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Readings & Workshops Blog

P&W-funded Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.


Workshops can be fantastic tools for writers: They can facilitate new writing, help with honing a current project, and provide forums for professional advice and opportunities for networking.

For many writers workshops can also feel disappointing or desperate, even subtly (or not-so-subtly) savage. Informal editing or writing groups formed independently by a few folks who know each other can be fantastic, but even these ventures can begin with high energy that ultimately fizzles due to mismatched expectations about goals, commitments, and organizational styles.

When looking for a workshop or retreat, new writers may find the scope of options intimidating. Should you spend a lot of money? Do you choose a program based on location and potential inspiration, or aim for a particular aesthetic or pedigree?

Fortunately, anyone can survey hundreds of options for free via online resources at Poets & Writers, Newpages, and The Association of Writers and Writing Programs. There are also regional listings, such as Poetix and Independent Writers of Southern California. Probably nothing beats word-of-mouth testimony. However, you’ve got to tap into workshop and readings circuits in order to hear those words. You’ve got to put yourself into the mix, and then see where you want to go. This means taking some risks.

It helps to refrain from idealizing any one workshop session, series, program, or facilitator as the solution to all your writing needs. It also helps to avoid believing in an unrealistic outcome as the measure of value of a particular workshop (“If I serve the right tables at Breadloaf, I’ll get published in the New Yorker!” or “Just meeting with X will get me a job!”). Investing too heavily in a narrow outcome can distract from the focus of one’s goals—to keep writing, to get better, to fail better—and wastes valuable time and creative energy.

Remember that even great workshops can have “off” seasons, and facilitators are human beings, not magicians or saviors. Some workshop experiences are simply unpredictable. For example, I had the chance to work as an undergraduate in a college composition course at USC with Sandra Tsing Loh, who was a graduate student in the Professional Writing Program at the time. She continues to be a transformative influence on me and my writing, but being in her class was an accident.

I met poet Jack Grapes when, on a fluke, I attended the fantastic Conference of the Living Tree at Ojai as a first-year English teacher in 1992. Afterwards, I attended Jack’s The Deep Voice process workshops for nearly a decade. I drove my Nissan from Riverside out to Jack’s house in Los Angeles’ Wilshire District after a full day of working with fifteen-year-olds. I loved every minute of the trip. In Jack's workshops, I met writers who also had day jobs and were looking to cultivate literary spaces: Larry Colker (founder of Redondo Poets), Chiwan Choi (founder of Writ Large Press), and Mifanwy Kaiser (founder of Tebot Bach Books).

You get the idea: those unplanned, wonderful experiences were the result of my commitment to one central goal: to learn and absorb as much as possible. Attending workshops shouldn't be a passive exercise.

Of course, when researching workshops there are practical and philosophical questions everyone has to consider. First the practical ones: Are you looking mostly to generate new work, or to revise longer writing? Are you interested in genre experimentation, or do you want to hunker down with short stories or poems or memoir work exclusively? Do you want to compete for a place in the workshop based on a writing sample, and is there a fee to enter the competition? How far are you willing to travel? How many sessions do you want, and how much time and money can you budget? If you’re considering an online option, how much do you know about the structure regarding participation and feedback?

The philosophical questions may be even more important: Do you have any “hot spots” or “triggers” when it comes to receiving or providing feedback? If so, can you identify them so that they don’t impede your ability to participate openly? Are you willing to collaborate with people who may have vastly different levels of skill, or would you rather work in a more homogenous group? How important to you are the history of the workshop and/or the creative output of instructors or former students? How willing are you to risk and to fail in this workshop alongside other people—or is your main goal to get some basic human affirmation?

Ultimately, no workshop can substitute for reading and writing as much as possible. And the best measure of value for any workshop may not be whether you received praise from a mentor or an “A” in the course—or even whether you publish the piece over which you agonized so much. If the experience leads to more writing, a wider understanding of the marketplace, more endurance for challenges and a more focused understanding about what you’re doing and/or why you bother, that’s the long game. That’s always a win.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
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 Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

What average community college students may lack in literary experience, they more than make up for in curiosity and unpretentiousness. They’re less likely to know who is "famous" (and therefore supposedly more worthy of their attention). They’re less entrenched in parochial notions about genre and form, and are more likely to ask questions that are really on their minds.

In the arts, there tends to be a confusing barrier between community and academic programs. We also often make erroneous assumptions about what kinds of students should, or could possibly, be interested in literary events—as if they are the exclusive domain of English majors, professors, and MFA students.

