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Readings & Workshops Blog

Writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about the impact of P&Wfunded poets on other writers. She teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

In 2001, I had just received my MFA and was the unhappiest I had been in my life.

9/11 had saturated the city with grief. Also, because of a problem at the financial aid office, I graduated so broke that I had to write a $10 check to myself to get money from the bank—I couldn’t even make a $20 ATM withdrawal.

That fall, PW-funded poets Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez gave a reading, and while the venue slips my mind, I’ll never forget how grateful I was for the opportunity to see these poets together. There was no admission fee, and $3 purchased subway fare to and from the event.

Best $3 I've ever spent. It’s not enough to say that the reading gave me hope because it did something more: it gave me the opportunity to experience wonder again. In the years since, I’ve hosted readings, many of which were co-sponsored by Poets & Writers, to try to replicate moments like that. In honor of those moments, I asked my friends, writers themselves, about their favorite writers to hear read.

“[Amiri] Baraka brings a commitment to his reading and such a credo of revolutionary output,” says Treasure Shields Redmond, an Assistant Professor of English at Southwestern Illinois College and 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee. “I love Sonia Sanchez live—she’s a diminutive person but when she reads, she’s eight feet tall. Tyehimba Jess live—he has a certain soulfulness. And Jericho Brown always has outstanding figures in his poetry, figures you wouldn’t normally expect to speak, but they do.”

Amy L. George, author of DesAmy L. Georgeideratum (Finishing Line Press 2013), says she loves to hear Naomi Shihab Nye read “because she is very expressive and she takes her time with the text. Sometimes people just rush through and you can’t hear all of the nuances. For a good reading, you have to be committed to the integrity of the text and the overall message.”

Nicholas J. Beishline says simply, "Leonard Cohen... he was incredible."

I am fortunate to have experienced many wonderful readings, each special. Still, I think every good reading accomplishes the same thing—it allows us to focus on something outside of ourselves and our problems—and, as the writers’ words seep through, it allows us recognize the ways we are all connected.

Photo: Amy L. George. Credit: Calvin George.

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.

Karen Finneyfrock is a poet, novelist, and teaching artist in Seattle, Washington. Her second book of poems, Ceremony for the Choking Ghost, was published by Write Bloody in 2010. Her young adult novel, The Sweet Revenge of Celia Door, is forthcoming from Viking Children’s Books in 2013. She is a former writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House in Seattle and teaches for Seattle Arts and Lectures’ Writers-in-the-Schools. Last spring, P&W supported her reading with the Seattle Rock Orchestra.

What are your reading dos?
I try to remind myself that a show is primarily for the audience and not for me. When I think of the audience member's experience, it allows me to be less fixated on my own nervousness or a myopic concern for my work. I remind myself that stage fright is essentially selfish, and I can focus on connecting with the listener instead.

What are your reading don’ts?
I think of the idiom, "Never wear a hat that has more personality than you do." Never wear an outfit that will upstage you or shoes that might cause you to trip. With that said, I like to dress like I'm ready to be seen. My other big don't is: Don't exceed the time limit you've been given. Time your work and be respectful to organizers and audience.

How do you prepare for a reading?
If I'm performing poetry, I like to rehearse late at night or early in the morning before I even get out of bed. I envision myself on the stage, and I run through everything I will say, even my banter between poems. Then, I run my pieces again in the shower. If I'm reading prose, I like to read through the selection and consider the context the audience will need about the piece to appreciate it the most. I make bullet points to remember what I want to say to the audience, but I never read from a script when I'm speaking about the work or to the crowd.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
My best crowd-pleaser works because it is imagistic, literal, and uplifting at the end. I wouldn't want this for all of my poems, and I do seek to challenge audience members with pieces that create discomfort, but I like to leave people feeling good. I think of Shakespeare playing to all levels of the house. I want some pieces that every listener—even those new to poetry or new to abstract work—can say, "I got it," after hearing.

What was it like to perform with the Seattle Rock Orchestra?
Performing with a rock orchestra is exactly as cool as it sounds. First, composer John Teske met with me and listened to my poem, then he created an original, experimental score, which included vocalizations as well as instrumental noise. For example, as my poem started, "Even the wet floor of the city bus...," musicians made slurping noises behind me. John's concept was out of the box and stretched the idea of what music and poetry can sound like together. It avoided the cliché of pretty words with some nice stringed instruments playing and took it to the place a rock orchestra should go.

Standing on stage surrounded by a group of musicians, all attuned to my performance, was like being the spider at the center of an artistically sensitive web. I got the feeling they were prepared to follow me wherever I was going to go.

Photo: Karen Finneyfrock. Credit: Inti St. Clair
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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.

Fiction writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about P&Wfunded events at unexpected venues. She teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

A poetry reading in a hair salon? Why not?

Poetry happens everywhere, and sometimes experiencing those flashes of imagination can be just what we need to make it through the day.

