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Readings & Workshops Blog

Christina Fialho is an attorney and cofounder/executive director of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). In the fall of 2015, she invited P&W­–supported writer Alicia Partnoy to lead a writing workshop at the CIVIC annual retreat, and in this blog she shares about the resulting anthology Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders, which collects writing and artwork by people in immigration detention, and their family members and allies. Fialho also blogs for the Huffington Post, and her writings have appeared in MSNBC.com, the Washington Timesthe Hill, among other publications. She has produced an award-winning documentary and non-narrated shorts, which have appeared on NPR and in the Ambulante Film Festival in Mexico. She has received fellowships from Echoing Green and the Rockwood Leadership Institute. Fialho serves on the Board of the ACLU of Southern California.

Call Me Libertad book cover

Twenty years ago on April 24, 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, ushering in an era of mass detention and deportation of immigrants. A few months later, the president signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Together, these laws doubled the number of people in U.S. immigration detention from 8,500 each day in 1996 to 16,000 in 1998. The immigration detention system is now a multibillion dollar industry that detains 34,000 people per day and enriches private prison corporations and local governments at taxpayer expense.

Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders, which I coedited with Alicia Partnoy and Kristina Shull, is the first book to combine the voices of people in immigration detention with their family members and allies to give unprecedented insight into immigration detention. This multilingual book of poetry and art grew out of a writing workshop taught by P&W–supported poet and memoirist Alicia Partnoy for the organization CIVIC. The authors include Sylvester Owino (who spent nine years in detention), Eldaah Arango (whose father was detained and deported), and Katherine Weathers (who visits people in immigration detention).

"Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out, slowly, so slowly. It is still coming out," writes Owino. The suffering that millions of immigrants have experienced in U.S. immigration detention over the last twenty years cannot be justified. This book, published by CIVIC, is an effort to liberate our political imagination so that we may build together a country without immigration detention. Reserve your copy here.

Photo: Call Me Libertad: Poems Between Borders anthology cover design by Art24 photography and design with art by Marcela Castro.

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

On March 31, 2016, during the AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair in Los Angeles, Poets & Writers brought together P&W–supported teaching artists Dorothy Randall Gray, Michael Kearns, Mike Sonksen, and Leilani Squire for the panel presentation “Creative Writing for the Underserved: Ideas, Inspiration, Revelation.” Panelists spoke about best practices, what motivates them to do what they do, and how teaching writing to underserved groups has enriched their writing lives. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as compiled by Readings & Workshops (West) director and panel moderator Jamie Asaye FitzGerald.

Classroom Approaches

"I look at longevity as a starting point, and have them write about all of the 'selves' that have gotten them to where they are today."
—Michael Kearns, who works with GLBT seniors

"We spend a lot of time just talking, working through issues, then do a timed writing. I listen and witness. That's a big part of it."
—Leilani Squire, who works with veterans and their family members

"I begin the class with three minutes of silence. I work with teenage identity and bring in poems about that. I've had them read [Paul Laurence] Dunbar's 'We Wear the Mask.' I've even had them make a mask, think about the layers of their identity and list them. I try to show them how poets are always talking to each other and that they are part of the conversation. I also use a little hip-hop, documentaries, current events."
—Mike Sonksen, who works with teens

"Sometimes these populations don't want to feel because it hurts too much. I try to get them to connect with their feelings. Music and visuals help. One reward for doing the writing is letting the kids be DJ and pick out the songs. To get them to open up, be silly, bring a visual, ask an easy question like 'What's your favorite food?' or 'What do you want to eat when you get out of here?'"
—Dorothy Randall Gray, who works with incarcerated youth, women, and the homeless

The Effect on Their Writing Lives

"If I tell them to write deeply, to go for the jugular, how can I not do that myself?"
—Squire

"My stakes are higher. I am deepened by them."
—Kearns

"Not only do I have to deal with the truth; I have to face my own truth. I believe in sticking a pen in my own vein. As they tell their stories, I tell my stories."
—Gray

On Self-Care

"Being in the trenches is taking care of myself. Dealing with horror, pain, and abuse—it's contradictory, but it is comforting that I can hear and be empathetic.... And I have my daughter when I feel overwhelmed."
—Kearns

"You get worn out. Performing poetry and doing freelance writing helps. I keep my writing career active. Then there are the two kids who really get it, there's the e-mail from a kid five years later, and the kid who stays after class to help clean up."
—Sonksen

