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Readings & Workshops Blog

Brendan Constantine, September’s Writer in Residence, was born in 1967 and named after Irish playwright Brendan Behan. An ardent supporter of Southern California’s poetry communities, he is one of the region’s most recognized authors. He is currently poet-in-residence at the Windward School and regularly conducts workshops in hospitals, foster homes, and with the Art of Elysium. His latest collections of poetry are Birthday Girl With Possum (2011 Write Bloody Publishing) and Calamity Joe (2012 Red Hen Press). He lives in Hollywood, California, at Bela Lugosi’s last address.

Brendan Constantine at HillsidesHow do you do. My name is Brendan Constantine and I’m a poet living in Hollywood, California. As I write this, there are two people arguing in the street beyond my window. One of them just shouted, “It’s not religious, it’s my God damn parking space.”

As this month’s guest “blogger,” I’ve been asked to submit for your consideration my thoughts on poetry, poetry workshops, and what it’s like to work with Poets & Writers. As Howard Nemerov said, “I shall be interested to find out what I do think.”

One of the things I think is this: If you write poems, it’s easy to forget that poets are not the target market for poetry, any more than doctors are the only people who need medicine.

“Bastard!” That’s what the person outside just shouted. How on earth am I going work that into my point? I suppose I could make some parable (a lot of people have already) between the ideas of ‘bastardism’ or legitimacy and the status of poetry in art; the complaint among poets that their work is marginalized, de-prioritized and several other words ending with “-ized.”

Frankly I consider many of these complaints to be a stretch. Poetry is a legitimate art (as legitimate as painting, certainly) and it’s more readily available now than at any time previous. A disregard for poetry is not necessarily an uninformed response.

You can always have the best of something and still not like it. I, for one, can’t stand rhubarb pie. One might argue that poetry is a higher pursuit than pie, in which case we can change the analogy to Truth. Ever had enough of that? The guy outside my apartment has. I think he’s moving his car.

When I look at the histories of poetry, (not just in English), I see the same patterns emerge again and again: how it precedes written language, how its shapes and subjects evolve. People invent poetry as a means of expressing something they can’t easily say. The desire to talk about special things in a special way, the desire to change, elaborate or deliberately misuse language for the purpose of greater communion is all but universal.

Our work as poets, like it or not, is only ours while we’re writing it. Once we share, it belongs to the reader. Who is the reader? Anyone who reads, even by accident. Who is poetry for? Same answer. Is poetry for anyone in particular? Anyone who’s had to search for words. Is that really such an issue? You should hear the other guy outside. He’s finally trying to answer the last ten things that were shouted at him. He’s gotten this far: “Man, you’re like...you’re acting like... like...” 

This is one of the reasons I enjoy conducting poetry workshops with people who have no desire to be professional poets. Every few months, for instance, Poets & Writers sends me to a foster care center in Pasadena. It’s called Hillsides and is home to a number of young people challenged by a variety of circumstances, among them homelessness, depression, and PTSD. I’m not there just to complement a standard education but to help cultivate an emotional vocabulary. As my friend, poet Ed Skoog, says, “Metaphor is a gateway to compassion.”

“Dude, that’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is you’re like totally... you’re getting all caught up with... you’re like a vulture that doesn’t care what it... I mean...” The guy outside is getting close to something. He’s still struggling, though. If he has any poetry in him, he may find the words. If he is a poet, the struggle won’t end.

Of course, there are other uses for poetry, other aims. There’s a lot of poetry that seems (to me, anyway) predicated on the idea that art is a debate, that each new work is a new argument in an old conversation about excellence; a necessary and relevant conversation, but not a very urgent one.

No, the most pressing topics are likely being mumbled in a car outside your door. Who knows where they will lead?

Meanwhile, thank you for having come this far with me. I hope you’ll visit this blog over the next weeks. All comments are welcome. See you next week.

Photo: Brendan Constantine with students at Hillsides in Pasadena, California. Credit: Nikola Wilkens-Miller.

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

In July, P&W–sponsored poets Brendan Constantine, Nicelle Davis, Larry Eby, and Robbi Nester kicked off LitLandia, a new reading series in California’s Inland Empire region. Project director Cati Porter reports.

LitLandia readers with Cati PorterFor a number of years now, I had been contemplating the fact that there is no regularly occurring literary reading series in Riverside, California. This is not to say that there aren’t the occasional events, including an annual Writers Week at the local university, or other reading series in neighboring counties; just none in my city, or even the other cities in closest proximity. So, I decided to remedy that.

Starting a reading series can seem a little daunting, but in my case, I already had most of the infrastructure in place. I searched the two literary journals that I founded and edit (Poemeleon and Inlandia: A Literary Journey) for contributors, and I drew upon my work with the regional literary nonprofit, the Inlandia Institute. At Inlandia, we have been producing quality literary programming for years, including presentations during Riverside’s monthly ArtsWalk, but the offerings are diverse, and my vision was more focused: LitLandia was designed to bring to this region a regularly scheduled quarterly reading series that includes an open mic component so that attendees (mostly writers themselves) can participate.

