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“They are everywhere—those sunflowers with the coal heart center,” Eve Alexandra muses in her poem “Botanica.” A symbol of loyalty and longevity, sunflowers are considered among the happiest of flowers, and provide energy in both nourishment and vibrancy. Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Gustav Klimt famously represented these flowers in works of art, and they have cropped up in poems by William Blake and Allen Ginsberg. This week, incorporate sunflowers into a poem. Consider their bright yellow coloring, their sturdy stalks, and their delicious seeds.  

Steven Church is the author of The Guinness Book of Me: A Memoir of Record (Simon & Schuster, 2005), Theoretical Killings: Essays and Accidents (University of New Orleans Press, 2009), The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst (Soft Skull Press, 2010), and most recently, the collection Ultrasonic: Essays (Lavender Ink, 2014). A fifth nonfiction book will be released by Dzanc in 2016. He is a founding editor and nonfiction editor for The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA program at Fresno State.

Steven ChurchHow do you prepare for a reading?
I’ve given a LOT of readings, but I still get nervous. I like to have read through out loud what I’m planning to read, at least a couple of times, just to get the timing right and catch any parts that are hard to read. And a beer or two helps take the edge off.

What’s the strangest comment you’ve received from an audience member?
Recently someone asked me if there were stories that I didn’t tell or things I wouldn’t write about—to which I responded, “Yes.” But then she looked at me as if I was then going to tell her these things. I did not. I also had someone ask me once why writers “write about depressing things,” and the only response I had was, “because it’s more interesting than happiness?”

What’s your crowd-pleaser, and why does it work?
If I have the time, I like to try and get a couple of laughs from the audience as a sort of “buy in” for what I’m reading and because it tends to relax me; so I’ll often start with a lighter, more humorous essay before hitting them with the more emotional material. Lately I’ve started reading other people’s work as a kind of ice breaker.

What’s the craziest (or funniest or most moving or most memorable) thing that’s happened at an event you’ve been part of?
During a reading at Fresno State once, the power went out in the building and the only light in the room was from the emergency exit signs. Fortunately my colleague had a headlamp flashlight, so I gave the entire reading in the dark, using the headlamp. That was fun.

How does giving a reading inform your writing and vice versa?
Reading my work aloud is very important, as it is the only way to really hear the essay or the book the way I want it to sound in a reader’s head. I always catch mistakes or make revisions after reading a piece out loud; it’s become part of my writing and revision process.

What you probably spent your R/W grant check on:
Groceries and beer.

Photo: Steven Church   Credit: Jocelyn Mettler

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

The New York City–based Center for Fiction has announced its 2015 Emerging Writer Fellows. The annual fellowships are given to emerging fiction writers of any age living in New York City “whose work shows promise of excellence.”

This year’s nine fellows are Naomi Feigelson Chase, Lisa Chen, Nicola DeRobertis-Theye, t’ai freedom ford, Anu Jindal, Stephen Langlois, Melissa Rivero, Samantha Storey, and Ruchika Tomar. The fellows were chosen from over five hundred applicants. Rene Denfeld, Patricia Park, and Ted Thompson judged. Visit the Center for Fiction website for bios of each of this year’s fellows.

As part of the fellowship, each writer receives a grant of $4,000; the option of mentorship with an editor; the opportunity to meet with agents who represent new writers; a Center for Fiction membership; free admission to all Center events for one year, including its Craftwork lecture series on writing; and a 30 percent discount on tuition for select writing workshops at the Center. The fellows will also each give two public readings as part of the Center’s annual program of events.

Emerging writers living in one of the five boroughs of New York City are eligible for the fellowship. The Center for Fiction defines “emerging writer” as one of any age who has not yet published a novel or short story collection with a major or independent publisher, and who is also not currently under contract to a publisher for a work of fiction. Eligible applicants may have had works of fiction published in magazines, literary journals, or online, though previous publication is not required. Writers in degree-granting programs are ineligible.  

Applications for the 2016 Emerging Writers Fellowship will open in the fall. Visit the Center for Fiction website for more information about the fellowship program.

In The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde remarks, "All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his." As we grow older, it is inevitable that we start noticing patterns of behavior or little quirks that remind us of our parents or guardians. Is there anything that you do that reminds you, or others, of the person who raised you? Perhaps you've perfected her bubbly giggle, or her signature side-eye glance. Maybe you've inherited her talent for crossword puzzles, or the way she bursts into song at any moment? Write a personal essay about those reminiscent traits that impact who you are today.

