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Readings & Workshops Blog

On a recent Tuesday night, a group of budding poets squeezed around a plate of chocolate chip and circus animal cookies in the soon-to-be-remodeled West Hollywood Library in California. They were there for The Poetics of Your Life, an autobiographical poetry workshop led by P&W-sponsored writer Steven Reigns and founded on the premise that a safe writing space is the best place to excavate memories.

Steven Reigns“I’ve used my own writing to make sense out of things that have happened in the past,” he explained. He laid down his class rules, which included “No criticism of anyone’s writings…even your own” and “What happens in class, stays in class” or “the Vegas Rule.”

After reading and reflecting on poems by Dorianne Laux and Deborah Paredez, and warming up with a group erasure poem, he issued the first prompt: Write about a fire in your life. The responses were both literal and metaphorical, ranging from a car fire to a self-inflicted iron burn to a dancer’s internal fire.

Following his reading a poem called “Wedding Dress,” in which poet Michael Waters warmly recalls wearing his wife’s bridal gown for Halloween, Reigns asked the group to write about a time they’d cross-dressed or worn an item of clothing belonging to the opposite gender. Whether it was about slapping on a fake mustache for a costume party or falling in love with previously off-limits designer ball gowns, everyone produced poems of self-discovery.

With just a few minutes left of the two-hour workshop, Reigns encouraged anyone who wanted to share but had been too shy to step forward. A small handful did, and their poems clearly moved the group. Reigns then issued a last, last call, and it happened again. 

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

Photo: Steven Reigns with workshop participants. Credit: Cheryl Klein.

Camille Rankine, program and communications coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation, gives us the rundown on the organization's partnership with Willow Books, imprint of P&W-supported Aquarius Press in Detroit.

Each year since its founding, Cave Canem has published commemorative anthologies of poems produced by fellows and faculty attending the organization’s annual retreat. In 2006, this endeavor culminated in Gathering Ground: A Reader Celebrating Cave Canem’s First Decade, published by University of Michigan Press. This year marks the start of a new take on this tradition: Cave Canem will partner with Willow Books to produce the Cave Canem Anthology series, which will be published biennially, revitalizing a tradition of showcasing exciting new directions in American poetry.

Willow Books, the literary imprint of P&W-supported Aquarius Press in Detroit, Michigan, develops, publishes, and promotes typically underrepresented writers. “We’re looking forward to adding the many voices of Cave Canem poets to our growing list of excellent literature by African American writers,” says Aquarius Press publisher Heather Buchanan. “This new venture is at the heart of our mission to expand opportunities for African Americans in the literary marketplace.”

Alison Meyers, executive director of Cave Canem, is excited about the prospect of bringing these collections to a wider audience. “This partnership with Willow Books adds a significant, public dimension to the body of work produced every year at our retreat. Over time, we believe the Cave Canem Anthology will become essential reading for educators, students and poetry lovers, and a standard title on the shelves of well-stocked bookstores and libraries across the country.”

The series will be inaugurated with the publication of Cave Canem XII: Poems 2008–2009, slated for release in fall 2011 or spring 2012.

Photo: (Left to right) First annual Cave Canem Poetry Prize winner Natasha Trethewey and Cave Canem Fellow Donika Ross. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

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.

From February 17 to March 31, 2011, P&W-sponsored writers Rachelle Cruz, Angel Noe Garcia, and Kamala Puligandla held an after-school creative writing workshop for high school students at John W. North High School in Riverside, California.

For six weeks this past winter Rachelle Cruz, Angel Noe Garcia, and Kamala Puligandla led John W. North High School students through creative writing and performance exercises to develop their understanding of character, persona, voice, sensory detail, and revision. Their interactive workshops were lively with theater games, and during some sessions, well over fifty students showed up to class.

Rachelle Cruz and Kamala PuligandlaThe workshop was inspired, in part, by UC Riverside professor and novelist Susan Straight, who emphasized to her students the need for community participation through the arts. When her graduate students approached her with an interest in teaching in the Riverside community, she recommended her alma mater, North High.

“As newcomers to Riverside, it was a great way to connect with the neighboring high school and other local community establishments, like Back to the Grind, an incredibly supportive coffee shop in the downtown area where we held our students’ final reading,” said Cruz.

Angel Noe Garcia said, “As a writer, I was particularly excited about working with students again. It took me out of the ‘bubble’.”

“The support from Poets & Writers not only encouraged me to put my best teaching forward, but it was a nice message for the students as well, that writers who want to work with them are supported by a national writers’ organization,” added Puligandla.

