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Readings & Workshops Blog

Poet and fiction writer Tim Z. Hernandez blogs about two workshops he led on May 2 at libraries in Stockton, California, as part of a Rural Library Tour partnership between Poets & Writers and the California Center for the Book.
 
Tim Z. HernandezThe Maya Angelou Library on Stockton’s southeast side sits near a tired slab of old homes and pothole-ridden streets, but this is where my next workshop is, and I’m excited for it. By now I’ve learned that behind each workshop door are people whose stories and voices will stay with me for days, sometimes months after. Suzy Daveluy, librarian and my host, conveys her worry about the number of people in attendance. Before I can reply we are approached by two teenage girls, their younger brother, and their mother. The girls introduce themselves as Emilia and Yvette. Their brother is Jesus, and their mother is Gloria.*

They are here for the workshop, but their faces look grim. Right off, the girls let me know that they have no interest in pursuing writing as a career. In short, their mother makes them attend such workshops because she wants them to grow up articulate, well spoken. Jesus says nothing. Gloria tells me, in Spanish, that she is from Mexico but has been in the U.S. for over twenty-two years. She says the only reason she maintains a strong accent is because she’s always been reluctant to learn English. And this is it. This is my workshop.

We sit down and jump into a hearty discussion about memory. The girls giddily recall moments from their time growing up together, and there’s lots of laughing, and even a few tears, shed mostly by Gloria. I have them write those memories down, at the very least, I say, to capture them forever. “If we don’t tell our own stories,” I say, “who will?” When it’s time to share their writing, the girls go first, and then their mother, and now I’m staring at fifteen-year-old Jesus.

Finally he lifts his paper in front of him and glances over the words, then sits up straight and begins to read the memory he wrote about his father:

...the seatbelt, with its zigzag patterns
in blue, the shiny buckle, with its shiny button,
ahh, that little worn out button,
the sun, against the worn out button,
ahh, the sun and the worn out blue
of a button...

If I didn’t see him write those words out in front of me, I might have never believed he wrote it. His delivery is like a smooth Lenny Bruce, witty and sharp, confident. Suzy and I look at one another, and I know we’re thinking the same thing: We’ve found the future poet laureate of Stockton! Of California! Hell, of the United States!

“You’re a natural poet,” I tell him.

He lowers his eyes.

His mother feels the need to explain. “Jesus was picked on when he was in elementary school,” she says. Jesus rolls his eyes. “He had a bad teacher who put his English down in front of the other students, so he thought he was dumb. He used to come home saying he was dumb."

Jesus says, “Read and red.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Read and red,” he replies. “It was read and red. I didn’t understand the difference, so I always got those two words mixed up, and I always spelled them wrong.”
 
I tell him spelling doesn’t matter. I think of what the poet Maria Melendez says from the moment she enters a clasroom of children: YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR OWN POETRY! And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen adults steal away this possibility from children.

I tell them about California’s newest poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera—the son of migrant farmworkers, selected by Governor Jerry Brown himself. And then I recite a line from one of Herrera’s poems: I didn’t start out as a poet, because I was silenced. I started out with something I wanted to say. Jesus smiles now, and so does his mother.

“You see,” she tells him in Spanish, “One day you could be a famous poet too!”   

He grins and looks over at his sisters. “That would be cool,” he says, folding his poem and sticking it into his back pocket. 


*Family members’ names have been changed.

Top photo: Tim Z. Hernandez. Credit: David Herrera. Bottom photo: Jesus (left) and librarian Suzy Daveluy. Credit: Tim Z. Hernandez.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Cara Benson, author of poetry book (made)and the forthcoming "Funny. Considering how heated it was," and receipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, blogs about teaching poetry at the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility.

The poetry workshop I facilitate at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, a medium security state prison in Wilton, New York,  began as a three month teaching practicum for my graduate degree. It became clear fairly quickly that three months wasn’t nearly enough to meet the interest and needs of the students inside. So we extended it to four months. Then five. Then a year. Now it’s been seven years and counting.

In that time we have covered such varied poets as Lu Chi, Rumi, Sappho, Amiri Baraka, Federico García Lorca, T.S. Eliot, Sonia Sanchez, EE Cummings, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Alice Notley, Gil Scott-Heron, and CA Conrad. The list is growing like the years. Dozens of men - maybe a hundred - have come to and through the class. Some on the outside are now proud graduates of Higher Education. On the inside, a few lifers have been there since my first day. I have seen many things happen in that classroom, but fostering the dissolution of preconceived notions of what can be called “poetry” under the influence of poems like Joan Retallack’s “A I D /I/ S A P P E A R A N C E” or Douglas Kearney’s page work is particularly gratifying. I’ve seen, like realizing blondes aren’t the only beauties, the canon explode in front of our faces, and I tell you that this is a very right thing to be happening inside.