In the past four years, more than twenty writers have visited Riverside City College for a series of readings and workshops. I’ve seen students connect with living writers for the first time—for various reasons, and with wide-ranging levels of understanding and appreciation.

Visitors have included poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. Among our guests were Lloyd Aquino, John Brantingham, Billy Burgos, Ana Maria Spagna, Donna Hilbert, Juan Felipe Herrera, Judy Kronenfeld, Larry Colker, and James Brown. We’ve sought to mix new and emerging voices, nationally known and regional personalities, genre traditionalists and experimenters.

Our “Stay Classy” creative writing club and MUSE literary journal now coordinate readings in conjunction with creative writing and composition—and, at times, literature or screenwriting—courses. As a rule, our students have taken the lead to interview guests and prepare introductions delivered at events. Behind the scenes, they have prepared and circulated flyers, handled book sales, guided foot traffic, and prepared modest thank you gifts for writers. They have also learned how to compose press releases and advocate for funding.

For me, the most delightful impact of these events occurs when “basic writing” students—those students not yet enrolled in college-level classes—attend an event, ask questions, meet an author, and return to their normal routine stunned to be a excited about reading. In a noisy culture, no matter who you are, it is exciting to see how books are actually made by real life people who struggle over words and ideas. Students connect with that struggle.

There was the American veteran who talked with Tom Zoellner about how some people build their own firearms to outwit limits on high-capacity magazines.

There were the two girls who asked Stephanie Hammer if she had ADD or ADHD, with no offense intended or taken.

There was the student who waited at the end of the book-signing line because she wanted to give Gayle Brandeis a hug after her reading about her mother’s suicide.

And in the front row, two young guys who couldn’t stop peppering P&W-funded Chiwan Choi with questions: How could you afford to travel to Spain? What’s a ghostwriter, anyway?

Community colleges have a reputation as a sitcom punch line and a temporary stop along a student’s educational pathway. I love that our work to bring writers here for them flies in the face of these clichés.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Credit: Wes Kriesel.
Major support for Readings/Workshops in California is provided by The James Irvine Foundation. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

In November, P&W and the Inlandia Institute co-sponsored a day of workshops and readings at California’s Salton Sea, led by Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan. P&W’s California office director Cheryl Klein blogs about the event.

Brandon Cesmat leads the prose workshop.The shores of California’s Salton Sea—a vast lake created when the Colorado River flooded salt mines in the Imperial Valley a hundred years ago—are littered with fish carcasses. Small as a child’s fist or large as a dinner plate, still shimmering with scales or dried to Halloweenish skeletons by the desert sun, they are a reminder of how delicate ecosystems are. The Salton Sea was a thriving resort community in the 1950s and ‘60s, but because it lacks a natural outlet, fertilizer runoff from nearby farms makes the water increasingly inhospitable.

The future of the Salton Sea is the subject of much debate, but it’s fair to say that on November 2—the Day of the Dead—the Salton Sea State Recreation Area was incredibly fertile, at least from a creative standpoint. Four writers with a passion for the desert—Sandra Alcosser, Maureen Alsop, Brandon Cesmat, and Ruth Nolan—gathered with roughly two dozen participants for a day of writing, reading, and camping.

Tilapia head at the Salton Sea.It all began when Brandi M. Spaethe, an intern in P&W’s California office, took a road trip and fell in love with the odd, harsh beauty of the Salton Sea. She began wondering if other writers would be similarly inspired, and if locals might benefit from a literary event in an area that was hardly on many publishers’ book tours. She teamed up with Nolan, editor of the desert anthology No Place for a Puritan, from Heyday Books, and the Riverside-based Inlandia Institute. Sal y Muerte was born.

Nolan started the day with a quick tour of the grounds and visitors’ center, where participants learned about the lake’s history, dating back to the time when the indigenous Cahuilla made arrow weed huts in the basin. The group broke into two camps, poetry and prose, each co-taught by a pair of writers. In the prose workshop, Cesmat asked participants to use terms like “Pleistocene damn” and “step-over fault” in unpredictable ways as part of a “scaffolding” exercise. In the poetry workshop, Alcosser encouraged her students to consider the mysteries linked to the place and day.

As the sun turned the valley pink-gold, attendees clamored to explore the lake before dark. They took photos of the rotting tilapia and crunched bits of shell and bone—which look like sand only from a distance—beneath their feet.

