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Readings & Workshops Blog

Jenny Sadre-Orafai is the author of four chapbooks. Recent poetry has appeared in Rhino, [PANK], The Bakery, Sixth Finch, ILK, iO: A Journal of New American Poetry, and Poemeleon. Recent prose has appeared in The Rumpus, Delirious Hem, the Los Angeles Review, and South Loop Review. She is co-founding editor of Josephine Quarterly and an Assistant Professor of English at Kennesaw State University. This past spring, she participated in a P&W–supported reading with poet Heather Tosteson at the Dekalb Public Library in Atlanta.

Jenny Sadre-OrafaiWhat opportunities are there for younger writers such as yourself to build a literary life/livelihood?
The internet and social networking sites are wonderful resources for those who, like me, might be shier than others. They serve as great tools to be in conversation with other writers.

There is also much to be said for writers’ conferences and being in that kind of environment. There’s a sense of camaraderie and mentorship that is difficult to find once you leave college (if you attend college).

It’s really important that younger writers are proactive and seek out living the literary life if that’s what they truly want. Being passive isn’t really an option when it comes to being a writer, not for me at least.

Does your bicultural background (Mexican and Iranian) play a significant role in your writing?
So much of what I write about is who I am and who I came from. What Her Hair Says About Her, my second chapbook, is largely about having dark hair and wanting blonde hair, and then wanting my dark hair back. I associate my hair color with where I come from.

My fourth chapbook, Avoid Disaster, is based on my research of different superstitions from around the world. Those poems were written because I am an extremely superstitious human and because of the superstitions that were a part of my life growing up.

Can you describe a memorable moment from an event you’ve been part of?
After a recent reading, some people came up to tell me that they really enjoyed my poems about my grandmother and how she read coffee cups. That compliment led to a discussion about superstitions—which animals come for the dead in different cultures (a fox in Iran and a hummingbird in Mexico). By the end of the exchange, the group had almost tripled in size.

I always assumed that people would be leery of superstitions, but I’ve learned that most people are not only intrigued by them, they also don’t find them terribly difficult to believe. The conversations that happen after readings—and the listening I get to practice—are what makes them even more rewarding.

What are your reading dos?
I try to always be prepared with poems I think work well together and have a nice momentum, but I’m also ready to change things up depending on how the reading is going. I'm more aware of breathing and grateful for the opportunity to be heard. Perhaps what’s most important is that I take my time when I read, so I’m there in that moment with everyone else.

…and your reading don’ts?
I avoid long-winded explanations. A little background information here and there allows the reading to be more of a conversation, but I try to limit how much I talk between or about poems since I think the audience is there to hear the poems.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
It’s such an extraordinary thing to be able to meet other people who write or love to read and listen to literature. These programs serve as important reminders that even though writing and reading are mostly solitary acts, we are not so alone.

Photo: Jenny Sadre-Orafai. Credit: Stephanie Sadre-Orafai.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Atlanta 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.

Linda Nemec Foster blogs about the P&W supported event at UDetroit Cafe. Author of nine collections of poetry, including Talking Diamonds (finalist for ForeWord Magazine's Book of the Year) and Amber Necklace from Gdansk (finalist for the Ohio Book Award). Linda Nemec Foster's work has been published in the Georgia Review, Nimrod, North American Review, and New American Writing. Cry of Freedom, her collaboration with musician Laszlo Slomovits, inspired by the poems in her chapbook, Ten Songs from Bulgaria, was released as a CD in 2013. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee and the founder of the Contemporary Writers Series at Aquinas College.

The same day that the public announcement of Detroit’s bankruptcy was blasted around the world, I was invited to write this blog. Pretty ironic, eh? Not if you know anything about the D’s thriving and dynamic poetry scene. I currently live in west Michigan (Grand Rapids, to be exact), but I lived in Detroit for ten pivotal years in the ’70’s and ’80’s. Those were the years when I started writing poetry and began working on my degree in the country’s first low-residency MFA Program at Goddard College (this program that Ellen Bryant Voigt founded has subsequently moved to Warren Wilson College). There is another reason why the city has played a special role in my life--my first child, Brian, was born there in 1979.

Because of my personal connection to the D, I have maintained close relationships with a number of Detroit’s poets and writers. Through those connections, I have been invited to give readings, workshops, and conference presentations several times a year. Many of those events have been sponsored by Poets & Writers including my appearance on August 15, 2012, at the UDetroit Cafe. That was one very special night.

