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In many of Shakespeare's comedies, twists and turns in the story arc are caused by cases of mistaken identity. For example, in Twelfth Night, a young shipwrecked woman dresses up and pretends to be a young man in order to get a job; in As You Like It, the daughter of a duke disguises herself as a poor shepherdess; and in Measure for Measure, a duke impersonates a friar in order to spy and play tricks. Write a short story that starts with a scene in which your main character interacts with another character while in disguise. What does your character hope to gain by taking on this new persona? How must the character transform—both physically and emotionally? What are the limitations or pitfalls of the disguise? Conversely, are there doors that might now be open to this new identity that were closed before?

Kathy Wilson’s background includes many years in the theater both as an actor and teacher. She attended Marymount Manhattan College, earning a degree in Communication Arts, and has taught numerous writing courses at MMC for both Continuing Education and the Center for Learning and Living. Active in the P&W-supported writing workshop at the Goddard Riverside Community Center for over a decade, she published a chapbook, and has read many of her essays for the Poets & Writers annual Intergenerational Reading events held at Barnes and Noble in Union Square. The International Library of Poetry’s 2007 collection published one of her poems “Congito Ergo Sum: I Think Therefore I Am” and her memoir, Out of the Rabbit Hole, was published by Fulton Books in September 2015. Wilson has lived on the Upper West Side in New York City all of her adult life.

Writing had always been a dream put on the back burner. It wasn’t until I was downsized from my full-time job in 2001 that I was able to join the senior writing workshop, funded by Poets & Writers, at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Finally, I could focus on writing, in what was a noncompetitive and supportive atmosphere. I could write openly with trust and develop my own voice.

The seed of my memoir began with a writing prompt, given in class by our talented and intuitive teacher Veronica Golos: “Write about your earliest secret.’’ I wrote about the guilt I remembered having at three years old when I threatened to drown my beloved toy bear “Poochie” because he would not speak to me. My mother told me he would, if I was a good girl. “Poochie,” was selected to be read at the workshop’s annual reading, after which it was submitted and chosen for the Poets & Writers’ Intergenerational anthology Where I’m From. I became aware that I had a real gift for storytelling and I had quite a story to tell.

Elena Alexander, an accomplished poet, became our second instructor at the Goddard Riverside Community Center. Her dedication and talent guided our group through publishing our own individual chapbooks. This generated even more motivation for me to continue writing my memoir, written from a child's point of view, about how she survives an environment of alcoholism and violence.

When my memoir, Out of the Rabbit Hole, was completed I wondered, now what? At my age I did not want to go the agent route with months or years of submitting to literary agents. I began researching various self-publishers with much hesitation, many were trying to “sell’’ their company, plus reviews from authors that used them were very mixed. Through Poets & Writers, I was recommended to Deborah Englander, experienced editor and writer, and contributor to the Savvy Self-Publisher, a column on self-publishing in Poets & Writers Magazine. Deborah was informative and very clear about what I should expect when choosing a publisher and helped me to firm up my commitment to self-publishing. Armed with her expert advice and through more research, I chose Fulton Books. A tremendous feeling of accomplishment surged through me when I held my book for the first time. As a senior, it no longer seems the winter of my life, but a new beginning, I am an author!

I am excited and take great pride in the positive response I have received about Out of the Rabbit Hole. One review states: “Beautifully written, poignant, sensitive, and with attention to detail, it evokes the sight, smells and sounds of the 1940s and 1950s.”

Currently, I am still a member of the Goddard Riverside writing workshop, where I continue to develop my writing skills, and where I have made many close friendships over the years. It is an inspiring and multitalented group.

Writing is no longer on the back burner. It’s time to start another book, in this newly acquired springtime of my life.

Photos: (Top) Kathy Wilson. Photo Credit: Christina Freudenthal, (Bottom) Goddard Riverside Writing Class. Photo Credit: Walter Grutchfield

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.

Muggle, Heffalump, Chortle, Chintzy. From Sir Thomas More (utopia) to Robert A. Heinlein (grok) to J. K. Rowling (quidditch), writers throughout history have created new words to describe the invented worlds in their books. Sometimes these neologisms are names of made-up places, feelings, or actions, but sometimes the meaning is more mysterious and ambiguous. Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem "Jabberwocky" appears in the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland as part of a dream. Although it is full of nonsense words, the poem itself follows conventional syntax and structures. Invent your own word and designate it as the name of a newly imagined place or feeling. Write a poem inspired by this new word, combining vivid imagery and specific sounds and rhythms, with familiar elements, to evoke the sensations of a completely new and invented—or inverted—universe.

