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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

For the month of September, longtime P&W-suported writer Patricia Roth Schwartz blogs about her experience in Seneca County, New York.

October in the Finger Lakes flares out in a profusion of color: scarlet maples, golden beech, burgundy sumac. Deer leap across country roads. I drive to the tiny village of Ovid where history has left its imprint, especially in the form of a charming set of Greek Revival county courthouse buildings (now a museum) in descending sizes known as The Three Bears.

I eat my picnic lunch at a table outside the adorable structures (Baby Bear is as big as a child’s playhouse) savoring sunshine and drifting leaves. Spotting a tiny thrift shop across the street, I'm there in a flash. It’s full of almost all new clothes, each item a dollar! Soon, clutching five items, I approach a sweet-faced lady in her 80s who serves as volunteer cashier. Suddenly I realize I've left home with no cash! The thrift shop does not accept credit cards or checks. The cashier tells me I can come back later to pay. "We close at one.” I say, "But I'm doing a poetry reading at the Edith B. Ford Memorial Library." I point to the flyer in the store window.

Behind me another shopper speaks up. "Here—" she pushes a five dollar bill toward me. "I'll send you a check," I say and thank her profusely. She says, "No need." "I'll come over to the library," offers the cashier, Anna, who'd been telling me earlier about growing up nearby on a farm. "You said a friend of yours was coming." "Yes, I can borrow five dollars from her," I say. So it's settled; I go next door to a small supermarket. I need a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. (It's been that kind of day.) I have a little change; I'm sure it’s enough. But at the cash register I’m counting out pennies. Behind me, another Ovid angel appears. A young man plunks down coins, insists on paying for me. I walk across the street to the library in a pleasant daze, convinced I‘ve entered another plane of existence, one that is utterly charmed.

A small group gathers for my reading. I sit in a comfy rocker in the children's reading nook, encouraging everyone to sit in a semicircle around me. Halfway through the reading, Anna, the thrift shop cashier, enters. She's brought her lunch, a large submarine sandwich. Sitting discreetly at the back table, she eats it, crumples up the wrapper, then moves up to the semicircle. I read poems about my family, my childhood in West Virginia—memories, stories. Afterward we talk. "When I was married," the widowed Anna says, "I had a notebook I used to write in. My husband thought I was pretty good." I don't think Anna has ever been to a poetry reading before. We encouraged her to get another notebook and start up again.

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.

From July 13 to 16, 2011, P&W-supported poets Mayda Del Valle, Oveous Maximus, and Shihan participated in inkSlam, Los Angeles’ largest spoken-word festival, held at the Greenway Court Theatre.

The four-day event featured daily writing and performance workshops and nightly showcases celebrating the creative landscape of artists on the slam poetry scene.

Over one hundred poets, including burgeoning rhymesters and veteran Tony Award winners, graced the stage of the Greenway Court Theatre, as a sold-out audience cheered them on night after night.

“InkSlam allowed L.A. residents to see poetry in a light different from the one they were used to,” said inkSlam director Shihan Van Clief, who performs as Shihan. He is also a founding member of Da’ Poetry Lounge, the nation’s largest ongoing open mic series, which takes place Tuesdays at Greenway Court. “Most people have a junior high or high school reference point for poetry, which was, for a lack of a better term, ‘old’… We offered poetry from a young perspective.”

ShihanThe festival aims to re-brand poetry as something anyone and everyone can enjoy, according to Van Clief. There were craft workshops geared towards the youth as well as business workshops to better inform poets on how to make art their livelihood in today’s multifaceted market.

InkSlam evolved from the partnership between the nonprofit organization Greenway Arts Alliance and Da’ Poetry Lounge. As Van Clief recalls, the idea for inkSlam came in 2009.

“[The poetry scene] had been defunct for years,” said Van Clief. “There was and is still a definite need for more art-based programs in L.A., and we figured this would be a good starting point; we wanted to create the best poetry festival Los Angeles has ever seen.”

Now inkSlam is making that dream a reality. A spoken-word competition was added to the festival’s agenda, making inkSlam a true poetry slam. In good fun, eight teams competed for the title of inkSlam champion over the course of the last two days of the festival.

Da’ Poetry Lounge, the seasoned home team, came in first, with a team from Santa Cruz finishing an incredibly close second.

“Santa Cruz Slam team snuck in under the radar and surprised a lot of folks,” said Van Clief. “Their group work was just very well thought out and executed to a tee; they made me rethink some of the group material our team had.”

To ensure that the festival would end on the most engaging, and humorous, of notes, the second place team received their $750 cash prize in quarters, leaving third and fourth place winners to receive theirs in dimes and pennies respectively.

Photo: Shihan at a workshop about the business of spoken word. Credit: Cheryl Klein.

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

Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about headlining at the P&W-supported reading series LouderARTS earlier this year.

The LouderARTS reading series at Bar 13 is classic. Walking towards it, you could miss it if you weren’t paying attention. The stairs leading up to the entrance had me thinking of a horror film, where the expected becomes something frightening. The door opens to dim lights, a large space filled with people, a bar wet with alcohol, and poetry banging against the walls.