“Riverside in general doesn’t get a lot of love from outside communities,” Cruz said. “I recently heard someone say, ‘Suicide, Homicide, Riverside.’ I come from Hayward in the Bay Area, another community shrouded in stereotypes of crime and shadiness, and these can be true sometimes, but not always. Underneath these stereotypes are local institutions, like Back to the Grind, Inlandia Institute, and the Gluck Arts Program, that are working hard to provide arts programming to the community. After working with students from North High School with the support of Poets & Writers, we realized how hungry they are for art and expression. I see the workshop as that first orienting step into, hopefully, more arts programming for youth and families.”

Photo: (Left to right) Rachelle Cruz and Kamala Puligandla. Credit: Cathy Linh Che.

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


Camille Rankine, Program & Communications Coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation, gives us the rundown on the longtime P&W-supported literary organization's workshops for poets of color.

Since 1999, Cave Canem has offered tuition-free, multiple-session workshops in New York City that provide emerging writers with opportunities to work with accomplished poets, such as Tracy K. Smith, Tyehimba Jess, and Kimiko Hahn, to name a few. Limited to an enrollment of twelve to fifteen, the workshops offer rigorous instruction, careful critique, and an introduction to the work of established poets—all within the supportive, safe environment that characterizes Cave Canem's week-long retreat.

“Participating in a Cave Canem workshop…was a major stepping stone in my development as a poet,” says one workshop student. “Cave Canem has given me the confidence, inspiration, direction and community that have proved to be invaluable. . .I will always be grateful to this community of poets and now, friends.”

This year, Cave Canem inaugurated Poetry Conversations, open-enrollment writing workshops for poets of color in the early stages of their writing. Fall and spring sessions are held at Cave Canem’s headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, and in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania at The Hill House Association Center.

Regardless of level, in Cave Canem workshops emerging poets hone their craft and experiment with new ways of approaching the page. Each workshop series culminates in a public reading by participants. On May 25, 2011, at 6:30 PM, participants in Writing Across Cultures: Poetry as Cultural Voice, a P&W-supported workshop for Arab American writers and poets of color, conducted by Nathalie Handal, will share new work in a reading at Cave Canem’s space in DUMBO, Brooklyn.

Photo: (left to right) Graduate Fellow Hallie S. Hobson, Cave Canem Executive Director Alison Meyers, and Camille Rankine. Credit: Ruth Ellen Kocher 

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.

Last fall, P&W co-sponsored a reading and workshop with poet Craig Santos Perez at University of California in Santa Cruz, where we have supported literary events since 2003. Perez also happens to be a past recipient of P&W’s California Writers Exchange Award, a prize that introduces promising California poets and writers to New York City’s literary community. We asked Perez how he approaches giving a reading.

Reading dos: Smile. Give thanks to the organizers, fellow performers, and the audience members. Drink water. Mark the pages you're going to read. Be prepared and organized. Be composed. Read your best work. Make eye contact with the audience. Share some background to the work. Read with passion.
Reading don’ts: Don't read too quietly. Don't shuffle through papers as if you just rolled out of bed. Don't say that you're going to read from your book that you don't like anymore because you wrote it a year ago. Don't talk for too long about the background of a poem. Don't drink water in the middle of a poem. Don't read drunk or high (unless that's part of your aesthetic). Don't go over time. Don't read too fast. Don't be hostile to the audience during Q&A. Do not not smile.

How you prepare for a reading: I prepare for a reading by figuring the best set list possible based on the time I'm given to perform, the venue, the organizer(s), the audience demographic, and my mood. I try to choose a mix of published and new work. I rehearse my performance beforehand, making sure I have the timing down. For my reading at UCSC, I also brought some gifts (free books and a can of SPAM) for the audience members who asked me questions during the Q&A.

Strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member: Last March I read at a social workers conference in Guam and was asked, by a much more experienced woman (as in thirty years older), "Are you married?"  I barely made it out of that room alive.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why it works: I have different poems that could ignite very different pleasures. For the pleasure of laughter: "Spam's Carbon Footprint." For the pleasure of emotional resonance: "from Aerial Roots" (from my second book). For the pleasure of resistance: "from Achiote" (from my first book).

But this is not always true because you can never read to the same crowd twice. Which is to say, all crowds are different and unpredictable and a writer has to be flexible, especially writers of color. Sometimes a poem that gives a certain kind of pleasure to one audience (let's say, composed of all native peoples) may not give the same pleasure (or any pleasure at all) to another audience (let's say, composed of all white peoples).

