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Readings & Workshops Blog

Melba Joyce Boyd is Distinguished Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and the author of thirteen books, including nine collections of poetry. She is the recipient of two Library of Michigan Notable Books awards, an Independent Publishers Award for Poetry, a Michigan Individual Artist Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 NAACP Image Award in Literature.

Before the powers that be decided there should be yet another Detroit Renaissance, the arts community was active, vital, and invigorating the city’s center. On Saturday, September 20, 2014, from noon till sundown, Detroit was the site of the third annual Midtown Literary Walk. The weather was congenial and the settings sunlit, like the mood of the audience, sauntering from an historic location to a new-age café, wandering through an art gallery, and sipping wine with poetry in the garden of a nineteenth-century mansion.

The Midtown Literary Walk is the brainchild of Carole Harris, Detroit artist and designer known nationally for her quilt art, who partnered with M. L. Liebler, Wayne State University professor, award-winning poet, and cultural organizer extraordinaire, to plan and execute the project.

It was a mellow and memorable day, imbibing literature with aromatic, herbal teas at SocraTea, listening to writers framed by sculptures and paintings at N’amdi’s Gallery, and engaging the melding of secular voices into sacred space at the Hannan House. At five events in four locations, hundreds gathered to listen to a stellar lineup of writers, featuring award-winning writers, spoken word artists, and musicians.

Charles Baxter, acclaimed novelist, poet, editor and essayist; Laure-Anne Bosselaar, winner of an American Library Association Notable Books award for Poetry; and Melba Joyce Boyd, recipient of an Independent Publishers Award and two Library of Michigan Notable Books awards, read their works.

The program showcased Ann Holdreith, a Pushcart Prize nominee; Walter “The Soul” Lacy, a poet and hip-hop artist; and Lisa Lenzo, who received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award and won first prize from the Georgetown Review in 2013 for her story "Strays." They graced the stage with M. L. Liebler & the Good Shepherd Poetry Blues Band.

Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett, winner of the 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist Award, was the veteran writer and guest of honor, while Adrian Matejka, whose book The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013) was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, came from Indiana University to read.

Others featured included fiction writer and poet Peter Markus, a Kresge Arts Fellow in Literary Arts in 2012; Christine Rhein, who is the recipient of the 2008 Walt McDonald Poetry Prize; and Judith Roche, who has received two American Book Awards and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize.

In addition to sites that hosted the event, cosponsors for the Lit Walk included: the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers, Wayne State University Press, the Wayne Writers Forum, Wayne State University’s Department of English, and the Knight Foundation. The Lit Walk, which is free and open to the public, has become an annual tradition in Detroit, nurturing literary culture in the heart of the cultural center of the city.

Photo: Lit Walk Writers (top) Naomi Long Madgett (bottom) Photo Credit: L. Bush

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.

Beth Gorrie volunteers her time as Executive Director of Staten Island OutLOUD. She spearheads the organization’s program planning and has adapted over twenty-five global classics for OutLOUD’s spoken-word performances. As an actor during the first few years of her working life, she performed with the Chicago Theatre of the Deaf and served as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Chicago. In New York City, she appeared in a variety of Off-Off Broadway productions and in a series of film installations by award-winning filmmaker William Lundberg, a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Gorrie attended Columbia University Law School where she was an editor of the Journal of Law & Social Problems, and spent a summer in rural India on a human rights fellowship. She is a former partner in a leading New York law firm and has participated in community service in Harlem.

What makes your programs unique?
Staten Island OutLOUD gathers neighbors to explore global literature together, and to share ideas. Our first event took place shortly after September 11, 2001 when we had a deep need to gather together.

Since then, Staten Island OutLOUD has grown and has continued that spirit with a varied series of grassroots gatherings. Throughout the year, we host free events to explore global literature, our diverse backgrounds, our history, and our mutual concerns. OutLOUD is entirely volunteer-driven.

We operate on a small budget, but we’re very productive. Since our establishment in September 2001, we’ve served over 23,000 participants with over six hundred free events, in twenty-one languages.

What recent project have you been especially proud of, and why?
From September 2014 through March 2015, Staten Island OutLOUD hosted a series of forty community events about Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When we started planning our series a year earlier, we never guessed how timely it would be, following the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, an African-American neighbor of ours who died in police custody.

