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Bryan Allen Fierro, Poets & Writers' Maureen Egen Writer's Exchange fiction winner, blogs about winning the award and his emotional literary journey, which carried him from Alaska to New York City. 

Fierro grew up in the environs of Los Angeles, California—Pico Rivera, Montebello, and Monterey Park. He received his BA in English/Writing from the University of Colorado at Denver, and recently graduated form Pacific University in Oregon with his MFA in Fiction. His thesis "Dodger Blue Will Fill Your Soul" is a collection of short stories that captures the fragile heart of the durable East Los Angeles community. The area serves as the gravity of his storytelling, which searches out both language and culture as a means of preservation. He is currently at work on his first novel, Shangri-LA. Fierro's stories earned him the 2013 Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) in fiction and a second-place finish in the 2013 Lorian Hemingway Fiction Contest. His stories have appeared in Cooper Nickel and Quarterly West. Bryan lives in Anchorage, Alaska, where he serves his community as a firefighter and paramedic for the Anchorage Fire Department.

“The highest level of consciousness one can attain is to live in a constant state of gratitude.” - Unnamed shopkeeper in Molokai gift shop

It has been two months since my visit to New York City to participate as one of the two Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award (WEX) recipients. The little story that could, "100% Cherokee," finally found a home at Poets and Writers, thanks to the discerning eyes of a talented staff, and ultimately, author Ann Napolitano, a very gentle and soft-spoken soul whoas the final vote for the fiction selection for the State of Alaskafound value in my work. Up to that point, no one had wanted a story about rogue coyotes.

When Bonnie Rose Marcus at Poets and Writers called to inform me that I'd won the WEX award, I was humbled, dumbstruck really. My first thought was to contact my writing mentor, southern poet Jake Adam York—the one person who had forever strengthened my fiction. He taught me to value simplicity and appreciate an exactness in prose that seemed mathematical. He drew shapes on paper and instructed me to write according to their dimensions: a process of circles, oblongs, and trapezoidal narratives. He taught me about Muddy Waters and Thelonious Monk, BBQ, and small batch bourbon. He showed me that we as writers all carry something in us bigger than ourselves—some equivalent of a cross we must bear. For him, writing was a way to express his unflinching dedication to the voice and courage of the martyrs of the Civil Rights Movement.

It had been six years since we last spoke. I wrote an email to him that stated two important points. Number one: I was sorry for not keeping in touch. I had been too embarrassed about not writing more often. That, in addition to a wife with MS and living in Alaska, changed me wholly from the inside out. A new life had burrowed into my previous existence. Number two: I won. I won this magnificent opportunity and I wanted to share it with him more than anyone else in the world. It was only when I searched for Jake Adam York's contact information did I discover that he had died four months earlier. A sudden stroke had robbed him of life and us of words we’re incapable of stringing together for ourselves.

There would be no southern, twang-laced congratulations.

I recently unpacked an old box I’d kept in storage for the last five years. Inside was a sealed business letter-sized envelope addressed to the University of North Carolina Admissions Committee—a letter of recommendation for my graduate admittance written by Jake. His signature was scrawled across the envelope's glued seam. The contents inside held his unfettered opinion of me as a writer—and perhaps also as a person. We would be having a conversation after all. But I haven’t opened the letter yet. The timing isn’t right. I’ve reserved that singular moment for the first day I sit to write at the Jentel Artist Residency in Wyoming, an additional immeasurable gift from the WEX Award.

I could go on at length about the WEX award. I could tell you about the reading in SoHo in front of an informed and literary audience at McNally-Jackson, or the daily networking that filled me with hope as vital as the air in my lungs. Then there are the friendships I will value for a lifetime. All of these events and new relationships are the easy take away from an award such as this one (which is unique, by the way—there are no other awards quite like this one). Yet I won’t go on at length about the importance and depth of the experiences I enjoyed. I will simply end with this: The Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award has become a fulcrum in my writing life. It pieced together the fragments of my past, while pointing to all the possibilities of my future. I am forever indebted.

Photo: Bryan Allen Fierro. Photo Credit: Dein Bruce

The award is generously supported by Maureen Egen, a member of the Poets & Writers Board of Directors and retired as Deputy Chairman and Publisher of Hachette Book Group USA.

This week, people are adjusting their lives to the arctic conditions that have invaded much of the country. The weather is beyond our control, which gives it an otherworldly and spiritual quality. From historic military battles to cancelled softball games, the weather has had a profound impact on the human race and individuals. Write a poem about a time the weather affected your life. Use imagery that symbolizes the ancient, omnipresent, and indifferent soul of nature: a sapling sheathed in ice, June moonlight on a broken window, a flashbulb thunderstorm over an evacuated swimming pool. The weather is different for every life. Put yours to poetry.

