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S. Bryan Medina is a former student of U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera and his poetry has graced stages in the San Francisco Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Kansas City. He founded the Inner Ear as a way to free poetry from the confines of academic institutions, making it accessible to all. Medina has been awarded two City of Fresno Commendations, including the 2014 Fresno Arts Council Horizon Award, for contributions to the rich artistic and cultural heritage in Fresno, California. He has been featured as one of the four “Fresno Poets” from writer Nick Belardes’s Distinguished Valley Writers series, and he was an honorable mention for the 2006 Larry Levis Poetry Prize. His work has appeared in journals such as Flies, Cockroaches, and Poets, In the Grove, the San Joaquin Review, Jubilee, and Invisible Memoirs. Medina is a recent graduate of Fresno Pacific University and plans to teach special education.

S. Bryan Medina“Poets here (in Fresno) write killer poems in our unapologetic heat, the exhaust of the traffic, or the dream-inducing tule fog.” —Fresno poet laureate Lee Herrick, author of Gardening Secrets of the Dead (WordTech Editions, 2012)

Central Valley writers seem to revel in Fresno’s bad air and harsh laundry line of obstacles. Its writing history comes from just underneath its rich soil, from the bent backs of field laborers to the city’s war on drugs against the black market methamphetamine trade. The place often found at the top of many “Worst Cities in America” lists now can add to its reputation little to no water, thanks to the drought.

Still, Fresnans continue to find bars and converted backyard stages, open mics and coffee houses, filled with hungry ears eagerly listening for their favorite local poet to say one more thing just before the familiar, “Are y’all ready for the next poet?!” I’m proud to be a part of this scene, now thirteen years strong, keeping spoken word/poetry in the forefront of people’s minds here in the valley by forging and solidifying relationships, such as the one I have with Poets & Writers.

The Inner Ear’s mission is to collaborate with local and national artists utilizing spoken word, art, performance, and music to promote further interest in the arts in Fresno and the Central Valley. The Inner Ear/Beat Down Slam events serve the community by providing a forum for constructive and creative expression in a positive and supportive environment, offering an alternative to violence among Fresno County teens and young adults. The Inner Ear mixes formal poetry aesthetics with rap flair and vitality by taking poetry away from the ivory tower of the universities and moving it to a place where everyone has access. Over the past decade, we have had many participants say that our stage was their first.

This October finds the Inner Ear beginning a yearlong collaboration with the Fresno Grand Opera. Breaking new ground with its first Opera Remix: Music & Verse event, an exciting mix of local spoken word artists and opera musicians will perform together live on the stage of the historic Tower Theater in Fresno’s Tower District. In the months between this and next year’s event, we are excited to get the chance to work with composer Jakes Heggie and Librettist John de los Santos, and share new music by composer Ricky Ian Gordon (Grapes of Wrath) from the Metropolitan Opera in New York!  

On November 12, the Inner Ear celebrates its thirteenth anniversary with a tribute to fellow Fresno poet and former U.S. poet laureate Philip Levine, which will feature poets Corrinne Hales and Lee Herrick with other local writing notables, and music by Benjamin Boone. If you have never experienced in person one of our blowout anniversary events, you're missing what the Fresno scene is all about: fun, exciting, deep, edgy, and funny performances with live music and special guests all happening at the Fresno Art Museum.

To some, poetry is a mystical, invisible power—energizing raw, untamed thoughts put to paper or read aloud in public places. But here in the valley, that slow rhythmic sound you hear is the tactile heart of Fresno’s present, future, and past: the shadow of Philip Levine saying “What Work Is,” the familiar mustache and glasses of Juan Felipe Herrera, the mournful prose of an Andres Montoya poem. Poets here have to write killer poems and produce worthwhile poetry events that are as tangible as the fruit grown here, in the middle of nowhere, where we’re right at home, struggling.

 Photo: S. Bryan Medina     Credit: S. Bryan Medina

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

This week, the National Book Foundation announced the longlists for the 2015 National Book Awards. Annual awards of $10,000 each honor the best book of the year published in the United States in the categories of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and young people’s literature. The shortlists will be announced on October 14, and the winners will be named during the foundation’s National Book Award Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York City on November 18.

The ten finalists in fiction are Jesse Ball, A Cure for Suicide (Pantheon Books); Karen E. Bender, Refund (Soft Skull); Bill Clegg, Did You Ever Have a Family (Scout Press); Angela Flournoy, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt); Lauren Groff, Fates and Furies (Riverhead); Adam Johnson, Fortune Smiles (Random House); T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville (William Morrow); Edith Pearlman, Honeydew (Little, Brown); Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life (Doubleday); and Nell Zink, Mislaid (Ecco).

