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Children are often reminded not to talk to strangers, and for good reason. As we get older, communication with strangers isn’t as dangerous, but it can still be uncomfortable. This week, think about a conversation you have had with a stranger in an awkward situation. Who started it? Did you feel safe? After talking, did you feel like you knew this person any better? Did you ever see this person again, and if not, would you want to?

Reality television might not be that in touch with “reality," but it is still a source of entertainment for many people. Whether or not you enjoy The Real Housewives of New York (or Beverly Hills, Atlanta, etc.) or any other shows of that nature, there might be something to learn about characterization through watching these people battle it out on screen. This week, create a character that you think would be perfect for one of those types of shows. Then put your character in a scenario in which he or she must go through a dramatic, emotional struggle publicly, in front of millions of viewers, with another person or group of individuals. The key is to really amp up the drama and imbue the scene with as much nail-biting tension as you can muster.

The PEN/Faulkner Foundation announced today that Karen Joy Fowler has won the 2014 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction for her most recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. The $15,000 prize honors a book of fiction by an American author published in the previous year.

Fowler is the author of six novels, including the bestselling The Jane Austen Book Club (Putnam, 2004), and five short story collections. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, published by Marian Wood last May, is loosely inspired by the work of psychologist Winthrop Kellogg in the early 1930s, and tells the story of a young woman raised with a chimpanzee as a sister.

Known for writing genre-bending work, Fowler also cofounded the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 1991, a literary prize given annually for works of science fiction and fantasy that explore the understanding of gender. The prize is named for science fiction author Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pen name James Tiptree Jr.

In the following podcast from Aspen Public Radio’s First Draft series, Fowler discusses the new book, her process and inspiration, and how she came to be a writer.

The judges for this year’s PEN/Faulkner Award were Madison Smartt Bell, Manuel Muñoz, and Achy Obejas. Fowler’s novel was chosen from more than 430 novels and short story collections. In a statement released this morning, Muñoz said, “Fowler captures an altogether new dimension of the meaning—and heartbreak—of family dynamics.” Smartt Bell added, “This is a book that really does tell us something new about what it is to be human—and what it is not to be."

The finalists for the award included two short story collections, Joan Silber’s Fools (Norton) and Valerie Trueblood’s Search Party (Counterpoint); and two novels, Daniel Alarcón’s At Night We Walk in Circles (Riverhead) and Percival Everett’s Percival Everett by Virgil Russell (Graywolf). Each finalist will receive $5,000.

Fowler and the four finalists will be honored at the 34th annual PEN/Faulkner Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C., on May 10. 

In the video below, Fowler reads an early excerpt from We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, originally published in the literary magazine ZYZZYVA.

The first card in the Major Arcana of the tarot, a deck of cards used by mystics for divination, is called “The Fool." He is depicted on the card as gliding towards the edge of a cliff with the sun rising up behind to light his way, beginning a new journey full of unlimited potential. Have you recently set out on a new journey? Or are you itching to try something new, be spontaneous, and break out of your routine? Write a poem that captures the excitement of the first day of a new adventure. It could be a physical journey, like traveling to a distant land, or an emotional journey, like the start of a new relationship. Whatever path you choose, make sure it’s exhilarating!

Poet Sueyeun Juliette Lee reports on her P&W–supported reading and workshop with the experimental Houston collaborative Antena. Lee is the author of Underground National (Factory School Press, 2010), That Gorgeous Feeling (Coconut Books, 2008), and Solar Maximum, forthcoming from Futurepoem Press. In addition to her writing, Lee publishes innovative work by multiethnic authors through Corollary Press. She also edits for The Margins, the web magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and EOAGH: A Journal of the Arts.

Antena, made up of Jen Hofer and John Pluecker, is a language justice and experimentation collaborative, currently in residence at the University of Houston’s Blaffer Art Museum. In addition to curating an immense exhibition of book arts and small presses from the Americas (North, Central, and South) alongside text-based visual work by eleven artists from Latin America and the U.S., they also pulled together artists, small press publishers, and writers to convene this past February for a weekend of workshops and dialogues about community and art in a multi-national exchange. I was one of the invited artists.

Encuentro participants

In order to facilitate this cross-cultural exchange, Antena utilized real-time interpretation, which required all participants who weren't comfortable in both English and Spanish to wear headsets and radio receivers. Bilingual interpreters were present at each event and interpreted live for the participants by broadcasting on different radio channels. Though it was often challenging to listen through the headset, the experience underscored and manifested the obstacles we must wade through if we want to have a true encuentro, or encounter, with difference.

Block print

The workshops ranged from creating language-oriented artwork together, such as making a massive collective block print with Nuria Montiel of all of our favorite phrases, or participating in performance experiments led by Autumn Knight, who invited us to engage each other in playful new ways. The evenings were devoted to performances of all the featured artists’ work.

I was incredibly impressed by the audience’s diversity. There were of course many undergraduate students there, since we were located on the University of Houston’s campus, but Antena’s commitment to community and access was evident in the range of other workshop participants and attendees from all walks of life. One older woman approached me and told me she was not a “poetry type,” but was profoundly moved by all the things she had heard that night. She was clearly deeply affected. Isn’t that the greatest feat we can hope art will accomplish?

