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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.
Most poetry readings happen on the heels of a new collection of poems. The question that’s come up lately as I give readings from my first book, participate in Q & A panels, and respond to interviews, is some version of “How did you put this thing together?” I’ve fussed and fretted over the manuscript, screened for multiple book prizes, looked over manuscripts for colleagues, and founded the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Series. After Hum won the Beatrice Hawley Award, I realized I had, in the process actually come up with some answers. What follows are considerations I wish I could share with my past self without breaking the space-time continuum. Hopefully presenting those thoughts here will grant them usefulness without the need of a scientific breakthrough at the Large Hadron Collider.

Writing Everything

Hum was written at different stages in different places through a variety of experiences. I figured out how poems spoke to each other way after the fact. Writing lots of kinds of poems early in your writing life can hone your voice and give you a broad body of work to draw from. Once you have a working manuscript, let new poems fill in various gaps or replace weaker poems. I’ve seen themed collections that felt over determined because there was no ebb and flow or tension between pieces. You’ll be surprised how poems that don’t seem to fit necessarily trouble the manuscript.

Aggressive Cutting

I’m not just talking about cutting failed poems or poems that aren’t quite there. Ask every poem in your book why they get a spot. “Because I was published” or “because I look like those other six poems” are not good enough answers. Try to get your book as close to the minimum page count as possible. If you still end up with a 110 pages, you’ll know it’s not just 60 strong ones and 50 pages of stuff you kind of think is ok, “but hey that teacher liked it so...” When you’re cutting poems you like because they do similar work to stronger poems, you’re close.

Also remember, most of us work in 8.5 x 11 word processor pages, so a single page poem may actually be two. I kept Hum just above the page minimum at 49 and I think the final version is somewhere around 75 pages.

Organic Ordering

A lot of books demarcate along logical lines: all the Goth sonnets in this section, all of the love poems about Magneto in this one, etc. Other collections may benefit from what C. Dale Young described to me as organic ordering. Look at images, tones, textures, recurring tropes, and other less expected elements that could link poems. It may be more exciting to see the third poem about Mussolini’s door knob if it surprises us in the last third of the book and has been further contextualized by your ode to Italian furniture.

Epigraphs

Be very picky about who gets quoted in your collection. I’ve seen many manuscripts over contextualize by heaping on epigraph after epigraph. One started with three lengthy quotes and then the opening poem had another. I’d read four paragraphs from a politician, two writers, and a philosopher before I saw a single line from the poet.

Fine-Tuning the Whole

Alan Shapiro pointed out that I had a habit of ending poems with three verb constructions. That's fine on its own but a bunch of poems in a row that end that will way feel samey. I recommend going through and reading the first two and last two lines of every poem. Do you always start with the same kind of syntax? Is the last line always a declarative sentence? How long are your first sentences? What about the last?

Personal Stock Language

I’ve started annoying myself with a game called “body count” where I count how many times the phrase “the body” appears at a poetry reading. I’m not trying to disparage its use, but to make sure what is repeated has resonance, we have to differentiate between recurring trope and default or placeholder words we instinctively latch on to. I searched Hum and asked myself if every “body” was absolutely not trying to be a “sternum” or “thigh” or “collar bone.” I had to ask every “something” in the book if it was sure it didn’t want to be a thing. Use wordcounter.com to find out what words you use the most in your manuscript. Like the poems that survive aggressive cutting, the “bodies” and “somethings” that stay will be vetted and necessary.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit is provided by an endowment established with generous contribution from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

If you attend poetry events in California with any regularity, you are likely to see Joyce Jenkins, who—with her long, wavy hair and graceful demeanor—is unmistakable in a crowd. Jenkins is the editor and executive director of Poetry Flash, Literary Review & Calendar for the West and chair of Northern California Book Reviewers. She is also the author of Portal and Joy Road, a limited edition chapbook. Her poems have appeared in Parthenon West Review, Ambush Review, ZYZZYVA, Addison Street Anthology: Berkeley's Poetry Walk, The Place That Inhabits Us: Poems of the San Francisco Watershed, and elsewhere.

Jenkins received an American Book Award in 1994 and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, among other honors. Poetry Flash received Litquake's 2012 Barbary Coast Award. For many years, P&W has provided support to the Poetry Flash Reading Series and Watershed Poetry Festival in Berkeley. We were thrilled to be able to ask Jenkins a few questions about her 40 years at the helm of the "Flash."