Last month we read Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge and discerned a number of tactics worth replicating. The participants loved her multiple voices, taut quatrains, and ability to twist common sayings into such rhythmic, flipped scripts. This month we are working with Rob Budde’s Declining America. There is a section in this book that plays out in scenes he’s called “My American Movie” after Jean Baudrillard’s America. So we are writing our own American scenes under the influence of his text. His poems gyrate without punctuation and stream as one undulating and pullulating sentence in prose, and the task I’ve given us of emulating his approach has proven provocative and productive.

Eric Perez, one of the participants, has this to say about the class: “Our poetry workshop has given us a unique opportunity to liberate ourselves from an oppressive system, even if only for a brief time during the week. This helps us to reach a broader understanding of life and its circumstances and to push the boundaries of our intellect in order to build our self esteem.” I am very grateful to Poets & Writers for the support it gives for the class. It can be really challenging, the proverbial upstream swim, to be a volunteer poet for the New York State Department of Corrections. Poets & Writers not only provides remuneration, but it legitimizes the endeavor. It truly has helped me to show up week after week, year after year. And as the late poet and tireless prison educator/activist Janine Pommy Vega used to say to me whenever I complained about a seeming setback or “lost” student: “Cara, you just keep going in.” So I do.

Photo:  Cara Benson.   Credit: David Brinson.

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Poet and educator Carole "Imani" Parker blogs about her former student "Donald" at the P&W–supported Jobs for Youth Apprenticeship Program (JFYAP) at Medgar Evers College, a job readiness program she once directed.

"Donald" was a withdrawn seventeen-year-old boy when he came to JFYAP. His reading and math scores were extremely low and he had very low self-esteem. He had been expelled from high school, two General Educational Development (GED) programs, and was eventually expelled from the GED component of JFYAP for threatening another student. With the help JFYAP coordinator, Ms. B, "Donald" was able to enroll in a computer training course and continued to attend JFYAP job readiness/life skills training, counseling, tutoring and P&Wsupported poetry workshops. 

Although JFYAP is now defunct, I, with Ms. B, continue to follow up with and encourage "Donald." As a matter of fact, I spoke with "Donald" the other day. He said that he completed the computer course and received a certificate. He also plans to take the GED soon and is excited about participating in P&W's annual intergenerational reading later this month. Here are the first two lines from "What am I," a poem he hopes to read at the event: I am the sound that is heard from a mile away / I am that name you hear them whisper in the wind.

"Donald’s" story is not unique. There were many troubled and talented young people who walked through the doors of JFYAP. Most of them eventually passed the high school regents or GED exam and went on to college and, later, careers. JFYAP provided them with the necessary tools to become productive citizens. 

Photo: Carole Imani Parker.

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

K.C. Scharnberg, program director of Fresh Arts, a multidisciplinary arts service organization in Houston, Texas, shares her thoughts on its P&W–supported Inky Improv event and the Houston literary scene.

What makes your organization unique?
Fresh Arts hosts professional development and networking events for artists in all fields and at all skill levels. We strive to support the professional growth of Houston’s art community and help make the starving artist a cliché of the past.
 
What recent project have you been especially proud of?
My favorite event sprang from a quirky idea to pair unlikely yet complementary groups of artists. With support from P&W, we hosted Inky Improv, an event that paired the visual arts group Sketchy Neighbors with the writers group NANO Fiction.

Four writers and four artists each got a five-word phrase suggested by an audience member. They had ten minutes to draw or write something inspired by the prompt. If the prompt began with an artist, they handed their work over to a writer, and vice versa. Each person created a story or drawing to finish the piece over the next ten minutes. When the clock stopped, each writer and artist took turns presenting the final creations.

It was an exceptionally fun night, and we hope it becomes an annual event.

How do you cultivate an audience?
We provide a strong network for local artists online in our Artist Registry and off-line with our programs and services. We pay close attention to what’s happening in the community and reach artists working in all disciplines. In addition, we strive to offer relevant and high-quality programs and services based on feedback (surveys and personal conversations) from the artist community. When people feel like a company listens and responds to them, they tend to be more loyal.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
In the same way that a piece of music or art can bring out deep emotion from a person, literature can stimulate the senses in a way that creates a more fulfilling life experience.

Houston has a rich literary community and audiences that truly appreciate what literary programs contribute to our culture. For example, the Poison Pen Reading Series is a monthly series that takes place at a local bar and is enormously popular. It draws in all kinds of people and celebrates literature, while making it less intimidating and more accessible.

Writers in the Schools, one of my favorite organizations, engages children in the pleasure and power of reading and writing through in-school and after-school programs, professional development for teachers, and community programs celebrating the great work and development of the youth with whom they work. They have impacted the community in a major way over the years.

Additionally, the University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program is one of the best in the country, which is a source of pride amongst the literary-loving community. We are fortunate enough to benefit from the groundswell of literary contributions from the students, faculty, and graduates who choose to make Houston their home.

Photo: Inky Improv participants at work. Credit: Fresh Arts.

