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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W-supported poet/activist Kelly Harris, community outreach chair for the New Orleans chapter of the Women's National Book Association, blogs about her love for New Orleans.

Before moving to New Orleans for love in 2008, I was a writer who required complete silence to write. Often I'd find a corner of a library, pull my hoody over my head, and dig in. Sometimes I'd plug my ears with headphones without any music. I know, I know, weird, but I needed to tell myself (and show everyone around me) I was occupied.

New Orleans is not a quiet place. It occupies you. Since moving from the Midwest (Cleveland, Ohio) to the South, I've had to adjust how I write. Some family members have wondered how I could be a candidate for marriage because I seemed eerily comfortable as a loner. My husband is always amazed at how often I leave my phone at home on purpose. There's a reason... I'm easily distracted. With so many stimuli, I wonder how poets find useful silence.

By now you're asking, "Kelly, where is there a quiet place in New Orleans?" I don't know, but, strangely, I have found the daily commotion in New Orleans to be useful.

New Orleans Streetcars: Maybe it's the nostalgic wooden seats and clicks of the metal wheels against the metal tracks that inspire me as a writer. Riding a streetcar allows me the opportunity to sightsee, and overhear some of the most interesting conversations.

Rue De La Course on Oak Street: The café is an old, two-story bank with high ceilings. The way voices bounce off the walls create the feel of an old movie where two lovers reunite.

The Moonwalk: This paved sidewalk beside the Mississippi River has nothing to do with Michael Jackson. It's called the Moonwalk in honor of former mayor Maurice "Moon" Landrieu. From here you see the Crescent City Connection Bridge connect the east and west banks of the city. Café Du Monde is steps away.

The combination of music, history, and culture makes this a place where a poem waits to happen.

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom) Marching band. Credit: L. Kasimu Harris.

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.

Sandra Beasley is the author of the memoir Don’t Kill the Birthday Girl: Tales from an Allergic Life and the poetry collections I Was the Jukebox and Theories of Falling. She received the 2008 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award for poetry and lives in Washington, D.C., where she's also been a P&W-supported writer. We asked her a few questions about her experience giving readings.

What are your reading dos?
Do make eye contact. Do pause between poems, both for your sake and that of the audience. Do crack a joke or two; this is poetry, not brain surgery. (And actually, I would want the brain surgeon who can crack a joke or two).

...and your reading don'ts?
All poets go through a phase of journeying—to New York, D.C., Los Angeles—to take part in line-ups where they are one of many. Don't try to shoehorn that extra poem in to make it "worth" your trip. You want to be remembered as the poet who left us wanting more, not the one who had us checking our watches.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I make my set list, which is usually about ten poems ordered for thematic flow (i.e., a trio of persona poems) and strategic timing (i.e., not assaulting anyone with two sestinas back to back). I clear my throat. I bounce up and down on the balls of my feet. It's a lot like being a musician, minus the groupies and the free beer.

What's the strangest comment you've received from an audience member?
"[My boyfriend] doesn't speak much English, but your facial expressions and hand gestures were so intense that he could follow along." Apparently I am a vivid performer, as evidenced by all the incredibly goofy snapshots taken of me mid-reading.

What's your crowd-pleaser?
There's one poem I love to read, so much so that I practically have it memorized, and that is "Vocation" from I Was the Jukebox. As poems go, it is short, has some humor, and is dedicated to anyone who (like me) has struggled to pay rent while doing the thing(s) we love to do. "Vocation" was also my first experiment in making video-poems for YouTube.

What did you spend your R/W grant check on?
For my P&W-supported reading, I shared the stage at the Arts Club of Washington with Sarah Browning. It was a quintessentially D.C. night, and I was so proud to read with Sarah, the director of Split This Rock and the author of Whiskey in the Garden of Eden, which I had helped edit when she published with The Word Works in 2007. Though my honorarium wasn't huge, it was an important reminder that our work is valued in this world. What did I spend it on? The usual: dinner with writer friends, a good martini, and more books.

Photo: Sandra Beasley. Credit: Matthew Worden.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Washington, 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.