Write a short personal essay about your relationship with a family member whom you feel is especially different from you. Explore a few memories or observations from your shared experiences over the years. Are there feelings of insecurity or other emotions that are brought up when you consider your differences? How do the disconnects affect your sense of identity and place within your family? Are you able to detect any common bonds?

Submissions are currently open for the Center for Fiction’s third annual Christopher Doheny Award, a $10,000 prize given for a book-length work of fiction or nonfiction on the topic of life-threatening physical illness. The winner of the prize “must demonstrate high literary standards while exploring the impact of illness on the patient, family and friends, and others.”

In addition to the cash prize, the winner will receive production and promotion of the book in an audio format from Audible, Inc., and assistance from Audible to pursue print publication. This year’s judging panel includes writer Charles Bock, previous Doheny Award–winners Michelle Bailat-Jones (2013) and Mike Scalise (2014), and two representatives of Audible.

Fiction and nonfiction writers who have previously published works in literary journals, or have published a book with an independent or traditional publisher, are eligible to apply. Using the online submission system, submit a previously unpublished manuscript along with a list of previous publications, a synopsis of up to two pages, and a one-paragraph bio by December 15. Submissions can be made via postal mail to the Christopher Doheny Award, Center for Fiction, 17 E. 47th Street, New York, NY 10017. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Supported by Audible, Inc., and the friends and family of Christopher Doheny, who died of cystic fibrosis in 2013, the Center for Fiction’s Christopher Doheny Award recognizes literary excellence “by a writer who has personally dealt or is dealing with life-threatening illness, either his or her own or that of a close relative or friend.”

Photo: Christopher Doheny

This week, write a scene in which your main character has an eye-opening encounter with a wild animal. Perhaps your character stumbles upon a raccoon, skunk, or opossum in an urban or suburban setting, or maybe it's an unexpected sighting of a bear or wolf in a remote forest. Does the encounter bring to the surface feelings of fear or compassion? Will the animal become symbolic for your character? For inspiration, watch Marsha de la O read her poem “Possum.”

There is the view that all poetry is a translation of feelings and perceptions that are in some ways fundamentally unsayable. Try translating a poem after you’ve read a few different translations of the same poem. Several interesting things may happen: you check one version against another; you’re on high alert for the “prose meaning” of the original, as well as the tone; you see what the translations at once obscure and reveal of the original piece; even if one translation is just a remote account, it offers a particular construal. After reading, try your own translation of the same poem. If it is not in a language you know, you now have an idea of what is there and to be looked for. You may find that you’re creating with a refreshed eye and ear for the true, and any false, notes in the music that is poetry.

This week’s poetry prompt comes from Sandra Lim, author of The Wilderness (Norton, 2014). Read Lim’s installment of Writers Recommend for more inspiration.

Nikia Chaney is a poet from the Inland Empire of Southern California and the author of two chapbooks, Sis Fuss (Orange Monkey Publishing, 2012) and ladies, please (Dancing Girl Press, 2013). She is founding editor of shufpoetry, an online journal for experimental poetry, and founding editor of Jamii Publishing, a publishing imprint dedicated to fostering community among poets and writers. Chaney has won grants from the Barbara Demings Fund for Women, Poets & Writers, and Cave Canem. She teaches at San Bernardino Valley College.

poetry pinwheels A short while ago I would not have used the title activist. I would have just said that I loved community service and most times don’t think of volunteering, but this past fall, Lisa Henry asked me to help her teach a community workshop about art and activism.

Lisa’s nonprofit organization, SALT (Soul, Art, Literature and Time) + SPICE (Socially Productive and Inspirational Community Events), offers classes, workshops, readings, and other cultural events to the public in the Inland Empire. My favorite SALT + SPICE workshop series included a panel and reading that focused on art and motherhood, a family community workshop that involved creating a ragdoll, and a workshop dedicated to Maya Angelou.

During all these events, the community was allowed to create, write, speak, give voice, and engage with the subject matter and the writing. I loved watching participants laugh and enjoy themselves. I’ve always thought of SALT + SPICE workshops as joyful gatherings. So when Lisa asked me to lead a workshop on activism, I was deeply honored, but initially reluctant.

Being a workshop leader is actually quite fun—every class is different, and what the participants bring in always amazes me. However, I was reluctant because I didn’t consider myself an activist, and never looked at my own volunteer activities as a form of social protest. I teach poetry classes to individuals with mental illnesses and I volunteer at at-risk youth after-school programs. How is this activism, I thought? Isn’t activism holding signs and marching for a cause? Isn’t activism big and loud and full of righteous protest? I took some time to consider Lisa’s request and did a little research. This quote was one of the first things I found:

"I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, 'Why don't they?' And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change." —Audre Lorde

I think we forget about the quiet, powerful moments of protest. Writing is protest. Each day we push past the immediate judgements and stereotypical assumptions we make. We write and challenge each other in that writing to see us and everyone else for who we really are.

