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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

P&W–sponsored poets Mary Fitzpatrick and Judith Pacht were among the writers who performed June 3 at Lummis Day, an annual festival celebrating journalist and activist Charles Fletcher Lummis and Northeast Los Angeles. P&W intern David Chun reports.

Held on the lawn of the historic Lummis Home, El Alisal, the Sunday morning poetry reading at the Seventh Annual Lummis Day drew a friendly audience of families, students, and seniors from diverse backgrounds. A jazz duo set a peaceful counterpoint to the stream of traffic on the 110 freeway rushing by behind the property’s sycamores.  

Chumash storyteller Ted Garcia opened the reading with a traditional blessing, thanking the Creator for our safe travels, our elders, our children, and all that we have. The poetry program included Suzanne Lummis (Charles Fletcher Lummis’s granddaughter), Mary Fitzpatrick, Judith Pacht, Jeremy Radin, and Hector Tobar. All are Angelenos whose work confronts human responsibility in the environment, an issue close to Charles Lummis’s heart. But the diversity in the writers’ styles was a true celebration of Los Angeles literary culture.

Any audience members expecting banal praises of California sunshine had their eyes opened when Suzanne Lummis kicked off the reading with “Gone Baby,” a poem which she described as a fairy tale for the children of the economic collapse. The poem worked as both a eulogy for the golden age of economic prosperity in America, and a prayer of hope for recovery.

Mary Fitzpatrick elegantly flipped from ironic meditations on the innocence of young love to a scathing review of the social masks so normal to Angeleno life. Her poem “Pompeii” concluded with a question: Is our culture evolving, or are we as trapped in artifice as the civilization of Pompeii after the historic volcano eruption encased it in stone?

Judith Pacht’s reading whisked the audience away on a dizzying tour of desert life, then zoomed in on an asphalt parking lot built among the ancient sands “like a buckled mirror [that] twists and distorts.”
 
A highlight of the morning was a surprise reading from poet Jeremy Radin (filling in for Ilya Kaminsky). His poems “Off Switch” and “Slowdance With Sasquatch” navigated the subjects of parenting and beauty with humor and dark tinges. The audience laughed, contemplated, and applauded. He closed with “The Last Invitation, September 5, 1895,” a piece adapted from historical correspondence between President Teddy Roosevelt and a pig farmer whose stock was so often killed off by bears that he arranged annual bear hunts with the president to get revenge. The farmer pleaded: “bears don’t die like other animals. When the knife bites / into their pulse, you can see them understand.” By the conclusion of the poem, the speaker is wary of the country’s mad rush for private property and subsequent disregard for nature.

Hector Tobar’s excerpt from his novel The Barbarian Nurseries delighted the audience with its meditation on the funny and often painful differences between Mexican and American views on everything from party etiquette to the homeless. 

Suzanne Lummis closed the reading with a heartfelt reminder of the importance of good books in the home. Then the audience made their way across the arroyo, where they enjoyed the live local music and fresh food.  

Photo: Mary Fitzpatrick reads at El Alisal. Credit: Eliot Sekuler.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

For the month of July, P&W–supported poet and director of literary events, Randall Horton, blogs about his work with various organizations and events throughout the northeast. 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.

In April 2011, during National Poetry Month, Poets & Writers funded Aquarius Press/ Willow Books to sponsor a workshop in Detroit, Michigan, at the Virgil Carr Cultural Center. The workshop participants included poets Victor Billione, Nadia Ibrashi, and Felecia Studstill, and began as an organic conversation on craft. We read from a wide range of poets, from Rachel Eliza Griffiths to Stephen Jonas to Evie Shockley. We looked at parallelisms in poems (cosmic nature versus the material world), the idea of “the definition” as a form poem, and the art of the line break, which we all concluded to be critical when fine-tuning the lyric qualities in the poem, and the poem as political mouthpiece.

I wanted to tailor each poet’s experience to suite his or her aesthetic intentions. For example:

Victor’s exercise asked: In what ways do you feel oppressed? Choose an object you own that seems to embody that oppression and/or privilege, and write a poem about it.