How giving a reading informs your writing and vice versa: If I read new work, I always find little edits I should make. So in that sense, it's good for revision. The more readings I've done over the years, the more connected I feel to the tradition of oral poetics and spoken word. I find myself using more oral poetry techniques in my work than ever before.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on: I spend all the money I receive from reading gigs to buy more poetry books!


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

For the next few weeks Camille Rankine, program and communications coordinator at Cave Canem Foundation, will give us the rundown on the longtime P&W-supported literary organization.

Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady founded Cave Canem in 1996 with the intuition that African American poets would benefit from having a place of their own in the literary landscape. That summer, twenty-six poets gathered at Mount St. Alphonsus Conference Center in Esopus, New York. “The first night when everyone sat in a circle and started breaking down about how they had never felt safe and never studied with an African American poet, you could see something had really happened,” Toi Derricotte recalled. “People broke open,” said Cornelius Eady, describing the first workshop in an interview for the Poetry Foundation. “And then everyone hung out by the river and built a fire and really claimed the space.”

In the fifteen years since its founding, Cave Canem’s community has grown to become an influential movement with a renowned faculty and high-achieving national fellowship of over three hundred, many of whom have been P&W-supported and/or listed in the Directory of Poets & Writers. From inception, the organization’s week-long writing retreat has provided sustenance and a safe space to take artistic chances.

This June, the tradition will continue at the sixteenth annual summer retreat, held at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg in Pennsylvania. Here, fifty-four fellows will commune with their peers and study with world-class poets Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Terrance Hayes, Carl Phillips, Claudia Rankine, and Natasha Trethewey. As Harryette Mullen, recipient of P&W's fourth annual Jackson Poetry Prize, put it, in this environment “black poets, individually and collectively, can inspire and be inspired by others, relieved of any obligation to explain or defend their blackness."

In addition to the retreat, several public readings, including a tented event at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh on June 23, will showcase the work of fellows, faculty, and visiting poet Amiri Baraka. 

Photo: Cave Canem Founders, Toi Derricotte and Cornelius Eady. Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths

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.

P&W-sponsored poet Michael Czarnecki blogs about the New York State literary events he's participated in this past year.

A sliver of a moon shines off to my right, low in the western sky. Straight ahead, Jupiter guides me as I drive south, home on Wheeler Hill a little less than an hour away. A short while ago I left the Lima Public Library. A half dozen people attended a writing workshop that I facilitated, excited about the method presented, anxious to do some writing. Behind the wheel, I felt good about the ideas I presented, the encouragement I had given.

Lima is a small village, about 2,500 people, in upstate New York. The surrounding area is mostly farmland and newer rural suburbia. My home, Wheeler Hill, is even more rural, isolated. Dirt roads and Old Order Amish neighbors. I am a country person, but also a poet and small press publisher. For more than two decades, I’ve made my living solely through creative work. Much of that work on the road is in small communities, like Lima.

In the past year I’ve given readings and/or held workshops in many small communities throughout New York State: Big Flats, Tupper Lake, Indian Lake, Watkins Glen, Henderson, Warsaw, Gouverneur, Dundee, Naples, and Mexico. These programs could not have happened were it not for the support of Poets & Writers. Many of these are repeat venues for me. The first four have active writers’ groups that were formed, in large part, because of my continual encouragement over the years.

Of special note is Watkins Glen. Seventeen years ago Charlotte Dickens called me (I didn’t know her) and asked if I could help her start a writers group in the community. She had been given my contact information from the local library, where I had facilitated a program a couple of years before. Over dinner we talked about possibilities. We left with a plan that I would facilitate the first few of the monthly meetings and then she would take over. I also suggested she have a monthly reading series, featuring published writers followed by an open reading. I felt strongly that hearing experienced writers would benefit burgeoning writers who met around the table every month. The writers group still meets twice a month and the reading series continues to flourish! This, in a village of a little over 2,000 people and a county with about 20,000! Scores of poets and prose writers have read in the series, local and regional, as well as those from distant states.

As I turn into our one third of a mile long hayfield driveway, the moon hangs even lower in the western sky, soon to be gone. I am pleased with another successful workshop in a small upstate community. Pleased that I have been invited to come back again next year. Pleased that Poets & Writers encourages such programming throughout the whole of New York State, supporting events in all sixty-two counties every year. And finally, I’m pleased to return to quiet, peaceful home on Wheeler Hill.

Photo: Michael Czarnecki.

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.

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