P&W-supported poet/activist Kelly Harris, founder of The Literary Lab, a small business that promotes local writers, and member of Melanted Writers NOLA (New Orleans, Louisiana), a year-old workshop for writers of color, blogs about the post-Katrina literary happenings in New Orleans.

Talk to many New Orleans writers about the storm and they will raise a hand to show you how high the water rose in their neighborhood and lament about all the books that were washed away. The devastation of 2005 was extensive, but in the years since the literary scene in New Orleans has been thriving!

The New Orleans Chapter of Women's National Book Association formed this year. The group includes local women writers, bookstore owners, publishing professionals, and readers. 

In 2010 Loyola University established the Walker Percy Center for Writing and Publishing. The Center fosters literary talent and achievement and advances the art of writing as essential to a good education. The literary arts is flourishing in the Big Easy... The Pass It On open mic series began in 2008 as an attempt to restore the pre-Katrina open mic scene. Its host Gian Smith was a featured poet in the HBO hit series Treme.

This year brought us the first WriteNola!: Spoken Word & Poetry Festival. WriteNOLA! gathered New Orleans's pre and post Katrina poets together to give readings and conduct workshops. The City of New Orleans supported the event and offered the regal Gallier Hall as the venue. Proceeds from the festival benefited the NOLA Youth Slam Team.

The Peauxdunque Writers Alliance, many of whom are students and alumni from the University of New Orleans MFA program, started a reading series called, Yeah, You Write. As always, 17 Poets, a Thursday night reading at the French Quarter's Goldmine Saloon, continues to anchor the New Orleans poetry community. It was the first poetry reading series held in New Orleans after Katrina on October 13, 2005. 

Even the youth have a place in the literary action. This October marks the 2nd Annual New Orleans Children's Book Festival. Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges, whose lonely walk into William Frantz Elementary School inspired a famous Norman Rockwell painting, and Cheryl Landrieu, wife of the city's mayor, established the free festival to promote local children's book authors, literacy, and provide food and entertainment.

The Scholastic Writing Awards of Southeast Louisiana, an affiliate of the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers and sponsored by the Greater New Orleans Writing Project, supports seventh-twelfth grade writers. In 2011, its inaugural year, two students were sent to the Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and one received a $2,500 college scholarship!

Can't keep up with this literary buffet? No worries. Listen to The Reading Life, a show dedicated to all things bookish in New Orleans online. The radio show is hosted by former The Times-Picayune book editor, Susan Larson.

And finally, Louisiana celebrated the opening of the Ernest J. Gaines Center in October 2010 at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, just a mere two-hour drive from New Orleans.

It seems new events and writers are emerging every day. Next time you're in town, attend a reading, buy a book. Help the city continue to rebuild its literary community.

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom) Melanted Writers Workshop. Credit: Jennifer Williams.

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 Ann Lynn, author of the chapbook In the Butterfly House, published by Finishing Line Press, blogs about facilitating writing workshops with women veterans in Atlanta, GA.

In October 2005, I began a series of writing workshops with women veterans in Atlanta. The women in the group had served in war zones during the Vietnam and the Gulf Wars. One woman drove a truck and was trained to work with hazardous materials. Another worked with the wounded. Some experienced scud missile attacks. All witnessed firsthand the atrocities of war and suffered personal traumas themselves. For the participants, the workshops weren't just an exercise in learning to write better... the workshops served as a lifeline. I was blown away by what these women were writing and sharing, and realized how hungry they were for the healing power of writing.

One of the first assignments I gave was to write about a place where they felt safe and comfortable, an exercise that could be appropriate for anyone, but especially so for people who have experienced trauma. I will never forget what one woman wrote:

My truck is a safe place. In it there is no sound, no music, no talking, just listening to the wind as it hits my windows. My mind can be free there, and I can drive away all the tears, fears, as long as I got gas.

Another time I asked them to pick an object from a bunch I set out on the floor and describe that object with concrete and sensory details. I then  told them to write about one of their parents in terms of that object. One woman wrote:

Mother is like a rock,not a mother,
except in its true instinctual self of how it became,
beginning as loose powder then pressed together,
hardened and roughed-up (tossed, turned, hurt).

