories: Further Thoughts on Radically Rethinking Mental Illness. Schuler's chapbook, 296, chronicling the author's experience living with multiple mental health diagnoses, is available from Next Left Press. Schuler cofounded and manages Union Square Slam, a weekly poetry open mic/slam in the heart of New York City.

What makes your program(s) unique?
I would say that, while we share components of each, we are not your average open mic, poetry reading, or poetry slam. Union Square Slam (USS) was created to not only serve the local and national slam poetry circuit, but more so to provide a creative space for our local poets and authors to branch out, foster, and showcase their particular talents and interests. We are looking to showcase the broad range of overlapping scenes here in New York City, as well as poetic style and talents from other regions of the country.

We encourage audience engagement in a number of ways: “If You Feel Something, Say Something.” If someone says something on the mic that moves you, it’s the culture of the show to respond to that movement through snapping/clapping, moans/groans, shouting and talking back. On paper that sounds like a ruckus, but at the show it can be encouraging and empowering. We also offer writing workshops with highly skilled facilitators before the show each week. Sometimes we ask for donations that go towards the facilitator, but more often than not, the workshops are free! All of the organizers are also working artists, and we know how challenging it can be to keep creating while volunteer organizing on top of working a 9-5. These weekly workshops are just another way we hope to generate community-based quality work for our show attendees.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
We inherited a venue and show day/time from another open mic/poetry slam in January 2015. Over time, it became clear that the venue and our show were growing in different directions artistically and aesthetically. In November of the same year, we switched venues to our current home in the Bureau of General Services - Queer Division. It was such a relief in so many ways: not only were we in a venue dedicated solely to literary and visual arts, we could now serve all ages and accommodate folks who use wheelchairs. We have managed to build a steady and returning audience, book and fund our features (thanks P&W!!) and have a successful slam season, culminating in USS sending our very first team to the National Poetry Slam in Decatur (Atlanta), Georgia this August. It was a lot of rigmarole, and yet people have come out of the woodwork to offer us support in countless ways. (Speaking of which, please consider helping USS reach its fundraising goals for the team by donating here.)

How do you find and invite readers?
Part of Union Square Slam’s mission is to amplify voices of the oppressed. We aim to book features who self-identify in one or more of the following: people of color and/or queer/LGBTQIA and/or disabled/alter-abled/neurodiverse and/or poor/working class. We don’t go looking for artists who fit these criteria; rather, we check ourselves against this standard as we are booking. Our organizers have been involved in different aspects of not just the national slam scene, but other literary scenes throughout New York City, so between us, we’ve had a wide range of featured poets this year.

Photo: (top) Cecily Schuler. (bottom) Grand Slam Champ Nkosi Nkululeko. Photo credit: (bottom) Guangpyo David Hong.

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

Janine Joseph is the author of Driving Without a License (Alice James Books, 2016) and winner of the 2014 Kundiman Poetry Prize. Her poems and essays have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Best New Poets, Best American Experimental Writing, Zócalo Public Square, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, and elsewhere. Her commissioned libretti for the Houston Grand Opera/HGOco include What Wings They Were: The Case of Emeline, On This Muddy Water: Voices From the Houston Ship Channel, and From My Mother's Mother. Joseph serves as vice president of the Writers@Work executive board and is an assistant professor of Creative Writing at Oklahoma State University. She blogs about her P&W–supported reading for the Poesía Peligrosa series at the University of California in Riverside.

Janine Joseph

A 2009 Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow, I was invited late last year to “take over” their Instagram account for a whole week so that followers could meet me and get a sense of my "New American" story. Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I shared pictures and brief stories about my family’s immigrant beagles, my Lolo Lazarus, and what it was like to live, for the first time, in a landlocked state. As the publication of my debut collection of poetry, Driving Without a License, was (then) just a few months away, I talked also about my experiences as a formerly undocumented American. Through luck or happenstance, a student and the vice president of PODER (Providing Opportunities, Dreams, and Education in Riverside) at my alma mater, University of California in Riverside (UCR), saw my posts and asked if I might be interested in doing a reading for a specially themed Poesía Peligrosa event during their upcoming Immigrant Awareness Week.

I graduated from UCR in the spring of 2005—three years before PODER, which “seeks to provide assistance to undocumented students through mentorship, financial assistance, and community building,” was established, so this invitation and event was an emotional homecoming for me. In short, the partnerships between PODER, Teatro Quinto Sol, and the office of Chicano Student Programs at UCR, coupled with the generous monetary support from Poets & Writers, made it possible for an undocumented student group to bring me in to read about my experiences as an undocumented person. To add to the significance of this event even further: It brought me back to the very school where I had studied creative writing as an undocumented student.

