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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

In May, P&W-supported poet Andrei Guruianu, author of Postmodern Dogma and several other books, taught a workshop sponsored by the Center for Gender, Art and Culture in Binghamton, New York. Participants Lois Westgate and Kit Hartman blog about the experience.

AndrAndrei Guruianuei Guruianu led a group of writers in the process of creating poetry at the Cooperative Gallery 213. The Gallery provides a space for local artists and photographers, and has welcomed writers’ workshops. Andrei has long been an inspiration to fledgling writers in Upstate New York: He taught at Binghamton University and Ithaca College, published a journal of work by writers from his community workshops, founded The Broome Review, and served as Poet Laureate of Broome County.
 
Our Saturday workshop was a small group, which Andrei prefers “…as it promotes intimate conversations and sharing, and allows people to feel more comfortable once the group settles into the work of writing.” He recommended we try to remove our biases and allow the subject of our poetry to live on its own.

Andrei showed scenes from the movie Iris, in which Judi Dench as British writer Iris Murdock says: “Every human soul has seen, perhaps before their birth, pure forms such as justice, temperance, beauty, and all the great moral qualities which we hold in honour.” We contemplated the archetypes of the unconscious, which are sometimes impossible to convey in words.

workshop participantsThe movie includes a montage of Iris and her husband swimming, Iris nude in youth, and in a bathing suit in old age. Andrei asked us to identify concepts this scene evoked and capture these through images in our poetry. For our second poem, he asked us to respond to a scene in which Iris, now suffering from Alzheimer’s, places beach stones on rows of blank paper from her journal, then removes the stones. The papers are swept away. 

We read our poems aloud and Andrei pointed out the strongest parts of each. His critiques were honest, but not brutal. An example of one person’s best line inspired by the stones-on-paper scene: “…her fingers remembered the need to create.”

Andrei’s philosophy is this: “I continue to enjoy leading community writing workshops because it helps me stay true to my initial impulse, [which is] to take creative writing out of the classroom. The creative space that opens up when there is no pressure to create or publish is genuine, is as close to the ‘spirit’ of the art as you can get.”

We in Binghamton felt fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from him.

Top photo: Andrei Guruianu. Credit: Kit Hartman. Lower photo: Workshop participants. Credit: Andrei Guruianu.
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.

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about writing in form and five days in the woods.

In September of 2011, equipped with lessons from the P&W–supported Cave Canem workshop with Marilyn Nelson and with Annie Finch's A Formal Feeling Comes: Poems in Form by Contemporary Women, I drove to a friend's country home in Pine Plains, New York. I spent five days alone in the woods (with deer, wild turkey, trees, and books as worthy companions).

Most writers acknowledge the benefit of retreat. Getting away enabled me to turn off technology and turn any distractions into sustenance: cooking, watching the lake shift and move, or watching a deer watching me. In this way some retreats are a coming towards: towards nature, towards community, towards solitude, towards discipline. I am grateful to have benefited from different kinds of retreats where I have learned about the craft of poetry, the power of community, and the sacredness of solitude.

Writing is a creative act that one performs alone, but when I began writing sonnets after Julia Alvarez, I was communing with the poems I had read and the poets I had heard. I am not sure that I would have decided to write thirty-three sonnets without my time in the woods. I know that I wouldn't have begun writing a series of sonnets without the P&W–supported regional Cave Canem workshop with Marilyn Nelson in 2009.  We explored the virtues of formal poetry, and it was then that I first dipped my toes into the waters of the sonnet.           

Since September, I have crafted sonnets about mermaids, desire, fishermen, and seascapes. They are the most personal poems I have written. They are poems that benefit from the syllabic, rhythmic, and aural constraints of formal verse. The word sonnet comes from the Italian word sonetto meaning "little song." Through composing and revising sonnets, I am singing to myself, to Alvarez, to Nelson, and to the deer and turkey in Pine Plains too.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Matthew Goldberg.

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.

The fifth annual Our Life Stories Writers’ Conference took place April 28 at Cosumnes River College in Sacramento. This one-day conference, co-sponsored by the Ethel Hart Senior Center and Cosumnes River College, and supported by P&W, is designed for seniors and others interested in documenting their life stories. Project directors Alicia Black and Bubbles Miguel describe the event.