"Meditation. Adjusting my own beliefs. Compassion is a big part of it, and being as gentle and loving as possible."
—Gray

"I have to walk in centered, whole, and confident or I'll get beat up. I'm a practicing Buddhist. I go to Native American lodges, which helps me gain answers to questions I ask. I cuddle with my dog."
—Squire

Hopes for Their Students

"I hope they find a home in their hearts, where they feel loved and safe."
—Gray

"I hope their voices get louder, not softer; more authentic, more hopeful; more of who they are and not less—because that can often happen as one ages."
—Kearns

"I hope they come to a place of acceptance, understanding; of being listened to, witnessed; to come to some sort of wholeness. My agenda is to promote peace."
—Squire

"I try to give them the tools they need to lift themselves up. Ultimately, I'd like to create lifelong readers and writers. But mainly I use writing as a bridge to help them build identity and future hope."
—Sonksen

We are pleased to be able to support writers who work with underserved groups. For more information about whether your event might qualify for Readings & Workshops support, please see our guidelines or contact us.

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

Nikki Williams is a multidisciplinary artist: an award-winning photographer, poet, playwright, painter, and producer of Arts Programs for almost thirty years. Williams is very proud that for the last sixteen years, she has been instrumental in becoming the first to introduce ongoing creative writing workshops in domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters, and other cultural institutions in New York City, and very grateful for the funding from Poets & Writers for many of these workshops. 

The seniors participating in WiZdom from the Elderberry Tree, a series of memoir and creative writing workshops for seniors of mostly African American descent whose roots are mainly from the South, were members of the Senior Ladies' and Men’s Club at River Terrace in upper Harlem. This was the first time that any of the seniors had participated in a writing workshop. These workshops, funded through the Readings & Workshops Program, culminated with a special invitation from the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, to personally meet him and speak about their lives and the legacy of the Schomburg—History meeting History. The day included a tour of the American Negro Theatre, and the opportunity for the seniors participating in the last day of the program to write in the famed Scholars-in-Residence conference room.

You know my soul look back and wonder. How did I make it over?

African American elders, “Been Here Before,” spirits, speak of women bent low by heat and history, wedged between a wing and a prayer, picking cotton and pieces of their lives with equal urgency. Stories resurrected and reborn as quilted art are audible in Grandmother, Nana, Big Mama, and M’Dear tongue. Tales of paving a way out of no way, cutting through cane and cotton.

“My mother was a very strong Black woman with skin that was the color of a dark cup of coffee. She did not take any stuff from anyone. My mother was born on April 16, 1913 in Burke County, Georgia. Her advice to us: ‘Never depend on anyone but yourself.’ My mother worked long hours in the cotton fields.” –Mrs. H. B. Jenkins

Tell me how we got over Lord, I've been falling and rising all these years.

The journeyed stories of people of African descent are stowaways, surviving the Middle Passage. Good men, strong men, resilient men, managed with wit and might to untwist chains and tongue, to tell stories weighted down under iron bit that nudged them a nod toward freedom.

“When I was an MP in the army, one of my buddies, all of whom were white, suggested that we stop off at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, all of us in full uniform, a white man came out from behind his desk, walked directly up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve your kind.’ I responded by saying the first thing that came to my mind, ‘What kind is that?’ I could feel the blood rushing to my head. This was 1963. ” –Mr. W. Cherry

Despite degradation and hardship, African American elders speak of an improvised life full of joy that America claims as its own: classical Ellington, Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Vaughn, and Holiday. They carried their stories from southern fields, be-bopped them along northern concrete. Travelled them tray steady on the shoulder of the dining room car, waiter coming home on a chariot swung low and sweet. His movements pure Jazz in its sway.

“The Savoy was around the corner from our apartment building, on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets. My brother and I would sit on the fire escape where we could see the neon sign and hear the Big Bands. In those days, bands came to Harlem every weekend. Vocalists stood before a mike and just ‘sang’ without elaborate staging; singers like Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald.” –Mrs. B. Bonner

And then we're gonna sing somewhere 'round God alter, and then we're gonna shout all our troubles over.