It’s only fair to admit that I’ve read at Bar 13 once before. Three, maybe four, years had passed since the last time I’d read there. The crowd seemed more aware of the little things that make a poet crave the mic. Patrick Rosal, author of the forthcoming Boneshepherds, was in the audience rubbing shoulders with young poets as they all enjoyed the moment with something cold to drink. I sat at the bar for near an hour waiting for my turn, listening to the crowd scream out lines of their favorite poems. I get a little nervous reading after six or seven poets have read and the audience has already been read to for an hour or so. 

That night I read poems I’ll likely never read again. A suite of sorts, and the intimacy of the space allowed it to happen. I get all these images in my head when thinking about poetry and poetry readings. The one that nestles most comfortably is my imaginings of Bar 13. It isn’t just the alcohol. It isn’t just that Lynne Procope and Marie-Elizabeth Mali are both electric poets and excellent hosts. It isn’t the slam competition. It’s that all of those things fit perfectly into this intimate space where people come to listen.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

Washington, D.C.–based poet Reginald Dwayne Betts, author of Shahid Reads His Own Palm and the memoir A Question of Freedom, blogs about participating in a P&W-supported reading curated by the creative writing program at New York University in April 2010.

Raina J. Leon, January Gill O’Neil, and myself—I couldn't have asked for more. The three of us at NYU on a rainy Friday night. And, Cornelius Eady and Yusef Komunyakaa sat in the audience alongside emerging poet Rickey Laurentis and Catherine Barnett, a professor at NYU. The room was claustrophobic...in a good way. People squeezed in tight with nothing but poetry keeping them from going out into the rain.

I still remember Raina’s final poem about her brother. Haunting, the poem has left a lasting impression. Many of her poems do this, give me pause. And January, January read the best sex poem I’ve heard in years! A poem so filled with yearning and the unexpected that I thought the audience would soon depart to find love in the rain. The audience stayed, and allowed me to read a poem or two.

A few weeks before the reading, I Skyped with Catherine Barnett’s class. Some students from that class showed up, and one of the coolest things happened. Paul, one of Catherine's students, gave me The Prison Diary of Ho Chi Minh. He took the time to pass on the book and make some really humbling comments about my work. Folks read and write for millions of reasons, but the one that is most important to me is connecting with others.

Photo: Reginald Dwayne Betts. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washinton, 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.

Since 2007, P&W has supported literary events in Houston, Texas. Literal, Latin American Voices, an award-winning bilingual magazine, was among the first Houston organizations supported by P&W. We asked its founder and director, Rose Mary Salum, author of the short story collection Spaces in Between, to share her experience as a presenter of Latin American literature and art.

What was your most successful literary program?
One of the most successful programs we hosted this year was Poetics of Displacement: Latin American Émigré Writers and the Creative Imagination. When Gisela Heffes invited us to collaborate with Rice University on this series, we immediately agreed. The response was amazing, especially to Sergio Ramírez, who I introduced! People approached me to express their absolute satisfaction. 

What makes your programs unique?
We invite established authors from Latin America, who are perhaps not as well-known in the United States. Everyone is familiar with the boom authors—the García Marquezs and Vargas Llosas. Besides these magnificent authors, there is a vast array of writers who are innovative and at the vanguard of literature. We have always questioned the practice of promoting writers familiar to our audiences to minimize the risk of failure. Ultimately, the quality of work is what must win in the end. Having a magazine with these characteristics (bilingual with Latin American subject matter, but still international) puts us in the peculiar place of voicing a de-centered point of view that steers away from the dominant culture, and we want to keep going this way. The United States is becoming more and more aware of the vast repository of literature that exists “down there.”

How do you find and invite readers?
I carefully choose dates and venues to make it easy for people to visit. There’s a huge niche for Latin American writers and readers in the United States, but we are scattered. Houston is a gateway at the perfect geographical point of connection between a continent with two languages. The mission of Literal is to exploit this location and get these cultures closer to each other.

Has literary presenting informed your writing life?
Every time I research new authors and read their books, their work has such an impact on me that some of my guests become characters in my fiction.

What is the value of literary programs in your community?
We cannot ignore the globalized world where influences roam freely. A program about literature is all about exchanging ideas, perspectives, and culture. Having said that, the programs we organize are always centered on the idea of being a platform for dialog, even if we are not familiar with other cultures within our own borders. “There is a tendency to abstract and aestheticize the colossal displacement of peoples and their cultures generated by globalization,” explains Lorraina Pinnell. A publication like Literal has a special role in addressing, in concrete terms and forms, cross-cultural contacts whirling through Canada, the United States, and Latin America. For our part, we are dedicated to resisting this tendency to abstract an entire reality; the publication and, moreover, the events we organize present distinct regions of the Americas in their various and sometimes clashing embodiments.

Photo: P&W-supported writer Sergio Ramírez with Gisela Heffes of Rice University. Credit: Enrique Vazquez.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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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