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This week, listen to a poem new to you—by a contemporary poet or a bygone poet—and jot down the words, phrases, and images that are most striking or memorable to you. Then write your own poem inspired by this list of words. How do you transform someone else's poetic intuition and choices into a work that demonstrates your personal idiosyncrasies and specific aesthetic sense?

Author Charlie Vázquez is the director of the Bronx Writers Center at Bronx Council on the Arts. He is one of the founding members of the Latino Rebels bloggers and writers collective, as well as the New York City Coordinator for Puerto Rico’s Festival de la Palabra, which makes it possible for him to work with prize-winning journalists, novelists, and poets from around the world. You can follow him on his Facebook author page or @CharlieVazquez on Twitter.

Last week, I had the very unique fortune of being invited to read with Nuyorican pioneers Sandra María Esteves, Americo Casiano, and Gloria Fontánez at the Countee Cullen New York Public Library in September. This was organized by Lorraine Currelley of Poets Network & Exchange, Inc., and was funded by the Poets & Writers Readings & Workshops program. It was an added honor to participate in the resulting Q&A, which gave members of the community in attendance the opportunity to ask us questions regarding our history and methods of creating poetry and fiction.

Each writer had a completely individualized approach to writing and its implicit politics of voice and identity. It was fascinating to listen to my fellow panelists’ processes as a writer who works with scribes across multiple disciplines. Sandra and Americo began in the earliest years of the Nuyorican Poets Cafe movement, and Gloria came into writing out of the pure love of storytelling. I began my writing process far away from home during my years on the West Coast—as a way to connect with my Puerto Rican roots.

I ran a reading series in the East Village (PANIC!) upon my 2006 return to New York City, as a way of networking with other writers, as social media was expanding. I wasn’t able to pay my featured presenters then, but as director of the Bronx Writers Center, I’m now able to compensate my writers. It has made a massive difference. The Bronx Writers Center is dedicated to fostering literary culture in the Bronx and administers the Bronx WritersCorps program, which mentors at-risk youth living in shelters in some of the nation’s poorest neighborhoods.

Those of us who take writing seriously know it’s hard work, and although I continue to make myself available for free when youth and teen mentoring is involved, it’s wonderful to get paid for something you spend years of your life trying to perfect.

Photo:  Charlie Vázquez. Photo Credit: Rebecca Beard

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

The National Poetry Series has announced the winners of its annual Open Competition. Each of the five winning poets will receive $10,000 and publication in 2016 by a participating trade, university, or small press.

The 2015 winners are Justin Boening’s Not on the Last Day, But on the Very Last, selected by Wayne Miller, to be published by Milkweed Editions; Jennifer Kronovet’s The Wug Test, selected by Eliza Griswold, to be published by Ecco; Melissa Range’s Scriptorium, selected by Tracy K. Smith, to be published by Beacon Press; Danniel Schoonebeek’s Trébuchet, selected by Kevin Prufer, to be published by University of Georgia Press; and Joshua Bennett’s The Sobbing School, selected by Eugene Gloria, to be published by Penguin.

Established in 1978, the Princeton, New Jersey–based National Poetry Series is a nonprofit dedicated to “promot[ing] excellence in contemporary poetry” by publishing five poetry books annually through its Open Competition. Previous notable winners of the prize include Terrance Hayes, Adrian Matejka, Marie Howe, and Eleni Sikelianos.

In December 2013, the National Poetry Series was in danger of closure due to lack of funds, but has since been revived and has increased the monetary amount of its Open Competition awards from $1,000 to $10,000. For more information about the organization, visit the National Poetry Series website.

(Photos from left: Justin Boening, Jennifer Kronovet, Melissa Range, Danniell Schoonebeek, Joshua Bennet)

Research a paranormal story or legend native to your community. Write an essay that meditates on its origins, its historical context, how it characterizes your community today, and what reservations or questions it stirs up in you. Whether you’re the deepest skeptic or the most willing believer, how you engage with these supernatural tales can reveal a lot about your mind and imagination.