Nadia’s exercise asked: What communities of people do you identify with and feel you belong to? Write a poem from the voice of this collective “we,” talking about your troubles, your failings, celebrating your strengths…

…and Felecia’s exercise asked: Imagine someone who lives in another part of the world under very different economic and political circumstance. Have that person talk to you about your life in America from his or her perspective. You can also do this exercise by imagining someone else in America, but of a different class, race, and so forth.

Then they wrote. Here are excerpts from the poems created and used with their permission:

Victor: “I sleep well knowing these references are/Framed in revolution/Evolving into stories time has forgotten.”

Nadia: “Finally, we see the words,/the shape of mornings,/the secret place.”

Felecia: “Your anger is fear/you know. You know./You are as worthy of my life/As I am of yours.”

The idea of the workshop was to take writing samples from the participants and tailor each participant’s experience based on writing tendencies, likes, dislikes, and aesthetic intentions. This helped to create a multi-voiced workshop that paid close attention to the writer and ultimately asked the writer to expand beyond his or her imagination.

Photo: Randall Horton.  Photo credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit 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 and fiction writer Tim Z. Hernandez blogs about two workshops he led on May 2 at libraries in Stockton, California, as part of a Rural Library Tour partnership between Poets & Writers and the California Center for the Book.
 
Tim Z. HernandezThe Maya Angelou Library on Stockton’s southeast side sits near a tired slab of old homes and pothole-ridden streets, but this is where my next workshop is, and I’m excited for it. By now I’ve learned that behind each workshop door are people whose stories and voices will stay with me for days, sometimes months after. Suzy Daveluy, librarian and my host, conveys her worry about the number of people in attendance. Before I can reply we are approached by two teenage girls, their younger brother, and their mother. The girls introduce themselves as Emilia and Yvette. Their brother is Jesus, and their mother is Gloria.*

They are here for the workshop, but their faces look grim. Right off, the girls let me know that they have no interest in pursuing writing as a career. In short, their mother makes them attend such workshops because she wants them to grow up articulate, well spoken. Jesus says nothing. Gloria tells me, in Spanish, that she is from Mexico but has been in the U.S. for over twenty-two years. She says the only reason she maintains a strong accent is because she’s always been reluctant to learn English. And this is it. This is my workshop.

We sit down and jump into a hearty discussion about memory. The girls giddily recall moments from their time growing up together, and there’s lots of laughing, and even a few tears, shed mostly by Gloria. I have them write those memories down, at the very least, I say, to capture them forever. “If we don’t tell our own stories,” I say, “who will?” When it’s time to share their writing, the girls go first, and then their mother, and now I’m staring at fifteen-year-old Jesus.

Finally he lifts his paper in front of him and glances over the words, then sits up straight and begins to read the memory he wrote about his father:

...the seatbelt, with its zigzag patterns
in blue, the shiny buckle, with its shiny button,
ahh, that little worn out button,
the sun, against the worn out button,
ahh, the sun and the worn out blue
of a button...

If I didn’t see him write those words out in front of me, I might have never believed he wrote it. His delivery is like a smooth Lenny Bruce, witty and sharp, confident. Suzy and I look at one another, and I know we’re thinking the same thing: We’ve found the future poet laureate of Stockton! Of California! Hell, of the United States!

“You’re a natural poet,” I tell him.

He lowers his eyes.

His mother feels the need to explain. “Jesus was picked on when he was in elementary school,” she says. Jesus rolls his eyes. “He had a bad teacher who put his English down in front of the other students, so he thought he was dumb. He used to come home saying he was dumb."

Jesus says, “Read and red.”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Read and red,” he replies. “It was read and red. I didn’t understand the difference, so I always got those two words mixed up, and I always spelled them wrong.”
 
I tell him spelling doesn’t matter. I think of what the poet Maria Melendez says from the moment she enters a clasroom of children: YOU ARE THE BOSS OF YOUR OWN POETRY! And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen adults steal away this possibility from children.

I tell them about California’s newest poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera—the son of migrant farmworkers, selected by Governor Jerry Brown himself. And then I recite a line from one of Herrera’s poems: I didn’t start out as a poet, because I was silenced. I started out with something I wanted to say. Jesus smiles now, and so does his mother.

“You see,” she tells him in Spanish, “One day you could be a famous poet too!”   

He grins and looks over at his sisters. “That would be cool,” he says, folding his poem and sticking it into his back pocket. 


*Family members’ names have been changed.