The group reconvened around a campfire (the more outdoors-savvy among them had thought to bring wood and matches) and feasted on strawberries, sandwich rolls, musubi, and pan de muerto. Each of the featured writers took turns donning one participant’s headlamp and reading his or her work (except for Alcosser, who’d memorized several poems). Participants shared work too; three young students from the tiny nearby town of Mecca impressed the thirty-and-over crowd with their love of spoken word. But the evening didn’t feel like a featured poet/open mic formula so much as old-style entertainment: people gathered around a fire, exchanging words and rhythm.

Photos: Top: Brandon Cesmat (right, standing) leads the prose workshop. Bottom: a tilapia head on the salton seashore. Credit: Cheryl Klein.
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 Jo Scott-Coe is an associate professor of English and creative writing at Riverside City College in Southern California. Her memoir in essays, Teacher at Point Blank (Aunt Lute), was listed as a “Great Read” by Ms. Magazine. In 2009, she won the NCTE Donald Murray Prize for writing about teaching. Her nonfiction and interviews have appeared in many publications, including Salon, the Los Angeles Times, and Narrative. She is currently at work on a collection of lyric meditations about American public performances of violence since the UT Austin shooting in 1966.

Jo Scott-Coe

During this season of gratitude, it’s important to acknowledge the different kinds of generosity that make writing communities spark and thrive. Experienced writers also learn the generosity that requires us to pay our respects when opportunities come to an end.

This fall, Emeryville-based Memoir Journal published its thirteenth (and final) issue. Its editors not only produced a beautiful publication but also started The (In)Visible Memoirs Project, which gave people from underserved populations in California the chance to bring their stories to life on the page. The goal, in the words of Rachel Reynolds, Program Director, was “to hold space for a multitude of storytellers.”

I had the pleasure of facilitating two project workshops this past fall and spring in Riverside. All across California—in places such as Fresno, Yolo, Modoc, and Banning—workshop leaders set up small communities to mentor and encourage writers who might not have room in their lives to write, whether due to professional detours, geographical isolation, financial hardship, or private demons. Some workshops, like Ruth Nolan’s in Palm Desert, are organized around marginalized topics, such as dealing with suicide.

During its lifespan, the (In)Visible Memoir Project published two fantastic anthologies, I Speak from My Palms and Lionhearted, each over 250 pages, collecting the best submissions from each workshop. The two volumes demonstrate the energy that can emerge from writing that finds its initial home in small gatherings of people—around a table, in a living room, or at a library—where listening is the first gift.

I saw trust emerge, gradually, between participants in my women’s workshop. Women wrote about childhood heroines, their recollections of lost relatives and friends, their apprehensions in parenting and marriage, their perceptions of heritage. Some worked with artifacts and primary documents from their family histories. Each took risks not only in sharing private subject matter, but also experimenting with structures and voices sometimes considered “off limits” for memoir, or for women writing in that genre. After the official conclusion, a core group decided to keep meeting, helping each other move further forward with their stories, poems, and essays. Some are in the middle of books now. One just had a piece published in The Los Angeles Times.

As we say farewell and thank you to Memoir Journal, and as its (In)Visible Memoir Project comes to bittersweet end, it’s also a fitting time to consider how we each can appreciate the energy, financial resources, visible and invisible labor invested in creative spaces that sustain us, for as long as we have them.

We can make our gratitude visible through continued acts of writing and by making room for new voices.

Photo: Jo Scott-Coe. Photo Credit: Wes Kriesel.

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 poets Modesto “Flako” Jimenez and Annie Bacon will perform in Alphabet Arts’ Puppets & Poets festival December 6 through December 8 at New York’s Bushwick Starr theater. The organization’s volunteer, Nora Brooks, blogs about the festival.


The Folk OperaA puppet car with no driver cruises the Brooklyn streets while the rhythmic baritone of poet Modesto “Flako” Jimenez booms out spoken word images of life in the drug trade. This is not your typical poetry reading or puppet show, and that is what makes Alphabet Arts’ annual Puppets & Poets festival such a bright light for New York City audiences, particularly those with little access to poetry. Dominican-born poet and actor Jimenez, one of two poets awarded a P&W grant to perform in the upcoming festival, gives a lot of credit to the melding of the two art forms: “The puppetry will connect that visual to your writing, and it’ll dance in their brain like no other. It gives them that bridge.”