And what a gift the occasion was. Poesía Peligrosa, which was hosted by two current UCR undergraduates, brought together a mix of music, theater, and poetry to the stage. The night began with an interactive performance by UCR's Theater of the Oppressed, followed by my reading from Driving Without a License, and ended with students sharing their own immigration-themed work. The audience, which consisted of current UCR students, alumni, UCR staff, and family members, was lively, attentive, and welcoming. There were also students and their chaperones from a local high school in attendance. Later, I looked around the room from where I sat in the back and imagined that this would have been my community nearly a decade ago, had the organization existed. I was overjoyed and relieved to know that current students had the support and space I had once longed for.

It is my hope that this event sets a personal precedence, particularly in how I plan readings in support of the book, and that I will be able to give back to other undocumented student groups around the country. It is my hope, too, that the students who I had the great privilege of meeting continue to share their stories and continue to complicate our ever-expanding American identities. I am thankful to Poets & Writers for supporting this effort, these events, and writers with immigrant backgrounds like ours.

Photo: Janine Joseph. Photo credit: Jaclyn Heward.

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

Write! Look! Listen! is the creative writing reading series of the Merritt Writing Program (MWP) at the University of California in Merced. Since 2006, Write! Look! Listen! has featured readings and guest workshops with locally and nationally recognized poets, fiction writers, journalists, and nonfiction writers. The series features ethnically and aesthetically diverse readers in order to give students a sense of the full range and vibrancy of contemporary American writing. MWP faculty members organize, publicize, and host readings and workshops that are free and open to students, faculty, staff, and the public. Current principal organizers include: Andrea Mele, Susan Varnot, Dawn Trook, and Callie Kitchen. Contributors to this blog post include: Andrea Mele, Dawn Trook, and Paul Gibbons.

What makes your organization and its program unique?
Andrea Mele: The Merritt Writing Program at UC Merced includes composition courses, Writing in the Disciplines courses, and Writing Minor courses in Professional and Creative Writing. MWP faculty created the Write! Look! Listen! Series, as well as our undergraduate Creative Writing Conference and Collaboratorium, both of which are supported by the Writing Program, UC Merced’s Center for Humanities, and Poets & Writers’ grants.

Merritt Writing ProgramWrite! Look! Listen! invites regionally-based writers of national acclaim to campus for readings and workshops. These readings and workshops are free and open to the public, and are well attended by students, faculty, and staff. WLL strives to bring writers of diverse genres and backgrounds who reflect the diversity of our own campus, and who will connect with students on both subject and craft levels. Attendees and participants often comment on the ways in which they can relate to the authors’ experiences, and how this motivates their own writing, confidence, and commitment to their craft. Recent guests include David Mas Masumoto, Steven Church, David Campos, Paula Treick DeBoard, Lawson Inada, and the Hmong American Writers Circle.

UC Merced’s Creative Writing Conference and Collaboratorium is a day-long event, which includes morning workshops, and afternoon participant and keynote readings. Students and faculty from UC Merced and nearby Merced and Modesto colleges come together for a day of collaboration—in teaching creative writing, composing it, revising, and sharing. The event generates excitement and inspiration pedagogically and creatively, and additionally reflects the Merritt Writing Program’s commitment to community engagement and diversity of educational and artistic experience. Keynote readers highlight the region’s diversity of authors and genres. Past readers include Lee Herrick (Fresno’s Poet Laureate), Soul Vang, Rachel Starnes, and Carole Firstman.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
Dawn Trook: Whenever we bring the Hmong American Writers Circle to UC Merced, I feel very moved. These readings always bring out a diverse and large crowd, and it's exciting to celebrate a community whose native language didn't have a written form, so they are claiming their voices in new (and beautiful) ways. 

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Trook: When Peter Orner connected to our students in his Q&A as if he was talking to a group of writers, talking to them like equals. It really empowered them and made them feel like they were a part of a writing community.

How do you cultivate an audience?
Trook: Facebook and word of mouth seem to be the best ways. Writing program faculty promote events in their classes, and publicize events on news and social media platforms.