First founded in Iowa City in 1958, December, the storied literary magazine resurrected last month after being shuttered for nearly three decades, is currently considering submissions for its first annual literary awards.

The Jeff Marks Memorial Poetry Prize and the Curt Johnson Prose Awards in Fiction and Creative Nonfiction will include three first-place prizes of $1,500 each and three honorable mention awards of $500 each for a group of poems, a short story, and an essay. The winning works will be published in the Spring 2014 issue of December. The deadline is February 1.

Poets may submit up to three poems of any length; prose writers may submit a short story or essay of up to 8,000 words. The entry fee is $20, which includes a copy of the Spring issue. Submissions will be accepted online via Submittable or can be sent by mail to Gianna Jacobson, Editor, December, P.O. Box 16130, St. Louis, MO 63105.

All entries will be considered for publication. Simultaneous submissions are accepted, but writers are asked to notify the editors upon acceptance of work elsewhere. Previously published work, either in print or online, will not be considered.

Finalists will be selected by December’s editorial staff; final judges will be Stephen Berg in poetry, Mary Helen Stefaniak in fiction, and William Kittredge in creative nonfiction.

The biannual December’s Revival Issue was published last month and is currently available for individual purchase and by subscription. Visit the December website for more information and complete submission guidelines. 

Writers often loathe the idea of a New Year's resolution because we constantly make deals and compromises with our creative souls regarding productivity and diligence. Bargaining with our writing vices is a daily battle—one that drives many writers to the precipice of insanity. Sometimes the best resolution isn’t a change in habit, but a change in perspective. Instead of viewing your daily writing regimen as a chore, write six hundred words about why you feel blessed to be a writer. Recall the reasons you became a writer, and detail the reasons to be thankful for the upcoming literary year.

The promise of a new year is laden with expectations. Much of the conflict and drama that propels stories forward stems from a character’s passions and expectations. Some of those expectations are achieved, others bring heartbreak and despair. Write a scene in which your protagonist deals with unfulfilled expectations. Describe in detail his or her reaction, whether it is expressed by a simple downward gaze or a violent tirade. Contending with failed expectations reveals much about the inner worlds of our characters.

The end of 2013 has arrived. Considering we are all on earth for a limited amount of time, it is important to reflect and appreciate the end, and beginning, of another year. Take time away from the popping champagne bottles, boisterous countdowns, and feigned promises of resolutions. Sit alone somewhere and ruminate on the past year. Slow down. Think. Be grateful. Write a poem about your thoughts and emotions as you recall the people, moments, and events that brought you joy and sadness this past year. Time is indifferent to life and death. This is why poetry exists.   

P&W-supported writer John Wareham recently taught a workshop for prisoners at the Downstate Correctional Facility in Fishkill, New York. He blogs about his years running workshops in prisons.

I have spent a lifetime advising corporations how to select and develop winning teams and leaders. One day nearly twenty years ago, an aspiring executive client with a drug habit wound up in Rikers Island, and gravitated to a rehab program.

Noting that I had visited him a few times, a program official asked if I might come along one day as a guest speaker. I had already written a couple of self-help books, so I figured I would use some of that material, with the emphasis on people and communication skills. The class went so well that I've been running it ever since.

I decided early on that my students should graduate with a first-rate skill, so I focused on public speaking. Then I added parliamentary debating. Finally I integrated a series of life-changing discussion readings into my class. To the surprise of prison officials, I began with readings from philosophers Plato, Aristotle, and Epictus; and psychologists Freud, Adler, and Berne. Shakespearean sonnets also proved highly apt. I compiled all the readings into a book and had forty copies delivered. Alas, the title, How to Break Out of Prison, attracted the attention of security officials, who confiscated everything. But when the carton finally came back to me, half a dozen copies were missing.

I moved on to teaching longer term offenders, including those at the maximum security unit at Downstate Correctional Facility. My students there are serving serious time for violent crimes, mostly armed robbery, manslaughter, or murder.

Three years ago, I added the creation and delivery of poetry to the public speaking element. I was surprised at how well this went. The guys loved being able to express themselves, as they put it, “freestyle.” Poetry was more important than politics; they could say anything. The poems were great and so was the delivery. My stipend from Poets & Writers enabled me to assemble their poems into a neat book.
 