I was astonished by the cross-arts resonances that emerged between us. For example, I met Guatemalan visual artist and indigenous activist Benvenuto Chavajay, who asked me about the kite I had made for the exhibition. His country has an annual kite celebration, and we discussed the ways that kites impact national and cultural identities. Though I am a Korean American, raised outside Washington D.C. by immigrants, and Chavajay is of Mayan descent, we had very similar understandings about the kind of transformative work we wanted to accomplish through our art, and the way that we understand our relationship to our heritages and histories.

There are many moments from the Encuentro that I will never forget—especially watching Stalina Villarreal toss her “bouquet” of poems into the air and hearing Ayanna Jolivet McCloud’s skin as she rubbed the microphone across her body.

Top: Encuentro participants; credit: Pablo Gimenez Zapiola. Bottom: A collaborative block print; credit: Sueyeun Juliette Lee.

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.

This week, dust off your earliest memories. Why have those particular images stuck in your mind over all these years? Are they related to a specific event or chain of events? Try to write about and connect these moments in a short essay.

This week, have your character either lose or find an object, pet, or set of directions. Explore how this event opens up unexpected possibilities for your story. Will two characters meet for the first time because of this mishap? Will your protagonist be late arriving somewhere as a result?

A Room of Her Own Foundation is currently accepting submissions to its annual book prizes for women writers. The To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize is given annually for a poetry collection; the inaugural Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize will be given annually for a book of “everything but poetry.” The winner of each prize will receive $1,000, publication by Red Hen Press, and up to $1,000 in travel expenses to promote the book. The deadline is next Tuesday, April 1.

Kate Gale, the managing editor of Red Hen Press and editor of the Los Angeles Review, will judge the Clarissa Dalloway Prize. C.D. Wright will judge the To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize.

Women poets may enter the To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize by submitting a manuscript of 48 to 96 pages (two-thirds of which must be unpublished); women fiction and nonfiction writers may enter the Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize by submitting a manuscript of 50,000 to 150,000 words. Novels, novellas, memoirs, biographies, young adult literature, and graphic novels are eligible. The entry fee for both prizes is $20; entrants may submit using the online submission system or by postal mail to A Room of Her Own, Attn: TTL or CD Book Prize, P.O. Box 778, Placitas, NM 87043.

Sarah Wetzel won the 2013 To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize, judged by Tracy K. Smith, for her collection River Electric with Light. The winner of the 2012 prize, chosen by Evie Shockley, was Leia Penina Wilson for her collection I built a boat with all the towels in your closet.

Founded in 2000, A Room of Her Own is a nonprofit organization that works to support women writers. Their mission is “to inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women.” AROHO, which is committed to Virginia Woolf’s belief that “women need money and a room of their own if they are to write,” has channeled more than $1 million into awards, fellowships, and opportunities for women writers. Visit the website for more information.

Editor's Note: As of April 4, 2014, the deadline for both the To the Lighthouse Poetry Book Prize and Clarissa Dalloway Book Prize has been extended to July 31.

Have you tried writing a tanka, ghazal, or triolet? This week, try working in a form that’s unfamiliar to you. You can even adapt an existing draft to fit a form, or come up with your own constraints and pattern. For a list of forms and their descriptions, consult the list of Poetic Forms and Techniques compiled by the Academy of American Poets.

Brooklyn-based literary magazine and publisher A Public Space has announced a new international Emerging Writer Fellowship program for fiction and nonfiction writers. Three winners will receive $1,000, publication in the magazine, and a six-month mentorship with an established author.

In addition, fellows who are based in or visiting New York City will be given optional access to workspace in A Public Space’s Brooklyn offices for the duration of the six-month fellowship. The application deadline is April 15.

Writers from any country who have not yet published or been contracted to write a full-length book are eligible. Fiction and nonfiction writers may submit a previously unpublished short story or essay in English and a cover letter via Submittable by 5:00pm EST on April 15. Cover letters should include a short biography and discussion of a piece of writing that has been influential, along with contact information, the title and word count of the submitted work, and publication credits. There is no application fee. Visit the website for complete submission guidelines.

Winners will be notified by June 20. The fellowship period will run from September 1, 2014 to March 1, 2015. 

Established in 2006 by founding editor Brigid Hughes, A Public Space has published the early work of writers such as Leslie Jamison, Nam Le, Corinna Vallianatos, and Jesmyn Ward, who have since gone on to win major literary awards. “These fellowships continue that tradition,” the editors write. “Our focus when reviewing applications will be on finding writers who have not yet published or been contracted to write a book-length work, but whose writing shows exceptional promise.” 

A Public Space plans to award the fellowships twice yearly; the application period for the next cycle of awards will be September 1 through October 14. Visit the website for more information.

P&W–supported writer Beth Lisick is the author of five books, including the New York Times bestseller Everybody Into the Pool (Regan Books/Harper Collins) and, most recently, Yokohama Threeway and Other Small Shames (City Lights Publishers). This spring, Lisick will be part of the P&W–supported Sister Spit tour with RADAR Productions. She lives in Brooklyn.