This week, create your own unique holiday, then write a piece of flash fiction about it. Include any traditions or customs that may be involved, and the story behind them. Is the main event a special feast, a bacchanalia, or a time to let loose an alter ego? Is it a day of celebration or contemplation? Explore what this holiday represents for the people who observe it.

After All Hallows’ Eve comes All Saints’ Day. The good news: Hagiography is a treasure trove of unique material for poems. Write a poem in the voice of a famous saint who has returned for this day. What would he or she make of the modern world? Would the remnants of present-day Halloween festivities leave the saint perplexed, mystified, even horrified? Challenge yourself to make the common rituals of modern life seem foreign and charged with possible meaning.

Readings & Workshops intern JoAnna Schindler blogs about her experience attending the P&W–supported Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) Summer Poetry Academy taught by poet and musician Juan Cardenas at Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore. LAPS was founded in 2009 by poet Jessica Wilson Cardenas to fuse the diverse communities of poets, writers, booksellers, and publishers of Los Angeles County into a unified social and literary network.

Juan Cardenas, Jessica Wilson Cardenas, Bee Spaethe

Tucked into an ordinary strip mall in Sylmar, California, cohabitating with a Fresh & Easy and a Denny’s, is one of the Angeleno literary community’s most prized gems: Tia Chucha’s Centro Cultural and Bookstore. Founded in 2001 by current Los Angeles poet laureate Luis J. Rodriguez and his wife Maria Trinidad Rodriguez, Tia Chucha’s is a cultural arts center and bookstore that hosts workshops, classes, and events in literature, visual art, music, and dance to unify and empower the community.

This small but vital space is where P&W–supported instructor Juan Cardenas of the Los Angeles Poet Society (LAPS) and cofacilitator Jessica Wilson Cardenas immersed an intergenerational group of teens and adults in the session’s theme: ekphrastic poetry—poetry written in response to another piece of art.

I identify as a fiction writer, but my poetry rarely reaches an audience, let alone the page! With their unmistakable enthusiasm for everyone’s ideas and work, regardless of experience level, Juan and Jessica created a safe space for me and the other workshop participants to take some of our first steps into writing poetry.

We wrote down words, phrases, and images that intrigued us from a poem by Catherine Wagner, which included things like polar bears floating, red race cars, and lemon highlights. After sharing our notes, which to my surprise, varied a great deal from person to person, we wrote poems. Though inspired by the same work of art, our poems were diverse and distinct, ranging from descriptive to introspective, and formal to prosaic.

Juan Cardenas and student

After easing us into ekphrastic poetry with the first exercise, Juan asked us to write two more poems: one inspired by the mural “Healing Through the Arts” on Tia Chucha’s exterior, and another influenced by the live guitar playing of guest artist Nelson Alburquenque. Juan encouraged us to write anything that came to us, as long as it was an elaboration or response to the original piece of art.

Again, each of us unearthed from these same pieces of art vastly different stories and epiphanies: where I saw the haze of a Los Angeles sunset, Malayna, one of the adult participants, saw the clear blue skies of a rural spring; where I heard the echoes of a car stereo, my P&W colleague, Jamie, heard the cry of a hawk.

The LAPS workshop celebrated the cultivation of individual voice and vision. As we studied other artworks, the emphasis was not on what they were supposed to mean, but what we saw, heard, and felt. This was an especially refreshing change for me. Currently, I study literature at UCLA, where we are more often asked to unveil a work’s historical, social, and political significance, rather than reflect on our personal experience of the piece.

As for writing poetry, this intergenerational workshop reminded me that in order to participate in any art form, whether or not it is one’s chosen medium, we must first give ourselves the chance to—without restraint, without judgment. That is the first brave step.