African American elders place legacy in the womb of the listening ear—an Underground Railroad leading heart heavy souls to the promise land. Harriet Tubman holding a lamp lighting Sojourner’s truth. They have consistently told us that nothing is impossible, no stone too heavy, no river too wide to cross. Take my renewed hand; music my words with trumpet and song. Each note, a stepping stone, a crossed bridge; be amazed child, look back in wonder and see….

You know my soul look back in wonder. How did I make it over?

Photos:  Nikki Williams (top), Claudia Hurst (middle). Senior Citizens Club (Bottom).  Photo credit:  Nikki Williams and Mohammad & G.

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.

Meera Nair was born in India and moved to the US in 1997. Her first story collection, Video (Pantheon Books, 2003), received the Sixth Annual Asian American Literary Award for fiction, and was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Nair is also the author of the children's book Maya Saves the Day(Duckbill, 2013) and the forthcoming, Maya In a Right Royal Mess. Her fiction and essays have appeared on NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times among other publications. She has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and the Queens Council of the arts.

What makes your workshops unique?
I've taught or continue to teach writing to undergrads and graduates at places like NYU, Brooklyn College, and Fordham, but recently I've had to rethink my pedagogy. Now I'm creating workshops for people who don't think of themselves as writers—who have no preconceived notions of craft, or conveyance, who have never agonized over choosing a point of view.

I'm currently doing a four-week workshop series for Nepali and Tibetan domestic and nail salon workers at Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization, where participants are writing personal essays on living and working as immigrant, POC workers in America. I want to give a big thanks to Muna Gurung, who has helped to interpret at the workshops, and Ryan Wong, and Kundiman who helped to set all this up. The challenge is to create a space where writing is no longer seen as “a mystery, a privilege of caste” as David Barthlomae called it. Which means I have to find methods by which participants are guided to privilege their own experiences, histories, oral testimonies, and the act of “talking to themselves” as something that is important and necessary.

I've tried to go back to the way South Asian people interact, how they are generous, expansive talkers and natural storytellers. The writers generate material using oral history methods, where I, as the facilitator, try to ask the questions and then disappear into silence while the participants talk. Once the words are said, once they exist in that shared space, once the writer has generated them, it's easier to take the next step—that of writing the words down in sentences. That step requires the writer to think about language and shaping the material, to think about rhythm and structure, but it also invites the writers to see that they already possess story, words, excitement, details, arcs—all those craft-y things.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I love that moment when the student understands that all writing is revision. It takes guts to revise and student-writers resist touching those initial, God-given sentences—but it's a beautiful thing when they look at that final draft and see that it's good because they learned to be brutal and ruthless with the work.

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I hear stories about people's lives that I would never have access to without the work I do outside the academic setting. Like all writers, I am a voyeur and a listener at keyholes, so to speak—and everything is material for my writing, whether I use it or not. I'm currently working on a collection of stories set in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I am getting insights and access into the lives of my characters I wouldn't have otherwise.

What is the wildest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
One semester I taught a workshop on writing about food and love, and three students, or maybe it was four, discovered for the first time in my workshop that they had issues with food/eating/body image and had to start therapy. I have retired that particular curriculum since.

Photo: Meera Nair.  Photo credit: Meera Nair.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Caroline Brown is a teaching artist and educator who develops and implements community-based arts programming. Highlights of her work include collaborations with AIDS widows in rural Kenya, incarcerated individuals and those in reentry, military veterans and their family members, and women living with HIV. Most recently Brown has worked with Recovery Cafe, Path With Art, Senior Housing Assistance Group, and the Freehold Engaged Theater Program at the Washington Corrections Center for Women. She is also a faculty member at Cornish College of the Arts and the Art Institute of Seattle. She blogs here about her experiences teaching a P&W–supported workshop series for the Organization for Prostitution Survivors in Seattle, Washington.

Caroline Brown

As an instructor of Community Based Arts at Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle, Washington, I teach students to use their artistic skill set to make a positive impact on marginalized communities. I tell them there’s no formula for our work; however, there are essential principles for building a successful project, two of which are trust and boundaries. We must trust ourselves, trust the community’s level of participation, and trust the ambiguity of the creative process. We must also keep our expectations realistic.

During my recent work with the Organization for Prostitution Survivors (OPS), I discovered I needed to relearn these principles. OPS was founded to address the damaging effects of prostitution and create opportunities for adult women to seek supportive services and heal from gender-based violence. My colleague and I were invited by the OPS staff to conduct an extended workshop using writing, storytelling, movement, and visual art as a form of personal expression and advocacy. For the sake of anonymity, we agreed to create a video with recorded narratives and abstract images chosen by participants.

