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In “Recovering the Classics” in the May/June issue of Poets & Writers Magazine, Jonathan Vatner reports on the project by San Francisco companies DailyLit and Creative Action Network, along with other community partners, to revitalize interest in classic novels by creating new, eye-catching cover designs. Choose a classic novel you’ve read in the past with a book cover you find particularly memorable. Write a short essay examining the features that make the design striking, drawing upon the relationship between the artistic style of the cover and the novel’s contents. Does the design resonate with your own aesthetic sensibilities?

If you haven’t heard of it already, a “promposal” is a request for a date to high school prom through a dramatic gesture often involving witty puns and surprise declarations of affection in public, all recorded on camera and shared widely on social media. Write a scene in which a secondary character carries out an elaborate “promposal.” Is it angst-ridden and cringe-worthy, or humorously slapstick? Does the success or failure of the act offer foreshadowing for the atmosphere of the entire story?

Technological and scientific advances have recently enabled surgeons to implant a chip into a human brain that, through a computer, can send signals to the body allowing a person living with paralysis to regain movement. Write a poem reflecting on your own observations about autonomy, the role of technology, and the physical mechanisms of the body. Think of unique ways to describe the inner workings of our minds, muscles, and limbs.

Today in New York City, the Pulitzer Prize board announced the winners and finalists of the 2016 Pulitzer Prizes. Of the twenty-one categories, the prizes in letters are awarded annually for works of literature published in the previous year by American authors.

The winner in poetry is Peter Balakian for his collection Ozone Journal (University of Chicago), a collection of poems “that bear witness to the old losses and tragedies that undergird a global age of danger and uncertainty.” The finalists were Diane Seuss for Four-Legged Girl (Graywolf) and Elizabeth Willis for Alive: New and Selected Poems (New York Review Books).

Viet Thanh Nguyen won in fiction for his debut novel, The Sympathizer (Grove), “A layered immigrant tale told in the wry, confessional voice of a “‘man of two minds’—and two countries, Vietnam and the United States.” The finalists were Kelly Link for Get in Trouble: Stories (Random House) and Margaret Verble for Maud’s Line (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). 

Prize administrator Mike Pride announced the winners and finalists at Columbia University’s School of Journalism. Each winner receives $10,000. A complete list of winners and finalists in each of the twenty-one categories, including journalism, literature, and drama, is available on the Pulitzer Prize website.

The 2015 winners included poet Gregory Pardlo and fiction writer Anthony Doerr.

Hungarian-American newspaper publisher and journalist Joseph Pulitzer established the Pulitzer Prizes in 1911, and the first prize was administered in 1917. In celebration of this year’s centennial, the Pulitzer board has partnered with individuals and organizations across the country for its Campfires Initiative, which hosts events with the aim “to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by Pulitzer Prize–winning work.” 

Nominations for the 2017 prizes will open in May.

On March 31, 2016, during the AWP Annual Conference & Bookfair in Los Angeles, Poets & Writers brought together P&W–supported teaching artists Dorothy Randall Gray, Michael Kearns, Mike Sonksen, and Leilani Squire for the panel presentation “Creative Writing for the Underserved: Ideas, Inspiration, Revelation.” Panelists spoke about best practices, what motivates them to do what they do, and how teaching writing to underserved groups has enriched their writing lives. Below are some highlights from the conversation, as compiled by Readings & Workshops (West) director and panel moderator Jamie Asaye FitzGerald.

Classroom Approaches

"I look at longevity as a starting point, and have them write about all of the 'selves' that have gotten them to where they are today."
—Michael Kearns, who works with GLBT seniors

"We spend a lot of time just talking, working through issues, then do a timed writing. I listen and witness. That's a big part of it."
—Leilani Squire, who works with veterans and their family members

"I begin the class with three minutes of silence. I work with teenage identity and bring in poems about that. I've had them read [Paul Laurence] Dunbar's 'We Wear the Mask.' I've even had them make a mask, think about the layers of their identity and list them. I try to show them how poets are always talking to each other and that they are part of the conversation. I also use a little hip-hop, documentaries, current events."
—Mike Sonksen, who works with teens

