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Readings & Workshops Blog

In October, the Alvar Library in New Orleans hosted a fiction workshop with P&W-supported writer Lee Meitzen Grue. Branch Manager Mary Ann Marx reports.

The Alvar Library is located in a very unique neighborhood in New Orleans called Bywater.  Many poets, writers, musicians, and artists reside here. Because of this, the library applied for and received a grant from Poets & Writers, Inc., to present a series of five fiction workshops conducted by Lee Grue, a poet, writer, and teacher who lives in Bywater.

Her themes come from that unique urban culture of New Orleans: its customs, its culture, and her everyday experiences of living here. Her published books are: Trains and Other Intrusions: Poems; French Quarter Poems; In the Sweet Balance of the Flesh; and Goodbye, Silver, Silver Cloud, a collection of New Orleans stories. Lee is the longtime editor of the New Laurel Review.
 
The writing workshops were a wonderful asset to the community and to the city. Writers came from all areas of the city to participate in these workshops. It was wonderful to hear and see the enthusiasm expressed by the participants. As I watched them listening to Lee’s instructions with concentrated attention, I could see that they could not wait for the time when they would be able to read their own work to the group. As each took his or her turn, the others listened and made suggestions for improvements. The ideas for improvement were discussed and rationale explained. Then Lee gently presented her own suggestions for improvements.

As one participant stated, “This writers' workshop is important to me because writing is my passion. To master this art, I have to surround myself with those who have already done so.”

It is only with the support of P&W that these writing workshops can be made available to the public. Funding for programs like this is scarce in New Orleans.

As the sponsor of the program, we have seen a whole new dimension of the work we do. Meeting these writers has influenced our collection development and expanded our network sphere. On occasion, workshop participants have developed poetry and writing programs themselves, which we have also presented at the library.

Photo: Lee Meitzen Grue (second from left) with workshop participants. Credit: Shannon Aymami.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans 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/activist Kelly Harris, founder of GAP: Girls. Achieving. Possibilities., an empowerment program for African American girls, blogs about Pinkie Gordon Lane's legacy.

I know New Orleans has been the focus of this month-long blog, but I want to speak the name of an important poet who lived about 90 miles from the Big Easy.

Pinkie Gordon Lane. I'm told she was a gentle woman, a painter, a nature and dog lover, a writer, and a demanding instructor. Her poems walk a lyrical tightrope, never falling into sentimentality.

Her legacy includes being the state's first African American poet laureate. Lane travelled the state vigorously–reading, visiting classrooms, and promoting poetry. Some locals say her work as laureate has been unmatched. In 1967 Pinkie Gordon Lane became the first African American woman to earn a PHD from Louisiana State University, where her papers would be housed.

I never got the opportunity to meet Pinkie Gordon Lane, but lately I've been studying her poetic craftsmanship and quiet lifestyle. As a young poet, I often feel anxiety about not having a collection published as yet. It feels like a rat race sometimes, it's either publish or perish. Pinkie Gordon Lane came to poetry late in her life and I believe it afforded her patience in her work.

Her poem, "Lyric: I am Looking at Music," was featured in the 1997 motion picture, Love Jones. In a 1997 phone conversation with Dr. Jerry Ward, English Professor at Dillard University, she said actress Nia Long got the poem right in the film, "even the sniffles."

This year, the Pinkie Gordon Lane First Annual Poetry Contest Awards Program was held in April on the campus of Southern University and A&M College where she served as Chair of the English Department. The contest awarded local student writers with small prizes... her legacy continues to inspire and impact a new generation.

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom) Pinkie Gordon Lane. Credit: The Archives and Manuscripts/John B. Cade Library/Sounthern university and A&M College/Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans, 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/activist Kelly Harris, community outreach chair for the New Orleans chapter of the Women's National Book Association, blogs about her love for New Orleans.

Before moving to New Orleans for love in 2008, I was a writer who required complete silence to write. Often I'd find a corner of a library, pull my hoody over my head, and dig in. Sometimes I'd plug my ears with headphones without any music. I know, I know, weird, but I needed to tell myself (and show everyone around me) I was occupied.

New Orleans is not a quiet place. It occupies you. Since moving from the Midwest (Cleveland, Ohio) to the South, I've had to adjust how I write. Some family members have wondered how I could be a candidate for marriage because I seemed eerily comfortable as a loner. My husband is always amazed at how often I leave my phone at home on purpose. There's a reason... I'm easily distracted. With so many stimuli, I wonder how poets find useful silence.

By now you're asking, "Kelly, where is there a quiet place in New Orleans?" I don't know, but, strangely, I have found the daily commotion in New Orleans to be useful.

New Orleans Streetcars: Maybe it's the nostalgic wooden seats and clicks of the metal wheels against the metal tracks that inspire me as a writer. Riding a streetcar allows me the opportunity to sightsee, and overhear some of the most interesting conversations.