Photo 1 (left to right): Workshop leaders Juan Cardenas and Jessica Wilson Cardenas hold up copies of Poets & Writers Magazine donated for the event, with P&W program associate Bee Spaethe. Photo 2: P&W-supported workshop leader Juan Cardenas with a teen student. Credit: Jamie FitzGerald.

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

Write a letter to a friend you’ve lost touch with for at least ten years—perhaps you haven’t spoken to each other because of a falling-out or one of you moved to a new town. What do you remember about the last time you saw this person? Reflect upon the ways in which you have changed and remained the same from who you were ten years ago. Examine the emotions that surface when you think about this old friend and your relationship, and the physical places that your memories take you.

Vladimir Nabokov said, “Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.” Try your hand at writing a spine-tingling tale. You might create a feeling of mystery or unease by introducing a creepy premise in the first sentence, or decide to lull the reader into a sense of security with a few run-of-the-mill details before unleashing an element of horror. For inspiration, read Nabokov's short story, "The Visit to the Museum."

In “Selected Poems: Looking Back on a Lifetime of Writing” in the November/December issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Donald Hall writes, "A grumpy stranger asked me, 'What do you write about anyway?' I blurted out, 'Love, death, and New Hampshire.'" What would you blurt out if you were asked the same question? Write a poem that draws upon your top three thematic obsessions, whether you instinctively reach for these topics each time you start writing, or enjoy revisiting this material in your work. What fresh insights might the juxtaposition of these three subjects in a single poem bring to light?

WordsWest Literary Series’ cocurators include poets Katy E. Ellis and Susan Rich, and novelist Harold Taw. All three live in West Seattle and came together over their parched need for a reading series in their community. Katy E. Ellis is the author of two chapbooks Urban Animal Expeditions (Dancing Girl Press, 2013) and Gravity (Yellow Flag Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in a number of literary journals and anthologies including Literary Mama, Redheaded Stepchild, MAYDAY Magazine, Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review, Till the Tide: Mermaid Poetry, and the Canadian journals PRISM International, Grain, and Fiddlehead. Susan Rich is the author of four collections of poems including Cloud Pharmacy (White Pine Press, 2014); The Alchemist’s Kitchen (White Pine Press, 2010), a finalist for the Washington State Book Award; Cures Include Travel (White Pine Press, 2006); and The Cartographer’s Tongue (White Pine Press, 2000), winner of the PEN USA Award. Harold Taw’s debut novel, Adventures of the Karaoke King, was published by Lake Union Publishing in 2011. His writing has been featured on NPR, in a New York Times bestselling anthology, and in the Seattle Times. Harold is currently writing a novel about a turbulent adolescence in Southeast Asia and collaborating on a musical adaption of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

WordsWest StaffWhat makes your organization’s series and its program unique?
West Seattle is geographically isolated from the rest of Seattle’s literary venues. WordsWest Literary Series is unique in that it fills the gap in what has been a literary series desert.

Each WordsWest event is what we call a “living anthology” or “braided reading” where our two featured readers read in short bursts, taking up to three different stands at the mic. This gives the reading a collaborative rather than competitive feeling and leads to lots of surprising connections in the work read aloud. We get to see the authors interacting on stage in a never-to-be-repeated moment.

The WordsWest Literary Series also features West Seattle's Favorite Poem Project, wherein people from local, independent businesses or organizations join each event by reciting a favorite poem and telling us why it’s a favorite.

What recent project and/or program have you been especially proud of and why?
As a whole, WordsWest is something we are super proud of creating in our community so it’s difficult to choose a single pride invoking event, however, our “Kids’ Night” stands out as being both unique and inspiring. Our readers included Sundee Frazier, award-winning novelist of books for young people, along with MacArthur fellow and National Book Award recipient Dr. Charles Johnson and his daughter Elisheba Johnson, reading from their coauthored and illustrated tween novel. It was a packed house with people of all ages and backgrounds. Our local librarian read her favorite poem (“Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll) and promoted summer reading. Maybe it was the fun, sugary snacks, but everyone seemed energized by all the great stories and poems!

