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Readings & Workshops Blog

Suzanne Rancourt blogs about her P&W funded workshops with many underserved populations. Suzanne Rancourt is pursuing her Doctorate at the US accredited European Graduate School in Expressive Arts: Therapy, Coaching, Consulting & Education as well as a Chemical Dependency Counselor certification. She holds an MFA in writing, MS in Educational Psychology, AWA and CAGS. Suzanne draws from her Native American culture and military service (USMC, USA) in her arts practice and workshops. She has nonfiction work, The Bear That Stands forthcoming in the Journal of Military Experience, with recent work translated by Beatrice Machet. Her writing has been published in numerous journals, is used widely in schools, and transposed into the successful project, On Her Shoulders - a play about nine female veterans. Suzanne is a Managing Editor for Blue Streak - A Journal of Military Poetry. Suzanne has an upcoming P&W funded workshop open to female vets from all eras November 2, 2013 at the Stratton VA Medical Center, Albany, NY. Her award winning book, Billboard in the Clouds, is now carried by nupress.northwestern.

For several years I have had the good fortune of receiving funding from Poets & Writers' Readings/Workshops Program. These opportunities have taken me into prisons, veterans hospitals, homeless shelters for women and children of domestic violence, survivors of Traumatic Brain Injuries, drug and alcohol substance abuse recovery groups, young, inner city girls, YWCA’s, Military Experience and the Arts symposium, and more. I often get people emailing me asking about my use of writing in the field of Expressive/Creative Arts Therapy.

Of course, I recall my first attempts twenty or so years ago trying to explain to various academics my ideas. Neuroscience and brain chemistry fields really didn’t exist then, so usually my ideas were received with a raised eyebrow, leery glances, and silence. My first writing professor, Leonard Gilley, always said that perseverance was a writer’s mainstay. I continued to seek and cultivate my voice as a writer and in so doing I was met with profound adversity, and opportunities.

I focused on being my “authentic” self and in so doing embarked on a journey that led to Pat Schneider and her Amherst Writers and Artists method of facilitating writing workshops. By then I had already acquired two Masters Degrees with education in writing and psychology. I knew a good thing when I felt it. The AWA method, to use some of Pat’s phrasing, 1. is non hierarchical, 2. is experiential, 3. is a strengths based model, 4. can be used with all people regardless of age, religion, lifestyle, culture, cognitive levels, etc, 5. meets the writer/learner where they are at, 6. the facilitator takes the same risks as the participants, 7. it is NOT psychotherapy.

I continued to educate myself and learn from each participant in every one of my groups. I began to realize the changes occurring within participants and myself, not just the cathartic stuff, but the physiological things. For example, prior to a writing spree I may become highly agitated and then sit and write for hours or days. What’s that about? I wanted to know more. Expressive Arts counseling requires that we delve into our own Kafka-esque realities and for me that meant using my primary modality - writing. The change occurs in the process of the art making. Find the surprise.

Since this is to be a relatively short blog post, I won’t give you the full Monty but let’s say the bus most recently stopped off at my military service years. In 2012,  a young Iraq veteran, Travis Martin, followed his Authentic self and created The Journal of Military Experience. Their dedication in using the arts for helping each other, bettering our worlds and documenting our experiences is beyond profound. Each writer writes for their own reason with some discovering a knack that they cultivate into a well honed craft. Ironically, words can’t fully describe how much being reconnected with veterans has helped me. Resonance and resiliency; Perhaps those two words can give you an idea.

Writing transports the artist to someplace. That’s why many of us write. Writing as an Expressive Arts / Creative Arts therapeutic modality is serious business. You are accessing memories, emotions, activating neural pathways that can lead to change with the appropriate guidance and support. There are specific practices that we follow in our daily living, and our continued passion to seek, learn, experience and become more competent in our profession; to be a better human. Be Authentic.

Photo:  Suzanne S. Rancourt.  Photo Credit: Donna Davidson

Support for Readings/Workshops in New York is provided, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, with additional support from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

P&W-supported poet Koon Woon, October’s Writer in Residence, was born in a timeless village in China in 1949. In 1960 he immigrated to Washington State, first to the logging town of Aberdeen, then to Seattle, where he now resides. He turned to poetry while he was a mathematics and philosophy student coping with mental illness. Later he attended the workshops of Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. At the age of forty-eight, Koon’s first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, was published by Kaya Press

It might sound like a stretch, but poetry saved my life—along with the care of psychotherapists, the kindness of my dear friend Betty Irene Priebe, and a continuous parade of literary friends.