When my best friend Stacia ShStacia Shabazzabazz revealed to me her dream of using the arts to do something positive for the Atlanta community, I told her about the Poets & Writers Readings/Workshops program. Stacia is the owner of 32nbelow.com, an online clothing store with the mission of “raising self awareness in low-income communities.” 32nbelow.com also sponsors literary events with the help of P&W funding. Some of Shabazz's most memorable readings have taken place in a nightclub (Compound), a clothing store (Select Menswear Boutique), a conference center (Atlanta Association of Black Cardiologists Conference Center), and a hair salon (Roots International Hair Salon).

Stacia’s events don’t have the muted atmosphere you sometimes find at an academic reading; at 32nbelow readings, you hear cheers when a favorite poet “blesses the mic,” and you see audience members nod their heads to a poet’s voice like they’re listening to a favorite song. Stacia attributes her successful readings to finding poets who speak to the audience’s needs: “Most of the spoken-word artists speak about love or politics—two things that usually hold people’s attention.”

I lived in Atlanta, where Stacia’s readings are held, for five years, but I was born in Detroit, and many Detroiters know about a popular reading series that occurs in an unusual place: a church. Writer L. Bush, the host/producer of Spirit Spit, says that the "gothic atmosphere" of the church creates an "almost mystical" feeling for both the audience and the performers. And, after readings, audience members have come up to Writer “and told [him] how the reading had brought them to tears—or inspired them to write something on the spot or sign-up for open mic, which they had never expected to do."

Life is crazy, chaotic. As a graduate student, college instructor, and fiction writer, I sometimes feel guilty for even going to the bathroom. But poetry in unexpected places is one of life’s little pleasures. It reminds us of why we’re here.

Photo: Stacia Shabazz. Credit: Issan Otto.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta and Detroit 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.

Bertha Rogers's  poetry collections include Sleeper, You Wake: and Heart Turned Back. Her translation of Beowulf was published in 2000.  Bertha is the founding Executive Director of Bright Hill Press & Literary Center, and has been organizing readings in the Catkills since 1991. She is also the Poet Laureate of Delaware County, New York. Bertha blogs about the Poets & Writers-supported The Art and Soul of the Catskills Festival.

For the past several years, I've organized poetry and prose readings sponsored by Poets & Writers for The Art and Soul of the Catskills Festival held in Delhi, New York. The readers are regional authors, most of whom have published collections of poetry or novels; and the readings  are held in a tent on the village square in Delhi, the seat of Delaware County. The square was immortalized on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in 1951.

Poets Barry Seiler (Frozen Falls) and John Paul O'Connor (Poems for the First Hundred Days); novelists Mermer Blakeslee (In Dark Water), Charlotte Zoe Walker (Condor and Hummingbird), Marjorie B. Kellogg (Lear's Daughters) and many more have read in the tent on the green. Young writers have been introduced at the Festival, too; winners of Bright Hill's Share the Words Poetry Competition and the Empire State Poetry Competition. Reading for the Festival is a unique and picturesque experience; festival-goers meander around the square, stopping in artists' booths and food concessions until, finding thier way to the authors' tent, they sit and enjoy the words in the air.  After the readings, there are lively Q&A periods and time to sign books.  These Art and Soul Readings are snapshots of rural America enjoying both emerging and established writers.

Photo:  Bertha Rogers.   Photo Credit:  Bertha Rogers.  

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.

Rochelle Spencer teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York and is the author of  the ebook, Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina. Rochelle blogs about the P&W sponsored reading with Jina Ortiz at LaGuardia Community College.

When I was interviewing the poet Sharan Strange for an article "Dark Room Redux," published in the July /August issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Strange described her work as a founding member of the Dark Room Collective (DRC), a reading series that brought several established writers (Derek Walcott, Alice Walker, and many others) to the Boston area. Strange's statements about the host's responsibility to visiting writers really stuck out: "The DRC readings were serious and professional, but we didn't have a budget or formal funding. Everything we did, we paid for out of our pockets. Still, they came off well, and we made sure our guests would be comfortable.

The amazing work of the DRC--those young, energetic college students who held early readings in their own home, which included a photographer's dark room--starts, I think, with one idea: when you're giving an event, how do you make the writers feel comfortable?

Perhaps it starts with anticipating the authors' needs.  When I brought Jina Ortiz, an Afro-Latino poet based in Massachusetts, to LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, Queens, this past March for our Women's Heritage Month celebration, Poets & Writers provided the first step in making Jina feel comfortable: the honorarium they supplemented let Jina know that both her time and talent were appreciated. 

Christopher Alexander and Kristen Gallagher, two of my colleagues at LaGuardia Community College, also added to Jina's comfort level by making sure that Jina's poems had been well-circulated and read by the members of the Creative Writing Club. I had emailed students  and aspiring writers in the community prior to the event to make sure that they knew a published writer would be visiting our campus. 

Public speaking is never easy. Plus, the amount of time authors spend preparing for these events (Jina, for instance, said she had spent a great deal of time preparing for the reading by reading aloud at home and carefully selecting poems to read that would "build a cohesive narrative" or "build upon one image or idea") means that we as hosts have a responsibility to make the readings as pleasant and memorable for the writer as we possibly can. 