The venue was packed, the crowd was enthusiastic, and the host--Detroit poetry impresario M. L. Liebler--was a great M.C. His introductions were lively and so were the readers and performers. Besides your humble blogger, the program included the music of the RJ Spangler Trio with Larry Smith, performance poet Wardell Montgomery Jr., Detroit musician Keith Gamble, and poet Mary Jo Firth Gillett. Reading with Mary Jo was particularly wonderful: She’s a fine poet and a former student (she participated in a master level poetry workshop I taught at the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1999). Everyone who took the stage was in terrific form. I read five poems including a long piece on my favorite movie star of all time, Barbara Stanwyck. It brought down the house. Who knew that I had a bit of the performance poet in me?

It certainly was a grand evening. Besides, there was someone in the audience that made it even more of a memorable event. Brian (yes, my son who was born in the D) was able to come to the reading and be part of that enthusiastic crowd. Unbeknown to both of us, there was an artist sitting nearby who drew a pen and ink sketch of us while we were talking before the readings: mother and son with the Detroit skyline in the background. He gave us the drawing gratis--”a gift from the D.”

Poets & Writers, with its Readings/Workshops Program, is the epitome of The Gift. The impact of its support that has benefited communities throughout the country is immeasurable. And for a community like Detroit--with everything it’s been through--the Program is a significant affirmation of the vibrant voices of poets and writers that care deeply about their city.

Photo: Linda Nemec Foster. Credit: Robert Turney.

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 writer Emily Rubin, author of Stalina and winner of the Sarah Verdone Writers Award, was recently profiled in Women You Should Know. She leads workshops for cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City (see video here). We asked her to blog about the experience.

The flyers stated it simply:
Creative Writing Workshop
FOR CANCER PATIENTS, SURVIVORS, & CAREGIVERS
Mondays March 25, April 1, 8, 15, 22
This workshop will be led by Emily Rubin, a cancer survivor and author.

I started the workshops at Beth Israel Medical Center with the idea of giving something back to the hospital where I received treatment for breast cancer in 2008/9. As magnanimous as this might sound, I also had a subversive, experimental angle in mind. I wanted to offer an escape from cancer—a radical and fun alternative to the chemotherapy suite, radiation tables, and waiting rooms—even if it was only for a couple of hours a week.

While I was in treatment, my writing took a back seat to the rigors of the disease. My sparse diary entries ran the gamut of:  
January 28th. Cancer sucks. 
February 15th. Cancer really sucks. 
March 10th. I look like a freak.  
April 15th. Being bald (COMPLETELY!) is cool, but cancer still sucks. 
May 20th. Today a guy with a shaved head fist bumped me on a subway platform.

I consider myself lucky. My treatment was fairly standard for breast cancer: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. There was a very good chance all would be fine, and fortunately, so far, it is. But during that time I met many who were not so lucky. A good friend, Anne Childers, was diagnosed with cervical cancer. We were cancer “sisters” and found ourselves often pushed to edges of anger, fear, and frivolity. Her cancer took a terrible turn, and after a year of treatment Anne died with her family and boyfriend at her side. She was thirty-two years old. She may not be a survivor of the disease, but she survives within everyone who knew her.

After that I’d had enough of the disease, needed to distance myself from it, and get back to my life. I finished my first novel and found a publisher. At readings and in interviews, I never mentioned my illness as part of the journey to being published. But a nerve-wracking recurrence scare (fortunately negative) made me realize that cancer had left its mark, and I would be unwise to ignore the impact it had on my life. 

I explained to the six brave souls who turned out for the first workshop that the anxiety, fear, physical and psychological pain, passion, vulnerability, and fighting spirit they experienced in and around the illness would serve them well as writers. Being human is also a good qualification, but I encouraged them by saying they might have a slight edge over the rest of the species. 

I bring prompts, quotes, and photographs to inspire our writing sessions, which have been supported by funds from Poets & Writers, Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, and New York Community Trust. I encourage everyone to go as deep into the illness, or as far away from it, as they desire. The main thing is they have complete control over what they write. Everyone writes for thirty minutes around a common table.    