This morning, PEN American Center announced the winners of the 2015 PEN Literary Awards. The annual awards, which total more than $150,000, honor emerging and established writers in seventeen categories including poetry, debut fiction, science writing, translation, biography, and drama. On June 8, the winners will be honored in a ceremony at the New School in New York City. The shortlists and complete list of winners can be found on PEN’s website. Below are the winners for a select few prizes:

Saeed Jones won the $5,000 PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award for Poetry for his collection Prelude to Bruise (Coffee House). Marie Howe, Mary Szybist, and Craig Morgan Teicher judged. The biennial award recognizes the work of an emerging American poet who shows promise of further literary achievement.

Joshua Horwitz won the $10,000 PEN/E. O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award for his book War of the Whales: A True Story (Simon & Schuster). Sue Halpern, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, and Carl Zimmer judged. The annual prize is given for a book of literary nonfiction on the subject of the physical or biological sciences published in the previous year.

Sheri Fink won the $10,000 PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction for her book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital (Crown). Andrew Blechman, Paul Elie, Azadeh Moaveni, Rahna Reiko Rizzuto, and Paul Reyes judged. The biennial award is given to an author of a book of general nonfiction published in the previous two years that possesses notable literary merit and critical perspective.

Denise Newman won the $3,000 PEN Translation Prize for her translation from the Danish of Naja Heather Cleary’s book Baboon (Two Lines). Lucas Klein, Tess Lewis, and Allison Markin Powell judged. The annual award is given for a translation of book-length prose from any language into English published in the previous year.

PEN will announce the winners of the $25,000 Prize for Debut Fiction, the $10,000 Art of the Essay Award, and the $5,000 Open Book Award at the Literary Awards Ceremony on June 8. Visit the PEN website for the shortlists. The winner of the $10,000 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize and recipients of the $2,000-$4,000 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants will be announced later this month.

PEN American Center has administered its literary awards for nearly fifty years. Established in 1922, PEN works globally to defend freedom of expression and to promote international literature and culture.

Did one of your characters have a major turning point in her past? Is this event or decision crucial for this character's development? This week, take a scene you're stuck on and rewrite it as if that turning point had never occurred, and an alternate option was chosen. If your character moved to London because she was transferred by her company instead of moving back to her parents' house in Florida, how would this outcome deepen the evolution of this character? Think about what this character needs to face—what shortcomings, fears, and hindrances she needs to overcome—and force her to come to terms with these obstacles.

Cervantes's short story The Glass Graduate recounts the tale of a man who was poisoned by a quince, intended to be an aphrodisiac, that brought about the delusion that his body was made of glass. This week, write a poem from the perspective of someone who believes his limbs could shatter with the slightest touch, and will not let others near him. Think about what would cause someone to think this way, and the limitations attached to this mindset.

Melba Joyce Boyd is Distinguished Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan, and the author of thirteen books, including nine collections of poetry. She is the recipient of two Library of Michigan Notable Books awards, an Independent Publishers Award for Poetry, a Michigan Individual Artist Award, and was a finalist for the 2010 NAACP Image Award in Literature.

Before the powers that be decided there should be yet another Detroit Renaissance, the arts community was active, vital, and invigorating the city’s center. On Saturday, September 20, 2014, from noon till sundown, Detroit was the site of the third annual Midtown Literary Walk. The weather was congenial and the settings sunlit, like the mood of the audience, sauntering from an historic location to a new-age café, wandering through an art gallery, and sipping wine with poetry in the garden of a nineteenth-century mansion.

The Midtown Literary Walk is the brainchild of Carole Harris, Detroit artist and designer known nationally for her quilt art, who partnered with M. L. Liebler, Wayne State University professor, award-winning poet, and cultural organizer extraordinaire, to plan and execute the project.

It was a mellow and memorable day, imbibing literature with aromatic, herbal teas at SocraTea, listening to writers framed by sculptures and paintings at N’amdi’s Gallery, and engaging the melding of secular voices into sacred space at the Hannan House. At five events in four locations, hundreds gathered to listen to a stellar lineup of writers, featuring award-winning writers, spoken word artists, and musicians.

Charles Baxter, acclaimed novelist, poet, editor and essayist; Laure-Anne Bosselaar, winner of an American Library Association Notable Books award for Poetry; and Melba Joyce Boyd, recipient of an Independent Publishers Award and two Library of Michigan Notable Books awards, read their works.

The program showcased Ann Holdreith, a Pushcart Prize nominee; Walter “The Soul” Lacy, a poet and hip-hop artist; and Lisa Lenzo, who received a PEN Syndicated Fiction Project Award and won first prize from the Georgetown Review in 2013 for her story "Strays." They graced the stage with M. L. Liebler & the Good Shepherd Poetry Blues Band.