Merritt ParticipantsHow has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Paul Gibbons: Coteaching for the Collaboratorium has taught me all over again how to take advantage of teachable moments and how to include students. Because you’re not teaching alone, the sessions can resemble the best panel discussions—where people are all trying to understand and engage in a dialectic that benefits everyone in the room. And then the panel dissolves to one focused discussion among us, writer to writer instead of teacher to students. We use that energy to write and revise and share. At the end of the day, these sessions make me want to write more and teach better—that’s the lift from the teaching in the Collaboratorium, the momentum you get for both writing and teaching.

Trook: In a town isolated from big cities, it's kept me connected to the larger writing community. It's always great to be able to support a writer's work by bringing them to speak and read.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Trook: Opening students to a variety of styles, experiences, and cultural perspectives beyond the scope of our creative writing faculty is invaluable.

Mele: The Creative Writing Conference and Collaboratorium brings together students from Central Valley colleges and universities. We value our institutional relationships, and work to create a larger sense of community by hosting students and faculty from around the valley. We hope to invite more universities to participate in future conferences.

Photo (top): David "Mas" Masumoto. Photo credit: Andrea Mele.  
Photo (bottom): Fall Faculty Reading (left to right) Andrea Mele, Erik Habecker, Tom Hothem, Orisa Santiago Morrice, Yu-Han Chao, unknown, and Brigitte Bowers. Photo credit: Paul Gibbon.

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

Jyothi Natarajan is an editor and writer based in New York City who has worked in publishing and journalism for the past ten years. She is now managing editor at the Asian American Writers' Workshop, where she edits the Margins and runs a fellowship for emerging writers. As someone invested in the intersection of writing, social justice, and education, she helps run IndyKids, a social justice-oriented newspaper written by youth ages nine to thirteen. 

The Poets & Writers' seventh annual Connecting Cultures Reading took place on April 27, 2016, before a generous audience at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Ten writers representing P&W–supported organizations Jack Arts, Inc., Kundiman/Adhikaar, National Domestic Workers Alliance, Union Square Slam, and Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon gathered to celebrate the diverse literary communities of New York City and Poets & Writers' Readings & Workshops program.

When K Sloan, a singer-songwriter hailing from Detroit, opened the reading with a song, the audience fell into a stunned silence—her voice was just that powerful. "Down, down, down, bring it down," began the lyrics to "Ancestor Song," which Sloan wrote as part of Jack Arts, Inc.’s writing workshop Creating Dangerously. “I wrote these lyrics in response to a prompt asking us, ‘What would it look like to walk with your ancestors? What would you say to her?'” said Sloan. 

Joining K Sloan on stage was Sara Abdullah, an indigenous Arab/Iranian/Pin@y mestiza queer Muslima living the diasporic hustle, whose stunning poems were also generated from the Creating Dangerously workshop.

An experimental, performance-based writing workshop for women of color led by a rotating cadre of instructors including Virginia Grise and Kyla Searle, Creating Dangerously received support from Poets & Writers’ Readings and Workshops program, which has provided fees to writers who lead workshops that serve underrepresented audiences since Poets & Writers was founded in 1970. The Connecting Cultures Reading brought together writers who had participated in five such workshops. This year’s reading marked the first time Poets & Writers has featured work from multilingual workshops, bringing writers together with translators to help share immigrants’ stories, like Babita Chhetri.

Chhetri grew up in Darjeeling, India and had been doing childcare and housework for a family in Singapore for nearly a year when she decided she needed to escape from her employer’s exploitation and abuse. Underpaid and overworked, Chhetri did something most workers wouldn't have the strength or courage to do: She ran away from her employer. She had accompanied the family on a summer holiday in New York City and at the crack of dawn, Chhetri crept out of the building they were staying in, forced to leave her flip-flops behind.

"I felt everyone's eyes on me: here was a scared woman in wet pajamas, barefoot, carrying a small bag in her hand. Where could she be going?” Chhetri, who has been in the United States for the past nine years, read on stage from a letter she wrote in Nepali addressed to her daughter and son in Darjeeling. The audience was in tears. Her story was one of ten that were told through letters as part of a workshop called A Letter Home, organized by Kundiman and Adhikaar and led by writers Meera Nair and Muna Gurung.

Through the workshop, Nepali and Tibetan women expressed their experiences as domestic workers, immigrants, mothers, sisters, and daughters. Dolly Sharma joined Chhetri on stage to read her own letter, while the audience followed along with English translation printouts, all the while dabbing their eyes with tissues.

The night shifted from Nepali to Spanish when Adriana Mora, from Aguascalientes, México, and María Guaillazaca, who moved to New York from Ecuador nine years ago, read before the packed audience. Both women participated in a writing program organized by the National Domestic Workers Alliance in which they wrote in Spanish, responding to the idea of home—whether it was where they feel at home, other people’s homes, or the experience of working in someone’s home.