Joyce JenkinsWhat makes Poetry Flash and its programs unique?
Publishing Poetry Flash: Literary Review & Calendar for the West for over 40 years has been an unparalleled journey for myself and associate editor Richard Silberg. We’ve documented poetry and changes in writing over an incredibly turbulent and transformative time, and acted as both a forum and catalyst for the development of literary communities up and down the West Coast. Thoughout the years we've always remained open to all styles and poetics.

Poetry Flash evolved from its 1972 origins as a single sheet to a monthly tabloid to its current incarnation as an online magazine. Today, Poetry Flash publishes a literary events calendar for all of California, poetry and fiction book reviews, poems, interviews, tributes, essays, memoir, calls for submissions, news, and online archives. Other publications offer book reviews, interviews, and poems, but lack the same historical perspective and that certain Poetry Flash attention to detail. Also, everything we publish is entwined with our involvement in events and outreach (a legacy from years of distributing the Flash as a free paper).

We have published 302 print issues of Poetry Flash that will continue to echo and provide future generations with essential literary documents that detail the history of poetry on the West Coast. We have that deep well to draw from in our efforts to further our collective understanding of the present.

Our other projects include the Poetry Flash Reading Series at bookstore venues in Berkeley and Oakland, and the annual presentation of the Northern California Book Awards in San Francisco—now in its 33rd year. Also, there is the annual Watershed Poetry Festival, directed by Mark Baldridge and supported in part by Poets & Writers, which will celebrate its 18th year on September 28, 2013, in Berkeley.

What recenJane Hirshfield and Joyce Jenkinst project have you been especially proud of?
I am proud of Watershed. It is a real statement to be there, to take part, and “stand up for the earth” as a poet, through poetry. I’m proud of the gorgeous hand-printed broadsides that commemorate and support the festival, the annual “Creek Poem” installation on the grounds of the festival, and the event for high school students at Berkeley High, which is held the day before the festival.

I’m also gratified and humbled by the number of incredible poets we have hosted in our reading series, from Czeslaw Milosz to Louise Glück. Furthermore, we have had the honor of recognizing amazing poets and writers through the book awards—talented writers from Al Young, Kay Ryan, and Adrienne Rich to Robert Duncan, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and Maxine Hong Kingston.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
There are too many to choose from! My favorite was when Kenneth Rexroth escaped from the hospital, or said he did, to read at the San Francisco International Poetry Festival in 1980—an event that I directed and Poetry Flash co-sponsored. I had an image of him ripping tubes out of himself! Anyway, he arrived in a great flourish and gave me the critical once over. Then he extended his arm, and we promenaded about the lobby of the Palace of Fine Arts.

Other moments include a choral reading of “The State of the Planet” at Watershed by Robert Hass. There was Joy Harjo’s saxophone and “Eagle Poem” wafting across the park at another Watershed. And the time that Wanda Coleman read so fiercely and beautifully that she... well, she didn’t levitate, but it was close. We are talking a higher vibration. And maybe for just a moment there was a kind of translucence—her movements and language were so concentrated she almost became pure energy for a moment there.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Literary presenting, whether through live events or through publishing Poetry Flash, either online or in print, is my life. I have learned so much—I’ve felt like I’ve been in graduate school for 40 years.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Poetry Flash’s mission is to build community through literature, and that’s exactly what readings do—event by event. They give poets especially the sense that someone is listening, someone cares, and they are appreciated. It feeds back into better work and more awareness. We learn so much about other poets and writers whose work we may not have delved into. At the Poetry Flash Reading Series, we present many fine younger or emerging poets whose names may not yet be widely known. Our audiences hopefully will trust our curatorial instincts and try our readings, even if they don’t yet recognize the names. Our readers are excellent!

What are you most excited about in today’s changing literary landscape?
I’m most excited about the fact that—whatever changes technology or society brings us, whatever new forms poetry and writing take on—creative writing and reading willl continue to flourish in an amazing variety of ways. The explosion of readings, access to evolving modes of publication, and writing “springboards” and shelters provided by universities have all contributed to the preservation and continued growth of the literary arts. No matter what, poetry and writing will always remain central to human consciousness and our culture.

Photo 1: Joyce Jenkins. Credit: Mark Baldridge. Photo 2: Jenkins (at right) with Jane Hirshfield at the 2011 Watershed Poetry Festival. Credit: Sharon Coleman.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

More than half of my small income is generated by visiting schools, libraries, bars, backyard birthday parties, etc. Some of these have been soul-sucking experiences I would’ve passed on if rent didn’t depend on it. This fall, my income is entirely dependent on paid readings, which makes it tempting to say yes to everything. Here are some things we should all consider before saying yes.