After receiving some bad news about her diagnosis, Caroline wrote about this photograph of lightning over New York:

lightningLightning knows no mercy. She strikes with precision and ruthlessness. Her skill is almost surgical, and yet catastrophic in her damage….Where is my agency in all this? Where are my thunderbolts? Oh that I had a quiver full of them like the Greek god Zeus that I could grab and hurl at the demons that now beset me. I need Hephaestus to smith them out for me with his band of mighty Cyclops—electric blue and pink bolts to counteract and heal the damage that these new blasts have done to me. Oh Prometheus, bring them gently to me with a bow of gold that I might take sure and steady aim.

Belinda was taken with a photograph of a giant chessboard, below:

I was just about to give up when Hamilton suggested we take a walk outside. We had been at the table for hours, it was a blur of posturing rhetoric and uncertainty so frustrating…. As I looked at the knight shamefully, I felt something trickle down the side of my face, something warm and slow, blood splattered onto the black and white square, it reminded me of snowflakes as my brain tried to take me home in my last moments. Peace process over in one move. 

giant chess boardOther prompts include:

--An experience with an insect.
--The coldest day.
--A time you did something dangerous.
--The worst advice you ever gave, or got.
--Someone or something you find annoying.

There is no bullshit with these folks. They don’t sweat the small stuff. They get right to it. As a result, the writing is fiercely honest and lyrical.

Photos: Top, Emily Rubin (credit: Billy Tompkins). Middle: Lightning (credit: Weegee). Bottom: Chess Game (Erika Stone).
Emily Rubin can be reached at emrubin@earthlink.net. 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.

P&W–supported poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at www.kfcf.org, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

IMichael Medranot seems there has always been poetry on the radio in Fresno. Preston Chase and Lee Underwood broadcasted their literary show in the late nineties, in a studio above the garage of a residential home, former headquarters of KFCF 88.1 FM. One time they welcomed poets Estela Molina, Tim Z. Hernandez, and yours truly to an hour of interviews and round-robin poetry. We were in our early twenties, squeaky, and reading from home-made chapbooks we sold at open mics for a couple of bucks.

Before Underwood/Chase there was Chuck Moulton—the poet who wrote Lion in the Fire—who was known for arriving to his live radio show later than his guests. According to current station manager Rych Withers, Moulton also fancied a false set of teeth he’d pop out of his mouth whenever he got the chance. Ah, the spontaneity of poets on the radio!

It was only a matter of time before I, too, was drawn to radio. After graduate school in Minneapolis, I got on the radio and featured my new poetry friends. That is how Pakatelas was born. During my initial year at KFCF, I recruited poet/screenwriter David Campos to co-host, and we developed into quite a team. We interviewed local and national writers including Lee Herrick, Sasha Pimentel, Daniel Granbois, and many others.

In the beginning we stuttered and frequently stopped takes. We were poets, after all, not radio DJ’s. Thank God for the pre-recorded show—otherwise we’d be radio losers scribbling poetry at some random coffee shop!

When David left to pursue an MFA at the University of California, Riverside, I wanted to try something different. A fan of talk radio, I decided to try the live format. I couldn’t tell you who my first live guest was—such is the energy of live radio—but writers who were reluctant to try the new setup were often surprised by how comfortable they were in the spontaneous format. I remember fiction writer Daniel Chacon’s startled face when I told him we were going live, minutes before the start of the show. Poor Corrine Hales was battling allergies, but she still kicked literary butt in the studio! On a recent show, I juggled two call-ins from the L.A. area along with the two guests in the studio, who were promoting a local poetry reading. It was hands down my most complex show to date.

“Pakatelas” comes from the title of an epic poem written by the late poet Andres Montoya. It is a Spanish term that comes from the ice factories Montoya famously wrote about. From what I’ve been told, "Pakatelas" is slang for “pack those things.” It also describes the manic energy poets experience when presenting a new poem at a reading—or the marriage between verse and the countdown from the board operator in the studio booth.

Photo: Michael Medrano.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In July, P&W-funded fiction writer Alex Espinoza, author of The Five Acts of Diego León, was among the faculty at the annual Community of Writers at Squaw Valley conference in California. Laura Cerruti, Squaw Valley’s director of development, blogs about his visit.
 
Alex Espinoza“Do you love the Community of Writers?” asked Alex Espinoza, a workshop teacher at the forty-third annual Community of Writers. He was introducing the Published Alumni Reading Series, and the audience’s response rivaled the volume of the cheerleaders whose camp often shares our airspace in Squaw Valley—not bad for a group of writers ranging in age from early twenties to late eighties, and from first-timers to seasoned alumni.