The festival is directed by poet Amber West, who co-founded the nonprofit multi-genre artist collective Alphabet Arts in 2009. That summer a group of artists came together to build and perform The Simpsons writer Mike Reiss’ children’s book, City of Hamburgers, as a puppet play on her front porch for a neighborhood block party. In 2011, they launched Puppets & Poets to “create and cultivate collaborative hybrid art,” the Alphabet Arts' website explains.

Last year the festival expanded by partnering with the Bushwick Starr, a theater that TimeOut recently named Best Off-Off Broadway Venue. The Starr is an incubator for experimental work, including hybrids like Puppets & Poets that build roads connecting distant corners of the artistic universe.

“We’re introducing the rich variety and complexity of two of the world’s oldest art forms to diverse audiences,” West said.

Perhaps physical imagery improvised from lyrical storytelling builds a roadmap through the poetry, or maybe the puppetry introduces a lightness that facilitates access to more difficult material.

“The festival last year had some amazing dark poetry, and the only way the audience was able to take it was through puppetry,” Jimenez said. It’s that magic combination of the literary and the popular that gives audiences a new way into the work.

This year’s festival includes artists from New York, Austin, and Philadelphia and features free, interactive family matinees as well as free field trips and “puppet poem” workshops for students at PS 123, a Title 1 elementary school near the theater.

“With P&W’s support, we’re bringing in San Francisco poet and musician Annie Bacon, who wrote a verse musical on a ukulele called The Folk Opera,” West said. “Alphabet Arts is adapting it to the puppet stage, and Annie and her band will perform alongside our puppeteers.”

SpacetansmananagasmAlso featured is Austin performer Zeb L. West’s one-man show, Spacetansmananagasm, blends David Bowie’s verse with an ancient Japanese puppetry form called kugutsu. The festival is supported in part by the Citizens Committee For NYC and the Brooklyn Arts Council. Funding for the artists and the free programs for low-income children and families is also supported by the community through an Indiegogo campaign.

The third annual Puppets & Poets festival includes ticketed evening cabarets for mature audiences and free family-friendly matinees. For more information, visit alphabetarts.org.

Photos: Top: The Folk Opera (credit: Kirsten Kammermeyer). Lower: Spacetansmananagasm (credit: Jeff Moreaux)
Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-funded Kamilah Aisha Moon currently lives in Brooklyn, New York, and is the author of She Has a Name (Four Way Books). A recipient of fellowships to the Prague Summer Writing Institute, the Fine Arts Work Center, Cave Canem, and the Vermont Studio Center, Moon's work has been featured in several journals and anthologies, including the Harvard Review, jubilat, Sou’wester, Oxford American, Lumina, Callaloo, Villanelles, Gathering Ground, and the Ringing Ear. She has taught English and Creative Writing at Medgar Evers College-CUNY, Drew University, and Adelphi University. Moon holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

Kamilah Aisha Moon author photoWe arrive here as ourselves; any mother will tell you this is true. Before words, before autonomy, before this world has any real focus in our infant eyes, we make ourselves known. It’s a miracle we spend our whole lives celebrating, losing and recovering, lamenting, rejecting, and embracing.

Before the hazings on playgrounds, high school dramas souped up on hormones, and before the lenses of race, class, sex, and orientation can trap us into lesser versions of ourselves, we seek, experiment, and feel our way along in the safety of good homes, if we are fortunate.

I certainly was. Poet Stephen Dunn has a line in his poem “Tiger Face” that reads “Good parents are blessings/ whoever they are.” Mine paid such close attention to me, and now tell stories from those early years. One of their favorites is about when I was two years old, getting into things and exploring around the house. I was finally tall enough to open the door to a narrow hallway closet, a utility closet that stored various tools and household supplies. On the back wall hung a huge papier-mâché African mask that my father made.

My parents watched as I stared up at this fierce, imposing mask, and then I screamed and ran down the hallway. They proceeded to watch as I—again and again—opened the same closet door, screamed, and ran down the hallway every day that week. Each day, I would stare a little longer before I screamed and ran. Until the final day, instead of screaming or running, I walked in and touched the mask.

So much of one’s character and spirit can be revealed in the smallest of gestures, gleaned from our choices. This scenario has played out in my life again and again, a hallmark of the way I’ve moved through experience after experience thus far. The decisions to move from city to city, building from the ground up in strange towns and new jobs, with someone and alone. The willingness to try and often fail at new things and travel solo abroad. The decision to put my writing first and leave a good career to move to New York for graduate school, despite considerable odds.