Other highlights from the evening included poet Sam Rush, who began writing poems after developing progressive hearing loss. Rush, who has been a part of Union Square Slam’s writing workshops, read poems that played with their realization of how many words each word could be, leaving the crowd dizzy with the emotional heft of their wordplay. Also a part of Union Square Slam, poet, screenwriter, and essayist Taylor Steele stepped on stage and immediately moved the mic aside. Her slam poems filled the room and left goose bumps in their wake.

Closing the evening were two writers from the Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon (WWBPS): Amber Atiya and Jacqueline Johnson. WWBPS, which is now celebrating its fifth anniversary, offers women writers of all levels space to create and share poetic work.

By the end of the evening the room felt much smaller. The stories and words shared so courageously gave even the audience members the strength to say hello to strangers, and share words with the writers who had moved them to tears.

Photo: (top) Readers from the Seventh Annual Poets & Writers' Connecting Cultures Reading. (middle) Dolly Sharma and Babita Chhetri. (bottom) Sam Rush. Photo credit: Alycia Kravitz.

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

Mario Bonifacio writes short fiction. He served for ten years in the U.S. Army, both active and reserve, as a field artillery and cavalry officer, including a combat deployment to Iraq. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York and has participated in the Voices From War writing workshop since 2014.

Back when war was a concept that only existed to me in history books or on the news, I wrote for myself—well, for myself and for the strangers who were out there, faceless, and felt things similar to me, even if they never read my work.

I chose active duty in the U.S. Army in 2003 and my writing slowed. Being trained for war, training a platoon for war and, eventually, war itself, all pulled my thoughts outward; reflections that could have once filled notebooks now remained on Texas shooting ranges and ambling desert roads in Iraq. The external world I’d chosen was dangerous and not to be taken lightly, but as I'd learn in the years that followed, so was ignoring the internal conflict that inevitably followed many of us home.

When I returned home from war, I focused on my professional reintegration, which was far from easy but a welcome distraction and enough to convince myself that I was happy—that to be walking and breathing was all I needed to be happy. To be anything but seemed a crime against the memory of those unlucky enough to have not made it back. But I knew enough to understand my happiness was worthy of distrust, like the way you feel when entering a rush hour subway car with what seems like too many available seats.

I joined the Voices From War workshop, sponsored by Poets & Writers, at first, to remain connected to other veterans, not yet convinced I wanted to write about my time serving or the issues I, and veteran friends, faced while readjusting. I obviously knew there was writing out there about the Iraq War, in addition to movies and other media, but I passively avoided it. The world beyond the military offered no shortage of lessons to learn, so why use my limited facilities to hear others speak about something I had already experienced firsthand? Much of it was pretty terrible anyway—inaccurate and exaggerated.

It was the other participants in Voices From War who convinced me that this wasn't a problem to be avoided, but rather one to be solved—a problem that would persist until we rose up to tell our version of the story. After all, no one but us had the memories to draw upon, to become the voices from the war in Iraq.

After completing my first few works and participating in my first readings, both in conjunction with the workshop, I was able for the first time to see those faceless readers I'd once imagined—people who might never have heard a war story directly from the source, people who feel they don't have a voice, and people I served alongside who, for many reasons, cannot tell their own stories.

In the most literal sense, our story doesn't exist unless we write it down. And I very much want our stories to exist.

Photos: (top) Mario Bonifacio. Photo credit: Christina Garofalo. (bottom) Voices From War workshop participants. Photo credit: Kara Frye Krauze.

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

Christina Fialho is an attorney and cofounder/executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). In the fall of 2015, she invited P&W­–supported writer Alicia Partnoy to lead a writing workshop at the CIVIC annual retreat, and in this blog she shares about the resulting anthology Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders, which collects writing and artwork by people in immigration detention, and their family members and allies. Fialho also blogs for the Huffington Post, and her writings have appeared in MSNBC.com, the Washington Timesthe Hill, among other publications. She has produced an award-winning documentary and non-narrated shorts, which have appeared on NPR and in the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico. She has received fellowships from Echoing Green and the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Fialho serves on the Board of the ACLU of Southern California.

Call Me Libertad book cover

Twenty years ago on April 24, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, ushering in an era of mass detention and deportation of immigrants. A few months later, the president signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Together, these laws doubled the number of people in U.S. immigration detention from 8,500 each day in 1996 to 16,000 in 1998. The immigration detention system is now a multibillion dollar industry that detains 34,000 people per day and enriches private prison corporations and local governments at taxpayer expense.

Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders, which I coedited with Alicia Partnoy and Kristina Shull, is the first book to combine the voices of people in immigration detention with their family members and allies to give unprecedented insight into immigration detention. This multilingual book of poetry and art grew out of a writing workshop taught by P&W–supported poet and memoirist Alicia Partnoy for the organization CIVIC. The authors include Sylvester Owino (who spent nine years in detention), Eldaah Arango (whose father was detained and deported), and Katherine Weathers (who visits people in immigration detention).

"Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out, slowly, so slowly. It is still coming out," writes Owino. The suffering that millions of immigrants have experienced in U.S. immigration detention over the last twenty years cannot be justified. This book, published by CIVIC, is an effort to liberate our political imagination so that we may build together a country without immigration detention. Reserve your copy here.

Photo: Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders anthology cover design by Art24 photography and design with art by Marcela Castro.

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

On March 31, 2016, during the AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair in Los Angeles, Poets & Writers brought together P&W–supported teaching artists Dorothy Randall Gray, Michael Kearns, Mike Sonksen, and Leilani Squire for the panel presentation “Creative Writing for the Underserved: Ideas, Inspiration, Revelation.” Panelists spoke about best practices, what motivates them to do what they do, and how teaching writing to underserved groups has enriched their writing lives. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as compiled by Readings & Workshops (West) director and panel moderator Jamie Asaye FitzGerald.

Classroom Approaches

"I look at longevity as a starting point, and have them write about all of the 'selves' that have gotten them to where they are today."
—Michael Kearns, who works with GLBT seniors

"We spend a lot of time just talking, working through issues, then do a timed writing. I listen and witness. That's a big part of it."
—Leilani Squire, who works with veterans and their family members

"I begin the class with three minutes of silence. I work with teenage identity and bring in poems about that. I've had them read [Paul Laurence] Dunbar's 'We Wear the Mask.' I've even had them make a mask, think about the layers of their identity and list them. I try to show them how poets are always talking to each other and that they are part of the conversation. I also use a little hip-hop, documentaries, current events."
—Mike Sonksen, who works with teens

"Sometimes these populations don't want to feel because it hurts too much. I try to get them to connect with their feelings. Music and visuals help. One reward for doing the writing is letting the kids be DJ and pick out the songs. To get them to open up, be silly, bring a visual, ask an easy question like 'What's your favorite food?' or 'What do you want to eat when you get out of here?'"
—Dorothy Randall Gray, who works with incarcerated youth, women, and the homeless

The Effect on Their Writing Lives

"If I tell them to write deeply, to go for the jugular, how can I not do that myself?"
—Squire

"My stakes are higher. I am deepened by them."
—Kearns

"Not only do I have to deal with the truth; I have to face my own truth. I believe in sticking a pen in my own vein. As they tell their stories, I tell my stories."
—Gray

On Self-Care

"Being in the trenches is taking care of myself. Dealing with horror, pain, and abuse—it's contradictory, but it is comforting that I can hear and be empathetic.... And I have my daughter when I feel overwhelmed."
—Kearns

"You get worn out. Performing poetry and doing freelance writing helps. I keep my writing career active. Then there are the two kids who really get it, there's the e-mail from a kid five years later, and the kid who stays after class to help clean up."
—Sonksen

"Meditation. Adjusting my own beliefs. Compassion is a big part of it, and being as gentle and loving as possible."
—Gray

"I have to walk in centered, whole, and confident or I'll get beat up. I'm a practicing Buddhist. I go to Native American lodges, which helps me gain answers to questions I ask. I cuddle with my dog."
—Squire

Hopes for Their Students

"I hope they find a home in their hearts, where they feel loved and safe."
—Gray

"I hope their voices get louder, not softer; more authentic, more hopeful; more of who they are and not less—because that can often happen as one ages."
—Kearns

"I hope they come to a place of acceptance, understanding; of being listened to, witnessed; to come to some sort of wholeness. My agenda is to promote peace."
—Squire

"I try to give them the tools they need to lift themselves up. Ultimately, I'd like to create lifelong readers and writers. But mainly I use writing as a bridge to help them build identity and future hope."
—Sonksen

We are pleased to be able to support writers who work with underserved groups. For more information about whether your event might qualify for Readings & Workshops support, please see our guidelines or contact us.

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

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