The celebration began the evening of Friday, April 27, when more than eighty people gathered at the Hart Senior Center in downtown Sacramento for a pre-conference reception. Attendees sipped port wine and dunked fresh fruit into a multi-tiered chocolate fountain while mingling with conference faculty and fellow participants. Faculty greeted participants, signed books, and read their own work for the crowd.

Early the following morning, more than 150 attendees and volunteers streamed past manicured lawns and flowering trees on the Cosumnes River College (CRC) campus to enter the conference room. Allegra Silberstein, poet laureate of the nearby town of Davis, kicked the day off with a reading. Jennifer Bayse Sander, a New York Times bestselling author, publisher, and former Random House senior editor, delivered the keynote address.

Participants dispersed to a nearby building to attend their selected morning workshops. The seven workshop offerings gave the writers an opportunity to learn about autobiographical narrative, poetry, memoir, and publishing. The workshops were led by a culturally diverse group of nationally and locally recognized writers. Offerings included “Painting with words: creating atmosphere in settings” by Kerstin Feindert, “Your life as a list of ten” by Susan Kelly-DeWitt, and “Who said that? Voice and point of view in fiction” by Kakwasi Somadhi.

After a catered Italian lunch accompanied by an enticing slice of strawberry cheesecake, Ginny McReynolds, CRC Dean of Humanities and Social Science, gave a keynote talk about the importance of writing on a regular basis. Once the afternoon workshops concluded, participants returned to submit their evaluations for prizes donated by local restaurants, private individuals, and a local winery. As attendees departed, many reported that they had met new people and enjoyed the chance to network and eat great food. Many promised to return next year, as their life stories continue to unfold.

Above: Emmanuel Sigauke signs a book. Left: Susan Kelly-DeWitt (standing) leads a workshop. Credit: Martin McIllroy.

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

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about participating in a P&W–supported Cave Canem regional workshop with formalist poet Marilyn Nelson in 2009. 

In fall 2009, Poets & Writers supported a Cave Canem regional workshop with Marilyn Nelson. Nelson is a goddess of formal poetics. Before taking a workshop with Marilyn I had little experience with sonnets, sestinas, or ballads. Through a series of lessons on meter, rhyme, and phrasing, I learned the arithmetic of formalism.

Nelson asked us to pay particular attention to the construction of the poetic line. Through a sequence of assignments we experienced how careful and intentional construction could lead to a meaningful, surprising, and exciting composition. Formal verse provides the writer with added parameters. Nelson’s poetry exhibits how such constraints used skillfully can produce poems that are wild, challenging, liberating, and free. Gwendolyn Brooks and Robert Hayden offer examples of how constraint or restraint can be used to describe terror, horror, beauty, and oppression. In these ways formal poetry holds paradox with nimble hands.

To conclude our time together Marilyn asked us to write one sonnet. About two years later, a childhood friend reminded me of a series of poems that we read when we were teenagers. “Don’t you remember?” she asked. “Who touches this poem touches a woman.” I did remember. The last line of Julia Alvarez’s last sonnet was a line that moved my teenage-becoming-a-woman self. Rereading those sonnets from Alvarez’s first book, Homecoming, was a kind of homecoming. I admired the way her sonnets sounded both casual and intimate. The themes she was obsessed with: relationships, God, marriage, and womanhood resonated with the preoccupations of my thirty-something mind and heart.

By experiencing the resonance of a poetic line as a teenager and returning to that line as an adult, I began a process of constructing, revising, and building a sonnet cycle of my own. I am grateful for Nelson’s instruction and for an introduction to formalism that continues to shape and propel my work.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Amanda Morgan.


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 writer Michelle Tea has been both a P&W–supported writer and presenter of literary events. Her many books include a poetry collection, novels, and memoirs. Tea's novel, Valencia, won the 2000 Lambda Literary Award for Best Lesbian Fiction. Tea founded the literary nonprofit RADAR Productions and co-founded the spoken word tour Sister Spit. We asked her a few questions about her experience as a writer and reading series curator.