From the start, I experienced a strong reticence from our workshop attendees. They repeatedly asked: What is the purpose of this video? How is it going to be shared? With whom and for what purpose? I reassured them that this project was theirs and they had complete ownership of the final product. As a population that has been consistently exploited, their reservations weren’t surprising. What was surprising was what it triggered in me.

I liked these women and wanted to help them engage in powerful and meaningful expression. I wanted them to be excited rather than reserved, to see this process as beneficial as opposed to threatening. If they didn’t welcome the work, my colleague and I had no right to be there. It was devastating to imagine that I might be harming people who’ve already been through enough.

Three weeks into the endeavor, my colleague and I reluctantly handed over the reigns, letting our participants decide when they wanted to meet. With this came a sense of panic that the video might not come to fruition. Then it happened. One woman expressed interest in recording her writing. I went out of my way to explain our intent: “I know a lot of women are apprehensive." She interrupted, “I’m not. I’m ready to record.” And so we began. Another woman soon stepped forward. Then another. Eventually we had an eighteen-minute piece of six women sharing their poetry, reflections, narratives, and visual imagery as survivors of prostitution.

Several weeks and countless hours of editing later, we presented the video at an OPS open house event. "Reflections of a Survivor" is a culmination of risk, vulnerability, triumph, conviction, and truth. As I looked around at the women taking in the success of their work, their willingness to trust me with their stories honored and humbled me. In short, each participant trusted the process in her own time. In that moment, I was reminded that I needed to do the same.

Amber Pauline Walker's "Kodiak Whispers," from the video project "Reflections of a Survivor," can be seen on YouTube.

Photo: Caroline Brown. Photo credit: Emily Schoettle.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Seattle, Washington 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.

Ruth Nolan is an author with lifelong Mojave Desert and Inland Empire roots. Her poetry collection Ruby Mountain is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press, and her newest fiction appears in LA Fiction Anthology (Red Hen Press, 2016) and in Desert Oracle. She writes about desert-based American Indian arts and culture for News From Native California, Artbound, Inlandia: A Literary Journey, and Desert Report. Nolan teaches at College of the Desert.

Martin Smith and Paiute elder George RossMojave Desert Writing Workshop: February 15, 2016
Stories from a Paiute Indian elder of traditional chuckwalla hunting techniques who watched a rattlesnake bite—and kill—itself. Stories from a Baker man about the time he hiked far into the Soda Mountains on a hot day, became dehydrated, and walked miles to the nearest bar in town for a thirst-quenching beer, which he credits with saving his life. Stories from a woman who rode a school bus to Death Valley High School that was driven by Edward Abbey. Stories about long desert road trips by a man who showed up on a Harley Davidson and wore his leather motorcycle chaps while he wrote.

These tales, and more, were among the writing samples penned and shared by the twenty-five participants at the February 15 Shoshone-Tecopa Arts and Literature Festival writing workshop, which I led along with desert author Craig Deutsche. Workshop participants drove long distances across the Mojave Desert from tiny towns with inspiring names like Furnace Creek, Lone Pine, Tecopa, and Wonder Valley.

Although some might consider the Mojave Desert an unlikely location for literature to flourish, we were, in contrast, able to demonstrate that the desire and need for a vibrant and community-connective writing workshop is strong and flourishing in this little-known desert region of Southern California. Using prompts drawn from poetry, fiction work, and essays by desert literary greats such as Mary Austin and John Steinbeck, workshop participants wrote their hearts out about their own desert experiences and observations.

Songs for San Bernardino readersSongs for San Bernardino / Reading Helps Inland Empire Heal: December 20, 2015
The holiday tree was brightly decorated with ornaments at the entrance of the Muffin Top Bakery in downtown Redlands, California, and the atmosphere inside was warm and cheery, the smell of cinnamon rolls seasoning the air. But for those who gathered together this past December 20 for the poetry and prose reading, “Songs for San Bernardino,” this was no typical holiday literary event. This reading, which I coordinated with San Bernardino natives and authors Liz Gonzalez and Jessica Wyland, was intended to bring community together through the power of stories of place to help heal from the December 2 shootings at the nearby Inland Regional Center, a tragedy that ripped through the fabric of this proud but often overlooked part of Southern California.