This year, I had my each student in class deliver both a speech and a poem recounting key milestones in their journey from childhood to arrest, conviction, and incarceration—and then, to deeper self-recognition and enlightenment. I was struck by the honesty, wit, and profundity. I caught the attention of a publisher, who asked me to include insights of my own. I’m proud and excited to be sharing How to Survive a Bullet to the Heart.

Two poems from the book:

Questions

Who am I?
What have I done?
I can't believe I did that.
What have I become?
Why are those guys oozing red?
That one looks just like he’s dead.
They’re staring at me, everyone.
Wherever did I get this gun?

--Sheldon Arnold

Shades of Gray

Racism in the ghetto
        was just another day.
When it came to black and white
        there were no shades of gray.
I wised up to that jungle
        and tried to get away.
Hey, not so fast, the devil said,
        and I was shred and lay
        bleeding in a gutter
        with a bullet in my tray.
First I saw black
        then I saw white
        but never shades of gray.

--Andre Rivera

The Readings/Workshops program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council.

Sometimes the inanimate objects in our lives adopt parts of our beings: a bed assumes the contours of a couple’s sleep, a knitted scarf stretches to accommodate the long neck of a businessman’s windy walks to the subway, a wooden bannister becomes polished by the hands of children running to and from the kitchen. Write five hundred words about a piece of furniture in your home that has somehow incorporated the soul of a person. Focus on textures, sounds, and smells that imbue life into this living object.

This is a difficult week for fiction writers. Like athletes, writers must maintain a disciplined daily regimen to ensure their creative muscles are strong, productive, and functioning at peak levels. The holidays, however, can derail even the most committed writers as our lives submit to the drama of meddling family members, long lines at airport security, or a lovingly made apple pie dropped on the front steps. Give yourself the gift of time this holiday. Take twenty minutes to disappear and write. Hide if you must. Report from the eye of the holiday storm. Create characters from the people around you. Develop fictional stories from their real experiences. Stay creative.

Despite the commercialism, stress, and anxiety over gifts and travel, the holidays are a time to reflect on the more endearing aspects of humanity: our ability to love, connect with, and help those around us—including strangers. Write a poem that explores the complexities of the human heart and mind, and how the holiday season—if only for a few days or even moments—brings out the best in the poetically flawed human condition.

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


We’re all grabby. It’s a healthy part of the self-respecting writer’s condition in a real way. We want our writing to be better. We want readers and good reviews. We want help and friends in high places. We want book sales. We want a thousand “likes” or “favorites” or shares of our latest FB post or Tweet. We want fair contracts. We want editors to value our work. We want bylines, prestigious prizes, and $1.50 per word. We want a room of our own. Of course we do!

But too much grabbiness can often come off as myopic, desperate, and frankly ordinary. Despite all those late nights and early mornings crouched alone at the computer, this writing and publishing deal is, in the end, a highly social activity. How to keep from being just another pair of grasping hands? Here are a few suggestions, based on my own observations and missteps over the past two decades.

When you attend somebody’s reading, plan to buy the book or e-book. If you read alongside someone else, trade books or links or cards—trade anything that creates reciprocity. I don’t care if you “just don’t like his aesthetic.” I’ve attended way too many sad events where everyone has a book or chapbook to sell, and no one buys or exchanges any work. Any! If you can’t afford a book this time, make a plan for when you will. Figure out other ways to circulate literary capital. Then, when you can afford it, buy a book and give it to someone else.

If you’ve been invited to read as a guest, especially if you receive an honorarium, consider donating one or two copies of your book to the organizers to give away or auction off at their discretion.

For every one time you talk about your own project, talk up someone else’s latest thing. Sprinkle that love everywhere. This is easy and fun. I’m thinking right now about two first books by two great poets on my winter reading list: Kevin Ridgeway’s All the Rage, and Jeffrey Graessly’s Cabaret of Remembrance. I’m also looking forward to the upcoming issue of Chaffey Review, a biannual journal that this week won an award for the best multi-genre two-year college literary magazine. Hooray for all of them!

Write “charming notes” on real stationery—or in thoughtfully composed emails—to people whose work you admire, at every level of the achievement spectrum. Don’t calculate an outcome, just move onto the next charming note. In the late 1990s, I sustained a several-month exchange of long letters with my literary crush at the time, but the exchange ended and he let me down easily when I eventually inquired for an interview. The interaction left me feeling both green and clumsy. Later on, during my MFA program at UC Riverside, novelist Susan Straight made sure all of us students read Carolyn See’s book, Making a Literary Life. See elaborates the finer points of the gratuitous charming note, emphasizing brevity, timing, and the lack of a mercenary agenda. I’ve never regretted sending one of those notes. Ever.

