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Readings & Workshops Blog

Instructor of applied theater at Cornish College of the Arts, Caroline Brown has facilitated workshops for diverse groups, including veterans, AIDS widows in Kenya, and incarcerated women, as well as P&W-supported writing/performance workshops with BABES Network-YWCA and Compass Housing Alliance in Seattle, Washington. Caroline shared some reflections on her work with us.

What makes your writing workshops unique?
For the most part, my focus has been on the use of theater and performance as a means of helping marginalized communities share their stories with a wider audience. Writing has inevitably been an integral part of this process.

What techniques do you employ to help writers open up?
I conducted a five-week writing workshop with Seattle-based BABES Network-YWCA, an organization that supports women living with HIV/AIDS. I asked the women to help me create group guidelines for the duration of the process. One woman shouted “spelling doesn’t count!” I was so pleased to hear her say this, as I know were the rest of the women. This simple guideline gave the women permission to avoid self-editing, trust their instincts, and find their voices.

I offer exercises that reveal commonality and reduce feelings of isolation amongst the group. I do this by asking participants to create collective poems or short stories that reflect both the diversity and similarities of the group. While conducting the workshop with Compass Housing Alliance, an organization that provides services and housing to homeless and low-income people, we created a composite character that reflected each individual’s respective experience. The group chose a key turning point for the character and took turns answering questions as that character. They were able to collectively narrate the story of how he met his goals. I feel strongly that the participants would not have been as engaged had the same subject matter been discussed outside the context of a fictional story.

What are the benefits of writing workshops for underserved groups?
The work can be tiring and there are times when I yearn for a more conventional career. It is during moments of doubt that I remind myself of experiences such as the one I had working with incarcerated women in the Rhode Island state prison system. Upon completing a writing exercise one of the women asked me through tears if “we did these exercises on the outside.” She was being released from prison the next day and was scared of “going back to her old ways.” The workshops helped her to recognize herself as a good person, something she had never felt before. Her fear was that without such an outlet, she might forget this feeling and start making unhealthy decisions again. What stopped me in my tracks was the fact that such workshops are not so readily available to those who need them the most.
 
What effect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I am inspired by the risks individuals take within the creative process and the freedom they gain from doing so. My greatest challenge in this work is to remember how important that journey is to everyone, including myself. After seven years of encouraging others to endure the challenges that come with the creative journey, it is important to remind myself to embark on the same. I owe it to myself as well as to those who have shown so much courage in the face of their own hesitations toward the creative process.
 
Photo: Caroline Brown. Credit: Sven McNichols.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle 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 October, longtime P&W-supported writer M. L. Liebler, author of fourteen books of poetry including The Moon A Box, which received the 2005 Patterson Poetry Award of Excellence, blogs about the literary arts scene in Detroit, Michigan.

It’s Alive!!! From the early days of Robert Hayden in Paradise Valley to the new slam poets at the annual urban street festival, Dally in the Alley, being a writer in Detroit has always been a struggle. Motown writers have survived it all with the generosity of organizations like Poets & Writers (P&W). Since the early 1990s, P&W has helped our city’s literary arts scene sustain diverse programming through near-crippling recessions, anti-arts funding governors, Tea Party naysayers, unemployment, and the general hard times of the auto industry.

The Detroit poetry scene started to gain recognition among nontraditional audiences in 1987. Shortly thereafter, P&W expanded to the city to further stimulate the funding culture and help local arts organizations such as the National Writer’s Voice Project, Terry Blackhawk’s school-aged InsideOut Literary Arts Project, John D. Lamb’s Springfed Arts, and the Detroit Public Library leverage dollars for more literary programming. The support allowed Detroit’s struggling literary arts organizations, libraries, colleges, churches, and small reading series at galleries and coffeehouses to host writers with dignity by allowing venues to offer writers monetary compensation.

Some of Detroit’s unique literary programs that I have been fortunate to direct and host over the years include the annual Lit Fest-on-the-Lawn at the Detroit Festival for the Arts, readings at the Detroit Opera House, The Scarab Club Downtown/Uptown Series, the monthly Detroit Tonight Live at the Music Hall, and the now legendary Annual Labor Poets Program. Our 2010 P&W-supported Annual Labor Poetry Program brought together suburbanites, urban residents, high-school and college students, professors, and union members. This has become the typical audience demographics in Detroit for the last several decades.

