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Readings & Workshops Blog

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating a P&W-supported workshop at Southwest Bakersfield Library in Bakersfield, California.

When the California Center for the Book's David Gernand first connected me with Southwest Bakersfield Library to facilitate a memoir writing workshop, I had a sudden flashback.

When I was eight, my parents packed all five of us kids into an old, avocado-green station wagon and drove us to Bakersfield to pick onions. Once there, we toiled in the vicious heat, snapping enormous green scissors, filling coarse brown sacks with dusty white onions. One foreman came by every so often to halfheartedly shoo us kids off the field. Within minutes after he disappeared, we’d run back to our parents to help with the onion picking or the dragging of sacks that inevitably grew heavier with each added onion.

We were supposed to work the fields for several weeks that summer, but at night while we camped out and fought over the bare mattress laid out at the back of the station wagon, we beseeched our parents to take us home. The smell of onions permeated our clothes, skin, and hair. It burned our eyes and lingered on our tongues. After a few days, my father shook his head in defeat, saying we were the worst workers he had ever seen. As we drove out of Bakersfield, we waved goodbye to the onion fields from the rear window, promising never to return.

Thirty-three years later I’m in Bakersfield again, standing before a group of workshop participants at Southwest Library. It’s a small, ethnically diverse group of nine and their ages range from twelve to sixty. Some of them have aspirations of memoir writing; others have come simply to practice writing. I share my onion story as a means to discuss memoir writing (how place, sound, smell, and taste trigger snapshots of what we’ve lived). We do several exercises to probe into the personal stories archived in their bodies.

One exercise asks participants to write about a memorable place. Another asks them to use one of Sandra Cisneros’s vignettes as a springboard to write about their names. Both exercises produce intimate recollections, and it is through the sharing of these intimate recollections that we connect with one another.

Maria, the library branch supervisor, reveals a long-kept secret. “Well, you see,” she says “my name isn’t actually Maria.” The name was given to her by a group of Catholic nuns in the Philippines and it stuck. A great beginning to a memoir. Maritza, from Guadalajara, Mexico, was named after a character in a Brazilian soap opera. And Gene, the middle-aged man whose Mexican parents didn’t speak a word of English, was named after Gene Autry, the American performer known as the "Singing Cowboy." As Gene shares his story, his wife leans into him and mumbles, “I never knew that.”

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating a P&W-supported workshop with young Latina women.

In July of 2008, I was invited by Calaca Press to facilitate a two-day workshop in San Ysidro with eight young Latina women. The goal was to nurture these emerging writers via an intense writing workshop, publication, and public reading. The participants ranged in age from eighteen to thirty-three years old, and came from a variety of communities in Southern California—San Diego, Los Angeles, Ontario, and Montclair.

We gathered at The Front, a San Ysidro art gallery exhibiting political prints. Zapatistas and workers in struggle from around the world peered at us from the gallery walls as we began our journey. Our objective: connect with our bodies and excavate poems buried therein.  On that Saturday and Sunday, for fours hours each day, we explored different concepts of the body. We read Lucille Clifton’s “Hips,” Elba R. Sánchez’s “Me Siento Continente,” Michelle Tea’s rant to America, “The Beautiful. Yusef Komunyakaa sang praises to the flesh in his sensational poem, “Anodyne.” tatiana de la tierra gave us “Visions of Colombia.” And, Sandra C. Muñoz gave us a body manifesto entitled, “For My Sister Who Thinks I'm Unhappy Because I like her Don’t Wear a Size Six.” The words of these writers were our guides, providing constant inspiration and great poetic models.

Aside from reading and writing, we also played. Using collage materials from recycled magazines and newspapers, we created poster-sized body maps. These body maps served as springboards into writing exercises, allowing us to venture into poems about flesh, memory, and body scars. Sara Eslava, one of the participants, for example, wrote a celebratory ode to her curves, while Patricia Beltrán birthed a prose piece about a lover who failed to see the beauty in her cesarean scar.

In the weeks following, I worked with Calaca Press to compile and edit a small chapbook consisting of the women’s strongest work produced during the workshop. The women were encouraged to revise titles, flesh out gaps, and polish images. All of the women proved themselves extremely committed to the process and to improving their craft. Being a part of this unique project and working so closely with these women gave me more than they will ever know. They gifted me with the opportunity to be part of their evolution as writers, which has fueled my creative fire.

