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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

On June 20, poet Diane Wakoski read with the Woodward Line Poetry Series at the Scarab Club in Detroit. Series coordinator Kim Hunter writes about her visit.

To get to Detroit’s Scarab Club art gallery, Diane Wakoski drove ninety miles to from East Lansing, Michigan, where she has been Michigan State University’s Poet in Residence and a professor since 1975. By the time you read this, she will have retired, capping an illustrious academic career. 

She also capped the 2011–2012 season for the Woodward Line Poetry Series, which runs from September through June. The decade-old series takes place in the century-old Scarab Club art gallery. The lower floor, where the reading took place, is an airy, brilliant white space with wooden floors. Wakoski read in front of a five-foot-long painting of a rooster and managed not to be upstaged.

The crowd of about thirty people ranged from college-aged attendees to fans who’d been following Wakoski’s work for decades. Though most seemed familiar at least with Wakoski’s longstanding reputation, if not her many publications, Wakoski’s reading style and ability to frame her work would have provided an excellent introduction to even the most poetry-phobic.

In addition, all of the evening’s selections were about films. She began the reading by noting the irony of having been born in southern California, but not having become interested in movies until she moved to New York and saw a French New Wave film by Jean-Luc Godard. It was then that she realized film could be art (another irony, since Hollywood inspired the French New Wave). Part of the publicity for the reading included a video posting of her paean to Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (read by a Canadian radio host). 

During the question and answer session that followed the reading, I asked her if she saw any parallels between the structure of her very visual work and the structure of film. She replied that it was more that she liked films that were like her poems: films where the plot was merely a means to draw the audience into something deeper. Indeed, though her work referenced pop culture throughout the evening, she always moved deeper, as with “Beauty And The Beast,” to themes of desire and how we deceive ourselves with it and for it.

Photo: Diane Wakoski. Credit: Kim Hunter.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in 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.

Literary organizer Randall Horton blogs about emerging voices in New York State. 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.

For three years I stayed in upstate New York, working on a PhD from State University of New York at Albany. I was pursuing a degree in poetry and poetics, and it struck me that there were very few reading series taking place in the city. And so I, along with some fellow graduate students, established the Jawbone Reading Series, which featured emerging artists from the area. I brought in Linda Susan Jackson, whose first book, What Yellow Sounds Like, is a tribute to the late great Etta James. Phil Memmer, who had recently won the Idaho Prize from Lost Horse Press for his book Lucifer: A Hagiography, which offers an alternate description of the creation of Lucifer in modern form, came and read. Georgia Popoff’s book Doom Weaver had just been published. She gave an energetic reading, followed by an equally energetic conversation. Also, I was able to bring in Christopher Stackhouse, a writer who often pushes the boundaries of aesthetic possibility. His latest book Plural is coming out from Counterpath Press in the fall.

All of these poets added to the poetic fabric of Albany, as did the diverse group of writers featured in Frequency North, the reading series Daniel Nester founded at the College of Saint Rose. Poets & Writers funded the Jawbone Reading Series, and it felt good to be able to pay poets a small honorarium in appreciation of their sharing their imagination and writing with the community. 

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.

For the past seven years, Nancy Kline has been leading P&W–supported senior writing workshops at Queens Community House in New York City. Her short stories, essays, literary criticism, and translations have appeared widely. She is the author of the novel, The Faithful, and edited and contributed to the essay collection How Writers Teach Writing. She also reviews regularly for the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Kline generously shared with us reflections on her writing workshops with seniors.

What makes your workshops unique?
It’s the students who make my workshops unique—their jokes, epiphanies, reticencies, and idiosyncrasies; their chemistry with each other, with me, and with words. 

Could you share a few examples of stories written in your workshop recently?
In one workshop, we used pieces from Flash Fiction Forward as springboards into workshop participants’ own work.

Rick Moody’s “Drawer” inspired a hilarious description of the anarchic contents of one writer’s drawer and her increasing hysteria as she searched through it for some coveted item.

In response to the prompt "just like her mother," suggested by Pamela Painter's "Toasters," one workshop participant wrote about how, as a small child, she accompanied her mother to forage secretly for an apronful of grain with which to feed her starving family in decimated, post-World War II Germany.

Rob Carney's “Traveling Alone” inspired one eighty-six-year-old student's biblical monologue. When asked what she planned to write about next, having just done God, she replied: “Sex.” And so she did.

What techniques do you employ to help shy writers open up?
In my experience, all writers are shy, at least on some level. We are naked in the page. For this reason, I try to establish a respectful, attentive environment in my writing workshops. Laughter helps.

I try to teach students to listen to their readers’ comments, without defensiveness or undue docility, and to comment on other people’s work with rigor and charity; to write any written comments in pencil, rather than pen; and to try to phrase their comments as questions, rather than statements. 

There’s a difference between asking a writer "Could you clarify this?" and stamping a text "Unclear." The former recognizes that the writer is in charge of her own words and has the power to change them. The latter suggests, to my ear, that the reader is in charge and the writer has failed.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
It is always that moment when a student gets it, whatever it happens to be. Sometimes a writer who has been struggling with constricted prose suddenly writes in a text so lush and genuine that the workshop falls silent in admiration. Smaller epiphanies occur: During a recent session on comma use, one of the seniors exclaimed, “Commas actually communicate information! I never knew that!” This was thrilling.

What affect has this work had on you?
It is deeply moving to be in the presence of the accumulated wisdom, imagination, and courage of the women and men with whom I’m working. Four of my students have died since I began to offer these workshops. Their deaths have marked me and their colleagues, and have underlined the collective sense that each of us has many stories to tell, and that we had better hurry up and tell them.

Photo: Nancy Kline. Credit: Adam Piore.
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.

P&W–sponsored poet Randall Horton writes about forming relationships with venues. 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.

Before the publication of my first poetry collection,The Definition of Place, the idea of performing my writing never crossed my mind. I'd been active in several poetry communities, but it wasn't until the book arrived and I held it in my hands that I realized the promotion of it would be a task to which I was not accustomed. It was the early grant support Poets & Writers gave me to go out and read my work that enabled me to introduce myself to a larger and varied audience—and to nurture relationships—especially on the East Coast, which is where I am based. I think it is important that beginning poets understand that the Readings/Workshops Program at Poets & Writers can help provide these opportunities to writers.

With the help of many friends and poets, including the late Adarro Minton, Lita Hooper, and Fred Joiner, I was given a platform to reach an audience at a range of poetry venues including the Social Justice Center in Albany, the YMCA Downtown Writer's Center in Syracuse, headed by the poet Phil Memmer, The Revolving Door Series in Chicago, hosted by Jennifer Steele, the Southwest Arts Center in Atlanta, as well as the American Poetry Museum in Washington, D.C. 

I would like to think all artists pursue their art only to express their passion and creativity, but the reality is it helps to be financially compensated for the work we do. Receiving grants from Poets & Writers makes poets feel worthy, if only in small way, which in turns helps to feed our art. These opportunities also help us reach a larger audience. My advice to beginning poets is to continue to cultivate relationships with venues where you read, and make them aware that funding through Poets & Writers is available, because we all want to feel appreciated, if only for a moment.

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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