Fiction judges Daniel Alarcón, Jeffery Renard Allen, Sarah Bagby, Laura Lippman, and David L. Ulin selected the titles from a list of 419 books.

The ten finalists in nonfiction are Cynthia Barnett, Rain (Crown Publishing Group); Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau); Martha Hodes, Mourning Lincoln (Yale University Press); Sally Mann, Hold Still (Little, Brown); Sy Montgomery, The Soul of an Octopus (Atria); Susanna Moore, Paradise of the Pacific (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); Michael PaternitiLove and Other Ways of Dying: Essays (The Dial Press); Carla Power, If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran (Henry Holt and Company); Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light (Alfred A. Knopf); and Michael White, Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir (Persea Books).

Diane Ackerman, Patricia Hill Collins, John D’Agata, Paul Holdengräber, and Adrienne Mayor judged.

The finalists in poetry are Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press); Amy Gerstler, Scattered at Sea (Penguin); Marilyn Hacker, A Stranger’s Mirror (W. W. Norton & Company); Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn (Penguin); Jane Hirshfield, The Beauty (Alfred A. Knopf); Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus (Alfred A. Knopf); Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions); Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf); Rowan Ricardo Phillips, Heaven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux); and Lawrence Raab, Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts (Tupelo Press).

Poetry judges Sherman Alexie, Willie Perdomo, Katha Pollitt, Tim Seibles, and Jan Weissmiller selected the longlisted titles from 221 books.

First conferred to poet William Carlos Williams in 1950, the National Book Award is one of the country’s most prestigious prizes in literature. Other notable winners include Sherman Alexie, Jonathan Franzen, Joyce Carol Oates, and Adrienne Rich.

To learn more about the finalists and judges of this year’s awards, visit the National Book Foundation website. The foundation recently announced that author Don DeLillo will be honored with the 2015 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters during the awards ceremony on November 18.

This week, look to the name of your street for inspiration. Or if you prefer, choose the name of a previous street you lived on, or a particularly fascinating street name in your city or town. Is the street designated for a famous person, a defining local feature, or a natural landmark? Are there Dutch, Spanish, or Native American roots to the name? Write an essay about the street’s origin, and how the name might be fitting or outdated. Reflect on the ways you connect with where you live, and how your own history intertwines with the streets names that surround you.

Last week, scientists announced the discovery of a new species in the early human lineage: Homo naledi. Write a short story that takes discovery into the future by imagining a character who is of a new human species from the next millennium. What useful adaptations or physical differences might she have developed in order to survive an advanced environment? Would the progression of technology alter the need for long fingers or certain emotions?

The Man Booker Foundation has announced the shortlist for the 2015 Man Booker Prize for Fiction, which this year includes two American writers—Anne Tyler and Hanya Yanagihara—as well as debut novelist Chigozie Obioma. The annual award is given for a book of fiction written in English and published in the United Kingdom during the previous year. The winner receives £50,000 (approximately $77,000), and will be announced in London on October 13.

The six shortlisted authors are Marlon James of Jamaica for A Brief History of Seven Killings (Riverhead Books); Tom McCarthy of the United Kingdom for Satin Island (Knopf); Chigozie Obioma of Nigeria for The Fisherman (Little, Brown); Sunjeev Sahota of the United Kingdom for The Year of the Runaways (Knopf); Anne Tyler of the United States for A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf); and Hanya Yanagihara of the United States for A Little Life (Doubleday). The shortlisted authors will each receive £2,500 (approximately $3,800).

The five finalists were selected from a longlist of thirteen authors; Ellah Wakatama Allfrey, John Burnside, Sam Leith, Frances Osborne, and Michael Wood judged. “The writers on the shortlist present an extraordinary range of approaches to fiction,” said Wood, who is the chair of judges. “They come from very different cultures and are themselves at very different stages of their careers.”

First awarded in 1969, the Man Booker Prize is one of the literary world’s most prestigious awards for fiction. The prize, which was previously given to writers from the United Kingdom, Ireland, or Zimbabwe, was expanded last year to include writers of any nationality writing in English. Australian writer Richard Flanagan won the 2014 prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North.

Clockwise from top left: Marlon James (Cameron Wittig), Tom McCarthy (Ulf Andersen), Chigozie Obioma, Hanya Yanagihara (Sophia Evans), Anne Tyler (Clara Molden), Sunjeev Sahota (Murdo MacLeod)

As kids, the prospect of getting new school supplies always seemed to brighten back-to-school woes. This week, imagine what you would pack in a backpack to prepare yourself for the school of life. Make a list of five "supplies" that you can picture yourself using every day—they can be practical tools, made-up magic potions, or even intangible thoughts or mantras. Write a poem in which you describe the supplies with concrete details, exploring how having each one easily accessible at all times would vastly improve your prospects.