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

This August will mark the twelfth year the Readings/Workshops program has supported poets taking part in the Tuolumne Meadows Poetry Festival at Yosemite National Park. The event is cofounded by ranger naturalist Margaret Eissler, who leads the park’s interpretive program and directs the Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer Series, a forum for the arts and sciences. Eissler’s answers to our questions bring to life the profound experiences this festival provides for her as project director, the poets, audience members, and more than a few lucky hikers.

What makes your program unique?
First, to get to Parsons Memorial Lodge, we walk an easy three-quarters of a mile on a trail across the meadow. Parsons Memorial Lodge, an historic gathering place, is a simple, rustic stone building with lodgepole pine beams and casement windows that overlook the Tuolumne River meandering through broad subalpine meadows surrounded by granite domes and peaks—all this with open sky. The lodge breathes this in and out through the windows and arched door. The setting, the intimate space, the audience—a warm and enthusiastic mix of park visitors, park staff, and residents from surrounding communities—make the experience unforgettable for everyone involved.

What have been the most memorable moments?
The consistently rapt and respectful audience. Poet and festival cofounder Patti Trimble wrote, “When I read, in that small room in the middle of Tuolumne Meadows, I felt viscerally that everyone in that room was right there with me. We were all experiencing, at the same moment, our human connection, our shared unexplainable nature within nature.”

Poet Jerry Martien remarking that the experience seemed to him the essence of community in the largest sense of the word: the perfect balance and combination of people with place—the rocks, river, bears, trees….  

Gary Snyder reading his Yosemite trail crew poems within the building made of granite surrounded by the mountains and meadows he loves.

Dorianne Laux reciting, almost singing/dancing, a Li-Young Lee poem by heart during a workshop by the river.

Li-Young Lee, more accustomed to life in the city, saying in wonderment, “Margaret, there is something about this place that is so personal. It is almost haunting. It is sacred.”

David Hinton reading ancient Chinese wilderness poetry.

Brian Turner sharing poems he had written in Iraq—poems that observe the landscape, the war, the people (all people: men, women, children, taxi cab drivers, suicide bombers, soldiers, medics), their culture, history, and relationships—placing the war within a far larger context than we usually hear. He was a messenger from a place most of us know so little about.

The student intern who told me after a presentation by Terry Tempest Williams that he wavers between hope and despair, but the event pushed him towards the side of hope.

The two young women coming off the trail to find themselves unexpectedly at Terry’s event—their eyes bright with excitement.

Cofounder Patti Trimble remembers other moments: “Coleman Barks reading Rumi's poems from seven hundred years ago, and later, saying ‘It's all about love, isn't it?’;  Pattiann Rogers’s long detailed list poems of nature's complexity; David Mas Masumoto’s connecting in a real way the Yosemite watershed with the Great Central Valley; the open mike: Parsons Lodge packed to standing room, fire blazing in the fireplace….”

And I will add, the working together that makes all this happen. That includes Poets & Writers, Inc., to whom I give many thanks for their very existence and long-time support. 

How do you find and invite readers?
I look for diverse voices that complement each other. It’s like planning a menu. I spend blissful hours in bookstores. I subscribe to magazines and investigate ideas. Friends recommend writers or books. I attend readings when I can. YouTube videos or recordings are helpful. When I send an invitation, I feel like I am casting a line. I wait for a response, hoping to get a bite. I love that I can offer an experience that is a gift to the writers and audience alike.

What is the value of literary programs for your community?
The intent of the Parsons Memorial Lodge Summer Series is to inform and inspire, to enrich the visitor’s park experience through a variety of perspectives, and to realize the possibilities inherent when connecting people with a magical place. Poetry fits perfectly within these parameters. I witness people—often people who say they don’t like poetry— discover the beauty and power of poetry for the first time. Ah! What more? Poetry gets to the essence of what it is to be alive, how to be in this world, how to live on this Earth. That’s why I do this.

Photos: (Top) Project director Margaret Eissler; (bottom) interior view of Parsons Memorial Lodge before a reading/presentation by Gary Snyder and Tom Killion. Credit: Arya Degenhardt.

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

Poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas and the chapbook Lovely Little Creatures, blogs about her experience facilitating the P&W-supported workshop at Robidoux Library in Riverside, California, during May 2011.

Anton Chekhov wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I often use Esmeralda Santiago’s “How to Eat a Guava” to illustrate Chekhov’s point. In addition, I lay out an altar of fruits, vegetables, and sensory objects—there’s labor in carting around pineapples, baby watermelons, and football-sized conch shells, but for me the altar is ritual, the first thing I put up and the last thing I take down. Nowhere has the altar proven more effective than it did at Robidoux Library in Riverside, California.

