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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W-supported poet, fiction writer, and playwright Joan Murray, author of Dancing on the Edge and Looking for the Parade, and recipient of two National Endowment for the Arts fellowships, blogs about readings and workshops conducted across New York State.

Years ago in an economic downturn, my family left New York City for Buffalo—a city that has two nicknames: "City of Good Neighbors" and "City of No Illusiions." I liked Buffalo for being both. It was welcoming and self-deprecating—as well as artistically progressive. Yet, I was puzzled when people kept asking me, "Where are you?"

What they meant was: "Which college are you teaching at?" I'd been teaching college in New York City, and with my publishing credits, people assumed I must be at a college there. It still mystifies me how people can believe that teaching eighteen-year-olds at a college is prestigious and important, while teaching seventeen-year-olds or seventy-year-olds in the community isn't. At one of the first readings I did in Buffalo, I was introduced as having poems in the Atlantic Monthly, and Harper's, which made someone say, "What are you doing here? "

What I'm "doing" is bringing my writing to people, getting it on its feet, and sharing my moves with others who want to discover theirs. Last year, with P&W's help, I brought my writing to people at the Merritt Book Festival in Millbrook; the Wadsworth Library in Geneseo; the Thomas Cole Site in Catskill; the Elsewhere Café in Albion—as well as to a teen writing conference, a college literary club, a senior residence, and the Hudson Opera House.

But there's one place I keep returning to because it has an admirable mission and a fabulous view—Wiawaka Holiday House, the women's retreat on Lake George. Founded in 1903, by an industrialist's enlightened daughter who wanted factory women to have a holiday, Wiawaka now welcomes women of all backgrounds, asking the more advantaged participants to help subsidize the less advantaged.

My Wiawaka schedule usually involves a Saturday morning workshop, a Saturday evening reading, and a Sunday morning "poetry service" on the dock. Some participants come specifically to work with me. Others just drop by. One who stopped by last July wrote a poem that stunned the rest of us, and left her in tears. She told us afterwards that her husband had died suddenly that winter and she'd been numb inside till the poem released her.

I can't predict who I'll be working with at Wiawaka. It might be members of a lesbian book club, along with cancer survivors and serial knitters. And I can't predict how things will go. Once when I was reading a poem about a violent incident, a knitter exclaimed, "If that's contemporary poetry, I don't want any of it!"  What was my take-away from that? Obviously, the poem had done its job (who knows where the emotion took her later). But, more immeditately, another knitter gave me a terrific discount on a scarf.

But my big take-away is the active, authentic engagement with people (lots of different people), which can be stimulating to a writer, as well as challenging and fun.

Photo: Joan Murray. Credit: David Lee.

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.

San Diego-based P&W-supported poet Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa and co-editor of Ecco Anthology of International Poetry, blogs about Southern California's Red Hen Press

It is impossible to begin a conversation about literary presses and happenings in Southern California without instantly mentioning P&W-supported Red Hen Press, which is a great deal more than just a literary press. Red Hen’s Kate Gale and Mark Cull, both talented authors in their own right, have created something very special with Red Hen—it is a press, a community force, an organization behind several reading series in Southern California, an outreach program for writing in schools, and many other things.

One Red Hen book I read recently moved me, the new novel by P&W-supported writer David Matlin, “A HalfMan Dreaming”—a second installment in his epic trilogy about the beauty and violence of the American landscape. Lupe, a protagonist is taken from the world of rose farms and egg ranchers in post-World War Two America, from a town haunted by the Enola gay and the nuclear Bomb, to prison in Detroit. The book is as terrifying as it is gorgeous, with beautiful, sensuous prose.

Another book of contemporary prose that I have read in recent months that just won’t let me be is Garth Greenwell’s “Mitko”—winner of Miami University Press’s 2011 Novella Contest (one of the very few such novella prizes in the country), this is a book about betrayal, forbidden desire, where sentence structures are as engaging as the plot lines and prose is musical, meditative and evocative; this is the story of an American who finds himself in Sophia, Bulgaria. A new take on Thomas Mann’s “Death in Venice” Greenwell’s novella is able to ask hard questions about loss, sexual desire, and loneliness. In Southern California, where I have heard many a writer complain of loneliness and absence of literary community, this work, somehow, particularly resonates. Garth Greenwell will read from his new workon April 16 at San Diego State University.

Photo: Ilya Kaminsky.

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

On November 30, 2011, Urban Possibilities held a culminating reading for Dorothy Randall Gray’s nine-week, P&W-supported poetry workshop, which served men and women living at the Los Angeles Mission on Skid Row.

Urban Possibilities, a nonprofit organization that brings inspiration and a variety of services to homeless men and women, held a reading for their Published Writers Program, taught by Dorothy Randall Gray. The event began with a warm reception and an introduction by Eyvette Jones Johnson, founder and executive director of Urban Possibilities.

There is a “sea of untapped potential in the inner-city,” Johnson said. “No matter where you are or what you’ve been through, [you] have gifts and talents to share.”