Not to get all Downton Abbey about it, but have some grace, for God’s sake. Consider your approach. We all have to compete with strangers for gigs and offer proposals in a changing literary marketplace, and we all need to request favors now and then. It’s understood. Still, don’t Tweet, IM, or DM an offhand request for a blurb to a person you’ve never met. Put some actual thought into the request. (How are you different from the spammer selling weight loss supplements?) Also don’t be the guy or gal who only reaches out to literary friends and allies for a letter of recommendation, free editorial services, or career advice. (See “charming notes” again.)

Subscribe or donate to a literary journal that rejected you. This balances out the ironic expectation you may have that all content should be available for free (everybody else’s content, that is). This subscription thing is easy if you enter one contest a year, because most contest fees include a year’s subscription.

Here’s one that’s practically a cliché: Accept a compliment. This is a big problem for me, not because I receive so many compliments all the time, but because like lots of people, I was not socialized to accept praise very well. At a reading several years ago, a co-performer said something spontaneously generous as she introduced me, and I felt awkward and undeserving. As I took my place at the mic, instead of saying, “How kind of you,” or “Thank you for saying that,” I actually said (cringe, cringe, cringe!), “That is a little horrifying.” Here was this lovely person saying something benevolent and off-the-cuff, and I had rebuffed her effort. There’s no way to take the moment back now, but I can do my darnedest not to repeat the icky performance.

Develop an internal validation system that allows you to share problems without raining on anybody else’s parade. I had a bizarre, frankly violating experience with an editor at highly desirable venue several years ago, and it led to a mutual termination of my acceptance contract. I was disappointed, but I was also actually proud of the resolution and glad to walk away. When I shared this story as a cautionary tale with some other writers, one of them (who had a piece under consideration with the same editor) asked if I was advising them not to submit to this publication. I shook my head. “Heavens no. If it works out for you, that’s fantastic,” I said. “But if something gets weird in the exchange, you don’t need to feel bad about that either.” The writer’s brilliant story did get accepted and published by the editor without incident. My piece was published elsewhere. Win win.

Last but not least, just say “no” already. You’ve agreed to contribute to another blog? And proofread a friend’s manuscript? And teach a ten-week workshop for free? And learn html so you can retool your own website? All while completing your own taxes in January, and schlepping the kiddos to school, writing query letters to agents, and preparing to host the birthday party? Give it a rest already. Give yourself room to be selective, and let your “yes” mean something energizing for everybody.

I offer these imperfect suggestions realizing that not all will apply to everyone, and that every writer could add more ideas to the list. In fact, the more inventive we get with offering modest gestures of sincere enthusiasm and good will, the more tempered all our necessary assertions of self-interest become as we bump into each other around the literary water cooler. There are real advantages to that kind of energy, and the beginning of a new year is a great time to assess this aspect of our writing lives.

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

P&Wsupported writer Asia Rainey is a spoken word artist, vocalist, actor, and educator. She is the author of the book Soul Chant (2005) and a poetry CD compilation, No Rainbows for the Colored (2007). She premiered her one woman play, "Shut Up and Fly," to rave reviews in 2010, and has been welcomed as a speaker/performer at numerous events and educational institutions. Rainey has produced poetry events from spoken word open mic nights to the Write, NOLA Poetry Festival and the New Orleans Youth Slam Festival (NOYS Fest). She is presently working on her first novel with Chin Music Press and is working on a new CD, which will include her original music and spoken word. She continues to broaden her role in education as a Master Teaching Artist with Young Audiences Charter School, an innovative arts integration academic program in New Orleans.

Asia RaineyCan you tell us about your organization WordPlay?
I adapted the model and curriculum of a sister organization, WordPlay Baton Rouge, in 2007 after returning to the city post-Katrina. When I came home, I saw a need to help rebuild the spoken word community and support the next generation of poets.

WordPlay New Orleans became the vessel for that work via workshops, connecting with schools, community events such as the Write, NOLA and NOYS (New Orleans Youth Slam) festivals, and poetry open mics. Working with libraries in New Orleans, including the P&W–supported workshops at the Algiers branch, was a natural part of that work, as they provide safe spaces for people of all ages to be exposed to spoken word poetry.
 
How do you get shy writers to open up?
My belief is that no matter how shy or lacking in confidence a person may be, we all have something to say. I have done my best to first help people connect with themselves and find the voice within them that needs to be heard. Once that first step is made, there is something that compels a person to move past fear and finally be heard. The freedom and connection felt from sharing that writing makes most people open, even anxious, for the experience.