Imagine a stampede of thirty teenagers who gravitate towards the altar, handling radishes and jalapeños, asking “Are we gonna eat these?” One spiky-haired kid quickly falls in love with a coconut. “Can I have this? Please!? Please!?”  Others follow his lead. Luckily, I’m not the only adult in the room. Arlene Cano, coordinator of the Jurupa Reads program, two English teachers from nearby schools, and the library’s youth coordinator are also present. Together, we manage to get everyone seated.

We begin with a listening game. I read “How to Eat a Guava” as they jot down phrases from the text that trigger their senses. When I ask for volunteers to share, they respond with a manic show of hands. “Dark green guava,” says one student. “The size of a tennis ball” and “prickly stem end,” adds another. “It smells like summer afternoons and hopscotch under a mango tree.”

Next, they’re invited to visit the altar and choose an object for our first writing exercise. They swarm the table. The spiky-haired kid clutches the coconut. I encourage them to smell and taste some of the items. They cringe and say “Ugh!” at the small bag of salted dried fish. I give them chia to taste. When the tiny, flavorless seeds magically gel on their tongues, they describe the texture as slimy, soft, Jello-y. One student grimaces. “Gross!” She rushes to spit the seeds into the trash.

The writing exercises feel chaotic because they’re fidgeting in their seats, calling out, “Me! Me! Can you help me?” But when they share aloud... poetry comes alive. The coconut transforms into a brown, hairy sun in an alien world. A seashell triggers the memory of a day at the beach with a now-deceased father. A waxy green poblano sizzles on a mother’s stove.

At the end of the workshop, they beg to keep the altar items. “Please! ¡Por favor!” I say yes to the edibles. Coconut kid beams. Others seize the pineapple, bananas, even the dry hibiscus flowers, and the cinnamon sticks. When they finally disperse, I’m spent yet completely satisfied. On the table, they leave behind scattered shells and stones—skeletal remains of an altar well feasted on.

Photo: Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com.

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

Since 2010, P&W-supported poet and spoken word artist Clara Nura Sala has been conducting poetry workshops with veterans. We asked Clara to describe the experience.

Sponsored by Elders Share the Arts, I'm teaching a poetry workshop for veterans at the Veteran's Hospital on 23rd Street in Manhattan. Participants come from across New York City, from Staten Island to the Upper West Side. The veterans vary in age, but the majority are between the ages of fifty-five and seventy—having served in the Korean, Vietnam, and/or Gulf Wars. The participants seldom bring up their war experiences directly. However, it does come up organically in the context of their poems.

I like to push them to the edge of discovery, emotionally and creatively. These amazingly talented group of men respond with original, moving, and very well-crafted poems. I've introduced stream-of-consciousness and improvisational writing exercises. I've also introduced contemporary poets, such as Billy Collins, Mary Oliver, Joy Harjo, and e.e. cummings. We share our poems aloud, and offer praise and constructive criticism. I say "we" because I consider myself part of the class, not just the facilitator. I write along with the class. I am in the experience with them, and they inspire me to write wonderful and spontaneous poems.

Some participants have expressed that the workshop has become therapeutic. I take this as a high compliment to the workshop's structure, which allows for both maximum creative expression and intimately personal discussions. These men have been greatly affected by their experience with war (most of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and a couple have schizophrenia). The group is so loving, caring, and kind and extremely supportive of each other. I am honored to know them, to share their lives, their art, and their vulnerability.

Photo: Clara Nura Sala and workshop participants.  Photo Credit: Gregory Hicks.

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

For the month of July, poet Olga Garcia, author of Falling Angels: Cuentos y Poemas, blogs about her experience facilitating poetry workshops as a longtime P&W-supported writer.

It's May 2009 and the scorching sun casts long shadows on the streets of downtown Calexico. I’ve driven 230 miles southeast of Los Angeles, past the Salton Sea, to arrive in this furnace of a city that boasts three-digit temperatures. I’m here to facilitate an R/W-sponsored bilingual poetry workshop at Camarena Library, and I’ve arrived early enough to explore.

When it comes to border towns, Calexico has it all: the U.S.-Mexico border you can walk up to, sniff, stare at, curse, or cross; señores in sombreros and thick leather belts; big women in church dresses, waving religious pamphlets in the air; a corner stop featuring menudo, donuts, and border patrol agents. Sure, there’s a Starbucks, a few Walmarts, but what tugs at me is the historic shopping district, the brick archways and columns, the cement bus benches, and the discount stores.