Last Minute

A last minute request for a first time or onetime event is usually a bad sign. This is especially true if the event isn’t poetry related: “I just realized today that I need a poet for my company’s end of the quarter rainmaker soiree. We don’t offer an honorarium, but you can sell books.”

Last minute does not necessarily translate to poorly organized. Consider whether the organizer had another reader cancel or had to take over for someone else. Even the most well-run events are powerless to a poet catching the plague.

Free Gigs That Rock

Some of the best reading experiences I’ve had were for organizations that either couldn’t pay me or barely could. These readings are usually easy to spot. Organizers will be upfront about what they can or can’t pay, they’ll be enthusiastic about your work, and you’ll get a generally good feeling from the person contacting you.

Free gigs that absolutely do not rock will usually feel like they’re doing you a favor. “There’s a microphone here. You’re welcome.”

What Is Your Fee?

This question used to fill me with panic. How much are my poems worth? Too high and I might price myself out of the gig. Too low and I might not be able to replace my broken glasses. What I do now is lean on candor. I tell the organizer the upper range of what I typically get for similar events, admit that I have a sliding scale, and ask them not to lowball me. It’s rare for a decent person to read “don’t screw me please” and still try to screw you.

Bizarre Events and Locations

Someone thinks, “I like poetry. I like corn dogs. We should do poetry at the state fair next to the corndog tent!” It keeps happening, though poetry is an intimate experience that requires attention. A situation where people will accidentally stumble across your poem on their way to the tilt-a-whirl is not ideal.

If you can be sure there is a built-in audience coming to an atypical event specifically to see poems, it can be a good time. Also, some events use the unexpected presence of poetry as a feature, such as Pop Up Poets and Kiss Punch Poem. The difference is that these are well thought out, ongoing projects.

Good Organization Accidentally in League with Hacks

This is one of the leading causes of poorly organized readings in bizarre locations. I’ve seen this paradigm enough that I run the other way when the following list of factors present themselves: An organization I trust is tapped by another organization with a big name, usually a corporation or respected institution, to provide poets, last minute, for a one-off event. What happens here is a lazy employee at Massivecorporateco is charged with filling a program they don’t want to be organizing in the first place. They contact a poetry-related organization to get free entertainment. A bad time is had by all.

Someone Who Loves Your Poetry Doesn’t Realize Their Friends Won’t

Sometimes an audience member will be so enthralled with your poems they won’t be able to fathom their frat brothers not being similarly wowed by you. So they scrape together some university funds and find a dank room for you to read in. Their bros and sister sorority show up because they’re socially obligated to. You are a chore to survive before the drinking starts. The flipside is that there’s pretty much always someone in that kind of crowd that will connect to your work. They didn’t realize they would until you showed up. I often think of going into these spaces that we don’t fit as part of the job. It’s different from the corndog tent because they’re actually a captive audience. If you have them present and listening, do your job and make it damn hard for them to remain unchanged.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit is provided by an endowment established with generous contribution from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Bobby Gonzalez blogs about his P&W-supported writing workshops at the Betances Community Center. Gonzalez is a nationally known performance poet, storyteller, and multicultural motivational speaker. Born and raised in the South Bronx, New York City, he grew up in a bicultural environment. Bobby draws on his Native American (Taino) and Latino (Puerto Rican) roots to offer a unique repertoire of discourses, readings, and performances that celebrate his indigenous heritage.

In July and August, Gonzalez, author of The Last Puerto Rican Indian: A Collection of Dangerous Poetry, facilitated a series of workshops titled “Spoken Word 101” at the Betances Community Center in the Bronx. Attending the half-dozen sessions were neighborhood residents, teenagers, and middle-aged poetry enthusiasts. Typically, the stereotype of a writer’s creative process evokes a solitary figure holding a pen in a dimly lit room, slowly and painfully scrawling words onto a blank piece of paper. In contrast, in “Spoken Word 101,” the participants gather together in a small room  to read, discuss, and even argue about verses from poets such as Langston Hughes, Joy Harjo, and Woody Guthrie. (Despite the lively atmosphere, the group was stunned into silence by Guthrie’s description of the horrific 1935 great dust storm that swept across Oklahoma.)