"Sometimes these populations don't want to feel because it hurts too much. I try to get them to connect with their feelings. Music and visuals help. One reward for doing the writing is letting the kids be DJ and pick out the songs. To get them to open up, be silly, bring a visual, ask an easy question like 'What's your favorite food?' or 'What do you want to eat when you get out of here?'"
—Dorothy Randall Gray, who works with incarcerated youth, women, and the homeless

The Effect on Their Writing Lives

"If I tell them to write deeply, to go for the jugular, how can I not do that myself?"
—Squire

"My stakes are higher. I am deepened by them."
—Kearns

"Not only do I have to deal with the truth; I have to face my own truth. I believe in sticking a pen in my own vein. As they tell their stories, I tell my stories."
—Gray

On Self-Care

"Being in the trenches is taking care of myself. Dealing with horror, pain, and abuse—it's contradictory, but it is comforting that I can hear and be empathetic.... And I have my daughter when I feel overwhelmed."
—Kearns

"You get worn out. Performing poetry and doing freelance writing helps. I keep my writing career active. Then there are the two kids who really get it, there's the e-mail from a kid five years later, and the kid who stays after class to help clean up."
—Sonksen

"Meditation. Adjusting my own beliefs. Compassion is a big part of it, and being as gentle and loving as possible."
—Gray

"I have to walk in centered, whole, and confident or I'll get beat up. I'm a practicing Buddhist. I go to Native American lodges, which helps me gain answers to questions I ask. I cuddle with my dog."
—Squire

Hopes for Their Students

"I hope they find a home in their hearts, where they feel loved and safe."
—Gray

"I hope their voices get louder, not softer; more authentic, more hopeful; more of who they are and not less—because that can often happen as one ages."
—Kearns

"I hope they come to a place of acceptance, understanding; of being listened to, witnessed; to come to some sort of wholeness. My agenda is to promote peace."
—Squire

"I try to give them the tools they need to lift themselves up. Ultimately, I'd like to create lifelong readers and writers. But mainly I use writing as a bridge to help them build identity and future hope."
—Sonksen

We are pleased to be able to support writers who work with underserved groups. For more information about whether your event might qualify for Readings & Workshops support, please see our guidelines or contact us.

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.

The shortlist for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize was announced yesterday, and includes Turkish Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk and pseudonymous Italian fiction writer Elena Ferrante. The prize is given annually for a work of fiction translated into English and published during the previous year. The £50,000 prize is split between the author and translator.

This year’s shortlist includes José Eduardo Agualusa of Angola for A General Theory of Oblivion (Harvill Secker), translated by Daniel Hahn; Elena Ferrante of Italy for The Story of the Lost Child (Europa Editions), translated by Ann Goldstein; Han Kang of South Korea for The Vegetarian (Portobello Books), translated by Deborah Smith; Orhan Pamuk of Turkey for A Strangeness in My Mind (Faber & Faber), translated by Ekin Oklap; Robert Seethaler of Austria for A Whole Life (Picador), translated by Charlotte Collins; and Yan Lianke of China for The Four Books (Chatto & Windus), translated by Carlos Rojas.

“In first-class translations that showcase that unique and precious art, these six books tell unforgettable stories from China and Angola, Austria and Turkey, Italy and South Korea,” says chair of judges Boyd Tonkin. “In setting, they range from a Mao-era re-education camp and a remote Alpine valley to the modern tumult and transformation of cities such as Naples and Istanbul. In form, the titles stretch from a delicate mosaic of linked lives in post-colonial Africa to a mesmerizing fable of domestic abuse and revolt in booming east Asia. Our selection shows that the finest books in translation extend the boundaries not just of our world—but of the art of fiction itself.

Tonkin—along with judges Tahmima Anam, David Bellos, Daniel Medin, and Ruth Padel—selected the finalists from a longlist of thirteen books, which in turn was culled from a group of 155. This year the prize combined with the Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize, and marks the first time the award has been given annually for a single work of fiction in translation. The prize was previously awarded to a fiction writer for a body of work.