Detroit Poet Laureate Naomi Long Madgett, winner of the 2012 Kresge Eminent Artist Award, was the veteran writer and guest of honor, while Adrian Matejka, whose book The Big Smoke (Penguin, 2013) was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award and for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, came from Indiana University to read.

Others featured included fiction writer and poet Peter Markus, a Kresge Arts Fellow in Literary Arts in 2012; Christine Rhein, who is the recipient of the 2008 Walt McDonald Poetry Prize; and Judith Roche, who has received two American Book Awards and two nominations for the Pushcart Prize.

In addition to sites that hosted the event, cosponsors for the Lit Walk included: the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers, Wayne State University Press, the Wayne Writers Forum, Wayne State University’s Department of English, and the Knight Foundation. The Lit Walk, which is free and open to the public, has become an annual tradition in Detroit, nurturing literary culture in the heart of the cultural center of the city.

Photo: Lit Walk Writers (top) Naomi Long Madgett (bottom) Photo Credit: L. Bush

Support for Readings & Workshops events in Detroit 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.

5.07.15

From: The Time Is Now

In Medieval Gaelic and British culture, bards were poets and musicians who were employed to commemorate the stories of their patrons. Imagine you are a bard, and you have been hired by a friend or family member to recant a particular tale of bravery, loyalty, or heroism. Perhaps your best friend just trained to run a marathon, or your brother got all A's on his finals. Then write your piece and regale your “patron” with it the next time you see him or her. Make your language dramatic and lyrical, and incorporate some meter or rhyme if you like. For examples, revisit Shakespeare's work, or read the lyrics of some of Bob Dylan's popular songs, like "Tangled Up In Blue." 

The Poetry Foundation announced today that Alice Notley has won the 2015 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. The annual award of $100,000 honors the outstanding lifetime achievement of a living U.S. poet.

With a career spanning more than four decades, Notley, sixty-nine, is the author of twenty-five books of poetry, including The Descent of Alette (Penguin, 1996); Mysteries of Small Houses (Penguin, 1998), which received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Disobedience (Penguin, 2001), which won the Griffin International Poetry Prize; and Grave of Light: New and Selected Poems 1970-2005 (Wesleyan, 2006), which was awarded the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. Notley’s other honors and awards include the Poetry Society of America’s Shelley Memorial Award, an Arts and Letters Award from the Academy of Arts and Letters, and a Foundation of Contemporary Arts grant. Later this year, Notley will publish two new poetry collections: Certain Magical Acts and Benediction.

Poetry magazine editor Don Share said of Notley’s work, “Like Whitman, she is simultaneously one of a kind and a poet for each of us: an exemplary, humane, and ultimately essential writer.” Robert Polito, the president of the Poetry Foundation, added, “Book by surprising book, [Notley] reinvents not only herself as a poet, but also what it means for anyone to write a poem at this volatile moment in our history.”

Established in 1986 by Ruth Lilly and sponsored by the Poetry Foundation, the prize is one of the most prestigious American poetry awards and among the largest literary honors for English language works. Adrienne Rich won the inaugural award, and recent winners include Nathaniel Mackey, Marie Ponsot, and W. S. Di Piero.

Notley and the winner of the Pegasus Award for Poetry Criticism will be honored at a ceremony in Chicago on June 8. The Poetry Foundation will announce the winner of the Pegasus Award later this month.

At the Poetry Foundation website, listen to a podcast featuring Notley, who reads and discusses her work, and read a new interview with the Ruth Lilly Prize winner.

This week, have a character stumble upon an abandoned object that is oddly out of place. Perhaps a wedding ring is spotted dangling from a tree branch on an afternoon hike, or a stack of family photographs is found stuffed in a handbag for sale at a thrift store. Write this scene into one of your stories. Does your character recognize this item? Does he or she keep it, or try to find the owner? Consider how this scene might help develop your character or unexpectedly affect the main plot of your story.

Digital poetry is a form of electronic literature that incorporates the use of computers to display and interact with the work. Heavily influenced by concrete and visual poetry, digital poetry includes use of hypertext, computer generated animation, coding, and holograms. This week, look into some of the digital poems in the Electronic Literature Collection and brainstorm how you'd create one of your poems digitally. If you have programming skills, or know someone who does, put your plan into action and create your own piece of electronic literature!