After the readings and discussions came the real work: writing. Each workshop challenged the students with a writing prompt, and they were told to compose an original piece within ten minutes. The first prompt was "I wish I had told my mother… .” The students dug deep into the recesses of their memories and inner emotions. When the students read their writings to the class, each paused at least once to sigh or wipe away a tear.

An objective of the “Spoken Word 101” workshop is to teach students the basics of reading and performing at Open Mics. This means developing skills that create rhythm, pacing, pauses, and silence to enhance spoken-word presentations. The class also studied ways to utilize body movement, eye contact, and other techniques to better communicate the intended message though physical gestures and facial expressions.

The workshop series ended with an Open Mic event, in which the students performed for friends and family members. The younger poets bravely recited their personal and sometimes heartbreaking lines to an audience that beamed with interest and pride. “Spoken Word 101” transcended the original goal of teaching students to read, write, and perform poetry. The workshop empowered the students to understand their life experiences and artistic talents are special gifts that should be shared with the outside world. So thank you, Poets & Writers!

Photo:  Bobby Gonzalez and Betances' Writers.  Photo Credit: Maria Aponte

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. Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-funded Jamaal May is a poet from Detroit, MI, where he taught poetry in public schools and worked as a freelance audio engineer and touring performer. His poetry won the 2013 Indiana Review Prize and appears in journals such as Poetry, Ploughshares, and The Believer. Jamaal has earned an MFA from Warren Wilson and fellowships from Cave Canem and Bucknell University. His first book is Hum (Alice James Books, 2013), and he is founder of the Organic Weapon Arts Chapbook Press.

Writers frequently ask me how to get more readings. I’ve said for years I don’t know why people give me money and sit still to hear me recite poems. But now that this bizarre phenomenon has occurred more than 600 times in the last nine years (three funded by P&W), I have to admit I do know why I get so many readings, and only part of it is luck. The truth is people like to hear me read. So the better question to ask is “How can I give better readings of my work?” Below are my top five tips.

Use Your Everyday Inflection

It’s remarkable to watch a poet charismatically engage an audience with banter then slip into a monotone drone when the poem starts. I suspect part of the reason for the “monotone drone” or the equally disheartening “poet voice” is a fear of performing. Writers tell me they don’t want to perform or be seen as performative. I would argue that an overly dry, disengaged reading is in fact a performance. No one speaks that way. Conversely, our daily conversations are full of varied inflection and shifts in tone. Rather than try to perform a poem, practice reading it in your own voice as if you’re telling those lines to a friend.

Focus on the Words

Another pitfall is the inherent distraction of facing an audience. I’ve found it helpful to shift my thinking to the why behind each poem. Every word in your poem was chosen for a specific reason. Read them as if they have a place in the world. Did an image delight you enough to write it down? Don’t fight back your delight. Did it haunt you? Take your time and let us feel the specter. If we think deeply about every line read, we are less likely to fret over the presence of an audience. Engage the work and engagement with the crowd will follow.

Try to Memorize Your Poems

The emphasis here is on “try.” Many believe they will never have a good enough memory to recite poems by heart. Even if this is true, you should try anyway. It will make you more familiar with the poems, you’ll make eye contact more frequently, and read with more confidence. At the very least you’ll know that line you have to nail is coming up. You will nail it.

Be Nervous

We know from elementary science that energy can’t be destroyed, only changed. Nervousness is a kind of energy so apply this concept to it. I’m still nervous before every reading and I don’t try to stop it anymore. Nervousness means you care. Take it as a sign that you are present and paying attention, then turn that energy and focus towards your poems. Apathy is a much worse state of mind to approach a reading with. The only one worse than that is feigned apathy.

Risk Yourself

When we see a good poetry reading, we are witnessing a writer becoming open enough to get in touch with what they’ve written, the same openness they’ve implicitly asked of the audience. It takes a risk to stand in front of people as if you have something of value to share. Let that come through and be as uncool and awkward as you need to be to get it done. The writing deserves it.

Photo: Jamaal May. Credit: Tarfia Faizullah.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Detroit is provided by an endowment established with generous contribution from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors, and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-supported poet, speaker, teacher, and performer George Edward Tait is the author of At Arms and The Baker's Dozen: Selected Dance Poems by George Edward Tait, among other works. In July he gave a reading and workshop at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System’s Central Library. Linda Jordan, Manager of General Collections and Ivan Allen Jr. Reference Departments, blogs about his visit.

