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Readings & Workshops Blog

Veronica Santiago Liu is the general coordinator of Word Up Community Bookshop, a collectively managed volunteer-run bookshop and arts space in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. Her writing, comics, photography, and silkscreen prints have been published in Broken Pencil, Quick Fiction, We'll Never Have Paris, and other journals and zines.

When Word Up Community Bookshop first opened as a temporary “pop-up” shop in June 2011 in the upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, the longtime New Yorkers who’d wander into the storefront would take one look at our makeshift space—our donated home furniture only hinting at a retail environment, our scattershot collection of small press books and broadly encompassing events calendar (indeed, the whole ad hoc system created by neighborhood volunteers) —and say, “This feels just like the Lower East Side once did.”

We were frequently compared to a few community art spaces in particular, spaces that made people feel at home while representing a greater artistic community. A Gathering of the Tribes—the longtime gallery/salon and home of Steve Cannon—was one such downtown space. Thus, we were ecstatic to host a crew of esteemed poets from A Gathering of the Tribes on April 25 with support from the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers. Though many have sorely missed Cannon’s magical living room on East Third Street since the eviction by a new owner in 2014, the creative people who gave the place life are still doing their thing all over the city: creating and sharing adventurous, irreverent, intimate poetry and stories.

The presenting poets were excited to reunite; indeed, coorganizer and Washington Heights-based poet Sheila Maldonado marveled that everyone was actually on time for the reading. A mix of uptowners and downtowners representing all the colors of the people of New York City sat in the audience, or peered out from behind bookcases where they shopped, transfixed by the words. Through it all, the evening’s energy was palpable—I mean, really, literally everyone cheered at every welcome and introduction.

The legendary Steve Cannon—who Poonam Srivastava later called a testament of the life of the city—kicked off the night’s tellings, with stories of getting to the event that very evening, and stories about each of the poets present whose work he’d published. Everyone was unsure of when he’d started a poem or had slipped back into a story of now, highly amused all the same.

Reading next was Ron Kolm, poet, bookseller, Unbearables member, and author of Welcome to the Barbecue  (Low-Tech Press, 1990), Rank Cologne (P.O.N. Press, 1991), Divine Comedy (Fly By Night Press, 2013), and Suburban Ambush (Autonomedia, 2014). Sheila Maldonado whose poetry collection one-bedroom solo was published by Fly by Night Press in 2011, read from her book as well as new work.

Poonam Srivastava, whose book is forthcoming this summer from Fly by Night Press, told a not-quite allegory about driving in the city and in the refrain of the evening, asked for just a little more lesbianism, please. After a short intermission, Frank Perez, author of the chapbooks Rhythm of Life and The Short Cut, took the mic, followed by Chavisa Woods, the award-winning author of The Albino Album (Seven Stories Press, 2013) and Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind (Autonomedia, 2012). Mariposa Fernandez, author of Born Bronxeña: Poems on Identity, Love & Survival (Bronxeña Books, 2001), read next and Melanie Maria Goodreaux warmly closed out the evening with a heartfelt reading!

Photos: (top) Steve Cannon. (bottom) Poonam Srivastava. Photo Credit: Veronica Liu

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

Dan Godston teaches and lives in Chicago. His chapbooks include Splice Poems (Argotist Ebooks, 2012) and Sonic Textures Triptych (Linguiscope Books, 2010), and his writings have appeared in RHINO, Chase Park, After Hours, Beard of Bees, Drunken Boat, Horse Less Review, and other publications. Godston also directs the Borderbend Arts Collective.

The Borderbend Arts Collective presents boundary-pushing arts programming by connecting artists with communities to create year-round musical, literary, and multi-arts programs involving new and unique arts practices. A big part of Borderbend’s programming involves community arts and multidisciplinary collaborations—such as the “Armitage Arts: Summer Edition” program that we are presenting during Night Out in the Parks. We are grateful to receive support from Poets & Writers to help present this program at Chicago’s Mozart Park on June 24.

The poets include Elizabeth Marino, Steven Schroeder, Janina Ciezadlo, Charlie Newman and Wayne Allen Jones, and the musicians include Adam Zanolini (flute, saxophone, djembe, electric bass), Angel Elmore (clarinet, piano), Lou Ciccotelli (drums), and Dan Godston (cornet, small instruments). This program is part of an ongoing cultural corridor-building initiative along West Armitage Avenue. Other Armitage Arts programs have included the 2014 Armitage Arts Festival and events at the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and Rosa’s Lounge.

Several years ago Tim Hunt and Allan Johnston performed with Chicago Phonography at the Evanston Art Center, with support from the Poets & Writers' Readings & Workshops Program. The audience that evening was treated to sonic combinations of poetry by Hunt and Johnston with CP’s real and imaginary soundscapes, surrounded by the eye-popping CUT paper art installation in the gallery.

Our upcoming program at Mozart Park is another example of Borderbend’s ongoing commitment to fostering multimedia collaborations, and connecting talented local artists with appreciative audiences. I look forward to experiencing the simpatico cross-disciplinary imaginings and juxtapositions that will be sparked during the program. The program is just a few days after the summer solstice, and is a great way to kick off the summer. All are invited to come and join in the fun.