The winner will be announced at an event in London on May 16. Previous winners of the prize include László Krasznahorkai, Lydia Davis, Philip Roth, and Alice Munro.

Image courtesy of the Guardian.

To celebrate the presentation of the Paris Review’s lifetime achievement award to Lydia Davis, her twenty-word story, “Spring Spleen,” was printed on the label of bottles of mouthwash. Write a few very short pieces of creative nonfiction totaling no more than twenty words that could each fit onto a small bottle label. Taking a cue from Davis’s story, incorporate elements of both nature and social behavior.

Skywriting is often used for advertising or special occasions, such as a birthday or a marriage proposal. A small plane expels smoke as it flies in a specific pattern resulting in words that appear to be formed out of clouds for the world below. Write a short story in which two characters in two different locations glimpse a mysterious message written in the sky. How will the message bring your characters together? 

Last night in New York City, the PEN American Center honored the recipients of the 2016 PEN Literary Awards. A selection of winners were announced in February; the winners of the following five awards were announced live at the ceremony.

Mia Alvar won the $25,000 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her story collection, In the Country (Knopf). Helon Habila, Elizabeth McCracken, Edie Meidav, and Jess Row judged. “It is rare to find a debut of such depth and breadth, work singing with the grace of a thousand doomed lifetimes compressed into stories both luminous and empathic, populated by memorable characters facing such keenly felt challenges,” the judges wrote.

Ta-Nehisi Coates took home the $10,000 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for Art of the Essay for his critically acclaimed epistolary memoir, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau).

The PEN Open Book Award went to Rick Barot for his third poetry collection, Chord (Sarabande Books).

Lauren Redniss won the PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (Random House).

Jean Guerrero received the inaugural PEN/FUSION emerging writers prize for her manuscript “Crux.” The $10,000 prize was established in 2015 to recognize an unpublished nonfiction manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five.

Meanwhile, novelist and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison was honored with the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction.

This year, PEN will confer approximately $200,000 in awards, fellowships, grants, and prizes to writers and translators. Visit PEN’s website for a complete list of the 2016 Literary Award–winners.

(Photo: Mia Alvar, Credit: Deborah Lopez)

Watch a video of the awards ceremony below:

In preparation for next week’s Poem in Your Pocket Day, find a short poem that you are especially drawn to and carry it with you, taking time to reread and reflect upon it. If you need help finding one, try the Academy of American Poets or Poets House websites. At the end of the week, write your own poem that in some way responds to your chosen poem. Next Thursday, on Poem in Your Pocket Day, add your original poem to your pocket and share it with others.

Nikki Williams is a multidisciplinary artist: an award-winning photographer, poet, playwright, painter, and producer of Arts Programs for almost thirty years. Williams is very proud that for the last sixteen years, she has been instrumental in becoming the first to introduce ongoing creative writing workshops in domestic violence shelters and homeless shelters, and other cultural institutions in New York City, and very grateful for the funding from Poets & Writers for many of these workshops. 

The seniors participating in WiZdom from the Elderberry Tree, a series of memoir and creative writing workshops for seniors of mostly African American descent whose roots are mainly from the South, were members of the Senior Ladies' and Men’s Club at River Terrace in upper Harlem. This was the first time that any of the seniors had participated in a writing workshop. These workshops, funded through the Readings & Workshops Program, culminated with a special invitation from the Director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Dr. Khalil Gibran Muhammad, to personally meet him and speak about their lives and the legacy of the Schomburg—History meeting History. The day included a tour of the American Negro Theatre, and the opportunity for the seniors participating in the last day of the program to write in the famed Scholars-in-Residence conference room.

You know my soul look back and wonder. How did I make it over?

African American elders, “Been Here Before,” spirits, speak of women bent low by heat and history, wedged between a wing and a prayer, picking cotton and pieces of their lives with equal urgency. Stories resurrected and reborn as quilted art are audible in Grandmother, Nana, Big Mama, and M’Dear tongue. Tales of paving a way out of no way, cutting through cane and cotton.