George Edward Tait is recognized by his fans as the Poet Laureate of Harlem, but last month he ventured well outside of New York City to make his first appearance at the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System's Central Library, in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was honored to introduce him to the fifty-five budding writers who turned out for the workshop he led. Tait has been writing and teaching—at universities, juvenile detention centers, and senior centers—for over thirty years. During that time he also embarked on music projects and worked as an activist (Tait is also known as the “Poet Laureate of Afrikan Nationalism”). At the Atlanta workshop, Tait's wisdom flowed as he openly discussed his theories and practices and his belief in making emotional connections with readers.

Tait also delved into the nitty-gritty of craft, touching upon alliteration, imagery, and "Ars Poetica" (a poem that examines the nature of poetry). Then he addressed real-world concerns in discussions about marketing and self-publishing--topics that interested many workshop participants. After the workshop, he performed several poems and shared anecdotes about each piece. At the end of the day, a small group of participants were thrilled to have their own work personally reviewed by Tait.

Photo: George Edward Tait. Credit: Linda Jordan.

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.

In August, Bushra Rehman celebrated the launch of her first novel Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press). Corona was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Fiction issue. The Readings & Workshops program is co-sponsoring the book event An Ode to Corona with the South Asian Women’s Creative Collective and Rehman’s writing workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction. This blog is a continuation of last week’s Two Truths and a Lie post.

One of the drawbacks of writing autobiographical fiction is that the people in your head are not imaginary. They’re real. They’re the people you love the most and are most afraid of losing. In the workshop Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction, we spend time working through these fears. I wanted to share some tips for overcoming them.

Thinking Is Not Writing

You can end up using your imagination to create all the scenarios in which your mother is hurling platters, your father is explosively silent, and you are left out of all future family holidays until your little nieces and nephews, who once had gathered up in your lap, no longer know your name. All of this might happen, but you can spend so much time worrying about these possibilities that you may never get to the writing.

The truth is you don’t know the shape your work will take until it is written. Yes, you may feel a burning anger in the beginning, but when you write the story, you might be surprised by the gentle and compassionate portrayals you create. The very writing of the narrative will transform you and your memories.

Writing Is Not Publishing

Sometimes it takes years to find the right publisher. It took me six to find one I love, Sibling Rivalry Press. But those years were necessary, not only for the growth of the book, but for my own readiness to present my work to the world. So, write! You don’t know who you will be by the time you find a publisher. You never even have to publish. I trick myself every time by saying I won’t. It’s one way I’ve learned to be honest in my writing--by lying to myself.

Listen To Dorothy Allison

Allison, author of the unforgettable Bastard out of Carolina, was asked how she could create such brutally honest portrayals of the people in her life. She said you had to tell all you could about your characters, create three-dimensional portraits, so the reader could come to understand and even love them. She said, “If you tell enough … even if you use a character based on people you know, you don't create an act of betrayal. It is when you use characters in small ways that you betray them.”

To tell enough, you may have to dig deeper into your memories, read old letters and diaries, really remember--but isn’t this why you’re writing autobiographical fiction in the first place?

What a Coincidence That Everyone in This Class Is Innocent!

Allison also said, “I don't believe you can be any good as a writer if you're trying to hide yourself.” You can’t be like the preacher who only points out the sins of others. In your writing, you have to reveal your own sins as well.

I Don’t Make You Look Bad. You Make You Look Bad.

Let’s say you are innocent, but others have accidentally or purposefully hurt you. This is when I remember this advice from one of my favorite writers, Ed Lin. His words hit the bull’s eye in my mind. When people get upset about your writing, they’re upset that a certain truth, crime, or terrible memory has been brought out into the light. The writing is an explosion, but it gives the opportunity of transformation by forest fire, rather than slow suffocation. Most likely these truths have been stifling the relationship for years. In our writing we have the conversations with people we never have in real life. Sometimes with the writing, the conversations begin.

Lay Your Body Down on the Train Tracks

When I was younger, I spent all my free time in the library. The world I wanted to live in was the world of books, but every door I opened led to a room that wasn’t my own. I now know why. Not only is it difficult to find a publisher who wants to present the story of a Pakistan-American woman who is not oppressed, it’s difficult for us to overcome the family and community taboos of writing our own stories.

But for those of us who are called to this craft, we know we must write. Because it’s true, your mother, father, brother, sister or cat could end up hating you, but if you don’t write, you’ll end up hating yourself. Ultimately, we write not for the world but for our own souls.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from theNew 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 Cowles Charitable Trust, the Abbey K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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