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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W–supported poet and presenter of literary events Michael Cirelli, executive director of Urban Word NYC and author of Lobster with Ol' Dirty Bastard, Vacations on the Black Star Line, and Everyone Loves The Situation, blogs about Willie Perdomo's teaching style.

Last week I wrote about my journey from Poets & Writers Magazine subscriber to P&W-supported presenter of literary events. I reflected on the “power of Perdomo’s pedagogy,” which compels forty teens to cram into a small office space on a beautiful spring day to write poems. Here's why they write after a long school day...

Working with various teachers, I've come to understand what makes good teachers great. The best teachers “keep it real” with their students and, even more importantly, with themselves. Willie Perdomo is a master of this. He knows what he brings to the table, and by being an active listener, is able to identify the interests, needs, joys, and pains of his students. He meets his students where they are, then helps facilitate their growth. But how do we meet a student where they are, if we don’t acknowledge where we are? Even the “downest” teacher needs to acknowledge the inherent power dynamic of student/teacher.

I’ve seen countless teachers give up because they take things personally or feel alienated by their students. So, really, the best educators find the intersection between themselves and their students, accounting for all of the privileges, challenges, and ignorance that s/he may have. To do this takes constant research, an awareness of your students, and an awareness of your power/privilege. Breaking down these hierarchies, and creating educational experiences that address these experiences, not only ignites a dedication to learning in students, but also provides the platform for teachers to become more human. Willie Perdomo’s P&W-supported workshops at Urban Word NYC embody it all.

Photo: Michael Cirelli. Credit: Syreeta McFadden.

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.

Sarah Browning, director of Split This Rock and DC Poets Against the War, blogs about the P&W–supported Split This Rock Festival in Washington, D.C.

What is a poet to do? The world seems to be exploding around us: The earth is warming at an alarming rate; the right wing attacking the basic human rights of women, LGBT people, and people of color; the rich trying to buy elections; and so many Americans and others around the world suffering from poverty, violence, and repression. How do we keep on writing our poems, telling our stories, perfecting our craft, as this madness rages around us? Split This Rock will offer answers to such questions for the more than 500 poets of all ages who will converge in Washington, D.C., this month to join with others in wrestling these questions to the ground and speak out for another world.

Split This Rock Poetry Festival: Poems of Provocation & Witness, March 22 to 25, will be the third Festival of Poems of Provocation & Witness that we've presented with Poets & Writers' support. The funds from Poets & Writers are helping us bring five of the most visionary voices of our time to the D.C. stage: Sherwin Bitsui, Douglas Kearney, Rachel McKibbens, Jose Padua, and Minnie Bruce Pratt. Other stellar citizen-poets include Homero Aridjis, Kathy Engel, Carlos Andrés Gómez, Khaled Mattawa, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Kim Roberts, Sonia Sanchez, Venus Thrash, and Alice Walker. And, as this will be the tenth anniversary of June Jordan's death, the festival will celebrate and honor the life and legacy of this poet-essayist-activist and teacher.

Panels presented during the festival will address the ways in which “poets (like June Jordan) have been at the forefront of many liberation struggles in the Americas and how poetry has sustained others in their pursuit of social justice.”

White poets who write about race will invite attendees to think about the legacy of slavery and genocide in our country and the ways this history plays out today. Educators will consider strategies for teaching the great diversity of American poetry. And, poets who are organizers for environmental justice will ask, “Who will speak for the river?”

At Split This Rock, we encourage participants to have the difficult discussions they might not have elsewhere and to step outside their self-identified group(s) to attend a reading, workshop, or discussion that might be new to them.  We must talk to one another and read one another's work—across our differences—if we are to figure our way out of the many messes we find ourselves in as a nation.

Friday, March 23, at 4:30 PM, we’ll head to the Supreme Court to use our art form—poetry—to demand that the very rich stop hijacking our national conversation. Money is not speech, the poets will declare in a group poem, created spontaneously on the spot. Poetry is speech!  Please join us!

Photo: Sarah Browning.  Credit: Jill Brazel.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washington, D.C., 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.

For the month of March, P&W–supported poet and presenter of literary events Michael Cirelli blogs about his history with the Readings/Workshops program. Cirelli is the executive director of Urban Word NYC, a literary arts organization for teens, and author of Lobster with Ol' Dirty Bastard, Vacations on the Black Star Line, and Everyone Loves The Situation.

When I began taking my writing seriously, realizing I wouldn’t be a professional hockey player, I replaced my subscription to Sports Illustrated, with Poets & Writers Magazine. That was in 1999, when I was wrapping up my undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University, beating (pun intended) the pulp out of my poems, trying to find a voice of my own (and maybe even cross paths with all things good that I saw in the magazine). I moved to New York City in 2003 to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing at the New School, and found a small part-time position at a fairly new organization for teen poets, Urban Word NYC. Within 6 months, the founder of the organization decided to pursue her PhD full and left me with the reigns. “The reigns” in the nonprofit field ultimately boils down to finding money to do the necessary work.

