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Readings & Workshops Blog

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.

Readings/Workshops (West) associate director Jamie FitzGerald reports on a visit to the P&W–supported EngAGE senior writing workshop, taught by Hannah R. Menkin. Menkin is an educator, poet, and visual artist, who uses an integrative approach to help adults, older adults, and veterans discover their own voice through oral history, memoir, storytelling, and the creative/expressive arts.

Members of the EngAGE writing workshop“What is a poem?” asked Hannah Menkin, facilitator of the P&W–supported poetry workshop for residents of the Burbank Senior Artists Colony. The participants answered: “expressive,” “cathartic,” “a tiny soliloquy that comes from a deep well,” “a mirror of what you hold onto inside,” revealing in these answers their special relationship with the art form.

Over the past five years, this Poetry Toolbox class of older adults has become close, defining itself as a women’s writing group. Participants regularly refer to each other as sisters, including new member Sharon Yofan, who commented: “I love poetry, but was absolutely blocked. I couldn’t write on demand. There’s magic in this space, and I’ve been writing ever since. I feel so connected to our sisters here. It’s food for body, mind, and spirit.”

Last fall, we reported on one of their Poetry & Tea events, which reaffirmed for us the transformative power of writing; this year’s event was no less inspiring. It was devoted to honoring women poets. Each participant spoke about what the workshop meant to her, read a favorite poem by a female poet, and then some of their own work.

Dolly BrittanDolly Brittan, who lived in South Africa for seventy-two years before moving to Burbank, described how the class has given her “permission to be.” She brought in a tribute poem to Nelson Mandela by a poet named cheryl irene and read her own poem about her pet tortoise, Honkytonk. Felicia Soissons-Segal read a persona poem in which the speaker was an umbrella. Abigail Howard’s poem “Jacaranda Oleander” left us chanting “jacaranda oleander, jacaranda oleander.” Another member of the group, Ayn Phillips, read a poem titled “Finding Poetry” that began with the words “Dam bursts…,” a phenomenon that appears to happen regularly in this class.

Also celebrated were Lucille Clifton, Linda Hogan, Emily Dickinson’s poem number 465, and Anne Sexton’s “The Bells.” At each turn, we discussed our interpretations of the poems.

The conversation turned to perceptions of older adults. After the passing of her husband of fifty-two years, Brittan is in a new relationship—“and at my age!” she exclaimed. Kit Harper was also trying bold new things, in the literary realm.

About submitting her poetry to literary magazines, Harper said: “Doing is a lot more fun than thinking about it. It’s a lot more invigorating.”

There seemed to be consensus with Menkin’s opinion that “The image of older people needs to change. Positive stereotypes are needed, not negative ones. I don’t like the word ‘seniors.’ I like the words ‘elders,’ ‘older adults,’ ‘wisdom people.’”

Maureen Kellen-Taylor, chief operating officer of the workshop’s sponsoring organization EngAGE, told a story about an older artist who said that “when she’s acting or writing or painting, she feels ageless.”

But the perils of age do surface at times. Due to a fall, workshop member Karolyn Merson was hospitalized and unable to attend the day’s event (but is now back and writing with the group). Now in her nineties, Merson is beloved for her wit and admired for publishing a book of her haiku. The class has coined the term “Karolysms” in her honor. Merson had wanted to read “A Summer Day” by Mary Oliver. In her stead, Menkin read the poem, which ends with the lines:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

These wisdom people know.

Photo 1: Members of the Poetry Toolbox workshop (from left to right): Sharon Yofan, Kit Harper, facilitator Hannah Menkin, Dolly Brittan, Felicia Soissons-Segal, and Abigail Howard. Photo 2: Dolly Brittan with a paper horse used in a writing exercise. Photo 3: A haiku-like poem/Karolysm by Karolyn Merson. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. 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 co-funded 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.

The first question people always ask me about my novel Corona is if it’s true. Yes, like me the character is a Pakistani who grew up in Corona, Queens, worked as a Puritan in a living history museum, and hitchhiked up and down the East Coast in her twenties, but to say Razia’s life is my life is somehow still not true. Razia is Bushra 2.0: stronger, faster, smarter, quicker. She says all the things I wish I’d said. She doesn’t take as much bull crap. She’s me without the endless hours of agonizing, worrying, and being depressed. Also, most of the events in the book didn’t really happen.

Corona is a work of autobiographical fiction. It lives in that slippery place between memoir and fantasy. Autobiographical fiction skims the fat off the truth and then uses it to create rich buttery deserts for the reader’s pleasure. It recognizes that our lives are too fascinating not to write about and our imaginations too strong to ignore. Autobiographical fiction is an endless source of confusion for readers who want to know what really happened.