“My mother was a very strong Black woman with skin that was the color of a dark cup of coffee. She did not take any stuff from anyone. My mother was born on April 16, 1913 in Burke County, Georgia. Her advice to us: ‘Never depend on anyone but yourself.’ My mother worked long hours in the cotton fields.” –Mrs. H. B. Jenkins

Tell me how we got over Lord, I've been falling and rising all these years.

The journeyed stories of people of African descent are stowaways, surviving the Middle Passage. Good men, strong men, resilient men, managed with wit and might to untwist chains and tongue, to tell stories weighted down under iron bit that nudged them a nod toward freedom.

“When I was an MP in the army, one of my buddies, all of whom were white, suggested that we stop off at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant. As we entered the restaurant, all of us in full uniform, a white man came out from behind his desk, walked directly up to me and said, ‘We don’t serve your kind.’ I responded by saying the first thing that came to my mind, ‘What kind is that?’ I could feel the blood rushing to my head. This was 1963. ” –Mr. W. Cherry

Despite degradation and hardship, African American elders speak of an improvised life full of joy that America claims as its own: classical Ellington, Armstrong, Fitzgerald, Vaughn, and Holiday. They carried their stories from southern fields, be-bopped them along northern concrete. Travelled them tray steady on the shoulder of the dining room car, waiter coming home on a chariot swung low and sweet. His movements pure Jazz in its sway.

“The Savoy was around the corner from our apartment building, on Lenox Avenue between 140th and 141st streets. My brother and I would sit on the fire escape where we could see the neon sign and hear the Big Bands. In those days, bands came to Harlem every weekend. Vocalists stood before a mike and just ‘sang’ without elaborate staging; singers like Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, and Ella Fitzgerald.” –Mrs. B. Bonner

And then we're gonna sing somewhere 'round God alter, and then we're gonna shout all our troubles over.

African American elders place legacy in the womb of the listening ear—an Underground Railroad leading heart heavy souls to the promise land. Harriet Tubman holding a lamp lighting Sojourner’s truth. They have consistently told us that nothing is impossible, no stone too heavy, no river too wide to cross. Take my renewed hand; music my words with trumpet and song. Each note, a stepping stone, a crossed bridge; be amazed child, look back in wonder and see….

You know my soul look back in wonder. How did I make it over?

Photos:  Nikki Williams (top), Claudia Hurst (middle). Senior Citizens Club (Bottom).  Photo credit:  Nikki Williams and Mohammad & G.

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.

On Wednesday, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation announced the recipients of its 2016 writing fellowships. Grants of approximately $50,000 each were awarded to twenty-two poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers in the United States and Canada on the basis of past achievement and exceptional promise. 

The fellows in poetry are: Beth Bachmann of Nashville, Tennessee; Rick Barot of Tacoma, Washington; Jericho Brown of Decatur, Georgia; Stephen Burt of Belmont, Massachusetts; Cynthia Huntington of Post Mills, Vermont; Sally Keith of Washington, D.C.; James Kimbrell of Tallahassee, Florida; Deborah Landau of Brooklyn, New York; Ed Roberson of Chicago, Illinois; and Brian Turner of Orlando, Florida.

The fellows in fiction are: Jesse Ball of Chicago, Illinois; Jennifer Clement of New York, New York; Amity Gaige of West Hartford, Connecticut; Laila Lalami of Santa Monica, California; Jenny Offill of Red Hook, New York; Jess Row of New York, New York; René Steinke of Brooklyn, New York; and Melanie Rae Thon of Salt Lake City, Utah.

The fellows in nonfiction are: Adam Kirsch of New York, New York; Chris Kraus of Los Angeles, California; Amitava Kumar of Poughkeepsie, New York; Glenn Kurtz of New York, New York; Nick Laird of New York, New York; Paul Lisicky of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Amanda Petrusich of Brooklyn, New York; Robert Storr of New Haven, Connecticut; and Sarah Payne Stuart of Nobleboro, Maine.

Edward Hirsch, president of the Guggenheim Foundation, said of the 2016 class, “These artists and writers, scholars and scientists, represent the best of the best…It’s an honor to be able to support these individuals to do the work they were meant to do.”