For the sake of Urban Word NYC, the good work was creating safe, uncensored, and relevant spaces for teens to explore their powerful and unique voices. To create those spaces we needed great poet/educators to facilitate the work. To that end, I had gotten a little closer to the organization whose magazine landed on my Oakland doorstep over a decade ago. For years now, the Readings/Workshops program has supported Urban Word’s effort to have esteemed Harlem poet, Willie Perdomo, lead his popular workshop series (designed especially for us), Word to Everything I Love. This is not just any poet, his workshop breathes the type of radical truth-telling that his own poetry is known for.

Willie’s workshop has been a staple in our organization’s workshop series in both the fall and spring semesters, and is perennially our most attended, with upwards of forty students crammed into our space to write poetry after school. It’s remarkable math when you think of the circumstances: forty students in a cramped space come to write after being in school all day long! This is a testament to the power of Perdomo’s pedagogy, and the work of the young poets from the workshops is always representative of the innovatively powerful voices of New York City teens. Further, many of these young poets celebrate their work each spring at Barnes and Noble bookstore, as part of Poets & Writers annual intergenerational reading, Connecting Generations. I went from reading about poet/educators in Poets & Writers Magazine to P&W-supported writers leading programs for my organization!

Photo: Michael Cirelli. Credit: NIKE staff.

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 Bethsheba Rem hosts the monthly Word Is Born series at the Apache Café in Atlanta. In January the R/W program supported a performance there by spoken-word artists Caroline Rothstein and Moody Black.

The Apache Café in Atlanta has been my home venue going on five years. It’s comparable to the Nuyorican Poets Café in New York City, the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge in Chicago, and Da Poetry Lounge in Los Angeles, where Def Poetry procured their idea to spotlight poetry on the largest stage in the world: cable television.

Every fourth Sunday of the month, around 7 PM, a line forms in front of the Apache Café. Veteran attendees know that by 7:30, you’re likely to be holding up the bar with your back if you haven’t grabbed a seat. Late arrivers, self-imposed rock stars, and those who think they have some pull with the host trickle in around ten and miss the sign-up list. The coveted thirty slots to rock your best poem, sing your best cover, or deliver the original tune you’ve been practicing in the privacy of your bathroom with a hair brush and a Misty Mirror are gone as quickly as the chairs.

Recently, we featured Caroline Rothstein, a New York–based writer who is also an eating disorder recovery activist, and Moody Black, an award-winning slam poet who hosts his own slam and open mic in Greenville, South Carolina.

In order to receive their P&W grant, featured poets are required to conduct an hour-long “Word-Shop” in addition to their performance, a quick three-poem punch to the chest. I learned this ratio while touring in Amsterdam, where I was required to do a four-hour workshop and only a ten-minute performance. If done well, both audiences will remember you forever.

Depending on the season, I have been known to bring in pumpkins for carving, eggs for coloring, snowflakes for cutting, and flags for burning (just joking!) to get those not participating in the workshop in the mood for an artsy evening. It only takes a minor amount of instruction and a smile to get people hooked.

But nothing comes without sacrifice. The $7 admission, even with a packed house of 200-plus, couldn’t cover the cost of the venue, host, DJ, and a nationally touring featured poet. That’s where Poets & Writers swoops in to help relieve the daunting task of fundraising.

I learned about the Readings/Workshops program over four years ago, when I received a grant to perform at the Apache Café myself. The grant was small, but a P&W staff member happened to be in town and took a few minutes after the show to talk to me about how her office could help fund some of the shows I was doing in Atlanta.

Photos: (top) Caroline Rothstein; credit: Jonathan Weiskopf. (Bottom) The audience at the Apache Café; credit: Marc Jones.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

Longtime P&W-supported poet and author of the collections Raw Air, Night When Moon Follows and Convincing the Body Cheryl Boyce Taylor blogs about the late P&W-supported poet Rodlyn Douglas.

In 2004, I took a leave of absence from the P&W-sponsored Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's senior writing workshop. I sought out Rodlyn Douglas, a warm and talented poet/performer from Trinidad, to be my replacement. Rodlyn could break into laughter one minute and prayer the next. She knew how to pull work out of people and enjoyed working with seniors.

Each week the group read poems by poets they had never heard of before. Whenever participants asked about her life or her work, Rodlyn never hesitated to share her personal stories.

Rodlyn charged the group with exploring their silences, to look within and be honest. Rodlyn encouraged them to leave a legacy of truth and dignity.