Hours later, I arrive at Camarena Library, sweaty and a bit anxious. I’ve been teaching for twelve years, yet I feel like a novice. The unknowns of a workshop always stir me. Who will come? Adults? Teens? What language(s) will they speak? I’ve brought three different handouts with me—English, Spanish, and bilingual. I don’t know which one I’ll be using.

Ten minutes until workshop and no one has arrived. Brief panic.  Did I ditch work to go sightseeing? I flashback to Calexico’s rustic downtown, recalling its charm, the chilidogs I ate at a tiny stand and decide that even if nobody shows, the trip was worth it.

They arrive. First a woman and two men. Then a mother with her teenaged son. Within minutes I have a small group curiously looking at the altar displayed on a table. I invite them to pick up the objects—seashells, ripe fruits, pictures of birds in flight, bright-colored plastic flowers purchased at one of Calexico’s fabulous discount stores.

In our introductions I learn that almost everyone is bilingual. Now I know what materials to use, what exercises to dive into. A workshop, though, is much more than a pre-planned lesson. It’s a breathing thing with a collective pulse. Each class generates its own unique energy. In Calexico, the group is intimate and quiet.

I feel the need to chat before we begin. When I tell them I live in Los Angeles, they’re surprised at how far I’ve traveled for this two-hour workshop. “I’ve wanted to visit Calexico for years,” I tell them. They look at me like I’m crazy. I confess that having grown up between two languages and cultures, I have a thing for border towns. I relay my day’s adventures in downtown, how I snapped hundreds of photos and interviewed residents on the streets as if I were a journalist. They laugh, opening up, sharing a few of their own stories and insights about their hometown. We delve into our poetry workshop like this, crossing borders...connecting.

Photos: (Top) Olga Garcia. Credit: Weenobee.com; (bottom) workshop participants. Credit: Olga Garcia.

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 May 5 Detroit’s InsideOut Literary Arts Project held its first annual youth writing conference, featuring P&W-supported writers Eddie B. Allen, Matt Bell, Nandi Comer, jessica Care moore, Norene Cashen Smith, and Marcus Wicker. We asked project director Alise Alousi to describe the event.

Who Understands Me But Me: A Youth Voices Conference (titled after a poem by Jimmy Santiago Baca) was the culminating event for a year of programming focused on Baca’s essay collection, Stories from the Edge. InsideOut students used the essays in the collection as a model for developing their own personal narratives.

The goal was to give 150 Detroit public high school students an opportunity to attend a daylong event similar in content and format to that of an adult writing conference. Baca led a writing workshop and presented keynote remarks for the conference, which was supported by Poets & Writers and the JP Morgan Chase Foundation. Workshops were also led by a talented group of local writers including: Matt Bell, Nandi Comer, Peter Markus, jessica Care moore, Matthew Olzmann, Marcus Wicker, and InsideOut founder Dr. Terry Blackhawk. Students preregistered for the conference, choosing their top six workshops from a list of twelve. Titles of workshops included: Trigger, Memory, Return: Juggling the Poetic Flashback; Hustle with a Ghazal: Innovation Through an Ancient Form; Urban Fiction and Realities, and The Event as Inspiration for Flash Fiction. 

Writers incorporated a variety of prompts and techniques into each workshop session. In Marcus Wicker’s session, students read and discussed the poem “Woman Walking on the Road” by Terrance Hayes. Next, Wicker led students through a freewriting exercise by asking a series of compelling open-ended questions about a memory. This is what student Lorenzo Bragg came up with when he was asked to “think about a time when your actions had an adverse effect on another living thing.”

He pushed and shoved when I only stood
but when he threw that punch I threw my love.
Resentment, fire, anger, and fear
with my punch to his jaw the world became clear.
The intense spark of my fist on his face,
and the lovely jolt of his neck, its grace.

Lorenzo was the first student to arrive at the conference, taking several buses to get to the campus of Wayne State University. We had a chance to discuss how his exposure to writer John Rybicki, who meets with his class weekly at Douglass Academy for Young Men through InsideOut’s writing residency program had inspired him to come to the conference. He told me, “Mr. Rybicki has helped me to express my emotions through writing. He has a passion for living life that has helped me get excited about my own life.”

Central to InsideOut’s mission is a belief in the power of self-expression and language as a means to transform lives and build community. One of the most exciting moments of the event took place during lunch when students, many of whom had never read before an audience this large, shared what they had written in their morning workshops. Students supported each other by snapping their fingers and applauding. This was followed by Baca’s remarks, which took students through his own self-discovery and belief that all individuals should set everyday goals as a way to embrace their potential.

Photo: Marcus Wicker. Credit: Jacob Shores-Arguello.

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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