I just turned forty in September. The year leading up to it was filled with angst and anxiety as I reflected on the challenges and losses of the last five years in particular. I experienced existential ruminations and real fatigue that threatened to paralyze everything just as some goals I've worked toward for many years were beginning to come to fruition. Then a voice of reason deep inside of me asked, "Where is that fluid girl who let fear propel rather than imprison her?"

I forced myself to remember what has been exceptional and good in my life. I turned to the practices that have always seen me through the tough times: reading and writing. As a line in Sharon Olds' poem “Material Ode” advises, I had to choose “to love only where loved!” and leave institutions, relationships, and spaces where this love wasn't happening. I had to recall, for myself, what I wrote in an email to a younger friend who was in a confusing, whirlwind moment in her life: You'll rarely feel sure or completely comfortable with most endeavors. If you do, interrogate why because that's how growth feels—off-kilter and magic, all at once. Losing your breath and getting it back, over and over again.

This world has so many ways of assaulting the body, mind, and spirit. Indignities that make it easy to forget the unique force you are and the love you come from, leaving you unrecognizable to yourself. Ask your loved ones—your beloved mirrors—to remind you regularly of your highest, most resourceful, intuitive self. Do the same for them in return. And yes, bravely write it all down the best way you possibly can.

Success in writing and life is as much about what you let go of as it is about what you gain. Let go of others' false verdicts of who you are and who you are meant to be. Let go of doubts and negative projections. Let go of past mistakes. Face those fears that loom large, and touch them (perhaps screaming through tears, and with small, shaking hands) to take away their power.

Photo: Kamilah Aisha Moon. Photo Credit: Rachel Eliza Griffiths.

Support for Readings/Workshops events in New York City is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional support is provided by the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, the Cowles Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-sponsored writer Chiwan Choi is the author of Abductions and The Flood, among other works, and the founder of Writ Large Press. In October, he performed at Riverside Community College in Riverside, California. We asked him to blog about his visit.

Chiwan ChoiI've been fortunate to read my work at great venues in numerous places over the years, from Los Angeles to New York. I was able to meet wonderful and inspiring people like Caitlin Myer and her Portuguese Artists Colony in San Francisco, the amazing and selfless Mike Geffner and his Inspired Word events all over New York, and everybody whom I've ever met in Seattle.

But I have to say, the two places that have been my favorites so far have been two city colleges that are overshadowed by their more famous UC counterparts. One was the writing class at Berkeley City College that used to be taught by a fantastic young writer and teacher named Alexandra Kostoulas. The other, my absolute favorite, is Riverside City College and a group that calls itself The Stay Classy Creative Writing Club, a student club at RCC, with Jo Scott-Coe, one of the best essayists writing today, as advisor. The group has invited me out three times now, most recently on October 2 of this year.

It was a great crowd. Around fifty to sixty people, I think. They were completely engaged. They were completely generous.

"I won't be reading tonight," I announced. "Let's talk." They didn't mind. Which was great because it gave us more time to talk and get to know each other.

It was a beautiful experience. The asked me questions about writing, about publishing, about my love life, about race, about The Walking Dead. About everything. I tried to answer every question as honestly as possible.

Visiting Riverside Community College.The event was emceed by Michael H. Winn. I was greeted in the parking lot by Tina Holden Burroughs. All wonderful people who were kind to me just because they liked what I do. I first got to know The Stay Classy Creative Writing Club through Jazzy Bird and Brennan Gonering. A young writer named Samuel James Finch gave me two of his fantastic chapbooks, The Pepper Tree Conspectus, which featured a little opening story called "Monkey Brains," about a guy who liked to whip out his testicles, and The Pain Body. A student named Amanda Graves blew me away with her writing. I even launched my next book project.

The fact is that for a writer like me, a community like The Stay Classy Creative Writing Club is imperative for my creative survival. They take care of me with love and financial support--much more than famous and established bookstores. Without support from the ground level, it is difficult for any writer to continue.

I came home happy, humbled, and wanting to contact each person there that night through Facebook (or something) and go out for drinks. I wanted to thank them for reminding me that art is about personal connections, and that art is about engaging in a long-term relationships that work both ways.

Photos: Top: Chiwan Choi (credit: Chiwan Choi). Bottom: Visiting Riverside Community College (credit: Jo Scott-Coe).
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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