R. A. Villanueva is the author of Reliquaria (University of Nebraska Press, 2014), winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize. A founding editor of Tongue: A Journal of Writing & Art, he currently lives in London, England.

Here in London the rain has paused and the sun, for once, feels keen to crash through the cloud banks which so often crown the city. I think now of two markers, one of geography and the other of time: Washington, D.C. is nearly 3,700 miles and an ocean west of me; and, since September has begun, “Asian American Literature Today” at the Library of Congress took place just over four months ago.

Such resonances are due in large part to the occasion for our gathering and who traveled (from across the U.S. and abroad) to be there. Cathy Linh Che, Eugenia Leigh, Ocean Vuong, and I were awarded The Asian American Literary Review’s inaugural A Lettre Fellowship and devoted the better part of last year each writing with/to established poets, allowing the dynamics of our curiosities, uncertainties, and fascinations drive our correspondences “by letters." Taken as a whole, the experience proved to be as emotional as it was formally innovative. These mentorships and convergences, after all, were happening in the shadow of our debut books and as each of us dealt with tectonic shifts in our lives apart from our writing.

This, by the way, was our methodology: after the AALR paired Cathy with Rick Barot, Eugenia with Julie Enzer, Ocean with Arthur Sze, and me with Ray Hsu, we were free to talk through the spring and fall of 2014. To build "community across literary generations," honesty and idiosyncrasy were encouraged. The exchange between Ocean and Arthur Sze, for instance, feels truly epistolary, with suites of poems and personal stories being traded. My back-and-forth with Ray Hsu seems more associative and roving in comparison, taking the shape of a series of handwritten reflections, Vimeo links and iPhone photos, Post-it Note collages and notebook scans.

Ultimately, the “Asian American Literature Today” event was meant to be the culmination of that project, an enactment of the AALR’s aspiration to represent “a space for all those who consider the designation 'Asian American' a fruitful starting point for artistic vision and community.”

Editor and Smithsonian APA Center Initiative coordinator Lawrence-Minh Bùi Davis brought that vision to life in remarkable ways. He invited partnerships with the Library of Congress Poetry and Literature Center, the University of Maryland Asian American Studies Program, and opened the room to the greater public. This event was also funded by the Readings & Workshops Program at Poets & Writers.

The result was a powerful crossing of voices and a widening of perspectives. Before our reading, we circled up chairs to host an informal conversation about the editorial process, distinctions between writing and publishing, academia and art. We discussed how Cathy, Eugenia, Ocean, and I arrived at this moment together as friends and as peers; we discussed how organizations such as Kundiman, Cave Canem, CantoMundo, VONA, and Poets & Writers support the development of work aware of—and activated by—a very real world beyond our poems.

Ai Weiwei asserts that “[t]he intention to separate art from politics is itself a very political intention.” When it finally came time to move to the lectern and later, to respond to questions about connections with other communities, other struggles, we hoped to trouble such separations. In sharing selections by African American writers along with our own poems and in affirming the work of #BlackPoetsSpeakOut, “Asian American Literature Today” embodied a heart-fraught awareness of these markers—one of geography and again, one of time: Baltimore is only forty miles north of Washington, D.C., and when we read on May 4 in the wake of protests for Freddie Gray, Jr. while a state of emergency remained in effect and the National Guard was still in the process of drawing down.

Which is to say, perhaps what makes contemporary Asian American literature so vital is its refusal to ignore history, to stay quiet, or to pledge allegiance to outworn expectations.

Photo: (top) R. A. Villaneuva. (bottom) Lawrence- Minh Bui Davis, Eugenia Leigh, Cathy Che, R. A. Villaneuva, Ocean Vuong. 

Photo Credit: A'Lelia Bundles.

Support for Readings & Workshops in Washington, D.C. 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 Academy of American Poets announced yesterday the recipients of the 2015 Academy of American Poets Prizes, which honor poets at various stages in their careers. The organization awarded more than $200,000 in prizes this year to poets including Joy Harjo, Marie Howe, Kevin Young, Todd Portnowitz, Kathryn Nuernberger, and Roger Greenwald.