I knew this series would be special because we have such a ridiculously amazing and talented pool of authors to draw from, but I really was not prepared for how much fun this first event would be. My first clue was when Nicelle Davis walked in carrying a frilly lump of fabric under one arm and an enormous colorful felt book under the other. Shortly thereafter, Robbi Nester and Larry Eby arrived, each with their entourage. We were chatting and going over the reading order when Brendan Constantine rushed in, absolutely certain he was late. (Fact: He was way early.)

Robbi Nester went first, reading an atmospheric poem about whale watching as well as several from a series on yoga poses that promote “emotional stability” from her aptly-titled book Balance. Larry Eby read from his manuscript-in-progress, including one titled “My Father’s Garage,” a moving villanelle titled “Pillow Talk,” and an ekphrastic piece after artwork by an instructor from the University of Redlands.

Nicelle Davis's felt boardThen Nicelle Davis read; I say read, but really, “audience engagement” is a more accurate description of what occured. Drawn from her collection Circe, which retells The Odyssey, Davis used puppets and props to invite readers to pluck the heart out of Odysseus the Pig, and to gouge out Circe’s eyes and pluck a booger from her nose.

Brendan Constantine, the final reader, read his usual unusually smart and witty poetry, including a cento comprised of lines from letters written to him by the legendary FrancEyE.

Afterward, we held a well-received open mic, with new work by talented local writers Mike Cluff, David Stone, Marsha Schuh, James Ducat, Pierce, Karen Greenbaum-Maya, Judith Terzi, and Richard Nester.

As everyone was leaving, the only child in the audience presented me with a glittering gummy worm, and I held in my hand a felt unicorn attached to a rainbow, a gift plucked from the froth of Nicelle Davis’s felt board book: fitting gifts for a delightfully surreal afternoon.

Photos: Top (from left): Larry Eby, Robbi Nester, Cati Porter, Nicelle Davis, and Brendan Constantine. Credit: Mike Sleboda. Bottom: Nicelle Davis's felt unicorn. Credit: Cati Porter.

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

Writer and literary organizer Rochelle Spencer blogs about P&Wfunded writers, Patricia Spears Jones and Tan Lin, and how they engage their audience. Rochelle teaches at LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York, and is the author of the e-book Ella Jones and Her Magical Vagina.

"You can't just write for your own amusement."

Patricia Spears JonesOne of my writing mentors gave me this advice after I'd shared with her a story that I thought was quite clever. (It really wasn'tI just thought so.) But my mentor's pointthat writing should be an unselfish act, that we should seek to engage the outside world each time we pick up a pen or click on the keyboardmakes more sense to me these days. As I seek to reinvent my writing and move away from the random sexual puns and allusions that have dominated my style, I find myself drawn to hearing other writers' voices, to uncover how they've made their audiences part of their storytelling process.

Two writers whom I admire, Patricia Spears Jones, author of Painkiller (Tia Chucha Press, 2010) and three other collections of poems, and Tan Lin, author of HEATH COURSE PAK (Counterpath Press, 2012) and the recipient of a Getty Distinguished Scholar Grant, have each shared their work at LaGuardia Community College, where I teach. In addition, Patricia Spears Jones has received support from the Readings/Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for many years at venues including: The Dwyer Cultural Center, Poets Out Loud, The Coney Island History Project, and the Brooklyn Public Library. Tan Lin has also been funded through the Readings/Workshops Program for his readings at the Asian American Writers' Workshop.

After Patricia and Tan's reading at LaGuardia Community College, the audience flooded the writers with questions about their work.

How does a reading produce such an engaged audience?

When I spoke to Patricia, she laughed. "I'm trying to connect with as many different kinds of people and things as I can," she said. In poems like "Painkiller," Patricia shows how diverse groups are connected, how "the murderer and the martyr/the adulterer and the healer can at any moment change positions." Patricia says sometimes people are surprised by her diverse, universal themes, but they shouldn't be: "As an African American, I come from a huge, sophisticated culture, not one that has often been seen as one note or one idea. Our culture is a lot more heterogeneous than is often presented, and I feel I am part of that heterogeneity."

Tan also connects with audiences; in fact, he says that audience is so important to his work that he's uncomfortable with the term "author's readings." Embracing Roland Barthes's idea about authors and their demise, Tan argues that the reader, and not the author, performs the work and what interests him is the audience's reaction to that work.

"You try to get the audience to perform the book in as interesting ways as possible," Tan says. "At LaGuardia, I did a video presentation where you see one word and then another word over a seven-second sequence. It's reading in a wayit may not be a novel or a poem but it's how language is processed, one word at a time. I am really interested in what people may call the social production of language, language that is produced within some kind of environment."

Indeed. And, I think my old writing mentor would be delighted by both Tan and Patricia's workwriting that involves, engages, and interacts with their readers.

Photo: Patricia Spears Jones. Credit: Thomas Sayers Ellis.

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 Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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.


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