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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W–supported presenter of literary events Michael Cirelli, author of Lobster With Ol' Dirty Bastard, Vacations on the Black Star Line, and Everyone Loves The Situation, blogs about his experience as a P&Wsupported poet.

As I began to get a steady hold on the roller coaster that is nonprofit management, while still finding time to engage NYC's rich literary scene, I quickly realized that not only did Urban Word NYC benefit from P&W’s Readings/Workshops program, but I would personally benefit from P&W support.

I was asked to read at the P&Wsupported Parachute Literary Festival in Coney Island. The coolest thing about the reading was that it was held at the New York Aquarium in front of a wall-to-ceiling sized tank of glowing jellyfish! So, while I read poems about robots, the jellyfish floated behind me looking like spaceships. Fitting. It was an incredible event and the venue made it extremely memorablenot to mention The Cyclone roller coaster and Totonno’s Pizza down the block.

My trajectory crossed paths with another amazing P&Wsupported reading, The Inspired Word series. What made this event special, aside from it being a great weekly open mic and feature, was that I was reading as a contributor to Best American Poetry 2011. My former professor and friend, poet David Lehman, hosted the reading and it was an honor to read with esteemed poets.

Being in NYC, the circles seem to get smaller and smaller. What once seemed like a dream, slowly became a reality that always seemed to be connected to P&W. I couldn’t have imagined ten years ago that one day I’d be part of a P&Wsupported reading for Best American Poetry...

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.

Marge Pellegrino, author, teaching artist, and project manager for The Hopi Foundation’s Owl & Panther project, blogs about P&W–supported programs with refugee families.

When the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center asked me if our families would write poems in response to drawings by Vietnamese children for their upcoming Speak Peace exhibit, I jumped at the chance. Our participants are as young as five and as old as sixty. They’re from Bhutan, Congo, Ethiopia, Iraq, Nepal, and Somalia. Many carry private memories of armed conflict, some the scarcity they experienced in refugee camps. Others still witness a family member's haunting nighttime battles with post-traumatic stress disorder. We had never come this close to addressing their backgrounds directly.

With a grant from Poets & Writers we were able to bring Christopher Mcllroy to work with us and meet the challenge that would allow our refugee families to speak up for peace—and for those brave enough—to talk back to war. McIlroy recently published Here I Am a Writer, stories and poems by Native American students in the Arts Reach Program in Tucson. Mcllroy knows how to inspire. He was willing to coach our volunteers, which included artists, retired social workers, a psychologist, a graphic designer, students, and writers, so they would feel confident in working on poems one-on-one with our clients. He worked with a variety of approaches to address this difficult topic and invited the volunteers to put pen to paper to create their own poems before they started to work with our families.

With this foundation in place, we were ready to get to work with the participants. This was the first time some of our newer clients ever wrote a poem. We invited one of our participants from Ethiopia to choose one of the Vietnamese student’s images and express his response in music. Others wrote poems, then broke their poems apart and put the words back together again in a new order. After three writing sessions we were ready to rehearse. Oh, the poetry! But, also the drama and song!

The resulting performance was, for some, the first time they ever spoke before a group, and certainly the first time they saw themselves on television, when the local public television station’s Arizona Illustrated covered our Speak Peace event. After each workshop and reading, each person was applauded and validated. And, in that space where they wrote and spoke peace, they were, for a time, at peace.

Photo: Tilahun Liben  Credit: Aspen Green

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Tucson 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.

P&W–supported poet Michael Cirelli, author of Lobster With Ol' Dirty Bastard, Vacations on the Black Star Line, and Everyone Loves The Situation, remembers his debut book launch in 2008.

In 2008, the crown jewel of P&W support came to me personally. The organization was gracious enough to sponsor my book release party at the Grand Café in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn (since closed). The Grand was one of those magical Brooklyn places where you could run into dozens of writers, musicians, and artists. I could have breakfast with Meshell Ndegeocello and lunch with Toshi Reagon all in the same day.

Just a few weeks ago I ran into the woman who used to own the café and reminisced on what an amazing night it was, one of the best in my life. Not only was my first collection released, Lobster With Ol’ Dirty Bastard, but my guest readers included the longtime P&Wsupported poets Patricia Smith and Willie Perdomo, and the afterparty was deejayed by DJ Reborn (a popular teaching artist at Urban Word NYC). It was truly a memorable night and I was so grateful for P&W's support!

A few months after the book launch, the “debut poets” issue of Poets & Writers Magazine arrived to my Brooklyn home. I had made the debut poets list—I was in the magazine that I’d been reading for more than ten years!

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.

Elizabeth Anderson is the program director at P&W–supported Charis Books and More and Charis Circle, a unique for-profit independent feminist bookstore and 501(c)(3) social justice literary nonprofit hybrid located in Atlanta, Georgia. She is also a writing coach and fiction writer at work on her first novel, "Paradise Park."

What makes your reading series unique?
Charis Books is turning thirty-eight this year. With bookstores continuously closing, we will be the oldest feminist bookstore in North America and the primary LGBT-focused bookstore in Atlanta. Our events have always reflected the old feminist axiom, "the personal is political." We believe that fiction has the power to change the world and that reading can be a revolutionary act. We maintain a deep investment in helping to center voices traditionally at the literary margins.

What recent program have you been especially proud of?
The P&Wsponsored evening with Sassafras Lowrey, editor of Kicked Out, an anthology of work by homeless LGBTQ youth. Sassafras shared her own story of homelessness and talked about receiving one teen's story via text message because the kid didn't have access to traditional modes of journalistic communication. Sassafras opted to publish it in the book with a standard English translation. That anecdote spoke to me about the value of telling our story despite the obstacles.

What’s the craziest thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
The life of a bookseller is a crazy one. We hear more confessions than priests and doctors. People share. A LOT. Folks come to a reading about how to turn a front lawn into a food producing garden and end up talking about their grandmas who, as it turns out, were from the same small town. By the end of the night, you have complete strangers hugging and smiling and trading recipes and crying over long dead people. That is the wonder of a reading at Charis.

How do you cultivate an audience?
It's about relationships. It's about remembering people's names and tastes. I call people on the phone. I invite people personally via e-mail and on Facebook. If someone buys an author's book, I remember. If that author is slated to read at our store six months later, I make sure to remind the customer. If the independent bookstore is to survive, it will be because of relationships.

How has literary presenting informed your own life?
It has made me a better writing coach: I can tell you exactly the moment at which you will begin to bore your audience (seventeen minutes, don't ever read for more than seventeen minutes straight, I don't care if you sound like James Earl Jones and are the best looking person on the planet, people will start to glaze).

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
All writers and readers have the potential to be activists if they choose. Bookstores are gathering grounds. They are the places to come and recharge your batteries or lick your wounds or rebuild after a hard political battle. At Charis, we fight to keep the doors open for our community because we believe there is a kind of grace in the act of gathering around stories no other space in our culture can provide.

Photo: Elizabeth Anderson.

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.

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.

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