To write about their struggles, Johnson said, the participants had to have their “hearts wide open.” She asked that audience members reciprocate.

Gray was so proud of her students and the writing they produced that she said, “I feel like I almost gave birth.” She dedicated the piece she read, “You and Me, Me and You,” to her students. She described being “stranded at the corner of walk and don’t walk” and “invisible to those who will not see.” The poem repeated the phrase “they fly.”

All of the workshop participants came to the mission after living on the streets. Many have dealt with substance abuse, gambling, addiction, prison, and abusive relationships. “I felt like I was failing life,” participant Anthony Tate said. Another student said of the workshop: “It just sort of woke up my dream…I had put it on a shelf.”

To close the reading, the students stood together on stage and had the audience participate in an exercise. Each student said one word or phrase, and the audience said it back. After reciting the phrase “carpe diem” back, the whole auditorium burst into laughter when the voice of one young child echoed the phrase back a few moments afterward, provoking a whole new meaning and a sense of hope.

At the reception, participant Michael T. Williams reflected, “I was sleeping in graveyards, ‘cause I thought that was the safest place to be. Now I feel like Pinky and the Brain, and I’m ready to take over the world.”

Photo: Dorothy Randall Gray (center) with workshop participants. Credit: Craig Johnson Photography.

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

For the month of January (Happy New Year!), San Diego-based P&W-supported poet Ilya Kaminsky, will blog about the literary life in San Diego and Southern California. Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa, was awarded an American Academy of Arts and Letters' s Metcalf Award, a Whiting Writers Award, and a Lannan Fellowship, among others. Kaminsky begins the series with new books by San Diego authors or authors who will soon visit San Diego.

Next month will mark the first year of the establishment of the new literary press based in San Diego, Calypso Editions, which has, in just twelve months, published such authors as Tolstoy, the great Polish poet Anna Swir, the lively anthology of New Romanian poetry edited by Martin Woodside, and collections of talented debut prose and poetry from Beth Myhr and Anthony Bonds.

The work the press has done in barely one year is really astounding. The Anna Swir book, Building the Barricade, is a brilliant translation by Piotr Florczyk, who is fast becoming one of the best Polish translators. This book is filled with eros and witness.

Of Gentle Wolves: An Anthology of Romanian Poetry edited by Martin Woodside is a wild book—probably the most wild book I have read this year—filled with tenderness and empathy and beautiful wordplay. Woodside is able in this small anthology to bring across the whole tradition of modern Romanian poetry, which is a huge undertaking.

Elizabeth Myhr’s debut collection the vanishing & other poems is special. Her language is filled with urgency of our moment, a dwelling in which the silence speaks.

In Anthony Bonds’s novella, The Moonflower King, the hero is forced to make a journey from New York City to his ranch home in East Texas, to find the meaning of death, in a beautifully written story. Bonds is able to pull off a wise, tender book that is both a literary novella and a page-turner. A wonderful debut.

On March 19, Myhr, Bonds, and Woodside will give a talk at the P&W-supported Living Writers Series at San Diego State University to discuss the challenges and joys of starting the co-op press and will also read from their new work. On the same day, Chris Baron, a brilliant poet associated for many years with City Works Press—known for its P&W-supported major event, the San Diego City College International Book Fair—will also read. City Works has done a great deal for literary life in San Diego, publishing both local and nationally-known authors.

Photo: Ilya Kaminsky.

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

P&W-supported spoken word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about City Lights authors.

City Lights Publishing just released David Meltzer's new book When I Was a Poet. The work opens with the title piece, a reflection on a lifetime of poetry. Packed with pathos, precise syllables, and cacophonic crests, Meltzer's work has been described as "Bop Kabbalah." Thurston Moore says, "Enlightened by jazz, psyche/folk energy, the trees outside the academy, and a woozy sex drive, David's enchantment with dream/mystery/beauty make him a musician's poet."

Meltzer's lines maintain haiku density throughout the work. In "California Dreamin" Meltzer riffs on his Bohemian days in the Golden State, celebrating Anita O'Day, Lord Buckley, Miles Davis, Coltrane, the Troubadour, and Hollywood Boulevard.

City Lights also recently released a new book by Surrealist poet Will Alexander titled Compression & Purity. Los Angeles born, Alexander emerged from Watts in the 70s and has gradually emerged into one of the most avant-garde poets. I heard Alexander read at Beyond Baroque this past September. His thermonuclear images and electric vocabulary transmitted in the black box theater with such intensity that I bought two books.

 Ry Cooder's Los Angeles Stories, a collection of eight short stories, was also published by City Lights. The first of City Light's new "Noir" series, this collection of fiction exists in the old gritty Los Angeles of the 40s and 50s. Cooder's characters inhabit lost landscapes like Chavez Ravine, the Pacific Electric Streetcar, Bunker Hill, and Historic Filipinotown. Cooder captures the colloquial: "Sit down, take a load off, try some pork fried rice. Dig it and pick up on it, it happened like this."