Obviously, we can't recreate the groundbreaking work of th DRC, but I believe we can still, in our own communities, enable the kinds of conversations with writers that make our lives richer and all the more meaningful.

Photo:  Jina Ortiz.   Photo Credit: Anjali Bhargava

Support for Readings/Workshops in NewYork 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 the Friends of Poets & Writers.


In July, P&W-sponsored poets Sally Delehant, Mark Leidner, and Douglas Kearney read with the Dollhouse Reading Series in Chicago. Series director Dolly Lemke reports.

Sally DelehantEvery month Stephen Danos and I host a salon-style poetry reading at my apartment: my carpeted, two-bedroom, un-air conditioned, third-floor walk-up in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood. On this humid July night, after a small rain storm that didn’t even try to push any kind of cold front through, we orchestrated a great evening with readers Sally Delehant, Mark Leidner, and Douglas Kearney.

Frankly, sometimes I don’t want to have a house full of eager poetry lovers. I worked all day, I drove in rush hour traffic, I’m hungry, I’m tired, there are people coming over again. Christ! But then I remember I’m not the only one involved. There are people coming over who plan their night around this series. There are featured readers who have traveled from the coasts. People count on us to entertain and make them feel welcome. People love coming to series (so I hear) for the wicked talent, for the environment, for the new and familiar audience members, for whatever reasons they keep coming back—although it’s definitely not for the heat. This month we warned guests to “dress for the weather,” and we meant it. Whatever the temperature was outside, it was twenty degrees hotter inside.

Mark LeidnerEvery month I remember why we host the series when I see forty-odd people of all kinds sitting on the floor sweating in an almost unbearably hot apartment, all eyes on the reader. I’m reminded that we do it to make other people happy, to bring them together, and to make it a memorable night.

This July reading, like each reading, had a life cycle of its own. We began with Sally, who was nervous and timid, but whose poems were exposed and sad and a little magical. Next, we had Mark, who was reserved and funny. He knew this about himself, you could tell, but he was never self-indulgent. His poems were exactly the same way. Finally, Douglas made you wide-eyed and uneasy but hungry for the edge and the explosion. At the end, Douglas invited Sally and Mark to come up and take a bow with him, as though they made it through the thick heat and travels together. This kind of camaraderie is hard to find and easy to overlook.

Douglas KearneyIt’s also easy to overlook the “Dollhouse virgins.” Stephen and I have been doing this for so long that it’s nice to be reminded of the newness for some guests. A regular, Ryan Spooner, overheard a couple talking about this being their first time. There might have been a giddy giggle in there somewhere, too.     

At the end of the night, I reminded the audience that Stephen Danos has made the series what it is today. I then added that the audience makes the series, that the readers make the series, that supporters make the series. Everyone involved makes the series, and that is what motivates us to keep going, and we love it.

Photos, from top: Sally Delehant, Mark Leidner, Douglas Kearney. Credit: Eric Plattner.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago 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.

Poet Randall Horton blogs about his experience at an annual P&W–funded event at the YMCA's Downtown Writers Center in Syracuse. Horton is the recipient of the Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Award, the Bea Gonzalez Poetry Award, and the National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Literature. A Cave Canem Fellow and member of Affrilachian Poets, Horton's lastest poetry collection, Pitch Dark Anarchy, will be published by Northwestern University Press in Spring 2013.

Recently, I had an opportunity to do a reading at the Downtown Writer's Center, located at the YMCA in downtown Syracuse. Each time I read in this series, which is supported by Poets & Writers, I come away not only impressed with the reading series itself, but also with the organization's commitment to running community-based workshops. Often times, the poets invited to the reading series have published books that are taught by passionate teachers who are poets and prose writers themselves, such as the wonderful teachers Georgia Popoff and Jennifer Pashley. I often find the people who are taking these workshops have various life experiences. The DWC is for everybody, but it pays close attention to the communities that are often excluded because of economic and educational factors.

Founded by poet Philip Memmer in January 2001, the DWC is the only community literary arts program in the central part of the state, and serves several hundred writers and readers each year through a variety of programs. It offers more than sixty creative writing courses each year (including "DWC PRO," a creative writing certificate program modeled after more traditional MFA writing programs), and typically hosts twenty-five or more authors each year for readings and other events. The program is part of the YMCA National Writer's Voice network of literary centers, which was founded over thirty years ago by the late Jason Shinder. I asked Phil to explain the primary goals of the Downtown Writer's Center, and he replied, “Our primary goals are to help emerging and literary authors develop audiences for their work, and to assist aspiring writers achieve their own artistic goals." 

The night I read there was an energetic and attentive audience. I would like to think more than anything, we had a shared experience. During the question and answer period, because some of them had been in a class that taught my book, we were able to examine my work in a way that I found extremely helpful. There is an audience in Syracuse. The converted may come one at a time, but they do come.

Photo: Randall Horton.  Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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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