Top photo: Tim Z. Hernandez. Credit: David Herrera. Bottom photo: Jesus (left) and librarian Suzy Daveluy. Credit: Tim Z. Hernandez.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Cara Benson, author of poetry book (made)and the forthcoming "Funny. Considering how heated it was," and receipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts, blogs about teaching poetry at the Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility.

The poetry workshop I facilitate at Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility, a medium security state prison in Wilton, New York,  began as a three month teaching practicum for my graduate degree. It became clear fairly quickly that three months wasn’t nearly enough to meet the interest and needs of the students inside. So we extended it to four months. Then five. Then a year. Now it’s been seven years and counting.

In that time we have covered such varied poets as Lu Chi, Rumi, Sappho, Amiri Baraka, Federico García Lorca, T.S. Eliot, Sonia Sanchez, EE Cummings, Audre Lorde, Muriel Rukeyser, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, Alice Notley, Gil Scott-Heron, and CA Conrad. The list is growing like the years. Dozens of men - maybe a hundred - have come to and through the class. Some on the outside are now proud graduates of Higher Education. On the inside, a few lifers have been there since my first day. I have seen many things happen in that classroom, but fostering the dissolution of preconceived notions of what can be called “poetry” under the influence of poems like Joan Retallack’s “A I D /I/ S A P P E A R A N C E” or Douglas Kearney’s page work is particularly gratifying. I’ve seen, like realizing blondes aren’t the only beauties, the canon explode in front of our faces, and I tell you that this is a very right thing to be happening inside.

Last month we read Harryette Mullen’s Muse & Drudge and discerned a number of tactics worth replicating. The participants loved her multiple voices, taut quatrains, and ability to twist common sayings into such rhythmic, flipped scripts. This month we are working with Rob Budde’s Declining America. There is a section in this book that plays out in scenes he’s called “My American Movie” after Jean Baudrillard’s America. So we are writing our own American scenes under the influence of his text. His poems gyrate without punctuation and stream as one undulating and pullulating sentence in prose, and the task I’ve given us of emulating his approach has proven provocative and productive.

Eric Perez, one of the participants, has this to say about the class: “Our poetry workshop has given us a unique opportunity to liberate ourselves from an oppressive system, even if only for a brief time during the week. This helps us to reach a broader understanding of life and its circumstances and to push the boundaries of our intellect in order to build our self esteem.” I am very grateful to Poets & Writers for the support it gives for the class. It can be really challenging, the proverbial upstream swim, to be a volunteer poet for the New York State Department of Corrections. Poets & Writers not only provides remuneration, but it legitimizes the endeavor. It truly has helped me to show up week after week, year after year. And as the late poet and tireless prison educator/activist Janine Pommy Vega used to say to me whenever I complained about a seeming setback or “lost” student: “Cara, you just keep going in.” So I do.

Photo:  Cara Benson.   Credit: David Brinson.

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.

Poet and educator Carole "Imani" Parker blogs about her former student "Donald" at the P&W–supported Jobs for Youth Apprenticeship Program (JFYAP) at Medgar Evers College, a job readiness program she once directed.

"Donald" was a withdrawn seventeen-year-old boy when he came to JFYAP. His reading and math scores were extremely low and he had very low self-esteem. He had been expelled from high school, two General Educational Development (GED) programs, and was eventually expelled from the GED component of JFYAP for threatening another student. With the help JFYAP coordinator, Ms. B, "Donald" was able to enroll in a computer training course and continued to attend JFYAP job readiness/life skills training, counseling, tutoring and P&Wsupported poetry workshops. 

Although JFYAP is now defunct, I, with Ms. B, continue to follow up with and encourage "Donald." As a matter of fact, I spoke with "Donald" the other day. He said that he completed the computer course and received a certificate. He also plans to take the GED soon and is excited about participating in P&W's annual intergenerational reading later this month. Here are the first two lines from "What am I," a poem he hopes to read at the event: I am the sound that is heard from a mile away / I am that name you hear them whisper in the wind.

"Donald’s" story is not unique. There were many troubled and talented young people who walked through the doors of JFYAP. Most of them eventually passed the high school regents or GED exam and went on to college and, later, careers. JFYAP provided them with the necessary tools to become productive citizens. 

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.

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