Rue De La Course on Oak Street: The café is an old, two-story bank with high ceilings. The way voices bounce off the walls create the feel of an old movie where two lovers reunite.

The Moonwalk: This paved sidewalk beside the Mississippi River has nothing to do with Michael Jackson. It's called the Moonwalk in honor of former mayor Maurice "Moon" Landrieu. From here you see the Crescent City Connection Bridge connect the east and west banks of the city. Café Du Monde is steps away.

The combination of music, history, and culture makes this a place where a poem waits to happen.

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom) Marching band. Credit: L. Kasimu Harris.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans, 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.

Sandra Beasley is the author of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life and the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox and Theories of Falling. She received the 2008 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for poetry and lives in Washington, D.C., where she's also been a P&W-supported writer. We asked her a few questions about her experience giving readings.

What are your reading dos?
Do make eye contact. Do pause between poems, both for your sake and that of the audience. Do crack a joke or two; this is poetry, not brain surgery. (And actually, I would want the brain surgeon who can crack a joke or two).

...and your reading don'ts?
All poets go through a phase of journeying—to New York, D.C., Los Angeles—to take part in line-ups where they are one of many. Don't try to shoehorn that extra poem in to make it "worth" your trip. You want to be remembered as the poet who left us wanting more, not the one who had us checking our watches.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I make my set list, which is usually about ten poems ordered for thematic flow (i.e., a trio of persona poems) and strategic timing (i.e., not assaulting anyone with two sestinas back to back). I clear my throat. I bounce up and down on the balls of my feet. It's a lot like being a musician, minus the groupies and the free beer.

What's the strangest comment you've received from an audience member?
"[My boyfriend] doesn't speak much English, but your facial expressions and hand gestures were so intense that he could follow along." Apparently I am a vivid performer, as evidenced by all the incredibly goofy snapshots taken of me mid-reading.

What's your crowd-pleaser?
There's one poem I love to read, so much so that I practically have it memorized, and that is "Vocation" from I Was the Jukebox. As poems go, it is short, has some humor, and is dedicated to anyone who (like me) has struggled to pay rent while doing the thing(s) we love to do. "Vocation" was also my first experiment in making video-poems for YouTube.

What did you spend your R/W grant check on?
For my P&W-supported reading, I shared the stage at the Arts Club of Washington with Sarah Browning. It was a quintessentially D.C. night, and I was so proud to read with Sarah, the director of Split This Rock and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, which I had helped edit when she published with The Word Works in 2007. Though my honorarium wasn't huge, it was an important reminder that our work is valued in this world. What did I spend it on? The usual: dinner with writer friends, a good martini, and more books.

Photo: Sandra Beasley. Credit: Matthew Worden.

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.

P&W-supported poet/activist Kelly Harris, founder of The Literary Lab, a small business that promotes local writers, and member of Melanted Writers NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), a year-old workshop for writers of color, blogs about the post-Katrina literary happenings in New Orleans.

Talk to many New Orleans writers about the storm and they will raise a hand to show you how high the water rose in their neighborhood and lament about all the books that were washed away. The devastation of 2005 was extensive, but in the years since the literary scene in New Orleans has been thriving!

The New Orleans Chapter of Women's National Book Association formed this year. The group includes local women writers, bookstore owners, publishing professionals, and readers. 

In 2010 Loyola University established the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. The Center fosters literary talent and achievement and advances the art of writing as essential to a good education. The literary arts is flourishing in the Big Easy... The Pass It On open mic series began in 2008 as an attempt to restore the pre-Katrina open mic scene. Its host Gian Smith was a featured poet in the HBO hit series Treme.

This year brought us the first WriteNola!: Spoken Word & Poetry Festival. WriteNOLA! gathered New Orleans's pre and post Katrina poets together to give readings and conduct workshops. The City of New Orleans supported the event and offered the regal Gallier Hall as the venue. Proceeds from the festival benefited the NOLA Youth Slam Team.

The Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, many of whom are students and alumni from the University of New Orleans MFA program, started a reading series called, Yeah, You Write. As always, 17 Poets, a Thursday night reading at the French Quarter's Goldmine Saloon, continues to anchor the New Orleans poetry community. It was the first poetry reading series held in New Orleans after Katrina on October 13, 2005. 

Even the youth have a place in the literary action. This October marks the 2nd Annual New Orleans Children's Book Festival. Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, whose lonely walk into William Frantz Elementary School inspired a famous Norman Rockwell painting, and Cheryl Landrieu, wife of the city's mayor, established the free festival to promote local children's book authors, literacy, and provide food and entertainment.

The Scholastic Writing Awards of Southeast Louisiana, an affiliate of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Writing Project, supports seventh-twelfth grade writers. In 2011, its inaugural year, two students were sent to the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and one received a $2,500 college scholarship!