Established in 1925, the Guggenheim Foundation fellowship program has granted more than $334 million in annual awards to more than 18,000 individuals. This year, a total of 175 fellowships, including three joint fellowships, were awarded to 178 writers, artists, and scholars. For more information about the program and fellows, visit gf.org.

April 2016 marks four hundred years since the death of William Shakespeare. Write a personal essay that reflects on your first or most memorable encounter with Shakespeare’s work, whether reading or watching a film adaptation of one of his plays, or hearing a recitation of one of his sonnets. For inspiration, visit Folger Shakespeare Library’s website where others have shared their favorite Shakespeare stories.

Meera Nair was born in India and moved to the US in 1997. Her first story collection, Video (Pantheon Books, 2003), received the Sixth Annual Asian American Literary Award for fiction, and was a Washington Post Best Book of the Year and a Kiriyama Prize Notable Book. Nair is also the author of the children's book Maya Saves the Day(Duckbill, 2013) and the forthcoming, Maya In a Right Royal Mess. Her fiction and essays have appeared on NPR, the Washington Post, and the New York Times among other publications. She has received fellowships from the New York Foundation of the Arts, MacDowell Colony, and the Queens Council of the arts.

What makes your workshops unique?
I've taught or continue to teach writing to undergrads and graduates at places like NYU, Brooklyn College, and Fordham, but recently I've had to rethink my pedagogy. Now I'm creating workshops for people who don't think of themselves as writers—who have no preconceived notions of craft, or conveyance, who have never agonized over choosing a point of view.

I'm currently doing a four-week workshop series for Nepali and Tibetan domestic and nail salon workers at Adhikaar, a nonprofit organization, where participants are writing personal essays on living and working as immigrant, POC workers in America. I want to give a big thanks to Muna Gurung, who has helped to interpret at the workshops, and Ryan Wong, and Kundiman who helped to set all this up. The challenge is to create a space where writing is no longer seen as “a mystery, a privilege of caste” as David Barthlomae called it. Which means I have to find methods by which participants are guided to privilege their own experiences, histories, oral testimonies, and the act of “talking to themselves” as something that is important and necessary.

I've tried to go back to the way South Asian people interact, how they are generous, expansive talkers and natural storytellers. The writers generate material using oral history methods, where I, as the facilitator, try to ask the questions and then disappear into silence while the participants talk. Once the words are said, once they exist in that shared space, once the writer has generated them, it's easier to take the next step—that of writing the words down in sentences. That step requires the writer to think about language and shaping the material, to think about rhythm and structure, but it also invites the writers to see that they already possess story, words, excitement, details, arcs—all those craft-y things.

What has been your most rewarding experience as a teacher?
I love that moment when the student understands that all writing is revision. It takes guts to revise and student-writers resist touching those initial, God-given sentences—but it's a beautiful thing when they look at that final draft and see that it's good because they learned to be brutal and ruthless with the work.

What affect has this work had on your life and/or your art?
I hear stories about people's lives that I would never have access to without the work I do outside the academic setting. Like all writers, I am a voyeur and a listener at keyholes, so to speak—and everything is material for my writing, whether I use it or not. I'm currently working on a collection of stories set in Jackson Heights, Queens, and I am getting insights and access into the lives of my characters I wouldn't have otherwise.

What is the wildest thing that’s happened in one of your workshops?
One semester I taught a workshop on writing about food and love, and three students, or maybe it was four, discovered for the first time in my workshop that they had issues with food/eating/body image and had to start therapy. I have retired that particular curriculum since.

Photo: Meera Nair.  Photo credit: Meera Nair.

Support for Reading & 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 form the Louis & Anne Abrons Foundation, the Axe-Houghton Foundation, the A.K. Starr Charitable Trust, and the Friends of Poets & Writers.

Many people experience seasonal allergies during spring caused by the increased amount of pollen and grass present in the air. Write a short story in which one of your characters is affected by seasonal allergies. Is it a condition that proves to have surprisingly dramatic consequences, or one that simply adds a layer of pathos, humor, or realism to the story or character?

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