Beth LisickWhat are your reading do's?
I always think about the type of event at which I’ll be reading and try to pick something I think will work in that venue. Is it a solo reading, group reading, cabaret-style show? Stuff like that. I mean, your work is your work and you only have so much to choose from, but I always think about it from an audience’s perspective (which I don’t do while I’m writing.) And sometimes I know I’ll give a better reading if it’s something I haven’t read out loud a bunch of times. I hate a canned reading.

And your reading don’ts?
Don’t ever, ever, ever, go on too long. The longest I will ever read is twenty minutes, but usually it’s more like fifteen with a Q&A or else some other dumb, surprise element I come up with.

How do you prepare for a reading?
I never over-prepare. I’ve learned not to get drunk or anything beforehand, but I also like to leave it open and see what it feels like once I get there. Some people are going to feel better if they’re totally prepared, but my favorite readings have always been when I leave a few things up in the air until the last minute.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
If bottles of gin are a “comment,” then that. If not, then “I worked with your dad at Lockheed Missiles and Spaces in 1978” was pretty good.

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
I don’t know that I have a crowd-pleaser. In between the poems or stories I’m reading, I try to be myself, be the person I am with my friends and my family. That always helps.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
I’ve been doing this for twenty years so a lot of shit has happened. I got booed by a very vociferous crowd when I opened for Neil Young. I’ve stage-dived and had my shirt torn off. I’ve made lifelong friends with people I’ve met at readings. I’ve completely had what felt like an aneurysm and forgotten what I was doing. I’ve been heckled by lesbians who were mad that I was a straight person on tour with lesbians. I’ve looked out in the audience and realized that there was somebody out there that I’d rather not have hear what I’m about to read and chickened out and changed at the last minute. And sometimes I’ve said fuck it and read it anyway.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Reading out loud used to completely inform my writing because open mics were how I started writing in the first place. Over time that has changed, but I still read my stuff out loud to myself after I’ve written something. I want it to sound good. Sometimes it does and sometimes it doesn’t, but my favorite stuff always ends up being the stuff that sounds really killer and dynamic when it’s read out loud.

Photo: Beth Lisick. Credit: Amy Sullivan.

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

Amy Tan’s story “Two Kinds” follows a young girl who is pushed to become a musical prodigy but ultimately fails to excel. This week, consider your own history with music lessons. Did your family or school persuade you to learn to play an instrument? Did you get to choose your instrument or was it chosen for you? Did you teach yourself to play an instrument later in life? If you have never played an instrument, write about another activity you picked up (or were forced to pick up) during childhood.

Parades are usually exciting occasions for children and a source of aggravation for commuters. This week, write a story or scene centered around a parade. Try to show contrasting reactions to the event. Draw from your own memories of parades at different times in your life.

This week, in honor of Saint Patrick’s Day, research the life of a saint and write a poem that incorporates some element of his or her story. It can be an image, a symbol (like Saint Patrick’s shamrock, the three-leafed plant he supposedly used to teach the doctrine of the Holy Trinity), or you might try writing a narrative poem. There are patron saints of headaches, florists, and bankers. Find the story that most interests you.

Last night, during a ceremony at the New School in New York City, the National Book Critics Circle announced the winners of its book awards for publishing year 2013.

Frank Bidart won in poetry for Metaphysical Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won in fiction for Americanah (Knopf); and Sheri Fink won in nonfiction for Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown).

Amy Wilentz won the autobiography award for Farewell, Fred Voodoo: A Letter From Haiti (Simon & Schuster); Leo Damrosch won the biography award for Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World (Yale University Press); and Franco Moretti won the criticism award for Distant Reading (Verso).

The winners were chosen by a panel of established literary critics from a list of thirty finalists announced in January. The shortlist in poetry included Lucie Brock-Broido for Stay, Illusion (Knopf); Denise Duhamel for Blowout (University of Pittsburgh Press); Bob Hicok for Elegy Owed (Copper Canyon Press); and Carmen Gimenez Smith for Milk and Filth (University of Arizona Press). The finalists in fiction were Alice McDermott for Someone (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Javier Marias for The Infatuations (Knopf); Ruth Ozeki for A Tale for the Time Being (Viking); and Donna Tartt for The Goldfinch (Little, Brown). The finalists in nonfiction were Kevin Cullen and Shelly Murphy for Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice (Norton); David Finkel for Thank You for Your Service (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); George Packer for The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Lawrence Wright for Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf).

Anthony Marra won the inaugural John Leonard Prize, which honors a first book in any genre, for his novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena (Hogarth). Critic Katherine A. Powers won the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing award, and fiction writer, essayist, and translator Rolando Hinojosa-Smith won the Ivan Sandrof Lifetime Achievement Award.

The National Book Critics Circle awards are given annually for books published in the previous year. For more information about the awards, visit the NBCC website or its literary blog, Critical Mass.

In the video below from Britain's Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses race, love, hair, and Americanah.

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