Espinoza’s introduction set the stage for an electric evening in the Olympic Village’s Plaza Bar, where even the mountain seemed to be leaning in to listen. 
 
When a writers’ workshop reaches middle age, it becomes as defined by its alumni as by its current participants. Espinoza is an excellent example of this beneficial cycle. A graduate of the UC Irvine MFA program, Espinoza first attended the Community of Writers in 2004, returning in 2005. Community of Writers founder Oakley Hall directed the Irvine program for two decades, and Irvine MFAs have been attending the conference on special scholarships for many years (Ramona Ausubel, Michael Chabon, Richard Ford, Maile Meloy, and Alice Sebold—among others—also attended both programs, and Irvine MFA Louis B. Jones is now the co-director of the Writers Workshop). Espinoza is truly a link back to the origins of the Community of Writers.
 
Espinoza helped make this year’s workshops a life-changing experience, whether participants worked with him in group workshops, met with him during individual conferences, or attended his conversation with Dagoberto Gilb. Born in Tijuana, Mexico, and raised in suburban Los Angeles, Espinoza’s background speaks to a California experience that is often underrepresented in published work. His most recent novel, The Five Acts of Diego León (Random House, 2013), is broad in its scope of depicting an immigrant pursuing his dreams, but also completely grounded in time and place: Hollywood during its golden age.

Most importantly, Espinoza’s generosity to other writers embodies the spirit of the Community of Writers staff. Lisa Alvarez, co-director of the Writers Workshop, noted that, “He’s a consummate teacher. He really wants to support people the way he was supported.”

Photo: Alex Espinoza (center) at Squaw Valley.
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–supported poet Michael Medrano will blog about the literary climate in California's underserved Central Valley throughout the month of July. Medrano is the author of Born in the Cavity of Sunsets (Bilingual Press 2009). His poems have appeared in Askew; Bombay Gin; The Cortland Review; The Packinghouse Review; Rattle; and The Yellow Medicine Review among other publications. He is the host of Pakatelas, a literary radio show, streaming worldwide at www.kfcf.org, and hosts the Random Writers Workshop in Fresno, California.

Michael MedranoWe poets recognize an unusual reading gig when we see one. We’re used to reading in bookstores, coffee shops—even a hole-in-the-wall isn’t the least bit strange. And every space has its challenges; sometimes it’s the acoustics or an obstruction in the room, a giant beam blocking the view of the poet on stage. Some of the worst readings were ones with an active bar where people became loud and discourteous. But, let's face it: It is a bar and not everybody is a fan of poetry. Otherwise they’d be naming stadiums after poets and not banking institutions.

A great poetry experience can happen when you least expect it. For example, in 2000, when I was a student editor for Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, I was asked to do a poetry reading at Sears in central Fresno. I was the only editor who was able to make it, since the others were either swamped with work or too afraid to read in a mall. In those days, I never cancelled readings. I’d read with the flu if I had to.

So there I was, the lone poet from F,C, & P, aboard the escalator on my way to Sears to give a reading in the men’s department. During the short ride up the electric staircase, I imagined a mic on top of the counter next to the cash register. That would be cool, I thought. I imagined reading above the people, families leaving their back-to-school-shopping behind, chanting for more of my poetry. Oh, the delusions of grandeur we make up for ourselves minutes before we hit the stage.

Four rows of seats were carved out of the socks and underwear section. The microphone stand was placed in front of the dressing room—for the grand entrance, of course! Behind the last row, two ladies from the catering company prepared appetizers. They were careful not to get grease on the stack of 501’s next to the cutting board. I sat and waited for thirty minutes. Nobody showed up! Discouraged, I put my poems away and proceeded to walk out. But then I stopped.

"Hey, can I read my poetry to you?" I asked the cook.

"Well, we’re going to pack up our stuff and go," the cook replied.

"Don’t be like that," her assistant said. "Let the boy read his poems."

Just then, I laid a grin not even Muzack could wipe off. I read poem after poem. I read for twenty minutes straight, shouting my poetry so the shoppers would know there was a poet in the house! They stopped too, some in confusion as they contemplated their coupons, but others smiled and nodded as they acknowledged my art.

Sure, the reluctant cook fell asleep during the reading, and the store manager asked me to keep the noise of my poetry down. I doubt my poems got in the way of their profits; and I bet at least one of those kids shopping with their parents would end up one day falling in love with poetry and thinking about the first poem they heard from a bumbling, amateur poet in the men’s department at Sears.