Writers from around the country who visit Detroit for readings, workshops, or signings quickly become aware of Detroit's supportive and dynamic literary scene. I have heard writers say they want to “move here to write and work.” In fact, some have: John Berryman, W. D. Snodgrass, Eugene Redmond—heck even Joni Mitchell lived and wrote some of her classic songs on Wayne State University’s campus in the mid-1960s.

In the poetry and lit biz, Detroit is where it’s at. From the Wayne State University Press’s long-running Made in Michigan Book Series to the local open mic down the street, Detroit is a literary arts oasis in these trying times. We are, indeed, Alive!!! Come see about us.

Photo: M. L. Liebler.

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.

Writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about facilitating a memoir writing workshop series in historic Seneca Falls, New York.

It’s a beautiful spring day in historic Seneca Falls. We meet in the town Recreation Center, a low brick building on the canal, which connects to the Erie, where lazy houseboats drift by on the gentle green waters dotted with ducks and waterfowl. The room we have has one enormous windowed wall. Four participants, two middle-aged and two seniors, regulars at most of the literary programs held locally, have gathered.

We plunge into our topic: "Telling the Stories of our Lives: Writing the Personal Memoir." After some discussion, we start an exercise. Following the guided visualization, everyone is asked to write from a childhood memory. As we’re beginning, a woman and her twelve-year-old daughter join us, apologizing for their lateness. I initiate introductions, settle the latecomers into chairs, bring them briefly up to speed, then encourage them both to start writing. The mother goes ahead, but the girl just sits, looking scared and confused. We’d advertised the workshop to all ages, but she's the only youngster. Her mother said she loves to write, but right now I know exactly how she’s feeling, afraid of embarrassing herself, of doing it "wrong."

My background as a psychotherapist jumps into play. "I'll help you," I say, and hunker down beside her. "Who were you thinking of?" "My granddad," she whispers. "Okay—great. Can you write him a letter, telling him what you remember?" She thinks about it. "Yes!" Her pen leaps to the page. "Good—good—keep going," I say. "Put in a lot of details, like you were looking at it in a movie."

Before we knew it, everyone, including the girl, has completed a piece. One by one the writers read aloud. When it's her turn, the girl is pleased with and excited by her letter. She shares it willingly, how her granddad would hoist her up on his shoulders when she was really little and carry her around. The group loves it and tells her as much.

"Okay," I finish. "Now when you go home, write it up really nicely and mail it to him!" The young girl beams.

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

Longtime P&W-supported writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about the literary happenings across Seneca County, New York.

What can you say of a region that boasts scenic views rivaling those of England's Lake Country? Where grapevines laden with fruit slope down to lakeshores in late summer? Where over one hundred wineries offer tastings, lakeside cafés? Eleven lakes offer angling, paddling, and sailing. Mennonites’ horses and buggies traverse country roads creating a landscape that seems over a century old.

It's a poet’s world. Making connections with other poets and writers, though, isn't easy. Without the kinds of venues more urban areas can sustain, this loose collection of hamlets, villages, townships, and two small cities, Auburn and Geneva, has had no central clearinghouse for writers.

Still, we're out here. Some at local colleges, some transplanted, educated and polished, others untutored having written secretly for years. We are seniors eager to write memoir, teens braving an open mic, mothers with toddlers and manuscripts in tow, retirees finally finding time to write.

The number of literary events, and venues for them, has grown in recent years. Public libraries offer most of the literary programming: readings by published authors, writing workshops, poetry readings. An evening at Seneca Falls Public Library on April 1st, with featured readers and an open mic, was particularly successful. The Seneca County Arts Council which maintains a small space in Seneca Falls full of vibrant artwork, has also hosted literary-based workshops.