Joy Harjo received this year’s Wallace Stevens Award, given annually in recognition of “outstanding and proven mastery in the art of poetry.” The award, established in 1994, carries a $100,000 stipend. Past winners include John Ashbery, James Tate, and Adrienne Rich. Harjo is the author of several poetry collections, most recently Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings (Norton, 2015). Harjo was chosen by the Academy’s Board of Chancellors; Academy chancellor Alicia Ostriker said of Harjo, “Her visionary justice-seeking art transforms personal and collective bitterness to beauty, fragmentation to wholeness, and trauma to healing.”

Marie Howe received the 2015 Academy of American Poets Fellowship, an annual prize of $25,000 given for “distinguished poetic achievement.” The winner is nominated and chosen by the Board of Chancellors. Howe is the author of three poetry collections, most recently The Kingdom of Ordinary Time (Norton, 2009). Academy chancellor Arthur Sze said, “[Howe’s] poems are acclaimed for writing through loss with verve, but they also find the miraculous in the ordinary and transform quotidian incidents into enduring revelation.”

Kevin Young won the Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize for his collection Book of Hours (Knopf, 2014). The $25,000 prize is given annually for a poetry collection published in the United States during the previous year. Marie Howe, A. Van Jordan, and Donald Revell judged. Jordan said, “Book of Hours exemplifies what poetry can do in the world when language works at its full power.”

Todd Portnowitz received the Raiziss/de Palchi Translation Fellowship for his translation from the Italian of of poet Pierluigi Cappello’s Go Tell It to the Emperor: Selected Poems. The biennial fellowship recognizes “outstanding translations of modern Italian poetry into English,” and offers an award of $25,000 and a five-week residency at the American Academy in Rome. Adria Bernardi, Luigi Fontanella, and Giuseppe Leporace judged. “Portnowitz, in his tireless and remarkably refined effort," said Leporace, "has brilliantly grasped and then seamlessly transposed into English all the imagery and linguistic complexities contained in the work at hand.”

Kathryn Nuernberger is the recipient of the James Laughlin Award for her poetry collection The End of Pink (BOA Editions, 2016). The annual prize recognizes a “superior second book of poetry by an American poet,” and carries with it a cash award of $5,000, as well as a weeklong residency at the Betsy Hotel in Miami. Roger Greenwald won the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award for his book Guarding the Air: Selected Poems by Gunner Harding (Black Widow Press, 2014). Bill Johnston judged. The $1,000 award is given annually for a poetry collection translated from any language into English that was published during the previous year.

Established in 1934, the Academy of American Poets is the largest nonprofit organization supporting the work of American poets.

Photos: Joy Harjo, Marie Howe (credit: Benjamin Norman), Kevin Young

This week, think back to your childhood, and the teachers who taught you through elementary and middle school. Choose one of your former teachers and write a list of his most distinctive characteristics—maybe a bizarre hairstyle, his old blue car, or a rumor you remember about him. Write an essay reflecting on what makes this teacher memorable and significant in your life, what you might say if you bumped into him today. Would either of you have any regrets to discuss?

Louisiana poet Dennis Formento lives in Slidell, Bayou Bonfouca watershed, with his wife Patricia Hart, an artist and yogini. He has been published in the Lummox Poetry Anthology (Lummox Press, 2014), the Maple Leaf Rag V (Portals Press, 2014), and on the blog Water, Water Everywhere. Formento’s latest book is Cineplex (Paper Press, 2014). He teaches English at Delgado Community College and is New Orleans’s coordinator for 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a worldwide movement for peace and sustainability.

Poet and translator El Habib Louai, a resident of Agadir, Morocco, performed with a killer band of free jazz all-stars in a show produced by Surregional Press of Slidell, Louisiana. Poets & Writers partially funded the performance, which took place on July 31 at the Zeitgeist Theater in New Orleans.

While emigration proceedings in Canada prevented one member of Louai’s Neo-Beat Amazigh Band from arriving in New Orleans, and another member remained in New York City, Louai played on. He was backed by Ray Moore (saxes and flute), Jeb Stuart (acoustic bass), Will Thompson (keyboards), and Dave Cappello (drums). Louai also read from his book Mrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel (Paper Press, 2015).

About fifty-five people attended at Zeitgeist Multidisciplinary Art Center on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard in the Central City neighborhood. Central City is downtown, and O. C. Haley was the main stem of African American business in town decades ago, before much business was diverted to the Canal Street district. Zeitgeist, its neighboring art center, the Ashé Center, and the now shuttered Neighborhood Gallery, came to O. C. Haley in the early aughts, spearheading a revitalization of the area.