The characters emit warmth similar to Fante's Arturo Bandini. There are unsolved murders a la Raymond Chandler or James M. Cain. Filipino poet Carlos Bulosan makes a cameo. Aficionados of Los Angeles letters will recognize Cooder's influences. Fortunately his synthesis is well-crafted. Cooder, a Los Angeles native, loves untold stories like the San Patricios or Chavez Ravine. Considering his many groundbreaking musical albums on such subjects, it's no surprise his first book upholds the same level of verisimilitude.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

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

P&W-supported spoken-word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about the L.A. poetry scene.

I was at Beyond Baroque in October to witness a book release party for Wanda Coleman. Promoted as her last public reading for an indefinite amount of time, it was worth the congested drive to Venice on a Friday night to see her live. The World Falls Away is her second book published by University of Pittsburgh Press.

She is more blunt than ever, writing, "There is no poison I have not swallowed." Coleman reflects on her childhood in L.A., two marriages, and the loss of her son. Douglas Kearney says, "Wanda Coleman's hard-edged new collection interrogates death's nearsightedness. Mother outlives son. Feet wear out before the heart. And the truth teller dies before truth frees her. These poems don't go gently."

Her sharp poetics always hit with musicality, which is a great fit for the Pitt Poetry Series. The series dates back to 1967 and is dedicated to publishing progressive poetry. Wanda's forty-plus years of work places here among the greatest poets ever to come out of L.A.

Wanda Coleman is one of the major writers covered in Bill Mohr's new book Hold Outs: The Los Angeles Poetry Renaissance 1948–1992, University of Iowa Press. Mohr's book is one of the first real treatments of the history of L.A. poetry. There have been many books on slices of L.A. poetry like Charles Bukowski, the Watts Writers Workshop, and the Venice Beats, but there's never been one book as expansive as this one.

Over a fifteen year period Mohr published a literary journal and several books through his imprint Momentum Press. Mohr's anecdotes about Wanda Coleman, Leland Hickman, Ron Koertge, Gerald Locklin, and Suzanne Lummis bring the Carter and Reagan era alive. His book captures the ethos of the small press movement. Mohr describes the lively circuit of independent bookstores and small press publishers, cataloging the Southern California scene from the Venice Beats to the beginnings of the spoken-word movement.

Photo: Mike Sonksen. Credit: Chris Felver.

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

Author of the novel Motown Burning, and the poetry collection Stone + Fist + Brick + Bone, Detroit native John Jeffire teaches English at Chippewa Valley High School where he’s organized P&W-supported after-school performances. Jeffire shared with us how these events have enriched the students’ lives.

What is your most successful literary program?
Our most successful program is our open mic performance night, which includes Rock the Mic events and the annual Motown Word Fest. We bring over 150 high school kids into our cafeteria on a school night to read, sing, play music, rap, and tell jokes. It's magic. It truly is amazing how diverse and talented the performers are.

What makes your programs unique?
We invite local metropolitan Detroit poets and musicians to perform, and then mix the kids and their acts in with them. Some, such as poet M. L. Liebler, actually bring kids up onto the stage with them to perform. It's a blast.

What are the benefits of your programs for your students?
The performers we've brought in have been very generous with the kids, encouraging them to write and express themselves and keep the faith. It's tough to be a teen today—they are expected to know and be so much more than the kids of my generation. I don't know how they keep up. And here in the Detroit area, times are tough. So many of the kids have lost their homes or their parents have lost their jobs. The world they live in is not always kind to them. It's nice to provide them some hours of sanctuary where textbooks, smart phones, laptops, problems, and pressures are put away, and language is their muse.

What's the craziest thing that's happened at an event you've hosted?
I'm proud to say that in several years of putting on these events we've only had one kid suspended for using inappropriate language. The kids are enthusiastic and eager to express themselves, but they've also been respectful. Most of them are not star athletes or members of student council—this is their one opportunity to shine in front of their peers and open up. They really are brave.

How do you find and invite writers?
I invite people I've heard before at the various literary venues around Detroit. John Lamb, Jabiya Dragonsun, as well as P&W-supported writers La Shaun phoenix Moore, Olga Klekner, jessica care moore, Aricka Foreman, M. L. Liebler, and others are all performers I've seen live and respect a great deal. Most of all, they are people who understand that their participation is going to help expose kids to the magic and power of language.

Has literary presenting informed your own writing life?
I've become more attentive to how emotionally significant and potentially powerful those first experiences reading in front of an audience can be. For some kids, this is the greatest act of courage they've ever taken. I relive that sense of fear and also triumph in sharing words for the very first time.

What is the value of literary programs for your community?
The community celebrates dunks and touchdowns—why not poems, stories, melodies, and words? We give a segment of our student population a chance to be heard and make an impact. This is their big moment and it's celebrated. Even the kids who don't perform benefit—they see poetry in a different light after they experience someone like jessica care moore. Attending just one event, they become turned on to literary art. Mission accomplished.

Photo: John Jeffire. Credit: Lea Jeffire.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in 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.

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