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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

P&W-supported spoken word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about The Last Bookstore.

I first became familiar with Rothenberg, poet/publisher of Big Bridge and author of more than twenty books, after picking up his book The Paris Journals. The book's format intrigued me immediately, a hybrid poetic/prose travel journey novella about his time in Paris. Rothenberg has edited collections of Phillip Whalen and David Meltzer as well as written several songs for film and television. Rothenberg read this past Sunday at The Last Bookstore.

The Last Bookstore has emerged as a mecca for literary events in Los Angeles and has featured David Meltzer, Sesshu Foster, Pam Ward, the L.A. Noir Poetry Festival, Writers Row, and the site-specific play titled A Record of Light. Located on Spring and Fifth in Downtown L.A.'s Old Bank District, the space has 10,000 square feet, comfortable seats, thousands of titles, and low prices. (They also have several crates of vinyl records.) The ambiance is undeniable in the store and the block itself.

Spring Street is often referred to as the Wall Street of the West; it's a goldmine for architectural historians with the largest collection of pre-World War II architecture in America. The large old banks were all built in classical architectural styles like Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, and Italian Renaissance Revival—elegantly poured concrete gems about a dozen floors each. The Last Bookstore is on the ground floor of a Beaux-Arts building designed by John Parkinson, the architect of Los Angeles's City Hall, the Memorial Coliseum, Bullocks Wilshire, and most of the banks on Spring Street. A plaque in his honor is located on the west sidewalk of Spring near the bookstore.

Literary legends, high school poets, and college students alike speak at the bookstore's events. Their philosophy: three generations on the same stage, all the ancestors on the same page.

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.

Suzanne Lummis, poet and director of the Los Angeles Poetry Festival, blogs about the P&W-supported Lummis Day Festival in Los Angeles.

Now and then at a reading, you nab the whole audience. When the show is over they rush up to you, wild with joy. But other times, it's that reading where just eleven people show up, only one book is bought, and you drive home grumpy. Then much later, someone comes up to you at an event, kind of shy, and tells you how years back she'd been in a sparse audience at some now defunct café, and how that reading persuaded her to give up her career in advertising, which she despised, and become a writer instead. Now she's happy. And, you think, "Ah, so that's whom that evening was for."

On especially felicitous occasions, you get both, the audience and the person who walks away changed. Take last year's Lummis Day for example. The kick-off poetry reading for the annual gala, also know as the Festival of Northeast Los Angeles, has never failed to please a crowd. And, it does draw a crowd—as many as can fit comfortably into the spacious garden in front of El Alisal, the name Charles Lummis gave to the idiosyncratic house he built with river rock around the turn of the nineteenth century. Eliot Sekular, a champion of Northeast Los Angeles, founded Lummis Day, naming it after my grandfather, who Southwest history buffs remember for his advocacy on behalf of Native American and Spanish California culture. So every first Sunday of June, folks drive across the city, or walk over from around the corner, always in high spirits. It is after all, not only a lively reading with a social gathering afterwards, but the beginning of a daylong party, with bands, folkloric dances, and other entertainments.

Last year, in my opening comments, I mentioned that I felt lucky that my parents had been poetry readers, and therefore I'd never in my life lived in a house that did not have poetry on the bookshelves. Steve Kowit then delighted fiesta-goers with his humor and embracing energy, followed by Mariano Zara, who read a moving personal piece, and poetry-loving actor Dale Raoul (Maxine Fortenberry in True Blood), who presented selections from Poems of the American West. While the assembled gathered in the reception area for a "noise" (Lummis disdained the term "salon" and was bored by "party"), a fellow approached me with a title he'd just purchased from the book table, Poems of the American West.  He was beaming. "Could I please write 'For Alfredo?'"  I asked him to tell me a little about himself so I could personalize the dedication. "Oh, it's for him," he said, and pointed to a stroller holding a boy of about two. Then his wife appeared by his side. And I was, well... I don't want to get sentimental. The English have a word for it—I was chuffed. This little boy would grow up in a house with poetry... it's not everything, but it seems to have the makings of a promising start. 

Photo: Suzanne Lummis. Credit: Penelope Torribio.

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


P&W-supported spoken-word artist Mike Sonksen, author of I am Alive in Los Angeles, blogs about poetry and activism.

Whether MFA candidates, avant-garde scribes, spoken-word artists, or traditional poets, there are more bards alive now than ever before. But, what exactly does it mean to be a poet? I think of a quote from Los Angeles poet Kamau Daaood. Daaood told Erin Aubry Kaplan in the L.A. Weekly, "When people run to open mics these days, it's mostly about ego–getting fifteen minutes... I [see] it as a jam session, swapping ideas, getting inspiration from other people."

In 2005, Daaood's The Language of Saxophones was published by City Lights Booksellers & Publishers. Daaood never pursued being published because he was too busy working in the community. Daaood has performed for more than four decades at festivals, galleries, jazz clubs, churches, schools, prisons, or wherever duty calls.

Another poet with the same commitment is Lewis MacAdams. MacAdams studied with Robert Creeley at the University of Buffalo in the 60s and hung with New York School poets. MacAdams became an environmental activist/poet in Bolinas, California, during the 70s and was a fixture at the San Francisco State University's Poetry Center. In 1980 MacAdams landed in L.A. There he discovered the Los Angeles River, and was outraged by the concrete channel housing the watershed. He decided to begin a forty-year performance piece dedicated to returning the river to its natural state.

One night in 1986 he performed a suite of poems dedicated to the Los Angeles River while being dressed up as a totem of flora and fauna specific to the river. This was the birth of the Friends of the Los Angeles River (FoLAR). Twenty-five years after FoLAR's founding, the River has had several stretches restored back to its natural state. MacAdams started the river's resurrection with poetry. His new book Dear Oxygen, published by the University of New Orleans Press collects forty-five years of his life's work. MacAdams like Daaood has spent a lifetime using poetry to improve his community. Their work reminds me of the benchmark for which poets should aim.

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.

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.

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