Even though I was appointed literary chairman in high school, I could not attend the meetings after school because I had to help out in my family’s Chinese-American restaurant. I tried to study mathematics and philosophy in college, but mental illness was sneaking up on me. I had a full-blown psychotic episode in the streets of San Francisco at age twenty-seven, and was involuntarily hospitalized. I was shouting alarming verses on Stockton and Vallejo Streets at the edge of Chinatown, just a few blocks from the City Lights Bookstore.

I had no idea then that City Lights founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti would one day blurb my first book, The Truth in Rented Rooms, and sell it in his bookstore. (P&W has supported both Ferlinghetti and the store over the years.)

I wrote because I could assuage my mental illness by clarifying to myself my feelings and perceptions of reality. My first publication was “Goldfish,” which appeared in a literary tabloid called Bellowing Ark, started by a fellow student of poet Nelson Bentley at the University of Washington. The poem is about an animal perceived as a regal creature admired by emperors in daylight; but at night, the goldfish turns into a carp, a sharp, silver dagger conspiring to take their lives.

Many academic poets have at least a full-length book out with a prize (and also a price) attached, and a teaching position. But my relationship to poetry always felt more personal than professional—more intense, more weighty. For me, poetry was an attempt to regain my sanity. (This struggle was later collected in a chapbook, The Burden of Sanity, first published by Joe Musso’s Hellp Press.)

Now, at age sixty-four, my second book, Water Chasing Water, is out, thanks to editor Sunyoung Lee and Kaya Press, the world’s foremost English-language publisher of literature of the Asian diaspora. My books have found their way into universities.

I never set out to become a published poet. I entered the literary world through the back door, writing to channel my emotions instead of acting out in the streets. One can almost say I had a utilitarian reason to write poetry. But I am not an armchair poet. I became active in the literary community--active enough to form a literary press and to edit and publish a poetry magazine for twenty years. I also judge contests and sponsor poetry readings and workshops, several of which have been supported by Poets & Writers, Inc.

This month, I will blog about the poetry scene in Seattle and some of the poets and facilitators of readings and workshops. Increasingly, Seattle is becoming a thriving literary community that deserves the nation’s attention.

Photo: Koon Woon reads with Beacon Bards at the Station coffee shop in Seattle. Credit: Greg Bem.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in Seattle is provided by an endowment established with generous contributions from the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and others. Additional support comes from the Friends of Poets & Writers.

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.

I.
Years ago, Poets & Writers funded my visit to a small community college that drew much of its student body from surrounding rural towns. The organizer’s interest in bringing in writers stemmed from a desire to inspire her students to seek new possibilities and unfamiliar experiences. I’ve noticed that from at-risk youth centers to affluent private colleges, all professors and organizers share this common goal. So common, I’ve started to think of it as a key component to my broader mission.

I keep this in mind when facing not so awesome interactions. During a public access television interview at the aforementioned college, a friendly student led with a question that began, “So, being from ‘the hood’...” Those are her quotation marks, not mine, articulated in the air with her fingers. And yes, it went right where you think it did. Then, she sat back and waited for me to explain how I managed survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland, avoided getting hooked on crack, and somehow learned to read and write powerless behind the control room glass. For this student, my being a black guy from Detroit was like having a hobbit from the Shire in studio. I used it as an opportunity to talk about how poetry facilitates a dialogue where I can push back against such limited views and encourage people to open their eyes wider to the world.

This broadening of view is a two-way street. Looking back, I’m pretty sure my ability to keep it cool in that situation and make it a teachable moment is tied to an experience I had just a couple of hours earlier. During the reading I arrived at a poem called “The Movement of a Trapped Animal” which looks at the psychological effects of war on both soldiers and the supposedly unaffected populace that implicitly funds it. Before I started, I sized up the burly guy in the back sporting a shaved head and a sleeveless POW/MIA t-shirt. I took a deep breath and jumped into the piece, not sure how he would feel about it and by extension if he’d ask me to step outside for a “discussion.” In the post-reading Q&A the vet raised his hand and, when called upon, offered what is still one of the most moving and encouraging compliments I’ve ever received after a reading. As a veteran with friends suffering from PTSD, as a man who felt many Americans ignore the weight of war, he thoroughly appreciated the poem and was visibly moved by it. My prejudices—the ones that almost kept me from reading the poem—were exploded in a way I aspire to do for others.