I was stunned by the beauty and power of this poem. And, for the writer, it seemed as though the metaphorical language with which she'd chosen to describe her mother had somehow turned on a light in her head, as she began to talk about her life in a deeper way.

For these women, writing, sharing, and the group itself formed a safe space. The group met for three and a half years, and for me it was a life-changing experience. I wrote when they wrote, read when they read, and sometimes cried when they cried. I am so grateful that Poets & Writers believes that art is important for all people, and is willing and eager to fund programs that can make such a difference in people's lives.

Photo: Ann Lynn. Photo Credit: Roby Lynn.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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 Poems & Pink Ribbons, a poetry workshop for breast cancer patients, survivors, and their loved ones, blogs about Daughters of Domestics, a poetry reading she initiated and participated in in New Orleans.

There's a special relationship in New Orleans between the community and its artists. Go to the French Quarter and watch artists infuse themselves into the daily lives of New Orleanians and tourists alike. Even if you're minding your own business, a singer, dancer, mime, trumpeter, tambourine player, or visual artist can suddenly make you take a detour from your day's plans.

I have been fortunate to have organized several events in New Orleans that create unique intersections between poetry and non-traditional audiences. Most recently, Daughters of Domestics: Poets & Academics Respond to "The Help," featured Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes, Kysha Brown Robinson, and myself. The Help, both the book and film, have created much conversation in New Orleans. In fact, a 1982 documentary about black domestics in New Orleans titled Yes Ma'am showed for a limited run in September.

Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically black college known for graduating more African American pharmacists than any other university in the country, hosted the event. Daughters of Domestics attracted an audience of over one hundred people including Xavier University students and faculty, clergy, local writers, bookstore owners, and even nuns. 

Poems read by the featured poets underscored the struggle of Hattie McDaniel, the first African American actress to win an Academy Award, black women domestic labor, sexism, and Jim Crow. My final poem of the evening, "For All the Times in School I Left Mother's Occupation Blank," was dedicated to my mother who cleaned white people's homes in the late '80s and early '90s for extra income.

Following the poets, Dr. Kimberly Chandler, assistant professor of communications at Xavier, moderated a panel that included Professor Theresa Davis, Dr. Denese Shervington, and Dr. Brenda Edgerton-Webster. The three nationally respected African American scholars discussed the contradictions, complexities, and contentions of the film from the black female perspective. Dr. Davis began her comments by quoting Langston Hughes's poem "Note on Commercial Theatre." The panel provided a lively conversation that ended with a call to action.

Before the close of the event, Dr. Chandler turned the audience's attention to a black-and-white photo of a black woman, who was a domestic worker, on display in the auditorium. The photo was brought in by an audience member who wanted to bring his grandmother's spirit to the event. I believe she was there.

Later that evening, I received an e-mail from a woman thanking me for organizing the event and requesting a bibliography of all the authors and books that had been mentioned. Her call demonstrates the ways in which poetry can have a profound impact. She said, "I need those books on my shelf."

Photo: (top) Kelly Harris; (bottom, left to right) Kelly Harris and Asali DeVan Ecclesiastes. Credit: Jarvis DeBerry.

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.

The Inspired Word, a twice-weekly poetry, spoken word, and performance series in New York City, featured P&W-supported poet Beau Sia on September 22. Inspired Word founder and producer Mike Geffner (whose journalistic work has appeared in USA Today, Details Magazine, and the Village Voice) describes the evening.

At my Inspired Word series in Manhattan’s East Village, Los Angeles poet Beau Sia took the stage donned like some kind of rock star: chalk-white jacket flipped up (Elvis-style) at the collar, tight-fitting jeans, and nifty looking maroon-colored shades.