During the workshop, we explored Lorde’s ideas and questioned the nature of activism, diving into the “what” of what we individuals are doing to change the world, about how we won’t tolerate injustice. Everyone discovered they, too, were activists, fighting every day to make the world better. Lisa concluded the workshop by taking the participants on a field trip to downtown Riverside to the Center for Social Justice & Civil Liberties. Later, I created poetry pinwheels to honor the ideas.

It’s wonderful to teach others, help them write, and work with their poems, but sometimes you teach and learn more about yourself than you thought you would. I’m thankful to Lisa for accepting the title of activist and trusting me to give it to others in return.

Photo: poetry pinwheels     Credit: Nikia Chaney

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.

In her collection of essays An Alphabet for Gourmets (Viking, 1949), celebrated food writer M. F. K. Fisher uses such disparate subjects as gluttony, literature, and zakuski (a Russian hors d’oeuvre) as frames for writing about her beliefs on gastronomy, life, and how they’re always connected. In the style of Fisher, choose a subject for a letter in the alphabet—A is for Aging, R is for Rib Eyes, W is for Wanderlust—and write your own essay about the interplay between cooking and eating and your own life.

Virginia Woolf’s The Waves explores the inner lives of its six characters through a sequence of connected soliloquies. Try writing a story using only soliloquies. Choose a scene that involves multiple characters, like a Thanksgiving dinner or a holiday party, and move between their inner monologues, building the setting and plot through each character’s unique thoughts and observations. When layered together, the different streams of consciousness will create the world in which these characters live.

As winter approaches, the days are getting shorter and shorter making it a perfect time to write an aubade, a poem set at dawn. Though its tradition is rooted in love poetry, modern masters like Philip Larkin have used the form to muse on the darker side of sunup. Whether in the tradition of John Donne’s “The Sun Rising” or Larkin’s “Aubade,” write your own version that explores how the early hours spin your imagination.

Jamie Asaye FitzGerald, director of Poets & Writers' California Office and Readings & Workshops (West) program, describes her visit to a writing workshop led by P&W-supported writer Alicia Partnoy for the organization Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC)

Alicia Partnoy is a poet, translator, and survivor of the Argentine genocide. She is best known for her memoir, The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival (Cleis Press, 1998). Her most recent book is the poetry collectionFlowering Fires [Fuegos Florales] (Settlement House Books, 2015), and other works include Little Low Flying [Volando bajito] (Red Hen Press, 2005), Revenge of the Apple [Venganza de la manzana] (Cleis Press, 1992), and with Gail Wronsky, So Quick Bright Things [Tan pronto las cosas] (What Books Press, 2010). Partnoy teaches at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, and presides over Proyecto VOS-Voices of Survivors.

Sylvester Owino and Alicia Partnoy This past September, I had the opportunity to sit in on a bilingual English/Spanish writing workshop taught by P&W-supported poet and memoirist Alicia Partnoy. The workshop was part of a retreat held in Malibu, California, by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC). CIVIC is a national nonprofit organization that works to end the isolation and abuse of people in U.S. immigration detention through visitation, independent monitoring, storytelling, and advocacy. 

The retreat's workshop brought together CIVIC staff, volunteer visitors from nearly twenty states, and people who were previously held in U.S. immigration detention to help them tell their stories. It was a day of personal exploration and joining together in passionate commitment to a cause.

"Writing about the abuses against us was the only way to let it out," recounted Sylvester Owino, who was detained by U.S. immigration for nine years before regaining his freedom.

Owino's statement, which came after a group writing exercise, echoed what workshop facilitator Partnoy described earlier in the day—after she "disappeared" and was imprisoned in Argentina, and having arrived in the United States as a refugee, she felt desperate because no one knew the stories. She wrote her memoir, The Little School: Tales of Disappearance and Survival, and earned a PhD, out of desperation—to have the stories told, to show the suffering she went through and the suffering of others. "We cannot speak for others if they die," she said, "we speak without them."

Partnoy spoke of "testimonial texts" and "testimonial value" and explained that stories, poems, pictures, and paintings are all "texts." Novels can be written based on testimonials. Poems can tell a story. If a letter was found in the pocket of someone who was killed while crossing the border, it has testimonial value.

I wasn't sure how everyone present was drawn to the cause, but more than a few had personal connections, whether it had been a husband, a mother, or other family member who was or is currently detained. Partnoy made the point that "when a family member is imprisoned, the whole family is punished." And she noted: "Children imprisoned with parents is the current harrowing situation."