Can't keep up with this literary buffet? No worries. Listen to The Reading Life, a show dedicated to all things bookish in New Orleans online. The radio show is hosted by former The Times-Picayune book editor, Susan Larson.

And finally, Louisiana celebrated the opening of the Ernest J. Gaines Center in October 2010 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, just a mere two-hour drive from New Orleans.

It seems new events and writers are emerging every day. Next time you're in town, attend a reading, buy a book. Help the city continue to rebuild its literary community.

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom) Melanted Writers Workshop. Credit: Jennifer Williams.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans, 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 Ann Lynn, author of the chapbook In the Butterfly House, published by Finishing Line Press, blogs about facilitating writing workshops with women veterans in Atlanta, GA.

In October 2005, I began a series of writing workshops with women veterans in Atlanta. The women in the group had served in war zones during the Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. One woman drove a truck and was trained to work with hazardous materials. Another worked with the wounded. Some experienced scud missile attacks. All witnessed firsthand the atrocities of war and suffered personal traumas themselves. For the participants, the workshops weren't just an exercise in learning to write better... the workshops served as a lifeline. I was blown away by what these women were writing and sharing, and realized how hungry they were for the healing power of writing.

One of the first assignments I gave was to write about a place where they felt safe and comfortable, an exercise that could be appropriate for anyone, but especially so for people who have experienced trauma. I will never forget what one woman wrote:

My truck is a safe place. In it there is no sound, no music, no talking, just listening to the wind as it hits my windows. My mind can be free there, and I can drive away all the tears, fears, as long as I got gas.

Another time I asked them to pick an object from a bunch I set out on the floor and describe that object with concrete and sensory details. I then  told them to write about one of their parents in terms of that object. One woman wrote:

Mother is like a rock,not a mother,
except in its true instinctual self of how it became,
beginning as loose powder then pressed together,
hardened and roughed-up (tossed, turned, hurt).

I was stunned by the beauty and power of this poem. And, for the writer, it seemed as though the metaphorical language with which she'd chosen to describe her mother had somehow turned on a light in her head, as she began to talk about her life in a deeper way.

For these women, writing, sharing, and the group itself formed a safe space. The group met for three and a half years, and for me it was a life-changing experience. I wrote when they wrote, read when they read, and sometimes cried when they cried. I am so grateful that Poets & Writers believes that art is important for all people, and is willing and eager to fund programs that can make such a difference in people's lives.

Photo: Ann Lynn. Photo Credit: Roby Lynn.

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/activist Kelly Harris, founder of Poems & Pink Ribbons, a poetry workshop for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their loved ones, blogs about Daughters of Domestics, a poetry reading she initiated and participated in in New Orleans.

There's a special relationship in New Orleans between the community and its artists. Go to the French Quarter and watch artists infuse themselves into the daily lives of New Orleanians and tourists alike. Even if you're minding your own business, a singer, dancer, mime, trumpeter, tambourine player, or visual artist can suddenly make you take a detour from your day's plans.

I have been fortunate to have organized several events in New Orleans that create unique intersections between poetry and non-traditional audiences. Most recently, Daughters of Domestics: Poets & Academics Respond to "The Help," featured Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Kysha Brown Robinson, and myself. The Help, both the book and film, have created much conversation in New Orleans. In fact, a 1982 documentary about black domestics in New Orleans titled Yes Ma'am showed for a limited run in September.

Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college known for graduating more African American pharmacists than any other university in the country, hosted the event. Daughters of Domestics attracted an audience of over one hundred people including Xavier University students and faculty, clergy, local writers, bookstore owners, and even nuns. 

Poems read by the featured poets underscored the struggle of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American actress to win an Academy Award, black women domestic labor, sexism, and Jim Crow. My final poem of the evening, "For All the Times in School I Left Mother's Occupation Blank," was dedicated to my mother who cleaned white people's homes in the late '80s and early '90s for extra income.

Following the poets, Dr. Kimberly Chandler, assistant professor of communications at Xavier, moderated a panel that included Professor Theresa Davis, Dr. Denese Shervington, and Dr. Brenda Edgerton-Webster. The three nationally respected African American scholars discussed the contradictions, complexities, and contentions of the film from the black female perspective. Dr. Davis began her comments by quoting Langston Hughes's poem "Note on Commercial Theatre." The panel provided a lively conversation that ended with a call to action.

Before the close of the event, Dr. Chandler turned the audience's attention to a black-and-white photo of a black woman, who was a domestic worker, on display in the auditorium. The photo was brought in by an audience member who wanted to bring his grandmother's spirit to the event. I believe she was there.

Later that evening, I received an e-mail from a woman thanking me for organizing the event and requesting a bibliography of all the authors and books that had been mentioned. Her call demonstrates the ways in which poetry can have a profound impact. She said, "I need those books on my shelf."

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom, left to right) Kelly Harris and Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes. Credit: Jarvis DeBerry.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans, 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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