Our “Mockingbird” series explored national and local civil rights history, together with music and poems from the Civil Rights Movement, and from the Depression years in which the novel is set.

Tensions ran high during the months after Garner’s death, but our series fostered thoughtful discussions. Staten Islanders talked, listened, and considered the many facets of the crisis.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Adults with special needs sometimes attend Staten Island OutLOUD programs. At one event when we discussed a variety of twentieth-century poems, a woman with mental disabilities gathered her courage to comment on a poem by Dylan Thomas. She had never spoken in public before, and she knew that the audience included teachers, attorneys, and other professionals. Everyone encouraged her, and as she spoke, she began to hold herself more confidently, and her voice grew stronger. Everyone was moved when she read, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
Staten Island OutLOUD’s work proves that when people have a forum and a stimulating entrée for conversation, they respond thoughtfully. Stereotypes can fade and real communication can begin. Our work with teens and with elders underscores the value of writing workshops for those members of our community. Our writing workshops have enabled people to find their unique voices. For teens who may have manifested behavior problems before they began our workshops, some of those problems began to ebb as they focused their energy on writing and as they gained confidence in their work. Elders who had never done any creative writing before participating in our memoir and poetry workshops have drawn real satisfaction in exploring their writing talent, in reflecting on their life experiences, and in recognizing how powerful their pens can be.

Photo: (top) Beth Gorrie at Huckleberry Finn at High Rock workshop. Photo: (bottom) Cast of Moby Dick marathon reading. Photo Credit: Staten Island OutLOUD.

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.

Alanna Lin Ramage is a writer, songwriter, and artist-in-residence at the Los Angeles Little Tokyo Branch Library, where she hosts innovative, community-building events and workshops at the Los Angeles Department of Writing and Power (LADWP!*). She has studied poetry with Thomas Sayers Ellis and poetics and performance theory with Jon Wagner and Mady Schutzman at California Institute of the Arts. Ramage composes original lyrics and music for film and television. This year sees the release of a cover album inspired by the Beatles in tandem with publishing her first collection of poems about monastery wildlife in Northern California.

Alanna Lin Ramage

A few years ago, in a fit by candlelight, I came up with a syllabus for a workshop called Alters/Altars. It was designed to help a person write and explore their way into an alter ego—the poetic self that feels its own voice and power while feeling all, but not revealing all.

In February of this year, thanks to support from Poets & Writers and the Little Tokyo Branch Public Library, I was able to teach a five-week version of the workshop in downtown Los Angeles.

One premise I was working with included the physical effect of writing as a physical act. For each class, participants would read their pieces aloud and receive positive feedback from the group. In some cases the reading would be formal, at the front of the room. On other days, I had readers stand in the middle of a group circle that echoed words or phrases as the story unfolded. One writer noticed that she read to a mostly quiet circle. She later commented that she realized she had to read "painfully slowly" to give listeners a chance to register her words more fully. She reread her piece to us and we happily listened to every word.

In another exercise, we gave alternate names to one another. The unspoken invitation was: “What name suits me in your opinion? What is my sonic incarnation? Do you really think it’s ‘Bubby?’”

The first workshop started with participants reading personal biographies or ads, and then writing fictional personal ads for someone other than themselves. The exercise allowed us to get to know each other while ascertaining each person’s unique writing style. Week two’s life stories were especially intense, offering glimpses into epic quests for love and destiny. Week three featured hypothetical after-life sequences from each person—revealing visions of beautiful, earthy, sublime, and often hilarious realities to come.

Alters/Alters Photo CollageWe had a dynamic, talented, and punctual group. It was a pleasure to discuss personal creative journeys, hear the mix of angst, frustration, wisdom, confidence, and steady determination that characterized each person. The group had great discussions about what makes a “healthy writer” versus what makes a “happy writer.”

My favorite session of the workshop included an assignment that asked participants to write about a sublime or transcendent moment. The results were diverse and fantastic. There was a great relationship-ending-epiphany story, an excellent dim-sum-as-travel-as-exploration-of-life story, a profound unity-with-wild-crustaceans story, and a stirring overcoming-self-while-overcoming-mountain story.

The session made me think about how creative anxiety can sometimes blind us to the larger themes we've experienced in life. It may keep us from sharing the stories we’ve already lived or from inventing stories that might express what we know.