Mary Genter, aka "Marabee, your hometown muse," has started a reading series at Riverbend Café in Auburn. Charlotte Dickens of Watkins Glen has curated a P&W-supported reading series, now held in Montour Falls near the southern tip of Seneca Lake, for twenty years. I've begun an open mic series at ZuZu Café in Seneca Falls. Writer/ publisher Steve Tills sponsors events at Buffalo Bill's Family Restaurant and Tap Room in Shortsville; John Cieslinski of Macedon, uses his charming bookstore, Books, Etc., for readings and author appearances. Fatzinger Hall above Waterloo Library, a Victorian lecture hall where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglas both appeared, hosts a reading series.

We learn about what’s happening through e-mails, fliers, news articles, and word of mouth. As a sense of community begins to gel, Tills and I have formed a grassroots organization, the Literary Guild of the Finger Lakes, hoping to bring all of this together. Our inaugural P&W-supported reading, "An Evening of Poetry," at Fatzinger Hall, was attended by poets from Auburn, Geneva, and Rochester.

Should you travel here, look for me lakeside, sipping wine and writing poems.

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

P&W has supported poet John Murillo’s readings and workshops with organizations such as Page Meets Stage, the Gwendolyn Brooks Center, and Insight Arts. His first poetry collection, Up Jump the Boogie (Cypher 2010), was a finalist for the 2011 Kate Tufts Discovery Award and runner up for the PEN Open Book Award. This fall he joined the University of Miami as visiting assistant professor of creative writing. Murillo generously shared some of his experience as a writer with us.

What are your reading dos?
Always be considerate of your co-features and adhere to schedule. It's never a good look to read so long that other readers have to decide, on the fly, which of their poems to cut from their set.

… and your reading don’ts?
Don't ignore your audience. Sounds like a no-brainer, but I've suffered through too many readings where poets simply read poem after poem without any interaction with the crowd. Hearing poems read aloud and reading from the printed page are different experiences—each offering something you can't get from the other—and should be treated as such. Introduce poems, tell a joke or two. Let the people get to know you a bit, spend some time. If we (the audience) wanted only the words printed on the page, we could read to ourselves at home... for free.

How do you prepare for a reading?
The first thing I need to know is how much time I have. Then, I plan my set—not just timing the poems themselves, but allowing time for interaction—to fit within those parameters. I'll spend time with the poems I've chosen, reading them aloud, listening for the music or lack therein. I imagine how certain poems may land with certain listeners—emotionally, sonically, etc.—and try to create an arc that provides them with an experience worth leaving the house for. I sometimes do breathing and voice exercises too, to keep my “chops” up.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
In the past, I've read poems I myself didn't care for too much, simply because of the way I knew audiences would react. I'd get a laugh or two, maybe some applause, but nothing like a real connection. I've realized over the years that people just want to hear good poems. Typically, the same poems that “work” on the page also read well live. No matter the venue. The danger for me lies in relying too heavily on these poems, becoming too comfortable reading poems I know will go over well. There's very little vulnerability in that and if one isn't careful, that laziness can creep into the writing, and then the poems themselves become safe. To hell with that.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
I believe poems are meant to be shared, read, and listened to. From one's lips to another's ear, or from one's hand to another's eyes, no matter. The live reading is something that never lets me forget that I am a human being reaching out to, trying to communicate with, other human beings. This definitely affects the choices I make when writing and revising.

What’s been your most rewarding experience as a writing teacher?
What I love most is when students begin to claim their own voices. In a society that cultures young people into silence and, by extension, apathy, there are few things as powerful as a young writer asserting her right to be heard. And there are few things as satisfying for the teacher as knowing you had a little hand in the midwifing of this new and necessary voice.

Photo: John Murillo. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Chicago 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.

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 New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, with additional support from the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about facilitating a P&W-supported workshop series at the Terwilliger Museum in Waterloo, New York.

A graceful Queen Anne structure, the Waterloo Library & Historical Society, which opened in 1880, is the first building in New York State built as a library. In 1960 a local businessman donated funds to open an attached museum of Waterloo history, which bears his name: Terwilliger. The Terwilliger Museum’s a spooky place. It is low-ceilinged, dim, and its two floors are partitioned into several areas filled with antique dolls, guns, china, vintage fire-fighting equipment, musical instruments, Native American artifacts, and the replicated interiors of both a pioneer cabin and a country store.