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

Poet, educator, and inspirational speaker Carole "Imani" Parker blogs about her former students at the P&W–supported Jobs for Youth Apprenticeship Program (JFYAP) at Medgar Evers College, a job readiness program she once directed.

In addition to classroom instructions, JFYAP students were engaged in exciting educational and recreational activities, such as college tours, United Nations forums, job shadowing, peer counseling, community service activities, entrepreneurial training, job readiness and life skills training, and, most importantly, P&W-supported poetry readings and workshops and participating in P&W's annual intergenerational poetry showcase. 

Because of their participation in JFYAP, many of the students have graduated from post secondary colleges or apprenticeship training programs and have entered successful careers as health care providers, teachers, social workers, accountants, production assistants, entertainers, etc.

JFYAP students have benefited and grown as a result of all of the training they've received. They have received a well-rounded education, complete with P&W-supported poetry workshops. 

Photo: Carole Imani Parker.

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

Poet and English professor Caroline Maun blogs about P&W–sponsored The @ Noon Reading Series, held at Wayne State University in Detriot. Maun's poetry collections include The Sleeping, and Cures and Poisons. She is also the editor of The Collected Poetry of Evelyn Scott

The @ Noon Reading Series began at Wayne State University during the 2010 winter semester. That first year, we paired creative writing faculty from the English department with student writers. In subsequent years we have showcased some of the finest poets and writers from the southeast Michigan region and beyond, and have continued to pair our guests with up-and-coming student writers. Since 2010, the series has enjoyed growing popularity and success with six public readings and one public workshop.

We managed to fund the first two years of the series with modest support from our department budget. This year, thanks to funding from Poets & Writers, we were able to extend the series considerably. This was helpful during a time when university budgets are shrinking, but also when creative activity in our city is burgeoning. It was great to provide this venue to wonderful artists and offer excellent programming to our students and the community. 

We have a collaborative approach to programming. Creative writing faculty select a date and a guest to invite to read and then find the student who is available and will compliment the featured guest’s work. Our students read for fifteen minutes. Our featured readers read for twenty to twenty-five minutes, and there is time for discussion afterwards. We offer coffee and snacks in our lounge where audience members continue the conversation. This semester, we regularly attracted audiences of twenty-five to fifty students, community members, faculty, and staff of the university.

Featured poets this year have included Matthew Olzmann, Vievee Francis, Keith Taylor, and Rob Halpern, and writers Lynn Crawford and Mitch and Megan Ryder. Student poets and writers have included Vincent Perrone, Aricka Foreman, John Kalogerakos, Jill Darling, Mathew Polzin, and Ricardo Castano IV.  One of the many highlights was Vievee Francis reading from Horse in the Dark, a poetry collection forthcoming from Northwestern University Press characterized by personal lyrics, which is a departure from the persona poetry in her first poetry book, Blue-Tail Fly. She was joined by student poet Aricka Foreman. Another highlight was Lynn Crawford reading from Simply Separate People, Two, accompanied by student writer Matthew Polzin. During the question-and-answer session, poets as well as fiction writers engaged with Lynn’s work enthusiastically for its condensed, lyrical style.

Jennifer LoPiccolo, one of my very talented students, commented on the series: “I make it a point to attend The @ Noon Series because I gain exposure to various forms of poetry and fiction that help me to hone my own work. Wayne’s creative writing students share a stage with our guest readers, which allows the audience to draw connections between their peers and more accomplished writers. While taking notes on both, I see the gap between my friends and the authors on my shelf narrow. It’s a rewarding hour."

We are looking forward to planning next year’s series and continuing this rich supplement to classroom experiences for our students.

Photo: Lynn Crawford and Matthew Polzin.  Credit: Caroline Maun.

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

For the month of June, poet, educator, and inspirational speaker Carole "Imani" Parker blogs about her work with the P&W–supported Jobs for Youth Apprenticeship Program (JFYAP) at Medgar Evers College, a job readiness program she once directed.

As former director of JFYAP, I write this entry with a sense of joy, sadness, and pride. When I first started working at JFYAP in 1995, it had been closed for two years. I am privileged to have been able to watch the program grow for more than fifteen years. Unfortunately, due to the current recession, the program, which was funded by the New State Department of Labor, lost its funding and was forced to close in December 2011. Because of its collaboration with the GED Plus-Division of the New York City Department of Education and Medgar Evers College, however, the remaining students in the program have been allowed to complete their education at the college.

JFYAP was established as an academic enrichment/career development program. The program was designed to provide services to “at risk” youth as well as young people who had either dropped out of traditional high schools or migrated to the United States from other countries. For more than seventeen years, JFYAP assisted hundreds of students to reach their academic and vocational goals.

Some students came with a myriad of issues, including gang involvement, illiteracy, and substance abuse. With a caring staff and creative P&W–supported writers, such as George Edward Tait, Abu Muhammad, and Radhiyah Ayobami, many of the students were able to transform their negative conditions and behavior through the art of creative writing.

Photo: Carole Imani Parker.

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

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