So how do we move past this anxiety? Decide what themes are important to you based on your life experience. Once you have: Write on! (OK, that was a bad pun. I’m a workshop leader—it’s allowed.)

Writing alters you. Be brave and do the work; you just might tell a riveting story as you sacrifice your fears.

Photo 1: Alanna Lin Ramage; photo 2: Alters/Altars workshop. Credit: Alanna Lin Ramage and Anne Rieman.

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

Samuel Ace is the author of three collections of poetry: Normal Sex (Firebrand Books, 1994), Home in Three Days. Don’t Wash. (Hard Press, 1996), and most recently, Stealth (Chax Press, 2011) co-authored with Maureen Seaton. His work has been widely anthologized and has appeared most recently in Aufgabe, Black Clock, the Atlas Review, Mandorla, Volt, Rhino, Versal, Trickhouse, Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly, the Volta, and Troubling the Line: Genderqueer Poetry and Poetics.

Samuel Ace

A transplanted New Yorker, I moved to Tucson in 1997. It is often said that people move to the desert to burn out karma. Perhaps that is true. I certainly have passed through several lifetime transformations here under the scorching sun, the blooms of ocotillo, and the fresh smell of creosote after summer rains. I had long harbored a fantasy about living in the desert but thought that the move was temporary.

Before coming here, I visited the University of Arizona’s Poetry Center, then a tiny cottage on the border of the university. I somehow understood that Tucson had a long tradition of drawing in writers from around the country, and thought yes, it would be a good place to land for a while. Once I arrived, I found that I was not wrong.

Not only did Tucson have a vital literary community, it had many diverse writing communities. The city, in the midst of a state full of deeply problematic politics, seemed to offer an antidote. The crossroads and richness of the border, of indigenous communities, languages, queerness, experimentation, scholarship, activism, and more saturate this small city in the desert. Those traditions have only gotten richer and more visible over the years. Poets & Writers funds many of the organizations that have added to that diversity. During the season (August through May), one can easily attend three to five readings a week in Tucson.
Fred Moten

In 1996, Tenney Nathanson and Charles Alexander, director of Chax Press, founded POG, a collective of poets, literary critics, and practitioners of other art forms in Tucson. They hoped to offer public programming and other related events designed to promote appreciation of and engagement with avant-garde work in a variety of media, especially poetry and multi-disciplinary art. I joined the Board of Directors of POG for a short time in the early 2000s, then rejoined the Board a few years ago. Besides original board members Nathanson, Alexander, and Cynthia Miller, the following diverse group of writers and artists make up our current board: Farid Matuk, Steve Salmoni, Susan Briante, Johanna Skibsbrud, John Melillo, Teré Fowler-Chapman, and Brian Blanchfield.

POG has always showcased innovative poets and artists from around the United States and beyond, including Bernadette Mayer, Fred Moten, Alice Notley, Anne Waldman, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Nathanial Mackey, Ariana Reines, Giovanni Singleton, Heriberto Yepez, Roberto Tejada, and over a hundred more. Our readings traditionally pair a local poet with someone from outside of the Tucson area. POG has also hosted workshops and artist talks; the recent inPrint Symposium in February featured Amos Paul Kennedy Jr. and Kyle Schlesinger. The POG & Friends reading, now an annual tradition, is designed to build community and has fostered a greater sense of kinship among Tucson’s diverse literary venues.

POG also collaborates regularly with other Poets & Writers-funded organizations, including the Intermezzo Reading Series, Casa Libre en Solana, the Tucson Festival of the Book, the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and the University of Arizona English and Writing MFA programs. Just this month, our most current collaboration with the Tucson Poetry Festival enabled us to bring Claudia Rankine to Tucson. 

The desert brings transformation and gifts. For this poet, those gifts have come in multitudes through the writers who make Tucson their home and the writers who touch down for a short visit. Many have come and stayed. None leave untouched by what is found here.

Photo (top): Samuel Ace     Photo Credit: Samuel Ace
Photo (bottom): Fred Moten    Photo Credit: Samuel Ace

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Tucson 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.

Irene Sherlock's poems, essays, and short stories have been published in a variety of literary magazines and her poetry chapbook Equinox was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Since 2008, she has been writer-in-residence at the Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat. Sherlock is an addictions counselor in Danbury, Connecticut.