It all seemed pretty cool until we quickly found out the sunglasses weren’t a fashion statement. His eyes, you see, were sensitive right now. “This light is painful to me,” he told the packed downstairs Nexus Lounge–a crowd of about fifty people–inside the Irish pub, One and One. He wore ear plugs too. Because his ears were sensitive as well, he said as flat as can be, his arms pinned to his sides like a pair of wooden slats and his neck, as if held by a brace, not budging a smidgen.

He went on to explain that he’d recently had a bad car accident, suffered whiplash, and now had “this brain-stem injury thing,” which meant a sudden jolt could send his world upside down. Which also meant that he had no choice other than to be desperately “low key." He apologized in advance for not being at his best.

Indeed, imagining a poet known for his frenetic performances (on HBO's Def Poetry and as a two-time National Poetry Slam Champion) unable to use his body reminded me of what Gay Talese once famously wrote about Sinatra having a cold: It’s like “Picasso without paint, Ferrari without fuel.”

“You guys can’t imagine how frustrating it is for me," Sia said early on, "to not utilize my full physical capability."

But a poet of stunning range, Sia still pulled it off brilliantly, reading with such intensity that his body appeared to pulsate. He had us all leaning forward (with poignant pieces about life’s fragility and wisdom gained from working with stroke patients), laughing a whole lot (especially one moment when he cranked up a stiff left arm to count off parts of his poem with equally stiff fingers), and thinking a ton.

“It’s pretty awesome of you guys to be listening as deeply as you are,” he said. “I can feel [it].”

He received a standing ovation, having created, despite everything working against him, a truly magical evening. He could’ve easily blown off the night and called in sick. But he didn't. Instead, he endured all the discomfort and pain and weirdness for the sake of doing nothing more than sharing his words with an audience. It’s what I’ll remember most about that night. Not the words so much, as what he went through to utter them. Could poetry be any more inspiring?

Photo: Beau Sia. Credit: Raymond Hamlin.

Support for Reading/Workshops events 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 sponsor and 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 curating and hosting Wayne State University's Thursdays in the D in Detroit, Michigan.

On September 22, over one hundred folks packed the Scarab Arts Club in downtown Detroit’s cultural center to hear a wild, fun, and moving reading/performance by a wide variety of literary artists. Thanks to Wayne State University’s Office of Student Affairs and its great staff, I was honored to curate and host Thursdays in the D with Detroit singer/songwriter Audra Kubat, poet Brian Gilmore from D.C., deaf hip-hop star Sean Forbes from Detroit, former slam star Jeffrey McDaniel from New York City, and the insanely talented Jessica Care Moore from Detroit.

I would say 75 percent of the audience had never attended a poetry reading. The audience was made up of urban and suburban students and teachers, senior citizens, blue collar workers, labor activists, college deans, and others, all of whom came together to listen, enjoy, and join in the fun of poetry. It’s a beautiful thing to see the arts thrive in a city that has been hit very, very hard by the recession. Our community is clearly nourished by the arts, and this program was ample proof.

The program began with Detroit’s young singer/songwriter, in the Joni Mitchell tradition, Audra Kubat. Audra’s lyrics are basically poems set to music. Brain Gilmore of the D.C. poetry scene and DC Writer's Corps followed and delivered a great set of poems, with Frank F. Koscielski on piano, as a wonderful homage to Duke Ellington from his book Jungle Nights & Soda Fountain Rags. Next up was Detroit’s Sean Forbes, a deaf young hip-hop artist working with Eminem, who stunned the audience with his cool hip-hop beats and poems as he signed and spoke his work. Jeffrey McDaniel, Pitt Poetry Series author of The Endarkenment, delivered from his old school slam days a fabulous set combining high quality poetry with precision timing and showmanship. To conclude Jessica Care Moore, star of HBO Def Poetry Jam, delivered politically charged poems in the spirit of the late Gil Scott-Heron, Black Star, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D. To put the cherry on the sundae, nationally known Shakespeare impersonator Chuck Wilcox came up to the podium in costume and performed a Shakespeare sonnet!

Folks, I don’t care where you live in this great country (or world, for that matter), it just doesn’t get any better than this. Ah, Thursdays in the D makes me glad to be alive in this wonderful city.

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.

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