What is your writing critique philosophy?
If you are writing to simply express yourself, and you are giving your truth, who am I to say that it is wrong or not good enough? After I have given the tools I can to improve that writing, my "critique" becomes the questions: "Have you said what you need to say?" and "Is this the best way you feel you can express it?"

If you are writing for an audience (even if that reason is coupled with the first motivation)—meaning you want to move into paid performance, publish, or even compete as a slam poet—I believe the writer is asking me for a different mode of feedback. Then I am looking for form and flow, the way the work engages and connects, and the development of strong performance.
 
What do you enjoy most about teaching writing?
That moment of self realization, when a person of any age finds the power in their own voice. I love to see the beauty that comes when someone of any age is transformed by their own writing. It is a blessing to play any small part in that.
 
The piece “Shotgun” on your website reminds one of Gil Scott-Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and the bluesy “Fiyah,” melds spoken word and song. Who and what are some of your influences?
Music—from the strings of a symphony performing Scheherazade to the earthiness of India Arie—can make my pen move. My writing is influenced by poets from Gil Scott-Heron to Sonya Sanchez, Harlem Renaissance to the Last Poets, MC Lyte to Common, the vast number of phenomenal spoken word artists I've met across the country to the youth poets, who've taught me I still have much to learn, to the poet who poured her heart out on stage for the first time.

How does teaching inform your art and vice versa?
Teaching is part of understanding what I have learned. Breaking down what may come naturally or intuitively to you into learn-able parts brings greater understanding. The teacher becomes the pupil.

Additionally, your pupils, and their successes or setbacks, are your constant mirror. One of the young poets I worked with struggled to find his voice, telling us what he thought we wanted to hear. I called bull****. He was shocked that I would say that about his work, but I told him that I needed him to find the truth in whatever he had to say, and if he could do that, he would get where he wanted to be. He did it and has written beautiful work since. I have called bull**** on my own writing many times since then, simply because I have to practice what I preach.

Photo: Asia Rainey. Credit: Gus Bennett Jr.
Support for Readings/Workshops events in New Orleans 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 Sonora Review is currently accepting submissions to its annual poetry contest, given for a poem or group of poems. The winner will receive a prize of $1,000 and publication in Sonora Review. The deadline is February 14.

Eduardo C. Corral, the winner of the 2011 Yale Younger Poets Prize and author of the collection Slow Lightning (Yale University Press, 2012), will judge.

Poets may submit three to five pages of poetry and a $15 entry fee using the online submission system or by postal mail to Mike Coakley and Laura Miller, Editors in Chief, c/o Poetry Editorial Board, Sonora Review, English Deptartment, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85719. A cover letter with a brief biography and contact information should be included with submissions, but names should be removed from all manuscript pages. The winner will be published in Issue 66 of Sonora Review; finalists will also be considered for publication.

The winner of the 2013 prize, judged by Dawn Lundy Martin, was Shawn Fawson. Kenzie Allen won the second-place prize, and Cat Richardson received the third-place prize. The winning works can be read in Issue 63.

Founded in 1980, Sonora Review is one of the oldest student-run literary journals in the country. Each issue is edited and assembled by an all-volunteer staff of graduate students in the Creative Writing Department at the University of Arizona. Former staff members include Robert Boswell, Antonya Nelson, Tony Hoagland, Richard Russo, Richard Siken, and David Foster Wallace. Work originally published in the Sonora Review has appeared in the Best American Poetry and Best of the West anthologies, and has won O. Henry Awards and Pushcart Prizes. Visit the website for more information.

“You don't write about the horrors of war. No. You write about a kid's burnt socks lying in the road.” This quote from author Richard Price emphasizes the importance and power of details in conveying a larger emotional storyline or the nuances of a complex concept. Reflect on the relationships you’ve had in life—with your family, your friends, or your colleagues—and choose one poignant and definitive memory that involved a sense of loss. Write five hundred words about that loss using carefully selected details to express complicated emotions and interpersonal dynamics.

"I read newspapers avidly. It is my one form of continuous fiction." This humorous quote from Aneurin Bevan, the architect of Britain's National Health Service following World War II, is also packed with advice for fiction writers. Newspapers—whether online or print—offer a wealth of story ideas, inspiration for character development, and engrossing portrayals of humanity and inhumanity. Read the local section that highlights everyday people confronting the ordinary trappings of life. Choose a person, event, or experience that captures your attention. Begin your next story there.

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