In the summer of 2008, I was asked to be the writer-in-residence at the Adirondack Mountain Writers' Retreat, organized by Perky Granger who directs an organization called Fiction Among Friends. Perky has been a recipient of grants from the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers for many years, and I was delighted to be paid to teach at this retreat. Never having done this kind of thing, I wondered if I’d be up to the task. I’d published work and had been an adjunct college writing instructor for years. Writing and being in the classroom were both a joy for me, but this would be something quite new: I’d be the sole developer of several workshops, leading a mix of both beginning and seasoned writers that I would weekend with, as well. Sounded fun. Sounded a little daunting.

The weekend Writers' Retreat experience, which sometimes lasts four days, is one of complete immersion. We discuss craft, writers, meals we’ve prepared, our love lives—even our kids’ lives. But mostly it’s about the thing that brought us together: what we’re writing now. The experience is both invigorating and somewhat exhausting and my guess is participants feel the same relief by retreat’s end. It’s like being at a wonderful but intense party that lasts for days, something I haven’t done since my early twenties.

I’m a therapist by trade and my day job demands that I listen well. These weekends require the yin and yang of when to listen and when to respond. Response is the trickier of the skills. When I lead a therapy group, I ask myself: Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me?

Amazingly the process of leading a writing group and the process of doing therapy are quite similar. I wait and hope someone from the group will talk about where the piece comes to life, what needs to be cut. Who, I wonder, will address the writer’s aversion to letting us know how his or her character is feeling?

Both therapy and writing require courage, honesty, and a willingness to receive honest feedback. Both are connected to the process of self-expression, the work of creating art out of experience real or imagined, which oftentimes involves pain, confession, and sometimes transcendence.

Writing, like therapy, is a way to connect with the larger world. In an age of social networking and digitalized “sharing,” this weekend creates one of the most impactful ways to connect with others. It’s been my pleasure to act as writer-in-residence for eight years now, with support from the Readings & Workshops Program.  Much to my surprise, many of the same gifted participants come back each year. I really cannot take credit for that. Call it alchemy or just a stroke of luck on my part; whichever it is, I’ll keep returning, too, for as long as I’m asked.

Photo (Top): Irene Sherlock.  Photo (below):  Irene and Writer's Group. 

Photo Credit: Perky Granger

Support for Readings & 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.

Best known for How I Became Hettie Jones (Grove Press, 1990), her memoir of the “beat scene” of the 1950s and 1960s, Hettie Jones is the author of twenty-three books for children and adults, including the award-winning Big Star Fallin’ Mama: Five Women in Black Music (Viking, 1974) and Drive (Hanging Loose Press, 1998) which won the Poetry Society of America's Norma Farber Award. Since 1979, Jones has taught creative writing at various universities, and is now on the faculties of the New School’s Graduate Writing Program and the 92nd Street Y Poetry Center. She was a member of the Literature Panel of the New York State Council on the Arts and subsequently served on the Board of Directors of Cave Canem. Jones was a NYFA Fellow in Nonfiction Literature in 2009, and a 2013-14 recipient of a Civic Engagement Grant from the New School as well as a grant from Poets & Writers for her work with New York City’s Lower East Side Girls Club. Love H, a selection from her forty-year correspondence with the sculptor Helene Dorn, is forthcoming in spring 2016 from Duke University Press. Full Tilt, a collection of new and selected poems, and In Care of Worth Auto Parts, a collection of linked short fiction, are also forthcoming.

There’s a danger, we’ve been warned, in knowing only “the single story.” Given any chance to change—or at least improve—this situation, I’ve jumped at it. But I’m certain I couldn’t have made those leaps without the help—and just as important, the validation—of Poets & Writers.

My first P&W-funded workshop took place in the late eighties at Sing Sing prison. A year later there were others, at the Bedford Hills women’s prison and elsewhere. By then I’d also taught writing in colleges for a decade and knew that a lot of voices were still to be heard. So over the years I’ve traveled, sometimes long distances, not only to prisons but community centers and senior centers and libraries and any other place set aside for a writing workshop. I’ve met all kinds of people and brought out their words.

But I’ve also been lucky enough to come home to the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And now—double luck!—I’ve been able to teach here, in my very own neighborhood, to both make a difference and keep it in view at the Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community.