Readers at “Songs for San Bernardino” included Chad Sweeney, Casandra Lopez, Frances J. Vasquez, Juanita Mantz, Darlene Kriesel, Alex Avila, Andre Katkov, Liz Gonzalez, Jessica Wyland, and myself, who all have strong connections to San Bernardino. Several read freshly-penned pieces that spoke directly of the impact of December 2, while others read works that reflected the strength, beauty, and strong community spirit of this town. San Bernadino Mayor Carey Davis also spoke. For nearly two hours, all chair and tables at the Muffin Top Bakery were full as the power of the stories and words of some of the Inland Empire’s finest writers gave testimony to the inner strength of this community. Afterwards, the day’s cloudy skies gave way to a gentle late afternoon sun, and rays of light filtered into the room.

Photos (top) Martin Smith and Paiute elder George Ross, (bottom) "Songs for San Bernardino" readers. Photo credit: Ruth Nolan

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

Connie Perry is an artist, comic performer, publicist, and writer. She joined the late Sue Ribner's Cancer Writing Workshop at Roosevelt Hospital in early 2014, just after her cancer treatment, her "hysterical-ectomy." She is currently a participant in Emily Rubin's Write Treatment workshops at the hospital, where there are exciting plans to publish an anthology. As a freelance book publicist, Perry connects authors to media. As a theater usher, she diffuses customer service stress by performing her one-woman show, "Theatre Obsession: Saucy Tales From the Aisle." She will be performing in the ONE Festival in New York City, April 27 and 30. Her visual arts project, utilizing DeaR postcards as seen in Summer Streets 2015 and the Garment District Arts Festival, will connect with comedy variety shows until the presidential election in 2016. Visit @DeaRcards on Instagram for more information.

As a participant in Emily Rubin's Write Treatment workshops for people dealing with and surviving cancer, funded through the Readings & Workshops program at Poets & Writers, we writers gather close around the table, buoyed by our continuing bravery. Not because we have each had cancer battles, but because we face blank pages. There is courage in our pens, our prose spilling onto our notebook paper. We face our pain, our past, and our present with soon-to-be scrawled imagination.

The time to be heroes is now, when the prompt has been given and the scratch of pens unites. We hum along, intent, concentrating, as the air duct hums above us. We are silent, reaching towards the perfect word or any word that describes or harnesses the beast. Oh rise up to us, dear muse, gather us towards a salvation. Give us this half hour of life, dripping and dropping or drowning upon the page.

Real or imagined, our lives are entwined within the hallowed pools of spilled ink, shards of dreams, and delights wanting to be read aloud. The words carry us along the timeless highway of connection. Do we all hover over our process or do we sail full-bodied towards a new happening, a new pronunciation, or a new verb? A new definition of closeness comes forth from our writing. We are humbled or overjoyed by word choice; one that comes in a flash yet has a very deep hidden meaning from some vivid past experience.

How do we know how to spell so precisely as letters form under our might? Cosmic rays of intelligence streak across the margins, coloring our lives with magic, hope, and truth. Do we dare to be so bold and blunt, to wildly run to the edge of sanity? Of course, we need this catharsis of earned sentences. We need this healing of combined stories. Or, we just need to make shit up.

Oh bold prince of black ink, earn your way across this boundary of paper. Churn and turn out endless drafts of optimism or cheeky promise. Do not let me down by running out of things to say. This writers group gropes forward to acknowledge the awe and to continue a dialogue with the universe.

Time seems to stand still as penmanship erodes to blurs and barely formed missives. Then, time speeds up as breath is baited and imaginations fired by plucking from dreams or sentimental wanderings. Be still our hearts as we transfer life forces to blue-lined commitment.

The planets lend their full support; the gods look down upon the labor with admiration, as long-held truths are laid bare. Simple connections between humans are being honored and trusted amid the pushing forward of language.

We feel exhaustion, emotion, exhalation, yet all so exquisite. The senses are full, alive, and driving towards one final statement.

My writing friends, my heroes surround me, excited by the closeness and the exertion, all of us gliding towards a complete piece. Tranquility sets in as the closure sentence rounds out. And for a brave finale, we shall read aloud our work. 

Photo: Connie Perry.  Photo credit: Connie Perry.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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