Photo: Michael Medrano.

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

Tanyia Johnson and Stephen Gros are literary event producers with the Houston-based organization Make.Play.Speak. They team up to create unique events, such as Kerouacfest: Go!Go!Go! and the upcoming Word Around Town Tour, both supported by P&W. Together, Johnson and Gros answered our questions about the work they do.

Tanyia Johnson and Stephen GrosWhat makes your programs unique?
Johnson: We try to create events we would want to attend. My experience with performance is from theater, and Stephen is an active poet and performer, so our programming takes an all-inclusive approach. We want to create events that can be experienced on different levels—visual, auditory, and kinesthetic—and try to incorporate these models throughout our programming.

What recent project have you been especially proud of?
Gros and Johnson: Our recent project was KerouacFest: Go!Go!Go! March 9, 2013, an all-day event dedicated to legendary Beat writer Jack Kerouac. The event was held at the Orange Show Monument. The Orange Show was built by Houston mail carrier Jeff McKissack between 1959 and 1979. It was McKissack’s opus to the orange, his favorite fruit. This space is an amazing folk art environment filled with mosaics, found objects, and has an unusual layout design, so it was perfect for our event.

With a venue that has multiple performance areas and so much character, we had to develop programming that would feel right for the space. We included a mini biographical exhibit, a panel discussion, a crowd-sourced aggregate poem using Twitter, a DJ playing records from the Beat era, a variety of food trucks, poetry buskers banging out spontaneous poems, plus two incredible jazz bands, and live screen printing. All of that before we even add in the youth slam performance by Meta-Four, well-known Houston writers reading from Kerouac’s On The Road, or the incredibly talented P&W-supported poets—Marie Brown, Salvador Macias, BGK, Chris Wise, and Seth Walker—performing their own work. 

We chose poets who weren’t necessarily writing in the style of Kerouac, but would evoke performances that reflected the jazz culture Kerouac desired to embody in his work. Overall, the event was very successful and rumors are already circulating of a follow-up festival next year.

How do you find and invite readers?
Gros: For the Word Around Town Tour we’ve recently instituted a Poet Draft. The Word Around Town Tour is an annual weeklong poetry marathon held at a different venue every night for seven days each summer since 2006, and it’s grown every year since it started. The current lineup consists of 21 poets plus seven veteran features. At that size, it can be tough to keep it fresh and find new talent. The Draft solves this problem. It’s essentially a big open mic where poets get ranked by the organizers and the winners get a spot in the lineup for the tour.

How do you cultivate an audience?
Johnson: At events, we encourage attendees to sign-up on MailChimp or find us on Facebook. Stephen has hosted and produced shows for many years, so he’s built up a network of followers. Houston has a pretty active poetry community. We also make a big effort to access people who usually aren’t attending these events. We try to get exposure through different media—radio, print, and online—to highlight the events we organize.

Can you speak to the value and challenges of collaboration?
Gros: For me, collaborating is a way to stay fresh. Having a different perspective brought to your vision can make the event become something remarkable. Specifically, Tanyia brings a knowledge and experience of event management and stage production, along with an endless stream of inspiring ideas, which makes her an asset on any team. Couple that with her unflappable dependability and professionalism, and it’s clear that she is the perfect collaborator.

Johnson: Collaboration is definitely a necessity for me because I am not a writer or a performance poet. I seek to collaborate with folks to create an artistic experience with a literary focus. My personal artwork has always been mixed-media, so I view this as an extension of mixed-media. The biggest challenge for me is scheduling. When you have more than two people collaborating, it’s tough to get everyone together at the same time.

How has literary presenting informed your own writing and/or life?
Gros and Johnson: Literary presenting has informed and influenced every aspect of our lives. We take vacations around the many annual events we produce. We’re more likely to buy new microphone equipment than new clothes. The list goes on. We live and breathe interdisciplinary art and literature events.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
Gros: Without literature, a community has no soul. Literary programs and live events inform and educate in an active, intellectually challenging way that other activities simply can’t compete against. Literary events provide knowledge of our shared literary heritage, while at the same time increasing awareness of cultural values, history, sociology, psychology, and almost every other branch of study. Reading, writing, and sharing with others are some of the most important things a community can do together.

Photo: Tanyia Johnson and Stephen Gros. Credit: Eric Kayne.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in Houston 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.

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