Louai captured a diverse audience: Arab students from the University of New Orleans, African American and white scholars, and poets from various scenes around town. A “welcoming committee” of local writers began the session with poems of their own: Valentine Pierce, Scott Nicholson (backed by Will Thompson), Andrea Young and husband, Khaled Hegazzi—whose contribution was a handful of translations of contemporary Egyptian poets—and Jessica Mashael Bordelon. I joined in, reading a portion of Allen Ginsberg’s “America” before Louai’s translation into Arabic of that famed satire.

Andrea Young said she was gratified that poetry in Arabic and English had finally found a crossroads in the Crescent City. She and her husband publish a magazine called Meena, from their homes in New Orleans and Alexandria, Egypt.

The performance not only brought to the city Louai’s translations from the New American poetry and Beat traditions, but also helped open cultural dialogue and exchange. It’s been hard to find Arab poets and literati in New Orleans, despite the fact that it is home to thousands of Arabs, some of whom have had family here for decades.

Louai visited a number of poetry venues in the two weeks that he spent at my house in Slidell: the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans; the famed Maple Leaf Bar Everette Maddox Memorial Reading; and a meeting of the St. Tammany Parish group, 100 Thousand Poets for Change: Northshore. He went on radio: Rudy Mills’s Gumbo Tapado Show on WBOK-AM and WWOZ-FM’s “World Journey” program with Suzanne Corley. On August 1, Louai performed at Fair Grinds Coffee House, accompanied on djembe, tambourine, and castanets by poet/percussionist Gamma Flowers and myself. Finally, he played a house concert at my place with backing by Jeb Stuart on bass—a first in Slidell.  

Photo (top): Louai, Moore, and Cappello. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Photo (bottom): Louai and band. Photo Credit: El Habib Louai.

Support for Readings & Workshops events in New Orleans, Lousiana 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.

Designed by the French robotics company, Aldebaran, Pepper the robot is able to read emotions and respond accordingly, and has the ability to learn over time. Write a short story imagining that your protagonist has somehow acquired one of these highly sought-after robots. What plans or hopes does he have for Pepper? Will having the robot turn out to be a nightmare or a dream come true?

Choose a memorable character from a movie—someone from an old Western or a James Bond film, for example—and write a poem inspired by this on-screen persona. What are the most striking aspects of her style or demeanor? Focus on connecting specific details, like a certain way of walking or talking or dressing, to her emotional state to create a lyrical portrayal of this larger-than-life character.

In Mary Karr's new book, The Art of Memoir (Harper, 2015), she writes that "from the second you choose one event over another, you're shaping the past's meaning." Think of a significant event from your past that you've written about before. Make a list of three other events or changes that were occurring in your life around that same time. Write an essay about one of these "secondary" events, focusing on deriving personal or emotional meaning out of this seemingly less impactful event.

In the recent animated film, Inside Out, the main character’s mind is steered by five personified emotions—anger, disgust, fear, joy, and sadness. Imagine a scene in which your main character suddenly feels one of these emotions intensely. Jot down a list of colors, sensations, and personality traits you associate with this emotion. For example, if you choose anger, you might find yourself thinking of the color red, heat, erratic gestures and movements, and loud noises. Write a short story in which this emotion completely overtakes your character’s personality, using vivid sensory details to match the atmosphere and tone.

The Rona Jaffe Foundation has announced the six recipients of the 2015 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Awards, which are given annually to emerging women poets, fiction writers, and nonfiction writers. The awards “identify and support women writers of exceptional talent in the early stages of their careers.” Each winner receives $30,000.

The 2015 recipients are poets Ashley M. Jones of Birmingham, Alabama, and Britteney Black Rose Kapri of Chicago; fiction writers Vanessa Hua of Orinda, California, Amanda Rea of Denver, and Natalie Haney Tilghman of Glenville, Illinois; and nonfiction writer Meehan Crist of New York City. Visit the website for the winners’ complete bios.

The six recipients will be honored at a private reception in New York City on September 17. The Rona Jaffe Foundation solicits nominations for the awards each year from writers, editors, publishers, academics, and other literary professionals; a committee of judges selected by the foundation chooses the recipients.

Since writer Rona Jaffe established the awards program in 1995, the foundation has awarded more than $2 million to over one hundred twenty women writers. Past recipients include poets Erin Belieu, Tracy K. Smith, and Mary Szybist; fiction writers Rebecca Lee, ZZ Packer, and Tiphanie Yanique; and nonfiction writers Rachel Aviv, Eula Biss, and Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts.

Clockwise from top left: Ashley M. Jones, Britteny Black Rose Kapri, Vanessa Hua, Amanda Rea, Natalie Haney Tilghman, Meehan Crist

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