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
We’ve had ten events over the course of this past year and the three of us curators still remember a moment during the first event in September 2014, when our first reader took to the stage and we looked at each other, looked around at the crowded coffee shop, and then nodded our heads and smiled, all thinking, “Wow, we really did it!”

Our readers have all been incredible and unique, but one of the highlights of each event is our West Seattle’s Favorite Poem segment. One night we had a local business owner confess how hard it was to find a poem to read for the event. When she mentioned it to her sixteen-year-old son, she was surprised to learn he had a favorite poem at the tip of his tongue! Both mother and son shared their poems on stage that night. (Hers was "The cat's song" by Marge Piercy, and his was "Invictus" by William Ernest Henley.)

How do you find and invite readers?
It’s not a mandate for our series but we do try to select one reader from West Seattle. We are surrounded by incredible writers in our own neighborhood, for example, our state’s poet laureate Elizabeth Austen and award-winning nonfiction writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Once we reach out to a reader, we encourage that reader to then invite an author they admire and with whom they’d like to read. Again, we want authors to interact on stage and weave their work together. If they are friends or if they have wanted to meet for a long time, it makes for a meaningful unfolding collaboration.

What do you consider to be the value of literary programs for your community?
West Seattle, along with all of the Puget Sound region, continues to grow in leaps and bounds with more commercial chain stores, expensive and dense housing, which means, of course, more people. In booming cities, literary programs can be a grounding force. By establishing a solid, homegrown literary reading series right in our neighborhood, we hope to help shape (and retain) the heart of West Seattle as it expands. Having access to thought provoking, truly inspiring written and spoken live literature not only brings a community together, but it also lingers in daily life and gives us new ideas and more understanding of the world around us.

Photo (left to right): Katy E. Ellis, Harold Taw, Susan Rich    Credit: Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

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.

The term "urban legend" refers to contemporary myths often connected to popular culture that are recounted to entertain and/or explain random events. Write an essay using an urban legend as a jumping-off point for probing into what you find entertaining or unsettling. For inspiration, you might consider the stories of Bloody Mary, exploding Pop Rocks, bodily spider infestations, or alligators in the sewer.

Last week, the 2015 Nobel Prize recipients were announced, awarding a writer, scientific researchers, and peace advocates from around the world whose areas of work range from molecular cell DNA repair to political mediation in Tunisia. Write a short story in which your main character finds himself invited to the Nobel Prize award ceremonies in Stockholm, Sweden. What preconceived notions might he have about the festivities and winners? Is he star-struck, mildly impressed, or ambivalent? Does he have dubious plans beyond celebrating with the recipients and guests?

Jamaican writer Marlon James has won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for his novel A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books). James, who was announced the winner this evening at a ceremony in London, will receive £50,000 (approximately $76,000), and becomes the first Jamaican writer to receive the prize.

James, forty-four, is the author of two previous novels: John Crow’s Devil (Akashic Books, 2005) and The Book of Night Women (Riverhead Books, 2009). A Brief History of Seven Killings tells the story of the 1976 assassination attempt on famed reggae singer Bob Marley. The novel, which follows over a dozen different narrators, portrays the cultural and political climate in Jamaica at the time.

“The book is startling in its ranges of voices and registers, running from the patois of the street posse to the Book of Revelation,” said chair of judges Michael Wood. “It is a crime novel that moves beyond the world of crime and takes us deep into a recent history we know far too little about. It moves at a terrific pace and will come to be seen as a classic of our times.”

Along with Wood, the panel of judges—Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith, and Frances Osborne—selected James from a shortlist of five other writers: Tom McCarthy of the United Kingdom for Satin Island (Knopf); Chigozie Obioma of Nigeria for The Fisherman (Little, Brown); Sunjeev Sahota of the United Kingdom for The Year of the Runaways (Knopf); Anne Tyler of the United States for A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf); and Hanya Yanagihara of the United States for A Little Life (Doubleday). The shortlisted authors will each receive £2,500 (approximately $3,800).