Your mother isn't in prison
your mother has
birds in her blood,
grates and bars
don't detain her
nor padlocks,
nor is she in prison,
nor has she left you.

This is how Partnoy's incredibly moving poem "Lullaby Without the Onion" from her most recent collection, Flowering Fires [Fuegos Florales], begins. Partnoy sang her poem, evoking Miguel Hernández's famous poem, which was set to music, "Lullaby of the Onion" [Nanas de la cebolla]. She also shared work that her mother, painter Raquel Partnoy, and daughter, poet Ruth Irupe Sanabria, have written about their experiences.

As retreat attendees wrote in groups on a palabrarma (word weapon) prompt (credited to Chilean poet Cecilia Vicuña) using the word solidaridad (solidarity) supplied by Partnoy, emotions ran high and tears and knowing nods were exchanged as they began the necessary work of sharing their stories and experiences:

"Who am I without you?" read one participant.

"Lament shared is hope given?" questioned another.

"A hand raises to meet the hand behind the wall."

"We connect."

The hope is for the work generated during this workshop to be published as an anthology—making it the first project to use the voices of detention visitors and formerly detained immigrants together, and giving unprecedented insight into immigration detention and the work of CIVIC. To learn more and support the creation of this compilation, please visit CIVIC’s website.

Photo: Sylvester Owino with P&W-supported workshop leader Alicia Partnoy. 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.

On Wednesday night in New York City, the winners of the 2015 National Book Awards were announced. The poetry award went to Robin Coste Lewis for her collection, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Knopf). Adam Johnson took home the fiction award for his story collection Fortune Smiles (Random House). Ta-Nehisi Coates won in nonfiction for Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau). Neal Shusterman won in young people’s literature for Challenger Deep (HarperCollins). Each winner receives $10,000.

Robin Coste Lewis is a Provost’s Fellow in poetry and visual studies at the University of Southern California, and a Cave Canem fellow. Voyage of the Sable Venus is her debut poetry collection, which questions the historical idea and role of the black female figure in America.

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for the Atlantic and is the recipient of a 2015 MacArthur Genius grant. Between the World and Me is a meditation on race in America, written in the form of a letter to the author’s son. Coates dedicated his award to his friend Prince Jones, who was killed by a police officer in 2000. In his acceptance speech, Coates said, “I have waited fifteen years for this moment.”

Adam Johnson won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Orphan Master’s Son. He has received a Whiting Award and fellowships from the National Endowment of the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches creative writing at Stanford University and lives in San Francisco. In his winning collection, Fortune Smiles, Johnson “delves deep into love and loss, natural disasters, the influence of technology, and how the political shapes the personal.”

Publishers submitted 1,428 books for review this year: 419 in fiction, 494 in nonfiction, 221 in poetry, and 294 in young people’s literature. The awards are given annually to American writers who published books in the previous year. The finalists each receive $1,000.

Novelist Don DeLillo received the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters for his lifetime contribution to American literature. Novelist Jennifer Egan introduced DeLillo, and said of his work, “He has an empath’s gift for capturing colloquial rhythm and speech…I’m so grateful to DeLillo for proving to my generation that fiction can still do anything it wants.” 

Meanwhile, James Patterson was presented with the Literarian Award for outstanding service in the American literary community. Patterson donated more than one million dollars in grants to independent bookstores last year, and has donated thousands of books to children and schools in need. Patterson said in his acceptance speech, “I feel compelled to help independent bookstores survive and prosper, and help school libraries any way that I can…let’s find a way to make sure there is another generation of readers out there.”

Read about the winners and finalists, and watch the full video from last night’s ceremony at the National Book Foundation website.

The National Book Foundation was founded in 1986 with the mission to “celebrate the best of American literature, to expand its audience, and to enhance the cultural value of great writing in America.”

Ekphrasis is a term commonly applied to poetry, in which a poem describes, or is inspired by, a work of art, often a painting or a sculpture. More broadly, it can be attributed to any genre of writing in response to a work of art. Think of the first film, photograph, painting, or song that left a strong impression on you. Spend some time experiencing it again, and then write an ekphrastic personal essay. Focus on why it resonates with you, and explore the memories, feelings, associations, and observations that surface.

In a recent conversation with President Obama, Marilynne Robinson observes that "people are so complicated. It’s like every new person is a completely new roll of the dice." This week, select a work-in-progress and add a new character to the story. Maybe it’s a stranger who gets involved in the plot, or someone from your protagonist’s past who suddenly shows up. You might decide whether this new character makes things easier or more difficult for your protagonist, or you might remain undecided as you write and see where this new relationship takes the story.

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