“Armitage Arts: Summer Edition” is presented as part of the Chicago Park District’s Night Out in the Parks with the support of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Arts programming in neighborhoods across the city advances the goals of the Chicago Park District and the Chicago Cultural Plan.

Photo: (top) Adam Zanolini, Lou Ciccotelli  Photo Credit: Kristen Brown

Photo: (bottom) Janinai Ciezadlo. Photo Credit: Rob Kameczuna.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Chicago 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.

Robert Francis Flor, PhD, is a Seattle native and cochair of Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts. His poetry has been selected for Seattle King County's program “Poetry on Buses,” and has appeared in Soundings Review, Four Cornered Universe, and numerous other journals. He is currently completing a poetry chapbook, Alaskero Memories, and writes plays about the Filipino community in Seattle. Flor blogs about a P&W–supported reading he helped organize which took place at the Seattle Public Library this past April.

Robert Francis Flor

While most are familiar with Greek, Roman, Scandinavian, and Judeo-Christian mythologies, we often fail to recognize that people throughout the world have stories, journeys, villains, and heroes that shape their beliefs and behaviors.

Modern societies may overwhelm and impose their values on more traditional ones while wearing a mask of cultural superiority, even though ancient civilizations often have myths that share universal qualities. The late Joseph Campbell noted in Myths to Live By (Penguin, 1993) that when "old taboos (myths) are discredited, communities immediately go to pieces, disintegrate, and become resorts of vice and disease."

Pinoy Words Expressed Kultura Arts (PWEKA) and La Sala, two Seattle-based arts organizations from the local Filipino and Latino communities, aimed to cast a light on this issue through poetry by presenting readings that exposed the public to different mythologies.

With the help of two Seattle University student organizations—United Filipino Club and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán—and the Seattle Public Library, we hosted three Filipino poets and three Latino poets in two readings exploring their cultural mythologies.

The poets were all from the Pacific Northwest: Roberto Ascalon, Jim Cantú, Lorna Dee Cervantes, Gabriella Gutiérrez y Muhs, Emily Lawson, and Sam Rodrick Roxas-Chua. The City of Seattle's Office of Arts & Culture and Poets & Writers supported the events.

The poets delved into cultural mythological influences of both indigenous and shared colonial origins. Mexico and the Philippines both had lengthy histories with Spanish and American influences. Like many colonized parts of the world, they also had native cultures with unique mythologies. The readings also demonstrated ways that civilizations adjusted to and accommodated the insertion and overlay of myths from more dominant cultures. Jim Cantú’s poem "Sacred Mother" depicted the transformation of Tonitin, the "Mother Earth" Aztec goddess, into "Nuestra Madre Dame," Our Holy Mother, when Mexico fell to the Spanish conquistadors.

Chris Higashi, Seattle Public Library’s Manager for Literary Programs, said she was "so pleased to have taken on the event. It drew a diverse audience of eighty attendees, about eighty percent of whom were of the cultures represented in the poetry and under the age of thirty—not a typical audience for the library."

My sense is that the readings opened windows for many who attended. The question and answer periods that followed were filled with inquiries about identity and cultural poetry, accompanied by a general tone of gratitude for readings that recognized the importance of culture. One young Mexican-Filipina woman remarked she was "surprised and thankful” when she looked at the library events page and found it included something about and for her. The students at Seattle University have already indicated a desire for a similar presentation next academic year. I believe the reading touched something deep within the students and the community.

Watch the video from the event.

Photo: Robert Francis Flor. Credit: Lauren Davis.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Seattle 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.

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents (University of New Orleans Press, 2009), The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst (Soft Skull Press, 2010), and most recently, the collection Ultrasonic: Essays (Lavender Ink, 2014). A fifth nonfiction book will be released by Dzanc in 2016. He is a founding editor and nonfiction editor for The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State.

Steven ChurchHow do you prepare for a reading?
I’ve given a LOT of readings, but I still get nervous. I like to have read through out loud what I’m planning to read, at least a couple of times, just to get the timing right and catch any parts that are hard to read. And a beer or two helps take the edge off.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
Recently someone asked me if there were stories that I didn’t tell or things I wouldn’t write about—to which I responded, “Yes.” But then she looked at me as if I was then going to tell her these things. I did not. I also had someone ask me once why writers “write about depressing things,” and the only response I had was, “because it’s more interesting than happiness?”

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
If I have the time, I like to try and get a couple of laughs from the audience as a sort of “buy in” for what I’m reading and because it tends to relax me; so I’ll often start with a lighter, more humorous essay before hitting them with the more emotional material. Lately I’ve started reading other people’s work as a kind of ice breaker.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
During a reading at Fresno State once, the power went out in the building and the only light in the room was from the emergency exit signs. Fortunately my colleague had a headlamp flashlight, so I gave the entire reading in the dark, using the headlamp. That was fun.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Reading my work aloud is very important, as it is the only way to really hear the essay or the book the way I want it to sound in a reader’s head. I always catch mistakes or make revisions after reading a piece out loud; it’s become part of my writing and revision process.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on:
Groceries and beer.

Photo: Steven Church   Credit: Jocelyn Mettler

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

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.

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