In his acceptance speech at the London ceremony, James credited Bob Marley and reggae music as his inspiration, saying they were “the first to recognize that the voice coming out of our mouths was a legitimate voice for fiction and for poetry.” James also said, “We talk about diversity, and sometimes I think we just use that to kowtow to political correctness, but one of the things it reinforces is that there are so many ways to tell the English-language novel…this wonderfully malleable, wonderfully flexible language can be used in so many different ways.” James dedicated the prize to his late father.

First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards for fiction. The prize, which was previously given only to writers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, was expanded last year to include writers of any nationality writing in English, whose books have been published in the United Kingdom during previous year. Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 prize for his novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Margarita Cuevas-Cruz is the lead project director of Open Moments NYC, an organization based on the creed "by poets, for the community,” which aims to inspire change in the world while enhancing human potential. She holds a BA in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in History from Utica College. She uses poetry as a tool to promote activism in worldly issues, the youth, and issues of violence and inequality. Cuevas-Cruz has appeared at numerous high schools as a keynote speaker with the YWCA in the Mohawk Valley, was published in their April 2012 newsletter, and wrote an editorial piece about surviving child abuse in the Utica Observer Dispatch. She has been published in the Sunday Writing Circle's No Apologies anthology and has performed for Latinosnyc at the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, Word at 4F, Sneakers and Ale's the DoJo, the Poet's Settlement, and the National Black Theatre with the Full Circle Ensemble.

Open Moments NYC is a grassroots organization that provides a way of expression for all ages through writing, leadership, open mics, and interactive workshops. Open Moments (OM) had its humble beginnings in the 1980s, created by Simon Cruz and Francisca Cuevas. The poetry readings took place at City College, where Simon Cruz attended, and at Barnard College, Francisca Cuevas's alma mater. This is important to the inception of Open Moments NYC, because as Francisca's younger sister, I was given the name of the organization as a token of trust and appreciation for my own work as a poet.

In 2008, I had the luxury of meeting other student poets, Keron Alleyne, Samuel Maldonado, Jamila Cain, and Tiffany Williams, who were starting a poetry group. They agreed that Open Moments was a perfect fit to what they believed the poetry group should be on the campus of Utica College in Utica, New York.  

Now in New York City, Open Moments is growing and taking a "nomadic" approach as we go where they need us. Along with Rashawna Wilson, Keron-Alleyne, Samuel Maldonad, Jasmine Cordew, and many others, we work tirelessly to create a safe space for the arts and social justice. We offer teen workshops, workshops with featured facilitators, and thought-provoking events like "Guess Who's Coming to Brunch?,” “Anti-Colonizer Day: Reclaiming Our History,” and “Cadence of Hair." We serve as mentors, workshop facilitators, and performers with the hope of enhancing human potential.

Open Moments NYC, has recently begun receiving grants from Poets & Writers, which has been a huge help for our organization. It helps us to get the best poets and workshop facilitators at events like “Anti-Colonizer Day: Reclaiming Our History,” which is being presented in collaboration with ELKAT Productions, and our monthly writing workshop called the Traveling Pen Series. This series was established for writers who want the time to write at a workshop, but do not have the time to commit to attending every week. Every month, we choose a facilitator and provide donation-based workshops to the community at Project Brownstone, Inc. in Harlem. As the organization continues to thrive, we want to utilize this resource provided by Poets & Writers to live up to our mission of giving back to the community as poets.

“By poets, for the community” is our slogan, because regardless of the topic, we infuse the art of spoken word and writing in order to allow our participants at workshops, and our audiences at open mics, to leave with something to think about.

You can read more about us on our website or e-mail us at openmomentsnyc@gmail.com.

Photo: (top) Margarita Cuevas-Cruz. Photo Credit: Leticia Torres

Workshop Poster (bottom). Design Credit: Rashawna Wilson

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

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