When the group had difficulty opening up, she would say, "Memories and Stories: Once Upon A Time!" This phrase opened doors to hidden places in their lives and enabled them to write from experience and memory. The phrase also became the title of their anthology, edited and published by Rodlyn in 2009.

It is important for me to note that Rodlyn completed this anthology during a period when she was seriously ill. Throughout it all, Rodlyn always expressed to me how proud and happy she was to be able to teach poetry, the work she loved so much.

Photo: Cheryl Boyce Taylor and Rodlyn Douglas. Credit: Desciana Swinger.

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 presenter of literary events Cheryl Boyce Taylor, curator of the Calypso Muse reading series and the Glitter Pomegranate performance series, blogs about Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center's P&W-supported senior writing workshop.

Shortly after 9/11 I began teaching a senior writing workshop at Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center. The workshops were designed to create a safe and nurturing space for seniors to express the impact of the tragedy on their lives. Additionally, it offered an opportunity for seniors to recall, explore, and document their own amazing stories. 

The workshop had a wonderful mix of seniors, which made for interesting and, sometimes, challenging sessions. Among our members were a retired school principal, a fashion designer, a WWII veteran, a fiction writer, a multi-lingual social worker, and a Caribbean heiress. Some of them were shy, while others had a more take charge attitude.

That first year we wrote stories, poems, and letters about childhood, parenting, health, and 9/11. We wrote to music, explored poetic forms like haikus, tankas, centos, and free verse, and invited emerging and established poets to read their work and discuss poetry. One of the invited poets was the late Rodlyn H. Douglas. The group fell instantly in love with her warmth, storytelling abilities, and poetry.

During that year, we collected poems and stories for an anthology and made artthe class painted and wrote text on rocks and made picture frames with poems and family pictures inside. The highlight was the P&W intergenerational reading held each summer. We joined other P&W-supported workshops comprised of young and older writers. Readers invited friends, family, and P&W staff. What a joy it was to see them rehearse, then dress up for their special reading. There were many wonderful parts of my teaching experience there, but I couldn't have been more proud than when I heard them read their own work with pride and confidence.

Photos: (top) Cheryl Boyce Taylor; credit: Artis Q. Wright. (Bottom) Rodlyn Douglas (standing) and workshop participant Mae Del Gilmore; credit: Cheryl Boyce Taylor.

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.

Devoya Mayo is a poet, playwright, former radio personality, DJ, tastemaker, and events coordinator with P&W-sponsored The Soulflower Group. Based in Fresno, she dedicates her time to curating events that bridge the divide between the diverse communities residing within California’s Central Valley. From 2005–2006, Mayo was P&W’s Central Valley outreach consultant. Under the moniker Ms. Soulflower, you can find her spinning music in dimly lit establishments, organizing and hosting gatherings, and creating art via Etsy.

What makes the Soulflower Group unique?
We are a consortium of designers, DJs, musicians, photographers, poets, and organizers connected by the tenet that creativity and culture are essential in building community wellness.

What recent project have you been especially proud of?
The P&W-supported Soulflower Speakeasy featuring Sunni Patterson, along with Stephen Mayu, Connie Owens, and Joy Graves, was the easy standout of the year. Sharing space with someone who had appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, performed at major spoken-word venues, and worked with several well-known artists and performers—including Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman, and Amiri Barakawas spiritually motivating and an honest-to-goodness awakening. From the moment Sunni walked on stage with her son, she offered us a glimpse into her soul through poetry, reflecting the strife, angst, joy, and hope that many of us were feeling.

How do you find and invite readers?
I find writers via word-of-mouth, social networks, and the occasional open-mic night. You can’t walk down the street in a place like Fresno and not run into a writer of some kind. California’s Central Valley has always been home to a host of heavy hitters like Connie Hales, Tim Z. Hernandez, Juan Felipe Herrera, Lee Herrick, Philip Levine, and Gary Soto.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
One night a crowd favorite walked on stage, placed a gym bag on a stool, and began to read from his chapbook. As he read about the abuse inflicted by various objects, he began to reach into his bag and toss out the offending objects. He threw boots, belts and, yes, even an iron into a crowd of poetry lovers. Needless to say, there were lots of near misses and, afterwards, we enacted a no-Gallagher-type-antics disclaimer for future events.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
When I’m part of an event, or in the process of curating one, my literary antennae are on high alert. I push myself harder and listen more than I speak, which is hard... let me tell ya. The elements that speak to me, or don't speak to me, inform what I want to provide.
 
What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Very few have the power, resources, or authority to demand more programming. This is how we knew we had to do more than just daydream about what it would be like if we were really to invest in our artistic futures.

Photo: Devoya Mayo. Credit: Joe Osejo Photography.

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

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