And what a sight I was treated to when I arrived! A brand new building with a planetarium—moon and stars and space! A bakery and a sewing machine room for hands-on skills! A recording studio! A performance space! I had signed on to teach for a semester, but knew I was hooked. And when I discovered that I’d be teaching not girls but their mothers, I was thrilled. A mothers writing group, my first!

We began with poetry because most inexperienced people come to a writing workshop to write there—just as they’d go to woodworking with similar expectations—and it’s best to start short and provide a few relevant examples. But prose works, too (memoirs, personal essays). Such personal writing, as has been mentioned and I agree, should really not be called nonfiction but instead, non-poetry.

This past fall the Mothers Writing Group was into non-poetry. We wrote every Wednesday from 6:00-8:00 PM, in a large, high-ceilinged room on the second floor, with comfortable tables and chairs as well as a big couch where one of us might curl up and be alone with her pen and paper. Writing done, we read our work aloud, offered suggestions, and often were moved, sometimes to tears and always to applause.

Did I mention that, like any good mother, the Girls Club fed us snacks that were worthy of being called dinner?

Our chapbook of last fall’s work is still in preparation, but Poets & Writers will have their copy when it’s hot off the press. By the way, in our group photo below, the Airstream trailer we’re standing in front of is a recording studio where we recorded our first podcast. A trailer on the second floor? It was hoisted in before the roof was on. The Girls Club Center for Community is high-minded!

Photo Top: Hettie Jones. Photo Credit: Colleen McKay

Photo Bottom: Hettie Jones, WGRL station managers Kiya Vega-Hutchens and Odetta Hartman, and the Mothers Writing Group. Photo Credit: Amelia Holowaty Krales

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, A.K. Starr Charitable Trust and Friends of Poets & Writers.

Caitlin Rother is the New York Times best-selling author and coauthor of ten booksfiction, nonfiction, and memoirincluding the forthcoming novel from Pinnacle, Then No One Can Have Her. A Pulitzer-nominated investigative journalist, Rother teaches narrative nonfiction and digital journalism at the University of California, San Diego Extension and San Diego Writers, Ink, and works as a book doctor and writing coach.

Caitlin RotherHow do you prepare for a reading or workshop?
I look for excerpts that are action-oriented, funny, hold some personal meaning or that I think will resonate with the audience. When I launched my mystery novel, Naked Addiction (WildBlue Press, 2014), at a library reading in La Jolla recently (thank you P&W), I chose one of my favorite passages, which describes a ceremony at Windansea beach that we locals call “Sunset.” The passage incorporates my personal connection with the beach and the ocean, and I hoped that reading it would help build a connection with audience members and entice them to read my book. I also read passages that were inspired by tragic personal events, including my late husband’s suicide. These provided me with a springboard to discuss how I draw from my own emotional knowledge and experiences when I create fictional characters, and when I write about the real people and events featured in my nonfiction books.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member or workshop participant?
Here’s one from a thirteen-year-old that made me laugh:
“Are you rich?”
“No,” I replied. “It is an urban myth that authors make tons of money on their books. That is really the exception. You should come outside and take a look at my car, which I’ve had since 1997.” 

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I find that audiences respond to humor, honesty, and sincerity. One of my favorite jokes, which never fails, is when I tell audiences that I used to cover politics for a living, but I found that writing about murder felt, well, less dirty.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been a part of?
I was leading an exercise on how to tell true stories at a teen writing workshop recently (thanks again to P&W) and was amazed at some of the serious subject matter the participants came up with. One fourteen-year-old girl, whom I’ll call Marcia, volunteered in a quiet voice that a friend had confided to her that she’d been cutting herself. Marcia didn’t know what to do or how to help her. When I asked if anyone else knew about this, she said no, the friend hadn’t told anyone else and neither had she. I suggested that Marcia tell her own parents because that was a heavy burden to carry. It seems that everyone, at any age, has a deeply personal story to tell.

How does giving a reading or workshop inform your writing and vice versa?
It’s always rewarding and helpful to see what passages or topics resonate most with readers. And leading a workshop often reinforces the best practices to fix my own writing tics. 

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
I believe that sharing common or unique experiences through reading and writing is a good way to build a strong, supportive, and educated community.

Photo: Caitlin Rother    Photo Credit: Joel Ortiz

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

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