I’ll never forget the moment on Fresh Air, when Adrienne Rich schooled Terry Gross for asking the “biography question.” I sympathized with Gross because Rich had scolded me once, also with good reason, and it was scary. Rich, as always, was eloquent on the matter. She explained why the question upset her. Much of current literary criticism, she said, has devolved into a strange case of connect-the-dots between the writer’s life and work. The understanding of craft, of the writer’s use of language, is lost in these conversations.

I understood what Rich was saying. There’s an implication that autobiographical work is simply an advanced form of journaling. This couldn’t be further from the truth. When sharing a hilarious, creepy, or life-altering story, which might have really happened, the writer can’t stop halfway and say, “You just had to be there.” She must use all her skills to make readers feel they were there. Even more difficult, the writer must live the life first, a life of imagination, a life worthy of fiction.

As a Pakistani-American, the question of autobiography becomes more loaded. There are so few narratives available that readers grasp for straws. All too often, I’ve had people tell me that they just read a novel about a Pakistani woman who was forced into an arranged marriage or kidnapped by bandits and they think this is how all of our lives pan out. So I always add in my interviews that Corona is a work of fiction and not meant to represent the lives of all Pakistani women. All of us don’t dress up in Puritan costumes and work in recreated seventeenth century villages in Salem, Massachusetts.

This burden of representation, plus the fear of hurting our friends and family and adding to the racism in this country by airing our community’s dirty laundry, scares many writers of color away from writing their stories. For this reason, I developed the workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction." Last winter, the Readings/Workshop Program co-sponsored this class with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Tune in next week to read some of the tips I shared with my students to help them overcome their fears and write inspired by both the truth and lies of their lives.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

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

In August 2013, P&W-funded writer Bushra Rehman released--eleven weeks after the birth of her daughter--Corona (Sibling Rivalry Press), a dark comedy about being South Asian in the United States. Rehman has been supported by the Readings/Workshops Program for her writing workshop "Two Truths and a Lie: Writing Autobiographical Fiction." Her novel, Corona, was featured in Poets & Writers Best Debut Summer Fiction.

I just gave birth to a book and a baby. It turns out that in the time it took from the acceptance of my manuscript to the moment of its publication, I could create a small human being in my body. I’d never thought I’d give birth, but I’d dreamed of my book launch like other women (at least according to bad television) dream of their wedding days. I used to think motherhood would make it impossible to write. I didn’t know my daughter would change my entire approach to the writing life.

To Become a Better Writer, Become a Marathon Runner or Get Knocked Up

In What I Talk About When I Talk about Running, Haruki Murakami makes a case for staying in optimum health. He says the body needs to be cared for like any essential in a writer’s toolbox. I finally understood what he meant. Although I’d spent almost a decade working on my novel, in the light of my vitamin-pumped, fruit-and-vegetable-filled, caffeine-alcohol-and-smoke-free body, I suddenly saw structural flaws I was able to fix in the knick of time. It was as if my daughter was the messenger carrying the results of the soil test in Pisa, reaching the architects before the first piece of marble was laid.

Like Babies Through the Hourglass, So Are the Days of Our Lives

A newborn will show the passage of time like nobody’s business. Did she just have a growth spurt and burst out of that onesie while I was changing her diaper? Yes, she did! I know if I want to finish my next book, I better get to it before I’m attending her graduation wearing Depends. (This last detail might only apply to older parents like me.) I no longer make excuses or wait for long stretches of time to work. Whether it is at 4 a.m. or 10 p.m., if I have five minutes, I write.

Take the Red Pill and Leave the Matrix

The first time I heard Hanif Kureishi speak, an audience member asked him how he found the discipline to sit in a room every day and work. His answer was: “How do you leave the room?” I know what he meant. I too had become chained to my laptop. With my daughter, I had to unplug. At first I was resistant… Must check Facebook... But then I began to wonder: What is she looking at? Oh, wow, it’s a... cloud… it’s a geometrically surreal pattern on my pillowcase that’s pretty trippy. Following her line of vision, I was amazed by each tiny miracle strewn throughout my world and was reminded it was this poetic eye that had brought me to writing in the first place.

I have a body. My baby has a body, and guess what, everyone in the world has a body, including my characters.

Giving birth forced me to realize I wasn’t just a floating head in space. Not only did I experience a form of pain that burned away a layer of my soul, I suddenly saw the world of my characters as a world filled with fleshy beings. I could see their bodies like I could see my baby’s goofy-sweet smile and light-filled eyes.

Yes, my baby is the best audience in the world. She laughs at everything I read, but before you run out and get pregnant, you should know taking care of a newborn is hard, harder than you would ever believe! You don’t have to be pregnant or give birth to benefit from these thoughts. Try it for nine months: Live as if you were growing a human being inside you, unplug, re-enter your physical body and world. See what it does for your writing. If you do it without a newborn, you might even get some sleep.

Photo: Bushra Rehman. Credit: Jaishri Abichandani

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

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