II.
For years now I’ve done my best to live and create under a simple doctrine: Generate the best work I can, make that work available, and be good to people. Recently, author Neil Gaiman gave similar advice in a commencement speech, telling graduates that freelancers keep getting work because their work is good, they turn it in on time, and people like them. He goes on to say you usually only need two of the three. This may be true for my ideology as well, but when all three gears are turning in the machine, you get someone like David Blair. Blair was a singer/songwriter and poet from Detroit who passed away two years ago. The world is far worse for it. In life, and now in memory, he served as an example of a creative individual who did extraordinary work, made that work available by participating in countless events, and radiated a generosity, openness, and love for people that touched everyone who came in contact with him even briefly.

In a conversation about the importance of reading poems aloud in community spaces and facilitating free workshops, Blair once told me his job and mine was to be an “inspiration machine.” He believed the very best thing we could do as we traverse the country was to inspire new ideas, challenge old ones, and by virtue of showing up and laying our work on the line, encourage others to explore the raw, transformative power of the arts. Let’s do our best to remember the changes we’ve seen literature make in our own lives as we bring words and workshops into the lives of others.

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.

During the summer, Poets & Writers supported Samuel R. Delany, Malinda Lo, and Sarah Schulman at the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in Los Angeles. P&W intern Brandi Spaethe was also a fellow at the conference. We asked her to blog about her experience.

Lambda Literary fellowsI’ve been thinking about how I could possibly talk about the Lambda Literary Writers Retreat for Emerging LGBT Voices in the space of a blog post. Honestly, this is my fifth draft; ok, let’s be serious—twentieth. Do you want to know about the forty-eight fellows from locales all over the U.S. and other countries? Would you like me to discuss how essential the workshops and panels such as the People of Color Caucus and Kyle Sawyer's workshop on writing trans* characters were to the conversations flooding the American Jewish University campus in Los Angeles? How about the late-night writing sessions in dorm lounges or the karaoke outbreak in the room reserved for faculty and fellow readings?

Lambda's retreat can't be captured in this small space, but I can say for certain that it changed me in ways I am supremely grateful for. The four workshops were led by Samuel R. Delany (fiction), Malinda Lo (genre and Y.A. fiction), Sarah Schulman (nonfiction), and David Groff (poetry) and met each day for three hours. Each day, Groff gifted me and my fellow poets with a prompt for a new poem to write following the workshop. We would bring our new poems the next morning to be read aloud and workshopped by the class. One prompt pressed us to write about our parents, a parent, or any parental figure. This seemed easy enough. I’d written about my parents here and there, plenty.

Poetry fellows.Yet nothing could have prepared me for what happened in that room when all twelve poets read what they had written. Voices rose and fell, some soft, some so affected they had to stop a moment, and voices that spoke truths so hard I felt myself not breathing. We sat silent afterward, not speaking. Just stewing. The poems I heard by others and the poems I had written that week broke whatever had been barricading me before. What caused the shift could be attributed to a number of things—the discussions we were having prompted by our various backgrounds in queer communities, the work we were reading and listening to, panels and workshops offered beyond our genre-specific spaces.

Above all, the friendships we developed with one another and the honesty among us was most pivotal. I’m often among queer folks who have a variety of backgrounds, but rarely do I find those who share my obsession for writing. Conversely, queer folk are usually few and far between in my writing community. At the retreat, I had a sense that many of us shared that plight and were grateful to have this opportunity and space to share not only our writing but our experiences as queer writers. We took those friendships with us when we left. Lambda gave us access to each other.

On the last night, there was an open mic reading followed by a variety of cocktails and dancing. Nine of the poetry fellows gathered for a photo outside. A colossal thanks to the staff, faculty, and fellows.

Photos: Top: Lambda Literary Fellows. Bottom: Nine poetry fellows after an open mic reading; Brandi is second from the right. Credit: Joshua Barton.

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.
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.

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