I’d written a grant proposal to Poets & Writers for a three-week workshop: Writing Your Way Through History, the first program ever held in the museum. I showed up at the appointed time, fully expecting no one to be there. In semi-rural areas, the hardest aspect of putting on an event is publicizing it, and we hadn’t done much. Even so, right on the dot, several people climbed the stairs to meet me. A short while later a few others arrived. In all, seven people attended at least part of the program, including a fourth-grader, granddaughter of a Terwilliger Museum member. Armed with a sheet of writing prompts I’d given them, participants explored the museum, searching for characters and stories amongst the museum’s holdings. After an hour, we retired to a cozy nook with tables and chairs in the library adjacent to the museum, an ideal writing space.

Everyone was busy except Mary Alice, a feisty, intelligent woman in her 70s who used to write a column for a local paper but stopped. She’d been suffering from writer’s block, she told me, but arrived to the workshop with a brand new baby blue journal. Now she sat frozen before a blank page. I walked up to her and asked quietly, "Who's your character?" "Grandma," she said. "Okay–What's happening? Tell the story," I eagerly replied. A heartbeat passed. Her pen rose to the page. "It's Midge." And out the story poured. Inspired by the exhibit of a 1920s dressed mannequin doing laundry on a washboard in a galvanized tub, Mary Alice told the story of tomboy "Midge" (herself), getting her clothes dirty and "Grandma," instead of getting mad, simply offering, "I'll teach you how to wash them."

Everyone else in the group (as if by some alchemical change that affected them all simultaneously) wrote astonishingly excellent stories, each set in an historical context. Eagerly they read aloud to each other. By the end of our sessions, a writers’s group of five of the attendees had formed and continues to meet, planning a blog and a chapbook to showcase their work. Best of all, Mary Alice called to tell me she’d resumed writing her column and even received a raise in pay for it!

Photo: Patricia Roth Schwartz. Credit: Sandy Zohari.

Support for the Reading/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.

Fiction writer Susannah Risley blogs about her experience conducting workshops with diverse populations at Schenectady County Public Library in upstate New York. 

I've taught in minimum security prisons, homeless shelters, rural libraries, and senior centers across New York State. Each group requires a slightly different approach to teaching. People in homeless shelters don't often write about their pasts, but respond positively to learning to observe the present. Prisoners need to feel great respect for their stories. They are hungry for knowledge and drink up the examples from literature that I bring to inspire their writing. Seniors need to be urged past their internal critics that say their lives have been unimportant.  They feel a renewed sense of purpose in life as their stories pour forth. It is a joy to see people from all walks of life get excited about writing. It changes lives. It changed mine.

Recently, I wanted to try my hand at a different kind of writing workshop. I'd reread Jack Kerouac's On The Road to see if it held up for me. It did. I began to read some of the vast history of travel writing, and was delighted to envision solo travelers in distant times making their way across China, Afghanistan, Greece, or Persia. They recorded vital, specific details, just as a modern traveler must, to bring the world to life on paper. Wanting to share what I learned, I approached the Schenectady County Public Library about facilitating a travel writing workshop.

Twenty participants signed up for the five-session Travel Writing Workshop: Writing Your Own Road.  People had traveled to, or were leaving for, Tanzania, Guatemala, Brazil, Italy, Scotland, India, and Paris. They had much to say, and, like many new writers, needed direction about how to begin and keep going.

An Indian scientist was overjoyed to break out of the strictures of science writing to describe her experience in Italy as colorfully as she wished. A college student did a performance poem about Times Square. A shy woman wrote about her first journey away from Guatemala as she watched houses and volcanoes appear toy-sized from her plane window. A German immigrant described her sister's spacious home in Albany from the perspective of someone who escaped great difficulties. A teen described going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show in the Adirondacks with her family. An East Indian man, visiting his daughter, took us on a tour of Walden Pond and we learn of Gandhi's connection to Thoreau through civil disobedience. We see the old copy of the Bhagavad-Gita in Thoreau's reconstructed cabin and are astonished. The group was charged with new energy and decided to keep meeting. I was thrilled to have taught this class. Everybody won! 

Photo:  Susannah Risley and workshop participants.  Credit:  Karen Bradley.

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.

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