What are your reading dos?
Be relaxed! Audiences are as interested in YOU as they are in your piece. Ad-libbing through the work (if the work allows for it) is generally charming; some of my favorite readers will break off the page and address the audience in a spontaneous, natural way.

What are your reading don’ts?
Don't take it so seriously. You are not delivering a testimony to Congress. Don't speak in POETRY VOICE. You know what I mean. There are writers whose work I enjoy on the page, but I can't listen to them read it because that inflection makes me leave my body.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I don't, unless you count neurotically changing my mind about what I'm reading and wearing "preparation." I call it mental illness. Not everything works best aloud. I try to not feel the audience too much because it’s easy to mistake silence for boredom, and then I get nervous and start acting desperate. I try to read as if everything I'm delivering is AMAZING.

What’s the strangest interaction you’ve had with an audience member?
Sometimes a person thinks that just because you are comfortable reading something sexual in the very specific and controlled environment of a reading, it means you are down for discussing sex with random strangers. And I actually enjoy that no more than the average person, which is to say, not much.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
They all seem to revolve around shock. In Rose of No Man's Land, it's when a character throws her dirty tampon at a boy who is harassing her. In Valencia, it’s an unusual sex scene. In Rent Girl, it’s a very funny fake orgasm contest between two prostitutes—which allows me to caw like a bird whilst performing, so I like it, too.

What makes the RADAR Reading Series unique?
My reading series has been running for almost nine years. I mix up my readers—unpublished, published, well-known, emerging, and I bring in graphic novelists, video artists, and photographers. It's free. There’s a Q&A  segment, and I hand out homemade cookies to whoever asks questions. (There are always questions!)

It's queer like a queer bar—anyone can go in, but you know it’s a space that has prioritized queer people. As a queer person I spend tons of time in straight spaces where queers are welcome, but the spaces are straight, even though often they aren't designated as such because straight people aren't accustomed to thinking about space like queers are. RADAR uses that model—yes, of course everyone is welcome, but the space, the event, is queer.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
My immediate community is a queer community that still suffers from a lack of representation in all media, especially literary, even in San Francisco. The value of having a place you can go to see elements of your experience and community reflected back at you in a thoughtful, honest, artistic manner is HUGE. I was just passing through San Francisco when I came here in 1993, but the reason I stayed is that the work I do—writing, curating events, and promoting other writers—is so supported here. And it's supported in part by Poets & Writers, so thank you!

Photo: Michelle Tea. Credit: Food For Thought Books.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Social justice activist and Cave Canem fellow Ama Codjoe blogs about her work as a teaching artist with the P&W-supported Girls Educational Mentoring Services (G.E.M.S.), a New York City based organization that aims to support young women who have been commercially sexually exploited and domestically trafficked.

I teach social justice and poetry through asking myself the same big questions I pose to students. As a teaching artist I am invested both in my life as a teacher and in my life as an artist. These two pieces of my identity inform one another. When I assign the group a poem to write, I often do the assignment myself. While G.E.M.S. participants were interrogating what it means to be woman, I was asking myself similar questions in my artistic practice.

The inspiration flows in both directions. Just as frequently as I find myself using my teaching practice to inform my artistic practice, I also bring strategies, poems, questions, and obsessions from my writing life back into the classroom. If I look back at periods when I have been teaching a particular group of students and then examine the poems that I wrote during that time I can often find traceable themes and continuities. For five weeks of teaching and five weeks of writing we seemed to return to these central questions: What do we invoke? What do we want? What do we dream?

To close our time together, young women who participated in the P&W-supported workshops read their poems at an art exhibit that also featured their visual art. Listening as their confidence, nervousness, clarity, and power filled the room, I was impressed by how these young women had turned to me, turned to each other, and turned to the page. The space where we write, discuss, reveal, and revel is a space of courage and power—is a political space. The work of self-reflection, writing, and creativity is worthy work, and as Audre Lorde insists, poetry is not a luxury. In other words the work of a poet is dangerous and life-changing work.

Photo: Ama Codjoe. Credit: Evelyn Bojorquez.

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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