Submissions are currently open for the Creative Nonfiction Essay Contest. An annual award of $1,000 and publication in Creative Nonfiction is given for an essay on a specified theme. This year’s theme is “The Weather.” The runner-up will receive $500. Essays should “combine a strong and compelling narrative with an informative or reflective element, and reach beyond a strictly personal experience for some universal or deeper meaning.” The editors will judge. 

Using the online submission manager, submit a previously unpublished essay of up to 4,000 words along with a $20 entry fee—or $25 to receive a four-issue Creative Nonfiction subscription—by May 11. Submissions are also accepted via postal mail to Creative Nonfiction, Attn: WEATHER, 5501 Walnut Street, Suite 202, Pittsburgh, PA 15232. All entries are considered for publication. Visit the website for complete guidelines.

Founded in 1993 by Lee Gutkind, Creative Nonfiction was the first literary magazine to exclusively publish “high quality nonfiction prose,” and remains the largest literary publication in the genre. Past contributors include prize-winning authors Annie Dillard, Gordon Lish, Francine Prose, and C. K. Williams. For more information about the contest, e-mail information@creativenonfiction.org, or call (412) 688-0304.

Beth Gorrie volunteers her time as Executive Director of Staten Island OutLOUD. She spearheads the organization’s program planning and has adapted over twenty-five global classics for OutLOUD’s spoken-word performances. As an actor during the first few years of her working life, she performed with the Chicago Theatre of the Deaf and served as an Adjunct Instructor at the University of Chicago. In New York City, she appeared in a variety of Off-Off Broadway productions and in a series of film installations by award-winning filmmaker William Lundberg, a recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship. Gorrie attended Columbia University Law School where she was an editor of the Journal of Law & Social Problems, and spent a summer in rural India on a human rights fellowship. She is a former partner in a leading New York law firm and has participated in community service in Harlem.

What makes your programs unique?
Staten Island OutLOUD gathers neighbors to explore global literature together, and to share ideas. Our first event took place shortly after September 11, 2001 when we had a deep need to gather together.

Since then, Staten Island OutLOUD has grown and has continued that spirit with a varied series of grassroots gatherings. Throughout the year, we host free events to explore global literature, our diverse backgrounds, our history, and our mutual concerns. OutLOUD is entirely volunteer-driven.

We operate on a small budget, but we’re very productive. Since our establishment in September 2001, we’ve served over 23,000 participants with over six hundred free events, in twenty-one languages.

What recent project have you been especially proud of, and why?
From September 2014 through March 2015, Staten Island OutLOUD hosted a series of forty community events about Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird. When we started planning our series a year earlier, we never guessed how timely it would be, following the July 2014 death of Eric Garner, an African-American neighbor of ours who died in police custody.

Our “Mockingbird” series explored national and local civil rights history, together with music and poems from the Civil Rights Movement, and from the Depression years in which the novel is set.

Tensions ran high during the months after Garner’s death, but our series fostered thoughtful discussions. Staten Islanders talked, listened, and considered the many facets of the crisis.

What’s the most memorable thing that’s happened at an event you’ve hosted?
Adults with special needs sometimes attend Staten Island OutLOUD programs. At one event when we discussed a variety of twentieth-century poems, a woman with mental disabilities gathered her courage to comment on a poem by Dylan Thomas. She had never spoken in public before, and she knew that the audience included teachers, attorneys, and other professionals. Everyone encouraged her, and as she spoke, she began to hold herself more confidently, and her voice grew stronger. Everyone was moved when she read, “Do not go gentle into that good night.”

What are the benefits of writing workshops for special groups?
Staten Island OutLOUD’s work proves that when people have a forum and a stimulating entrée for conversation, they respond thoughtfully. Stereotypes can fade and real communication can begin. Our work with teens and with elders underscores the value of writing workshops for those members of our community. Our writing workshops have enabled people to find their unique voices. For teens who may have manifested behavior problems before they began our workshops, some of those problems began to ebb as they focused their energy on writing and as they gained confidence in their work. Elders who had never done any creative writing before participating in our memoir and poetry workshops have drawn real satisfaction in exploring their writing talent, in reflecting on their life experiences, and in recognizing how powerful their pens can be.

Photo: (top) Beth Gorrie at Huckleberry Finn at High Rock workshop. Photo: (bottom) Cast of Moby Dick marathon reading. Photo Credit: Staten Island OutLOUD.

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.

When was the last time you looked through old pictures? This week, set aside some time to revisit photographs of yourself from the past. Pick one and write an essay from the point of view of your younger self. Try to recall what you were feeling in that moment. Have your feelings changed over the years?

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